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Chris Jentsch: Cycles and Reflecting on the Journey

By Published: February 9, 2010
AAJ: Does releasing discs mean quite what it meant decades ago in jazz? Do you even see a monetary return on any of your recordings?

CJ: Not really. Many musicians don't do it for the money, so society and culture benefit from their altruistic impulses. For some time now, the cliché has been that, at minimum, you needed a CD as a calling card for the purposes of publicity (it used to be a cassette tape. The basic applicability of this maxim is still in effect. I think there may be two groups who are making some money from their CD sales: the jazz superstars, and also independents that have some kind of a following who produce their own product and sell them at gigs.

Obviously the entire industry is undergoing an enormous upheaval in terms of music formats and distribution; I don't pretend to know how it'll all shake out. Having one's own LP or a CD available in eras past conveyed a real aura of professionalism, if not artistry—seems like a given expectation today. I've noticed that many smaller clubs don't necessarily need to see a CD anymore for booking, which is an interesting indication of the direction we're headed in. The procedure for getting a gig sometimes simply involves forwarding the URL of a Web site that features the music you want to present. Some bookers even refuse to accept traditional promotional packages. So to answer your first question, I think the industrial meaning of releasing your own music is changing, but the impulse of wanting to create an inspired artifact and/or to document your artistic development remains the same.

My reflex response to the question is to bemoan our current situation—poor paying gigs (sometimes in bad venues), falling hard-copy CD sales, saturated markets for live and recorded music, and tendencies toward hyper-categorization and sensationalism in the media (print and particularly radio—TV isn't really even on the radar or within the grasp of most jazz musicians). But when I think about it, I'm not sure the situation was so much better for musicians in the 1950s or the '70s or whenever. All that may sound depressing, but remember, we're just talking about the industry. I feel that my actual music and the state of jazz music generally is very healthy—so many different styles and scenes. It's just the music business that is kind of sick. The music continues to grow in spite of the business.

AAJ: It is fascinating that in this tough economic climate most of your recordings have been large ensembles. Please give us a glimpse into how each of these projects got off the ground—from getting funding to just the sheer logistics of getting all of these working artists to practice and record your projects?

CJ: I'd always thought of myself as more of a small group kind of bandleader until I started getting some of the grants I'd been applying for, and to look at my formal discography to date, I guess you're right that three out of the four are large ensemble releases. I think of myself as a performing composer/guitarist, mostly in a small group context, but perhaps you could say that my career itself has been improvised—a trajectory determined by my ideas and interests and the opportunities that have been made available to me.

Brooklyn Suite (2007, Fleur De Son) was an idea I submitted to American Composers Forum (ACF)—a connected group of compositions that would feature my various electric guitar textures along with the instruments of a jazz big band. The American Music Center (AMC) was another resource for this project; I was awarded some funds to put toward the preparation of the score and parts.

Brooklyn was the piece that got Jentsch Group Large off the ground—the ACF commission was a great initial excuse to try and call a bunch of great people together. The band members are all extremely busy, first call-type people here in the city, about half of which are bandleaders themselves. There has been surprisingly little turnover in band personnel through the various projects. That so many choose to continue to participate for very modest remuneration has been very gratifying. I get the sense that the members see the band as a good hang, and that apparently the music enhances that. The actual scheduling of rehearsals and concerts may be the hardest part of the process—trying to determine who's available on various day parts and scheduling events accordingly. You might be surprised how easy it is to get sidetracked with all of these administrative details while trying to keep one's eye on the creative ball.

My large ensemble streak was bolstered when my idea for Cycles Suite (2009, Fleur De Son) was approved for funding, principally by the New York State Council on the Arts. I wanted to feature my friend, trumpeter Mike Kaupa, with the ensemble. For the application I was represented by The Field (a composer's service organization). I was also selected to travel to Ucross in Wyoming, a beautiful retreat opportunity for artists, to take time and focus on creative work and little else. I used the two-week residency at Ucross to jump-start the actual composing of the work as a transition out of a heavy administrative phase.

Since I received a substantial large ensemble commission around 2002 and then the other fairly soon after, I allowed that work flow to radically affect my professional activities for these six or seven years. All through that time, I continued writing for and gigging moderately with my small group, but that I've been so diverted up until recently by these large ensemble activities is an indication of the work involved and/or a statement about being uncomfortable doing too many things at once. The wearing of too many hats can make me a little inert (producer, composer, music copyist, contractor, grant writer/researcher, guitarist, etc.), and this has impeded my medium- and long-term planning. I might have been able to realize more projects if I knew then what I know now about production delays.

It hasn't been a terribly efficient span in my career, but it has been a rich and rewarding one. I have plenty of ideas for future large ensemble projects—mostly on the order of taking a break from this extended suite form with the long, connected movements (having produced a trilogy of those) and instead working with some shorter subjects, and a further interest in acquiring funding for a studio recording as a main component of a project, rather than a one-shot recording of a live premiere being the main emphasis as with these three suites. Even though commissions paid to me have been involved, none of the large ensemble projects have made any money because anything that comes in goes out to pay for musicians, concert hall rental, insurance, recording, publicity, etc. I think I made a few hundred on Brooklyn Suite (for two years' work), and the Cycles Suite project lost a little money. So I haven't been able to really afford to do much else during those years.

AAJ: Please elaborate on your acknowledged influences of Jim Hall

Jim Hall
Jim Hall
1930 - 2013
and Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
in contrast to how you actually play, which suggests more in the way of Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric

CJ: On the large ensemble records, the soaring-type melodies and improvisations that I assigned to myself to be executed with rock distortion and feedback are perhaps the most ear-visible aspects of the guitar parts. It's true that I feel these moments are the closest to whatever voice I feel I project as an instrumentalist—moments specifically designed, in fact, to be able to be heard in balance with a sizable jazz orchestra. But I also issue a lot of integrated lines with a warm/clean, jazz type of sound, and there are several spots in the suites where I am supporting someone else's improvisation, comping through chord changes with a jazz sound and more of a standard, interactive, jazz rhythmic approach. Further, I might point out that my guitar work in smaller groups strives to project the kind of intimacy in which a cleaner, jazz sound can be more at the forefront.

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