James Falzone: The Already and the Not Yet

Troy Collins

James Falzone                                                                                                             ©Andrew Gill 2012

Inspired in part by a weeklong residency in Brooklyn during the summer of 2011, Chicago-based clarinetist James Falzone transposed his visual impressions of the spidery urban landscapes shared by the New York borough and his hometown into an engaging series of sonic portraits. The ensuing collection, Brooklyn Lines ... Chicago Spaces, builds upon the conceptual advancements of Falzone’s previous releases with his KLANG quartet, including Other Doors (2011), a creative re-imagining of Benny Goodman’s music, and Tea Music (2009), the band’s vivacious sophomore effort, which were both released on his Allos Documents imprint.

Brooklyn Lines ... Chicago Spaces is Falzone’s fourth recording with his longstanding ensemble. Founded in 2006, the group features vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Tim Daisy – some of the Windy City’s finest improvisers. Although the instrumental make-up of the unit recalls the swing era clarinet and vibraphone combos popularized by Goodman and Lionel Hampton, Falzone’s four-piece actually belongs to an innovative clarinet-centric continuum that includes the introspective musings of Jimmy Giuffre and the avant-garde innovations of John Carter.

Drawing on years of experience playing together, Falzone and Adasiewicz are a finely tuned front line. The leader’s serpentine phrasing boasts a dark, woody tone that courts dramatic dissonance without abandoning conventional harmony; his plangent lyricism is further underscored by Adasiewicz’s kaleidoscopic palette, which ranges from luminescent shadings to metallic shards. Roebke and Daisy provide able support, executing quicksilver shifts in mood with a combination of responsive timing, rhythmic versatility and timbral finesse.

The date’s varied tunes vacillate between dynamic extremes, alternating between the bracing stop-time variations of “Ukrainian Village” and the infectiously swinging “Jazz Searching Self” to the serene balladry of “It Felt As If Time Had Stopped” and the pointillist tone poem “Chicago Spaces.” Ebullient numbers like “Brooklyn Lines” and “Carol’s Burgers” soar with unfettered joie de vivre, while the elongated arcs of “Blue Jays” and “Sciuridae” gradually develop into finely-wrought melodic contours.

Intrigued by the adventurous but accessible nature of Brooklyn Lines ... Chicago Spaces, I interviewed Falzone about KLANG and his eclectic working methods early in the autumn of 2012.


Troy Collins: Concerning the spelling of KLANG; is the name supposed to be all caps? And if so, is there any particular reason behind it?

James Falzone: Yes it has been all caps now since the group’s inception in 2006. I’d like to say there is some logic behind it but really it was just a chance to do something different graphically speaking. I suppose, connecting it to email etiquette or something, that it seems like I’m proclaiming the name of the group – yelling or something – but that’s not the intention. Yet, there is something “no-nonsense” about KLANG, Chicago style, and so maybe I like the straightforwardness of a one-word, all caps name.

TC: What was the initial inspiration behind KLANG’s instrumental make-up and how much of its unique tonal character is actually based on the swing era clarinet and vibraphone combos popularized by Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton?

JF: The initial inspiration was resources; I was still fairly new in Chicago, had a gig and identified several musicians I wanted to work with. The fact that one of these was vibraphone was not a dedicated choice, that is, I did not set out to create a vibraphone/clarinet group, but the fact that this combination is “situated” in jazz history was not lost on me and something I was happy to indulge. As I began to write for the group and explore its potential, I quickly realized the fantastic timbre possibilities between the clarinet and vibraphone because of their unique overtone structures.

TC: Over the past few years KLANG seems to have become your flagship band. From your perspective, do you feel the unit has changed since its formation six years ago?

JF: In many ways it has not changed and this is intentional. From the start I’ve wanted KLANG’s book to be tuneful, to acknowledge a wide assortment of lineages, and to be centered on interaction between the players, allowing the unique personalities to emerge. I was also very interested in music that would move seamlessly between tightly controlled to very loose. Over the course of 4 records, several tours and many live performances, I’d like to think we’ve achieved what I was after. KLANG has a voice, a way of working on its material, and what more can you strive for as a leader, really? Also, because each of the members of KLANG are involved in many other projects, some well outside what could be called jazz, there is a comfort level in allowing KLANG’s voice to be what it is and to not try and force it into some other way of speaking.

TC: How do personal and stylistic dynamics shape the inner workings of the group? I assume that much of your writing for Adasiewicz, Daisy and Roebke is geared towards each member’s strengths, considering the quartet’s longstanding line-up.

JF: The personal and stylistics dynamics are what it’s all about for me. I write 99% of the music for the group and when I do, I’m writing for these individuals, as they play in this group. This is a comfortable way to conceive of music and my preferred way in terms of jazz composition. I do have a life outside of jazz as a composer, writing for more traditional “classical” ensembles and these pieces do not often have the benefit of being composed for specific people. Often these are commissions for a group of instruments or voices and I don’t know the personalities behind the instruments. It’s a different sort of composition process. But KLANG’s book has really developed for the Falzone, Adasiewicz, Roebke, Daisy dialogue.

TC: Is your overall approach towards writing for KLANG any different than for your other ensembles (Allos Musica Ensembles, Grace Chicago Consort)?

JF: There are some differences for sure. Some would be obvious ones in terms of the instrumentation and how the timbre change might shape a composition. Another difference would be the element of improvisation: in many of the pieces I create for other ensembles, the liturgical groups, for instance, improvisation does not play a significant role. As I alluded to above, I do compose a fair amount for non-jazz ensembles, particularly choral groups and often in college or university settings. You could not find music that sounds and functions less like the music I write for KLANG and yet, through all of this, my hope is that a voice remains; a unifying thread that weaves through these seemingly disparate fabrics. But I’m not too caught up in what this unifying thread actually is. My calling is the making.

TC: Could you expand upon this press release quote about your Brooklyn residency and explain how it influenced your compositional process?: “I became fascinated by the lines I was seeing all around in the pavement, iron work, cracks in walls, graffiti ... I call it found abstraction and felt a real sense of kinship to my own musical aesthetic.”

JF: I spent a week in Brooklyn in summer of 2011, playing with various people, visiting with lots of friends, hearing a good deal of music and generally enjoying what that scene has to offer. I’d take walks everyday and found myself drawn, visually, to the lines I was seeing around me created by the environment both indigenous and fabricated. I would see the lines of a wrought-iron fence butting up against an old tree that, when taken together, created a fascinating and beautiful pattern. Or I spotted oil floating in the Gowanus Canal creating this arc of light that could easily have found its way onto the wall of a gallery it seemed so intentional. These kinds of visual juxtapositions engender sounds for me, not in a programmatic way, but in hearing musical phrases that might be as complicated and interesting as these lines.

TC: Beyond the abstract patterns previously addressed, are there any non-musical inspirations behind the tunes on Brooklyn Lines ... Chicago Spaces? And perhaps more importantly, (as someone known for adopting a DIY stance) how do you feel one’s lifestyle influences their approach towards making music?

JF: Though I’m not someone who indulges in programmatic music, there are 3 pieces on this record that do have an extra musical imprint and these are the tunes dedicated to the great jazz writer Larry Kart; “Alone At the Brain,” “Jazz Searching Self” and “It Felt As If Time Had Stopped.” Larry has been very supportive of my work and the Chicago creative music community in general and I wanted to find a way to repay his kindness. I’ve spent a good deal of time with Larry over the years and conducted a few pointed interviews with him, learning more about his life and intellectual curiosities, which are ecumenical and voluminous. I’ll let the music speak for itself but don’t mind suggesting that one listens to “Alone At The Brain” and imagines a man in his 60’s sitting alone in a bar with a drink listening to abstract music and hearing the opening and closing of a street-side door.

Regarding the lifestyle and DIY approach, this is an interesting issue to ponder. Speaking widely across the arts, a creative artist is always going to reflect something of their lifestyle in their art. They may not recognize it, the public may not recognize it, but it is there. It has to be. This may not be in a direct, one-to-one ratio, but I’m convinced the worldview of the creator makes itself known in the creation.

Getting a bit more personal, I am a man of Christian faith and have spent much of my life reflecting on the theological implications of music. As one example of the sorts of relationships I ponder, my interest in music that balances the freely improvised and the through-composed is really a way of signifying a theological concept of “the already and the not yet,” the sense that we live in a world full of beauty yet deeply scarred. For me, the already (the composed, the formed), is always in dialogue with the not yet (the improvised, the forming).

In light of the above, how can I not “Do It Myself”? If I believe I’m making music that is somehow a reflection of larger truths, I will always find a way to carry out my work, at whatever cost. So, if a presenter or record label owner does not return my emails ... I will play in an art gallery ... start my own label ... do it myself. Whatever it takes to make the music I believe needs to be made.

TC: Your writing for KLANG tends to incorporate a wide spectrum of tonal colors and historically aware genre tenets, from pre-bop era swing to Eastern European folk music. How do you negotiate the idiomatic differences native to each particular style in your multifaceted compositions?

JF: The wide spectrum really has to do with my interests and these interests lead to study and that study leads to creative work. It’s a pretty common cycle for me. The stylistic allusions are never intended as hints or nods toward a genre or historic period but a true exposition of my interests and lineages. I like what John Corbett wrote in the liner notes to Brooklyn Lines ... Chicago Spaces, that the music is really a “tangle of lineages.” I feel this. My musical DNA is a tangled mess and my challenge as an artist, it seems to me, is making sense of this. Sometimes I wish I had a straighter row to hoe, that I was a more centered jazz musician or came from some rich ethnic tradition. But mine is a crooked line.

TC: Although your frameworks and improvising are quite adventurous, you seem to prefer a more structured approach overall; how do you balance the disparity between freedom and form, both in your writing and improvising?

JF: I consider the disparity you are speaking of to be one of the great challenges in all the arts. In my own work, I’m interested in the space where freedom liberates form and form contextualizes freedom. This goes back to the Already and Not Yet idea expressed above. I know the balance point when I hear it in my own music but I also know it’s a very personal point. Thinking of my most recent release, I feel pretty good about the balancing act achieved on Brooklyn Lines ... Chicago Spaces. It’s as open as you can get. It’s as controlled as you can get. And all stops between.

TC: Having worked in both Chicago and New York, can you describe the differences between the two scenes?

JF: I’m not sure I have the data to support a read on the New York scene in any informed manner. What I can say about both scenes is that there seems to be true community, musicians supporting one another, playing on each other’s projects, cheering on the successes of their friends. This is what I like about Brooklyn so much, something akin to what we have in Chicago at the present, which is a critical mass of creative musicians working together and cheering each other on. Any scene needs this.

I’m excited about a project I’m working on for April 2013 in which I will be bringing Ned Rothenberg from Brooklyn and Ben Goldberg from San Francisco to Chicago to work in a sextet with Ken Vandermark, Jason Stein, Keefe Jackson and myself. All clarinets and saxophones. So we’ll have several communities coming together.

TC: What are your thoughts on studio recording versus live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation.

JF: The way I’ve made most of my records is really a live recording if you think about it. Consider Brooklyn Lines ... Chicago Spaces: we were all in the same room tracking to analog tape, no headphones, often just one or two takes, no overdubs and only 2 post-recording edits. It is, essentially, a live recording and I try to keep the sense of this in any studio session. This has been the approach to the KLANG records but other projects of mine do involve more studio manipulation. The Sign And The Thing Signified, one of my Allos Musica projects from 2007, involves quite a bit of overdubbing and even some electronic manipulation. I think each project needs its own approach but the music of KLANG is intentionally unfiltered.

TC: Allos Documents places a great deal of care into providing handsomely designed releases for fans. What are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?

JF: I think of this in several ways. One regards the overall industry, which seems to be moving more and more to a digital domain with physical products becoming less and less important. As an educator I come in contact with about 200 students every year and I know as fact that a high percentage of them do not own physical representations of their music. This is not a big problem for me – the transmission of music has taken on so many chapters over the centuries, from strict oral tradition to notation to the introduction of recordings. What we are experiencing now is just another chapter in this story. And I do believe the archival aspect is happening, just in the great “cloud” as opposed to taking up space on a shelf. All this said, in the small niche I work within, people seem to want and enjoy both options and the sales of my Allos Documents releases are about 50/50 digital to physical. And the physical product becomes such an important part of touring in terms of making a few extra dollars that go into the overall budget of a tour.

TC: Beyond jazz, are there any contemporary non-jazz based artists you find inspiration in?

JF: Like so many musicians I listen to a wide swath of music. But this has its limitations, a way of confusing the ear, I think. And so, over the last few years, I’ve taken to focusing on a specific musician, group, composer or even historic or stylistic period and listen to only this for a certain period of time. This is one of the many things I learned from my studies with Ran Blake who used to listen, engulf himself, really, in the sounds of one artist for a period of time, often resulting in teaching a class on that person. So, getting to your question, presently my listening and inspiration come from composer Christian Wollf and banjo player/songwriter Abigail Washburn. I’m relegating my listening to just them as much as possible and enjoying every note. And these are, indeed, beyond jazz. As I said earlier, mine is a crooked line.

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