Thursday, January 25, 2007

...the adventure ends

(Not really, of course, I just like these little symmetries in my headings...)

Actually, for me, the tour was extended by a few days, since I had to stick around in Jersey for family stuff. Made it back to PDX late last week, and was finally greeted by the snow that I was expecting to plague our visit eastward.

I'm exhausted as hell, so I doubt this will be the Big Important Post in which I sort out what it all means. But at least I know that such a post is called for. Excuse the cliche, but something special happened to the group on this tour. I'm not yet sure what it was, or how it happened, exactly, but we got a glimpse of the prize, and boy, was it sweet. Especially since it has been such a long time coming (20+ years for me, if you start counting from the moment I first committed myself (in a manner of speaking) to music as a "career"), and especially since the overall process has involved much more work than I would have been saddled with had I just decided to give in and become a lawyer like my folks always wanted.

The key word this time was turnout. We had packed houses for every show. Lord knows we've been on the road before, but in the past things have always been hit and miss with respect to audiences -- no matter how much promotion I did, there would always be at least one shittily-attended gig, usually more. The mostly-CA tour we did in August of 06 was typical: we had a fun, crowded show at our Club Tropical homebase (RIP); a materially rewarding but otherwise very stressful pair of gigs at the Carson City festival (one was enthusiastically received, the other was not); a quirky, half-full show in Oakland; and a truly depressing, very lonely evening at the (aptly named) Empty Space in Bakersfield. The band took it all in stride, for the most part, and I guess I counted that trip as a success overall. But deep down I knew that things had to get better soon.

This time out, for reasons I don't yet understand, every performance was like a slow, sweet, deep hit of some wondrous new, wondrously gratifying drug. Put another way, though I continue to go into debt for this group, I have never gone into debt so damned happily. The way I see it, there are four elements to making the band into the viable entity that could actually become our dayjob: good charts, good players, good audiences, and good bread. The first element has, I suppose, been in place more or less since we finally stumbled into our own sound, post-Star Chamber. The second has always been there. Now it appears we have some momentum with our audiences, so I'm hoping that the material side of things is not far behind. (My big fear at the moment is that the next tour won't live up to (or surpass) the standard set by this one. But maybe I'll save that subject for the Big Important Post.)

The personnel for "Industrial Jazz on Ice," incidentally, was not only good, but exemplary. The sax section (always the most, uh, fluid part of the group) turned out to be something of a dream lineup, with Damon Zick, Evan Francis, Beth Schenck, Cory Wright, and Brian Walsh as the mainstays, and Ben Wendel, Dan Pratt, or Tony Gairo brilliantly subbing on tenor 2 where necessary. (Zick and Walsh also doubled as second driver for tour van number 2, so they get extra acknowdgment and thanks here.) The trumpet section, far more stable historically, were all able to do the tour (thanks in part to the fact that Phil Rodriguez had recently moved to Brooklyn, and the fact that Tiner was going to be out east anyway because of his own tour in early January -- conditions that left enough money in the budget to bring out Dan Rosenboom (our third trumpet / resident high-wire artist)). The bone section was the big wild card, because none of the regulars were going to be present. But there too luck was on our side, as Ben Griffin (the guy who did most of our shows) turned out to be more or less perfectly suited to our schtick (his solo on "Fuck the Muck" killed every time), and Alan Ferber and Mike Hood were pretty goddamned good at it too. It may have been the rhythm section who ultimately defined us for the neophytes, of course: between Oliver Newell's distinctive and crazy dancing (I've no idea how he managed to play and gyrate at the same time, but this element of his performance (or perhaps just the extremes to which he took it) was quite new); Jill Knapp's emergence as the group narrator / chorus / audience liaison (I swear she has an unparalleled ability to allay the fears of first-time listeners, with a trademark grin that seems to warmly say "I know this sounds weird to you, but trust me, you're gonna love it"); and Dan Schnelle's clairvoyant ability to lock in to my time and whip the rest of the group into shape (plus, he wore a crab hat).

Anyway, the week itself went something like this: I arrived in Jersey a few days in advance of the proceedings, sans band, sans wife and daughter. I was hoping to get my head in order and put out the various fires that always seem to appear in the moments before a tour.

If I sewed them all together, I could make a helluva quilt.

Luckily, there was nothing to compare with the last-minute gig cancellation that made our first east coast journey such hell for me (thanks, CBGB). Though I did get a bit of a scare late on Sunday evening when I received a voicemail from Evan informing me he had missed his plane -- this was followed shortly thereafter by a text message, also from Evan, letting me know he had worked it out and would be in town about 12 hours later than expected, but still in time for rehearsal (all hail Jet Blue). That's one of the many amazing things about Evan -- he seems to have an uncanny ability to elegantly find his way out of any tight spot you can imagine. (That's true both musically and in general.)

I won't say I really got to enjoy those three or four days of comparative solitude and tour prep time -- too anxious -- but I did get to check in with the east coast Durkins, and snag a wee bit of quality time with a few old friends. I also spent time pondering my Mom's CD collection, which included recordings by Celine Dion, the Three Tenors, Yanni, Josh Groban, Kenny G, and, uh, the Industrial Jazz Group. (Gotta give her mad props for hanging on to the IJG records I send, though who knows whether she ever actually listens to them.)

Next stop: PBS.

I also gleaned some much-needed perspective when I forced myself to read through much of the poetry and other writing I had done in high school and as an undergrad. All of this had been neatly stashed (and catalogued!) in a large bookcase in my old room. What a superabundance of self-pity and other peurile crap fills those pages! What bombast! Still, I guess I'm glad I resisted my impulse to burn it all before I moved to LA in 1995 (it's probably good to revisit one's personal hell(s) once in a while).

Things couldn't have gotten off to a better start for the tour proper than they did with our gig at Chris' in Philadelphia (Jan 10). This despite the fact that the group was still a little out of shape musically (as I recall, there was at least one near-trainwreck on the bandstand). Chris' may be the first legit jazz club we have ever performed in -- a cozy venue with a swanky vibe, where they officiously insist on throwing away the fries left behind by paying customers (even though hungry itinerant musicians might be willingly partaking of said fries, which after all just happened to be lying around on one of the tables). I don't remember much about Philly from my childhood, but if I had known it was such a culturally vibrant place (as it at least seemed to be on Sansom Street) I would have made a point of trekking down there more often. Anyway, somehow we fit right in, in spite of the upscale ambience, and (thanks in part to the promotional energies of Jill) we drew a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd. I barely had room to maneuver in front of the band, in fact. And yes, the rumors are true: for part of the show I wore a drum major's hat that Jill had dug up somewhere, but it proved so uncomfortable (hard plastic digging into my bald scalp) that I soon scrapped it.

We were followed by the infectiously sassy Hoppin' John Orchestra, sort of the house band at Chris', and the brainchild of Mike Hood, a kindred spirit if there ever was one. Mike started out as an IJG fan because of our ill-fated Star Chamber record (in 04 he contacted me out of the blue just to tell me how much he liked that one). But with the experience of this tour, I'd like to say I can count him among my east-coast-music-community-friends. And Hoppin' John gets extra props for letting us use their gear for this show. My only regret is that we weren't able to stick around to catch their entire set.

The next day (Thursday, Jan 11) I woke up to a much-needed hug from Thandie, whom I hadn't seen in nearly a week. (I had received a much-needed hug from Daphne the previous evening when we returned from Philly -- the two of them had flown into Newark Airport at around the time of our downbeat at Chris'.) This is probably where I should acknowledge my deep gratitude to these, the most important people in my life -- Thandie for stoically putting up with more travel than any two year old should be forced to deal with, and Daphne for being the amazingly understanding, supportive person she is. I swear, though D. is usually the last to hear each new IJG tune (given the demands of her crazy work / parenting schedule), if it weren't for her patience, or her (I'm sure totally unintentional) influence on my writing (the key to a lasting relationship: a shared sense of humor), the IJG would never have come this far.

This was going to be the group's busiest day, given that we had two performances scheduled. (What? You say you want to catch some of the other things going on at conference today? Ha ha ha ha ha!) The first, our IAJE hit, was scheduled for noon sharp (only the second time we had ever played this music publicly while the sun was still out). People have repeatedly asked me how we managed to snag a performance slot in the conference, and until recently, I haven't been able to explain it except to say that I sent in an application (thanks to the gentle urging of Damon). Now I understand that there was something of a disagreement over whether we should have been allowed to play at all. Apparently, we have an advocate within the IAJE organization: Joel Leach, a past president who really went to the mat for us. It's amazing what a single person can do: we owe Joel big time, especially if the various opportunities that seem to be coming from IAJE actually pan out (more on those later).

Anyway, I'm told we caused a bit of a stir with our show. Made a few new friends (hello, Cassandra and Erik!), finally got to meet the amazing multitasking IAJE staff assistant Jennifer Dean, whom I had been bugging about conference-related details for months (Jennifer: if I ever make enough scratch at this to be able to afford a personal assistant, consider yourself hired), and got a plaque. More importantly, Daphne and Thandie caught the show too -- this was Thandie's first live experience of her Dad's crazy music, and I do believe we made another fan (she thought we were too loud but she wanted to get up on stage with us anyway).

That evening we played a set at a one of the more idiosyncratic venues we've ever been in, a space presided over by two of the bravest cats I've ever met (one of which slept away most of our set on top of a huge speaker located behind the bar). That's right, I'm talking about Goodbye Blue Monday, located in the otherwise desolate Bushwick section of Brooklyn (shout out to Mike Baggetta for scheduling this one). I must admit that there was a certain degree of stress beforehand. Although Shayna Dulberger had kindly agreed to allow us to use her bass amp (thanks, Shayna!), I was unsure whether we were going to have a drumkit for Schnelle or not. A few hours before we actually played, KT was able to convince Lukas Ligeti (that's right, the son of this guy), with whom he was also playing (in the same venue on the same night -- now there's stamina for ya), to let us use Lukas' rig. Thanks, fellas! (Now can one of you tell me definitively how to pronounce "Ligeti"?)

Hello, Brooklyn!

Probably my favorite moment of the GBM set, incidentally, was at the end of "Fuck the Muck." As anyone who has seen us in the last year or so knows, that tune concludes with a strange little hymn, sung by various sections of the group in (ultimately) four-part harmony (or something like it). The hymn is in 3/2 -- not quite a waltz, but nevertheless an odd time signature. The GBM audience, however, decided to clap along on the offbeats as if the thing was in 4/4 (or, I guess, 4/2). The improbable outcome of this was that the audience ended up clapping on beats 2, 1, and 3, in a time signature of 3/2, for maybe 1-2 minutes. I'm not exactly sure how musically sophisticated they were, but I'm fairly certain this is something they wouldn't have been able to do if I had tried to explain it to them beforehand. And that there in a nutshell is the beauty of "avant garde party music."

On Friday (Jan 12) we made our first foray into Massachussetts (barely missing the rush hour traffic out of Manhattan) at a venue called the Java Hut, located in Worcester. It was a double -- no, triple -- no, quadruple bill with Tom Lubelczyk's delightfully hardrocking (and you thought "Industrial Jazz Group" was hard to fit onto a T-Shirt), plus two much more low-key performers who I didn't really get to concentrate on because I was busy working out hotel issues for the night. As with the Brooklyn show (and later, the Pittsfield show), we had to drop three players to fit into this venue (bone 2, tenor 2, and trumpet 3)... and we were still sprawled out like some kind of obscene jazz blob. We also had to cut our set a little shorter than I would have liked, due to the double-booking that led to the quadruple lineup (at some point I thought about suggesting a 4-band jam to close out the evening, but as it turned out we were lucky that everyone got to play a short set of their own). Still, for us, this was the show where things really started to come together musically. I think it was also the first set where I truly sweated -- strange as it sounds, perspiration has become one of my personal indices of whether or not a performance is actually successful. (If I'm sweating, I'm losing myself in the music somewhat, which means that things are sounding more or less right. Right?)

It's called the Java Hut, not the Java Mansion.

Ah, Worcester. Who will ever be able to explain your mysterious pronunciation? (I'm put in mind of Eddie Izzard's joke about the pronunication of "herb": "You [Americans] pronounce it 'erb,' and we [Brits] pronounce it 'herb.' Because there's a fucking 'h' in it.") I didn't really get a good feel for this city: we arrived after dark, and left before noon the next day. But I won't let the worst chicken parmesan I have ever eaten ruin my impression; we'll definitely be back. Again, mad props to Tom for setting up the show (sort of against the odds, really, as we were originally shooting for Boston, which turned out to be going through a bit of a dry spell venue-wise) and for hooking us up with pretty much all of the gear we needed. (Although I did get to bring the once-mighty axe of my youth, a vintage Yamaha DX-7 ("Glory Days," anyone?), now sadly rusted and splashed with catpuke and who knows what else. Still, it more or less worked, and brought a certain, uh, charm to the performance.)

On Saturday we trekked on over to Pittsfield, MA (about as far west as you can go without venturing into upstate NY), and played a throughly enjoyable matinee show at the very sytlish Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, where, despite some sound issues (to my ears, we came across extremely bright and somewhat distorted) and the presence of implied dirty words -- both potential liabilities because there were kids and elderly folk in the audience -- the Pittsfieldians absolutely ate it up. In fact, I think we all basically surprised each other -- I was still a little flabbergasted that this gig had come together (it was set up very much at the last-minute, almost accidentally, and without a lot of promotion or prep work until about ten days beforehand), the band was surprised that people actually came out (in droves), and the audience was surprised that we lived up to the hype. The tightness that had emerged on the preceding evening really locked in now (except on "What's in Anne's Icebox," which never really came together for this tour, and was subsequently dropped for the next evening's performance). Plus, I started to expand my between-song patter (such as it is). In general, a splendid time was had by all.

Incidentally, I learned that Pittsfield is home to Ed Mann, the celebrated Zappa percussionist. In fact, it turned out he had studied with the gentleman who lent us his drum kit (thanks, Art!) -- a guy I would never have pegged as a Zappa fan, but there you go. Megan, our wonderful host, actually gave him a call when she took us out to lunch after the show (!); she wanted to see if he'd like to come over and meet us. Turns out he was on tour with Project/Object, so no dice. But it seems like every tour has to have some sort of Zappa connection, and this was a particularly nice one.

Thanks also to Andy Kelly for the use of his bass amp and PA.

"Late Lunch of Champions" (Thank you, Megan!)

We made it back to NYC late that night. I'll skip the part about getting lost (and nearly running out of gas) in the wilds of western MA / upstate NY, because, as Tiner pointed out during that little detour, it was merely annoying; it wasn't the sort of scary-in-a fear-for-your-life-kind-of-way that we had once experienced in a seedier section of Berkeley, CA.

Anyway, in the context of all this wonderment and fun (not the wonderment and fun of getting lost in western MA / upstate NY, but the wonderment and fun preceding that), it's really saying something to flag the final gig (Jan 14 at the Bowery Poetry Club, with Darcy James Argue's Secret Society) as the highlight of the tour. To my mind, it was a perfect pairing for an evening of "new jazz." For one thing, I'll agree with Tiner and Jill: by most reasonable criteria, it was the best show the IJG has ever played. But the Society really killed it too: what a beautiful, graceful marriage of the complexity of a symphony orchestra with the swagger of a jazz ensemble. And it was nice to bask in the glow of the east-meets-west-mutual-admiration-society that seemed to spring up between the two ensembles in the aftermath. I suspect that it's very rare that that sort of thing happens outside of an institutional context like a festival or a school; I'm beyond proud to have been part of such an aberration of protocol. (Actually, my role was minimal: all I really did was suggest the bill -- Darcy did all the legwork and reconnaisance (gracias, Darcy).)

"No, I'm not going to eat that. Are you going to eat that?" (The big question preceding our BPC hit.)

The evening was personally important to me, too, because I learned a lot by watching Darcy work (he's got it down to a science), and hearing his music live for the first time (I had been immersing myself in it for months through the wonders of the internet; you should too). Our bands articulate two very different answers to the same question, and as I sat there listening to the Society after our set I experienced an unusual moment of clarity and artistic self-awareness -- but both of these were tempered by a genuine awe at the sounds that were emanating from the Bowery stage. Darcy is the real deal, and I am truly honored that we got to share the bill with him and his amazing group.

One to watch: the Secret Society does its thing.

On that note, one of the great coups of the evening (and, perhaps less emphatically, of the tour as a whole) was an affirmation of what I had always suspected: that audiences are smart enough to be able to absorb multiple approaches to music-making simultaneously -- something that might not be immediately apparent if you subscribe to the jazz battles of recent years. Progressive, traditional, east coast, west coast, noise, melody, art, pop, Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, what the fuck? It's all just music, and the real question, as the wise Mr. Ellington knew, has always been: is it good or not? I have always believed there are plenty of people in the world with big enough ears to take it all in -- indeed, I have staked my career on that assumption, given the easy eclecticism of my own taste -- and this show provided a nice validation.

Lots more to shake out of this tour... watch this space for updates.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for posting this.

Thanks also so much for believing in the music, believing in us, and having faith that "if you build it, they will come." (It might take 20 years, but they will come... ha ha)

I'm still flying high from this tour! Imagine how awesome it'll be to play this stuff surrounded by stoned hookers in The Hague! Wooooot!

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm replaying those notes on the tour with great pleasure. Add in this: Andrew's self-effacing writing and performing style comes through entertainingly well. But so's you know, Andrew, yer the mutha behind it all, ingenously so. Stan

Mike Baggetta said...

Very Late...apparently all Hungarian names always have the accent on the first syllable...hence, LI-get-i. Miss you...