Josh Roseman: Reimagining the Constellations

R.J. DeLuke By

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There's nothing in my life that's more grounding or more challenging than trying to play trombone. It demands a lot from me personally. It's a constant gut check. It forces you to be in touch with your priorities. And to check out your conduct.
Josh Roseman is a busy man. Extremely busy. He's also an extremely bright one, which is good because otherwise one might pause to consider whether, with all those activities, he is wearing himself too thin. Turns out he is spreading wide, but nothing about him or his many pursuits is thin. Especially not his creativity.

Trombonist/composer/arranger/cosmic thinker Roseman also has a production studio and venue space in Brooklyn. He heads five bands that play different kinds of music, two of which will have new recordings out over the next several months. Then there are sideman gigs with various colleagues.

"A pathological condition. Or the reflection of a pathological condition," quips Roseman, a blithe spirit, about all the irons he has in the fire. "I'm not sure which."

Roseman, raised in the Boston area but a New York city resident since 1990, is a forward thinker, for sure. Conversation reveals with all his talent and drive, he doesn't take himself too seriously. That does not mean—at all—that he is unconcerned. And with all his stretching of boundaries and willingness to rely on intuition and let things fly freely in his music, he does not ignore traditions on which jazz music is based. He has the utmost respect for the paths that have been beaten by the feet of those who came before him.

But Roseman is, surely, a musician for his era, where he is making a strong mark. A snippet of some of the observations penned about him by critics include: "powerful and eccentric ... intelligent groove music ... musical provocateur ... blur between childlike innocence and libertine dementia." They are all accurate. His music contains many influences, like ska and dub, as much as it carries the spirit of the beboppers. He also likes electronics and the musical alchemist finds ways to make them all at once interesting, upsetting, unpredictable, contrary and yet viable in his musical mixture. Listen to albums like New Constellations: Live in Vienna (Scrootable Labs/Accurate, 2007) and Treats for the Nightwalker (Enja, 2003) and all these funky influences can be heard. Yet he also wails straight ahead with the Dave Holland Big Band and, at one time, the SFJAZZ Collective.

"I like the free approach. I like things to be strong, even if they're quiet. Even if it's just a question of leaving a lot of space, I would like the space to be effective and to present a set of options for the listener somehow," says Roseman. "None of this is based on chaos for its own sake. I just tend to find that I like situations that have a lot of contour and detail and that have a lot of intent to them. I either have to write them or set up conditions where they might come around. The purpose of doing that is not just to have something that sounds different from what you hear on the radio, or that sounds unruly. I'm after something that has a meta kind of content to it, where people feel free to show how different dynamics, different colors, different approaches, different forms of expression, are interrelated. I like this because it's my instinct to look for ways to integrate experiences and my influences, and my attention span really starts to wane if we're just focusing on one element at a time."

Like great artists, Roseman doesn't just draw on musical things for his music. "We live in New York City. People have to deal with each other. Situations are happening all the time. You're in a beautiful neighborhood, but maybe it's not safe. You're in a crazy neighborhood, but people are incredibly real with you. Or you're on a train going from one neighborhood to another really quickly. Or you're listening to new music, but it's music samples from a long time ago. Or you're listening to popular music, but there's a level of dissonance going on in the back, but it's somehow still compelling. Try to deconstruct that, figuring out how these things can be happening simultaneously. How it challenges our expectations. That's how I get very interested somehow. That's what I'm looking for in a musical situation."

The New Constellations album, recorded at Joe Zawinul's Birdland, and then touched up with some remixing in the studio, is a good example of Roseman's musical nature. With equally experimental cohorts like Peter Apfelbaum and Barney McAll, the music is at times, dense, free, melodic and scattered. But it hangs together. "Salta Massaganna" springs from reggae and is an irresistible vehicle over which Roseman's great trombone sound dances. His notes pour like syrup over delicious pancakes. It evokes a feeling. "Olsen Twins Subpoena" has a lot of subtext, from funk to cosmic. The horns of Roseman, Apfelbaum and Ambrose Akinmusire blare out jazz improv, but across a different canvass.

That band has not been playing out live much over the last year or so, but Roseman hopes to bring it back again. "The New Constellations record was an examination of roots, early ska music. Trying to find ways to combine that with more modern performance-type ...dealing with electronic music. Different ways of thinking about time and space," he says. "It's kind of ironic as I think about it because those improvising musicians back in Jamaica at that time had a very open approach to time and space. You can hear the lineage. You can hear how that music evolved into dub music. The premise of it was to combine a really intuitive lightweight, lean, mean hard-hitting rhythm concept, with painting with a broad palette, using electronics, and to combine it with a really cool front line. Three horns. Use some sort of post-post-post The Jazz Messengers [chuckles] taking everything we know about three- horn writing and combine it with underpinnings of ska and electronic music and more progress, forward-leaning things. Shake it up and see what comes out."

The James Carney Group, at The Knitting Factory, 2008 From left: James Carney, Josh Roseman, Ted Poor, Noah Jarrett

He's already eyeing what will happen when the group gets to reconvene. "A big suite which combines new music, added extensive harmonic writing for horns, with dance hall reggae rhythms that are super minimalist and funky. Nasty. Very mean sounding music. So you have this really grounded ... super forward, tough-sounding stuff going on in the basement. And then something very expansive going on, on the top. With normal dance hall music, you have great incidences of poly-tonality going on. The groove will be going on in one key and somebody will be chatting on top, and that will be going on in different harmonic zones. Very minimalist. It's compelling and it convinces people to think and walk and shift their head space in a different direction. If you were to push that in a different direction, to the next level, where you're starting from a purposely poly-tonal point of view, then imagine what the possibilities are."

Imaging the possibilities is a big part of Roseman's approach. "I'm disciplining myself with the next step," he notes. "Kind of keep some kind of a lean street sensibility to it. Taking my lessons from people like Madlib, and all this really intense and engaging underground hip-hop stuff that's going on now. And also to put it together and present it in a way that we have a lot of options, with the technology. I've been bringing electronic drums to gigs and a lot of analog sense and flexible, fluid ways of triggering and doing live sequencing and things like that. That stuff can be a handful. It's very rewarding though."

Roseman's current recording project is with a larger unit he calls the King Froopy Allstars. It has two other trombones—Jacob Garchik and Curtis Hasselbring—and three trumpets among the 11 pieces. It gives Roseman more and different things to pour into his creative funnel to see what comes running out. He admits it's a bit crazy to pursue the larger project in these economic times. But he presses on nonetheless to find new soundscapes.

"It's a question of trying to team up with people, elements, situations, sounds, strategies that are really popping off, and to combine them and create shapes that geometrically are greater than the sum of their parts," says Roseman. "So it's a risky big band by design. The writing is risky. There are things harmonically, rhythmically, dynamically and strategically that are not meant to be easily resolved. It's more like presenting raw materials to the ensemble and giving the ensemble an opportunity to chip away at it and work it out. As opposed to coming up with a prefab, play-by- numbers situation that is going to leave a good impression.

"Then other tunes are very intricate and challenging to execute," he notes. "There are people (in the band) who are all-out secure musicians and other people who are amazing live wires. I have the opportunity to set them loose. Like free-range bulls in a china shop and figure out what they can wreck. Do the calculations and play with the math afterward. That's kind of the way it's designed." He likes the music to be pushed, get a visceral reaction from the listener and give people "different ways of thinking about things."

He adds, "The arrangements that I write have been for an 11-piece band. At times we also do presentations and I'll take on somebody like Peter Apfelbaum. I'll employ him as an x-factor. He has the advantage of having cultivated some familiarity with the book from a number of different positions. He knows keyboard stuff, he's played with the big band on drums and also on saxophone. So he has a good understanding of the lay of the land. I hapen to appreciate the way the guy reacts. I know how he's developed his sense of license, so sometimes, to award him for having done quadruple duty and learning all this music, I'll just drop him in the middle of the group, take away his music stand and, figuratively speaking, put a blindfold on him and set him loose. In that case, it's a 12-piece."

The album is still being worked on. It could be out before the year's end, or in early 2011. It's yet untitled.

"We're still chipping away at it," he says in September. "We might actually do another session, because a couple of the pieces that I wrote are unreasonably, wonderfully, unmanageably dense. There's so much voodoo in them, we should take another crack at them. In another couple of cases, we weren't able to get to them, because we were getting the bread and butter done. It's a strategic question. I'm taking a closer look at that." While not finalized, there's enough for the composer to avow "it's pretty exciting stuff. It definitely puts a smile on my face. I just shake my head when I'm listening to it."

The King Froopy Allstars haven't played out much, but that's going to change. There may be concerts at the Brooklyn studio, as well as 2011 bookings in Australia and on the U.S. west coast. "We're looking for opportunities to play in New York as well, outside of our little laboratory environment."
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