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Jon Armstrong: Limitless Enthusiasm

Fiona Ord-Shrimpton By

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Of those jazz men who are still left (of course today is a new day and jazz is dying again), the Jon Armstrong Jazz Orchestra's debut album Farewell, is something new to say hello to. The end is the beginning you know. Jon Armstrong has a (so-far) limitless enthusiasm for being in the thick of music, he is both mature experience and child psyche, surrounded by the vibrant Los Angeles music scene, gifted with Daniel Rosenboom as his inspirational label manager and band mate, and playing for long enough that his chops are tighter than a banker's liability insurance. This isn't hyperbole—Christian McBride likes him too—so we're good to gush. The premise of Farewell is as follows, bandleader's wife shares home truth; husband enlists it as inspiration—wife is eternalised as a smart lady.

The vivaciously undead-jazz man Jon Armstrong had a wee chat with us recently, and this is how it went...

All About Jazz: Hello Jon, how are you doing today?

Jon Armstrong: Hello, things are really good right now, there are lots of exciting people around, it's been really nice.

AAJ: I interviewed trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom a few months ago.

JA: Yeah, he's a good friend and a frequent collaborator.

AAJ: Would be good to hear about your background leading up to your relationship with the Orenda Records label via Slumgum.

JA: In a nutshell, since I've been in LA I've focussed most of my time on developing the quartet Slumgum.

AAJ: Are you the originator of that quartet?

JA: Actually, all four of us are. It just started from us playing together, we tried to improvise together, bringing in original music, and seeing what we could do with standards. What seemed to be the best part about it is that all four of us have a pretty unique perspective on music to bring to the group. So we all made a conscious decision to not let any one person's view on music dominate. We were very curious to see how it would develop organically. We did a lot of touring, I'd say from 2008-2013.

AAJ: You've done a lot of touring, it's nice to have that unity for such a long time, to develop as a group.

JA: Yeah, each batch of tunes that would come in were totally different. We also got to a great place where people felt comfortable bringing in sketches. We just tried things out because we were performing so much because we were on the road. We could really let things manifest between all four of us, so no one's ego took centre stage. That was a blast. Sometimes I talk about it in past tense because our pianist moved to Vancouver, Canada.

AAJ: Ah he's the guy with the crazy piano in your YouTube videos...

JA: Yeah right, that wasn't actually his, it belonged to a venue that has since gone---The Royal T's Café. It's great. It was a decent piano and certainly a work of art. That was a funky Californian fusion/Japanese restaurant. The best part was it was being booked by Rocco Sumazi who does the Angel City Jazz Festival—he used to book music in Oakland, at a place called Duende. He's basically been an incredibly important music agent and booker in LA for about a decade.

AAJ: In the same vein as Joon Lee.

JA: Exactly, absolutely. And right around the time Rocco moved to Oakland the Blue Whale and Joon Lee really took centre stage in LA. The two of them are very good friends. Rocco in fact booked a lot of music at the Blue Whale to start with, I'm sure Joon learned a lot from that experience.

AAJ: Just thinking there's some Buddhist connection, nice philosophy to have, fusion between trying things out, food, music etc.

JA: I would agree, Rocco and Joon are kindred spirits in that way, they think very highly about the experience aspect of music which is not talked about so much. People always talk about how hip or how fast or how ingenious a player can be, always considering the history of the development of the music or star power. But both of them always, regardless of someone's reputation, will sit and give it a really good experience and ask what journey is this band taking me on, that's at the centre of both of their passion, which is very Buddhist.

AAJ: Nice way to be, as a member of the clientele, you can trust the programming, it's fun to listen to, nice newness to it.

JA: In both their places, even the Blue Whale, it's very stark, very beautiful, you sit on cubes. You know if you go there you're going to have a good time, bring a date, there's going to be good food there and some interesting music. There's a trust level there for sure.

AAJ: UK venues are largely more old school re food and music. Not to say great musicians don't play but the crowd are most often upwards of parents and grandparents.

JA: It's funny, jazz music in general has turned itself off to the younger audience. I wonder, some of it may be our fidelity to our history, trying to sound like this guy or that woman. Some of it is also, not to be critical, just the nature of how most young musicians are being developed, in academic situations all over the world. When we get out into the real world we're almost spoiled because, in school we can put on a live avant-garde event, something like a live improvised silent film show and 70 of our friends will show up and pat us on the back. The real world is hard to get people to give you their time if you're playing this esoteric music. Music students need to realize that school can be a bubble.

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