Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Conversation With James Falzone

JazzGram: Does Chicago fulfill your needs as a composer/musician?

James Falzone: I find this environment, particularly right now, the community very stimulating. There is nothing I can think of that I cannot find a way to make happen. There are so many venues. So many friends of mine are curators, so if I compose something new or want to start a new group I can find a way to book something. Moreover, in the past 20 years it's been possible to be a touring musician working from here. You can pretty much play any night of the week in the city and it can be a launching pad to play elsewhere. Moreover, you have many musicians coming through Chicago. Also, even outside of jazz, I like the new music or classical community with which I am involved to a certain degree and the folk community is also wonderful. I find no shortage of inspiration from Chicago right now.

JG: The Chicago Jazz festival asked you to present a Benny Goodman tribute?

JF: When Neil Tesser first contacted me about this, I must confess that I was a bit taken aback. As a clarinetist, that's like sacred ground, you don't touch that music. I have no interest in doing a kind of retrospective (the good old good ones). It worked out nicely because this group that's gonna be playing is the band I founded a couple of years called Klang and we're putting a record out in August (Tea Music on AllosDocuments) and doing some touring. I founded the group as a quartet with clarinet, vibraphone (Jason Adasiewicz), bass (Jason Roebke), and drums (Tim Daisy). The idea when I started the group was in some ways to play on that sound of clarinet and vibes. It's a great sound from an arranger/composer standpoint because the blending of the two instruments is really interesting to me. And of course, there is this nostalgia or history of the music going back to Benny Goodman, Buddy de Franco, and then Eric Dolphy who had a group with vibes. So when the festival called me, this group had already the perfect connection although the tunes [we play on that album] do not have necessarily anything to do with Goodman. So, the last couple of months, I have been really busy researching that music again. Of course, I have a lot of those records and as any student clarinetist I went through a Benny Goodman phase. But what has always interested me were the small groups. I was never into his big band music. Of course, I listened to it and have an appreciation for it, but it is with the small groups that there is some real creative music happening. I have been modeling my tribute after the small groups. I actually added a guitar player to Klang (Dave Miller) to kind of play Charlie Christian and have a little bit of that sound as well. I have been going back and listening to this music again, and I am trying to find my own take on it all, which is in some cases to totally flip things upside down. I have chosen a few songs that I have arranged in different ways than the Goodman arrangements. In some cases, we will do them fairly straightforward although with a modern sensibility. In a few cases, I have for instance re-harmonized "Memories of You" a ballad Goodman did a lot. It's been tough because I don't want to be disrespectful because I have so much love for that music, but at the same time I don't want to just play "the good old ones." I have been doing some research. I have been going through that nice biography by Ross Firestone (Swing, Swing, Swing The Life & Times of Benny Goodman) and learned a lot about him and his many quirks. I have discovered that while Goodman was being very tentative about modern jazz (he for instance didn't like what was happening with Charlie Parker and mother musicians of that sort) at the same time he was commissioning composers such as Stravinsky, Bartok, or Hindemith, which is an interesting paradox. He was interested in modern classical music but not in modern jazz. And I will do a tribute to Benny's paradox by writing a tune based on the harmonies and modes of Bartok's Contrast for piano, violin and clarinet.

JG: Do you have a favorite Benny Goodman album?

I don't think I have a favorite Benny Goodman album. I'm really keen on all the stuff he did with Charlie Christian, which is often really fantastic. And then, the very early trios too with Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson. Sometimes, it sounds as avant-garde as Sun Ra. They're playing so freely over those older compositions. They had such a command of them that they're bending the forms. After the war, I kind of lose interest. He became more of an entertainer than a creative force.

How do you reconcile the love for the tradition that Goodman embodies and the interest for the free improvisers?

JF: First, if you have to distill me, I am an improviser. Improvisation is my main pursuit in life. Great improvisers practicing their art is what I'm interested in. And in the earliest jazz just like in the most modern of jazz, you have great improvisers: Ornette Coleman, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, or Oscar Peterson. I'm interested in musicians improvising at a very high level. And Benny was too at the highest of his powers, particularly with his early trio. As long as there is honest improvisation I'm there. And even if that's outside Western music. That's why I love Arabic music. I would even go so far as to say that this is also what I hear in Bach; his Cello Suites are kind of a frozen improvisation. Also, Goodman found himself in a very interesting place about midway through his life: he was criticizing bebop, but at the  same time there was a resurgence of an interest in very old jazz styles like those of George Lewis or Kid Ory and early Louis Armstrong. And the people who were doing this revival of those earlier styles were criticizing Goodman because he was too modern and ruining the music. Poor Goodman was stuck in the middle: He was criticizing Dizzy or Monk for ruining jazz and here you had people who were attacking Goodman for doing the same thing. I find this vicious cycle of who's ruining jazz to be very boring. I just see a continuum of great music whether it took place in 1921 or in 2009.

Your new album with Klang was in fact recorded two years ago. How has the band evolved in the meantime?

JF: Playing live has helped the band evolve with the rapport between us, the energy, and the camaraderie. As a result, we have all new versions of the tunes we recorded for that album. And now with this Goodman project, I hope that I can take some of the tunes I have arranged or composed (such as my versions of "Memories of You" or "AC/DC Current") and make them part of our playing book since we're going to be on tour in November. And if everything goes well, we might even record them because during my research I haven't found anybody who's done too many creative things with this music.

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