Monday, June 3, 2013

Clarity and Chaos

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.

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.

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.”

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. 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.”


  1. Jon,

    I love the title and the connection you make at the beginning (and continue to weave throughout the piece) between the chaos of jazz and the chaos going on with the group. You include many vivid details of the three students playing their instruments -- well done. I also thought you did a nice job in showing the “organizational” aspect of chaos with how well the three remaining students work together -- how they’re different strengths combine to create spectacular music.

    While you did a great job describing the music, I’m curious about the physical descriptions of the people you interviewed. I think including both would add to the narrative aspect of the piece. I also had a few questions after reading the article. When does the group leave in the summer and when do the other members come back? How long exactly do they have to get together before they leave? I don’t know if the following suggestions are feasible given the time constraints of the article, but it may be interesting to get perspectives from one of the members not on campus in addition to the director. I was just left wondering what the absent members were doing to prepare, if anything, and if they felt guilty for not being around.

    Like I said, talking with the director and others may not be a possibility. I think that you did an excellent job in capturing the fragile mood and uncertainty that looms within the jazz band and the article itself. Good Job!

  2. I thought that the title and the way that you sandwiched the piece (the beginning and end) were excellent. This isn't to say that the middle wasn't good either, but I loved the way that you brought it all together about it being a lesson in jazz. I enjoyed how much of the piece was description of the jam session, interjected with parts that described the band members.

    I'm curious about a lot of things that came up in the piece. My biggest curiosity is how this trip to Japan came to fruition, what the goals of this trip are, and how the band members feel about performing in Japan. Another thing I'm curious about are the specifics of the group getting back together. How long will it be for before they go on their trip to Japan?

    Also, I thought you did a good job of capturing the playing style of the drummer, but I'd like to hear more description into the way that Aaron and Curtis sound. For example, in one part you say "Chris adopts a minimal beat, trying to ebb and flow with Aaron’s use of dynamics and rhythm, which Curtis almost immediately follows." How is Aaron using dynamics and rhythm specifically?

    Anyway, I'm not sure if all of my questions should be answered to make one piece, but those were things that stood out to me. I think that you have a great subject for this profile and a really great framework to work from. Nice job, Jon!

  3. I loved the way you were able to describe the three playing off of each other. I thought you did a good job of capturing the dynamic of the room and the feeling exemplified by their music. I thought you could look to add more physical description of them playing to build on this even more.

    I agree with the others that addressing more of Japan may be helpful. I found myself wondering about the time they would have together before Japan, if any at all. I think you say a short time before the trip, but I feel like you could play this up more as it seems to be the focus of the piece. Great job overall.

  4. Jon,

    I liked reading about this and thought you did a good job in describing the chaotic nature of the Japan trip, as well as the relationship between band members. I liked: “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” because it gave description to the band members from people other than Marin has talked to us about, most people struggle with talking about themselves, and I liked that you got outside perspective on them.

    I think you need to talk more about Japan and less about the jam session back here...although the jam session is crucial to understanding the band members and how they play together, I think you wanted this piece to be about the trip to Japan. What are their expectations? Has anything like this trip ever presented itself before? Is it expensive? Is money an issue? What other bands will be there? etc.

    Overall, wonderful work!

  5. Great work, Jon! I like the tone of the piece and the way that you used the main three characters. However, I would have liked to hear more about the trip to Japan itself since that is so prominent in the begininning of the piece. Why are they going there? What's the purpose?

  6. Jon,

    I wasn't sure if I was expecting a solution or not. You introduce the problem and...well they don't seem satisfied. Is the jam session, though incomplete. supposed to represent that they'll continue, one way or the other? It is the primary section of your piece so I want it to say a lot--and I like how you show their individual problems, but in agreement with Paula, it doesn't necessarily reflect the pressure of Japan.

    On that note, why are they playing? Is it often? Is this a big deal? Was it easy for the other members to just drop out given that?

    I'd cut down on the jam and add more peanut butter.

  7. Jon,

    As someone who has neer really loved jazz, you got me hooked. I think you did a great job of defining jazz in the beginning, but maybe leading with something a little less definitive and something more visceral or visual would be good.

    And I think adding a little more sound into the poetics of your piece—if your writing sounded a little more jazzy, I think it would propel the piece forward in a new way.