At the onset of the COVID pandemic in the US in winter 2020, I was on tour. First in Europe for 10 days with Michael Zerang’s Blue Lights, ending with a performance with Michael and Elisabeth Harnik at the ArtActs Festival in Austria on March 6th. I then flew straight to Asheville, NC to start a tour with Kuzu on March 8th. In St. Louis on March 11th, the severity of what we were facing was becoming clear. We finished our last dates in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison, and two days later the country was in lockdown.
As an improviser, it felt like my job to figure out some way forward artistically. So I did what I often do when “working” in this abstract art form feels too absurd; I put my head down and kept plowing ahead. And it worked for awhile. An early invitation to do an online solo performance on March 25th as part of the Quarantine Concerts organized by ESS in Chicago showed one potential way forward. Although online performances sure aren’t ideal in a music that’s based on live in-person interaction, they were at least something. I’d already been delving seriously into my solo playing since 2017 when I did a long solo tour and produced my first solo record, Lattice, so why not try to build on that further?
After another invite to do an online performance at Fulton St. Collective in early May, I really dove in. I launched a concept whereby I’d release a new digital album on Aerophonic Records each week, culled from the many recordings I had on hand of various working bands and one-off projects spanning roughly twenty years. Each new album would be accompanied by an online record launch performance on Wednesday nights, and all the proceeds from sales would be split evenly between the artists on each one, hopefully generating a small amount of revenue for some of my collaborators. Between the first week of May and the last week of August, I produced 15 of those digital albums. The broadcasts were done through Twitch using just an iPhone, all from my closet-sized practice space at Unity Lutheran Church in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. These concerts gave me the chance to work on new pieces each week, ranging from total improvisations, to tongue-in-cheek pop hits, to jazz standards. It also allowed me to talk somewhat extensively about my experiences in the music over the last 25 years, tying those into the music I’d chosen.
These solo selections make up about half the material on this two-cd set. Knox, by Joe McPhee, leads it off, because Joe is one of the most inspiring humans I’ve met through the music or otherwise. His early spring 2020 solo performances on the Quarantine Concerts made me think, “if Joe can do this, so can I!” We even traded some notes on technology and approach.
Other pieces were ones that I’d loved for years and finally took the time to really work on. I had included “B My Dear” by Dudu Pukwana in a solo concert I did at the Hungry Brain in January 2020, performing all ballads. A number of those pieces would continue to have life through these solo broadcasts, including ”Isfahan” by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. That piece is dedicated to my partner Victor Wasserman, who likes to play the Far East Suite around the house on Saturday mornings when I’m cooking brunch.
“The Song Is You” was chosen as a tribute to Joe Segal, owner of the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, whose career as an impresario began in the 1940’s. He passed away a few days before the online stream when this was recorded, in August. I’d always loved this tune since hearing Charlie Parker’s version when I was 12 or 13. Nate Wooley did a fantastic version inspired by Lee Konitz on another early Quarantine Concert. Konitz’s 39-minute version on his 1976 album Lone-Lee is mind-melting.
“Just A Gigolo” was chosen since it seemed to sum up my new life begging online. Talking with musician friends it became clear how dejected we all felt as mid-career or veteran artists at having to hold out our hats to try to restore some portion of the meager living most musicians make in “normal” times.
Finally, “On Green Dolphin St” was done as a tribute to Von Freeman. One of the first times I saw Von play in the 90’s, he opened with it, cut the band out after the head, and did a 10-minute unaccompanied solo before bringing them back for the outhead. My young mind was blown away by his singular sound and approach. Years later when I tried to get Von to do a solo set on the Umbrella Music Festival, he demurred, saying that wasn’t really his thing. I still beg to differ!
The group pieces presented here all came from live outdoor performances in the summer and fall of 2020. I don’t usually like playing outdoors. There’s no natural reverb, so it generally sounds bad. I’m also always afraid that an old lady is going to hit me over the head with her umbrella for playing such unruly music. But when an invite came from Adrienne Pierluissi at the Sugar Maple in Milwaukee to play a Sunday afternoon concert on their outdoor patio to a generously distanced audience, how could I say no? Tim Daisy and I were able to do three of these events between July and September.
Soon after, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (for which I also work as a producer…) invited Joshua Abrams to present an outdoor concert as part of their “Postcards” Series. He convened our trio with Tomeka Reid for this on August 14th, and we scouted out a location at a park two blocks from my house in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Seeing how well it worked, I continued this Friday evening series for the next two months. I mostly worked with Tyler Damon as a duo, sometimes adding Joshua on bass, and once adding Bill Harris for a double drum lineup. Matt Butchko, who I would refer to as a “superfan” of the music, generously came to each concert with the same portable mobile setup that he uses regularly at venues, with two small bud microphones positioned on top of his baseball hat. He managed to get good-sounding recordings, even outdoors. A huge debt of gratitude goes out to him for being there right up front for these and so many other concerts.
One of the interesting benefits of playing outside is evident on these recordings: all of the great background noises that play into the improvisations. Check out the overwhelming swells of sound from the chorus of cicadas, the punctuation of passing cars on Lake Shore Drive, and the cardinal calls at the end of the trio with Abrams and Reid for example. Or the truck beeping as it backs up at the end of the duo with Tim Daisy. Or the barking dog that passes through during the trio with Abrams and Damon. Those events all became a part of the music, and they’re presented here without any effort to filter them out, to give a better sense of what the experience of these concerts was actually like.
By late fall 2020, I felt burnt out from putting out so many records in what ended up being quite a busy year. I decided to take some space to further my artistic practice in other ways. With warm weather gone, case counts climbing, and venues slowing down even their online programming because of it, there weren’t too many options left for performances anyways. Going back to my practice space for more solo events felt somewhat played out after doing fifteen of them. As we move now into spring 2021, the future still remains uncertain. But with some luck, I hope to be involved in redefining what “normal” can be sometime soon. It’s clear that things can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t be the same as they were.