John Seman: The Story of Monktail
JS: That's a good question. Up until the last couple of years I had not been satisfied musically, although, like I said, we produced the five records on Monktail and a number of shows, a ton of live recordings that we put out on the web, and a ton of gigs, posters, and flyers, but it still seemed open-ended to me, like I didn't know where this was going. Several things happened in the last couple of years. I think the first little knock was that Brian Heaney gave me a call and he said, "Hey, do you want to play this gig?" It was him and me and Greg Campbell, and I had not played with either of them although I was familiar with them in the community. It was an outdoor gig at this party and we played in but we played out. It was a little of both but it was completely improvised. I guess, as an improviser, you definitely get your comfort zone especially if you perform with the same people all of the time. It is like the pathways in your brain get a little more comfortable. And here was a place where I could not rely on any of those but I could be informed by them.
We still had to create our own vocabulary, and it had been a while since I had really jumped in. This wasn't like, "Let's go play in the basement and have a couple of beers." This was, "No, we are going to go play outside for some people who aren't there to hear creative music. But we are three creative musicians. We could probably put something together that is appropriate yet is still interesting." We didn't hold back. It was a really good feeling, and that sort of blossomed into what is now Ask the Ages, four years later actually. It is one of the most satisfying ensembles I have ever been in and a lot of musicians have come through there. We played last month, it was a double bill with Moraine, and we had [saxophonist/flautist] Kate Olsen and [vibraphonist] Stephen Bell, who are also in the band now, and we also had [trombonist] Stuart Dempster. It is a very satisfying band. Brian has written a few tunes and they have evolved over these years into things that are really different than where they started.
I have been playing with two guys I had respected once I had moved here, back when there was the Speakeasy and there was I-Spy. I used to go see them, it is saxophonist Wally Shoup and [guitarist] Dennis Rea, and playing with both of those guys has been ear opening, much like Greg, Brian, and Stuart, in that I find that my experience in my own little world is applicable to something larger than that. So I have tried to find ways to expand on my improvised music experiences yet simultaneously I have finally put together a band with some of my closest musical comrades, Mark Ostrowski, Stephen Fandrich, and Bill Monto, with a couple of guys we have really gotten to know in the last year or so when we were doing the weekly at Faire and since then at the new weekly at Electric Tea Garden, [saxophonist/flautist] Darian Asplund and [trumpeter] Robby Beasley, and that is the Lil Coop Sextet.
The other thing that has happened in the last couple of years is that I stopped having a 9 to 5-which, as a gigging musician, was extremely tough. But a creative musician can find creative ways to make a living. In the last year-and-a-half, I have worked on building a studio, so now I have a performance, recording and preservation studio where I have also done a couple of production things for different organizations, and focused a lot of time on writing, arranging,recording and rehearsing this band to where we are playing my compositions.
Some of them are straightforward and then some of them are very indeterminate and a sort of mix of indeterminate and serial and free jazz. Some of them are new and some of them are old, so it is about 50/50 new stuff that I wrote while I had more time, once I wasn't doing the 9 to 5 and some of them are old things that we used to do with either Floss or Deal's Number or Non Grata, the Monktail big band that we have rearranged for this sextet.
Some of them are kind of straightforward melodic material, basically a melody with some changes, and some of them are just a harmonic background. This is a twelve tone row with a bass line and then this is the matrix of the twelve tone row serialized in an inversion, retrograde, retrograde-inversion, etcetera, etcetera, which is used for improvisation. You know, four segments that are broken up into different segments, and the band has just adapted and been able to incorporate these things in a way that it doesn't sound like a 1930s chamber orchestra playing serial music, but it also doesn't sound like just a bop sextet. I think we have sort of found this new ground. And then plus we can roar some super fast swing and free jazz.