In the tradition of my inimitable friend, Brennan Johns, I thought it would be wise to do a 2018 retrospective.
I wanna say everything was stellar throughout. Certainly, my resume got thicker and richer.
I got a chance to play with Adam Shead's Adiaphora Orchestra at the Empty Bottle, and a new trio named Boomerang (Carroll/Steussi/Riggen) did a full night at The Whistler. At Slate Arts, there was a night of improvisers I curated named 'Ouija Board' that went off exactly as I thought it would--that is to say, well. In the spring and late winter, I was able to present my big band material in public through the Sean Imboden Large Ensemble, a call I am always happy to receive. There was an Easter gig I didn't anticipate happening (being as new as I am), and Tommy Carroll's Calculated Discomfort project that I'm a part of released a record in the fall.
Speaking of Tommy Carroll, it's been my pleasure to turn his tunes into well-engraved lead sheets. To my estimation it's really helped us out as we play together, and I've been able to engrave a few other friends' tunes as well. I really like being able to put other people's ideas into a cogent page or two of written notation, so they can then more readily have the people they want play their music.
I've been learning more about composition myself at the BMI Workshop in NYC. This will be my second consecutive year attending and it's always been helpful to suss out my ideas in a room full of peers. I anticipate that by the time we're done in May, I'll have generated a second set of large ensemble material to compliment the first from last year. Now all I need to do is become independently wealthy and resurrect the general public interest in big bands, and I can conduct full time. Easy enough.
Composition takes a different turn with Chervony|Riggen. Our loose, AACM-writ-in-motion style has been drawing a lot of attention to itself as we barrel through the Chicago circus scene. We completed the first suite of our work ('Buried Reflexes') in August, but frankly have been too busy with one-offs and short commissioned shows to sit down and watch it through. The video document should be released in 2019. No promises.
My position at Marquette Park continues to surprise me. Through the summer and into the winter, we were able to rehearse a small group of children that quite recently performed 'Freddie Freeloader' and 'Flamenco Sketches' to the rapturous applause of their families. I'm happy to report that they will be taking my gigs in 20 years if they keep growing and developing at this rate--we've been able to even add another group to the band program. In the spring, I plan on one group doing Monk's music and the other doing J Dilla's. In the summer, I anticipate being more ready to work with the kids who come in, most of whom don't know exactly what I do and so fail to be excited about it. Probably the first thing I will do is try to get them excited about what it's possible to do in music, most readily through my personal perspective.
Despite trying to get the kids excited--I must confess to a certain feeling of melancholy.
Besides sobering and saddening waves being sent through the small corner of the Chicago jazz scene I occupy most often, alongside similar waves reaching me through news from friends at home and abroad, there was a certain lack of energy or feeling of a 'grind' that tended to characterize the year. Despite making more than enough money through gigging, teaching, and directing, there was always a grim feeling to the day. Taking a cat into my care (Cousteau) certainly helped, but the tenor of the emotion was deeper than even cuddling a chunky house panther could ameliorate.
However, it naturally came up that I was able to share my prior work as a leader with some friends, including some albums I made in 2016 but was too ill to release at the time. Boomerang does some of those old groups' tunes, a new duo I'm in will explore others. That made me feel better, and kind of put in my mind that perhaps I'd done enough waiting on allowing my roots to spread here before adventuring out as a leader again.
I have a spreadsheet--I always have a spreadsheet, now--of groups of musicians I've met who I think will sound good playing my music. Some groups will sound good playing some material, while other compositions will play best with other people, each according to their interests and abilities. With the connections I've made as a sideman in the city, I'd like to reach out and figure where to present this work again. And with the connections I have at the park, I should have more than enough physical space to rehearse these groups.
I'm even releasing some of the music I made when I was too sick to promote it back in 2016. Think of it as new old stock. The recordings certainly hold up.
Thinking of being able to play my work out in public more makes me happy, especially if I can also keep my practice going at the park. One will feed the other, as it always has. And perhaps I can move through 2019 not only surviving, but thriving.
I think one of the real shames of art is that you can be rewarded for living IN something negative and not living WITH something negative.
Some artists use their unresolved angst to fuel incredible work, so what does their audience do? Praise them for their compelling drama and the narrative that arises (in conjunction, of course with the quality of their work). The person then, like a rat in a cage being given a pellet treat, learns to never get over their trauma so they can keep receiving the positive feelings associated with the accolades.
Speaking as someone who lives WITH many things but IN none of them, that path is one that does not receive as much attention from one's peer group, even as it fuels my greatest art. I do believe, however, that it is healthiest.
I will continue to think more on this and formulate a stronger opinion, as well an idea of what to do next with the information I glean.
I got a tárogató maybe 2 or 3 months ago. It's a good horn; a Hungarian folk instrument with a timbre somewhere between a soprano saxophone and a clarinet with a chest cold.
There's not a lot of english-language info on it, and I intend to write some more since it is desperately needed. I don't know that much about it yet, though. What I do know is this:
Don't swab it out, especially with a clarinet swab! It's conical bore and impossibly narrow in the top joint! You'll get it stuck!
It took me a sweaty 45 minutes to carefully work the packed swab back out the way it came with soft hammer taps on a cleaning rod I requisitioned from my valve trombone case placed up against the jammed cloth, then completing the job with needle-nose pliers to fully take it out. I could've really damaged a valuable antique.
Clean the pads some other way, English-reading audience! Not worth it. Keep your swabs out of the tárogató's narrow body.
So I'm back in Indy for a little bit!
Sean Imboden's large ensemble (who I've helped direct and contribute to before) is on the move again.
Two dates are planned, one at the Jazz Kitchen, which is a venue with a national and international draw for performers of this music,
and the other one outside, for Eagle Creek Park's Jazz on the Point series.
Since I've continued to perennially generate material as part of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, Sean shot me a message again asking if
I wanna bring in some of the new work to the orchestra--and some of the 'greatest hits' we've done well in the past, naturally--and of course I agreed.
I like Sean a lot, I like his playing and writing a lot, and he really gives me a lot of latitude in terms of what I can bring in to his orchestra,
so it was a no-brainer.
As I write, I'm in my childhood bedroom typing away at midnight.
My parents still live here, though they've been insinuating a move for 4 or 5 years now, so I've chosen to spend some time with them. They're also taking care of my business partner's two cats, since their living situation in Chicago doesn't let them keep animals (especially a high-strung orange male and a nervous eccentric tortiseshell female). These were two animals I saw every day when living in Bloomington, and it's good to see them and hang out. The tortiseshell female is no exaggeration one of my favorite cats--impossible to read, has a single expression (penetrative stare), total sweet-pea.
Likewise, I suppose, with my parents and my whole childhood. They're still getting used to me firing on all cylinders and having my life pretty under control, but that's just a growing pain.
I will say, though, that coming back really feels very comfortable, and I'm a little suspicious of that.
I know how things work here, what to expect, how these performances with SILE will play out, the kind of people who will be around.
I know the jokes and the references to make, and I fit this place hand-in-glove without really trying.
I feel quite relaxed in my own private Land of the Lotus-Eaters, and that there is what I sometimes call the 'kiss of death' to students--
the small beginning signs of a chain of events that will lead to an overall stagnation or deficiency in your technique or art.
In one of my last chances to speak at length with David Baker, he related: "If you feel like you're getting comfortable--GIT!" I take that pretty seriously.
I've heard it said that you can't go home again. For me right now, I think, I totally can. But that's something to keep an eye on.
Very recently (as in, not even 30 minutes ago as of this writing), I was at a jam session in Chicago. It doesn't necessarily matter where, and in fact naming the venue and the people might distract from the point I have here, so I'm gonna try to make it nebulous.
For whatever reason, people felt like I was playing well. Lots of 'you sound great bro' from throughout the room, things of that nature. If you've played at a jam session full of professionals, you know how that is and how it feels--admittedly good but in a pretty insubstantial way, like a big boll of cotton candy or a silk pair of underwear.
There was one small comment which went against the grain. After I held in there (more or less) against a tune the leader of the jam session called, in a split-second spare moment he said to me in an offhand, quiet, but directly worded way: "You need to learn how to deal with the changes more".
Here's the thing: the guy was right.
I know, at least subconsciously, that I've been slipping in terms of really exploiting and engaging with basic V7-I relationships in a consistently creative way. I have the skillset to avoid that weakness (through a small library of substitutions and superimpositions I've been accumulating over the past decade-ish), but my strictly diatonic, functional-harmony material lags behind.
Out of everyone at that jam session, the leader was the only one to see through that particular avoidance mechanism (along with any technical pyrotechnics that I may be able to do) to the problem behind it, and then let me know the problem was something that deserved attention. Furthermore, he let me know in a personal and quiet way that would ensure I heard it, as opposed to just listening to it, and in a direct way, so I couldn't mistake cause and effect between behavior and commentary.
That's unique and more than worth the price of admission (of course, the session was free, but I digress).
I think that people who are capable of doing that, both in terms of perceiving the problem and in terms of letting someone know immediately and gently without ego, are few and far between. I think it'd be silly to not only start really dealing with the vertical structures of the tune I'm playing more, but to start considering how to express my criticisms in that way.
That is, to make them wanna put in the effort to make themselves better. I think I'm gonna revisit Warne Marsh for a while. And learn more tunes. But I could always stand to do that.