a column by
Jason Roebke ©2016 Marcus Russell Price
Chicago became a truly global city for creative music in the 1990s. Peter Brötzmann found his American bandmates there. Ken Vandermark spearheaded projects with Englishmen, Norwegians, and Swedes (among others). In 1996, Georg Graewe and Frank Gratkowski arrived from Cologne on the lookout for a rhythm section; Graewe stayed, then briefly made the city his home.
“The scene at that time was absolutely amazing,” remembered bassist Jason Roebke, who moved to Chicago from Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1999. He was 25. “It was crazy: there were people coming through all the time. I remember seeing [Paul] Lytton and [Paul] Lovens duo at the Empty Bottle on a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon. It was packed: there were as many people as you could fit in the Empty Bottle – for a drum duo! Yet somehow, at that moment, I was like, ‘This is not sustainable. We’ve peaked.’”
Jump ahead nearly two decades, and Roebke has proved prescient. Funding for touring European musicians has shrunk. American real estate has spiked, making it especially difficult to maintain venues. The music business, even the marginal economy of improvised music, has been ravaged by changing technology and tastes.
Yet there at Amsterdam’s Doek Festival last spring were Roebke and his contemporaries, part of a program celebrating the connections between improvisers from Chicago, Berlin, and Amsterdam. Thirteen Chicagoans were invited (and more than 30 others from Germany and the Netherlands), many of whom have worked together for years, a circle often associated with a pair of rooms on the city’s Northwest Side, the Constellation and the Hungry Brain. The Doek invitation must be a recent high-water mark – a real sign of recognition for a scene that’s once again become one of the most fertile in jazz and creative music.
Flying under the radar, yet still very much at the heart of things, is Jason Roebke’s excellent four-year-old octet. Their Doek gig acted as a natural axis point – as the members were mixed into various configurations over the course of the six-day event. It was the first time Roebke had brought a band of his own to Europe. In fact, leading the octet is his most substantial role so far – featuring, as it does, his writing and, above all, his fully-formed musical vision. Over the course of his career, Roebke has largely been a linchpin in other people’s groups – drummer Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things, and projects led by, among many others, Jeb Bishop, Jason Adasiewicz, Jason Stein, and Greg Ward, all members of the octet.
When we met, on a beautiful, early July afternoon on Canada’s West Coast, he was back in a familiar role – as the bassist in cellist Tomeka Reid’s quartet, on the last day of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. In conversation, he was warm and thoughtful, though at times, dauntingly spare; reflecting on a question, he seemed comfortable sitting in sustained silence. He’s not built, I suspect, for the entrepreneurial aspect of art-making. But now, in his early 40s, he feels like a musician who knows his own mind – and impulses – and is clear-eyed about how to go about producing real and lasting work.
“I’m into the core of things,” he explained at a small, informal workshop earlier that afternoon. “That’s what I’m trying to get to – drilling deeper and deeper into the core of something ... I’m always trying to get lower and lower, and more caveman style. You know how there are some people who talk about Sun Ra, the stars, and going somewhere else? I’m trying to go into the core of the earth, rather than up to space.”
Just listen to Jason Roebke at the double bass and you’ll understand this imagery straight away. His sound is extraordinary, often the first thing musicians talk about, and audiences notice. Art Lange called it “deep, rich, and natural,” something that “creates a tonal foundation for groups of varying instrumentation.” Roebke’s versatility is also worth noting (solo, paired with dancer Ayako Kato, tenor saxophonist Tobias Delius, or songwriter Van Dyke Parks), along with, as Lange wrote, his sense of equilibrium – “equal parts stability and alert responsiveness to improvisational conditions.”
Now, as a bandleader, he’s an estimable force. As a composer who straddles open and predetermined forms, his writing confronts many of the complex crosscurrents familiar in a European context and among certain, forward-thinking segments of the North American scene.
Cinema Spiral, the octet’s second disc, out this month on the Lithuanian NoBusiness label, is challenging and dense and an extremely fine step after High/Red/Center (Delmark, 2014), its critically admired debut. If the first record is built around shorter, focused charts (11 pieces, largely between three to five minutes each), the second (a seven-part, 53-minute suite) takes the group deeper into freer forms. Pure improvisation is key. Roebke composed what he called “little vignettes”: a concentrated series of motifs that are then manipulated and transposed, acting as bookends, tying things together.
“The charts themselves are sort of ridiculous,” he explained, then broke into laughter. “I couldn’t enter it in a new music competition or something like that and have some ensemble play it. There’s no way anyone could play it, other than with me talking and talking and talking.” It is, as the album credits note, a true collaboration between the composer and the musicians.
When Dutch pianist Oscar Jan Hoogland, Doek’s artistic director, scouted the Chicago scene he was struck by how the octet worked with instrumentation and subgroups to create depth in their music.
“It actually reminded me sometimes of the modern compositions of, let’s say, Louis Andriessen and of course Ives, in how he works in arranging his groups ... but I mean you could name a thousand things,” he said in a telephone interview from the Doek’s Amsterdam office. Hoogland spoke eloquently about the octet’s methods: how the saxophones, for example, become a kind of pump organ, treated as a single instrument or as a collection of soloists; or how the different voices (rhythm section, vibraphone) weave in and out in this wonderful mixture of elements – jazz, improvisation, and a particular way of arranging things, “this structure that feels so natural ... that’s the beautiful thing.
“If that would have been done in Holland, it would have been on the game side of things: playing with music to make music,” he observed. “But somehow he does the same thing, technically, and also you hear the same thing, you hear the same kind of processes, but it never steps out ... To me it’s very special, because it has all of these things that a group like ICP uses and Available Jelly uses, but somehow it doesn’t capture the ironic side ... It doesn’t comment on itself.”
If the Dutch are a reference point for some, Mingus might be for others. For me, the instrumentation, specifically the use of bass clarinet (Jason Stein) and vibraphone (Jason Adasiewicz) – along with saxophone (Greg Ward, Keefe Jackson), cornet (Josh Berman), trombone (Jeb Bishop), bass, and drums (Mike Reed) – suggested at times the colors and contours of a classic ‘60s Blue Note date. Roebke identified Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi as a source. “To me, it’s a little bit uncomfortable how close it is. Obviously it’s not funkylike that. But to me, this is like a poor man’s Mwandishi band.”
Mwandishi? It felt like a jump, and so I called Roebke after he was back in Chicago to clarify. “It’s more in the way that the music unfolds itself ... in a really patient way,” he said, over the phone from a sidewalk café in Wicker Park. Roebke recommended some of the band’s live radio broadcasts from the early ’70s now circulating online. “It’s not like everyone’s improvising, and then everyone’s playing written material. The way that Herbie Hancock was doing this stuff, it was like, everybody’s improvising, and then all of a sudden Julian Priester and Bennie Maupin would play some line as sort of a background, to nothing. It was not a background. It was just a thing – that somebody took and then went a different direction with it.”
“A vignette, perhaps?” I suggested.
“Yes,” he said.
Roebke’s workshop that afternoon turned into a telling introduction – to his sources, his beginnings, and his habits of mind. Roebke’s first gesture was to pull up alongside the small audience, casually seated in a downtown dance studio. “I understand the psychology of these things,” he said and began to smile. “I’ll play a bit, then we’ll talk.”
There were the usual questions about how he started out – born and raised in small-town Wisconsin (Kaukauna), electric bass in high school, acoustic bass in college, an abiding admiration for Fred Hopkins and Walter Page. As a young man, he said, he was “totally crazy” about jazz (not just bass players) and about records. “I had all this information,” he explained. “I knew how things were basically supposed to sound. I think I’m still trying to match those things. It was difficult.” Sound, dynamic range – these have always been important aspects in his approach, “to make the acoustic sound of the instrument louder and louder.” Roebke told an anecdote from bassist Pops Foster’s autobiography. “He was talking about as a kid playing in New Orleans [Foster was born in 1892] and you could hear people’s feet shuffle when they were dancing. That was the volume of the band.
Roebke questioned the veracity of Foster’s story – maybe it was just “wishful thinking,” he suggested. But more importantly, the anecdote revealed a great deal about Roebke himself. He’s a throwback. But he’s not slavishly devoted to the past. He exists on a continuum, out of time, living in an infinitely rich, eternal present.
“In jazz, there’s often a huge aspect of looking to the past for your inspiration,” he said. “There’s tons of information in the past, but it’s only information, it’s not inspiration. If you’re the person who is looking to have some sort of voice as an artist, in the really broad sense, transcribing a solo of someone else is not gonna do the job. Now, if you’re coming from a place where you really love that music, and you’re trying to absorb some information or get some information about it, that’s how you get it – you put on a CD or a record and you figure out what the person did. But that’s not the prize: that’s one of the tools, one of the vehicles to get to – again – the core of yourself. ... Collecting information is not the end, it’s only a beginning. The core of it is your imagination, and your own inquisitiveness about it ... That’s how we make unique art. That to me is success – when you make something that’s really personal. That’s the journey.”
Roebke’s formative training took him to music programs at Lawrence University and the University of Michigan. Formally, he collected information; informally, and obsessively, he did, too. In between, he spent 18 months in Madison, Wisconsin working as Roscoe Mitchell’s copyist. Roebke had studied with Mitchell on occasion. They’d discussed music in general, improvisation, and issues in notation – “like, how would you write this music?” Roebke remembered asking, after he’d brought along his own idiosyncratic transcriptions of Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound and Space Ensembles (Black Saint, 1983) and “L-R-G” (Nessa, 1978).
After finishing his master’s degree in Ann Arbor, Roebke moved to Chicago. Very quickly he fell in with a crew at the Nervous Center, a coffee house in Lincoln Square. “You could just go down there [the basement] and play. Or you could basically organize a gig whenever you wanted to; there wasn’t something set.” Drummer Tim Daisy and saxophonists Aram Shelton and Dave Rempis were among the musicians Roebke met early on. Part of the scene’s strength, Roebke observed, was that there was no band. “Every time it was a different combination, whether you improvised or whether you composed music. People did various things, but it was always a different combination.”
The early aughts were a fertile period in Chicago. Young musicians were brought into an international culture, encouraged to build on these connections to the European and Canadian scenes. “We were born into that,” Roebke observed. “But also, remember, Chicago is, just generally speaking, a very outward looking place.”
He’s frank about those early days. “We wanted desperately to be part of Ken’s scene. Of course we wanted to be. A lot of the times it was someone like Paul Rutherford coming to town, by himself, and playing with the locals. We wanted to be one of those guys. We were never one of those guys. Because they didn’t need us. They had somebody better.”
Roebke stopped to laugh at the memory of it. “Let’s also be honest: they didn’t need us because we were not as good as the people that they already had. Which probably at the time, we didn’t want to hear.”
Roebke and his peers would soon tug things in their direction. Now, in the middle of their careers, they have developed their own role in the Chicago community. I asked him how he might characterize their work. How have his peers distinguished themselves on the local scene?
A very long silence. “That, I have no ... I’m stumped,” Roebke said.
Then, after another long silence, he began. “Maybe it’s not so much musical, as it is social. In a way, you can’t talk about what our generation has done without discussing Mike Reed – in terms of his creating this giant rock festival that essentially makes all this shit happen. I mean that’s the reality; no one would care about this. The Hungry Brain would have gone out of business, closed.”
As a curator and impresario, Reed is the founding director of the hugely successful, three-day Pitchfork Music Festival, held every July in Union Park on Chicago’s Near West Side. “Before that, Mike was a bartender,” Roebke observed “He was not a guy who had money.”
Reed’s Constellation (he bought the building and financed the renovation) and now the Hungry Brain (which he acquired late last year) are the lifeblood of the scene. “In some ways, it’s like we’re all countin’ on ya, Mike! So that’s a lot of pressure for him. But at the same time, we’re not begging some foundation or something like that. And we’re not worried that it’s all going to go under some day – or tomorrow – because our application is denied, or something like that. This is like a business that he has and it’s up to us to be part of it. Whether we perform there, and we get people to go to our show. It’s dependent on us; it’s much more like a community thing. Where I think everybody feels – definitely everybody knows because everybody at some point is employed by Mike as the bar-tent guy [at the Pitchfork festival] – that, this is how this all works.”
Certainly the Constellation, now in its fourth year, has become a thriving venue. “The general public, while they’re not necessarily hard core jazz fans, they’re arts fans. They might go to see a dance performance or a classical performance or theatre but, instead, twice a month they see a show at the Constellation because it’s a really nice place, there’s a bar, it’s like a theater – there’s a thing. It’s really cool.”
Above all, it’s Reed’s musical generosity that has allowed the entire community to grow. Roebke saw something similar in George Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself. “If you read George’s book, it’s also like when these European festivals would want the Art Ensemble, and the AACM would say, ‘No. They played last time. You get the first person in the queue.’ And they would send somebody else. And Mike is definitely like that. He realizes that he has a lot of power to do x, y, and z. And he could use it to keep his own shit, or he could use it to raise everybody up, and I think that’s what he does.”
The octet’s first date was at the Skylark in late January 2012. It was a period, Roebke explained, where he was actively putting himself in uncomfortable situations – speaking in public (giving workshops, for example) or organizing a band. Drummer Frank Rosaly booked the gig months in advance. By chance, just chatting on the street after a rehearsal one day in his neighborhood, Roebke heard the sounds of a professional big band rehearsing in the distance. “It definitely wasn’t a CD, because they would stop in random places, and it would start up again,” he recalled. “But it was really unclear: who was this? We didn’t know anybody who lived around there. It wasn’t loud enough that you could really track exactly where it was, but it couldn’t have been more than half a block away. I was thinking, ‘Man, this is really cool.’”
He’d found his Skylark project. “I had studied that in college and I really liked doing that type of thing – that kind of writing, harmonic music. I thought it would be fun to write some big-band charts. But it wasn’t big-band charts like Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, where it’s like a five-page double coda, this super complicated thing. It’s not that. It was more like: write a tune, a head chart that’s harmonized, then improvise.”
Each piece was written on a single page. There was no conductor. Certain things were discussed in advance. For that first gig, and a second (at the Hungry Brain) shortly after, it was an 11-piece group – with guitarist Matthew Schneider and saxophonists Dave Rempis and Mars Williams.
Roebke spoke at length about the project’s challenges – especially of stitching the written and the improvised together. “Everybody could improvise and everybody could play the written music, but they could not put those next to each other. So there would be a lot of bass solos – and sort of looking around and staring at me, like, ‘When are you going to count in the next section?’ ‘I don’t know!’ Literally, don’t look at me five seconds after you just finished playing: the song’s got to be longer than a minute! We really played some of the most embarrassing music of my entire life.
“At first I think it was so weird and different for people,” he continued, singling out one gig in which many of the musicians just came to a stop. “It was totally uncharted ground somehow. Even though it’s not extremely avant-garde music or anything like that.” High/Red/Center worked because Roebke figured it out: he produced his own Thad Jones-Mel Lewis charts. In truth, he created musical road maps – hardly vast, tightly controlled scripts – and it worked. But it also revealed an interesting difference between a European, especially Dutch, sensibility and an American one. “Sometimes these Amsterdam guys, they think, ‘Oh, man, it’s so great we have the same sort of idea about music.’ But it’s not true.”
When Roebke and I talked he was in town with Tomeka Reid. Her widely acclaimed quartet is among the most surefooted on today’s American scene. But, as he explained, his recent experiences with Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isidore have been enormously insightful. Since last year the trio has been opening for Stein’s half-sister, stand-up comedian, writer, actor, and producer Amy Schumer. “It’s been great. But in a way, I can imagine how it could really bum you out – because you see the level, the top level of existence in the arts.”
Two weeks earlier they’d played Madison Square Garden. Which led me to wonder: is MSG a barometer for the top level of existence in the arts? Was he talking about economics? Mainstream cachet? General hubbub?
“Let’s face it,” he said, “is there any jazz group that can attract 20,000 people to their gig? We fly on a frickin’ private jet, man.” And they’ve been doing their “normal thing” – hugging to a muscular, elastic, swinging, attractive, and mildly old-fashioned avant-garde. Troy Collins, reviewing Three Kinds of Happiness (Not Two, 2011) in these pages, saw shades of Steve Lacy, David Murray, Roy Haynes, Harry Carney, and Coleman Hawkins in their work.
“It gives me a good perspective, a positive perspective. Does it matter if my CD is in the Hot Box in DownBeat, or if it’s just a regular review? I don’t care. It’s fine. It’s just quibbling over this bullshit,” he said, adding a jab at unnamed peers on the New York scene. “The minutiae of what they’re going crazy about is comical, man.”
Roebke tells a story about playing St. Louis last December. They were booked at the Scottrade Center, home to the Blues, the city’s National Hockey League team. After a gig they ordinarily go out, the band, Schumer, and the entire crew, 15 people or so. Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O was at the Bistro, the city’s main jazz club. The tour manager reserved tables.
“And we roll up. It was just this weird thing. Usually I’m the person who’s playing the gig and no one shows up. But now I was on the opposite side of it – not that we were taking Matt Wilson’s audience. There’s maybe 30 people there, which for us would be a smash success. He was doing a week there or something; he was doing a stand. And it was cool. But we had just got done playing for 10,000 people. Then we show up. It was such a backwards, opposite experience. Normally, it would be me, the crazy kid, apologizing to us – whoever us is – that no one was going to come to our gig because everybody was at Matt Wilson.”
Schumer’s late-night appearance at the Ferring Jazz Bistro was noted in the next day’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Perspective is something Roebke has found harder to find on his own. Being out front, I’m sure, feels very different than working in other people’s groups.
“It’s hard to say because it all mixes up with the anxiety of being in charge of the whole thing, in charge of, literally, in the moment the situation,” he said. “All these people are here because I asked them to be here, right now, and they’ve got lives, and I’m taking their time right now. That anxiety is all mixed up in it.”
But in the end, he knows exactly why he’s embarked on this path. “I’m filling in the gaps with my own stuff. Otherwise, if I’m satisfied, I don’t have to do any work. I just have to go to the airport and show up. That’s it! So easy. If I could fulfill all of my curiosity from somebody else doing all the work then I wouldn’t do this. But I don’t. So this is the thing that I want to do, that I don’t get to do in other situations. Because I hate calling attention to myself and I hate doing a workshop like that, being the one person. Once every couple of years I play electric bass on some gig, and it just seems like, ‘Ah, there’s nothing to hide behind. This is so uncomfortable!’”
©2016 Greg Buium