Jeremy Udden: Far From Plain


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That's New York for you. It's all happening at such a high level. You can't help but grow as a musician. In other cities, there are people that can do it and can't do it. In New York, everybody can do it.
Jeremy Udden is one of those outstanding working musicians on the scene in Brooklyn. A saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, he is—like so many musicians of his generation—influenced by a variety of things outside what is known as jazz, and his music reflects that. He's developed a band called Plainville that offers a different sound and feel. A different tapestry on which musicians can subtly embroider their improvisations. A different mosaic.

Out of the New England Conservatory, he cut his teeth in bands like the Either/Orchestra and stayed in that organization for about seven years. He eventually landed himself in New York City, but he spent time in China and thought of staying there. This year, moving to Stockholm was on his mind. But all the while, he's pushing new projects and is excited about his distinctive band—sax, electric keyboards including organ, banjo, bass and drums—that produces music with an almost-folk quality.

"The band is called Plainville because that's the name of the small town that I grew up in, in Massachusetts," says Udden. The band's previous album was also titled Plainville (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2009). "It continues to be a reflection of getting in touch with that, which is definitely a quieter time in my life, a more peaceful time in my life. Also, it's a reflection of the different music I've been into over those years."

If the Past Seems So Bright (Sunnyside Records, 2011) is Udden's third album as a leader. It shows his compositional skills as well as his abilities on saxophone. There are also things beneath the surface, like how he melds the instrumentation and allows his band mates to have a personal say.

Kicking off the new album, for example, is "Sad Eyes," a slow song with RJ Miller playing as simple a drum cadence as can be done, complemented by Eivind Opsvik's minimal bass lines. But Pete Rende's keyboards softly float on top, giving a pastoral feel. Brandon Seabrook's electrified strings give it a spaciness, even though the underlying feeling, as the title suggests, is melancholy. Udden gives a dream-like vibe on sax. It's certainly not jazz in the surest sense. "New Dress" starts with acoustic banjo, a trip down a back road in the south perhaps, with Udden's sax blending nicely to push the folksy melody. His tone is sure, and his melodic lines weave beautifully on an improvisation that is relaxed and satisfying. Cool. A great groove is established that evocatively tugs listeners in.

The music, Udden says, does come from his jazz roots, even though he adds jokingly, "It's jazz because I'm holding a saxophone." There's more to it than that, as this artful composer makes clear. "It's jazz because of the process that the music is made with, and that the musicians making it are trained jazz musicians. In terms of what it draws from, it draws from music that is mostly not jazz. It is [jazz] in the sense of how the music is made, and that it's relatively spontaneous. Stylistically, every song starts from music that is not what would be considered jazz. ... I hope everyone in the band feels free to take the music in any direction. I improvise, and my playing itself still has all those influences it ever had. I still think it comes out of my jazz roots, definitely. And it's been a real challenge to find a way to improvise over these simple songs in a way that I feel that it's my voice, specifically saxophone-wise—playing solos on this stuff. It's been a fun and interesting challenge to find a voice over it."

"Stone Free" is rock and funk at its base, and "Hammer" is far more in the folk vein, as is "Pause at a Lake." And so it goes, each song with its own home. "Growing up as a musician, I've listened to as much Beatles or Pixies as I did jazz," Explains Udden. "I didn't get into jazz until I was 15 or 16. A lot of music happened before that. I always played in rock bands throughout high school and college, and since then. The folk thing is more recent, over the last five years or so. The folk-like banjo thing really happened by accident. It was that Brandon Seabrook is a really good friend of mine. I've known him since high school. We played a lot in high school and played a lot in college again. When I moved to New York, we started playing again. Then we didn't play for a long time. When we started again, maybe four or five years ago, he was playing a lot of banjo. So I started writing music around that. It fit perfectly with what I was listening to anyway, which was more folkish and singer-songwriter things. It all came together pretty organically.

"I wrote a number of songs, then started playing gigs with this band," he adds. "It eventually formed as this particular unit. Then I really started writing songs specifically for this band—what I heard. Most of the songs started from a non-jazz place, in terms of the other music I was listening to. These guys, even though they all play in a lot of rock bands and play a lot of folk—all kinds of different stuff—they all have a jazz background a little bit. ... We like to keep it spontaneous. We don't like to rehearse very much. It's not like a tight rock unit. It's more about trying to approach the songs from different angles on the gig. They're still improvisers in the group."

Udden says the folk influence in his music isn't so much deliberate as it is part of what he's feeling and where he is these days. "It's more organic than that. I didn't sit down and say I wanted to combine these elements in an album and then make it. It's more that I sit down and write something, and that's what's coming out when I write, these days. The musicians have a lot to do with it as well. They'll take it in a certain direction. I think it's having the right musicians to hear what I am hearing. Sometimes I've put these songs in front of more straight-ahead jazz musicians, and they take it in another way. Which is good, but it's not what I want. It's all happening very organically, writing as honestly as I can, then having the right musicians to hear what I'm going for."

Plainville is a band Udden is trying to keep working. The newer disk is a continuation of its earlier record. He also has a version of Plainville in Sweden and can play the music there when he travels to that country for gigs.

"There's an element of luck in finding the right people, then writing the right songs for the right people," says the composer. "It's a real cast of characters in this band. I'm happy to show their strengths on different songs. It's my songs, but their personalities come through on every song, which makes it as unique as it is. ... I'm very happy with it. We did it in a different type of studio. Pete Rende, the keyboardist, has a lot to do with the sound of this, and the last, record: he co-produced ... he mixed both of them. This one we did in a bigger studio. We were going to go to tape, but we didn't. We sort of stuck with older mics ... trying to make a pretty organic-sounding record that was a little grittier sounding. I'm pleased with the end result, definitely. This one was a little less home grown than the last one, but I think it still kind of sounds that way."

In the bucolic setting of the town that inspired the band's name, Udden was fortunate to have been exposed to good music. His parents didn't play instruments, but they had a lot of records. His father, specifically, was a huge Beatles fan. "I think it influences the Plainville stuff pretty directly," Udden notes. Udden's school had a good music program, and while in elementary school, the young Udden saw the high-school jazz band play a program that included a saxophone solo that blew him away. He was smitten, and started studying the instrument in school. He played with a ska punk band and other rock groups that began to stretch their wings into Boston and nearby Providence, Rhode Island. He discovered that he loved being part of a band. He also knew he wanted to start improvising more.

As he got into those aspects, Lee Konitz and Paul Desmond were influences. "I remember buying Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1957) just because I thought the title sounded neat. In my total inexperience, I thought it was going to be some kind of fusion record or something like that. That's probably where I first heard Lee. ... I remember staying up until three in the morning because the public radio station said they were going to do a set of Lee Konitz, and I taped it. It turns out it was the [Lennie] Tristano stuff—a recording of 'Wow,' a song called 'Progression.' That stuff blew my mind when I was 16 or something like that."

Udden was steadfast in his practice habits on saxophone. He participated in competitions in school and won some awards. His father was an engineer, and his sister was pursuing engineering in college. But it was his father who said it would be a shame if he didn't do something with music, as involved and accomplished as he had become. With that urging, Udden says, "I think it was the first time it dawned on me. Soon after that, I applied to music schools. I got into New England Conservatory. I ended up staying there a long time. I went back because Steve Lacy had moved to town. He was another huge influence, and he was teaching there for a couple years. I was around that building for over six years, which is pretty crazy to think about."

In his senior year, Udden joined Russ Gershon and the Either/Orchestra. "I got a passport for the first time and missed most of my last semester, says Udden. "We went to Italy, then did a Midwest tour. I played with them for seven years. I owe Russ a lot. I learned a lot from him about how to run a band. He and I got along well because he also had a rock background, and was trying to run a jazz band more like a rock band, in a way. I've never been able to do what he does, which is ... we'd rehearse once week. It's very hard to get people to do that in New York. I always admired that. What he's done is a miracle. [Either/Orchestra] has been together for more than 25 years now. In the seven years I was in it, there were a lot of people in and out of the band."

Plainville, from left: Brandon Seabrook, Pete Rende, Eivind Opsvik, Jeremy Udden, RJ Miller

The band got Udden exposure and got his name into print in various publications. He'd get a long featured solo each set. "I had never had that before. To do that in front of large audiences at festivals was a really important part of my development. Russ certainly gives his guys the freedom to do that. When I joined, the band was tipping toward its Ethiopian thing, so it was less of a straight-ahead band—more open grooves, funk, even rock-ish sort of grooves related to Ethiopian feels. That influenced me a lot— seeing how audiences related to that. Being able to play with those rhythm sections was a real opportunity for me. Soon after, I made my first record. But that was influencing me along the way."

After taking time to tour, Udden returned to the New England Conservatory (NEC) and worked with Lacy. After finishing and then getting his master's degree, he made his first album, Torchsongs (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2005). "That record was a whole other process. I had written a lot of music and had a few gigs around town, but didn't really have a working band. That record has Matt Wilson and Ben Monder. I knew Matt a little bit from the Either/Orchestra connection. I knew Ben a little bit. He was teaching at NEC at the time. I put together the session. That was a great learning experience: stressful, but very good."

A funny thing happened around that time. In 2005, Udden ended up going to China "with the intention of living there forever, because I had one friend that was there," he says gleefully. "People were playing, and they were really busy. I was getting sick of Boston. The Either/Orchestra was feeling like it was running its course. I just needed a change. So I went to China. Played a lot—believe it or not, I was playing my music.

"[Shanghai] is kind of known for these funny hotel gigs, with people playing straight-ahead stuff. But there was this one club, called JZ Club, where I was playing three nights a week. It was the one creative club in town. It was an amazing time. It was the club that at the end of night all the musicians show up at and there's a jam session. It felt very old school: Chinese musicians, a lot of European expatriate musicians and American expatriate musicians." Though gigs were plentiful, "they were kind of either straight-ahead or kind of fusiony," Udden adds. "That's what I quickly realized, which is why I left. It only took three months to realize I know all the best musicians here, and I'm playing with them already. So, like everybody else, I went to New York.

Upon his return, Udden was still playing with the Either/Orchestra in Boston, but he got an apartment in New York City. "I was back and forth. That was in 2005-06. That's when I started meeting and playing with the musicians that would turn into the first Plainville record. I started writing that music and doing different gigs around town with different musicians, and eventually the band formed. I reconnected with Brandon, then it started taking shape."

He eventually settled in Brooklyn, home to many of the city's fine young musical minds. "For me, it was very much like moving there with friends," he recalls. "We were playing there a lot. George Garzone hooked me up with the apartment. He was a teacher of mine. By the end in Boston, I was doing gigs here and there, where we were on the same gig, so we always kept in touch. So we lived below George [in Brooklyn], three guys in a two-bedroom. It was difficult—a bad New York situation, but really fun nonetheless.

Udden was still hitting with the Either/Orchestra and sometimes with Darcy James Argue. Pianist Frank Carlberg was also a steady partner. "A lot of it was reconnecting with people from Boston that had already moved, and I hadn't played with them in a while. I was traveling a little bit with the singer Dominique Eade, another Boston person who also teaches at NEC."

Musicians Udden's age weren't staying in Boston at the time. "When I got to New York, there was plenty of people I wanted to play with and that wanted to play with me," he notes. "We hadn't connected in a while, so it felt good. That's still the reason I'm here. New York's not my favorite place to live. I go to Stockholm regularly, and I always think I want to live there. But it all comes out of the music—the music I hear and the music I want to play; the musicians that understand our music are here. They do it at such a high level. That's the reason."

Plainville was formed and had places to play. Brandon Seabrook, Udden says, was key to the sound he wanted to capture. "Nobody really sounds like him. Originally, I thought I wanted a harp in the band. But then Brandon started playing, and the Plainville thing started happening. It changed the way I wrote, and it ended up forming around that. When I did the Torchsongs thing, I was proud of it, but I didn't know how to continue it. It came out, but it was like a time and a place. This Plainville thing seems like the center of my voice. I have other projects that I'm into. Plainville, for me, feels like it's the center of what I'm hearing when I write. It's changing, it's playing in new directions as well. I'm excited about that."

Udden's band actually played in Plainville and did a small Massachusetts tour. He also likes having singers join in. "We've done it with Aoife O'Donavan, who's a pretty well-known folk singer. I've started writing music that would involve her for Plainville, so there could be more vocal stuff," he explains. In addition to writing for Plainville, he occasionally does gigs with his Torchsongs unit, which is currently a trio with Ben Monder and Ziv Ravitz on drums. He plays with people like Andrew D'Angelo and Carlberg, and has two new projects that both involve saxophonist Petr Cancurra and drummer Richie Barshay: "One of them is Ethiopian music and the other, we play fiddle tunes," says Udden. "I play with some singer-songwriters as well, like Justin Keller. I play in his band. It's called Land of Leland—sort of an indie rock band. It keeps me interested."

So Udden's home continues to be New York and his schedule remains busy. "That's New York for you. It's all happening. It continues to amaze me. It's all happening at such a high level. You can't help but grow as a musician. Every style is being done so well. The definition of 'good' has broadened for me," he says. "In other cities, there are people that can do it and can't do it. In New York, everybody can do it. There's so many ways that good can exist here. It's overwhelming at times. I'm happy to be here and learn from that and try to contribute to that scene."

Selected Discography

Jeremy Udden, If the Past Seems So Bright (Sunnyside Records, 2011)

Jeremy Udden, Plainville (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2009)

Nicholas Urie Large Ensemble, Excerpts From An Online Dating Service (Red Piano Records, 2009)

Jeremy Udden, Torchsongs (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2005)

Either/Orchestra, Ethiopiques 20: Live in Addis (Buda Musique, 2005)

Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra, Celebration of Spirit (CIMP, 2004)
Either/Orchestra, Neo- Modernism (Accurate Records, 2003)

Either/Orchestra, Afro- Cubism (Accurate Records, 2003)

Photo Credits
All Photos: Scott Friedlander

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