Saturday, September 15, 2007

A most peculiar paradox

Busy week.

At the top of my radar, of course, have been the various tasks that go along with readying the group for our last trip of 07: a two-day excursion to Ohio (specifically, Columbus and Cincinnati) that comes up at the end of September. Might as well reveal the personnel up front (note that we are picking up more and more NY players, and as such are becoming more and more of a truly "bi-coastal" group -- cool). The trumpets and the rhythm section will be exactly as they were for the Netherlands: Phil Rodriguez, Andre Canniere, Dan Rosenboom, Dan Schnelle, Oliver Newell, Jill Knapp, and yours truly. Other veterans (of the Netherlands tour and other recent trips) will be scattered throughout the group in key positions: Evan Francis on alto, Gavin Templeton on soprano sax, Josh Sinton on bari, Dan Pratt on tenor, and James Hirschfeld on bone. We'll also be picking up a few brand new people: Josh Rutner (an associate of Hirschfeld's, so he must be good) on soprano sax, and Brian Casey on bone (Brian is a composer, and one of the leaders of Honk, Wail, & Moan, the big band we'll be sharing a bill with in Columbus -- more about that in a moment). With any luck, we'll also have another Ohio sub (TBA) on the second tenor book.

Of course we'll be missing some of the old fogeys -- Zick, Tiner, Schenck, Wright, Walsh, etc. -- but that's the nature of this particular beast. I'm pretty confident that each new incarnation of the group has something special to offer -- for whatever reason, we've had good luck lately finding the "right people" for the job.

I'm not sure what to expect from this trip, however. The "pivot gig" is the Midpoint Music Festival in Cincinnati (September 27), which is pretty much a wild card at this point. I mean, I have a sense that it's a relatively large event, but I don't know how it stacks up next to some of the other, better-known indie music festivals (like SXSW or CMJ). One interesting factoid is that Midpoint has something of a "purist" vibe -- they generally eschew nationally-known, "signed" acts (boy, I would have loved to see some of those rejection letters). On the one hand, that's exciting. On the other (let's face it), that could really suck.

But we're going anyway. Chalk it up to my ongoing effort to straddle the chasm between two audiences. To review: on one side, we have the music wonks (also sometimes known as "jazz fans"), who have the finely-tuned ears, the historical knowledge, and the listening breadth to actually be able to make whatever "sense" can be made out of our music. On the other are the "just plain folks" (also sometimes known as the "popular music fans"), who I continually hope might listen to us for the same reasons they would listen to any of the other stuff with which they fill their iPods -- for entertainment, for some sort of emotional connection, for sonic wallpaper at a party, for the things about music that defy linguistic parsing (which, alas, might turn out to be pretty much everything).

In my more idealistic moments, I even hope to encourage these two groups (which I have vastly oversimplified in the preceding descriptions, by the way) to try out each others' listening habits. Just for fun, I guess.

Anyway, Midpoint will be the first time the current version of the group -- you know, the version that emerged once we "found our voice" or whatever -- will do its thing in the context of a large, essentially indie rock event. (Note that I am using the term "indie rock" in the broadest possible sense here. Also note that, as I have mentioned before, we did play SXSW back in 2002, but that seems like centuries ago now, because not only did we have an entirely different rhythm section, but we were a much smaller, much more obviously "jazz-like" band. The current group is a whole different animal. Or vegetable. Or whatever.)

A quick glance at the Midpoint lineup suggests that we are going to be very much in the minority in terms of our stylistic affiliations. Out of (approximately) 230 or so acts, we are among 3 that have been classified as "jazz." Not that we're really jazz, of course... well, I dunno, maybe we are. Anyway, that's some statistic, eh? A little more than 1% of the festival lineup. And, because I have no control over how these things are scheduled, it turns out that all three of the Midpoint "jazz acts" are booked into the same club on the same evening. Thank heavens (perhaps) that the "headliner" at the club that night is a jam band with a seemingly big following -- otherwise who knows if we'd even get a turnout.

The bottom line is that while Midpoint is a great opportunity and I'm glad we're doing it, things could either go really badly (if all the indie rock kids live up to the negative stereotype by refusing to even visit the jazz ghetto) or really well (if we draw attention and interest precisely because we are so very unlike everyone else on the schedule). So there is perhaps a little bit more of a gamble here than even I'm used to.

Ah well. Of course I've been doing the promo thing via the usual media channels (it's the same shit in every city). But I'm thinking that since the words "music festival" in this case are basically code for "indie rock festival," we'll have to do some serious guerilla marketing that afternoon when we hit town. Maybe we can walk through the city "in character" or something. Or perform a stripped-down version of our set on a local street corner. Or dispense hookers and blow.

(Uh, did I really just write that?).

* * * * *

Incidentally, our "warmup gig" (September 26) seems more and more promising -- a triple bill in Columbus with the aforementioned Honk, Wail & Moan and a southern-fried blues-inflected small-tet called The Free Beer 'n' Chicken Coalition (not to be confused with Tiner's former-group-with-a-similarly-hilarious-name, Big Red Peaches Coalition). And speaking of Tiner, the experience of putting this particular trip together sort of reminded me of a point he has been very good at making (with respect to underrated Bakersfield): the idea that lesser-known, under-the-radar towns can have solid scenes too, cuz (gasp) not all the good music in the world is happening in New York or LA. (A similar theme informs this piece on the music scene in Cincy.)

Big thanks to bassist Steve Perakis and keyboardist Linda Dachtyl (both members of HWM, and very busy players on the Columbus scene) for their enthusiasm and help in setting up the Columbus show.

* * * * *

Among the "various tasks" referred to above: I finally finished four new IJG tunes, which with any luck will provide the foundation for a whole new show that I hope to develop over the next year. These will be the first compositions I've introduced to the group in a while, actually -- the last batch ("Howl," "PDX LIX LAX," "Big Ass Truck," and a tune we have since dropped b/c it required an operatic soprano ("You're in Love with My Mother")) initially appeared during our west coast tour of August 2006.

Not that I have been willfully avoiding the question of new material. It's just that, with this band, changes to the show require logistical as well as aesthetic inspiration. In other words, while we benefit from a certain off-the-cuff approach, and while we make extensive use of improvisation (as a means to an end, anyway), at the core we are still a chart-based big band. So before I can introduce new tunes, I have to consider whether it is even practically possible to do so (in terms of necessary prep time, overall difficulty, etc.). Also important is the question of whether upcoming gigs will be occurring in new locations or contexts, and thus likely to draw new audiences, for whom material that we consider "old" is actually completely fresh. (It can sometimes feel unfair to retire a given tune before it has had enough of an "airing.")

On the other hand, if improvisation really is "composition without the benefit of an eraser," then composition is probably improvisation without the benefit of an audience. Which may be why I chomp at the bit to get my stuff out into the world, and why a year is an eternity for me in terms of this issue. In a way, the pieces don't really exist until they have come to life (or death) on a stage.

I dunno, maybe I write too much music. If so, it is not, I assure you, because I have an inflated sense of my own compositional worth. It's more a feeling of urgency that accompanies my daily existence, like somehow if I don't get some writing done before I turn in for the night, it's like I forgot to brush my teeth or something. (I know from years spent in the trenches teaching freshman comp that the problem of writer's block is where you place your anxiety. The writers who get blocked tend to worry about the value of a piece before it even exists. In my case, I try to save that anxiety until afterward, when it doesn't really matter anymore. So I don't get blocked much.)

Honestly, I seem to work best from a contradictory mindset. On the one hand, I have to believe that composition (at least the way I do it) is important enough to be worth a ridiculous amount of my time and energy. But I also have to tell myself that it's a completely frivolous (or at most purely entertaining) enterprise. Otherwise I would be focusing on something other than how the music actually feels and sounds (the notion of "importance," after all, derives from a social context -- and while social context is of course relevant, I wonder if that's where music-as-a-phenomenon really lives, at a deep level). Psyching myself into a sense of happy worthlessness also has the added benefit of encouraging me to take artistic risks, enabling me to casually shrug when something doesn't work, and (when that's the case) giving me the lack of sense to immediately move on to another compositional project with the same gusto.

Basically, I try to treat the whole business as if it is simultaneously the most and the least important thing I could be doing. (Which is not to say that it is actually either.)

We'll see how it goes this time around.

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