The Twin Cities scene is so vast yet so interwoven that I often like to joke that you’d need a series of flowcharts to really figure it out. It’s not unusual for a single musician to be involved in a handful of projects at any given time, and I’ve met some bass players, keyboard players, and drummers who are active in upwards of a dozen projects at once.
The scope of that kind of lifestyle boggles the mind. How does a musician even keep track of their schedule of rehearsals and gigs, much less learn all those songs? And what kind of creative benefits can be reaped from switching between different projects and, oftentimes, switching between completely different genres?
As part of an upcoming edition of The Current Presents, I tracked down a handful of skilled improvisors, jazz aficionados, and style contortionists to find out more about what this little slice of the music scene is all about, and to discuss whether the fact that our local jazz and rock scenes overlap so dramatically is unique to the Twin Cities.
“I think as a musician, if you want to do music full time you have to be involved in a lot of different projects because there’s not enough demand for any one band that you can support yourself on it if you want to make a living,” says Bryan Nichols, who plays piano in his own jazz combo as well as groups like the Gang Font and Halloween, Alaska.
Bassist James Buckley agrees that becoming a versatile player made sense to him economically. “I thought it’d be smart to involve myself in as much as I could in order to work and pursue different musical interests, you know. Kind of stay afloat. All I do is play bass, I don’t teach or do anything else with it, so I’m just trying to create enough job opportunities and a big enough market or web for myself in order to sustain a living.” Buckley also has his own trio and plays regularly in Vicious Vicious and the Pines, in addition to subbing for other bass players in dozens of groups.
Nichols theorizes that the size of the city allows players to come into contact with musicians of all styles — something that feeds back into his own work and allows him to grow creatively. “Here it’s cool because there aren’t necessarily a million jazz guys, and so a lot of us work with guys who are mostly playing rock, or guys who are playing hip hop, or guys who are playing country music even. And we, in order to work, in order to live, play all of that stuff. It’s unique and it’s cool, because it allows you to get that from-the-source inspiration and influence. It’s not just that someone listened to this other band, it’s that someone is actually in that band,” he says, laughing. “Then when you come back to your own music it influences it in cool ways.”
Many of the players I talked to came from a jazz-heavy background and are studied music theorists, well-versed in the intricacies of chord structures and compositions. But despite the fact that jazz improvisation is far more technical and nuanced, many of the players said that they actually feel the most challenged when playing with more straightforward rock bands.
“That’s one thing about pop music that I think is really interesting, that I’ve learned over the years,” says cellist Jacqueline Ultan, who plays in more experiemental groups like Jelloslave and Saltee in addition to folk-pop act Starfolk. “I play all this crazy, experimental stuff and I whack on my cello and I make all kinds of sounds, but being simple and playing in a pop band is actually one of the hardest of all the things I’ve done, because I have to restrict myself from going off and being the wacky cello player that I am.”
Omnipresent drummer JT Bates agrees. “A lot of the rock ‘n’ roll part of it, to me, is about self control. Knowing that, sure, I can shred up a drumset pretty good, but this particular Erik Koskinen song doesn’t need that, and in fact would be worse,” he says, adding that jazz and rock “feed each other for me. It’s a balance. If I can completely let loose one night with Fat Kid Wednesdays or the Bryan Nichols Quartet or Buckley or something, and then go out with the Pines for a week and play very controlled, and very much just play the song, where it’s not about the drums at all. I really enjoy the balance of not only the playing part but also the ego part of it.”
James Buckley (far left) and JT Bates (second from right) with the Pines; photo by Cameron Wittig
James Buckley, on the other hand, says that the skills he’s honed as a jazz player help him to adapt quickly to all kinds of new groups. “Part of jazz is having a sensibility to know how to react to certain chord change substitutions or stylistic changes within a song. And to have a backlog of vocabulary and ideas contribute,” he says. “That skillset totally helps with being in rock groups. I know how to sit down and transcribe a song. It’s not foreign, and it’s not going to take all day. People ask me, how’d you learn 60 songs in a day? And I’m like, well, I figured out a notation that was quick and easy,” he shrugs. “And I don’t think I’d be able to do that at all if I didn’t play jazz.”
With his talents being utilized by so many different projects, Bates has also developed a very workmanlike approach to playing music.
“It’s very much a craft,” he says. “I don’t really think about myself as an artist, really, that much. I’m interested in playing the drums as well as I can. I’m not interested, at the end of the day, in making sure I get to say everything I want to say all the time. I have a gift to play the drums, and it’s become more fascinating to me to let it be malleable and see how many situations I can get myself into and how I can still serve the music properly, whether it’s free jazz or a Pines song or Face Candy, or whatever it is.”
Though I spoke to them each separately, many of the multi-tasking players I spoke to brought up that same word: “malleable.” For them, being able to transition quickly between different projects and styles seems like an inherent part of their personality. As improvisors, they are adept at anticipating changes and seeking out new melodies on the fly, and as professionals the restless spirit carries over and has them constantly seeking out new collaborators and ideas.
“For me, I don’t know if it’s my Sagittarean qualities or something, but I need to be going in 12 different directions to be comfortable, and to feel stimulated,” says Ultan.
Having so many players involved in overlapping projects has created a unique dynamic in the Twin Cities. Over the past few years, especially, it’s not uncommon to find a local bill that has hip-hop groups performing with rock and folk acts. But the community wasn’t always so keen on crossing boundaries and cross-breeding musical styles, says Bates, who started trying to break those barriers down in the late ‘90s along with musicians like Dave King.
“With [Bates’ jazz group] the Motion Poets and [King’s group] Happy Apple, we started playing at the Entry and we started playing at the 400 Bar, we started trying to just push away from some of these ‘oh, I play rap music’ and ‘I’m in a punk rock clique’ ideas. It’s ridiculous, to me. I’m un-interested in that,” he says. “I like the fact that I can play music and I live in a city that’s got a lot of really highly developed musicians in a lot of directions.”
Now, Bates says, the community is at a place that he finds creatively stimulating. “I really think it’s one of the most vibrant music scenes I’ve been anywhere, because of the size of it and the amount of places there are to play. I think that’s what’s bred a lot of what you’re talking about. At a certain point I’m going to try not to play a bad jazz gig, I’m going to try to meet Eyedea, you know? It brings different things into your path.”
“Minneapolis is an amazing place to be and to live,” says Ultan. “It’s an easy place to live — in terms of getting around, the quality of life, the lakes — there’s an ease here that I think feeds into the music scene, which is open and collaborative. I also think that Minneapolis provides an environment that sort of forces us inward. There’s a certain danger to winters here and a certain seriousness to the life here, because of the extremity of the winters, I think that has an influence, and I think when you’re forced inward you’re challenged to be creative and innovative.”
Bates theorizes that one of the reasons we have so many genre-bending players is due to the fact that it’s possible to make a full-time living playing all kinds of different music in the Twin Cities. “If I don’t play jazz music until I die — which I will — then all I want to do is sound like myself,” says Bates. “Here, I have the room to let it develop as it will, as opposed to having to make creative decisions based on where you’re trying to get in your career. I tour some, and there’s a lot more Pines stuff coming up, but the last couple years I’ve just been in town, playing. I play drums constantly. It’s a little exhausting, but it’s like, what would I rather be doing? Plus, I can actually make a life for myself here, which is a pretty beautiful thing.”
An audio version of this story, complete with samples from each of these artists’ bands, aired on Sunday night, May 27. Below, find an archived version of The Current Presents: The intersection of Twin Cities rock and jazz.