Friends & Neighbors Audio for the Arts — Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 — 8pm

Sponsored by SONS OF NORWAY

  • André Roligheten - Saxophone
  • Thomas Johansson - Trumpet
  • Oscar Grönberg - Piano
  • Jon Rune Strøm - Double Bass
  • Tollef Østvang - Drums


By Michael Brenneis


Interview data: 02/14/2020


The name “Friends & Neighbors” is an homage to inspiration Ornette Coleman, but also describes the members of this Norwegian band themselves. With the classic jazz quintet instrumentation, these players have evolved together over their 11 year history, into a tight unit with a uniquely Scandinavian take on the music that is their heart and passion.

We’ve seen this band in these parts before, and we’ve seen some of its members here in other contexts as well. I caught up with amiable, cogitative, drummer Tollef Østvang at his home in idyllic Os, Norway (pop. 2,034). Here is our conversation:  

MB: Am I reaching you in Os today?

Tollef: That's correct.

MB: And Os is, say, 200 kilometers from Trondheim.

Tollef: Yeah, roughly, like a little bit less, and it's two and a half hours from Trondheim.

MB: And it’s about 400km to Oslo. 

Tollef: Yeah.

MB: So do you find yourself traveling all the time to play?

Tollef: I would say that sort-of is the correct thing to say, and I think that's the case for most Norweigen musicians, wherever they live in a way. It's a small country with large distances. Also the population is only 5 million. So it’s a natural consequence of that; people have to travel to play and collaborate with others.

MB: Norway has a fairly robust transit system. Are you able to use transit, or do you have to drive yourself?

Tollef: No I rarely use a car, It’s either the train, or plane, or bus. 

MB: So when you're playing domestically in Norway, you find the places have drums and pianos and so on?

Tollef: Yeah I think the infrastructure -- the last at least, the last 20 years -- has sort-of become to a certain standard, or, if not, also you know people in the big cities so if the venue doesn’t have any equipment it’s easy to borrow. But usually the jazz clubs have okay drums, in most cases okay piano.

MB: And when you come to the states how do you travel?

Tollef: We travel by car. We've been checking out many options, but time and time again we come back to the rental car option.

MB: There’s almost no other way to do it.

Tollef: Yeah, yeah. We played in Chicago once, I think the first time we were there, and we were going to Detroit. I remember checking all the train options. Yeah, car was not half the price, but almost.

MB: Plus the time involved. The transit system in the US, especially train, is circuitous.

Tollef: Yeah, it seems like it's based a lot on the layout of the cities and infrastructure. And it’s based upon people having to drive, maybe, I don’t know, how it looks to a tourist or a musician that’s sort-of the impression. Of course the big cities have good public transportation. That’s not always the case in Norway either but I would say the traveling in between cities here is very easy.

MB: In the US, certainly, even at a high-level, most folks in this field are supplementing. They're playing and doing other types of work, or teaching. Is it similar for you?

Tollef: Yeah, I think it’s - maybe the percentage part of the income that comes from playing is a little bit higher, but most people - most jazz musicians I know -- maybe at least half of them maybe less, maybe more -- have either a main job or a complimentary job. Most of times it seems to me like it's teaching. For me last night, this night, I worked the night shift in a home for kids with disabilities. So I went to bed 7 a.m. this morning. So that's my side gig at the moment. It would be like 20% or something.

MB: Well, at least the schedule is consistent with music.

Tollef: Yeah, but I think it’s - for me - or I could also teach once a week instead, but it’s a bit more flexible to put yourself available for a night shift in this case and to work something different. And also it's a nice balance to do something else, maybe. It feels like a good balance you - you are always hungry for the music stuff when you get to do that. And I also do a lot of other - I have a couple of like, what do you call it, in a couple of boards - Union stuff. And maybe I have like one month's income of different administrative things related to culture. So I have a lot of different stuff going on, but I don’t know, maybe sixty, seventy percent playing of the income. Probably hundred and fifty percent of the time [Laughing].

MB: [Laughs, knowingly]

Tollef: So that’s fairly similar to all other places in the world, I think. So we don’t have to work a lot, but it’s passion and lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle, I would say. But if you asked a random Norweigen jazz musician “what is your - do you have a sidegig?” - most people would say yes. The big names, of course, doesn’t have that. But I would say it's more common than uncommon. So there are possible ways to - music is subsidized in some ways. The venues have some sort-of public support, in many cases, and the fees are maybe a little bit higher. But you also have to think about that the cost of living is also higher, so it feels like it's quite similar to many other countries just like, yeah, that’s my impression. I know also it's - it's a well functioning system in many ways. We have a lot of good festivals and promoters. And a very robust jazz organization; it’s called the Norweigen Jazzforum. And that works politically towards politicians to make them see the point of supporting culture. So I would say the organized cultural life in Norway is quite good. It’s a strong musician’s union that also supports freelance musicians as much as those playing in the symphony orchestra.

MB: I know some Europeans get tour support or grants from their governments to do tours in the states. Does Norway do a similar thing?

Tollef: Yeah, for instance this tour would not be possible if we didn't have any form of travel support. So, it’s sort-of a gamble. You have to book the gigs before you know - often you have to book the gigs before you know the financial situation in terms of support. So it’s always a gamble. That said, I think it's also getting harder. For me, the impression is it's harder to get support to do stuff outside of Norway, for some reason. Or if you're playing with Norwegians in Norway it feels a little bit easier than if you play with a multinational group outside of Norway. I think that has to do with the - it's a lot of cuts been coming to the foreign ministry part. 

It's not the cultural budget, it's a different budget -- and we have a right-wing government at the moment, for six years now. Yeah, it's been a lot of cuts but we have the musician’s union and jazz organisations - it’s been quite sort-of strong, and trying to prevent and reverse those cuts. Part of the music export support goes through the foreign ministry budget, not all of it but parts of it. And that is sort-of easier to sort-of “Ah! We don’t need this” So it’s easier to sort-of keep the politicians focus on the cultural budget because they know what they’re talking about. It’s quite clear in a way. But culture spans across many parts of the government, like education, foreign ministry, and partly health care. And then we have a separate culture budget. It’s sort-of complicated, but sort-of not complicated.

MB: It’s always complicated.

Tollef: But I find if I travel in the states with only musicians, it’s hard to get anything at the moment.

MB: In terms of this band, and yourself too, what influences are the most important?

Tollef: I mean the name states some influence in a way. There is an Ornette Coleman reference, but I would say the way we think about it is much more than that. It comes from a quite clearly free jazz aesthetical reference, in many ways. But we love so much different styles of music within the band so it's hard to pinpoint one thing. It's some of what you call free jazz and contemporary music. It's a lot of stuff, but I think that the band’s sound acoustic - traditional playing acoustic instruments the way we [do] is sort-of a clear free jazz school reference in that matter, I would say more than a contemporary way of interacting with each other. but I don’t try to sort-of label the playing that way but I guess it’s sort-of free jazz, you could also say avant-garde, modern, yeah whatever.

MB: Right, there seems to be as much time based playing as not.

Tollef: Yeah, and we don't - we don't have any like, not rules but - a song can be beautiful with harmonies and the next thing you can be like an eclectic free impro stretch. It's not that dogmatic. We are open to a lot of things - the possibilities of this band can stretch to, like, an ultimately broad spectrum of music. And we don't talk so much about it, it's just like it - it comes natural. “Hey, this song didn’t work so well” so we take this one instead. So I think it's a lot of unspoken common knowledge and references, maybe that’s a good way of putting it.

MB: Friends and Neighbors formed about 11 years ago in Trondheim.

Tollef: Yeah, late 2008 and we were a quartet first and then the piano player joined in 2010, I think.

MB: And for most of that time has the lineup been consistent throughout?

Tollef: Yeah we had a couple of subs for a couple of tours, but yeah it’s been the same lineup, yeah.

MB: So do you feel like you’ve evolved together in this group?

Tollef: Yeah, that’s the interesting - we’ve sort-of grown up musically together. Three of us, André on saxophone and Jon Rune on bass, and me, we met already - it’s sort-of - In Norway it’s often common that you do something called “folk high school” the year before - it's like a pre-university year. So we met already there, so we’ve been in class for five years. And we’ve sort-of watched each other grow in many different ways and take many turns through many different parts of the jazz tradition. It’s sort-of interesting to look back in at the path we sort-of crossed. We go a little bit back and forth and we’ve grown together, and we are so similar but also so different. So I would say there is a strong social thing sort-of binding the group together. We really appreciate each other's artistic differences, I would say that’s one of the strong sides in the band’s point of view.

MB: This next question is probably poorly formed but I'm just kind of curious about sort-of being a Norwegian group and being influenced by American jazz, a music that originated in the African-American community in the U.S. Do you feel there's a geographic isolation to overcome or is that not a thing?

Tollef: I'm not sure if we think about it that much. It's - for us the music - I mean - the African-American jazz tradition - it's the music we love, like, that's our passion. But we live in Europe and we have our own social structures and way of - not living, but just the way people - the way the society works makes you a different person, and we have our own music to listen and things that influence us to go in a different direction, hopefully. There is strong folk music tradition in Norway. Jazz became known at first, like big-time, in the 70s with ECM so that sort-of had a great impact on the jazz scene in Norway -- Garbarek and Keith Jarrett. That’s not the only thing but that’s apparently a big sort-of pin point historical mark, in a way. I think that - I think for me Denmark and Sweden has a different - a little bit different view and take on the history because there were much more American - it seems to me like there was much more musicians living there partly, playing in Copenhagen, Dexter Gordon in Copenhagen, Stan Getz travelled a lot to Stockholm. Count Basie recorded with the Swedish radio big band. So I think they had a much bigger and earlier exposure to the mainstream form of jazz. So maybe that sort-of allowed the whole ECM thing to happen in the way that it did. I'm not sure but that’s sort-of things we can think about.

I think, also, the jazz education and how it's been formed - school’s are quite liberal and it is historically oriented. All the jazz conservatories are focused on individual artistic expression and you have to develop that sort-of at the same time as learning history. It’s a high focus on individual artistic search in a way. It’s hard to sort-of answer the question. It's not like you think that music is made in a different part of the world in a different time. I don't think about it like that, for me jazz music is just - that's just where my heart belongs in a way. So like when I discovered - there were some doors that opened to me when I discovered Coltrane, and Archie Shepp, Ornette, Don Cherry, John Carter, Bobby Bradford. That's like - it was some things that - it was some bricks that fell into place, like, “ok this makes sense” that way of communicating in a band resonates to me - it makes - it makes sense in my head. So I would rather describe it that way, that I discovered something and I clicked to it. 

And I think music is able to be universal in that matter. But of course we have our - if we sit around the table and discuss music and politics, of course, we sometimes touch into the historical parts that - things that we can’t relate to - understanding completely, of course, in the African-American perspective. Civil rights movements - there are stuff that we can try to understand that we can't understand it and feel it in the same way. But I don't think that sort-of limits the ability to love one form of music.

MB: Right, and you have your own lived experience as a Scandinavian that we may not understand, so that enriches the music too, I would think.

Tollef: Yeah, but it's not so clearly linked into the music we play now. It's not like “ok, we were occupied by Germany during the war” and that affects my jazz music, it’s not - [laughs] - we don't have those kind of direct - [laughs] . So it’s in a different way. In Scandinavian societies now it’s very common - yeah, things that happened only 45 to 50, 60, 70 years ago too. So it's a lot of similarities in some ways but, yeah, every parts of the world have their own issues and conflicts, good sides and bad sides, that sort-of makes arts and artists to act in one way or another, but it's more unconscious and way of doing - it’s more subtle. It's not like ”now I'm going to write a tune about the Cold War” [Laughs]. Because I live one hour away from the flight from the Russian border, it’s not like, yeah, I guess you see what I get.

MB: Tollef it’s been a real pleasure talking with you, thank you for taking the time.

Tollef: Thank you for calling.

MB: We’re looking forward to the show coming up in Madison.

Tollef: We do too. It’s our second time with this group - I think most of us have been, yeah, around with different projects. I played with Mars Williams and Paal Nissen-Love played there with some of the other members of the group. And I think maybe Cortex, maybe with Thomas Johansson on trumpet maybe passed through, I’m not sure.

The trumpeter and saxophone player André and Thomas come from a town in Norway called Skien, and there is a guy from that town living in Sturgeon Bay, so that’s why we go there. There is a connection! Ok we go to Sturgeon Bay and we come from Chicago, we have to stop in Madison. When I first went there with Mars Williams - it’s a great town to visit - it’s a great town to play in - it’s a good vibe. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just a very nice place to stay.



Kahil El’Zabar Ethnic Heritage Ensemble — Cafe Coda — Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020 — 8pm

  • Kahil El’Zabar -- multi-percussion, voice
  • Corey Wilkes -- trumpet
  • Alex Harding -- baritone sax

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 02/05/2020

The success of Kahil El’Zabar’s innovative and creative vision is evidenced not only by the substance and breadth of his career, but also by its longevity. Coming of age in Chicago during the early years of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he is an integral part of that legacy of Great Black Music. Living a life not devoid of its own complexities, he continues his unyielding dedication to his unique musical vision -- to use improvisation as “the key to finding new discoveries in old approaches.“

The trio’s other members are formidable in their own right. Trumpeter Corey Wilkes honed his craft at the Berklee College of Music, has filled the void left by Lester Bowie in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and tours internationally with numerous ensembles. Baritone Saxophonist Alex Harding has recorded or performed with a who’s-who of creative musicians including: Julius Hemphill, Lester Bowie, Hamiet Bluiett, Greg Osby, and the Mingus Big Band.


MB: Sometimes you play with a bass player or a cello player, how does the music differ when you have a quartet versus a trio?

KEZ: Well, you have four people versus three, which is obvious, but it is the chordal instrument that is usually not a part of the ensemble. The ensemble historically has been three people but sometimes I will add that fourth chordal instrument and so it changes the approach a little bit, but the music has its own, I think at this point, genre, you know. I’ve developed a way to approach the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble which focuses on percussion as actually the tonic instrument. The clave that’s been developed for how we approach various elements of this, so-called jazz idiom are unique to the instrumentation and unique to the concept and approach.

MB: You use your voice quite a bit in this group, do you think of that as an independent voice within the group or is it integrated into your playing, your identity, within the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble?

KEZ: It is integrated into the sensibilities of what we do -- it’s interesting you ask that Michael, a lot of times when we’re either doing like clinics or workshops or talking to younger musicians they say “well what’s all the voice stuff and the sound?” so when I then take them to YouTube and show them Art Tatum, show them Art Blakey, show them...who, I’m trying to think of…

MB: Elvin Jones.

KEZ: Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones. But even non-drummers. When you’re listening to uh...what’s the… Bud Powell!

MB: Right, Bud Powell.

KEZ: That’s who I was trying to think of. So that’s always been part of the tradition.

MB: Do you live in Chicago currently? And I guess I ask that because you know as someone who could probably live anywhere in the world is there something that keeps you rooted in Chicago as opposed to say Paris or Madrid or someplace in Europe?

KEZ: Yeah, Yeah, good question. You know my roots are there so I always maintain a residence there. I’ve been an artist in residence in Bordeaux for 16, 17 years so I’m back and forth there. And I have a place in Paris, so Chicago is home but I have other homes as well.

MB: I guess, dwelling on Chicago a little bit, In terms of the lineage of the AACM, you know I sort of think of, obviously, Muhal Richard Abrams as first generation AACM: Roscoe Mitchell, Steve McCall. Do you feel like you’re kind of second-generation AACM, is it sort of a continuum? Or are you maybe independent from that lineage?

KEZ: I’m connected to it, you know. I started working with Muhal when I was 17, like 1969. You know I see myself first connected to the Chicago lineage because many of the characteristics of the AACM were part of what Lil Harden was doing even before she became Mrs. Armstrong, and the sharing that was going on with Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, Pops, and everybody at that time, they were very collective, they were very communicative, very supportive. You find the same elements in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the 50s. They’re there and you see the continuum of that in the AACM. And when you’re in Chicago versus New York people always get the feeling that there’s this camaraderie, and more community based kind of exchange with musicians, whereas in New York it’s -- incredible incredible musicians -- but it’s more almost like gun-for-hire. Whereas in Chicago it’s about the community exchange with the music being an integral part of that. And I’m definitely a part of that legacy, and have tried to pass it on to younger generations.

MB: Definitely interesting to think about it in those terms, geographically even. Chicago has such a strong community, a musical community, it’s tremendous, I think. Are you someone who seeks inspiration externally, and if so, what’s currently inspiring you in terms of music, or other things in life for that matter?

KEZ: Yeah, I mean it’s all kinds of stuff, really great question. One of the, or two of the artists that really inspire me right now are the dance duo of Les Twins from France, I find them to be some of the most significant improvisors. And another artist that inspires me a lot is the visual artist, not the musician, but the visual artist Nick Cave, and the optimism that I see in his work graphically and what he communicates and the impact that I see. You know I’ve gone to exhibits of his in New York, Massachusetts, Chicago, and what he says in his art is something that you know I’ve tried to say for years in my work, that besides the critical pessimisms that are part of society that artists are able to describe, we need to be the outlet of optimism and how we find that inspiration and improvisation is the key to finding new discoveries in old approaches.

MB: Thank you, yeah, that’s great. Was there ever another path for you in life, or was this your path from the beginning?

KEZ: You know I was all-city in 1968-69  and in 1969 I was all-state, one of the top 20 basketball players in the state, and it’s so funny, years ago when my sons were small, they’re all adults now, but when they were small Quinn Buckner from the Boston Celtics, and Llyod Walton who played for Milwaukee Bucks, you know they said “Hey Graveyard” and my boys went “why do they call you that dad?” “‘cause I was deadly son.” and they asked them, they said “was my father good?” and they told them, you know that “He won all the tournaments he played against us. And we went on to be pros.” So for a couple of weeks my boys weren’t speaking to me and I was like “what’s wrong with you guys?” I’m cooking dinner and, you know, playing with them and they’re not responding, and they said “We could’ve had Mercedes and big houses!” Ha! And I think it was a good lesson for them because they’ve -- my sons have gone on to their own paths -- and I told them at that time “you have to choose you, and you have to know what you believe is going to make you happy in spite of what might be the material or the social or the fame attraction, and know inside yourself what you want to do, and I’ve felt very lucky ‘cause at a very young age I decided and committed myself to something that has given me a lot of fulfillment in life.

MB: So from there would you care to talk about the economics of this life, and maybe the struggle or, or maybe it’s not a struggle?

KEZ: Yeah, you know I’ve been pretty stable in my career, but it has a lot to do with parents and how they share with you the ability to discover your earning opportunities in unique ways, and you know my parents were entrepreneurs, and they knew how to plan a calendar and they knew how to set goals and go through the tactile process of reaching those goals, so you know. And they educated me well, so you know, I hold a PhD and besides the stuff that people know me for historically with the AACM or playing with Pharoh Sanders or Lester Bowie or Archie Shepp or whatever, you know I also did the arrangements for Julie Taymor for Lion King, and you know scored music for movies like Mo’ Money, Love Jones, and for 24 years was a professor. So those kinds of things gave me stable income to take care of my children and the freedom to do this music which is my heart. The music of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, the Ritual Trio, or duos with David Murray, or you know the things I've historically done and what I believe is my life’s work. My parents taught me to have the practical application of entrepreneurship so that it allowed me the freedom of my lifestyle choices.

MB: That’s very cool. So at the age of 66, right? Do you see yourself slowing down or are you just getting started?

KEZ: I’m seeing myself learn how to use age as a growth pattern with time. And that time is not relative necessarily to speed, or the past, present, or the future, but much more about the frequency engagement. And a lot of older musicians find themselves comparing to youth, which will never happen again. I think our society is too attracted to a moment rather than the journey and I, at this age, have to be about the journey and what those graces come from age. So I accept where I am and learn to use time in a relevant way that I can express something meaningful now.



NOW EnsembleAudio for the Arts — Monday, Feb. 10, 2020 — 8pm

  • Alexandria Sopp -- Flute
  • Alicia Lee -- Clarinet
  • Mark Dancigers -- Electric Guitar
  • Michael Mizrahi -- Piano
  • Logan Coale -- Double Bass

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 01/22/2020

It’s widely known that southern Wisconsin is something of a hot-bed for New Music in all of its shapes and flavors. With the upcoming performance by NOW Ensemble, Madison has a somewhat rare opportunity to experience a unique and established voice in the music, in an intimate recording studio setting.

Formed about 15 years ago by a group of Yale University graduate students, NOW Ensemble champions new music and young composers. With multiple recordings, and even cool videos, they stand on the shoulders of the composer-performer collectives that have preceded them.

NOW Ensemble is something of a departure from the BlueStem Jazz fare that we’ve seen to date. Curious about the group’s ethos and goals, I rang up Pianist and Managing Director Michael Mizrahi:


MB: Focusing on the repertoire for the upcoming concert, could you give us a high-level preview or description of what the music will sound like, what we can expect?

MM: So, I’m bringing NOW Ensemble to Madison to play the BlueStem series and it’s a chamber quintet that I’m one of the founders of. The instrumentation is piano, flute, clarinet, double bass, and electric guitar. And if you think about those instruments, that can take us in a few different directions. We’re all classically trained, so the bulk of what we play is in the classical realm, but the sound of the instruments can bring in elements of rock and jazz and most of our repertoire has those elements as well. The electric guitar of course is amplified, we often play all amplified, sometimes we play more acoustic. On this particular show we are featuring a pretty big new piece. It was written for us by a composer named Sean Friar, and he wrote us a piece called “Before and After.” It’s this massive piece in 7 sections; 45 minutes long. And we’re actually headed straight from Madison to one other show at a festival in Illinois, then we’re going to record the piece. We’re going to be in recording mode – we’ll play that piece as much as we can before we go into the studio. That’s kind of getting into the repertoire. I don’t know if you wanted more about the sound of the ensemble or the ethos of the mission?

MB: Well yeah, actually you’ve sort of anticipated some of my other questions. Could you talk about the overarching artistic objective of NOW Ensemble?

MM: Sure, NOW Ensemble is a group that is dedicated to bringing new music into the world, very broadly speaking. We’ve worked with over 100 composers and we have a unique instrumentation that allows for certain kinds of timbres that are really not possible in any other instrument group. So, we’re particularly dedicated to working with younger composers, and helping their compositional voices be heard, also challenging them to write for our instrumentation. We give a lot of performances which — for especially emerging composers– can be a great opportunity to get their music heard. We also have at least 5 recordings — I’ve lost count. We are dedicated to recording these premieres. We also do a lot of work in education, going to institutions around the country, usually college level, but sometimes high school, working with young composers and performers who are interested in playing modern music, and giving workshops and masterclasses to them. So our mission is kind-of two-fold: to champion the music of today, and then to also help teach young composers and performers, and model a framework for presenting the music going forward.

MB: So it sounds like you work interactively with composers to help them frame their compositions for your particular ensemble, and you’re commissioning these pieces for the most part?

MM: Yeah, and I neglected a crucial aspect of our make-up. We’re five performers, who will be in Madison, but the group also contains three composers as part of the group. So we’re a composer-performer collective. Our electric guitarist is one of our composers, so he’s the only person that kind-of does double duty. And then we have two other composer-members in the group, who will not be in Madison, but are consistently in the group. The idea behind that was first of all modeled on some kind of famous composer-performer collectives of the 1980s and 90s: the Steve Reich Ensemble; the Phillip Glass Ensemble. But there’s also this idea of creating an in-house sound for the group. We have composers who are members of the group writing consciously for the group so that there’s this sound that’s out there that then the other composers can kind of build off of.

MB: It seems like a fairly rare situation. Do you tend to get unsolicited works?

MM: We do yeah, we do get unsolicited works. And also as I mentioned, we do a lot of performances at institutions where we are working with students who will sometimes all write us new pieces that we will perform. In fact the day after we leave Madison we’re going to the Red Note New Music Festival in Normal, Illinois, where we’re doing just that. We’re going to get nine new pieces that were going to perform at the festival and then were going to do a show of our own stuff.

MB: I’m a bit more familiar, I suppose, with the jazz and improvised music world, and there tends to be, at least on the regional level, a fairly strong DIY component to that. I wonder if you could talk about how you sustain this group. Can you discuss your funding mechanisms,such as  grant support, CD sales? How do you sustain this group?

MM: That’s a great question, I’ll let you know when I have the answer! We’ve been around for about 16 years, and all I can say is somehow when there’s a will there’s a way. It’s a combination of all the things you just said. It’s also having a membership in the group that’s devoted to seeing the group go forward, so that means bringing a lot of energy. Sometimes that means bringing a donor to the group; connections. We are a non-profit 501 c3 so we have access to a lot of grants. We’ve built up over the years — it’s a very slow process — a board, so we have that kind of structure in place. It started as a group of I guess 7 of us who are in the group, in grad school, we were all at Yale school of music together, and at this point that’s 15 years ago. Over the years there have been a couple of personnel changes, but kind of the core of the group is still those original members, and none of us are doing a full time gig, in some ways I think that makes it harder because there’s not this building up towards a huge annual budget, everything kind of stays small scale, but it also allows us to kind of be a project driven group. So if we have something like this piece by Sean Friar that we’re recording, we can do some fundraising and things to make sure we can have time in the studio and take the time we need, and have it not be that we need a year-in, year-out huge budget, that the first project would be to raise money, we’ve gotten more  effective at that over the years.

MB: It sounds like a very sustainable model in many ways, and a lot of passion fueling it.

MM: Exactly, and I think probably there are a lot of small jazz groups operating in a similar way.

MB: I agree, and I think it’s interesting for our audiences to understand how their support can fuel these kinds of projects.

MM: Absolutely.

MB: I’m very interested to get the word out on that kind of thing. I don’t know if you had anything else that you’d like to add before we wrap up?

MM: Well, maybe only that we’re excited to play in Wisconsin. I actually live in Wisconsin now, I teach at Lawrence University up in Appleton, and our clarinet player is at UW-Madison. And this is not where we all were when we started the group, but somehow two of us are in Wisconsin and we thought we should be sure to perform there sometime. We’re just excited to build a new audience in what is now a new home for some of us.



Collector — Cafe Coda — Friday, Jan. 31, 2020 — 8pm
Matt Blair — Piano, Fender Rhodes, Electronics
Jakob Heinemann — Upright Bass
Devin Drobka — Drums, Electronics

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 01/20/2020

Collector twists the definition of a jazz piano trio with a collective process, a healthy dose of electronics, and a focus on free improvisation. For this show they may change their routine a little by performing some written material — a set of charts composed by drummer Devin Drobka — rather than their usual improvised sets. Pianist Matt Blair has the privilege of being first in an alphabetical index of band members, so I rang him up to get the low down:


MB: So the group is Collector, tell me about your aesthetic, what’s the band all about?

Matt: We’ve kind of gone in a few different directions. We’ve all known each other for a long time and played in various contexts. Jakob and I went to school together and we both have known Devin for a while. It was toward the end of Jakob and I’s senior year of school that we started to play as a trio and when we first started out it was an improvising acoustic piano trio, not really writing much or composing for it, but just getting together when we can and improvising together.

But, I think, in the last couple of years it has sort of changed in a few different directions as each of us have continued to explore things that we’re interested in. And so we recorded a record, recorded live at Slate Arts in Chicago, I think it was April 2018, so that is much more electronic based. I’m playing Fender Rhodes and processing it through some guitar pedals, Devin is playing acoustic drums and also a Roland SPD drum pad. Jakob was actually all acoustic for that. That was, I think, a turning point in what we were trying to do and it became more focused on electronics, still with the aesthetic of basing everything in free improvisation and that was still the overarching idea behind what we were doing. Since then when we’ve gotten to play it’s sort of taken that idea and kept going with it. I’ve started bringing in more tape recordings and field recordings and samples and different laptop electronics in addition to piano or Rhodes or whatever it might be. So we sort of went from acoustic piano trio to more electronic based stuff. All that being said I think when we play Cafe Coda we might be doing something completely different by splitting the sets we do with one that’s mostly compositions by Devin, and then another set that’s more improvised or having a looser framework.

MB: I was going to ask about the balance of the electronics versus the acoustic in terms of what you might play at Cafe Coda, knowing that they have a piano there. Do you think you’ll use the piano?

Matt: Yeah, definitely, that’s my plan at least. I may integrate some electronics, but it’s kind of rare to get to actually play a piano, so I do like to take advantage of that when I can.

MB: You also mentioned the balance of the improvised with the composed. Does everyone contribute compositions? Is it more of a collective or is there a leader contributing compositions, how does that work out?

Matt: For this it’s just going to be Devin’s compositions. And this is actually the first time the three of us have played written material together. In different pairings we’ve played a lot of written stuff together. Devin and I have a duo project where it’s much more through composed, and we both contribute music for that. In school Jakob and I were doing lots of different stuff from classical music to straight ahead jazz, and also writing our own compositions that we would play with each other. But for this we wanted to focus on Devin’s music because both Jakob and I have gotten to play it in different contexts, but we’ve never played it together. Devin actually just wrote a book of piano trio music that he recorded with myself and Aaron Darrell back in November. Aaron lives in Boston. And we figured this would be a good opportunity to try some of this music as well as some of his older Bell Dance stuff. I think in the future it’ll be more of a collective if we keep playing compositions, we’ll all contribute stuff for it, different pieces and things like that.

MB: You mentioned that you and Jakob were in school together. Correct me if I’m wrong but were you guys both at [Madison] West High?

Matt: No Jakob was at West, and I went to Monona Grove.

MB: And you both went to Lawrence, were you there at the same time?

Matt: Yup, we were.

MB: So did you know each other in Madison?

Matt: No, actually we didn’t. We met there [Lawrence], which is funny, I’m not sure how we didn’t cross paths before that. He’s one year younger than I am. I went to school in Iowa for one year, but I ended up having to do 5 years of school because of transferring and all of that. So that’s how we weren’t able to cross paths in High School in Madison.

MB: With the three of you guys in different cities, you’re in Minneapolis, Jakob’s in Chicago, and Devin’s in Milwaukee, How do you manage the playing time together?

Matt: Yeah, it’s difficult. We try to pick out a few days once, twice, or three times a year. I wish it was more. We try to string a few shows together and make it happen that way. But it’s been interesting because, I think, especially Jakob and I are a little younger we’ve been growing and experimenting in a lot of different ways musically so this project gives it an opportunity to change each time we get together and play. And I think that’s just the nature, also, of improvising, we’re able to bring different tools and ideas each time, and it would be nice to get to work out some stuff together, but there’s a nice excitement that that causes, to not really be sure what’s going to happen this time.

MB: It sounds like the three of you have all worked together in various contexts and have probably built up a pretty good rapport in terms of the music.

Matt: Yeah, yeah, definitely there’s a lot of trust, which is good.

MB: Do you guys have other dates with this band?

Matt: We’re doing a concert and masterclass up at Lawrence after the Cafe Coda gig, and then playing at the Jazz Gallery in Milwaukee that Sunday, and then again at Slate Arts in Chicago on, I think that’s Monday. So, yeah, a four show run, then back to our respective towns.

MB: Back to your three corners.

Matt: Ha! Pan-midwest trio.