Ambitious jazz artists find themselves in a tricky position these days. On the one hand, the grant-makers who support many important projects often have their antennae pointed toward themed works involving topics like poetry, social statements, or interdisciplinary exchanges.
On the other hand, mainstream pundits—those who regularly pronounce the death of jazz—take it to task for losing touch with the audience by indulging too many concepts and not offering enough melodies or danceable rhythms.
As someone who is capable of both the most enjoyable straight-ahead playing and the most sophisticated experimentation, Bay Area trumpeter and composer Ian Carey appreciates the conundrum more than most. For his slyly titled new album, Interview Music—it’s a sardonic term musicians have used for pieces that are thematically dressed up to impress grant committees or the media—he has chosen a different approach altogether.
Without any programmatic subject, he wrote a four-movement suite for his excellent six-piece working band. It’s a big, bold achievement highlighted by a continually surprising “inside” game.
Carey’s rhythm section—pianist Adam Shulman, bassist Fred Randolph, and drummer Jon Arkin—goes back more than a decade with him. They are joined by alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, whose woody, clarinet-like sound makes for fascinating interplay with the band’s extraordinary recent addition, the expansive bass clarinetist Sheldon Brown.
For the 41-year-old leader, who studied composing and arranging with such luminaries as Maria Schneider and Bill Kirchner at the New School, Interview Music came together slowly but surely. Among the challenges he met was putting the individual parts of the work together in a satisfying, organic way and sustaining the 50-minute-plus piece through its inventive turns.
One of his most rewarding achievements was making the Part III passacaglia work in performance as well as it worked on paper. While studying with Kirchner, who turned him onto such forward-minded writer-arrangers as Jimmy Giuffre, William Russo, and Bill Holman, Carey came up short in an early attempt to adapt the form—based on a melodic line that cycles repeatedly while the context around it changes, and used by composers from Purcell to Stravinsky—and had been waiting for the right moment to make a second attempt at it ever since.
From its polytonally-tinged opening through its looping melody line being passed from one subset of musicians to the next to its shifts in time and register, the suite is fully alive to possibilities. Waltzing jazz piano, electronic trumpet loops, intricate chord progressions sustaining an inner melodic voice—the band was up for “anything we could get away with,” says Carey. “There were probably 20 different ways I dealt with the line—but one of the things that is most gratifying is it’s hard to tell where the writing ends and the improvising begins.”
Carey’s writing is also notable for his extensive use of counterpoint, a relatively untapped device since the end of the “cool jazz” and Third Stream eras, both of which he confesses a love for even while recognizing their occasional overreach: “Even when it didn’t really work, which it often didn’t, I appreciate the sound of what they’re going for.” The biggest danger of overusing counterpoint is that “you can end up sounding like the Swingle Singers,” he says, referring to the spotless a cappella singing group of the 1960s. “But these musicians’ sensitivity and feel help us go from counterpoint to unison to improvisation without sounding contrived.”
Carey was born on July 24, 1974, in Binghamton, New York. His late mother was an illustrator and arts fundraiser. His father, a museum exhibit designer and graphic artist (a skill he passed down to his son), sang with the Gregg Smith Singers in the 1960s. The chorus frequently worked with Igor Stravinsky, and the resulting records, as well as its 1966 Grammy-winning recording, Ives: Music for Chorus, made a strong mark on young Ian, who sang works by Bach and other Baroque composers at the Episcopal church his family attended.
Taken with the brass quintet that sometimes performed with the church choir, Carey took up the cornet and French horn. After moving to Folsom, California in his teens, he picked up a friend’s trumpet one day in the band room and drew the band director’s attention with a high C. “I started playing lead trumpet right away,” says Carey, “but it took me a while to be drawn into the more subtle side of jazz.”
Switching to the trumpet triggered a raid on his father’s jazz record collection; eagerly taking in the music of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and other greats, he began his long approach to becoming a professional jazz musician.
“I was really into screaming high notes, that really bombastic approach to music,” he said of his high school playing in a 2010 interview. In college, he had to cope with embouchure problems, leading him to an appreciation of the more lyrical, less athletic side of the music.
He studied classical trumpet at the University of Nevada, where he got to play with visiting artists such as Eddie Daniels and Ernie Watts. After two years in Reno, he transferred to the New School in New York, studying trumpet with such jazz notables as Cecil Bridgewater and Charles Tolliver and composition with Kirchner, Schneider, and composer Henry Martin. He honed his improvisational skills in small group classes with distinctive jazz veterans such as Joanne Brackeen, Andrew Cyrille, Billy Harper, and Reggie Workman, and performed with musicians including rising saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and onetime Mingus trombonist Eddie Bert.
After graduating from the New School, Carey faced the dilemma of many New York musicians, taking a nighttime job as a proofreader which paid the bills, but which kept him from taking full advantage of the incredibly creative musical scene. Ultimately, he was drawn back to California by a friend who offered him a three-month summer sublet in San Francisco and promised opportunities to play. With his advanced skills as an improviser (his role models on trumpet range from Miles Davis to Kenny Wheeler), Carey had no trouble plugging into the music scene.
He played around town with such established groups as the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, guitarist Mike Irwin Johnson’s 8 Legged Monster, and accordionist Rob Reich’s Circus Bella All-Star Band as well as vocalists Betty Fu and Ed Reed, pianists Ben Stolorow and Don Alberts, and drummer Bryan Bowman, plus visiting luminaries like pianist and composer Satoko Fujii. In 2002, he settled into a four-year-long gig at a bar called the House of Shields, where, to his surprise, he was able to perform more and more of his own music. “I kept waiting for someone to tell us to cut it out,” says Carey, “but it was a long time before they caught up to what we were doing.”
Beginning in 2003, the “we” included the terrific saxophonist and flutist Evan Francis. The Ian Carey Quintet made its recording debut three years later on the leader’s own Kabocha label with Sink/Swim, which features Shulman on Fender Rhodes. Wrote pianist and historian Lewis Porter, “Carey’s themes are catchy and original, and all the improvisations are fresh and inventive.”
Sink/Swim was followed four years later by Contextualizin’, which featured Francis on sax and flute and Shulman on acoustic piano as well as Rhodes, in a program of original tunes (plus a deconstructed “Just Friends”). Carey, raved critic Marc Myers, is “a trumpeter with a clean, clear sound who understands that there are listeners at the other end of recordings.”
Roads & Codes, Carey’s third album, which features his own comic book-style cover art, added altoist Knudsen to the mix. The recording, which drew four-and-a-half stars from DownBeat, moved decisively away from the mainstream with arrangements of Neil Young’s theme for indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and a mini-suite including arrangements of Stravinsky and Ives—with whom, Carey says, he “always has been on the lookout for little changes or additions that can transform mood”—alongside Carey’s own increasingly complex compositions for what was now a Quintet+1.
“Something I learned from Maria Schneider is to tailor solo sections to the strengths of the player,” Carey says. “I don’t just have everyone play over the same changes. Many tunes have two or three different solo sections.”
Duocracy, a well-received two-man effort by Carey and pianist Ben Stolorow, followed in 2014. It features heady takes on standards and jazz classics. And now comes Interview Music. If, with Francis’s departure to New York, this is a transitional album for the group, it sure doesn’t sound like one. The musicians couldn’t sound more cohesive—edgy where they need to be and warm-sounding at other moments.
Carey is outspoken in his admiration of his cohorts. “Kasey added so much when I was writing for three horns,” he says. “She is such an amazing player with a sound all her own.”
Randolph, he says, is “the dynamo of the band. He’s a great soloist and the push and pull tension he and Jon create, and their time feel, at serious tempos, adds so much. I really value Jon’s sensitivity. He doesn’t need to play loud and louder like some drummers to create intensity. He does that at any volume.”
And as for pianist Shulman, “He has such a great feel, such a sense of jazz lineage. He’s an excellent straight-ahead player who writes great music, but we’ve been pushing him in a freer direction and he’s been more than willing to go with us.”
Recently, Carey introduced an adventuresome new band, IJKL, featuring Knudsen, Arkin, and acclaimed bassist, composer, and bandleader Lisa Mezzacappa. The group performs new compositions by Carey that were, he says, inspired by free improvising legends including Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, John Carter, and Jimmy Giuffre.
Forming such a band, he says, “is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It provides a nice contrast to the six-piece group. Though it takes a compositional approach, it frees up my improvising in a big way.”
None of which is to take away from the considerable freedom practiced on Interview Music. “When we premiered the piece, it was an unexpectedly emotional moment for me. Earlier in the process, I felt like I was over my head, and had little sense of things coming together. But as the deadline approached, I just kept working and tried not to worry about it. Not until then, when we first performed it, did I have any time to realize that this was working. It was a cathartic moment.
“For me, there is something for everyone in the music. It works as jazz, with enough red meat for the straight-ahead crowd. And it’s heavily influenced by chamber music, so it can appeal to people who are into that. Still, I didn’t know how it would go over. When we performed it as part of a chamber series and people responded positively to it—regular jazz music fans and chamber music listeners, but also people who just decided to give it a listen—I was so gratified.”
In the end, Interview Music performs its own Q&A, with glorious results.