Walter Tunis

Arts

Tunis: Travels With Tim

The life of most working musicians, if they strive for any kind of notice outside their hometown following, involves being a journeyman. Tim Easton is no exception, although in his case, the traveling comes naturally.

Whether it was the seven year stretch he spent gigging though London, Paris, Madrid and more or the scores of Stateside locales he has called home, stretching from Akron to Joshua Tree, Easton has remained an artist on the move. In fact, after he makes a return visit to Lexington via a June 19 concert at The Burl, he will be off to shows in Alaska, the Netherlands and Estonia before 2019 winds down.

Tim Easton Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

It’s no wonder then that “Exposition,” the latest in a series of sterling solo albums by the veteran songsmith, was also made on the road. Travel, it seems, is more than a mere work requisite. For Easton, it’s an integral part of his existence.

“It started out young,” he said recently by phone during a brief “nesting” stay at a rented country home in Leipers Fork, Tenn. “It started out when my parents moved to Japan. I, being in the second grade, had to go with them. So what started out as something in my youth has now grown into a lifestyle. I feel comfortable traveling. I love to see new places and mostly the people in those places. It has made me, I suppose, something of an armchair anthropologist.”

Protect Me
Easton’s travels have taken him to Lexington on a regular basis for over two decades, whether it was through introductory shows as a member of the Haynes Boys at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club or high profile opening act sets for artists like Lucinda Williams to more distinctive shows and settings. Among the latter was a 2007 stop at the Christ the King Oktoberfest where Easton offered a song titled “J.P.M.F.Y.F.” It stood for “Jesus Protect Me From Your Followers.” “Not all of them,” the song went in a sheepishly confessional tone. “Just the ones who turn love into fear and hatred.”

Fortifying those performances were recordings rooted in folk-related narratives and accents that shifted from Byrds-like lyricism, such as 2006’s “Ammunition” (the record that featured the original version of “J.P.M.F.Y.F”), to the unadorned solo acoustics of 2018’s “Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” (which featured a starker update of the tune retitled as “Jesus Protect Me”).

“The life of the songwriter or writer involves constant observation, note taking and a fair bit of travel, I’d say,” Easton said. “With all of my favorites, from Hemingway to Woody Guthrie – with any writer, really – there seems to be a fair amount of traveling in their lives. Mark Twain had a lot to say about it, about the traveling, about what it does for you.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“I feel the same way about America, about our country. I wish more people could actually see the third world just so they could be grateful for how great we actually do have it here, even though all around us, everywhere, there is extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Yes, the balance is difficult. But going to a third world country really helps put it all in perspective.”

Easton’s newest album, “Exposition,” due out just five days before his Burl concert, takes even further advantage of traveling as a modus operandi for making music. It was cut in very portable fashion at numerous locations favored mostly for their aesthetic, cultural and historical appeal. Among them were the Okemah Historical Society (Okemah, Okla. being the birthplace of Woody Guthrie) and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio (where blues giant Robert Johnson famously recorded in 1936).

“Today you can record almost anywhere you wish simply because technology has made it possible,” Easton said. “So pop-up studios, or setting up studios in a house or a comfortable location, become so easy. You wake up, make some coffee, have some breakfast and get to work. It’s like anywhere else. The room definitely dictates the vibe.

“I had a plan to make two very stripped-down folk albums in a row (“Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” being the first) in order that I might be able to survive in the modern music business. In other words, the plan was not to spend above my means in regard to fancy studios, backing bands and producers. Instead, I wanted to make the kind of record that I would love to listen to around the house, which are solo folk albums. Really, that’s what this was all about. I plan on returning to the full band and all that for the next one. But in the meantime, I wanted to make two stripped-down folk albums of exactly the music you would expect when someone saw me live and said, ‘I’d like to buy some music from you.’ You can hand them basically what they just saw and heard.”

Plot Exposition
The 10 songs making up “Exposition” play out in varying ways. Some possesses a theme that is detectable within its title, such as “Don’t Speculate, Participate,” a call for action at election time or, as Easton terms it, “an apathy busting anthem.”

“If you don’t give a damn, then you’ve nothing to say,” Easton sings a manner more soft-spoken than scolding. “If you won’t give a damn, step out of the way.”

“I’m not trying to tell anybody who to vote for. I just have this feeling that if more of us participated, more of us would be satisfied with the results. If more people participated, it would just be a happier society. Also, that entire expression came from when I was marching in London way back in the day. I was marching to raise awareness for a guy who was in prison. His name was Nelson Mandela. All these big artists – Big Audio Dynamite, Boy George, Sting, Billy Bragg – sang at it. At one point, this guy with a green pointy haired mohawk said, ‘Don’t spectate, participate.’ So I filed that phrase and used it to kind of address voter participation. Simple as that.”

Balancing such directness are “Saint Augustine” and “New Year’s Day,” less obvious requiems for a battered soul whose life tribulations largely mirrored Easton’s own.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“A lot of times a song will be autobiographical, but in such a way that it could be about anybody. In this case, I woke up in Saint Augustine and wrote those words down. Then I finished the song in Spain months later on a train. No one else was in the compartment with me, so I just finished it there. It’s definitely a requiem for the destructive life I was living.

“As you’ll see in ‘New Year’s Day,’ I’ve had gone through some personal things in the last couple of years. I got divorced. We have a child, so it’s been an interesting nesting period for me. I’m just happy to say that we all get along and we all want to support each other in the work we do.”

Glorious perseverance
For the better part of his career, Easton has been an independent recording artist. There was an extended period spent with the Americana-leaning New West Records (distilled on the fine 2013 anthology “Before the Revolution”), but even then, he worked far afield from major label pull and promotion.

Today, Easton is the CEO of a one-man operation. That means on “Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” and “Exposition” Easton handled nearly everything on his own, from the recording to the packaging to the distribution of his songs.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“By music business standards, I’m not really selling the kinds of numbers that enable a whole record company to carry on. But with my little folk stuff, I’m able to live comfortably and really enjoy myself as a traveler. I’m able to blend into society enough to be able to observe it. So it’s, like, the best. I don’t have financial stress, but I work hard. I travel a lot. I perform a lot.

“Also, as president of the record company, I give myself the occasional bonus. That occasional bonus is to go fishing somewhere, eat a good meal every so often and treat myself with respect. I struggle, but then I also persevere. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but mostly it’s glorious perseverance. How about that? Really, I’m very lucky. I get to travel around the world and play music.

“I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but I can pick a guitar just fine and I have stories to tell. I’ve honed my solo act into way more of an entertaining time because of observations of people and my heroes at work over the years. I’ve learned to put on a better show as a solo artist. I can do it by myself, so why not? It’s way easier on the company payroll, too.”

Tim Easton performs at 7 p.m. June 19 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets are $12. Call 859-447-8166 or go to www.theburlky.com.

Arts

Tunis: liddle’s A Lot

Back on American soil for only a few hours, Brian Krock is already feeling the tension and anticipation that comes from life in New York.

“My anxiety has really spiked and I just got back. The city just has an anxiety provoking thing about it.”
But the saxophonist has translated a New York existence into a remarkably fruitful and far-reaching career, from initial gigs in orchestras for Broadway shows to a current juggling act of several adventurous jazz projects. One, as part of former Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson’s ensemble for a Beatles-rooted ballet called “Pepperland,” had him traveling Europe for the past seven weeks (“One of the longest periods I’ve spent away from home”). Another is a project of his own, a stylistically daring quartet called liddle, that he will bring to Lexington for a May 15 performance at J. Gumbo’s.

Brian Krock
Photo Credit: Desmond White

“Like everyone else who lives here, I have a love/hate relationship with New York,” Krock said. “But like any other job, you can’t just jump in and immediately do your best work. You have to work your way up. So I feel lucky that I’ve had a variety of really challenging gigs so far in my life, from subbing on Broadway to teaching private music lessons and doing music copying and editing.

“There are the financial constraints of living in such an expensive place, meaning that we all need to have a million different hustles. It can be really hard, but it forces you to grow pretty quickly. It can make you think, ‘What could I possibly have to offer that isn’t already here?’ But then having to constantly wrestle with that question also forces you to think really hard about who you are and what is that you want to contribute to the world of music.”

The liddle things

To understand the band liddle, you first need an introduction to Big Heart Machine, an 18 member troupe assembled by Krock that meshes horn orchestration, free-informed dissonance, pop overtones and much more. The rhythm section of that ensemble – guitarist Olli Hirvonen, bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell – form the touring version of liddle. But the smaller group actually predates the larger one.

“It wasn’t called liddle at the time,” Krock said. “I had a band for years called Heart Machine. Then when I expanded that, I decided to call it Big Heart Machine. The rhythm section of Big Heart Machine includes pretty much my closest friends. They’re the guys I go get a beer with and talk life with.

“We spent a lot of our time these past few years rehearsing together because the music was so complex and required a lot of practice. We didn’t really approach the project with any goal necessarily. I just wanted music that would give us challenges we could work towards that would also play to my friends’ strengths. Olli, Marty and Nathan are growing into their own artistic aesthetics as leaders and as composers, so I wanted to write music for them.”

L to R: Marty Kenney, Nathan Ellman-Bell, Brian Krock, Olli Hirvonen
Photo Credit: Luke Marantz

Within the broad soundscapes of the quartet’s debut album, “liddle,” which was released April 26, the music shifts from the Zappa-like bounce and eventual electric glide of the opening “Flip” to the spacious fusion cool of “Memphis” to the dizzying sax runs in a playful update of “Opus 23b” (a 1974 composition by one of Krock’s prime musical heroes, Anthony Braxton). Topping it all is “Please Stop,” a fascinating requiem of sorts that closes the album in an ambient wash of guitar and bass clarinet.

Krock’s prefers not to view the album’s many styles in specific or separate terms. He sees it all as part of a more singular musical vocabulary for liddle.

“We, as jazz artists, are obligated to deal with all of the history we are aware of that has come before us. So I don’t try to make value judgements. ‘Is this atonal? Is this tonal? Is this swinging? Is it fusion? Is it heavy? Is it straight ahead? Is it free?’ I love all of those kinds of music. They all inform who I am, so I guess the fact that it’s the same four people playing the music is what ties it all together.

“But I hope, as a listener, you will go through a journey with the music, where the contrasts between the individual songs will highlight what is interesting about them. For example, ‘Please Stop’ is really tonal. It almost has a folk song quality. I love having that at the end of the record as a sort of cleansing thing after you’ve heard all this chaotic and crazy music. That song gives you a chance to come back to reality. I guess I just didn’t try to overthink things.”

Jazz and Joyce

One of Krock’s foremost artistic inspirations isn’t a jazz artist at all, yet it figures in the designs of at least two songs on “liddle.” It comes from the famed Irish writer and poet James Joyce. The quirky piano/reed rumble “Saturnine” references “A Painful Case” while the gently unsettling ensemble skirmish “Spondulics” takes its name from “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” Both Joyce works are part of his 1914 short story collection “Dubliners.”

Perhaps fittingly, the day we spoke with Krock began with the saxophonist in Dublin.

“I went crazy with the James Joyce sightseeing. I basically did Bloomsday (the city’s annual Joyce celebration), even though that happens in June. I did it on my own. I visited all the places that are in his books. I visited the Martello Tower that he lived in for awhile, which is in Sandycove. But I also spent the entire seven weeks of the Pepperland tour working my way through Richard Ellmann’s famous biography of James Joyce, which is a masterpiece.

“While I’m deeply fascinated and inspired by Joyce. I’m not really interested in trying to mimic his style in my music, that sort of stream of consciousness writing that was very controversial but sort of made him famous. But I am interested in the grandiosity of his ideas and the rigor with which he follows through with them. He spent 10 years writing ‘Ulysses’ and then spent 17 years writing ‘Finnegans Wake.’ As his plans for his books developed, he was forced to study all kinds of different things, from Latin and Greek to completely other disciplines. He let every aspect of his real life bleed into his work. So all of those and more are things I try to emulate in my life. There is a lot of stuff you wouldn’t want to emulate, of course. He had a lot of dark struggles, but his work invites you, as an audience member, to participate in a really interesting way.

“He actually said something that sounds very egotistical and arrogant, but is also kind of amazing. He said his challenge for his audience was to for people to spend their entire lives engaged with his work. I mean, I’ve spent maybe 10 years engaged with his work, reading and re-reading it. It’s challenging and it forces you, as a reader, to view parts of your own psyche that maybe you don’t like. It’s not necessarily fun all the time. Sometimes, they’re a drudge to get through. But I think after engaging with James Joyce’s work, I’ve grown in some way by knowing a little bit more about myself. That’s a pretty high hope for my own work, but at least it’s something to strive for.”

The crystalized idea

With Iverson’s Pepperland tour of Europe complete and liddle, briefly, on the front burner within a career that is continually in New York motion, Krock feels content with the artistic progress he is making and the general acceptance of his myriad performance related projects.

Specifically, the word he used most often in describing such development was “lucky.”

“Living and working in New York is sort of like a pressure cooker that forces you to spread out all the things that aren’t important. It leaves you with a crystalized idea of what it is that your goals are. So with each recording project and each opportunity, you get a little bit closer. You sort of chip away at the big marble rock that you’re hoping to turn into a beautiful sculpture. Every year, it gets a little bit better.

“I’m very lucky to be working with so many heroes, having had the chance to work closely with (Canadian born, Brooklyn based composer and bandleader) Darcy James Argue, Ethan Iverson and (New York by way of Pennsylvania pianist, composer and improviser) Matt Mitchell. I’m also lucky to get to work with my peers and my best friends, like Olli and Marty and Nathan, and on top of that to be able to make a living. I’m lucky not to have to have a day job anymore.

“For those things, I’m very grateful. So, yeah, I’m just going to keep on doing my best and enjoy the ride.”

+ Brian Krock’s liddle performs at J. Gumbos Lex, 808 North Limestone at 8 p.m. May 15. Admission is $10 for the concert only and free to dinner customers. For reservations, call 859-286-9239.

Arts

Tunis: OTS Features Musical Brothers Tim Daisy & Dave Rempis

Tim Daisy doesn’t want to use the word “telepathic.” But in describing the two decade-plus musical partnership between himself and Dave Rempis, few other tags seem to fit as securely.

Both are longstanding members of a prolific indie jazz scene in Chicago. Both are prolific composers, bandleaders and, above all, improvisers. Both have run their own record labels for several years as a means of releasing their own decidedly non-commercial music in a timely and uncompromising manner. And despite a juggling act where each performs in numerous ensemble settings, many of which have played Lexington over the last 16 years as part of the Outside the Spotlight Series of free jazz and improvisational music concerts, both have regularly shared the same stage in the same band.

That won’t be the case in April. Percussionist Daisy and saxophonist Rempis will be here for separate OTS concerts a mere four days part. Yet the music they play apart from each other has most certainly been informed by the work they have done together.

“I’ve been working with Dave since ’97,” Daisy said. “We’ve been playing together for so long and working in so many contexts together that when we sit down to work… I don’t know. I really don’t want to use the word telepathic, but I don’t know of any other musicians that I play with here or anywhere where the work is as comfortable, focused and engaging as it is with Dave. With Dave, I really do feel like he is my musical brother.”

Tim Daisy and Dave Rempis (Photo by Andrej Chudy)

“With us, it’s almost like a married couple,” said Rempis with a laugh. “There are so many subtle things I’m aware of in his playing and, I’m sure, vice versa. He always knows exactly where I’m going to land. It’s something that changes over the years as people go through different phases of life, like having kids. Our lives are so different now than they were 10 or 20 years ago, but what’s so great about that is how those life changes inform the music and how the music transforms everything.”

“Creating by Yourself”
Watching Tim Daisy play a solo is like viewing a vintage film of a building collapsing that is quickly rewound so you can view the demolition in reverse. He forges sound on a percussion arsenal by adding and discarding instruments at a dizzying pace. It could be a cymbal or a gong placed on a drum head. It could be a dash upon the drum kit using every available surface – a snare, a rim or even a stand. A rhythm might emerge, but if it does, it most certainly recedes into a new idea that has already loaded itself into his playing awaiting dispatch.

If he is playing alongside another artist, the outside element might serve as a foil, as in his duet exchanges with Rempis during their collaborative music in the Rempis Percussion Quartet, the Daisy-led Celebration Sextet or the times they record or tour simply as a drum/saxophone duo.

For his solo performances, Daisy’s singular vocabulary becomes remarkably expansive, incorporating everything from percussive accents on marimba and bass xylophone to more happenstance sounds emitted from a transistor radio.

Tim Daisy (Photo by Emma Daisy)

“I just love the solo format,” he said. “I’m huge fan of visual arts and paintings and admire the fact these artists can work by themselves on a canvas. Don’t get me wrong. I love collaborating with other people, but I love that solitary moment of just creating by yourself, whether it’s composing or improvising. I think that a solo format for a musician comes closest to what the format would be for a painter working in a studio on their own. That’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to it, especially in the compositional aspect of the music. Secondly, playing solo is the most challenging format to me, especially in performing. There is no one to fall back on but yourself. It’s quite easy to fall on your face. I’ve done it a number of times, but I’ve become a better musician by putting myself in these uncomfortable solo settings. I find when I go back into a situation where I do collaborate with other musicians, I’ve learned something and I’m able to apply that into my collaborations.”

Daisy’s return to Lexington on April 12 at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery reteams him with pianist, composer and UK Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Raleigh Dailey. The two cut a trio album with bass clarinetist Jason Stein, “Opening Lines,” in 2015.

“When we played together, I felt this amazing curiosity in sound exploration. It felt to me like Raleigh was going, ‘Wow. This is stuff I can use that I’m really excited about.’
“It’s easy to fall back on old habits when you’ve been improvising with people over a long period of time. But when you throw someone new in the mix like Raleigh, suddenly all the music gets kicked around in new directions. That’s what I felt happened. Jason and I had been playing together a lot, then we did this thing with Raleigh and it felt great. The music felt fresh and new. Ever since that happened, I’ve been meaning to get back down to Lexington to work with Raleigh some more.”

While “Opening Lines” is an exception, the majority of Daisy’s recorded music has been released through his own Relay label.

“I’m sure you’ve seen in the last 15 years how much the music industry has changed and how many musicians are starting their own labels, especially in our world where we don’t sell thousands and thousands of records. We sell three, four, maybe five hundred. I’m happy to sell that many, so I couldn’t be happier having my own label.”

“When I release something, I don’t want to wait a year to put it out. With the other labels I was working with – Okka Disk, Clean Feed, all great labels – you’re going to be waiting about a year between when an album is made and when it comes out. I’m more interested in trying to document my creative process in a shorter time scale. And who can release my records faster than me? No one.”

“Happily Developed”
In performance, Dave Rempis is something of a volcano. It doesn’t matter if his weapon of choice is alto, tenor or baritone sax, the sounds he conjures are, shall we say, combustible.

Dave Rempis (Photo by Geert Vandepoele)

Some of that comes from playing alongside such veteran Chicago sax stylists, improvisers and bandleaders as Ken Vandermark (Rempis and Daisy were members of his acclaimed Vandermark 5 band until its dispersal in 2010). But the mix of immediacy and intensity in Rempis’ musicianship has also been evident in the many ensembles he has either led or collaborated with for OTS shows in Lexington, a roster that includes The Engines, Triage, Gunwale and perhaps most frequently, Ballister.

During shows with the latter, the muscular tone and free-inspired phrasing of his playing becomes almost punkish, yet the sense of sharing and collaboration with bandmates is unmistakably jazz-like.

“I have happily developed as an artist, if that makes sense,” Rempis said. “I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve been doing this awhile, so I know my way around the block. I feel confident in my ability as a saxophone player and an improviser. There are so many fantastic musicians out there who I’ve gotten a chance to work with, and that’s incredibly rewarding to get all that great energy from them and to share some of their stories and knowledge.”

“It’s also special for me to be part of this generation and to see things from a different perspective, from a perhaps longer perspective. Once you’re around this music and start thinking about things that way, it makes sense to say, ‘Well, where are we going to be in 10 or 20 years and how can we help shape things?’”

The bio material from Rempis’ Aerophonic label describes “The Early Bird Gets,” the debut recording by a new trio with bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Ryan Packard (the group the saxophonist brings to Lexington on April 16 for an OTS performance at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall) as one of his “jazziest” endeavors.

Brandon Lopez, Dave Rempis, Ryan Packard (Photo by Erika Raberg)

“It’s funny,” Rempis said. “Many or most of the projects I do are completely improvised where we are not bringing in any material. This band is the same way. Generally, what makes a band stick out to me is if it has a sound to it. This band, at the beginning, felt like it had a distinct territory that it was carving out. It really had a group sound that was unique from any of the other projects that I was doing. I think part of that came from exploring rhythm in a very kind of fluid way. We’ll really be in a groove but then we’ll figure out ways where we can slowly stretch it out. It’s almost like what a classical pianist does when they’re playing rubato, but we’re in a group context where we’re really stretching the grooves out, speeding them up, slowing them down in very fun and creative ways. That’s probably what makes the music feel so jazzy. We are working so much with rhythm, but not in this type of fixed way that a lot of jazz bands might play in.”

Like Daisy, Rempis enjoys the ability to get his music out to public ears in a timely manner with his own label. But Aerophonic offers another equally important attribute – artistic control.

“I can put out whatever recordings I want on whatever schedule I want. To have that freedom is great. I also have the chance to communicate. I do all the shipping and everything for the label, so I can be in touch with the people who are actually buying the music directly, which is really fantastic. In trying to build an audience base with this kind of music, I get to find the people who are honestly interested in it. It’s very encouraging for me as an artist to get that kind of feedback. It’s heartening to know there are people out there who actually care about what we’re doing.”

Re-Exploring the Relationship
Curiously, just after our conversations, Daisy and Rempis headed overseas together for a seven-date concert tour of Europe with the Rempis Percussion Quartet, an ensemble the two have collaborated in for 15 years of their two-decade long friendship and musical alliance.

“Dave and I try to challenge each other,” Daisy said. “We push each other, but there is real respect there, so it’s not antagonistic. It’s real. I feel like we have really similar goals in trying to grow as improvisers. It’s been a wonderful relationship, one where I feel like, after we take these breaks from each other and get back to playing again, there is a very fresh quality to our work. He has grown as a musician since I’ve last played with him. I have, hopefully, grown and changed, as well.”

“Tim is somebody I just have so much respect for,” added Rempis “In the over 20 years I’ve known him, he continues to really push himself. He has an incredible amount of artistic integrity, so it’s always great every few years to go back and re-explore that relationship.”

+ Tim Daisy and Raleigh Dailey perform at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery in the UK Fine Arts Library at 7 p.m. April 12, for the Outside the Spotlight Series. Admission is free.

+ Dave Rempis/Brandon Lopez/Ryan Packard perform at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, 720 Bryan Ave. at 7 p.m. April 16, for the Outside the Spotlight Series. Admission is free.