Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Roy Hargrove Quintet at the Dakota

For Joe

When: January 24–25, 2010 • Where: Dakota • Who: Roy Hargrove, trumpet and flugelhorn; Justin Robinson, saxophone; Jonathan Batiste, piano; Aleem Saleem, bass; Montez Coleman, drums

You can enter the Dakota jazz club from the street or the skyway that connects the office building it’s in with the parking ramp across the way. Often, if we can’t find street parking, HH drops me at the door and goes off to work his secret parking juju. That’s how I came across trumpeter Roy Hargrove between sets, standing outside the revolving doors and smoking a cigarette.

We’ve met before so I say hi. He takes a drag, smiles, breathes smoke and says, “Minneapolis is sexy.”

“It is?” I ask. This is a January night and bitterly cold. Hargrove has come here often enough that he knows how to dress—felt-lined Sorrels on his feet, a big fur hat with earflaps perched crookedly on his head.

“Sexy,” he repeats.

“What makes it sexy?”

“The people are nice.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it.” Lame, but the best I can do. Wearing neither Sorrels nor earflaps, I go inside where it’s warm and wait for the music to start.

It’s the second night of Hargrove’s two-night engagement at the Dakota, on the heels of two weeks at Yoshi’s San Francisco, the first with Pharoah Sanders, the second with his progressive jazz group RH Factor, and every night (his manager said) sold out. A residency, like the old days. What a thrill it must be, if you can afford it, to hear a great artist play so many nights in a row.

We were here last night as well, second set, hearing the latest incarnation of Hargrove’s quintet. Still with him, sharing the spotlight and the front line, Justin Robinson on saxophone. Same drummer as before: Montez Coleman. A new bass player (previously Danton Boller or Dwayne Burno): Ameen Saleem. A new pianist (previously Sullivan Fortner or Gerald Clayton, either of whom I’d see again in a heartbeat): Jonathan Batiste.

We saw Batiste briefly at last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival. I remember thinking—hello, where did you come from? Tall, bony, rail-thin, with fingers as long as E.T.’s, he already makes my head spin and he’s only 23. For his Dakota dates, he wears a sparkly scarf.

Hargrove rarely tells you what he’s about to play or just played, so all you can do is go with the flow. The first night begins with “Society Red” and ends with “Bring It on Home to Me.” In between, bop and ballads and swing. During the encore, the band members exit the stage one by one until Saleem stands alone, his bass the last thing we hear.

The second night is the most memorable for me, probably because it includes more ballads. Not that I don’t enjoy the quintet on fire, horns wailing, drums pounding, Hargrove's slight body bent like a bow—I do. I watch them play, their seamless interaction, tightness and looseness, seriousness and playfulness, and wonder—does it get any better? Can it possibly get any better? But Hargrove’s ballads are extraordinary. So beautiful. Full of emotion, wisdom and ruefulness.

The one that kills me tonight: “Speak Low.” (“Love is a spark, lost in the dark too soon, too soon…. The curtain descends, everything ends too soon, too soon….”) For ballads, Hargrove often switches to flugelhorn, the trumpet’s buttery cousin. It’s flugelhorn on “Speak Low,” which concludes with a lacy solo by Batiste that he turns into a joke, quoting TV themes. Amusing but jarring and a reminder that he’s only 23. Note to Jonathan: Don’t. Break. The. Mood.

"Speak Low" is followed by another ballad Hargrove introduces by saying “Here’s a pretty song, like an open meadow with daffodils.” I think he says “Equipoise”? (Roy Haynes?) And a third ballad: “The Serenity of Solitude,” something Hargrove wrote recently, another gorgeous tune that begins with Coleman’s mallets on the drums.

We’re all soft and mushy when the quintet shifts into something fast and hot. Back to bopland.

Then Hargrove calls vocalist Debbie Duncan to the stage, as he's done on previous visits. You can tell Saleem and Batiste haven’t heard her before because their jaws drop when she starts to sing “Bring It on Home to Me.” She’s jazz and soul, gospel and R&B, a belter and a scatter who can also purr. Actually, she can sing anything. In February, she’ll return to the Dakota stage with a new band, put together by Anthony Cox and featuring his Regional Jazz Quartet. Can’t wait.

Hargrove closes with something else sweet, they leave Saleem alone on stage (same as last night), the crowd calls them back and Duncan joins them to sing “The blues ain’t nothin’ but a woman gone bad.” Montez takes a solo, this should be the end, but they keep playing until they’re ready to quit.

Photos by John Whiting

Note: Reader John Scherrer tells me that "Equipoise" was written by Stanley Cowell, not Roy Haynes. And that it was Hargrove who started quoting TV themes, letting Batiste slightly off the hook.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Improvised Music in the Twin Cities

UPDATED June 14, 2011. Click here for the latest version.

Formerly "Free Jazz in the Twin Cities," this is a work in progress. Your feedback is welcome.

Improvised music is/has been known by many names—free jazz, experimental music, free music, free-form jazz, avant-garde jazz, avant jazz, postmodern jazz, outside music, energy music, free improvisation, instant composing, “The New Thing.” In an article for, musician Edward Schneider calls it "nameless music."

The people who make the music don't all call it the same thing, and some don't call it anything. Labels are too limiting. Language is too limiting. Those of us who use words as instruments do the best we can. Examples:

Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation: “From the performance’s first beat, improvisers enter a rich, constantly changing musical stream of their own creation, a vibrant mix of shimmering cymbal patterns, fragmentary bass lines, luxuriant chords, and surging melodies, all winding in time through the channels of a composition’s general form. Over its course, players are perpetually occupied: they must take in the immediate inventions around them while leading their own performances toward emerging musical images, retaining, for the sake of continuity, the features of a quickly receding trail of sound. They constantly interpret one another’s ideas, anticipating them on the basis of the music’s predetermined harmonic events. Without warning, however, anyone in the group can suddenly take the music in a direction that defies expectation, requiring others to make decisions as to the development of their own parts. When pausing to consider an option or take a rest, the musician’s impression is of a 'great rush of sounds' passing by, and the player must have the presence of mind to track its precise course before adding his or her powers of musical invention to the group’s performance. Every manoeuvre or response leaves its momentary trace in the music. By journey’s end, the group has fashioned a composition anew, an original product of their interaction.”

Tom Piazza, Understanding Jazz: "In jazz, [improvisation] means to make intelligent choices spontaneously, based on knowledge and experience."

Steve Lacy: "The difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds."

I've just begun a series of Conversations on Improvisation with artists who live in Minnesota. The series is being published on, a joint project of the McKnight Foundation and the Walker Art Center.
Conversations on Improvisation: Adam Linz


Here's where to find improvised music in the Twin Cities. Many of these venues have Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace pages you can link to from their websites.

Acadia Café
329 Cedar Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55454
email sign-up
The last Sunday of each month belongs to the Minneapolis Free Music Society, an improvisational music collective of about 35 area musicians. Their Myspace page is more up-to-date (at this writing) than their web page.

Art of This Gallery
3506 Nicollet Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55408
This nonprofit, artist-run art space in south Minneapolis hosts the long-running Tuesday Series for performers of (and listeners to) experimental and improvised music. Read Edward Schneider's article about the series here.

Artists’ Quarter
408 St. Peter St.
St. Paul, MN 55102
email sign-up
At their regular AQ gigs, the Phil Hey Quartet, Eric Kamau Gravatt's Source Code, and How Birds Work all wander into free jazz territory from time to time. Happy Apple makes frequent appearances. Check the online calendar often to see who’s coming through town. Past performers have included Astral Project, Lee Konitz, and Dewey Redman.

Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar
Corner of 4th and Broadway
Lowertown, St. Paul
Every Friday is Fantastic Friday, often featuring the Fantastic Merlins.

Blue Nile Restaurant & Lounge
2027 Franklin Ave. E.
Minneapolis, MN 55404
Drummer Kevin Washington and hip-hop artist Desdemona host a Tuesday-night open mic jam session for musicians and poets. Sign-up starts at 10 p.m. 18+.

Café Maude
5411 Penn Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55419
Live music every Friday and Saturday night from 9 p.m. to midnight, no cover, no reservations needed after 10 p.m. Lots of free/improvisational music. Click "Music" for the calendar.

Cedar Cultural Center
416 Cedar Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN
email signup on home page
Mostly folk/world music with occasional surprises like Happy Apple and GloryLand PonyCat.

Clown Lounge
1601 University Ave. W.
St. Paul, MN 55104
In the basement of the Turf Club. The place to be every Monday night starting around 10:30 p.m. and going late. The house band is Fat Kid Wednesdays which is all anyone really needs to say. A Tuesday series launched in December 2009. The music starts a bit earlier—tennish.

Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
1010 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis, MN 55403
email signup on home page
Some of the national acts the Dakota brings in venture into experimental/improvised music territory. Most such music happens during its late-night series (11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays). The Bad Plus comes for 2–3 days each year around Christmas. Check the online calendar.

Homewood Studios
2400 Plymouth Ave. N.
Minneapolis, MN 55411
email signup
Milo Fine hosts and curates the long-running Improvised Music at Homewood Studios series. Second Monday, every other month, 7:00 p.m. Check the online calendar. For me, this series has been Free Music School.

MacPhail Center for Music
501 South 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55401
email signup on home page
The Jazz Thursdays series begun by Kelly Rossum continues under the direction of new jazz coordinator Adam Linz of Fat Kid Wednesdays. Should be interesting.

Northrop Jazz/Music Season
Launched in 1993 by Dale Schatzlein, continued today by Ben Johnson, the Northrop Jazz Season has always presented a broad spectrum of jazz. Past performers have included Cecil Taylor, Julius Hemphill, Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, the Sun Ra Arkestra, John Zorn’s Masada, Ornette Coleman, and the Bad Plus; the 2009–10 season opened with the Larry Ochs Sax & Drumming Core. The season begins in the fall and runs through the spring. Various venues.

Rogue Buddha Gallery
357 13th Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413
This small, intimate Nordeast gallery hosts the iQuit Experimental Music Happenings series. Third Thursday, every month, 9:00 p.m. Description from website: “Music that draws on the diverse styles and influences of the makers of electronic, electro-acoustic, jazz, free, avant garde, and experimental music.” I’ve seen some very cool music at the Buddha.

Southern Theater
1420 Washington Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55454-1038
email signup
One of my favorite venues (love the old stone archway at the back of the stage), the Southern programs interesting, edgy music. “Free jazz” might not be the best description (if it ever is), but much of it is improvisational. The Southern is the Minneapolis home of the Wordless Music Series.

Studio Z
275 E. Fourth Street (Northwestern Building)
Lowertown, St.Paul, MN
(look for the big red neon Z in the window)
Studio Z, the home of the new music ensemble Zeitgeist (free classical?), hosts visiting artists like the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Group, George Cartwright’s GloryLand PonyCat, and Trio Raro (Milo Fine, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Davu Seru). Click on Calendar up top.

Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403
email signup
The Walker’s annual Performing Arts Program always features up-to-date music (as well as dance and theater). Some of the music is copresented with the Northrop Jazz Season. The 2009-10 calendar includes Bill Frisell/Rahim AlHaj/Eyvind Kang (a Walker commission), Erik Friedlander, and a two-day celebration of Bad Plus/Happy Apple drummer Dave King.

West Bank School of Music
1813 South 6th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55454
The Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble performs on the first Friday of every other month, 8:00 p.m. Click Events & Calendar, then Jazz Thursdays.


The European Free Improvisation website includes links to artists' sites, labels, video clips, organizations, concert venues, and much more. The home page is often updated with news about CD releases.

The Free Improvisation & Experimental Music Resource is "dedicated to finding all the sites and networks for free improvisational music." So far it includes links to artists, labels, online magazines, radio stations, and informational sites.

"Devoted to the music of the moment," The Improvisor is a resource for musicians and composers of free improvisation and the web presence for The Improvisor: The International Journal of Free Improvisation. Founded in 1980, The Improviser went from photocopied newsletter to printed journal to web. Articles, reviews, links.

ISIM: International Society for Improvised Music “promotes performance, education, and research in improvised music, and illuminates connections between musical improvisation and creativity across fields.” ISIM hosts an annual festival/conference.

Signal to Noise: The Quarterly Journal of Improvised, Experimental & Unusual Music
. Still on paper, though they do have a blog.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Adam Linz interview on

My interview with bassist/composer Adam Linz is up on, a joint project of the McKnight Foundation and the Walker Art Center. (Actually it went up January 13; I just forgot to mention it here.) It's the first in a series of conversations with local musicians about improvisation. Turns out that Minneapolis/St. Paul is home to many improvising musicians including some pretty big guns. We'll be talking to as many as we can.

Evan Christopher interview on The Independent Ear

I'm pleased to report that Part I of my interview with Creole-style clarinetist Evan Christopher has been published on Willard Jenkins' blog The Independent Ear. To my knowledge, this is the first substantial interview of Christopher to appear anywhere; please let me know if you have seen others.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

George Cartwright: From Ponderosa to PonyCat

"It's jazz, Paw!"

When: Friday, January 22, 2010 • Where: Studio ZWho: George Cartwright, Andrew Broder, Davey Williams, Adam Linz, Alden Ikeda

A product of a Jerome Foundation Composers Commissioning Grant and several prodigious and unfettered imaginations, “Bonanza: The Musical” made its debut at Studio Z on Friday, January 22.

It’s “Bonanza” in a general characters-and-context sort of way, and a musical because it has music. No dancing, singing, costumes or sets, thank goodness.

“Bonanza: The Musical” is a radio play written by Davey Williams, an improvising musician/guitarist/writer/painter and longtime member of Curlew, the experimental/free jazz group founded by composer/saxophonist/bandleader George Cartwright in 1979.

Cartwright received a Jerome to write music to Williams’ play. He had two versions of the play to work with, one read by Williams into Cartwright’s answering machine (thin, gritty, sometimes indistinct) and another recorded in a studio, also by Williams. Cartwright took both recordings and synced them in his computer. Sometimes you hear the voices together, sometimes apart, like a phrase and an echo, or an echo followed by a phrase.

The play is absurd (in the big, philosophical, pointless-universe sense of the word). Here’s Cartwright’s description from the program:

So the Cartwright Boys are throwing the Marlboro Man and his Boy a going away party since no one smokes anymore, much. Arguments go on, food is cooked, songs are sung sort of, merriment, fisticuffs and reveling enlightenments are the course of the party.

Before the play began, Williams acknowledged Cartwright as “my bandleader for 20 years.” Then he said, “This is going to be a kicking ass night.”

The reading was accompanied by live and recorded music composed by Cartwright, performed by Williams, guitarist Andrew Broder, and bassist Adam Linz (via recording; Linz had to be elsewhere on both nights). The music included bits of score that the musicians could choose to play or not.

Rabbit (l), Andrew Broder

Behind the musicians, projected on a curved fabric screen, were flickering black-and-white films by Cartwright’s wife, artist Anne Elias. Flames and feet and fabric, landscapes, grass, shadowy figures. Also on the “stage” (simply the front of the room, not raised) was a small television set (not on a stand, just on the floor) with a sculpture of a rabbit on top.

That rabbit—upright ears, thin little body, and hyper-alert stance—was the essence of anxiety. It served as a constant reminder that things were not as cheery as they might seem, but more about (to quote Cartwright, from the program) “the stinking play of man on lesser man, murder on a large and small scale and general reaction to MEANness.”

For much of the time, the TV showed a single still image—train tracks in a field, maybe a house. At some point the still image was replaced by images going somewhere fast.

I listened to the reading, observed the musicians, watched the films, and noticed a plate of grapes (green and red) on a table that also held cheese, crackers, and wine. I thought about the grapes and made plans to score some during the break.

It was a happening (she writes, hoping that word is not considered stale or offensive these days). Everyone there, probably 25–30 people, seemed to enjoy it. I did. Parts of it made me laugh, like the discussion between Hoss and Hop Sing about which Star Trek was better, the original series or The Next Generation. Parts of it were puzzling or unintelligible. I probably focused too much on the words at the expense of the music, but I remember Williams working his whammy bar and Broder working his foot pedal. The music was like weather, changeable and unpredictable.

Alden Ikeda (l), George Cartwright

Following the break and the grapes: songs, tunes, and improvisations by GloryLand PonyCat, a group I’ve heard before and like a lot. Tonight it was Cartwright on saxophones, Broder on guitar, Alden Ikeda on drums, and Josh Granowski on upright bass.

Before the music started, Williams promised to do his best to destroy it, then said, “Don’t worry—it’s going to be a lovely gig.”

It was. Midway through the second tune, which started out small and slow, then grew to fill the room, Cartwright invited Williams up and all hell broke loose. Williams played his guitar with his hands, scraped it along the edge of a metal music stand, banged it on a bentwood chair (after which he tossed the chair). Broder and Williams each seemed to be doing his own thing but you knew that in a parallel universe they were mano-a-mano. Cartwright led the way with his big, muscular sax, Granowski planted the rhythmic pylons, Ikeda sprayed the room with buckshot, and Williams windmilled his right arm like Pete Townshend. It was glorious.

Davey Williams assaults a chair (l); Josh Granowski

If there had been a film, it might have been herds of rhinos charging, or scenes from the Transformers movie: Optimus Prime rising.

Photos by John Whiting

More about “Bonanza: The Musical”: Click on the sound file under “Text” to hear pieces of Cartwright’s conflation of Williams’ answering machine and studio recordings. Click on any word under “Film and Video” to see a clip by Anne Elias. Click on the sound files under “Music One” and “Music Two” to hear selections from the music. Under “Music Three,” click on any word to see a bit of Cartwright’s handwritten score.

Free Curlew music. Download 14 live performances from the early and late 1990s.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A night of new music at MacPhail: The Bryan Nichols Trio and the Paul Renz Quintet

When: Saturday, January 23, 2010 • Where: Antonello Hall, MacPhail Center for MusicWhat: MacPhail’s Spotlight Series, featuring members of its teaching faculty; this was “Jazz Innovations” night

First set: The Bryan Nichols Trio
Bryan Nichols, piano; Adam Linz, bass; JT Bates, drums

When pianist/composer Bryan Nichols told me that his upcoming performance at MacPhail would consist of all-new music written the week before and rehearsed only once, I was more excited than skeptical. I’ve heard Nichols and the other members of his trio—Adam Linz on bass, JT Bates on drums—often enough that I know to trust them. Pretty much anything they do is interesting, much of it deeply interesting, whether they’re playing ensemble or taking solos.

I expected to like the music; I loved the music. Five selections, the first four untitled. “Song 1” was a perfect opener, a warm and welcoming piece in which Linz literally leaped into his first solo, playing a rapid series of low-to-high notes on his bass and rising to his toes. Not an in-your-face piece, but an invitation to sit back and enjoy.

“Song 2” began with mallets on drums, a solo that went from soft booms to sticks on rims and a moment during which JT seemed to be squeezing the snare drum head. This one was freer, edgier, wilder. More like what I originally expected, though “Song 1” had already taught me the futility of prediction. We were in for more surprises.

“Song 3” started with Nichols playing what sounded like a very old tune, something Bill Carrothers might play. Sweet and nostalgic, it took a sharp left into swing, with Linz walking the bass. Fierce drumming by JT brought it up to the present and kicked it into the future.

“Song 4” was the most traditionally structured piano-trio tune: Linz and Bates playing rhythm, Nichols chording with his left hand and exploring the keys with his right. Enjoyable hard bop, with band members trading eights.

The fifth and final selection had a title, “Stories about Stories,” which Nichols explained was inspired by the tales jazz musicians enjoy telling. A tune in the once crazy, now lilting 5/4 rhythm (thanks, Lisa Meyer, for pointing that out). Moody, lovely, and reflective, like the big floor-to-ceiling windows in front of which the band was playing. The curtain was open for this event, revealing the glories of the Antonello’s glass.

Throughout the set, the music was intriguing, engaging, sure-footed, and pleasing to a large crowd that included families with children.

Aside: Bryan Nichols on playing with Fat Kid Wednesdays

Nichols’ new groups feature members of Fat Kid Wednesdays (his quartet includes all three—Linz, Bates, and saxophonist Michael Lewis) but none of them sounds like Fat-Kids-plus-piano. Like The Bad Plus, Fat Kids is not a group whose members are interchangeable. It’s a unit, one piece, and formidable.

Here’s what Nichols said recently about this trio and his quartet:

“JT and Adam and I love playing trio, but that’s never been something we have pursued intensely. It just happens every now and then, and we really enjoy it. It’s been happening since I was 17. It’s a really fun group….

“The quartet right now will be 95 percent my songs. That’s one of the biggest differences between that and Fat Kids itself. They have a couple of originals, but for the most part they’re not a band that’s deeply concerned with playing original music. Which I totally dig, because the way they deconstruct standards or free tunes or whatever is amazing. They take stuff and make it their own in a cool way. But if I went and decided to do that same mix…. That’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to just hire them and then copy exactly what they do. I don’t want to insert myself into Fat Kid Wednesdays.”

I mentioned that I had been at the quartet’s debut in late December at the Dakota and remembered thinking how tough it would be to make a dent in Fat Kids. Nichols laughed and said, “They’re guys I play with all the time, guys I’ve grown up both listening to and playing with…. I’ve been talking about putting together a regular group for quite a while now. I’ve been back in town for four years, doing various pick-up groups, because one of the things about here I really like is I can play with a ton of different people. It’s tough to limit myself [to hiring certain people and not others]. There are all these great players. This town is a special town. For a place its size, it’s impressive….

“The fun thing about playing with [Lewis, Linz, and Bates] is not only do they have this deep connection to all the music I do, not only do they have the same reference points as far as growing up in a similar place and playing a lot of different music, but they all obviously have huge ears, they’re great listeners, they have a ton of energy, so I can take anything and bring it in there and it’s given a new life. Most of the material we’re playing is new anyway, but it becomes extra new….

“Those guys have a really intense and idiosyncratic and impressive thing themselves, and I love it, but just because I know them so well personally and musically, I don’t want to feel intimidated by them. And on one level I do, because they’re my favorite band to listen to. If I have to pick a jazz group in town to listen to, it’s them and Happy Apple, obviously. On that level, I’m impressed and intimidated constantly by what they can do, and the interaction, but on a level of ‘Can I play with them?’ the answer is ‘Absolutely.’”

Second set: The Paul Renz Quintet
Paul Renz, guitar; Andrew Schwandt, tenor sax; Brian Ziemniak, piano; Eric Graham, bass; Nathan Fryett, drums

The music Renz and his quintet played was not quite as new as Nichols’; all of the tunes were released a few months ago on Renz’ latest CD, In My Own Hands. All were written by Renz. I like the CD very much but hadn’t listened to it since December, when I included it in a list of holiday gift possibilities.

It was good to hear several of the tunes played live, with more room for the individual artists to stretch out—on the loose and funky “Take It Home,” for example. I enjoyed seeing Graham and Schwandt play, though I kept imagining Schwandt sharing the stage with Brandon Wozniak, another tall saxophonist (they could do it, too, now that Wozniak has switched from tenor to alto, at least when playing with the Atlantis Quartet). But while Renz’s guitar and Graham’s fretless electric bass were amped, Ziemniak was on his own with acoustic piano. The Antonello’s gorgeous Steinway couldn’t stand up to the amps. Much of the piano was lost—even where we were sitting, in the center of the front row. Ditto for Fryett's drumming. Schwandt usually played toward the front of the stage, near a mic, so we heard his saxophone clearly (but later learned that people seated further back weren't so lucky). The acoustics in Antonello can be pristine, but when some instruments are amped and others aren't, they need a little help.

Photos by John Whiting

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Conversations on Improvisation: Adam Linz

Adam Linz
Bassist and composer Adam Linz is Jazz Coordinator at MacPhail Center for Music. He attended Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park, studied with Peter Olson at MacPhail, and earned his Bachelor of Music degree from William Paterson University in New Jersey.

Linz co-leads the group Fat Kid Wednesdays with childhood friends Mike Lewis and JT Bates and plays with numerous groups and bands around the Twin Cities. He also teaches at Augsburg College and the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth (MITY).

His latest solo release, A Kiss for Luck (2009), is the first on his new Larusso label.


Pamela Espeland: As an educator, how do you describe improvisation to your students?

Adam Linz: Improvisation is kinda like riding a bike for the first time, or a skateboard. Someone is there holding your hand. You're nervous, and you don't know what is going to happen. As you let go of those feelings, you enjoy it. Pretty soon, you want to do it every day. Sometimes all day. You do it with your friends, you learn new tricks, you become cocky and humble all at the same time. Then someone amazing puts you in your place, and you work at it all over again. You do it so much that you say, hey, I'm gonna do this for the rest of my life.... It defines you, and you shape it to fit your life. It changes with time and, pretty soon, it's just like breathing.

PLE: Especially to someone who's new to this, good improvisation and bad improvisation can sound a lot alike. How can a listener tell the difference?

AL: I really enjoy seeing somebody improvise who's not very good at it, as long as they have an audience behind them that's full of love, whether it's friends and family -- to know they're thinking, "I have no idea what this is, but that's a person I love up there, and I'm here for them."

What separates somebody like [saxophonist and legendary improviser] Evan Parker from some 14-year-old kid playing a solo sax set at the Bean in Uptown? Parker obviously grew up in the European improvisational community. He helped define and develop it. He also has a huge record collection. You can hear that he's an educated listener.

We are all moving toward the same point, which is development and connection and the ability to say, "We don't know what's going to happen up here, but we hope that it's going to feel great. If it feels great to us, we hope it feels great to you."

PLE: When did you first get interested in improvised music?

AL: I used to go to Cheapo in Uptown to buy CDs. A guy named John Morgan used to run that store. All of us -- JT [Bates], Michael [Lewis], [James] Buckley, Tim Glenn, John Davis, and I -- would go to Cheapo, and Morgan would hip us to great stuff. Improv from around the world, but especially the European tradition, which none of us knew about. Half of my collection came from John Morgan.

PLE: When did you start improvising?

AL: As a jazz musician in high school, playing with Michael [Lewis] and JT [Bates] and my teachers. Then I went to a very strict bebop college, William Paterson University. There were a lot of misfits there. We all started thinking we could play free-we could have sketches of music instead of charts.
When I moved back to the Twin Cities, we developed the scene at the Clown Lounge, and improvisation was a huge part of it. But Fat Kids and some of the other groups I play with still love to play traditional stuff. We're still turned on by all aspects of jazz, whether it's Louis Armstrong and Ella [Fitzgerald] or the new Tim Berne record or somebody from Japan playing a piece of wood with nails on it and rubber bands.

PLE: What goes on in your head when you're improvising?

AL: When I play with JT and Mike, I think about the past. I think about our friendship. We've been a band for 17 years. I think about the song, the background on the song, the background on the person who wrote the song.

Before I improvise with anybody, I drill them with questions. Where are you from? What's your family like? Where do you live now? Where have you lived? Where do you want to live? How are things?

PLE: Why does that matter?

AL: I have to know the person I'm playing with before we play a single note. When Evan Parker came here and played with us [Fat Kids] for [the Minnesota] Sur Seine in 2005, I was scared shitless. This is Evan Parker! The guy! He invented modern improvising saxophone! Then we talked to him, and he is the sweetest person on the planet. He put my mind so at ease. I felt when I played with him, I could do anything I wanted to do, and he would react, and I would react, and I could be as silent as I wanted to be. I didn't have to prove anything to him.

PLE: Who have you learned the most from about improvising? 

AL: Oddly enough, two classical guys at William Paterson. One was Hugh Aitken, my freshman comp teacher, a monster composer from NY who grew up with [John] Cage, [Anton] Webern, [Alban] Berg and Elliott Carter, and studied with Nadia Boulanger. The other was Ray Des Roches, who was head of the classical percussion department and was on every one of those Nonesuch modern contemporary classical records from the late 1960s and early 70s.

Hugh [Aitken] was this old crotchety guy. His palette was huge -- it was atonal, it was gorgeous. I went to class one day and he pulled me aside and said, "You know, you jazz guys, you're the same as me, as classical people or pop people. We're all just trying to cadence or not cadence. You either want to finish, or you're trying to avoid finishing."

PLE: I'm not sure I understand that.

AL: How many times have you thought a jazz tune was going to end, and all of a sudden they keep going, or there's a pause, or somebody blows a little? Starting is easy. Somebody starts and then you play, or you all start together and find these little rivers of harmony and melody. Ending is hard. How do you get everybody to end at the same time? Who should end? When should it end? How does the ending feel natural?

PLE: That is a mystery to many people in the audience.

AL: It's a mystery to me. That's the connection. Especially when we're playing freely. It's the connection of someone playing something we all recognize, it's the connection of a vamp at the end, it's the connection of trickling down to one person and letting them in.... In most music, the ending is huge, and then it stops, and that's when people know to clap. But in improvised music, the ending might be ten minutes of silence, or what we call lowercase playing, lots of small noises.

PLE: What improvisers do you like and suggest other people check out?

AL: Peter Kowald was a bass player and monster improviser. He had a great spirit, a great free will.... I really like George Lewis, the trombone player who also teaches computer programming. I like Mat Maneri, violinist. Jen Shyu, vocalist. I'm a sucker for the classic guys -- Dave Burrell on piano, Sunny Murray on drums, Dave Holland on bass, [trumpeter] Kenny Wheeler.... My favorite guys are the ones that walk both lines. They're improvisers, but they can make a record with Charles Lloyd or a record with ECM.

Craig Taborn is huge for me. He's like the second coming of Cecil Taylor. And he's the nicest person. That means a lot to me.

PLE: Charles Mingus once said, "You can't improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something." What's your starting point?

AL: Sometimes my starting point is an interval I heard earlier in the day. Or, the vision of a couple I see walking down the street. Or, the people I'm playing for, the environment.... It's not just one thing. For Mingus it might have been a standard he could play off of and do his own thing. For Ornette [Coleman] it might have been a musical scale.

PLE: What would you say to somebody who's about to listen to improvised music for the first time?

AL: Have a good time -- don't have an agenda as a listener. Chances are, we don't have an agenda as players. But we're trying to invite you into our thing, and we want you to enjoy it. I'm not the type of artist who's like, "If you don't like it, fuck you, what's your problem, what are you, stupid?"

Look around and see what other people are doing. Are they intent on one person, are they focused on a certain instrument? What's your favorite instrument that you see up there? Focus on that. Then let the whole thing in.

In every genre there are quiet little revolutions going on, but the world is too fast, too busy to take notice. And I'm okay with that. We can try really hard, but we have to be happy with what we're able to do and who we're able to connect with in places like the Clown Lounge and the Rogue Buddha. We feel like we're doing things. We're putting things out in the world. We're meeting improvisers from all over. That's all we can do.


View a solo performance by Adam Linz.
View a performance by Fat Kid Wednesdays (Adam Linz, Michael Lewis, JT Bates).

Originally published on on January 13, 2010. is a project of the Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation.

Photo by John Whiting.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

News about e.s.t.

For e.s.t. fans, here's the latest from the band's manager:

The new year started with a very positive message: e.s.t.´s album “Live in Hamburg” was declared the No 1 “Jazz Album of the Decade” (Noughties) by no lesser than “The London Times” !!!

Dan and Magnus state: “We are proud and overjoyed that such an important newspaper considers one of our albums to be the most important album of a whole decade of jazz music. At the same time we are sad that Esbjörn cannot share this joy about this enormous honor with us.”

The other good news is, that the waiting will come to an end very soon: DAN BERGLUND´s Tonbruket (that´s the name of e.s.t.´s former bassist Dan Berglund´s new band) will release their debut album on January 22, 2010 (in only 11 days from now!).

Dan teamed up with Johan Lindström on guitar, Martin Hederos on piano and Andreas Werliin on drums and recorded this debut album in September and October of last year in studios in Norway and Sweden. Ake Linton did most of the recording and mixing together with the band and Johan Lindström.

Who already wants to hear some snippets on how this album will sound like can go to (the band´s new website) ! Enjoy ! And please also register for news on Tonbruket !

The band will tour massively this spring, summer and autumn, so we hope to see all of you at one of the concerts !!! And please spread the news ! Thanks !

All the best,

Burkhard Hopper