November was filled with music, centering primarily around two large ensembles: the Resonance project, and the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. There were parallels (during a week of concerts the full membership of each band was broken down into smaller groups, creating a series of performances featuring different combinations of musicians), and differences (I composed original music for the Resonance project, which was a brand new undertaking including artists that I had never worked with before; the music that the Tentet currently performs is completely improvised, and its10th anniversary celebration in Chicago on December 1st was presented by a lineup that has been stable for many years). This journal entry is going to focus on a discussion of the process that took place first of the first of these two large groups, the work of the Resonance ensemble.
Things began when I arrived in Krakow the day after a concert with Sonore in Tampere, Finland on the 4th of November. After traveling all day by plane(s) I was made to feel right at home, greeted by everyone at Alchemia and put up at “the apartment” where I’ve stayed nearly every time I’ve come to the city to play in the last few years. During the course of my previous weeks in Europe I had composed a few themes to use for the Resonance band (that would include Magnus Broo, Tim Daisy, Per-Åke Holmlander, Dave Rempis, Steve Swell, Mikolaj Tchaska, Mark Tokar, Yuri Yarumchuk, Michael Zerang, all of who would arrive a week later, ready to rehearse), but ninety percent of the music still needed to be written, arranged, and transcribed. This work had to be completed in six days so there wasn’t be much time to goof off while I was in town. The idea for the group was inspired during one of my visits to Krakow in the autumn of 2006, when Marek Winiarski suggested that we work together on a new special project. Not Two had already produced the Vandermark 5 “Alchemia box set” and the double lp, “Four Sides To The Story.” What was next? Sitting around after one of the concerts at Alchemia, I thought about how many times I had been to Poland to perform, and the idea came to me to try and organize a larger band that included musicians from Chicago and players from Poland, bringing the two scenes together. Marek liked the concept immediately. We discussed possibilities and artists, then put together a unique band that was an expansion of the original plan: musicians from Chicago, Poland, New York, the Ukraine, and Stockholm.
Though I wanted to use musicians from Chicago because my connection to Krakow has been so directly tied to projects from originating from home, I was interested collaborating with people that did not only represent the ensembles that had previously come to Poland. I asked Dave Rempis (who has always been an integral factor in translating my musical ideas to other people in the large group projects I’ve done); Tim Daisy (who, through work in the Vandermark 5, Frame Quartet, Bridge 61, and our duo, has been the central drummer for my composition based groups); and Michael Zerang (though we have played together for a decade in the Brötzmann Tentet, this would be the first major project we’d really collaborated on outside of Peter’s band since the Vandermark Quartet folded in 1996).
The other musicians were selected through discussions with Marek. From Poland came Mikolaj Trzaska on reeds; from the Ukraine, Mark Tokar (bass) and Yuri Yaremchuk (on reeds). I really didn’t know much about these musicians beforehand, though I had heard Mikolaj perform in Krakow and was really impressed. And a couple of years ago, when the Vandermark 5 played in Lvov for the first time, Mark and Yuri performed at the concert, which worked out quite well. The brass section of the group was a killer: Per-Åke Holmlander (tuba), Magnus Broo (trumpet), and Steve Swell (trombone). Per-Åke was on obvious choice, we’d done a lot of work together in the Territory Bands and in the Tentet. Magnus has been one of my favorite trumpet players since I’d first heard him in concert with Atomic several years ago, but we’d only had a few chances to work directly- most significantly in the 4 Corners group- and I wanted to create another opportunity to play with him. Steve has always knocked me out when I’ve heard him perform, playing his heart out in every circumstance, and he had done a lot of work with Marek, all making him a clear choice for the band. So, for the first time on a project of this scale, I was working with a mix of artists that I knew well and those that I hadn’t really dealt with before. Writing for the band was therefore a new challenge- how could I create material that utilized the musicians’ creative possibilities if I didn’t fully know what they were?
The week before the other musicians arrived was pretty incredible. For the first time in my life I was able to work a full week with my focus on nothing but composing. I’d get up in the morning, have a coffee at Alchemia and grab something to eat, then head back to the apartment to work on the charts, coming up with melodies, frameworks, and “road maps;” later, head out for some lunch in the neighborhood; back to work on the scores until the writing had run its course for the day; some dinner and an evening back at Alchemia (I basically lived at the club for nearly two weeks). When I wasn’t composing and arranging the material for Resonance, I was taking in the city and writing notes about my impressions, using these to translate into musical ideas. Quite a lot of generating material took place this way during the nights at Alchemia, sitting at a table with some friends, a vodka, a beer. In the morning, after several espressos, I’d look at my notes from the night before and this would be the starting place for the work of the day.
Somehow, while all this was happening, I was able to head to Warsaw by train on November 7th to meet Laurence Wawrzyniec so we could catch Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg play a duo set as part of a music festival taking place in the city. It would mean losing a day of work on the new compositions, but I had never seen Han and Misha play as just a duo before; there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity to hear one of the major collaborations in music pared down to its essentials. Making the trip proved to be well worth it. Though I didn’t care for the other music on the bill- “new” Improvised Music that dealt predominantly with slow and quiet textures, which merely came across as overly self-important- the short duo set was spellbinding and brilliant. It’s hard to believe that Bennink and Mengelberg have played together for 40+ years and can still find ways to challenge each other. For all the “newness” purported by the younger musicians on the bill, the music of Han and Misha was far more radical- a hybrid between theater, Satie, turbulence, frustration, and energized sound. The older artists are true improvising masters and proved it from the first moment they walked on stage. Afterwards, everything else on the program felt like artifice. When Laurence and I left the concert hall we headed to a fantastic meal at his friend Marcin’s place, staying up late listening to music. For the first time I heard some of the Vandermark 5’s “Four Sides To The Story” lp set played on a turntable. I don’t usually enjoy listening to my own music- after all the work that goes into creating an album and the repeated close listening necessary to select, mix, and master the material, I’d rather move on to something, anything, new- but I have to admit that the cut Marcin played (“Vehicle”) did sound good. Maybe it was due to his generous hospitality that evening. Aside from hearing Han and Misha, perhaps the most important event that night was when Marcin asked me to pick a copy of a limited edition album he had released of Japanese improvisers. I selected one that had the number 44 written on it.
“Oh, that’s a good number,” he said
-A good number? Why?
“Because it’s mentioned in a famous Polish poem by the writer Adam Mickiewicz.”
At the time it struck me as a nice coincidence. But as the period in Krakow progressed, however, the idea translated itself into a title for one of the new compositions, and from there it took on more and more emotional weight as I spent more time in the country.
The next morning it was time for a train back to Krakow, and the chance to try and catch up a bit with the endless influx of bloody e-mail. Then on Friday, by another fluke of chance, both Paal Nilssen-Love and Joe McPhee arrived in town; Paal to pick up copies of the new cds for his label, and Joe to perform at Alchemia with Trio-X. Needless to say, we had a good time. I had hoped to travel to the Wels Unlimited Festival that day in order to see friends and hear John Tilbury play in a project with musicians that included Christof Kurzmann, but the twelve hour train trip each way made the idea impractical- too much time would be lost for the compositional work that still needed to be done. Of course, seeing Paal and Joe proved to be a good alternative.
Most of the musicians arrived on the evening of Sunday the 11th. I finished copying the charts at midnight and, bleary eyed from transcribing music all day, took the short walk to Alchemia to see them all and say hello. Phase two of the project started the following morning at our first rehearsal. The band set up on the floor in front of the Alchemia stage, we met there for the next five days: running the charts starting around 11am, lunch about 2pm, then more practice from 3-6pm. Each night the members of the ensemble performed in small groups at the club, decided upon by the musicians during the day. Here’s the list of performances in the order that they took place:
Day 1, November 12, 2007
•Set 1: Tim Daisy / Mark Tokar / Dave Rempis / Yuri Yaremchuk
•Set 2: Dave Rempis / Mikolaj Trzaska / Yuri Yaremchuk / Ken Vandermark
•Set 3: Michael Zerang / Per-Åke Holmlander / Magnus Broo / Steve Swell
Day 2, November 13, 2007
•Set 1: Mark Tokar / Ken Vandermark / Per-Åke Holmlander / Steve Swell
•Set 2: Yuri Yaremchuk / Mikolaj Trzaska / Michael Zerang / Mark Tokar
•Set 3: Magnus Broo / Dave Rempis / Tim Daisy / Michael Zerang
Day 3, November 14, 2007
•Set 1: Tim Daisy / Steve Swell / Mark Tokar / Mikolaj Trzaska
•Set 2: Magnus Broo / Yuri Yaremchuk / Per-Åke Holmlander
•Set 3: Michael Zerang / Mark Tokar / Steve Swell / Ken Vandermark / Dave Rempis
Day 4, November 15, 2007
•Set 1: Tim Daisy / Mark Tokar / Steve Swell / Yuri Yaremchuk
•Set 2: Michael Zerang / Magnus Broo / Per-Åke Holmlander / Dave Rempis / Ken Vandermark
•Set 3: Tim Daisy / Michael Zerang
Day 5, November 16, 2007
•Set 1: Magnus Broo / Mikolaj Trzaska / Mark Tokar / Tim Daisy / Dave Rempis
•Set 2: Ken Vandermark / Mikolaj Trzaska / Yuri Yaremchuk / Steve Swell /
•Set 3: Ken Vandermark / Mikolaj Trzaska / Dave Rempis / Yuri Yaremchuk /
Magnus Broo / Steve Swell / Per-Åke Holmlander / Mark Tokar / Tim Daisy
This working method was truly ideal. A combination of rehearsing the compositions during the day then playing freely at night accelerated the process of getting to know each other, and quickly created a real group sensibility in the ensemble. The quality level of the music each set at the club was consistently high, every musician working together, listening to each other, and playing creatively. A real celebration had begun. Most surprising, perhaps, was that the full ensemble improvisations were so outstanding, they didn’t degenerate into the general default position, “full blow out,” cacophony. Even with ten people on stage the music remained focused, a great indication that the group was really learning how to communicate together in a spontaneous environment.
The party at the conclusion of the five night run at Alchemia was cut somewhat short- the Resonance group, plus a large part of the staff at the club, plus a number of assistants, all led by Marek, were to head to the city of Lvov in the Ukraine at 5am by bus. Why a bus? It seems that when crossing the border into the Ukraine it’s necessary to change all the wheels on a train- the tracks are a different buy cheap thailand size than those set in the rest of Europe. Though it took close to twelve hours to get there, the trip was somehow enjoyable, there was a general sense that it was going to be a 36-hour adventure (we were going to play in Krakow on the evening of the 18th, which meant leaving Lvov at 5am too).
Our arrival in Lvov was a bit insane, a huge bus trying to navigate ridiculously narrow streets and turns in order to get us to the National Philharmonic Hall. Eventually it became necessary to just unload the people and equipment and walk several blocks over icy sidewalks to make it to the venue. The space was huge, bigger than the last auditorium where the Vandermark 5 had performed two years earlier. Banners hung from most of the balconies, ads for batteries and other products, most of which I didn’t understand. Behind the ensemble was an enormous (50 meters tall?) reproduction of my portrait. Below that image were a couple of dozen pixilated shots of the other members in the band. Put mildly, it felt pretty odd to have my enormous face glaring down over my saxophone at the band while we set up onstage.
Sound check was crazy- the first time to correctly position the group, a run through of the most difficult passages of the charts in a space with completely different acoustics to contend with… In addition, the show was going to be recorded, so there were line checks and PA issues to sort out. Before going onstage for the gig, I talked through the arrangements with the band one last time. Though we had been rehearsing all week there were tons of information for everyone to remember. The first set was a bit tough- it’s one thing to work on a piece of music knowing that you can stop at any point if there’s a problem, it’s quite another to realize that you have to deliver on the promise that this is a concert for listeners who have also made an effort to be there. Even so, we got through the music pretty well and played pretty decently. The audience was amazing, almost 800 people were there and they responded with total enthusiasm, dealing with all the twists, turns, and demands of our music with open ears.
After encountering one of the smokiest backstage in the history of mankind between sets, and quickly discussing the details for the second half of the concert, the band returned to the stage ready to play. We’d shaken off any nerves and worked out the acoustics, it was time to dig in and let go. As we walked out on stage you could feel the heightened sense of expectation from the audience, bouts of applause and shouts of enthusiasm. I walked up to the mic and said thank you in Ukrainian, “Djakuju.” The crowd erupted with a roar. It was one of the most exhilarating moments I’ve ever had in front of an audience, and it was made possible using a language I don’t understand. From the first moment of the second set it was clear that the band now owned the music, the group performed superbly, ending the show to a standing ovation and demand for an encore, which we didn’t have. I threw a quick-form improvisation together while we stood backstage and we walked back to play; not the most cohesive music in the world but a joyful noise nonetheless.
Afterwards the band went to the hotel to drop off equipment before heading to dinner. As I unloaded my horns from the back of the van, the driver gave me a huge package- a folded banner. “For you,” he said. What was I going to with a two storey high photo of my face? “Thanks very much,” I replied as I put the package on top of my suitcase. He drove off with a wave. As I stepped up on the curb I slipped on the ice and the banner fell, opening a bit as it hit the ground- it was the advertisement for batteries.
Dinner was fantastic, everyone in an incredibly good mood despite being worn out and being faced with another 5am departure. Nervously, I walked up to the man in charge in Lvov as he sat talking with many friends at a large table. Without his help there wouldn’t have been a second concert for the Resonance project, Marek had contacted him last minute after a cancellation in Poland and he quickly organized this incredible opportunity for the band to play in the Ukraine.
“Hello, I wanted to thank you for this fantastic chance to come back and perform in your country,” I said as calmly as I could. He stood up, making the whole encounter even more intimidating- he was at least as tall as Bruno Johnson (more than two meters) and about twice as wide, with a distinct impression that each centimeter was built from strength and muscle.
Ohhhhh shit, I must have made some kind of etiquette faux pas, interrupting him in front of important friends was probably some kind of huge formal insult in the Ukraine… I waited for him to tear me apart.
-“It is I that must thank you. For the fantastic music!” I stood there stunned. “I can die now knowing that I have heard the greatest music of my life.” I almost passed out with relief. Somehow I formed the words to thank him again, clinked our beer glasses in a “Cheers!” of mutual congratulations, and then quickly walked back to my seat before I did something to screw up the moment.
A few members of the group and friends wandered around town after dinner looking for a suitable bar, but after an hour or more Mikolaj Chaska and I ended up joining Michael Zerang at the hotel bar for a nightcap before heading to bed for a two hour nap. On the trip back to Krakow we nearly got stuck at the border, customs was about to search the entire bus piece by piece, person by person, which would have taken hours and forced us to cancel the evening’s concert, but at the last minute Marek was able to get us through without hassle. That bit of tension was cancelled out by a nice exchange between Yuri Yarumchuk and Magnus Broo on the bus. Yuri, whose use of English usually needed the assistance of Mark Tokar, went to Magnus, struggling to get a package of peanuts open.
“Magnus, please. How to? Snack for Yuri.” To illustrate the problems he was having, Yuri then pulled on the packet six different ways with no luck. He then passed the package to Magnus.
In a millisecond and without missing a beat, Magnus opened the peanuts and handed them to Yuri, whose eyes were wide with amazement.
-“Hey, I’m a snack expert,” said Magnus.
The Resonance ensemble finally arrived late in the afternoon outside of Alchemia, exhausted but excited. In a sense we were back on home turf and the memory of the concert the night before gave people a lot of confidence towards the music, I think. People scattered to take a quick nap, or shower, or grab a coffee (or all three), then met back at Alchemia to start heading to the Japanese Manggha Museum for our performance. The hall was great, acoustics clear, and though the room was smaller than in the Ukraine, we benefited from the intimacy the space would provide. Ania and the Alchemia crew somehow outdid themselves, taking care of every arrangement possible. I drank coffee by the quart with the hopes of tapping into at least a caffeinated form of energy- the week of running rehearsals, answering questions, and trying to keep my own playing focused had begun to really bear down on me. Before the show I was asked to do a last minute T.V. interview, which was pretty straightforward with questions about why I come to Poland so often (the people invite me, and they’re wonderful), and what do I think of Krakow (it’s incredible). Then came:
“So, Michael Jackson, Sting, and Madonna are considered the Kings and Queen of the Pop world. Which one are you most like as a King of the Jazz world?”
Oh boy. “Well, I guess Madonna. Like her I keep changing what I do.” The T.V. crew seemed to buy this response and they thanked me as they packed up to leave. I got out of there as quickly as I could before I broke down laughing.
The Krakow concert on November 18th picked up from where the Lvov show left off, it was a marvel. Before the two sets I didn’t review the music with the band, I told them that they knew it now, and to just enjoy themselves onstage. That’s definitely what happened. The group was playing so well that I frequently went to the side of the stage just to listen and enjoy the power of the ensemble playing the music so well. The auditorium was packed, at least 250 people, and super enthused. I introduced each piece, trying to explain how important the time in Krakow has meant to me by dedicating each piece to individuals from Poland who have really changed my life. “Counterprint” was for “Laurence” Wawrzyniec; “Off/Set” was for Olek Witynski and Jacek Zakowski, who have invited me back to Alchemia countless times; “Landshaft” was for Marek Winiarski who believed in my music from the start; and “The Number 44” was for Ania Czarna whose assistance has been impossible to describe, only the people who have worked around her too know what a positive force she is and why this special number applies.
The Resonance concert in Krakow was exceptional in every way, and every note was recorded for a future release on Not Two. In addition, many of the small group sessions will be included for this special set of recordings. Marek and I have begun discussions to develop the project’s release, and the first preparations are beginning for a possible European tour by the band in autumn of 2009. Many other positive developments came from the project. For example, Steve Swell, Magnus Broo and I are now planning on putting a group together, hopefully to begin work in early 2009. The two weeks in Krakow, composing, then rehearsing/performing with this incredible group of musicians was truly one of the great experiences of my life. Its success relied completely on the work of many, many people: musicians, organizers, staff at Alchemia, fans… It’s definitely one for the books, and will be in my memory with permanence.
With such good feelings and post-concert excitement it was impossible not to celebrate back at the Alchemia until I don’t know when, it was breakfast time and broad daylight when Magnus and I ended the “evening.” The next day started late, people stumbling into the club for coffee, to get paid, to do interviews on the project for possible use with the material for the Resonance recordings. The band met for dinner and said goodbye, people were leaving at different times the next day and no one knew when we’d see each other next. A few people headed back to Alchemia for a final drink before heading to sleep. It was a quiet end to the period, most of the staff was gone; a Sunday night and the intense work and fun of the previous week had taken its toll. Things seemed set to end with Dave and I and a few others quietly relaxing. Then, as it always seems to be at Alchemia, another energy was set in motion. Tim Daisy arrived up with his luggage (he was leaving at around 4am with Dave and some others), some of the Alchemia crew showed up, and it was a loose party again- very happy and very true end to the last fourteen days.
I flew to Amsterdam on the 20th, before heading back to Chicago from Schipol the next day, coincidentally in time for Ab Baar’s birthday and a Thanksgiving dinner at Michael Moore’s house. What a nice way to spend an evening before going home! Ab, Ig Henneman and I ended things at Krom, some final frozen Duvels before bed and some another short sleep before traveling. Ab made early morning coffee for me and Ig, quite a sight as he worked over the stove, half asleep in his bathrobe, but I’m sure I was so beyond worse for wear at that point I am in no position to comment. A cab, and a wave goodbye to Amsterdam and Europe, then a nice flight back to Chicago in order to get some sleep…
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