Saturday, October 11, 2008
Tour tales no. 3: The groups all live together
From time to time people approach me with the following question: "Dude, what the hell possessed you to want to start a big-band (of sorts)? I mean, why a big band? Isn't it hard enough just trying to play something that resembles jazz in this day and age? Why not make your life at least marginally easier, and go for a quintet? A quartet? Hell, you play piano: why not a power trio? So, you know: what the fuck?!"
I'm paraphrasing, of course.
You may already be imagining my answer to this question. Perhaps you can see me leaning back in my chair, putting on my "serious face," stroking my goatee thoughtfully, and intoning these words: "The big band is the one and only vehicle for my peculiar artistic vision. It is the only means by which I can say what I want to say. In short, I have no choice."
As Borat would say: not! Even if I had the chutzpah to hold forth as such with a straight face, the real answer would be that there is nothing about what I do (or what I want to do) that has convinced me that I was destined to write for a big band. It was all, as I've suggested before, an accident. A happy accident, to be sure, but an accident all the same. And while I've discovered that this configuration of musicians can make some pretty unique and cool sounds, and while I am long since officially addicted, I'm simultaneously suspicious that I keep the IJG together at least in part because I genuinely like the people that it attracts. These suspicions began when I realized that putting the group on the road is getting to be a little bit like going on a vacation. An exhausting and expensive vacation, yes, but a vacation nonetheless.
All of which is fortunate, cuz during the recent week-long PNW tour we decided to save a little money by housing eight IJG members (Schnelle, Newell, Francis, Wright, Ling, Richards, Rosenboom, Carroll) here at Casa de Durkin-Robinson instead of in a local hotel. That's in addition to the three people, two cats, and one dog who already call CdDR home. (Jill and Matt were originally going to crash here too, but ended up staying elsewhere because of cat allergies and a Burning Man-induced need for privacy and comfort. Everyone else in this version of the group was PDX-based).
Phew! It was probably madness on my part to suggest this accommodation plan. It's true that one of the things that attracted me to CdDR in the first place was the possibility that I could eventually convert portions of it into a studio / rehearsal / IJG cottage industry space. So I always imagined that it would be filled with musicians from time to time. It's also true that we have much more room here than we could have ever afforded in LA. But our previous record for house guests was seven -- and that only seemed possible at the time because many of those folks were sharing beds. In terms of sleeping arrangements, at least, if seven was a stretch, eight was way more than enough.
But in addition to the space issue, there was the typical problem of trying to integrate tour logistics (and logic) with my cost-cutting measures. Using CdDR as a home base for the IJG would save me the enormous headache of six nights' worth of hotel fees, yes, but it would also mean driving back here after each gig (except for the Portland gig itself, all of the shows on this tour were between 2 and 3 hours from PDX). That made for some pretty late nights and a whole lotta driving. (On the flip side, it also made for some pretty leisurely days.)
Anyway, the whole slumber party aspect of the tour could have gone a lot of different ways, but in the end it was a truly beautiful thing. What makes this even more surprising for me personally is that in general I'm not terribly comfortable in large groups. You would think that one of the qualities of leading a big band is that you'd have to be a bit of an extrovert, but in general, my personality has always skewed toward the "socially awkward" side of things. (Which may help explain why I turned to writing (of all kinds) in the first place.) To paraphrase Zappa: most of the time, socializing is, for me, like exercise.
But with the IJG, more and more, I have as much fun hanging out with the group as I do playing any of the gigs. So for me the memory of this tour will be as much about well-lubricated late-night political discussions, or viewings of Batman (you know the one), or impromptu art projects, as it will be about "The Bee Dance" (for instance).
(We interrupt this post to share two of the aforementioned impromptu art projects: "Dan Schnelle," by Steph Richards; and "Steph Richards," by Dan Schnelle. Apparently I'm not the only dadaist in the group.)
Of course, the success of this housing arrangement was made possible at least in part by the fact that some members of the group have the uncanny ability to fall asleep pretty much wherever they happen to be, whenever they like. (How I wish I could do that.) And it was also facilitated to a large degree by my amazing wife -- the best wife in the world, I'm quite sure -- who probably didn't realize what she was getting into when I talked her into letting the band stay here, but who handled the high traffic, late nights, and extra cooking with seemingly boundless reserves of aplomb.
The bottom line was that everybody was chill.
I recall a fragment of a conversation -- I think it was immediately after our last hit, in Yakima, as we were driving around looking for coffee and gas to fuel our 3-hour ride home. Dan Rosenboom and Steph Richards both remarked how unusual it was to work with a group in which the members all got along so well. They suggested that this feature of the IJG experience is attributable to the music, as if the music caused the camaraderie. From my perspective the scenario is just the opposite. The music is the way it is because of the camaraderie. That's the hard-to-explain root source of the "IJG sound." (I have always made clear that I cannot write in a vacuum; lucky for me the group chemistry provides me with all the inspiration I need whenever it comes time to put the dots on paper.)
I suppose I recognize this because there have been past lineups that haven't delivered 100% on the chemistry side of things. Once in a while we have had folks fleetingly join the group who may have been truly stellar players in any other context, but who just didn't "get" what we were doing, at least in part because they didn't pick up on the social vibe. It wasn't a big deal, really -- just evidence that making music is about much more than the technical side of things. And that the IJG will never be a hired-gun, repertory-type big band.
Anyway, over eight years (or however long we've been together) I guess you develop a sense for the necessary dynamic, and the result is that the current broader IJG network -- which is in fact much bigger than a mere 16 people, and includes our beloved Calartians-who-can't-always-tour, east coast folks, PDX newbies, and so on -- has become much more of what I would have to call an extended family of sorts. If I may be so bold.
Alright, this installment of the tour narrative is getting impossibly maudlin, so I'll sign off for now. Up next: the video for one of our other new tunes: "Jazz-Pop Jerkoff." (I'm one. Are you one?)
(photo credits: 1, 6: Ling. 2, 3, 4, 5: Durkin)