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Stanley Jason Zappa's Epic Gig Trek

Chris Rich By

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During the second week of June, saxophonist Stanley Jason Zappa undertook a fairly demanding performance trek with two colleagues, saxophonist Catherine Sikora and percussionist Nick Skrowaczewski.

It began in the Okanagan wine region of southwestern British Columbia and concluded at the Casse Tete Festival at the inland city of Prince George, around 500 miles to the north. It was held at The Exploration Place between June 13th and 15th.

Zappa provided a sense of the venue options and outcomes.

"There were three venues: the club, the winery cellar, and the festival."

"Interestingly, the show with the lowest attendance was at the self-described "music venue" in the area. One gentleman sat at the bar, had a few drinks and periodically checked his cell phone. Another gentleman had the soup special and was heard to say "I enjoyed the music" (while the music was going on.) One waitress was training someone new. She modulated the volume of her voice such that she could always be heard above the trio. Very impressive."

"The performance in the cellar of a winery had a much better attendance. It also had better acoustics and lighting than that of the "music venue." People were quite receptive at that performance, and I think the architecture of the space had a lot to do with it. A number of teenagers from Kathy's after school art group came to the show. They made a special point of asking me if I knew Catherine (Sikora) was a way better saxophonist and musician. I made a special point of telling them of course I knew that."

Sikora found a lot to like about the venue as well.

"The audience at the Quinta Ferreira Winery gig was all ages, from teenagers to seniors, and I got the sense that they enjoyed the music though it was certainly new to them. They were attentive and totally quiet during the performance, only applauding after pieces ended and not after solos, and afterwards some people I spoke to were curious about how we structured the performance, as they were entirely unfamiliar with free improvisation."

These two events served to prepare the three for the more elaborate options awaiting at Casse-Tete II.

"The festival was, even more so than last year, well attended and enthusiastically received. There's a curiosity and respect that I've never experienced anywhere else."

Ms Sikora elaborates.

"At the Casse-Tête festival in Prince George there were several musicians in the audience, and I got the sense that the majority of people there were somehow involved with the arts. Again they were quiet and attentive, and receptive to the music. The reaction of the people I spoke to after our set was very positive, and most of the questions I was asked afterward were to do with the improvised music scene in New York City and the kind of work I do within that scene."

Jeremy Stewart, the Casse-Tete producer and a participating artist provided an inside sense of how the event worked out.

"The audience for Casse-Tete 2014 was around 100 people, give or take, over the weekend (excluding The Piano Drop, which was over double that). Half of those were comped musicians, volunteers, etc. Much of the paying audience also consisted of musicians, and the players present were from all across the musical map."

"Judging from the comments I received, Catherine Sikora's set was perceived by many as the highlight of the festival, with Stanley Jason Zappa's set also very well attended and considered. I was one of two bass players in the latter set. Stanley had requested that I find a fretless bass to play, which I did, borrowing a fretless electric Godin 5-string hollow body, a really cool object. The guy who loaned it to me was not acquainted with free improv in any respect, but he seemed genuinely thrilled with the use we put his bass to."

"During Catherine's guest spot in Stanley's set, I felt this incredible energy and moment of insanity where all I could think was "I can't fucking play!" Her playing outstripped my ability to respond, but there was no lack of generosity there, and everything sounded great except the words in my head."

Zappa and Stewart share thoughts on how it all worked with the broader community given the sparsity of musical events in these isolated locations.

Zappa observed a gradation of improved experience quality from the trough of the local gin mill to the peak of Casse-Tete.

"The hipsters habitues of the 'music venue' couldn't care less. The teens in the wine cellar have now 'heard this kind of music,' whereas before, they hadn't. The festival goers believe in and want to support experimental / improvised music that much more."

And Stewart was able to get some feedback from neighbors in Prince George.

"I had people tell me on Facebook that they didn't go to the festival because 'since [they] didn't know any of the artists, [they] assumed it was just noise.'"

Zappa and colleagues mainly incurred travel costs as a financial obstacle. This sort of thing is as far away from the high compensation glitz of a modern bloat fest as you are likely to get.

"Almost all the money went into the gas tank. (Insert rant about the paucity of mass transit infrastructure here). It was a 10 hour drive to get to the festival. Despite it being a largely beautiful, peaceful drive, it takes it out of you."

This was all a personal effort with minimal compensation and no public funding.

"Canada has a grant for travel, provided you are travelling 800km or more. My town to Prince George is about 795km and as such, I don't qualify. That's official culture for you..."

Stewart indicated the lack of any specific funding for events in remote and under-served locations but it might be a useful facet for a proposal.

"Not specifically, but it doesn't hurt your chances with the grantors to serve under-served areas. However, Casse-Tete has not to date received any government funding."

Zappa provided valuable insight into his devotion to music inspired from his encounter in college with the late Bill Dixon. It isn't exactly touted or held in high regard in the usual suspect jazz biz circles.

And most of the swells now working the angles on the high end band side wouldn't consider the effort this modest tour took for all involved in addition to the work undertaken by the festival.

But when asked about travails, Zappa shrugs them off while expressing regrets at the transience and infrequency of it all.

"Nothing was especially exasperating. At worst there was melancholy in the knowing that this wasn't likely to happen again anytime soon and the travel time (and the lack of mass transit in North America, in the 21st century)."

For Jeremy Stewart, the irritations were the usual things one runs into when trying to be adventurous in a skeptical place.

"The logistics of The Piano Drop were beyond exasperating, partly because we needed a huge crane to get the piano onto the museum's roof, and partly because we were pushing the piano off a public building into a city park. Insurance, permissions, permissions, licenses, and insurance."

The chance to seek some transcendent sonic moments animated all and there were many high points to counter the low as Zappa notes.

"Nick [Skrowaczewski] is a walking high point. Nick and Catherine makes two. It was a joy being with them both. Hearing the trio's musical language develop was also deeply gratifying."

Sikora concurs.

"The performances were the high points for me; the resonance of the vaulted space in Quinta Ferreira's cellar was a lot of fun to play with, and allowed for very effective use of a huge dynamic range, which I always love. The concert at Prince George was also a joy to play."

For Jeremy Stewart, the unfolding of it all breathed added life into his year and suggested fulfilling ways to create in days to come. "We did a panel discussion on the Friday night of the festival following The Piano Drop. The topic was "The Importance and Unimportance of Technique: Technique(s) and My Artistic Practice." The participants were Stanley, Catherine, Nick, Jose Delgado-Guevara, Dave Ito Chokroun, and Jonathon Wilcke."

"After that discussion, everything in the festival seemed to point toward it, especially a theme that emerged in the conversation that could be summarized as "technique is important, but it's only a means to an end; when it usurps the place of the end, it becomes dead." It's not exactly a revolutionary idea, but it asserted itself as the organizing context of this incredibly diverse body of musics."

Keeping in mind that the core trio here rarely performs together and the whole thing is akin to parachuting into an unclear situation, there is ready agreement about the complementing capabilities and intrinsic coherence rising from alert and gifted participation in the collective trio sound with satisfying and memorable experiences for all.

"Everything flowed smoothly," Zappa notes, "as the tour progressed, structures emerged, syntax was tightened, plots thickened. At the festival, Catherine started with a solo. Next we played one of her pieces, then ended with a Japanese folk tune. Everyone had ample opportunity to stretch out and respond to the stimuli, as it were."

Catherine Sikora agreed and provided a succinct stream of details to further convey the sense of it all.

"The ensemble worked beautifully; we had a few rehearsals at the start of the trip, and I brought some written music for us to work with, though I was not fixated on using it. Initially in rehearsal we played free, and after a while I brought in the music (one Japanese folk song and one of my own tunes).

Stanley [Jason Zappa] and Nick [Skrowaczewski] were very open to playing the written music, and I think we all felt that it gave structure to the performances and focused us as a group. By the last gig the set had a very definite character, while still having plenty of space for creative expression within it. We all got to play fairly extended solo features in addition to the ensemble work."

And there will be recorded moments and video documentation to share in days ahead.

"The festival was well recorded by the promoters, and a Band Camp/Soundcloud something something should be forthcoming," notes Zappa.

"My hope is that someone, somewhere, will somehow facilitate the trio's recording of a collection of these Japanese folk tunes, perhaps with an expanded ensemble."

And Stewart provided a sense of what is in the works.

"The whole festival was recorded and committed to video. In time, lots of it will be released through Casse-Tete Records or other avenues, as last year's recordings were, and the videographer, Ryan Wugalter, will release a short film."

And all look forward to the experience once more in 2015. For Zappa it is a godsend given the quietude of Okanagan life.

"Oh most certainly. I would love to record a suite of these Japanese folk tunes with the trio. I have been a staunch lover of Asian, and particularly Japanese art and music for a long time. I know the same is true for Nick [Skrowaczewski]. Hopefully the trio's built-in "Free-Gagaku" bent can see some more audiences and recording situations."

And it is a refreshing contrast to the sharp elbows and intense compression of New York for Sikora.

"Yes, definitely! I loved touring with this trio, and would be very happy to do it again."

Jeremy Stewart already on it.

"The planning for Casse-Tete III is well underway. I have a wish list of performers, and I am ready for people to send me their pitches. There is talk of a site-specific performance involving an electric guitar drone piece being played from the top of Prince George's distinctive cutbanks across the Fraser River to an audience in Fort George Park. Whatever we come up with, we hope to continue to offer challenging music to our remote northern region.

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