Estevan Point, Vancouver Island:
Estevan Point, Vancouver Island:
This past few days I was determined to do a couple things:
1. lift Kenny Dorham’s solo on Blue Friday (Quiet Kenny)
2. Try to improve my tone & articulation
3. Wake up my lazy third finger
Trumpeting is so unforgiving…I don’t know about other players, but for me I have to go through these cathartic practice sessions to get the simplest things behind me…and cover ground I already covered years ago again and again. Even though the music is in my head already…I need to pull it out of my head through my horn…seems like I have to go through this physical thing over and over…every day for some stuff, once in awhile for other stuff. Like take “time” for instance: If I don’t check in for awhile with some of my favorite jazz recordings of the past (50’s early 60’s etc), I start losing my sense of “time”, where the notes need to lie to work, where the accents need to fall, where my music lies best, and where I stand as an artist…what is my sound? What is the drummer doing? What do I like to hear? What do I miss hearing? What am I playing that is just rote playing instead of real melodic expression?
At the end of it all I somehow get to a point where I’m actually feeling like I’m not playing the horn anymore, just being a point of sound that’s all, in a trance, where all the physical stuff just melts away, and I’m finally free again, free to float on the sound, free of my body, free of my troubles, free of it all…
That’s when I started working on the KD solo, and feeling like it means something. There is such a wealth of depth in each phrase he plays…just beautiful and so crazy elegant and full of soul. I’ll keep you posted.
This little recording of Clark’s Etude III is just me reaching that state a little bit…it’s not perfect, but then I don’t work to be perfect, I just want it to sound good, and to be alive. It’s just an exercise, but I enjoy playing some stuff like this to get my fingers and articulations working better.
My dear friends Pauline and Simon Kendall had some Tree Planting pictures from Doug Cowell, who photographed those early years when many of us went to the land. I think this is April 1975. If so I had just turned 18, on my way to my first tree planting contract in Kingcome Inlet, BC. To get there, I had to hitch hike from Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay, take the ferry to Nanaimo, hitch hike up to Kelsey Bay on Vancouver Island, take another ferry to Port McNeil further north on Vancouver Island, then take a 5 hour ride on the Straddy X, a converted old fish boat up to the village of Kingcome Inlet. Once there, I hitched a ride on a logging truck to get up the Kingcome River valley to where the camp was set up. When I got there, my sister Jenny had just had my niece Nahanni a few weeks earlier. Jenny had just turned 19 herself. My older sister Holly was there too, I guess about age 21, and she was pregnant with my nephew Eridanus. I was a few weeks late arriving at the camp because earlier that winter I had broken my leg skiing, and it had to heal before I could go. I remember being so mad when it happened because it meant I couldn’t go with everybody to start up the camp. I kept breaking off the cast to see if it was healed yet, and the doctor kept getting mad and having to put it back on.
The village of Kingcome was inhabited by the Taladaina tribe, and I became friendly with a kid my age named Johnny Moon. He was so nice to me, such a peaceful quiet way of communicating. He took me fishing up the river to his favorite spots. We caught a branch full of trout, and I took them back to the camp in triumph. We also played soccer on the village soccer field, the tribe loved that sport, and they were good. I played goalie, my favorite position. I was pretty good too. Many years later I learned that Johnny died in some kind of water accident. I’ll never forget him and his influence on me at that time in my life.
I Tree Planted for 5 years, traveled all over the west coast and interior of British Columbia from contract to contract, and always took my trumpet with me wherever I went, and we had jam sessions in the cook shack almost every night. I used to get up before everybody else and play the horn, mostly old New Orleans tunes I learned from records, and loved hearing the different kinds of natural reverberation in whatever valley I was playing. I met and worked with so many wonderful people, played music, and connected with nature all along the way. I’ll always be thankful for having the chance to connect with the west coast in this way.
Miles Arntzen: 1st Drum Kit, 6th Birthday Present, with his Uncle Arnt Arntzen, drummer/sculptor.
My brother Arnt and his wife Val came to New York from Vancouver to visit, and it was Miles 6th birthday. We went up to 48th Street and found a drum kit for Miles. Arnt is a great drummer in his own style, a real old school beat daddy style player. We had a great time picking out this starter kit. We brought it home, and Miles opened it up with glee. Up till then he’d been playing a mish mash of percussion instruments and a makeshift kick and snare set up. For several years he had been sitting in as a guest on my NYC concerts on bongos or jimbe, adding groove to whatever I was playing. His first teacher was Clem Waldman (Losers Lounge/Blue Man Group) at a very early age, like maybe 4 years old? Then from Steve Jagoda (Jesse Montague, Leif Arntzen), who introduced him to drum games such as catch and toss the roll of tape with your drum sticks. Not sure what that had to do with drumming, but Miles loved it. I never heard any talking in any of those lessons. Jagoda had him playing/hitting anything in the room, including the walls, books, amps, posts, shelves, guitar cases, all in search of different sounds to add to the grooves etc. Mostly I just left them alone, but once in awhile I used to sit in with them and play trumpet or electric guitar free form riffs and grooves, and they’d come up with rhythms and we’d all go into a trance for awhile. No talking, just making sound, dreaming up stuff and playing it.
Anyways, by the time his 6th birthday rolled around, he was so ready for a real kit. He and Arnt played together, and I plugged in a bass, and we jammed till my fingers blistered up. From then on he was a drummer. Those early teachers really instilled a sense of playfulness in Miles that I see to this day. Going to the kit for him is like going to the playground, getting into a sandbox full of dump trucks and front end loaders: It’s play time, and he got that from those early experiences I think.
This morning I found myself on a deserted beach in Florida…playing my horn into a brisk southeast breeze. I was listening in one ear to Art Blakey, and playing along with Mosaic, and blowing free. The sound came back around me, blowing past my body, streaming out behind me like a sonic tailwind. There was a construction zone nearby, and a lot of workmen. I knew the sound was passing through the worksite, and wondered what they must of thought hearing jazz trumpet sounds swirling around the worksite so early in the morning. In the meantime at one point I opened my eyes, glanced up and realized that there was a flock of terns hovering on the wind right around me, almost close enough to reach out and touch them. There was no seagulls, just the terns. I stopped playing to watch them, and they immediately glided off down wind. When I played again, within a short time they were all there again, surrounding me, hovering in airstream in the same space I was. I wondered what they were hearing, what made them want to hang out like that? None of them landed to walk, just kept flying in one spot, listening.
The Leif Arntzen Band: The American Song
A collective of top New York City improvisers and composers led by acclaimed trumpeter/singer Leif Arntzen preview songs from their upcoming CD release “Continuous Break” (Gwendoline Records, April 2013) and interpret standards of the American songbook.
Leif Arntzen – trumpet/vocals
Ryan Blotnick – guitar
Landon Knoblock – piano
Michael Bates – bass
Jeff Davis – drums
The current version of the Leif Arntzen Band was formed in 2010 when Leif called his friend, saxophonist Michael Blake (Lounge Lizards, etc.) to ask for a recommendation for a bass player. Blake suggested a number of young musicians that were jazz improvisers, composers, and bandleaders in their own right.
“I wanted a band where everybody had a developed voice already and had an idea of what they wanted to sound like, and felt comfortable composing on the spot… collective composition, that type of thing, and that kind of experience. That kind of drive was something I was really interested in trying to harness in some way,” says Leif. The band met in Leif‘s basement studio in the heart of Greenwich Village, a funky converted storage room full of old instruments, records, art and memorabilia.
“The studio is just so loaded up with a lifetime’s worth of musical odds and ends. It was just a raw space. I think it sounds great down here.” Leif pauses and looks around. “There is a tuba hanging on the wall. there’s some african drums hanging on the wall. Any kind of curtain, you know, we used painter’s canvas drops that ended up just stapled to the ceiling because everything is just cinder block behind it. There’s an old canvas circus marquee with a painting of… its kind of a weird painting actually.” The marquee reads “Chinese Torture” and there is a woman in a bikini being tortured. It hangs above the recording console, which is a gutted white piano.
“That was a piano I bought from a little old lady on 6th avenue. We wheeled it down here on the street with a few guys, and in the process we broke the soundboard. So you know, that got screwed up, so rather that get rid of it I left the strings in there and turned it into a studio console, and it hasn’t budged ever since.” Leif looks around again and continues, “there’s an old banjo on the wall, it’s like a mandolin-banjo. That’s a Bear Lake corn husk child’s rattle. Everything here is connected. That’s the fishing gremlin. I carved that out of a block of cedar that was floating about thirty miles off shore, off of British Columbia. The only paint I had was black, white and red engine paint, and when I finished carving it I lashed it to the mast and he rode up there for at least ten years. I never took him off there either. A matter of fact, he also had a hat that the deckhand had accidentally washed, a wool cap, and when it came out it was about this big, and it survived years at sea. So all of these things, they all got a little story to it. The painting, everything, is homemade.”
Leif grew up in British Columbia and worked as a commercial fisherman for a number of years. He had a lot of time to practice trumpet between bites, playing along with cassette tapes and blowing over the roar of the 5-Cylinder Gardner below his feet. On weekends he would sail his boat for hours from Vancouver Island to sit in at jam sessions in Vancouver, then cast off and start the long trek home. He plays with a strong, elegant tone that focuses the listener and makes you hang on every note.
The band met in Leif‘s basement and developed its concept through free playing based on a set of “calls” or simple riffs that signal a possible change in the direction of the music. Some pieces have a simple bass line or form, but the music in general is very simple and easy to grasp. This allowed the band to quickly get to the essence of why they play, and start facing the larger aesthetic questions.
“The key was allowing each musician to freely express themselves within that group setting. When something felt good to play to, I would play the horn and when it seemed like time to lay out and let something else go on, then I would lay out. And I think that each of us were doing that. And that created an instant sort of trust that was going on when we were recording. Since there was no pressure to really play anything in particular I think it made everybody really relax a little bit and just kind of play what felt good. And usually what feels good is a mix – a little bit of variety in feel and you know major, minor, dissonance or whatever. I’m not really thinking in those terms. It just feels like you need to go up dynamically here or down a little bit, or slower or faster, and kind of ‘come what may’ and see what happens.”
Bassist Michael Bates chimes in, “The open element to the music is just a different way of getting to a collective thing, or like an open thing. Knowing the music cold like that, you know, anything can happen at any time. The thing about this band is, for me its like we’ve kind of collectively come up with our own identity five or six different ways. When you’re playing in your own band you’re kind of trying to understand the identity of the band, or if you’re a sideman you’re trying to make the identity of the band happen, whereas this is a whole different approach.”
Not that collectivity is a new thing in music- there is endless mythology around the concept of the band. But in jazz there are very few real collectives, and those that exist are generally run or dominated by one person anyway. Even in indie-rock or other styles where supposedly collective bands are the norm, there is almost always a front person who takes creative leadership, and some other people supporting or pulling the strings. There are also pre-defined roles for what each instrument is expected to do in that style. So in reality there aren’t a whole lot of bands like TLAB, consisting of virtuosic musicians, each with their own musical voice, where each musician feels equally liberated to express him/herself. It takes an extremely selfless bandleader for that to happen and the result is explosive.
On their upcoming CD, Continuous Break, there is a palpable energy that evokes a bygone era where live music was the bread and butter of people’s existence. You get the sense that something very important is happening as the music is wrought out of hot metal right in front of you. TLAB is striving for the elusive quality that bridges genres and comes through in all the great records.
“I think that so many of the great records, not just jazz, but rock too, and folk… some of those recording sessions where the songwriter had spent a lifetime developing a particular song or a lyric, agonizing over a lyric for I don’t know how long, it could’ve been years. But to just go in and play one or two takes and just get something magical happening with a group of musicians who didn’t necessarily know the songs so well, but its there – the essence of it is there, the warts of it and all, and that’s what lasts. It makes it human and it includes every listener. I mean everyone gets to be a part of it, because you can hear that in the music. I think that people instinctively hear that, and that’s why they keep listening to those records over and over. That’s why I do.” When asked what it was exactly, Leif shrugs.
“It’s the THING,” suggested Bates. Leif glances down at his trumpet. “It’s an intangible.”
The Leif Arntzen Band is composed of slightly left-of-center players who have separated slightly from the jazz mainstream through their self-directed eclecticism, open-mindedness and tendency toward subtlety and variety. Bassist Michael Bates has defined himself through five recordings as a leader, most recently on Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf Music, and Sunnyside Records. His latest release, Acrobat: Music for, and by, Dmitri Shostakovich features a quintet with downtown gurus Tom Rainey and Chris Speed. Together they conjure “the risky, exciting feeling of free jazz, in which things always seem about to fall apart entirely, but never do. (AllMusic)”
Bates’ friend and frequent collaborator, drummer Jeff Davis, has recently made a mark with his second album Leaf House, a trio of Paul Motian alumni Russ Lossing and Eivind Opsvik. According to NYC Jazz Record, Jeff Davis “has quietly emerged as one of the most consistently engaging drummers of his cohort. He propels various improvising ensembles with textural dynamism and rhythmic inventiveness without resorting to bombast.”
One of those ensembles is Cacaw, a trio with keyboardist Landon Knoblock and muli-reedist Oscar Noriega that is informed by “angular free jazz, rock, and some filthy synth bass.” Landon is a versatile and nuanced player whose debut album Gasoline Rainbow is “unpredictable, energetic, beautiful, loud, soft, subtle and surprising [Bruce Lindsay, All About Jazz],” and “takes jazz to the next level [Jon Neudorf, SeaofTranquility.org].”
The rhythm section is completed with Ryan Blotnick, a guitarist from Maine who has released two widely acclaimed group albums for Songlines Recordings and has been called “a vital contemporary voice” by Time Out New York, and “an authentic, compelling player” by Cadence Magazine. His most recent album, Solo, Volume I, “gives the sense of an intensely thoughtful design… And the atmosphere is such that every liberty registers as both audacious and reasonable [Nate Chinen, New York Times].”
Leif Arntzen is somewhat of an anomaly in that he has kept mostly under the radar and yet holds the respect of some of New York’s finest musicians. A longtime cohort of Michael Blake, he has shared the stage with notables like Ben Allison, Billy Hart, Tony Scherr, Steven Bernstein, John Medeski and Billy Martin. He has played with the Gil Evans Orchestra, the Cowboy Junkies and David Johansen of the New York Dolls. His son Miles is a drummer who has been shaking up the afrobeat and jam band circuit, leading his own 10-piece afro rock group EMEFE, and playing with Antibalas, Superhuman Happiness, and Alecia Chakour.