Jentsch/Fractured Pop Interview Fall 2016 by Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski: It looks like in the past you’ve done a number of concept albums, like Miami Suite, Brooklyn Suite… Do you think this new one is a concept album? And did you plan it that way?
Chris Jentsch: Well, there is a relationship between some of those projects that you might not have seen that were more conceptual. Most of those I guess were sort of big band projects: Brooklyn, Miami, Cycles. The concept for those projects was taking small group tunes and blowing the arrangements up so that 17 people wouldn’t be bored playing it. So instead of a melody and chords for small group, I took my own recordings of rehearsals and gigs and wrote down sort of development ideas like solos people improvised on them, either in rehearsal or on gigs, and then that’s like a line, so I would harmonize the line and put that into the arrangement. And that’s some of how I developed the arrangements for the large ensemble for some of these tunes. The idea for the small group record was....I was going to do the small group record in the early 2000s but then I got these grants to do these big band things, so I devoted my time to that. It wasn’t until 2008 and 2009 that I sort of turned my head back to the original small group arrangements and still felt like I wanted to document them, especially since I had a strong saxophone player with me at the time -- Matt Renzi, who has since moved back to the Bay Area. So I took the quartet into the studio in 2009 to document the original small group arrangements of what I had released originally...large ensemble arrangements of these things. So “Outside Line” or songs like that were definitely from the small group concept first, and then I chose improvised lines to put into those and harmonized the improvisations…or maybe took two of my own solos from two different days and put them together and edited them to be heard simultaneously. Had sax players play one line and trumpet players play the other line and then composed a third line from scratch to go with those, knowing what I knew about those two lines that were already extant. And all of a sudden you’ve got three-part harmony. Two previous solos arranged and one freshly written line of counterpoint for the big band version. So around about 2009 I took the small group in because I just wanted to document some of those songs as a small group. “Follow That Cab” is another good example of this...tunes that I had been playing in a small group. So that’s conceptually where this record comes from.
So some of these tunes have been previously recorded in large settings?
About half. Cycles Suite has “Old Folks Song” and “Cycle of Life.” “Follow That Cab” and “Outside Line” come from Brooklyn… Those were concept albums...they have movements but there are no breaks…continuous music for the length of the suite.
So you now have a scaled-down version of some of those arrangements.
Or you could also think of it as the original small group arrangements, right? I had been gigging some of those tunes and workshopping them in a quartet configuration, playing at the Knitting Factory back in the day (funny to think of 1999 or the early 2000s now as history...my first NYC gig was at the Knit Tap Bar on Leonard), Internet Cafe, Tea Lounge, and other places. And then I got the grants to do the large ensembles and I decided to blow them up using some of the small group solos on some of those pieces.
So now you return to this small group situation on Fractured Pop.
Right, and beyond that, conceptually, the idea of Fractured Pop is to record kind of like a rock record where you get a good basic track of the tune, and then I decorated it with sound effects and guitar overdubs and all that kind of stuff. So it’s like a combination of a jazz record and a rock or pop record. It’s a jazz record because almost everything is a complete take, first or second take. Almost always with the original improvised solos that were on that take. But then with the extra guitar stuff and effects added after, that’s the rock or pop thing, which were the overdubs. Instead of just doing a jazz recording where you go in, you play it, and that’s it in two days in the studio...I did that, but then I overdubbed some stuff to it.
I like the use of acoustic guitars underneath. The Rolling Stones have done that over time....various layers of guitars to create this mesh of guitar sounds that they have.
Absolutely. They don’t get enough sonic credit for using weirdly amplified acoustic guitars that they have on some of those classic tracks.
Certainly on the title track, there’s a whole web of guitar action going on there, it seems.
Right. On that track there’s an acoustic guitar track playing rhythm, there’s an electric guitar track playing rhythm and there’s a couple of lead tracks that come in and out. So there’s at least four guitars on that one track.
Have you been gigging with this particular group?
Yeah. Not heavily. Since I moved to NYC in 1999 I’ve been playing with Jim and John and playing a lot of this repertoire. But Jim and John and I go back to the New England Conservatory in the late ‘80s. Matt Renzi I saw playing with Christine Correa and Frank Carlberg at the Knit in the early 2000s and I liked his sound, imagined him playing my music, and eventually got him to play with us in the later 2000s. Since then he moved to Italy; now he’s back in San Francisco. So he was able to play with us for a year or two. We did the live gig at the video studio (on the DVD) and a Tea Lounge thing and then the recording sessions in September of 2009.
There’s an accompanying DVD?
Yes. Completely separate performances in the same package. It’s just a stand-alone concert that we performed at a video studio in Greenpoint. So we did the recording there with a pro video crew with eight-track sound. It was around the time that we were recording and performing with Renzi, so we wanted to document that phase of the group. So it’s not a video of our recording session at Systems 2, it’s a separate live gig that we did at the video studio in Greenpoint.
So this material was recorded around 2009.
What gave you the idea of wanting to merge these concepts of rock, pop, and jazz into one statement, like on Fractured Pop?
Maybe it’s partially a function of my age. I was born in 1959, which was kind of prime time with the Beatles invasion of the United States in the early to mid ‘60s. Grew up in South Jersey, Cherry Hill. My first single was “She Loves You” on Swan. Bought all the records as they came out. I did that whole growth spurt along with them as they went from “Love Me Do” to “Yer Blues.” I went through the whole thing with them until I was 11 in 1970. And so, that’s actually the formative musical experience of my life. It’s like the Beatles....that’s my stuff from the ‘60s....from my youth. But at the same time, my father is playing Sinatra at the Sands and other Sinatra records. So basically, the ‘60s for me is all about the Beatles and Sinatra. I got an eclectic home brew of listening, and that’s where my music comes from, the rock and the jazz. I consider Sinatra more of a pop singer, maybe the greatest, but he definitely had a jazz bent, especially when he was working with somebody like Count Basie. So it’s jazz combined with the rock and the pop. But then as I got older and became a guitar player, I traded in my tennis racket and picked up a guitar...instead of strumming the tennis racket along with the music I started strumming the guitar. I added composing as I started going to music schools and stuff. And I was just sort of intrigued by the idea of instead of just going into the studio with a jazz quartet, blowing your brains out, and releasing that, which is fine...Blue Note records from the ‘50s and the ‘60s, that’s the whole concept, right? The blowing session. Maybe a rehearsal. It’s historically important music. But sometimes it’s nice to have something that’s a little more put together. I’m fine with a blowing session and I’ve done those...got those in the can. But I also like the idea of maybe combining the blowing session with some overdubs and some other composer-related contrapuntal ideas, more lines, more textures, more sounds. Just something different, something I heard in my head. And that combination is definitely what Fractured Pop is all about.
Hendrix used the studio as an instrument on Electric Ladyland...lots of overdubbed parts. Was he at all an influence on you in your formative years?
You bet. I would say I was pretty exclusively Beatles through the ‘60s, but I was also listening to everything on AM and FM radio all throughout that decade. I had mostly Beatles stuff in my collection and some other random things...Hendrix didn’t come into the picture for me until I was a little bit older. And when I got the Hendrix bug, I got it pretty big. The older I got the more I appreciated his thing, which is combining exploratory blues and the psychedelic vibe with early jazz fusion influenced improv. It wasn’t until I got even older that I saw how Jimi had been leaning towards early ‘70s Miles Davis, and vice versa. And I became fascinated with the whole Miles period from ’69 to ‘71. Bitches Brew was huge for me. But certainly not when it was going on. In ’71, say, when Keith Jarrett was in Miles’ electric band, I was only 12. So I was still Beatles and Sinatra at that point, early McCartney and Harrison solo records, and Creedence...Elton John...whatever was on the radio…Hot Rocks, Slade, Clapton...
At what point did jazz guitar begin filtering into your consciousness?
Maybe college. Late ‘70s, early ‘80s. I started hanging out at the college radio station. That was really...a lot of people on that campus were into the fraternity system but I spent almost all my free time at the radio station, sifting through the record library. You come across a big boxed set of Karajan…Beethoven’s nine symphonies, never played vinyl. Miles Davis records, unopened. Scores of mint ECM LPS. But the gateway for jazz guitar for me was probably something like Al Di Meola’s Elegant Gypsy. Because it has enough of a rock flavor to have caught my ear in the late ‘70s. I saw his Casino tour at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. So I was big into Al Di Meola through his first few records, and through that I started getting more and more into jazz. One left field tune that kind of blew my mind was Duke Ellington’s “Moon Maiden,” where he plays something like a celeste -and is that him also snapping his fingers? - and half recites these lyrics. So soulful and mysterious to me; I think it had something to do with the Apollo moon shot. That was on a record that I discovered in the late ‘70s at the radio station (WZBT-FM Gettysburg College). And it went on from there. The station where I hung out had a bunch of '70s Pablo records too so I heard a lot of Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Count Basie. It all caught my ear when I was just getting started with jazz. And I got more and more into jazz as I got older and older, deeper and deeper...weirder and weirder, until I reached Monk, Steve Lacy, Oregon, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Interstellar Space, Ornette, and all that.
What about any influence by people like Pat Metheny in terms of modern sound and song structure?
I would say Metheny is definitely an influence. You’d have to be living under a rock to not be influenced by Pat, although I must say that when I did go to school in Boston there were a lot of guys who seemed to be much more detrimentally indebted to Pat than I was, because you could really hear it in their playing, particularly in their articulations and chorus effects. I kind of kept that influence on the down low, but his sense of melody, I think, is really kind of special -- playing through changes but playing melodically a lot of times. There’s a lot of pure melody in his playing. So he’s definitely an influence in that regard. By the time he did Rejoicing or Question & Answer, I noticed that he’d overdubbed rhythm guitars to make the trio sound a little fuller. My impression was that some of the tracks were recorded with him playing the single notes with drums and bass, and that he must’ve overdubbed rhythm guitar afterwards…or the other way around. So I thought, “Oh, OK, he’s doing that. I must not be crazy to want express these sort of ideas.”
I hear that melodic quality in your playing on “Meeting at Surratt’s,” a very lyrical number. But the other thing is, what I like about your playing is you’re not afraid to step on a distortion pedal in the middle of a song. You start off with clean tone and you bring in this other texture midway through, which is throwing a little surprise at the listener.
Right. I like to make changes, make modifications, change the texture, yes. And I love playing that way. A cheap way to describe my approach is “a combination of Jim Hall and Jeff Beck.” Definitely Jim Hall is one of my greatest jazz guitar influences, and Jeff Beck is one of my greatest rock guitar influences. You put those two together, what have you got? Beck is another great example of a supreme melody guy. Carlos Santana is another influence that way.
And so much of Beck’s thing is not with effects but in his hands. He gets so many tones just from the instrument and his hands.
You got that right. Abercrombie made the switch totally to fingers at some point...notably.
Another example of where you’re going from clean to distortion is “Radio Silence.” It opens with a kind of moody atmospheric intro and evolves from there.
It’s kind of a combination of “Giant Steps” and “Whiter Shade of Pale.” The descending Bach-like bass line...but it modulates into a few different keys like “Giant Steps” does. It’s a Pink Floyd-esque rock ballad with more modulations than you would hear on a Pink Floyd record.
“Are You Bye?” is a contrafact on “Bye Bye Blackbird.” It’s a swinging number with brushes. Maybe it harkens back to maybe some of your jazz roots.
For sure. That’s really kind of the most explicitly jazz thing on the record. It’s definitely in the tradition. An important part of learning about BeBop and Cool...I've made contrafacts a part of my thing. I’ve got a handful of them I really like to play. And then I had a big Bill Evans period in the ‘80s where I was listening to those famous Village Vanguard recordings with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro. I always loved playing standards, and I think that guys who are a lot younger than me have less emotional resonance with that repertoire. I think of my Dad playing the Sinatra versions, or playing them himself on the piano. I still like playing standards, I think it’s important repertoire. I usually always try to play a standard on gigs.
“Outside Line” is very mesmerizing and also has a somewhat dark undercurrent. For me, it had an ECM kind of a flavor to it.
Guilty. Going through the radio station LPs in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, they had a lot of prime era ECM records and I was totally intrigued by them. What caught my eye was the album covers and the artwork…making me want to like the records before I even had ears ready to hear them. And I grew more and more into it as time went on. It wasn’t my thing yet in 1977 but by 1981, when I graduated, it was a different story. Ralph Towner records for the playing, the compositions, and his different small groups. Keith. Later on Kenny Wheeler, and Dave Holland’s small groups when I was studying with him. I was way into Terje Rypdal albums, his two records with Jack DeJohnette and Miroslav...the first one was a major influence on my sonic approach…I think it was the first CD I ever bought...what you do with the volume pedal and delays and reverbs on the guitar, as well as the compositions interspersed with the great bass player and drummer. ECM was definitely an influence.
Did you have an on-air show at your campus radio station?
Yes. I put in four years at the radio station, was station manager one year and had two free form shows a week on-air. A daytime classical show for a while, which helped me explore that repertoire.
That’s your education right there.
You got it! I've been dipping heavily into Bach cantatas recently.
I liked these two companion pieces, the “Old Folks Song” and the “Postlude.” Very unforced, lyrical song that segues to ambient sound, creatures in the woods. Very Eno-esque. And it’s pretty daring to let that ambient segment run for eight minutes.
Right. That audio collage is my "Revolution #9", I guess. We had the space to do it because the CD is split up into two separate programs, each the length of a full vinyl LP front and back. Fractured Pop would have been an old school gatefold double album, so the ambient crickets close out Program #1 and then some added dead air marks the transition to Program #2. Eno is definitely an influence on that…or John Cage, in a way...you can experience your own so-called silent piece in the middle of the disc. All sound as music. Music for Airports was a big thing for me when I was checking it out. That caught my ear somehow more so than any of his others.
Are you putting this album out on your own label?
It’s on a label called Fleur de Son Jazz based in Buffalo. Brooklyn Suite and Cycles Suite are also on that label.
What was the source of those nature sounds on “Old Folks Postlude”?
There’s an artist retreat in Wyoming called Ucross, population 25. That number is basically the people who live on that ranch and administer the artist colony, and they have studios for painters and composers and writers. They bring you a chef prepared lunch every day and everybody comes together for the chef’s family style dinner giving you 12 hours of uninterrupted composing work time. I worked on the large ensemble versions of the small group tunes there....working on harmonizing and contrapuntalizing there. That retreat was more about arranging than composing. It’s beautiful open country with horses and deer and crickets. So I went out one night with my digital recorder, captured a bunch of cricket sounds, and then later edited and layered them together.
“Imagining the Mirror” is a very serene ballad with some intricate layering of guitars on there.
That’s the jazz waltz. By the time I finished overdubbing on it, it became a little more epic. The jazz waltz vibe is in the first half…second half it becomes more thunderous and full. My wife came up with that title. We had just moved into an apartment and she was looking at a wall, crooking her head. And I said, “What are you doing?” And she said, “Imagining the mirror.” And I immediately added that to my Song Title File that I keep…a literal computer file now with a list of potential song titles.
“Cycle of Life” is an interesting piece. I like the sound of the clarinet and the very loose exploration on this one. And it’s a very conversational thing that you get into at the end.
Matt’s got a great, beautiful warm full sound on that clarinet. He grew up listening to orchestras and chamber music with his parents in San Francisco. Sometimes on the master that’s two takes of the tune presented at the same time. Both performances were sparse so somehow it doesn’t ever sound busy or cluttered to me. I also recorded some volume pedal swelled chords in my living room and layered them on top of the sections where it goes into time. It ain’t a blowing date!
Like Teo Macero did with Miles. The original cut and paste...with an exacto.
Right. Again, Bitches Brew was a very big influence on my listening. The first time I heard it was probably the late ‘70s. At first, I couldn’t really get to it, but I seemed to understand that I should continue making an effort. So I kept listening to it until it made more and more sense. Used to nap with it on low volume in the dorm. I feel like I’ve come to understand it over time. And it’s amazing to look back on what I thought of it in 1978 and what I hear now. Now it’s as secure and “comforting” as anything in my late Boomer nostalgia listening rep. Kind of like trying to remember what it was like forty years ago to not be able to tell the difference between Cannonball and Trane on Kind of Blue when I first heard it.
“Follow That Cab” has an angular post bop feel to it.
I would say that Ornette Coleman is a big influence on that tune. That’s basically a melody with a bass line and then related free blowing in the middle, like the classic Ornette Quartet with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. We play the melody and bass lines...about 16 or so bars, play the head. One melody with specific bass notes...and the whole six minutes in the middle is free improv. Added some ambient traffic noise here and there recorded in the West Village for atmosphere...and then we recapitulate at the end. I liked both versions we did in the studio so I included both of them in the package.
There’s some strong playing from each of the individuals on this record. You give Jim the bass player room for soloing. And Matt is great throughout this.
He’s a beautiful player.
Thank you, Bill.
Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to DownBeat and Absolute Sound magazines. He is also the author of “JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius” and co-author of “Here And Now: The Autobiography of Pat Martino”.