Walter Tunis

Arts

Tunis: Ben Monder’s Guitar Solo Work Comes to Lexington

Like any great magician, Ben Monder saves his wildest trick as a parting shot.

The setting is the New York guitarist’s current album, “Day After Day,” a double-disc offering that shakes up the well-utilized concept of the standards record. The first disc is just Monder on his own offering a set of generations-old gems by Henry Mancini, Johnny Mandel and Burt Bacharach that might suggest – on paper, at least – that Monder is an immovable traditionalist. One listen to his distinctive phrasing and lyrical twists quickly dispels that notion.

The second disc is a more personally curated collection of trio takes on vintage pop works by Bob Dylan, George Harrison and early Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, among others. On first listen, the collar grabber of the bunch is a version of the “Goldfinger” theme that pares down John Barry’s orchestral might to a tough-knuckled but melodically faithful brawl that is very much rock ‘n’ roll. You can almost see James Bond and Odd Job going at each other as the groove grows.

Then the last word oozes in – a version of the album’s title tune, a 1972 radio hit by the British pop band Badfinger that completely departs from any musical strategy the album had previously followed.

The sounds enter like distant sirens – echoing at first before gathering into an orchestral ambience that is alternately ominous and warm. The music continues to move in a circular pattern, growing more spacious and intense the closer it gets. Once it formally arrives, the wash of guitar chimes with a thundering intent that surrounds you. Then, as the cyclone passes, tossing one last sonic cry at us in its wake, the tune and the album fade to black.

Somewhere, in that rich, layered fascination, the chorus melody of the Pete Ham-composed tune is offered, but it exists only as a brief wisp of a soundscape that quickly sheds its form before leaping into the squall.

“I had no intention of actually covering that tune,” said a slightly jet-lagged Monder by phone the day after arriving back in New York, following a few weeks of concerts and master classes in Europe. “I was at the end of this session and just wanted to play some random ambient music.

“My guitar broke right at the end of the session. This was during one of the trio sessions for the album. It was no longer functional by the end of the day, so I borrowed what was almost like a toy guitar in the studio. It was like a miniature Les Paul. But I was just determined to do some ambient music as a counterbalance to all the trio tracks we had recorded. I did that thing of turning all my equipment up to ten and then just kind of went for it.

“In the spur of the moment, that melody occurred to me. I’ve played that tune before in a trio setting, so I knew it. But I never thought I would do it like this. I just figured if I could include the melody, it would justify all this being on the record. It would be another cover tune. Technically.”

Photo Credit: Ben Monder by John Rogers

Second fiddle
Monder, who is heading to Lexington for a solo concert that will serve as the November presentation of the Origins Jazz Series, has been a highly prolific and respected member of the vast New York City jazz community for over three decades as both a leader and sideman. He has recorded with scores of jazz luminaries, including Grammy-winning orchestrator Maria Schneider (with whom he still collaborates), saxophonist Donny McCaslin and the profoundly influential drummer and bandleader Paul Motian.

While guitar was not Monder’s first instrument, it was the first one that truly spoke to him.

“I took up violin after my dad,” Monder said. “He was an amateur player. I never really enjoyed violin very much, though. It was like a duty. Then I found a classical guitar, an inexpensive classical guitar, in my parent’s closet. It was much less uncomfortable to play than the violin, so I gravitated to the guitar more and more. I only found out recently that the reason my parents even had a guitar was that my mother was taking classical lessons while she was pregnant with me. I must have been hearing that music even then.”

Jazz records by guitarists like Barney Kessel (especially “Soaring,” a briskly paced 1976 trio album devoted primarily to standards) and Jim Hall (the exquisite trio record “Live!” from 1975) helped establish a musical vocabulary. But it was a vanguard work from the preceding decade, John Coltrane’s immortal “A Love Supreme,” that got Monder digging past the groove.

“That was a big one,” he said. “‘A Love Supreme’ really made me decide that I needed to dive into the mystery of jazz. I may have come to jazz anyway. When I decided to formally start taking guitar lessons, I was studying from a jazz teacher because that was the teacher that was available. It wasn’t like I necessarily wanted to take jazz lessons. But I grew to love the music itself. I enjoyed the challenge of it.”

Few artists, though, had greater impact in the development of Monder’s musical voice than the great Motian. Infatuated with records by the drummer’s famed trio (with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano) and his equally lauded quintet (which added a second saxophonist, Billy Drewes, along with bassist Ed Schuller to the trio roster), Monder would eventually join one of Motian’s numerous bands to record three albums between 2001 and 2006.

“Paul Motian started helping my voice long before I ever met him. His first quintet record, ‘Psalm’ (from 1982), was just a total sound world that was unprecedented. If you listen, all of his records have that personal element to it. It’s hard to pin down, but they all sound like Paul Motian records. Even with completely different personnel, everyone is in tune with the sound he has and works towards realizing it.”

Photo Credit: Ben Monder by Jesse Chun

Bowie and Blackstar
While New York has always been a jazz metropolis, it also became a land of self-imposed exile for one of rock music’s most daring journeymen. In 2015, with no interest in living the rock daydream any further, David Bowie scoured the city’s music haunts with the idea of making a new recording aided by jazz musicians. The songs he had composed for the album were still largely pop in design, but were executed with more of a hybrid sound. Bowie had just come off recording a single with Maria Schneider’s orchestra that led to the enlistment of Donny McCaslin. That, in turn, brought Monder to the recording sessions that gave us “Blackstar.” And that, unbeknownst to all parties involved with its making, would be Bowie’s final studio album. The rock titan died on January 10, 2016 – two days after the release of “Blackstar.”

“The tunes David wrote were very specific with a very clear vision of what he wanted,” Monder said. “At the same time, they were easy to adapt to. It never felt like I had to step into somebody’s else ideas. “When I say ‘specific,’ I guess I meant there weren’t that many ways to interpret the parts, but I still had a lot of freedom in how I was able to add things. Also, Tony Visconti (Bowie’s longtime producer) had lots of ideas.

“There was one day where I went in the studio without the other studio musicians and we came up with parts for almost all of the tunes I was involved with. I had free reign to add layer upon layer. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, we would just throw it out.”

So for a full day, it was just Visconti in the studio with Monder?

“Yes. And David.”

A studio day alongside David Bowie and Tony Visconti? Seriously? How enviable a work environment was that?

“It was a lot of fun.”

What stands as a colossal understatement is indicative of the earnest soft sell Monder gives his music. From the far-ranging stylistic reach of “Day After Day” to the career victory lap that was “Blackstar,” his playing speaks for itself in a manner that welcomes anyone mindful of musical tradition but with ears open enough to not be anchored to it.

“You know, I have no idea how many people have heard my music or what they think of it. I get enough feedback to feel like I’m reaching a few people and that’s fine. If nobody responded, that would be a problem. But if I can reach just a few people where the music really means something to them, then that’s very gratifying.”

Ben Monder performs at 7:30 p.m. on November 22 at the Lexington Friends Meeting House (Quakers), 649 Price Ave. Tickets are $20 at originsjazz.org.

Title Image Photo Credit: Ben Monder by John Rogers

Arts

Tunis: Ickes and Hensley Ride An On-Ramp to the Blues

On a Wednesday evening, having just crossed the state border from Tennessee into Kentucky with a final destination of Fort Wayne, Indiana, still hours ahead of them, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley found it only natural to talk about traveling – or more specifically, where their travels have taken them this fall.

Just a few days earlier, Ickes was back on home turf. He was playing one of his native San Francisco’s most prestigious music festivals, the gathering known as Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. There, the artist who the International Bluegrass Music Association has named Dobro Player of the Year no fewer than 15 times (making him the IBMA’s most awarded musician to date) and his current musical compadre, guitarist and rock solid country vocal stylist Hensley, rubbed performance elbows with the likes of Americana giant Buddy Miller, country songwriting veteran Bobby Braddock, rock icon Robert Plant, and pop/blues vocal mainstay Maria Muldaur.

“It was,” said Ickes in an instance of jovial understatement, “a pretty fun day.”

A few weeks prior to that, Ickes and Hensley were right next door in Versailles, sweating it out with fans in the 90-degree swelter of a performance at the Kentucky Castle. It was a preparatory appearance ahead of their third album, an immensely spirited record titled “World Full of Blues.”

It’s a curious title for a duo whose music was born out of bluegrass and country. It might also cause some head scratching from blues enthusiasts, as well, as the record hardly adheres to time honored traditions of the blues. But, it’s a big world out there and the mission of “World Full of Blues” was to explore the sounds sitting within it in ways that only a dobro, a guitar and a voice can. Well, that, and with the help of some high-profile pals.

“We’re thrilled with it,” Hensley admitted. “I guess we started on it last October, but finished it up pretty quickly. We’re thrilled to finally get it out there. It’s a pretty exciting time, for sure.”

Off the Highway
First, some history. If you know bluegrass, you know the name Rob Ickes, the Tennesseean transplant from the West Coast who joined the prestigious string band Blue Highway in 1992. Over the course of 21 years, he took a love of the dobro that began with a listen to a Mike Auldridge record to a level of innovation that has made Ickes the most recognized modern day ambassador of the instrument after Jerry Douglas.

But after two decades, he was ready for a change. An alliance with Hensley, a guitarist with a solid-as-oak vocal command of country tradition, began in 2014 as one in a series of side projects for Ickes. But this endeavor took root. Following his departure from Blue Highway in 2015, work with Hensley became top priority. Now with their third album together out and another Lexington stop slated for October 28 at the Lyric Theatre for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Ickes is enjoying life off the Highway just fine.

Left to Right: Rob Ickes, Trey Hensley

“A couple of years ago, Trey and I had a little time off in the fall where we got together. I’ve got a buddy who has a nice cabin outside of Leiper’s Fork near Nashville, so we went up there with pieces of songs and ideas for songs. We wrote a bunch of stuff that ended up on the record.

“One of the goals was just to write more. Our first two records had a few originals, but on this one, nine of the eleven songs were written by one of us or both of us. That was kind of a goal for sure.”

First to join to the party was songwriter/producer/engineer Brent Maher. As a record producer, his client list includes albums by Kathy Mattea, Dottie West and Kenny Rogers. Of perhaps greater interest to the Kentucky country contingency, Maher also produced every studio record by The Judds.

But Maher also had an ear for sounds made outside of Nashville. As a recording engineer he had a hand in creating records by everyone from Gladys Knight and Diana Ross to Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell. Among his most notable engineering credits: the hit crossover cover of “Proud Mary” fashioned by Ike and Tina Turner in 1971.

“Brent is a super cool guy,” Ickes said. “We got together at his studio in Nashville. We recorded, just Trey and I, about 23 songs. Then the next day, Brent had the top 11 that he felt would fit together. Those were the ones he liked the most, so that’s what we recorded.

“He wanted to focus on Trey and I and not have any other instruments on the record as far as strings went – no fiddle, no mandolin, no banjo. But he said he could really hear a B3 organ on some songs as well as percussion. Those were all his ideas. We thought they worked just great. We felt it would make for kind of a funkier sound, something a little more R&B almost. But it all began with Brent just focusing on our acoustic instruments and Trey’s voice. He wanted to work from that sound. We thought, ‘Fine with us, man.’”

Then the guests arrived.

The Blue World
The elemental duo sound that sits at the heart of the music Ickes and Hensley make is best reflected on “World Full of Blues” by a solemn country lament called “There’s Always Something to Remind Me of You.” It’s a sterling bit of heartbreak led by the understated clarity of Hensley’s singing, which sounds like the neo-traditionalism of Randy Travis’ early records matched with the stoic storytelling command of vintage Merle Haggard. That Ickes’ dobro work follows the forlorn singing around like a ghost adds to the tune’s timelessness.

“It’s funny,” Ickes said. “Trey and I were thinking about having drums and stuff on that to make it something that really would sound more like a Randy Travis song. But when it was finished with just the two of us, it went to this Jimmie Rodgers kind of a sound. When we heard that, we wanted to go in that direction. It’s just bass, guitar, dobro and organ on that. It was pretty sparse, but I think that really fit the lyrics great.”

“But there were also songs where we really tried for a bigger sound,” Hensley added.

“We were looking at adding the B3 and the percussion, but it also extended to the style of the songs. On our other records, we leaned on the bluesier side of country and bluegrass, but I think there is a natural progression on this record.”

How far did that progression extend? Well, let’s start with a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Brown-Eyed Women” and a cameo by the country artist least likely to become a Dead Head – Vince Gill.

“We had Vince on our last record, too,” Hensley said. “He’s been a good friend of this project from the very beginning.”

“I don’t think he knew the song or was very familiar with the Grateful Dead’s material,” Ickes added “But he sounded great on there. Now he loves the song.”

Then there was the title tune to “World Full of Blues,” a work that cried out for the accent of a blues stalwart. Enter the great Taj Mahal, whose gritty vocal grind offers a fun contrast to the unsettling reserve of Hensley’s singing.

“We knew we wanted a guest on the third verse,” Hensley said. “Rob and I made lists of who we would want as vocalist on the song and at the top of both of our lists was Taj Mahal. We played him the track, he loved it and he flew to Nashville. That day in the studio with him, that was a highlight for sure.”

“It’s just fun to work with great artists like that,” Ickes said. “It’s a thrill for us. It’s nice to get a pat on the back from those guys. There’s kind of a mutual admiration thing going on, you know?”

Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, along with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, will perform at 6:45 pm on October 28 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third, for a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $10. Call 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

Walter Tunis writes about music for UnderMain. He is a music columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Arts

Tunis: Old Time Is the Best Time for The Zinc Kings

It’s a perhaps natural expectation.

The sight of stringed instruments, the focus on traditionally based melodies and harmonies and a performance setting that often favors a social backdrop – meaning, in many instances, a festival. Put them all together and you have bluegrass, right?

Not so fast. Granted, that kind of reflex thinking might hit prospective fans of The Zinc Kings, especially those unaccustomed to the tradition, location and inspiration of the music this North Carolina quartet favors.

“Everybody thinks we’re a bluegrass band,” said guitarist, mandolinist and banjoist Mark Dillon. “When you play music with banjos, people are going to think you’re in a bluegrass band.”

The Zinc Kings, L to R: Mark Dillon, Christen Blanton Mack, Ryan Mack, Dan Clouse

The Zinc Kings’ traditional sounds are devoted more to pre-bluegrass country, folk and the assimilation of generations-old sounds collectively referenced as Old Time. Such traditional music ensembles are plentiful around the country. Most, though, operate so far under the mainstream radar that bluegrass becomes an accessible, available but ultimately misleading tag for audiences to pin on the music.

“It’s a bit of a novelty, I suppose,” added fiddler Christen Blanton Mack. “People who are not engaged in traditional music and they see a banjo, it’s like, ‘Uh oh, there’s that thing.’ It’s a symbol of something people don’t always connect with. They latch onto this idea of ‘Oh, they’re going to play bluegrass.’

“We played at a festival in New York and I knew a bunch of people there. They had been hearing me talk about the guys that I play with and what it’s like being in an Old Time band. They’re going, ‘Yeah, bluegrass is cool.’ I was like, ‘Dude, really?’ Because of where we’re situated and because we have access to a lot of really great local tradition, it makes for an easy connection. It’s not such a huge community, though, that you can’t find commonalities.”

In many cases, especially in Kentucky, Old Time music is passed down through families and communities, a lexicon built around fiddle tunes and folk songs that serve as the DNA for what later evolved into bluegrass and country music. It’s the music of rural regions, of working environments and often of spiritual worship. It’s the music of the mountains – the Southern Appalachians and the Ozarks, primarily. The Zinc Kings, playing as part of the Appalachia in the Bluegrass traditional music series at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery on Sept. 20, have their own mountain inspirations to work from, their own music to play and their own ways of finding a new audience for it.

Piedmont calling

The Zinc Kings were spearheaded by members of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Old Time Ensemble that set out, beginning in 2010, to explore the folk traditions of the Carolina Piedmont. The band, completed by banjoist Dan Clouse and bassist Ryan Mack (Blanton Mack’s husband, who joined in 2011), wasn’t made up exclusively of natives from the region. Still, they were quickly fascinated by the Piedmont’s accents of harmony and instrumentation, its distinctive string sound and, perhaps most importantly, the music’s adaptability for projects that weren’t strictly traditional in design.

“For us, the catch is that we live in central North Carolina,” Dillon said. “We don’t live in the mountains. We just recognized there was a pretty rich tradition that was happening with Piedmont.

“When you look at the history, a lot of people from the mountains were coming down into mill villages. A lot of African-Americans were coming into the mill villages, as well. When you get there, you start learning about artists like Charlie Poole (the North Carolina singer and banjoist whose late 1920s music would strongly influence succeeding folk generations). These guys were blending blues with North Carolina Appalachian music. We found there was a niche that really no one else, or very few people outside of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, were looking at.”

For the classically reared Blanton Black, the music of the North Carolina Piedmont meant the study of a style with a looser, more socially inviting discipline. But the sense of devotion she gave it equaled what was demanded of her classical studies.

“I didn’t start going to festivals right away,” she said. “For me, the natural habitat for traditional music was just making music with your friends.

“When you put old time music on a stage and people don’t know what they’re listening to – because a lot of times, people might not – you present that music in a way that you would if you were playing that music in a jam with friends. We like energy. We love singing. Both help to connect you with an audience.”

But the music of The Zinc Kings isn’t locked solely into string sounds. Clouse, a Michigan native, studied tuba in high school before pursuing a Master’s degree in music theory at the University of Tennessee. That’s where and when he was drawn to the banjo. As such, he adds tuba and even washboard to the band’s string sound. In fact, The Zinc Kings take their name from a washboard – specifically, a brand dubbed “the Stradivarius of washboards” by the Bone Dry Musical Instrument Company.

“I didn’t grow up with Old Time music,” Clouse said. “I never saw a banjo until I went to school in Tennessee. I didn’t come to it with these ideas of what the music should sound like.”

“All the world’s a stage…”

On The Zinc Kings’ third album, 2017’s aptly-titled, “Piedmont,” the inspirations of such Carolina stylists as blues singer Blind Boy Fuller, gospel/blues artist Blind Joe Taggart and musician/folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford are explored with the music’s blues, folk and Celtic roots blended into a deliciously unspoiled Old Time fabric.

But the band isn’t anchored to its homeland. “Piedmont” also reaches out to Kentucky by honoring famed Monticello fiddler Clyde Davenport with a lightly percussive and beautifully paced version of “Lazy John.”

Similarly, the band’s Old Time sound has sometimes taken flight from expected concert settings. A case in point: The Zinc Kings composed a score of traditionally inspired music for a 2013 production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” undertaken as a collaboration between Raleigh Little Theatre, Bare Theatre and the traditional music organization PineCone.

“For Shakespeare, we had to work really hard to make the Shakespearean text fit the traditional Appalachian influences,” Blanton Mack said “But the meter that’s in Shakespeare did kind of lend itself to the music. We tried to stay really true to the text of Shakespeare but have the music feel participatory and inviting in hopes that people would want to sing along with us because that’s something that everyone can do.

“There are bands into traditional music who do similar things to what we do. They’re into traditional music but also are writing songs, composing music and working with composers and theatre companies. The tradition presents itself as being pretty straight forward and simple. The forms are really accessible, so we try to take the things that we love about traditional music, like the danceability or the sentiment of the song or the ability to tell a story like you might hear in a ballad, and just put out own stamp on it.”

The Zinc Kings perform at 12 noon on Sept. 20 for the Appalachia in the Bluegrass series at the Niles Gallery of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky’s Lucille C. Little Fine Arts Library. Admission is free.

Arts

Tunis: Travels With Tim

The life of most working musicians, if they strive for any kind of notice outside their hometown following, involves being a journeyman. Tim Easton is no exception, although in his case, the traveling comes naturally.

Whether it was the seven year stretch he spent gigging though London, Paris, Madrid and more or the scores of Stateside locales he has called home, stretching from Akron to Joshua Tree, Easton has remained an artist on the move. In fact, after he makes a return visit to Lexington via a June 19 concert at The Burl, he will be off to shows in Alaska, the Netherlands and Estonia before 2019 winds down.

Tim Easton Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

It’s no wonder then that “Exposition,” the latest in a series of sterling solo albums by the veteran songsmith, was also made on the road. Travel, it seems, is more than a mere work requisite. For Easton, it’s an integral part of his existence.

“It started out young,” he said recently by phone during a brief “nesting” stay at a rented country home in Leipers Fork, Tenn. “It started out when my parents moved to Japan. I, being in the second grade, had to go with them. So what started out as something in my youth has now grown into a lifestyle. I feel comfortable traveling. I love to see new places and mostly the people in those places. It has made me, I suppose, something of an armchair anthropologist.”

Protect Me
Easton’s travels have taken him to Lexington on a regular basis for over two decades, whether it was through introductory shows as a member of the Haynes Boys at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club or high profile opening act sets for artists like Lucinda Williams to more distinctive shows and settings. Among the latter was a 2007 stop at the Christ the King Oktoberfest where Easton offered a song titled “J.P.M.F.Y.F.” It stood for “Jesus Protect Me From Your Followers.” “Not all of them,” the song went in a sheepishly confessional tone. “Just the ones who turn love into fear and hatred.”

Fortifying those performances were recordings rooted in folk-related narratives and accents that shifted from Byrds-like lyricism, such as 2006’s “Ammunition” (the record that featured the original version of “J.P.M.F.Y.F”), to the unadorned solo acoustics of 2018’s “Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” (which featured a starker update of the tune retitled as “Jesus Protect Me”).

“The life of the songwriter or writer involves constant observation, note taking and a fair bit of travel, I’d say,” Easton said. “With all of my favorites, from Hemingway to Woody Guthrie – with any writer, really – there seems to be a fair amount of traveling in their lives. Mark Twain had a lot to say about it, about the traveling, about what it does for you.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“I feel the same way about America, about our country. I wish more people could actually see the third world just so they could be grateful for how great we actually do have it here, even though all around us, everywhere, there is extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Yes, the balance is difficult. But going to a third world country really helps put it all in perspective.”

Easton’s newest album, “Exposition,” due out just five days before his Burl concert, takes even further advantage of traveling as a modus operandi for making music. It was cut in very portable fashion at numerous locations favored mostly for their aesthetic, cultural and historical appeal. Among them were the Okemah Historical Society (Okemah, Okla. being the birthplace of Woody Guthrie) and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio (where blues giant Robert Johnson famously recorded in 1936).

“Today you can record almost anywhere you wish simply because technology has made it possible,” Easton said. “So pop-up studios, or setting up studios in a house or a comfortable location, become so easy. You wake up, make some coffee, have some breakfast and get to work. It’s like anywhere else. The room definitely dictates the vibe.

“I had a plan to make two very stripped-down folk albums in a row (“Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” being the first) in order that I might be able to survive in the modern music business. In other words, the plan was not to spend above my means in regard to fancy studios, backing bands and producers. Instead, I wanted to make the kind of record that I would love to listen to around the house, which are solo folk albums. Really, that’s what this was all about. I plan on returning to the full band and all that for the next one. But in the meantime, I wanted to make two stripped-down folk albums of exactly the music you would expect when someone saw me live and said, ‘I’d like to buy some music from you.’ You can hand them basically what they just saw and heard.”

Plot Exposition
The 10 songs making up “Exposition” play out in varying ways. Some possesses a theme that is detectable within its title, such as “Don’t Speculate, Participate,” a call for action at election time or, as Easton terms it, “an apathy busting anthem.”

“If you don’t give a damn, then you’ve nothing to say,” Easton sings a manner more soft-spoken than scolding. “If you won’t give a damn, step out of the way.”

“I’m not trying to tell anybody who to vote for. I just have this feeling that if more of us participated, more of us would be satisfied with the results. If more people participated, it would just be a happier society. Also, that entire expression came from when I was marching in London way back in the day. I was marching to raise awareness for a guy who was in prison. His name was Nelson Mandela. All these big artists – Big Audio Dynamite, Boy George, Sting, Billy Bragg – sang at it. At one point, this guy with a green pointy haired mohawk said, ‘Don’t spectate, participate.’ So I filed that phrase and used it to kind of address voter participation. Simple as that.”

Balancing such directness are “Saint Augustine” and “New Year’s Day,” less obvious requiems for a battered soul whose life tribulations largely mirrored Easton’s own.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“A lot of times a song will be autobiographical, but in such a way that it could be about anybody. In this case, I woke up in Saint Augustine and wrote those words down. Then I finished the song in Spain months later on a train. No one else was in the compartment with me, so I just finished it there. It’s definitely a requiem for the destructive life I was living.

“As you’ll see in ‘New Year’s Day,’ I’ve had gone through some personal things in the last couple of years. I got divorced. We have a child, so it’s been an interesting nesting period for me. I’m just happy to say that we all get along and we all want to support each other in the work we do.”

Glorious perseverance
For the better part of his career, Easton has been an independent recording artist. There was an extended period spent with the Americana-leaning New West Records (distilled on the fine 2013 anthology “Before the Revolution”), but even then, he worked far afield from major label pull and promotion.

Today, Easton is the CEO of a one-man operation. That means on “Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” and “Exposition” Easton handled nearly everything on his own, from the recording to the packaging to the distribution of his songs.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“By music business standards, I’m not really selling the kinds of numbers that enable a whole record company to carry on. But with my little folk stuff, I’m able to live comfortably and really enjoy myself as a traveler. I’m able to blend into society enough to be able to observe it. So it’s, like, the best. I don’t have financial stress, but I work hard. I travel a lot. I perform a lot.

“Also, as president of the record company, I give myself the occasional bonus. That occasional bonus is to go fishing somewhere, eat a good meal every so often and treat myself with respect. I struggle, but then I also persevere. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but mostly it’s glorious perseverance. How about that? Really, I’m very lucky. I get to travel around the world and play music.

“I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but I can pick a guitar just fine and I have stories to tell. I’ve honed my solo act into way more of an entertaining time because of observations of people and my heroes at work over the years. I’ve learned to put on a better show as a solo artist. I can do it by myself, so why not? It’s way easier on the company payroll, too.”

Tim Easton performs at 7 p.m. June 19 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets are $12. Call 859-447-8166 or go to www.theburlky.com.

Arts

Tunis: liddle’s A Lot

Back on American soil for only a few hours, Brian Krock is already feeling the tension and anticipation that comes from life in New York.

“My anxiety has really spiked and I just got back. The city just has an anxiety provoking thing about it.”
But the saxophonist has translated a New York existence into a remarkably fruitful and far-reaching career, from initial gigs in orchestras for Broadway shows to a current juggling act of several adventurous jazz projects. One, as part of former Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson’s ensemble for a Beatles-rooted ballet called “Pepperland,” had him traveling Europe for the past seven weeks (“One of the longest periods I’ve spent away from home”). Another is a project of his own, a stylistically daring quartet called liddle, that he will bring to Lexington for a May 15 performance at J. Gumbo’s.

Brian Krock
Photo Credit: Desmond White

“Like everyone else who lives here, I have a love/hate relationship with New York,” Krock said. “But like any other job, you can’t just jump in and immediately do your best work. You have to work your way up. So I feel lucky that I’ve had a variety of really challenging gigs so far in my life, from subbing on Broadway to teaching private music lessons and doing music copying and editing.

“There are the financial constraints of living in such an expensive place, meaning that we all need to have a million different hustles. It can be really hard, but it forces you to grow pretty quickly. It can make you think, ‘What could I possibly have to offer that isn’t already here?’ But then having to constantly wrestle with that question also forces you to think really hard about who you are and what is that you want to contribute to the world of music.”

The liddle things

To understand the band liddle, you first need an introduction to Big Heart Machine, an 18 member troupe assembled by Krock that meshes horn orchestration, free-informed dissonance, pop overtones and much more. The rhythm section of that ensemble – guitarist Olli Hirvonen, bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell – form the touring version of liddle. But the smaller group actually predates the larger one.

“It wasn’t called liddle at the time,” Krock said. “I had a band for years called Heart Machine. Then when I expanded that, I decided to call it Big Heart Machine. The rhythm section of Big Heart Machine includes pretty much my closest friends. They’re the guys I go get a beer with and talk life with.

“We spent a lot of our time these past few years rehearsing together because the music was so complex and required a lot of practice. We didn’t really approach the project with any goal necessarily. I just wanted music that would give us challenges we could work towards that would also play to my friends’ strengths. Olli, Marty and Nathan are growing into their own artistic aesthetics as leaders and as composers, so I wanted to write music for them.”

L to R: Marty Kenney, Nathan Ellman-Bell, Brian Krock, Olli Hirvonen
Photo Credit: Luke Marantz

Within the broad soundscapes of the quartet’s debut album, “liddle,” which was released April 26, the music shifts from the Zappa-like bounce and eventual electric glide of the opening “Flip” to the spacious fusion cool of “Memphis” to the dizzying sax runs in a playful update of “Opus 23b” (a 1974 composition by one of Krock’s prime musical heroes, Anthony Braxton). Topping it all is “Please Stop,” a fascinating requiem of sorts that closes the album in an ambient wash of guitar and bass clarinet.

Krock’s prefers not to view the album’s many styles in specific or separate terms. He sees it all as part of a more singular musical vocabulary for liddle.

“We, as jazz artists, are obligated to deal with all of the history we are aware of that has come before us. So I don’t try to make value judgements. ‘Is this atonal? Is this tonal? Is this swinging? Is it fusion? Is it heavy? Is it straight ahead? Is it free?’ I love all of those kinds of music. They all inform who I am, so I guess the fact that it’s the same four people playing the music is what ties it all together.

“But I hope, as a listener, you will go through a journey with the music, where the contrasts between the individual songs will highlight what is interesting about them. For example, ‘Please Stop’ is really tonal. It almost has a folk song quality. I love having that at the end of the record as a sort of cleansing thing after you’ve heard all this chaotic and crazy music. That song gives you a chance to come back to reality. I guess I just didn’t try to overthink things.”

Jazz and Joyce

One of Krock’s foremost artistic inspirations isn’t a jazz artist at all, yet it figures in the designs of at least two songs on “liddle.” It comes from the famed Irish writer and poet James Joyce. The quirky piano/reed rumble “Saturnine” references “A Painful Case” while the gently unsettling ensemble skirmish “Spondulics” takes its name from “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” Both Joyce works are part of his 1914 short story collection “Dubliners.”

Perhaps fittingly, the day we spoke with Krock began with the saxophonist in Dublin.

“I went crazy with the James Joyce sightseeing. I basically did Bloomsday (the city’s annual Joyce celebration), even though that happens in June. I did it on my own. I visited all the places that are in his books. I visited the Martello Tower that he lived in for awhile, which is in Sandycove. But I also spent the entire seven weeks of the Pepperland tour working my way through Richard Ellmann’s famous biography of James Joyce, which is a masterpiece.

“While I’m deeply fascinated and inspired by Joyce. I’m not really interested in trying to mimic his style in my music, that sort of stream of consciousness writing that was very controversial but sort of made him famous. But I am interested in the grandiosity of his ideas and the rigor with which he follows through with them. He spent 10 years writing ‘Ulysses’ and then spent 17 years writing ‘Finnegans Wake.’ As his plans for his books developed, he was forced to study all kinds of different things, from Latin and Greek to completely other disciplines. He let every aspect of his real life bleed into his work. So all of those and more are things I try to emulate in my life. There is a lot of stuff you wouldn’t want to emulate, of course. He had a lot of dark struggles, but his work invites you, as an audience member, to participate in a really interesting way.

“He actually said something that sounds very egotistical and arrogant, but is also kind of amazing. He said his challenge for his audience was to for people to spend their entire lives engaged with his work. I mean, I’ve spent maybe 10 years engaged with his work, reading and re-reading it. It’s challenging and it forces you, as a reader, to view parts of your own psyche that maybe you don’t like. It’s not necessarily fun all the time. Sometimes, they’re a drudge to get through. But I think after engaging with James Joyce’s work, I’ve grown in some way by knowing a little bit more about myself. That’s a pretty high hope for my own work, but at least it’s something to strive for.”

The crystalized idea

With Iverson’s Pepperland tour of Europe complete and liddle, briefly, on the front burner within a career that is continually in New York motion, Krock feels content with the artistic progress he is making and the general acceptance of his myriad performance related projects.

Specifically, the word he used most often in describing such development was “lucky.”

“Living and working in New York is sort of like a pressure cooker that forces you to spread out all the things that aren’t important. It leaves you with a crystalized idea of what it is that your goals are. So with each recording project and each opportunity, you get a little bit closer. You sort of chip away at the big marble rock that you’re hoping to turn into a beautiful sculpture. Every year, it gets a little bit better.

“I’m very lucky to be working with so many heroes, having had the chance to work closely with (Canadian born, Brooklyn based composer and bandleader) Darcy James Argue, Ethan Iverson and (New York by way of Pennsylvania pianist, composer and improviser) Matt Mitchell. I’m also lucky to get to work with my peers and my best friends, like Olli and Marty and Nathan, and on top of that to be able to make a living. I’m lucky not to have to have a day job anymore.

“For those things, I’m very grateful. So, yeah, I’m just going to keep on doing my best and enjoy the ride.”

+ Brian Krock’s liddle performs at J. Gumbos Lex, 808 North Limestone at 8 p.m. May 15. Admission is $10 for the concert only and free to dinner customers. For reservations, call 859-286-9239.

Arts

Tunis: OTS Features Musical Brothers Tim Daisy & Dave Rempis

Tim Daisy doesn’t want to use the word “telepathic.” But in describing the two decade-plus musical partnership between himself and Dave Rempis, few other tags seem to fit as securely.

Both are longstanding members of a prolific indie jazz scene in Chicago. Both are prolific composers, bandleaders and, above all, improvisers. Both have run their own record labels for several years as a means of releasing their own decidedly non-commercial music in a timely and uncompromising manner. And despite a juggling act where each performs in numerous ensemble settings, many of which have played Lexington over the last 16 years as part of the Outside the Spotlight Series of free jazz and improvisational music concerts, both have regularly shared the same stage in the same band.

That won’t be the case in April. Percussionist Daisy and saxophonist Rempis will be here for separate OTS concerts a mere four days part. Yet the music they play apart from each other has most certainly been informed by the work they have done together.

“I’ve been working with Dave since ’97,” Daisy said. “We’ve been playing together for so long and working in so many contexts together that when we sit down to work… I don’t know. I really don’t want to use the word telepathic, but I don’t know of any other musicians that I play with here or anywhere where the work is as comfortable, focused and engaging as it is with Dave. With Dave, I really do feel like he is my musical brother.”

Tim Daisy and Dave Rempis (Photo by Andrej Chudy)

“With us, it’s almost like a married couple,” said Rempis with a laugh. “There are so many subtle things I’m aware of in his playing and, I’m sure, vice versa. He always knows exactly where I’m going to land. It’s something that changes over the years as people go through different phases of life, like having kids. Our lives are so different now than they were 10 or 20 years ago, but what’s so great about that is how those life changes inform the music and how the music transforms everything.”

“Creating by Yourself”
Watching Tim Daisy play a solo is like viewing a vintage film of a building collapsing that is quickly rewound so you can view the demolition in reverse. He forges sound on a percussion arsenal by adding and discarding instruments at a dizzying pace. It could be a cymbal or a gong placed on a drum head. It could be a dash upon the drum kit using every available surface – a snare, a rim or even a stand. A rhythm might emerge, but if it does, it most certainly recedes into a new idea that has already loaded itself into his playing awaiting dispatch.

If he is playing alongside another artist, the outside element might serve as a foil, as in his duet exchanges with Rempis during their collaborative music in the Rempis Percussion Quartet, the Daisy-led Celebration Sextet or the times they record or tour simply as a drum/saxophone duo.

For his solo performances, Daisy’s singular vocabulary becomes remarkably expansive, incorporating everything from percussive accents on marimba and bass xylophone to more happenstance sounds emitted from a transistor radio.

Tim Daisy (Photo by Emma Daisy)

“I just love the solo format,” he said. “I’m huge fan of visual arts and paintings and admire the fact these artists can work by themselves on a canvas. Don’t get me wrong. I love collaborating with other people, but I love that solitary moment of just creating by yourself, whether it’s composing or improvising. I think that a solo format for a musician comes closest to what the format would be for a painter working in a studio on their own. That’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to it, especially in the compositional aspect of the music. Secondly, playing solo is the most challenging format to me, especially in performing. There is no one to fall back on but yourself. It’s quite easy to fall on your face. I’ve done it a number of times, but I’ve become a better musician by putting myself in these uncomfortable solo settings. I find when I go back into a situation where I do collaborate with other musicians, I’ve learned something and I’m able to apply that into my collaborations.”

Daisy’s return to Lexington on April 12 at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery reteams him with pianist, composer and UK Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Raleigh Dailey. The two cut a trio album with bass clarinetist Jason Stein, “Opening Lines,” in 2015.

“When we played together, I felt this amazing curiosity in sound exploration. It felt to me like Raleigh was going, ‘Wow. This is stuff I can use that I’m really excited about.’
“It’s easy to fall back on old habits when you’ve been improvising with people over a long period of time. But when you throw someone new in the mix like Raleigh, suddenly all the music gets kicked around in new directions. That’s what I felt happened. Jason and I had been playing together a lot, then we did this thing with Raleigh and it felt great. The music felt fresh and new. Ever since that happened, I’ve been meaning to get back down to Lexington to work with Raleigh some more.”

While “Opening Lines” is an exception, the majority of Daisy’s recorded music has been released through his own Relay label.

“I’m sure you’ve seen in the last 15 years how much the music industry has changed and how many musicians are starting their own labels, especially in our world where we don’t sell thousands and thousands of records. We sell three, four, maybe five hundred. I’m happy to sell that many, so I couldn’t be happier having my own label.”

“When I release something, I don’t want to wait a year to put it out. With the other labels I was working with – Okka Disk, Clean Feed, all great labels – you’re going to be waiting about a year between when an album is made and when it comes out. I’m more interested in trying to document my creative process in a shorter time scale. And who can release my records faster than me? No one.”

“Happily Developed”
In performance, Dave Rempis is something of a volcano. It doesn’t matter if his weapon of choice is alto, tenor or baritone sax, the sounds he conjures are, shall we say, combustible.

Dave Rempis (Photo by Geert Vandepoele)

Some of that comes from playing alongside such veteran Chicago sax stylists, improvisers and bandleaders as Ken Vandermark (Rempis and Daisy were members of his acclaimed Vandermark 5 band until its dispersal in 2010). But the mix of immediacy and intensity in Rempis’ musicianship has also been evident in the many ensembles he has either led or collaborated with for OTS shows in Lexington, a roster that includes The Engines, Triage, Gunwale and perhaps most frequently, Ballister.

During shows with the latter, the muscular tone and free-inspired phrasing of his playing becomes almost punkish, yet the sense of sharing and collaboration with bandmates is unmistakably jazz-like.

“I have happily developed as an artist, if that makes sense,” Rempis said. “I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve been doing this awhile, so I know my way around the block. I feel confident in my ability as a saxophone player and an improviser. There are so many fantastic musicians out there who I’ve gotten a chance to work with, and that’s incredibly rewarding to get all that great energy from them and to share some of their stories and knowledge.”

“It’s also special for me to be part of this generation and to see things from a different perspective, from a perhaps longer perspective. Once you’re around this music and start thinking about things that way, it makes sense to say, ‘Well, where are we going to be in 10 or 20 years and how can we help shape things?’”

The bio material from Rempis’ Aerophonic label describes “The Early Bird Gets,” the debut recording by a new trio with bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Ryan Packard (the group the saxophonist brings to Lexington on April 16 for an OTS performance at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall) as one of his “jazziest” endeavors.

Brandon Lopez, Dave Rempis, Ryan Packard (Photo by Erika Raberg)

“It’s funny,” Rempis said. “Many or most of the projects I do are completely improvised where we are not bringing in any material. This band is the same way. Generally, what makes a band stick out to me is if it has a sound to it. This band, at the beginning, felt like it had a distinct territory that it was carving out. It really had a group sound that was unique from any of the other projects that I was doing. I think part of that came from exploring rhythm in a very kind of fluid way. We’ll really be in a groove but then we’ll figure out ways where we can slowly stretch it out. It’s almost like what a classical pianist does when they’re playing rubato, but we’re in a group context where we’re really stretching the grooves out, speeding them up, slowing them down in very fun and creative ways. That’s probably what makes the music feel so jazzy. We are working so much with rhythm, but not in this type of fixed way that a lot of jazz bands might play in.”

Like Daisy, Rempis enjoys the ability to get his music out to public ears in a timely manner with his own label. But Aerophonic offers another equally important attribute – artistic control.

“I can put out whatever recordings I want on whatever schedule I want. To have that freedom is great. I also have the chance to communicate. I do all the shipping and everything for the label, so I can be in touch with the people who are actually buying the music directly, which is really fantastic. In trying to build an audience base with this kind of music, I get to find the people who are honestly interested in it. It’s very encouraging for me as an artist to get that kind of feedback. It’s heartening to know there are people out there who actually care about what we’re doing.”

Re-Exploring the Relationship
Curiously, just after our conversations, Daisy and Rempis headed overseas together for a seven-date concert tour of Europe with the Rempis Percussion Quartet, an ensemble the two have collaborated in for 15 years of their two-decade long friendship and musical alliance.

“Dave and I try to challenge each other,” Daisy said. “We push each other, but there is real respect there, so it’s not antagonistic. It’s real. I feel like we have really similar goals in trying to grow as improvisers. It’s been a wonderful relationship, one where I feel like, after we take these breaks from each other and get back to playing again, there is a very fresh quality to our work. He has grown as a musician since I’ve last played with him. I have, hopefully, grown and changed, as well.”

“Tim is somebody I just have so much respect for,” added Rempis “In the over 20 years I’ve known him, he continues to really push himself. He has an incredible amount of artistic integrity, so it’s always great every few years to go back and re-explore that relationship.”

+ Tim Daisy and Raleigh Dailey perform at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery in the UK Fine Arts Library at 7 p.m. April 12, for the Outside the Spotlight Series. Admission is free.

+ Dave Rempis/Brandon Lopez/Ryan Packard perform at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, 720 Bryan Ave. at 7 p.m. April 16, for the Outside the Spotlight Series. Admission is free.