Once again responsible people will gather at a social distance on the Garver Patio to experience some great music–some of which is only available to us now due to pandemic circumstances. The Tony Barba Quartet–this Tony Barba Quartet, he leads many variations–brings us original music written for the two-horns, bass, and drums configuration. This quartet includes the unusual pairing of Nick Moran and Devin Drobka–careful listeners rejoice! The band Maitri (Carline Davis, and Ben Hoffmann) finds itself sheltering in place in our fair (hmmm) state, in close enough proximity to Madison to make the trek to Garver. What are they about? See below for a discussion in great detail.
MB: This group is slightly different than on your latest record, Blood Moon. Which bag of tricks do you think you’ll be dipping into on Friday?
Tony Barba: This group is a quartet co-lead by Paul Dietrich and myself, and will feature all originals from our repertoire. The quartet features Nick Moran on bass, and Devin Drobka on drums, and will be the second appearance of this group after a one off we played maybe a year and a half ago, or so, at the North Street Cabaret.
MB: Would you like to talk about any of your other projects, and what you’ve been up to since March when gigging essentially ceased?
Tony Barba: Most of the other projects I’ve been working with are largely inactive, due to obvious reasons. The Afro-Peruvian Latin jazz group Golpe Tierra has a live-streaming concert coming up at the end of the month, and the Blood Moon quartet will be live-streaming a show at the end of September for yet another date partnered with the Madison Jazz Consortium. Personally, I haven’t been working on much music beyond keeping my private teaching studio intact, and the occasional remote recording sessions that I am getting called to do. Of course there is also some online jamming I’ve been doing with you as well 😉 [MB: shameless plug for our “Outside In” series!] Just trying to stay sane…lots of gardening, reading and exploring as many of the local outdoor spaces and state parks with my wife and son before the cold weather comes back to us!
Caroline Davis: Nice to be in sunny and fresh Wisconsin. The weather is a lot nicer than New York, I have to say.
MB: So are you staying in Wisconsin?
Caroline Davis: We are. My partner Ben, who’s the other part of Maitri–his family is from Manitowoc and that’s, like, really why we’re here.
MB: So that’s cool. I was wondering about–you know, obviously there aren’t really gigs happening, so I guess it’s our good fortune that you’re nearby.
Caroline Davis: Yeah, you know there’s a chance that this gig could very well be rained out.
MB: Yeah I haven’t looked at the weather that specifically, but yeah, hopefully not. But we’ll see.
Caroline Davis: We mostly came–we drove from New York to spend time with Ben’s family.
MB: Can you talk about the musical path that you and Ben are on with Maitri? Do you see it as part of a stylistic departure from some of your other work, either individually or collectively, or is it more part of the continuum?
Caroline Davis: Yeah, so I started this band in 2009-ish in Chicago with a cast of characters who I know–who you probably know well, Matt Ulery, Charles Rumback and Rob Clearfield. And some of the performances we did–we included this MC named Neak there who I’ve worked with on many of his own projects. And we came out with this album in 2013, January. And we kind-of came–I came back and we played a release show there. But in the meantime me and Ben had been sort-of talking about joining forces, and rekindling that band vision in New York. And so we started writing music together, and forming songs that became the last album that we put out which was called Afterglow. And so now this vision has sort-of–now–at the time we were playing with a couple jazz musicians–Jay Sawyer and Sam Weber–and now we’ve even taken another turn toward just playing duo. And we’re working on the next album that we have coming out–hopefully toward the end of this year or beginning of next year.
And this record is more just about our sound; me and Ben’s sound together. Yes, I’m very highly influenced by jazz and improvised music, but this band has been more of my way of getting into the world of songwriting, and the world of R&B–which is a very huge part of my life, when I was living in Atlanta from ‘87 to ‘93. And that sound has always been inside of my playing and my expression but–personally it feels like a–you know, the same path that I’ve always been sort-of going on. But I see how some people might see it as sort-of a departure for me. Ben can talk about his own…
Ben Hoffmann: Yeah, I think it’s definitely a continuum for both of us as far as where we both come from stylistically. But I know Caroline does–speaking from experience, I know she does try to, I don’t know if distance is the right word, but it’s a separate thing from some of her saxophone projects. Because I think the music is different; it’s not really Jazz when it comes down to it. And it’s really more like a songwriting outlet. And obviously it’s very influenced by lots of things, but we try not to let those influences or those–any genres or labels really shape the music. We kind-of just try to write music from our hearts and then–it kind-of comes out in these weird ways. And we kind-of just try to embrace it and go for it. So I think a lot of the stuff that we do isn’t really as intentional in the way of “we want to make a song that sounds like this.” I think we just write something and we’re really just trying to write the music that we like, you know.
Caroline Davis: Oh yeah. And in terms of typifying it or coming up with a genre label for it, has been something that we don’t necessarily like to do–not that you’re asking us to do that [laughs]–but some people have asked us to do that in the past. And as a musician yourself, you probably know how difficult it is to categorize your own music. And that’s one thing that we’ve been trying to shy away from. And–but yeah, these influences that we’ve sort-of both come up with as musicians in our own lives surely shape the music that we’re making in Maitri. But yeah, we tend to not see it as a traditionally jazz group, you know.
Ben Hoffmann: Or traditionally any genre.
Caroline Davis: Or traditionally any genre, yeah. Yeah, I guess if you could use the moniker, you know, “songwriting outlet” that would be a good one.
Ben Hoffmann: And we usually–we’ve usually dubbed it as “Experimental R&B.” But yeah, we’ve had many shows in the past where people just come up afterwards and they’re like “What do you call this?”
MB: Yeah, yeah, and then you should ask “well, why do you need to know?”
Caroline Davis: Right, yeah. Usually my next question is “Do you like it?,” you know. They’re usually saying “Yeah.” The desire to categorize things is so strong in humans.
MB: It is, and not always for the better, in my experience.
Caroline Davis: Right, yeah.
MB: So the new record is going to be a duo record?
Caroline Davis: Primarily. We have one song on there that’s just going to be us. And Ben has been doing a fantastic job of using these drum machines–one which was used famously by Prince, the LinnDrum. And then also the Teenage Engineering–the Teenage Engineering drum machine called the Pocket Operator, which we’ve used in the past. And recently–even more recently, the OP-Z. Last Monday and Tuesday, a week ago, we recorded our next record which is going to be with this drummer named David Frazier Jr., from New York. So he will be on the next record with us, and Ben is playing bass with his left hand.
Ben Hoffmann: And just to kind-of comment on that as well: In the past we kind-of just played, usually, the live instruments with the full band. At a certain point, I think–it was, maybe, certain situations where we couldn’t bring the whole band, and we had to figure out a way to–‘cause a lot of our music is very rhythm based and beat heavy, so we had to figure out a way–we started using these drum machines. And then we kind-of started really getting into it, and embracing it, and moving away from the live sound a little bit to where it was all drum machines when we play duo, and do some of these tours. And so now we’re kind-of fusing the two things together.
So this record–before we went into the studio there was months and months of pre-production and all the–pretty much every song had some drum machine elements on it, but we’re adding in the live as well. So kind-of bringing those two worlds together.
MB: Nice. Yeah, I’m a huge fan of the Sly and the Family Stone album Fresh, where they’re using the Rhythm King drum machine and, like, multitracking it–getting some very cool combinations happening. And then the live drumming on top of that.
Ben Hoffmann: Yeah, I love that stuff as well as, like, the Shuggie Otis [album] Inspiration Information. which I feel like–I think he was using a drum machine built into his organ, like a Lowrey organ, or something–very similar stylistically.
MB: So Caroline, in addition to being a musician and composer, you’re also a scholar, having earned your PhD from Northwestern in 2010. Can you talk a little bit–I know you have at least one album, that I’m aware of, where you’ve done some research in particular areas and that has influenced the sound of, and compositions on the record. Can you talk a little bit about how your research influences your writing and playing? And if there’s anything you’re currently working on in that direction?
Caroline Davis: Yeah so I’m–I’m one of those people who will, sort-of, use my connection to academia by downloading, you know, articles from various publications in the academic world, and sort-of going headstrong into the topic that I’m interested in. And this last album–separate from Maitri–that was called Alula, I was interested more in the structure on the birdwing called the alula structure and how it works. And I was trying to–I really, you know, kind-of read the articles and tried to come up with structures to put into the music. They could be specific, or it could just be metaphorical. So it could be all levels of distinction when it comes to writing the music itself. For that record maybe one of the pieces is based more on the math of the structure for particular species of bird. But most of the other songs on that record were, more like, dedicated to the metaphorical meaning of, like, flight, and takeoff, and landing. So this project, Maitri, I’ve been–as many people in the world right now–we’ve both been going pretty strongly into the world of social justice. And we’ve been trying to research and look into what’s going on now, and how we can connect it to voices from the past in terms of civil liberties and civil justice, right. And so that is primarily what I’ve been focusing on recently. And that coming in the form of reading books and articles, and watching old movies. And we have a song that Ben wrote that’s going to be on the next album that is trying to connect Reagan’s presidency to our current administration. We have a song that was written in honor of the Pulse Massacre that happened two years ago in the nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We have a piece that’s about the sun in a metaphorical sense, like the idea of global warming and the idea of how that might interact with civil rights. What else do we have, Ben, that you might want to comment on?
Ben Hoffmann: We wrote a new song too in quarantine, inspired by..
Caroline Davis: Ahmaud.
Ben Hoffmann: …Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting and kind-of more directly related to the current day. But Caroline’s also working on another project inspired by some of her grandmother’s poetry.
Caroline Davis: Yeah, I’m working on another project. It’s kind-of on the side at the moment because we can’t play with people. But this one is with strings. It’s with a string quartet and I–fortunately had one gig before the quarantine hit with the strings, and then one gig with the vocalist. And the idea is to pair them together, so there will be a vocalist, and also more of a kind-of spoken word vocalist who’s more into textural kind-of sound, as well as string quartet and my quintet, which was the band featured on the other record before Alula, which is called Heart Tonic. And that record will be featuring my grandmother’s poetry. She wasn’t a very famous poet, she was just special to me. But she did publish a couple books. And then I’m also adding my own commentary. Most of the poems I’m using from her are–have to do with the war that she had to live through in England, and other kind-of more serious matters of civil liberties. I’m trying to connect it to the current state of what we’re going through.
MB: That’s awesome. I am also very interested in how we can connect the arts to, you know, the things that are happening to everyday people, you know, everyday–and social justice and things like that. So it’s really wonderful to talk to artists who are doing that work. I think it’s great, and so important.
Caroline Davis: Yeah, it is. I was doing an interview some months back in the quarantine, and I was talking to someone about–someone asked me, you know, how does your work connect to–you know, it was more on my jazz side of the work–and they were asking how my work connects to civil rights and social justice and I was like, “I don’t really have that many things that I’ve put out,” you know, I have some solo work that I’ve included but it’s not in record form. There’s not a lot of videos out there of me doing this kind-of work and so it was, like, kind-of a moment where I was thinking, you know “now is the time!” And also, like, I need to call myself out on that a little bit more and be a little bit more active in the role that I play, and formally what I’m putting out there, so that it’s more clear, you know, where I’m standing.
MB: Right, yeah that is very important. I mean, we really need to center equity in everything that we do. When we get back to hosting jazz series and things like that, making sure that, you know, what we present reflects the community. I mean, also it’s important to understand, I think, that art doesn’t have to, necessarily, hit people in such a direct way. People can appreciate art and it can benefit them, you know, in ways that aren’t so literal. I know a lot of your work is like that too. It’s been great talking to you guys, I really hope the show doesn’t get rained out and it’s great to have you back in Madison.
Caroline Davis: Yeah, we’re excited…
Ben Hoffmann: Really excited, yeah.
Caroline Davis: … to play, I mean it’ll be my first time sort-of, like, playing in front of people in, like, five months. I’ve done a handful of livestream things, but it’s not–it’s not really the same. So I’m looking forward to it.
Some notes about the venue: The Garver Feed Mill Patio is a large outside area. Attendees will be seated by Garver staff, at reserved tables spaced at least six feet apart. Reservations are to be made online, in advance, and food and drink orders can be placed via an app. There are no menus to handle; minimal server interaction. Masks are required for use of the indoor restrooms. Because the patio is considered a restaurant with distanced tables, guests are not required to wear masks. (MB: I hope attendees will consider wearing masks when not eating or drinking.) Garver is encouraging guests to stay seated as much as possible, and not move about the venue except to use the restrooms.
Michael Brenneisis a drummer, composer, and improvisor based in Madison, Wisconsin. A volunteer blogger for BlueStem Jazz, he wants everyone to know that he’s a musician not a journalist.