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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 Dan 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 Dan 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.

AAJ: If those 70 friends are all musicians, how do they pay? That's a big guest list. Must happen in academia. You must see half of your class that are still musicians but they didn't quite make it because they rely on the bubble and not going to find their own work more often.

JA: Boy, it's tough, it's funny that you say that. Sometimes I think we could just exchange $10s and not go out. I had two experiences in academia. One was in the University of Washington, which was a traditional jazz school. Since I left, a man called Cuong Vu, the trumpet player and a brilliant musician with a very high aesthetic. He took over program, and put it on a completely different trajectory. While I was there they taught standards, major and minor scales, long tones, in fact they didn't go that far, but it's similar to most schools who say "You're going to play one ballad, upbeat, Latin, etc." They would state you need to do all this in order to survive out there, but that's like a 40 year old business model.

You can't release these kids knowing how to play a Latin song on to the world. Essentially what we're doing is releasing them and they leave to be in wedding bands or play casuals. Kids coming out of UW now have gone on to create a very vibrant scene, a happening scene not necessarily populated by musicians. There might be a computer programmer, who likes to listen to this noise, avant-garde electronic music. There's a great band up there called Bad Luck, that's just sax and effects and a drummer, just a duo, and they come up with brilliant soundscapes and brilliant journeys. Going back to the idea of an experience, you sit there in a Bad Luck show and I've seen them about a half dozen times. You're going to get an unbelievable experience that no jazz band can get to. A lot of that came from this Cuong Vu influence that is fostered in Seattle, whatever the audience does as a day job they are going out and will treasure and value that experience.

AAJ: That trust factor getting an audience, primarily bombarded with mainstream pop and classical to invite that curiosity on a regular basis. The Seattle situation sounds ideal, but LA and Seattle history is different. In the UK there are plenty of wedding band musicians coming out of Uni. And you can spot the ones on a lifelong trajectory but some are playing avant-garde with no vehicle for their music. It's difficult to perform that when there aren't venues to support them and try it out. Is it like that there, are Bad Luck welcomed everywhere or just Seattle?

JA: No they've really touched people. In LA I used to play with an electronic band where I played mostly sampler with an MC and vocalist, underground art parties in downtown. Hip hop and records, and they would do these listening parties. Bad Luck was coming through town and I invited them to play at one of those parties. Not many people there, it was in a loft in downtown LA with a DJ spinning electronic dubstep, we played our set and they played afterwards. We're talking about non musicians—not people of this scene; a totally different crowd. And these guys and girls in the loft, they were transfixed, everyone had a very, I almost want to say a spiritual experience.

The way they would listen to this group, and afterwards they were shaking their heads, they said they'd never experienced that before. They bought in. Some of it's to do with the strength of that band, they have been developing for years, similarly like Slumgum. I really believe that you could put Bad Luck on at the Glastonbury Festival. And even with 20,000 people even if some were put off, most people would be won over in 30-40 minutes. People want to discover something new.

AAJ: The discovery factor is a big element.

JA: Most definitely. That is a really big part of it. If you're in the concert and it's new in any way. If you can give the audience something to hold onto, or you invite them in in any way, it's going to have a positive effect on how they experience the music.

AAJ: Do you see the same kind of parties in other places around the world? Like the UK?

JA: I did a study abroad year at the University of Hull, 2003. I played sax in a proper drum and bass band. It was just a DJ a few MCs and I played sax these at drum and bass parties. We would play a lot of concerts around Hull. It was an outfit called Bass Behaviours, they would get a gig, 3 DJs would show up, me and my sax, two MCs and a vocalist. And we would just improvise over Drum and Bass music.

AAJ: You were quite aware of the drum and bass scene in Britain, that was quite novel for an American I guess?

JA: Somewhat. I got a crash course. In 2003 it was like nostalgia, Drum and Bass had been around for years. Lots of people would be at these clubs, and they would be dancing.

AAJ: Still a nice buzz off the movement.

JA: Yeah, most definitely, lots of people at these clubs dancing, and that informed my opinion of what music can be. You can still relate to people, there's always a way to relate. ...Quickly going back to listening parties, especially with Slumgum we played such different environments. We would play lots of places, jazz club, coffee shops, back houses of people who really wanted to share the music, they put music on, almost like a dinner party, like hey check out this band, we like them and want everyone in Albuquerque to hear it.
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