Last night at Elastic, clarinetist James Falzone played with Wayfaring, his duo with bassist Katie Ernst—his final gig as a Chicagoan. He and his family are moving to Seattle, Washington, where he’ll become chair of the music department at Cornish College of the Arts. For nearly a decade and a half Falzone has been a crucial part of the local jazz and improvised-music scene, leading groups such as Allos Musica Ensemble, Renga Ensemble, and Klang as well as working as a sideman in plenty of others, among them Vox Arcana and Frank Rosaly’s Cicada Music. On the eve of his departure, I asked him about his time here and his decision to move on.
Can you tell about what your new gig entails and why you couldn’t say no?
Cornish is a place rich with experimental music history, including being where John Cage first developed his prepared-piano pieces in the early 1940s and where he first collaborated with Merce Cunningham. It is also a place that has had innovative jazz faculty for many years, including Art Lande, Julian Priester, and presently Tom Varner and Wayne Horvitz. Cornish is an undergraduate art college, offering degrees in visual and performing arts, and there is a vibrant sense of interdisciplinarity. I’ve known about the institution for many years and was a visiting artist there in 2015. When the post became open, I sensed it would bring together many of the skills and experiences I’ve developed over my career as an artist and educator. In addition to leading the department and supporting faculty, I will be assessing the current music program and curriculum, making sure it’s meeting the needs of a 21st-century musician. The search process was extensive, and I’m honored to be joining them.
What has been your main gig in Chicago over the years?
Like so many musicians, I’ve balanced several different jobs, combining all of them to make a living. In addition to my life as a performer and composer, I’ve taught at the college level for 15 years, first at North Central College in Naperville, then at Columbia College in Chicago, and most recently at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve taught everything from music theory to world music to composition to jazz history, and I was very fortunate to be a fellow at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia in 2014. I have also twice been a visiting professor at the remarkable Deep Springs College in the desert of California, a place that has shaped a great deal of my education philosophy. In addition to playing and teaching, I have also held the position of director of music at Grace Chicago Church since 2002, a wonderful post I will be stepping down from with my move to Seattle. As you can see, I’ve juggled a lot, and it will be good to consolidate my energies a bit in Seattle.
Can you say something about how your years in town have impacted your music? Not just the players you worked with, but the aesthetic tendencies and work ethic of Chicago folks?
I was born and raised on the northwest side of Chicago and studied for many years with the great Rich Corpolongo. I did not move away until my graduate-school studies at New England Conservatory in Boston in 1998. I was there at a fertile time, with classmates like Okkyung Lee and Matana Roberts. In 2002, with a young baby on our hands, my wife and I decided to return to Chicago to be closer to family. At first I was unsure of the decision, thinking I should have moved to New York like so many of my peers did after school. But it was not long after landing in Chicago that I realized I made the right decision. The musicians working here at that time, many whom I learned about through an article you wrote called “Meet the New Kids,” quickly became my collaborators and inspired me with their playing and their unwavering commitment to developing as artists.
This is the great lesson of Chicago: a singular, no-nonsense focus on artistry. It greatly affected me, and I can remember teaching most of the day, going home to spend time with my wife and daughter, and then getting to Elastic or the Empty Bottle or the Hungry Brain for a late-night gig, only to wake up the next day and repeat the cycle. It was a beautiful and inspiring time. The musicians I’ve developed a communal language with during my Chicago years—people like Dave Rempis, Tim Daisy, Jason Adasiewicz, Jason Stein, Frank Rosaly, Josh Berman, and Fred Lonberg-Holm, to name only a few—there is nothing quite like the bond I feel with these brothers.
I’ve already seen you allude to this in some of your online posts, but I assume you’ll be returning to town with some frequency? Is it hard to leave behind some of these working bands?
I’ll be back in Chicago several times this fall. Katie Ernst and I will present our Wayfaring project at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in September and will release an album in the new year. A score I created for a remarkable dance work involving disabled dancers will be presented over the first two weekends of November with the Momenta Dance Company, and I’ll be back for that to perform with them. Josh Berman and I have already been talking about a new project, and my Allos Musica Ensemble has gigs back in the midwest in the spring, including a night at Constellation on April 1. Additionally, my wife and I have deep roots in Chicago and will be visiting with our family often, and I would anticipate connecting these with gigs in town. So I will not vanish, and many of the important projects I’ve developed will continue. But there will be a change, no doubt. I hope to become a part of the Seattle creative-music scene and am very interested in what it will mean for the chair of an important music school in a city to also be actively involved in the music community as a player and composer. My work as an artist has always informed my work as an educator, and I want it to do the same in this new leadership position. I really don’t believe in another way.
Tuesday evening at the Whistler, local label Milk Factory Productions showcases two of its key projects: the 3.5.7 Ensemble (led by saxophonist Nick Anaya) and Restroy (led by bassist Chris Dammann). I wrote about the former in late 2014, but Dammann’s band doesn’t play often—this is just its second Chicago gig since the release of last year’s Saturn Return. Dammann jokingly told me, “The first concert was top secret due to my lack of promotion for it.”
The combo plays refined postbop arrangements of the leader’s compositions, given depth by the plush-toned trumpet of James Davis, the full-bodied tenor saxophone of Anaya, and the bracing violin and cello of Catherine Monnes. Here and there guitarist Tim Stine and flutist Gina Sobel add extra front-line counterpoint, but the primary wrinkle in Restroy’s music is rhythmic—the record features four percussionists. Daniel Richardson and Dylan Andrews alternate on drum kit, Loren Oppenheimer adds tabla and frame drum on four tracks, and Matt Wyatt contributes sample-based electronics and percussion to another three.
As you can hear below on “Uma,” the extra percussion gives the ensemble a nice jolt of propulsion and texture without smothering the horns. For Tuesday’s gig Restroy will consist of Dammann, Monnes, and drummer John Niekrasz.
Justin Hines & the Dominoes, Jezebel/Just in Time (Island, Japan)
Eric Lanham, The Sincere Interruption (Spectrum Spools)
Harold Vick, Straight Up (RCA)
Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Concerto Pour Violoncelle/Photoptosis/Tratto II (Wergo)
John Surman, Way Back When (Cuneiform)