Matt Jorgensen: Painting With Sound

Joshua Weiner By

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I was on a panel once, with other executives of indie rock labels, talking about the downturn in music sales and the state of the business. When it was my turn to speak I said, "Well, now everyone else knows what it is like to run a jazz record label!"
Matt Jorgensen is a very busy man. A drummer and composer, he plays and records with a wide variety of musicians, including his own long-running quartet 451 and popular trumpeter and label-mate Thomas Marriott. Jorgensen also co-manages the Origin Records label, a thriving concern that has released over 300 discs since 1997, and that now encompasses two associated labels, OA2 and Origin Classical.

He is also a family man, and it's a family connection that provided the spark for his impressive and well-received new Origin record, Tattooed By Passion: Music Inspired By The Paintings of Dale Chisman (2010). The well-known Denver artist Dale Chisman, who passed away in 2008, was Jorgensen's father-in-law, and his paintings and views on art and the artist have been a strong inspiration to the composer.

Most of the original tunes on the new album, which reached the top 30 on the Jazz Week radio chart, are inspired by and titled after particular paintings of Chisman, which are reproduced on the cover and in the booklet of the CD. The music generated by Jorgensen and band mates Marriott, saxophonist Mark Taylor, guitarist Corey Christiansen and bassist Dave Captein, is, by turns, driving, groove-heavy, expressive,and, especially on the three tracks with string accompaniment, poignant with the sense of both loss and hope.

All About Jazz: To start with, let me say that I am enjoying Tattooed By Passion immensely. I think it's one of the more impressive new records I've heard in a long time.

Matt Jorgensen: Thanks. I recently got back from Denver where we had the opening of the Dale Chisman In Retrospect show.

AAJ: The pieces must be very impressive in person. It's one thing to see them reproduced in the CD booklet, but quite another to be faced with a large canvas, the textures of the paint, and the colors. That leads me to the first topic I hoped to discuss: The relationship between visual art and music. Certainly, there have been many pieces of music inspired by visual art, such as Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," but there seems to be a connection in jazz, at least superficially. The cover of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960) displayed a Jackson Pollock painting, and Dave Brubeck's LP Time Further Out (Columbia, 1961) was explicitly inspired by Joan Miro, who was an influence on Chisman. You say in the liner notes that Chisman's "art had been created the same way I make music." Can you explain?

MJ: Well, going into this project I had never really thought about other art-inspired music. Dale Chisman was my father-in-law, and around the time of his passing [in August 2008] I was writing music for a CD with my group Matt Jorgensen+451. With everything that was going on at that time, dealing with the estate, dealing with my family, and the chaos that ensued, I just felt like I didn't really have anything new to add on a new recording. I felt like what I was writing was becoming a cliché of what I had done in the past. So I just decided to stop for a while.

AAJ: So you must have spent some time in Denver, where Chisman lived and worked, around that time?

MJ:Yes, being in Denver, surrounded by Dale's paintings, in his studio, and around his friends and fellow visual artists who lived in his neighborhood, I was able to step back and look at the creation process differently. I think I'd been trying to write a "complete" piece of music, but looking at Dale's paintings you can see that he would try something, maybe paint over it, layer it, etc. So that made me slow down and just try some new ideas.

AAJ: So with this new music, did you do more revisions? Or was it more just an idea of freedom, of letting go, of not over-thinking and being free to modify things later?

MJ: Well, looking at Dale's paintings, he wasn't afraid to change up his style and direction...very decade you can see big changes in color, in medium, but you still see constant themes. I think this is different from some artists who find success with a "look" and keep working on that. It is a big risk for any successful artist to make a bold shift, like Dale did many times throughout his career. So I decided to change the lineup for this record. I used guitar [Corey Christiansen] instead of Fender Rhodes, and I hired Dave Captein on bass with whom I had never worked on a CD. I did use Tom Marriott [trumpet] and Mark Taylor [saxophone] from previous projects because they know me so well and they know what I want to say even before I say it. And they also knew the personal aspect of this project, so they were anchors for me.

AAJ: Yes, right now I'm listening to Corey Christiansen ripping off his solo on "Primal Scrip." It's a fantastic performance.

MJ: On "Primal Scrip" I was trying to capture the sound of New York City in the 1970s, when Dale worked there. That first chord, I told Corey to play the sound of that red handprint that is in the painting. Some tunes were really inspired directly by a painting or paintings, like "Space, Plane, and Line." Those three paintings have this whirly thing going on and are very similar, but with different colors. So, in the music, you'll hear the melody have the same flow but change in each of the three repeated statements.

AAJ: Regarding the band, this album has a real cohesiveness, and the band is very tight. They seem to have completely embodied the record's concepts and goals. Yet, the record was recorded typically quickly, in a few days. Did you do a lot of rehearsal, or any gigs to prepare?

MJ: No, no gigs. And the only rehearsals were in the studio during the sessions. I did play some of the tunes previously at a session with some friends, but just when I was sketching things out. But again, using Mark and Tom, we play together all the time, so there was a lot of comfort there. Corey Christiansen can play anything you put in front of him, so I was never worried; we had worked together before. Same with Dave Captein. I think if you pick the right guys ahead of time, a lot of it just falls into place.

AAJ: Certainly, they are all very impressive players. Even something like "The Armory" is well-realized, despite being so open and full of space.

MJ: Yes, "The Armory" is a good example of having different layers.

AAJ: Do you compose on piano?

MJ: Well, in "The Armory" I had written the line on the guitar—I can play really bad rock guitar—and then put the horn lines on top and just let Dave Captein take a bass solo. I think we did one or two takes of that. Then I layered more guitar on the top, ran the first guitar part through a Line 6 [effects] box, and I was sitting on the floor turning the dials while Corey did a third guitar part. I like using studio techniques when I can, but then on other tunes, it's just a jazz band playing together.

AAJ: But are most of your tunes composed on guitar, then?

MJ: No, most of it is me playing my keyboard into [the Apple software program] Garage Band, using their guitar and bass sounds. It works for me, and I'm able to put sketches down.

AAJ: Interesting! I wonder about the tension between being a player and being, especially on this very thematic and emotional album, the composer and leader. I realized that there are no drum solos on this record, not even trading of fours. Your playing is subtle rather than overpowering. Was that particularly due to the nature of the project at all?

MJ: Yeah, I think on some tunes I intentionally held back from a drumming aspect. Going back to your earlier question about the band, everyone knew the story of this record and what it was about. We had the art images in the studio, and I talked about what I was thinking in each tune, so everyone was playing the music from that standpoint. So a "drum solo" never really seemed to fit. There are spots in "Primal Scrip" and "Dialogue" where I take it up a notch, but the music isn't so much coming from a standpoint of a traditional jazz tune format. I think "Tattooed By Passion" would be the only tune that might fit in that mold.

AAJ: What led you to the use of strings on three of the tunes? It is very effective.

MJ: I just felt that there needed to be something more than just a traditional jazz group on the CD. I was working on the piece "Savage Grace" which finishes the album. It really was the "saying goodbye" piece of the album and it needed to bring closure to this whole project. I asked my old college roommate Jeff McSpadden, with whom I've been in bands over the years and who is now an accomplished writer of music for film and TV, to write some string parts. He co-wrote a couple of tunes with me on the [Matt Jorgensen+451] Another Morning CD, and he knows the sound of my groups. Just talking with him about what I wanted and the emotion behind the tune, he came up with some really rich and brilliant parts for the string quartet.

AAJ: There is a part in "Colorado" where the strings come in and the tune opens up, like a crack in the clouds has let the sun come through. It is very affecting and the emotion of that time, after Chisman's death, comes through.

MJ: I think it works well, thanks. Colorado has become a second home for us, so I wanted to have that open sound of the plains, sky, and mountains. And, yes, at the end I wanted there to be a "lift."

AAJ: The communication of intent on this record really makes it stand out for me. I feel that, as a listener, I am able to understand what you wanted to get across. That is part of what makes the record so strong.

MJ: When we play live, we play it almost in the album order, straight through. It just works that way. We usually add a few tunes from my previous records, but we think of it as a complete project from start to finish. I'm surprised it has been on jazz radio as much as it has already.

AAJ: Given the nature of the new record, how much do you feel that the listener's experience would be enhanced by being familiar with Chisman's art? It's a tension in what might be called "program music." To what extent does the music stand on its own?

MJ: Someone said to me that this CD is one example of why iPods will never completely replace CDs. Their point was that you needed the liner notes and packaging. I think that the music does stand on its own, but then again when we perform it live, if available, we project the paintings in the background. After we debuted it at the Earshot Jazz Festival people came up to me and told me how much it all made sense to them now. So I think it's a multimedia experience. We played the closing weekend of the Dale Chisman In Retrospect show in Denver on February 25th. It was literally a once-in-a-lifetime show, because some of the paintings were on display. And to see them in real life is pretty amazing. Even the guys in the band hadn't seen the real thing!

AAJ: Before we close, I'd like to ask about Origin, the label you run with John Bishop. You've been chosen jazz record label of the year in 2009. You have nearly 300 releases, and now two spin-off labels, OA2 and Origin Classical. In the current climate, what do you think has enabled Origin to be so successful, in the face of declining CD sales, downloading, and just the sheer number of releases out there now?

MJ: Well, we started back in 1997 as an artist-collective model, mainly because we were broke! But it has enabled us to stay in business and build something that is going to be here for the long run. We are fortunate that we are now able to have a small staff, and I now don't do as much of the day-do-day at Origin. But we still have our Ballard Jazz Festival, which we started, and I do a lot of web design for artists. I also produce some of the videos you see on the site, do the podcast and, of course, continue to perform and tour. We basically learned how to do everything ourselves because we didn't have any money to pay anyone, so now we have figured out how to make it work. We never had anything at the beginning, so for us it is just as it has always been. I was on a panel once with other executives of indie rock labels talking about the downturn in music sales and the state of the business. When it was my turn to speak I said, "Well, now everyone else knows what it is like to run a jazz record label!" Everyone chuckled, but it's true.

AAJ: Origin is racking up some hits too. I was very impressed with Thomas Marriott's work on your albums, and I know that he released a super-hot record out now with Ray Vega, East-West Trumpet Summit (2010).

MJ: Yes, Thomas has another one out now too called Constraints and Liberations, which is amazing, featuring John Bishop on drums; and then another CD coming out later this year with me, Mark Taylor, and Gary Versace on organ.

AAJ: You are busy men! But that's the best thing for a jazz musician, to have much work to do, isn't it?

MJ: Seriously! It sure beats the alternative.

Selected Discography

Matt Jorgensen, Tattooed By Passion: Music Inspired By The Paintings of Dale Chisman (Origin, 2010)

Ray Vega/Thomas Marriott, East-West Trumpet Summit (Origin, 2010)

Richard Cole, Inner Mission (Origin, 2009)

Matt Jorgensen + 451, Another Morning (Origin, 2008)
Matt Jorgensen + 451, Hope (Origin, 2004)
Matt Jorgensen + 451, Quiet Silence (Origin, 2002)

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy of Matt Jorgensen

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