Keefe Jackson: Following the Moment

Troy Collins

Likely So                                                                                                    Courtesy of Keefe Jackson

Multi-reedist Keefe Jackson first emerged as a notable presence in Chicago’s vibrant jazz community after relocating from his hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2001. He quickly became a regular member of the scene centered around the Hungry Brain, eventually joining ensembles like the Lucky 7s and the 774th Street Quartet. Jackson made his recording debut as a member of the Chicago Luzern Exchange in 2005, on Several Lights, the first of a number of albums issued by Delmark Records. The label released Ready Everyday the following year, his first effort as a bandleader and the debut of Fast Citizens, an all-star collective featuring cornetist Josh Berman, saxophonist Aram Shelton, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Anton Hatwich, and drummer Frank Rosaly that now operates under rotating leadership.

Since then Jackson has issued a number of collaborative albums with many of the Windy City’s finest improvisers, ranging from intimate duets to small combo sessions. In 2007 Delmark issued Just Like This, the ambitious premier of his 12 piece large ensemble, Project Project. Seeing You See arrived in 2010 on Clean Feed Records, presenting Jackson’s self-titled Quartet with trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Noritaka Tanaka. Jackson’s latest offering is A Round Goal, the premier of his all-reed septet Likely So, recorded live in the winter of 2013 at the Jazzwerkstatt Festival in Berne, Switzerland.


Troy Collins: Some biographical information might be beneficial for readers unfamiliar with your background. You moved from your hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas to Chicago, Illinois in 2001, with a stint in Portland, Maine in-between. How did you first get your start playing in the Windy City?

Keefe Jackson: It was relatively easy to start playing when I got to Chicago. In retrospect I was lucky as there were a bunch of musicians near my age that were all trying to meet new people and develop new groups and ideas and play a lot. Among the people I played with during the first six months or so: Aram Shelton, Tim Daisy, Josh Berman, Dave Rempis, Matt Bauder, Todd Munnik, Brian Dibblee, Jerry Bryerton, Nick Broste, Jon Doyle, Alec Ramsdell, Mike Reed, Frank Rosaly, Jason Ajemian, Jason Roebke, and Jim Baker. There were great venues such as the Nervous Center, 3030 (now Elastic), the Hungry Brain, the Empty Bottle, and Hothouse among others which were open to mostly whatever we wanted to do, so the atmosphere was ripe for experimentation.

TC: You currently lead at least three established groups: the all-reed septet Likely So; your 12-piece large ensemble Project Project; and the collectively run sextet Fast Citizens. What are some of the benefits and/or challenges of simultaneously working in such different configurations?

KJ: The different groups allow the composer to work with different ideas. After some time being together they each take on their own identity, which we try to use in a way so as to hopefully give more possibilities, instead of limiting (which can be another function of “identity”). For me a big part of my approach is to try to observe what the group sounds like naturally and try to take advantage of that, instead of making the composer’s ideas push the music around.

Of course sometimes one needs to do that but my general approach starts with listening to the band.

TC: Does your writing method change from one group to the next?

KJ: Yes and no. There are certain areas which I associate with various groups, in the initial plan, this band will do this, this, this, and not that; then later as things develop it might suddenly occur, well we could also do “that” in our own way. Of course there is always some rigidity to my approach or some other composer’s methods but I’m trying over time to lessen the importance of that. In my experience you will not lose anything important. Or you’ll have an opportunity later with another group to pursue it.

TC: Can you cite any specific examples of how your approach has changed in regards to lessening the importance of self-imposed compositional limitations in any of your ensembles?

KJ: The first Fast Citizens record (Ready Everyday) is a good example of this. A lot of the original arrangements were simplified because it seemed that the strength of the band was in a more free-blowing approach. Of course we’ve covered other territory since then but it’s important to listen to what the music is telling you in a moment.

TC: Do you typically write parts specifically geared towards your bandmates’ strengths, or do you follow a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are more skeletal in conception?

KJ: I’ve experimented with both approaches, depending on the larger context. For instance when writing for the Fast Citizens I have an idea what the other composers will write so I try to make something that either complements that or investigates a different area.

TC: In contrast, as the sole composer for Project Project, I assume you have to approach writing and arranging from a somewhat different perspective (than for say a collective like Fast Citizens)? There are a number of imposing personalities in that particular band and each piece has multiple, often tandem solos; can you give an example of how much music is pre-written and what thematic improvisational constraints (if any) might be part of a given work?

KJ: Thus far in general we’ve relied on the players’ intuition and musical sense rather than to try to set thematic parameters for improvisation and solos in this context. Sometimes it is in the vein that the composer imagined, and sometimes it’s a big surprise, and I think that’s how it should be. Occasionally there will be a word or idea mentioned, but only as the concept progresses, not as a “guiding principle” from the beginning. Part of what makes this work so easily is the relative insularity of the Chicago jazz-and-improvised-music scene – people are mostly familiar with your working methods already. Another angle, perhaps a bit of a cliché: I think what many audiences enjoy is the personality clash (or however they experience the interaction). Since in a way the composer is a part of the audience too, it’s easy to look forward to this interaction and see what we can learn or at least observe. I’m also eager to deal more with the “assumptions” of musicians from other places, in the future.

As for “what is written,” here is an example. There was one reviewer, writing about Just Like This, who wrote that the trombone duo at the beginning of “Dragon Fly” was certainly or obviously influenced by the sound of insects, and that the whole section was in reference to or parody of “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” That really floored me. I haven’t consulted Jeb Bishop and Nick Broste, who played the improvised duet, on this particular point, but I can assure you there was no conscious effort of any of this on the composer’s part, and the piece was titled maybe even after the recording session.

TC: That said, how do personal dynamics shape the inner workings of each of group?

KJ: Personal dynamics are very important in this kind of music. The conventions that it’s based on are at the same time so deeply rooted and also so expendable in a moment. The music is put together in the way that is possible with the others you’re working with – there is a need for a certain amount of agreement but that process can also be subverted, whether consciously or not. The other thing that’s important is the momentum of each group, whether momentum across the years of making records and playing together, across the ten days of a tour, or through the hour of a set.

TC: John Litweiler has a great quote about you and Aram Shelton in his review of Shelton’s These Times (from Point of Departure issue 32), where he said “Like Shelton, Keefe Jackson is a virtual model of saxophonists who compose as they improvise. These are important, no-bullshit artists who recall Prez’s rule that a solo should tell a story.” I completely agree with John’s sentiment and am curious how you approach your solos, since they often seem to have their own narrative logic.

KJ: ...a tough one. I’m not sure I’m a mature enough artist to annunciate my personal philosophy of soloing, and I suspect that is a job better left to professional writers/critics, however I can point to a few ideas which make or at one time made sense to me. There is Lee Konitz’s example of how to keep Lester Young’s “story telling” approach as a basis for his own ideas (can’t think of a good quote but there’s gotta be one). Then during a particularly questioning period of my own, I recall Jim Baker at one point asserting that “I don’t know if free improvisation is even “possible,” bringing into the discussion chaos theory and similar areas of research. Personally a vocal approach to improvisation on the horn was always important to me, and then going along it became important how to extend that. Also in the context of this question I think it is important to keep in mind that these different ideas and approaches and the degree to which they influence you change over time, or hopefully they do, depending on how the artist is engaged with his/her surroundings (collaborators and audience and rocks and trees and rivers and trains and books and records and whatever).

TC: Regarding Jim Baker’s quote about free improvisation, how do you feel about “pure” free improvisation compared to more traditional composing and improvising?

KJ: One thing I took from the quote is that free improvisation is not pure, can’t be pure. Also there is another quote that says “any group that plays together more than once cannot be improvising freely” [can’t remember who said that]. So in practice, rather than question how we as a group are achieving “freedom,” I think it’s more useful to try to be “free” yourself – or maybe a better way to put it: through your practicing and whatever other types of cultivation you engage in, to try to be always ready to improvise without circumstantial limitations, except for the ones you create yourself (such as: I’ll use a mute, I’ll play through a wet towel, I’ll spend the next 1-2 minutes following the trumpet player, or ignoring him/her – this sort of momentary planning). These types of limitation are part of the artist’s toolbox, which for me somehow makes more sense than something like “I feel sad today so the whole set should sound sad.” Not to devalue the emotional part, but for me where’s it’s at is more following the moment.

TC: How do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

KJ: Up until recently I separated the two in my head, approach-wise, and I think now I’m trying to integrate them a little more. On one hand, in the studio, you have time to think about what you played and do it again, or draw inspiration or anxiety from the playback. Then in the live situation the typical idea is the “music is gone in the air and you can never capture it again” of Dolphy’s. But lately with decent-sounding recording technology becoming so inexpensive and portable, there is a pretty good chance that someone is recording the concert (though of course not always) so we are discovering recordings of concerts more and more now, whether from the sound engineer, a band mate, or an audience member. I think hopefully we still approach the concerts with a little more “this is it,” but it’s also interesting to take that approach in the studio (for example Miles’s famous one-take approach).

Another side of this question is that with the diminuendo of the importance of the traditional record industry, more musicians are acting as their own producers now. I’ve learned a lot from sitting through many hours of mixing and mastering sessions and being present during the setup before recording, developing the beginnings of an aesthetic in the technical realm, which I think traditionally was more likely to be the producer’s job, areas that the artist was not necessarily called upon to venture into.

TC: Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on the changing state of the recording industry, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?

KJ: I represent maybe a bit of a conservative side of this debate. To me the time and sonic constraints of an LP or CD or cassette or whatever are really important, dealing with these kinds of limitations are part of the work. However the download certainly has its own limitations, for one, the ephemerality as you put it, but these can also be attractive to allow other approaches to the release (in the “totality of the release” sense). But at present I think in the jazz-and-improvised-music industry the record-as-object is still really important, even if only for promotional purposes. Personally I appreciate the physical release “object” as an art in itself. I’ve kept all my CDs and LPs and even cassettes as I’ve watched many people get rid of them, and of course in general there are still many fans of the physical.

TC: In light of the recording industry’s current complexities, do you find musical inspiration in any technological advances or stylistic movements?

KJ: In any type of music, inspiration is a big part of the industry, hopefully it’s ultimately what drives investment and risk-taking on the part of labels or whoever is funding the release (though of course there’s plenty of room for cynicism here). As for technological advances, I’m inspired even by the old technology, whether advanced or not, doesn’t have to be recent (I had a great time making/producing the 7-inch duo with Frank Rosaly). Certain stylistic movements strike me because they are more likely to contain certain elements. A couple crude examples: if you want to witness real iconoclasm go to the noise field; if you want to hear a melody that is even stronger than itself, check out some boleros; if you are in the mood for timeless rejuvenation and reinvention of folk melodies, Eastern Europe is a good place to start.

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

KJ: Luigi Nono, Mauricio Kagel, Morton Feldman, Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe, Dusan Makavejev, Luc Ferrari, D.M. Thomas, Shusaku Endo.

TC: What projects do you have planned for the future?

KJ: Right now I’m working with a new free-improvising trio with Christoph Erb (reeds) and Tomeka Reid (cello). We had a great tour last fall and are looking forward to a release and another tour this year. I think it’s starting to become something. Also I want to work more with my recently-dormant big band Project Project, and in the big-band format in general. I’m starting to learn more how to use the studio more to add to the live sound of the band. In 2014 I’ll be working on a sound installation in collaboration with Boris Hauf. Also to continue to develop and expand my current areas of interest.

© 2014 Troy Collins


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