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Interview with the Chicago Odense Ensemble

img  Tobias Fischer

The combination between you can Jakob on the one hand and the Chicago-section on the other seems like a daring move.
For Jakob and me - the Odense part of the project – the idea of working with musicians with a different background was very exciting. We are both producers of electronic music but  have also played a lot of heavy, kraut- and prog-influenced stuff over the last five years or so. For us it seemed very interesting to collaborate with someone from a jazz/impro/world/whatever music background, as we have always been into those things but never really played anything in that direction. Besides, it was a real honor for us to work with people who helped shape our musical lives – I have been into everything by Rob Mazurek, Isotope 217 and Tortoise since I was in my teens – so that was definitely one aspect for us as well.


How did playing in an ensemble like this one compare to your respective other projects like Isotope 217 or Causa Sui?

Soundwise it's not that different from either – there's certainly elements of both bands in there. But generally it's more freeform than both Isotope and Causa Sui, and there's less electronics than on the Isotope albums and it's more mellow and jazz-flavoured than the Causa Sui albums. In Causa Sui, we also strive for similar grooves occasionally and there's certain melodic traits and similar chord-progressions, but generally this is more laid-back and fluent. And although we've used horns a few times in Causa Sui, Rob Mazureks cornet here plays a much more important role as he's the one creating a lot of the movement in these pieces.
But the Chicago Odense Ensemble is based on impro sessions and not on written material so there's of course a basic difference there. Causa Sui is always „semi-composed“ in some way.


With its „electronic Jazz-Rock“ feel, comparisons between what you're doing with the Chicago Odense Ensemble and Miles Davis are obvious in a way. In which way have albums like „Bitches Brew“ and „In a Silent Way“ indeed influenced you as musicians and improvisers?

Of course I can't say exactly to which extent those albums have been important to Jeff, Brian, Matt, Dan and Rob. But I can only imagine they have been into that stuff at different stages of their musical careers and that somehow it has been incorporated into their musical vocabularies. For Jakob and myself, it has actually been a pretty recent discovery. I think I bought „Bitches Brew“ 7 or 8 years ago but it took a few years to really have an impact on me. 3-4 years ago we hardly listened to anything besides Miles from 1965-1975 and 1960s Impulse releases and proto-fusion and that kinda stuff. For a long while we listened to Miles daily, and no doubt that had a huge impact on the way we've been thinking about music and playing it. Neither Jakob or myself have any background in jazz, but only in different kinds of rock and electronic music. But I guess it was electric Miles and that stuff that helped bridge our own ideas with impro- and jazz-related mentalities. The Chicago Odense Ensemble album is definitely the furthest we have ventured into that territory and we couldn't have done it without a bunch of people who are really trained in musical spontaneity and improvisation. When we try to play completely freeform in Causa Sui, we usually end up in the same old groove and the same old riff. Working with these guys, meanwhile, was a completely different experience: every idea took us somewhere completely new and surprising.


A lot of comparable music has turned into „esoteric formalism“ ...

I think jazz/rock fusion has generally been a very boring concept for several decades – especially in Europe, where fusion has had a tendency to be an outlet for technical exercise rather than experimentalism, vitality and emotion. You know, music scholars with ponytails who noodle out on their instruments without trying any interesting things with sound or structure. That's why Isotope 217, Chicago Underground and similar projects have always been so interesting to us: they seem to take the spirit of early fusion – the desire to mix genres and different cultures in a new and exciting way – instead of merely translating the language of early fusion into something slightly more modern and complex. There's definitely an interest from outside the jazz world in different kinds of fusion, but I don't necessarily think that's a new thing. At least for me that was one of the key-elements in the 1990s „post-rock“ scene and all that interesting stuff coming out of Chicago: electronica producers working with people from a jazz-background, people who were into world and exotica genres who experimented with avant-garde, dub and ambient etc. But somehow I feel that this mentality continues to feel relevant - at least it is for me.
One thing that still hasn't really been explored is the fusion of heavier, psychedelic styles and these elements from jazz and impro as well as the idea of using the studio as a tool. That's what feels so interesting about the Chicago Odense Ensemble to me: you can hear some of the same ideas that have been going on in Tortoise and Isotope, but at the same time, there's an element that recalls the blissful psychedelia of early Grateful Dead or something. One aspect of the album is reaching back to the 1960s without trying to directly replicate that sound.


How would you rate the relative importance of individual technical skills and virtuosity versus a collective approach?

That's one of those things I really enjoy about this album, and something that was probably only possible due to its improvised, fluent nature: everything flows together. There's a lot of stuff going on at the same time but it still makes sense as a whole. Rob Mazurek often takes the lead in these jams but never reduces to mere backing – it still works very much as a unit.


In how much were you consciously discussing a particular direction or thematic ideas prior to performing?
Very little actually. It pretty much just happened, although there were long sections in the recordings where people tried to communicate musically about where to take things. A lot of the stuff didn't work out particularly well, so those jams were not used. Some of the stuff sounds composed but that's more a result of post production edits and mixing. There was quite a lot of copy-pasting, cutting up and re-arranging as well as effects done in the studio afterwards.


The album has turned out extremely relaxed, so is that a reflection of your interaction?

Yeah, it was recorded during some pretty laid-back sessions. The studio we used is a big, cozy place where you can hang out between recordings, drink beer, eat pizza and smoke cigarettes, and that's definitely reflected in the musical outcome. And we pretty much all know the owner and we got studio time fairly cheap, so there was definitely no rush to get somewhere quickly. We could just play and experiment as much as we wanted to basically.


What made it seem interesting to use these sessions as a point of departure for „effects in the studio“, as you put it?
Again, this had a lot to do with way Miles constructed those great albums in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Using improvisation as a starting point for something entirely new and different, not only as an end in itself. I think improvisation and post-production is an interesting combination. You get the spontaneity and impulsivity of the freeform jam and the rationality and overlook of the editing process. You get all those small, weird things that would never happen in a structured musical environment, but at the same time you have the possibility of rearranging, cutting out ideas that didn't work, and adding an unrealistic dimension in the form of overdubs and effects.
Jakob and I both worked on the album in my home studio afterwards. We didn't do a lot of discussing about the recordings beforehand, everyone basically gave us free hands to whatever we wanted. But of course they were aware of our intentions with the material.


What kind of operations were you performing in the studio?
Some of the pieces sound pretty much the way they went down in the studio, others were edited quite heavily. I did a fair amount of cutting and pasting, cutting out huge sections of material in the middle of jams, repeating themes a few times etc. I also used effects quite a lot: dubby echos, reverbs and occasionally some extreme software processing (as in the intro to the second track on the album). In one piece I also ran the bass track through a synthesizer to get a synthetic version of the original hand played bass.


In which way, would you say, can the studio part of the sessions be considered an improvisation in its own right?

Improvisation in the studio plays a big role on this album, but the thing about improvising in the studio is that you can go back and change the way it happened. You can „improvise“ with the same part three times and go back and choose the one that worked best. That's why there's an element of rationality involved in the studio process that isn't there during the jam sessions.


To me, a piece like „Spine Dots“, with its heavy use of electronica, is almost pure Sound Art, adds a lot of depth and impetus to the overall feel of the album.
Actually we tried to keep the electronic elements to a minimum on this album cause we wanted to keep things organic. But what I really like about the electronics on the album is that they don't sound synthetic or computerlike. Most of the weird electronic sounds were actually done by Jeff Parker with his guitar effects. He did a bunch of those sounds and played with them a bit afterwards during mixing, using some of them in different situations than where they originally appeared.


In several of the pieces, there is quite a lot going on at the same time, which points think about the two main ideas about improvisation: That one needs to listen closely about what the others are doing - or that one should not listen to them at all and trust the group spirit blindly. Which of the two applies for you, would you say?
Personally I'm not a very trained improviser – at least not compared to someone like Jeff or Rob – so I have to be very attentive to what each of the other players are doing and where they are heading. But I believe the goal should be to create a unified state of mind out of which the music will create itself. Experienced players have a natural ability to get that vibe going, I can only get there in companion with someone like that, or by pure luck. When you get that thing going there's no chance of taking a wrong step, everything will flow naturally and easily, so in that situation you wouldn't have to think consciously about what everyone else is doing but everything would happen by intuition.

By Tobias Fischer

Chicago Odense Emsemble Discography:

Chicago Odense Ensemble (Adluna Records) 2010

Homepage:
Chicago Odense Ensemble

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