It is hard to define what makes jazz truly jazz. In the most technical sense, it blends African rhythm with Western harmonic and melodic composition, flavored with improvisation to create a multi-cultural soup of sound. It is organized chaos.
The same often applies to bands looking to perform jazz. A contingent of Kalamazoo College’s own jazz band is soon to embark on a tour to Numazu, Japan this summer, but the unpredictable life of college has left the band in a state of disarray.
Numazu is Kalamazoo’s sister city. Every ten years, Kalamazoo sends a delegation in order to symbolize the relations between the two towns. Ten years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the partnership, Kalamazoo included a small portion of the college jazz band in the 50-man group to add artistic diversity to the mix. Now, on the 50th anniversary, the same is happening. The band is embarking on a two-week tour around the city with the delegation in mid-July.
The group itself has fluctuated in the weeks since the announcement of the trip. The current lineup includes Aaron Parach, K ’13; Margaux Reckard, K ’13; Curtis Gough, K ’14; Chris Monsour, K ’16; Mark Niskanen, WMU ’13; and Dr. Tom Evans, the director of the jazz band. In the few weeks that have passed, two other members had to decline for finance and internships: Joe Barth, K ’13; and Andy Galimberti, K ’14, respectively.
This created a need to refill the lineup, which has only introduced more complications. Only three members of the touring band remain on campus until a month before the trip: Parach, Gough, and Monsour. Niskanen, the band’s pianist, is currently in New York City playing at clubs. Reckard, the trumpeter, is in Ohio working. Evans, the trombonist, is touring Italy for a month. The lack of cohesive presence is putting a damper on the group’s progress until a short time before the trip.
“The actual trip itself I’m incredibly excited about,” Gough says. “with some good friends of mine, which will be fun, but this whole thing has been kind of crazy; it’s been kind of hectic. I’ve never felt like I’ve had a good grasp of what is going on.”
When the remainder of the band does come together, though, it’s not for lack of effort on their part.
Their rehearsal space is the band room of the Fine Arts Building. For a three-man group, the space is overwhelmingly empty, a constant reminder of their missing members. Chairs and stands litter the floor-space, but Parach, Gough, and Mounsour clear out a small corner near the kit to have a jam session.
Aaron honks out a short riff on his tenor sax while Curtis and Chris set up their bass and kit, respectively. While Curtis is still hooking up his amplifier, Chris starts to wail on his drums. Primarily a metal drummer, his introduction to jazz this year has posed as a learning experience; listening is a key part to any jazz performance, and subtlety reigns above all else. Aaron touted communication as the most important part of their preparation, especially with all the missing members.
“We’re just going to try and speak the same language,” he said. “or, you know, at least a similar language so we’re on the same ear.”
And as soon as Aaron jumps back in, Chris immediately alters his bass-heavy flailing to a more laid-back funk beat, matching the feel of the line Aaron was playing before. While the rest of the band is gone, they’re trying to establish a more cohesive group. What that means when the rest come back, though, is uncertain.
“Mark is the most serious of us, and he really has an academic approach to jazz,” Aaron says. “Curty and I sort of grew up around it, and so we just jam. Chris has got that heavy metal thing, and it’s been really cool to bring his heavy metal into jazz rather than deny it altogether.”
Mark has had the most jazz experience out of the bunch, a jazz studies student at Western, but that leaves Margaux and Tom. This is a worry for the members in Kalamazoo for different reasons.
“Tom, he’s got his classical setup, and he’s a good player. He just needs permission, in a way, to play jazz. We’ve been pushing him out of his comfort zone,” Aaron says. “Margaux, you know she’s just rock-steady. She’s going to be here the least, which is a bit worrying because we have a lot of stuff that we’ve developed together that she hasn’t seen.”
Margaux, who has just returned from her job in Ohio, hasn’t had the opportunity to get together with the group since she had left.
“I feel completely unprepared,” Margaux says. “That being said, I think the rest of the group also feels completely unprepared. Scheduling rehearsal times, extra rehearsal times is really difficult, and, you know, Tom is in another country.”
“However, I think it will be totally fine, and that we’re all skilled enough musicians that we’ll figure something out, and even with a few rehearsals we’ll make something sound respectable,” she says.
Aaron and Chris continue with their jam, and Curtis joins in. He picks up on the progression by ear, and he lays down a funky line to support Aaron. With a fully functioning trio, albeit a minimalistic one, the three mesh flawlessly in the music. The only thing that is left is the unwavering uncertainty that permeates the atmosphere, but soon even that is drowned out by the groove.
Aaron is first to break out into the solo section: a simple twelve-bar blues progression, the staple of every jazz musician. Chris adopts a minimal beat, trying to ebb and flow with Aaron’s use of dynamics and rhythm, which Curtis almost immediately follows. As Aaron brings his ideas into a fevered, rhythmically intensive groove, the others adapt on the fly, their communication only indicated by a couple of nods and smiles.
They trade around for about fifteen minutes until Aaron gets the nod to go back to the head. He runs through it twice, and without any prior rehearsal, they manage to end in sync. Chris finishes with a fill, giving a subtle waver in his rhythm to signal the final note to Aaron and Curtis. While the rest of the ensemble is away, these three have almost perfected their chemistry.
This leaves the uncertainty of the coming months. While the three are practicing in the meantime, there is still the order of coming up with a full set. They’re playing a couple of standards, including “Equinox” by John Coltrane and “Close Your Eyes”, an arrangement of Mark’s. The rest is planned to be taken out of fake-books, collections of simplified arrangements, often including just the melodies and chord progressions. The rest is left up to interpretation by the musicians themselves. They have the songs, but the matter of getting the full group together still brings a sense of uneasiness to the members in Kalamazoo. Even so, they seem to be taking it as a lesson in jazz.
“It’s kind of a mess, the whole situation,” Aaron says. “but there’s clarity and chaos. We’ll figure it out.”