The COVID-19 pandemic has put tens of millions of Americans out of work, but even considering that bleak landscape, musicians have been hit especially hard—most of their jobs only barely exist now, and the infrastructure that might allow them to return someday is in danger of collapsing. Festivals have been canceled, larger concert halls closed, and smaller clubs either shuttered or restricted to fractions of their usual audiences. At least in the States, no one is touring. In Chicago, many of the venues that stage jazz and improvised music have either been streaming pay-what-you-will concerts or sitting dark since March. The disappearance of in-person performance opportunities hurts worse in this context, since the music thrives upon—and in fact usually requires—real-time interaction between players.
Percussionist Tim Daisy, 44, and pianist Matt Piet, 34, have lost all or nearly all their gigs, like most performers. But in other ways these Chicago musicians have been fortunate—because neither depends on performance income to survive, the worst of the pandemic’s effects have passed them by. Piet, who lives in La Grange, has held a day job in sales since before COVID, and it allows him to work from his apartment. Daisy is married and lives in Evanston with his wife, Emma, who works as a family physician and geriatrician, and for most of the past four years he’s been a stay-at-home dad who also teaches private drum lessons.
That’s not to say that either Daisy or Piet had anything like the 2020 he’d expected. At the beginning of the year, both men were ready to spend the year developing new projects and renewing others—Daisy wanted to reinvest in ensemble playing after concentrating for years on cultivating a solo practice, and Piet was ready to return to making music in general, having recovered from an incapacitating personal crisis. The pandemic derailed their plans, but they adapted by drawing on the improvisational spirit that informs their music. Each ended up trying an unprecedented experiment and making an album that might never have existed if COVID hadn’t happened.
Born and raised near Waukegan, Daisy moved to Chicago in 1997 expressly to play jazz and improvised music. He first fell in with a group of players, among them Dave Rempis, Jason Adasiewicz, and Frank Rosaly, who were near his age and shared his DIY mindset. In 2002, he joined Ken Vandermark’s flagship band, the Vandermark 5, and his loose, propulsive sense of swing and knack for enhancing his collaborators’ strengths in totally unscripted situations kept him in demand as a sideman.
Daisy didn’t wait to launch his own projects, though, and in 2003 he made Relay Signals, his first album as a bandleader. In 2011, determined to have an outlet that would let him put out records promptly—as opposed to the European labels he’d been depending on, which often took more than a year—he founded his own label, Relay Recordings.
Up through 2014, Daisy toured the U.S. and Europe frequently, often in bands led by Rempis or Vandermark. Then in 2015, he reorganized his priorities. “I absolutely love being on the road. I love everything about it, even the stuff that sucks,” he says. “But when my wife and I made a decision to raise a family, I did not want to be an artist who wasn’t around very often.”
So Daisy cut back on touring, restricting himself to one or two weeks per year in Europe and all but giving up on the stateside circuit (a decision most of his peers had made years earlier, deeming it a losing proposition). He redirected his energy to local activities and the occasional weekend trip within the midwest. He ramped up Relay’s release schedule and took an active role in curating and presenting the Option Series, a hybrid concert and salon hosted by Experimental Sound Studio.
With his extra time at home, Daisy also focused on a solo practice he’d recently begun evolving. He’d already added marimba and vibes to his instrumentation, and he began experimenting with disassembling his drum kit and spreading out its components on the floor, alongside a collection of transistor radios and Califone turntables. A series of Relay releases documents the deeply psychedelic effect of Daisy’s real-time mash-ups of unpredictable audio from the radios, vinyl surface noise, and struck metal and wood.
Daisy released the last of those records, Sereno, in January 2020, and considers that line of musical inquiry closed (at least for now). He was looking forward to rededicating himself to ensemble ventures: In July, he planned to reconvene his chamber ensemble, Vox 4, for a concert and recording. In September, he was going to revive Trio Red Space, with saxophonist Mars Williams and trombonist Jeb Bishop. And in October, he intended to record a series of duets with locals (including Piet) and out-of-towners. “I did have one tour on the books that I was really looking forward to, with the great Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik,” Daisy says. “She put a band together with myself, Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Dave Rempis, and we had planned to do a tour of Europe for her 50th birthday celebration in May. Of course, that didn’t happen.”
Instead, Daisy busied himself mostly with parenting. “I have a son who’s four and a daughter who’s one,” he says. “These kids are both so wonderful! Also, they are quite a handful, especially with limited childcare during the pandemic. They have afforded me an ability to connect on a deep level with them, because I’m with them so much—I’m not traveling, and my wife is working. It has given me something really positive to focus on during what has not been an entirely positive year. I’m really thankful that I have them to take care of, because if they weren’t here and it was just me, I feel like I would be sitting in front of my computer not doing anything or thinking a little too much about what’s going on and going into depression. If you want a cure for depression, man, have a couple kids, because you don’t have time to be depressed.”
Daisy also returned to his drum set, this time playing it put together. “After the process of going through all of these different solo recordings with turntables and radios and different materials, I went back to the four-piece drum set with two cymbals,” he says. What he found, and what he demonstrates on the September 2020 digital release Room to Breathe, was that several years of managing an array of sound sources by himself had sharpened his ability to work with the rudiments of rhythm and silence on the kit.
Over the summer, Daisy played a livestreamed concert and three outdoor duos with Rempis. But as 2020 drew to a close, he set out to do something that acknowledged the limits the year had imposed on his music. “I thought of doing a record with somebody processing my solo sound, to kind of take advantage of the remoteness of 2020 and the COVID pandemic.”
He reached out to New York-based electronic musician Ikue Mori, who’d played a 2017 trio concert at the Hungry Brain with him and fellow drummer Phil Sudderberg. Mori, who drummed for no-wave trio DNA four decades ago, has become a master improviser on the laptop, using it to marshal sounds into dreamlike sequences of color and event. Daisy is no stranger to working with electronic musicians who sample and tweak his acoustic output, but he’d always done so in real-time exchanges. This time, he submitted to virtual collaboration. “It’s a selection of solo material on drum set, turntables, radios, marimba—everything that I’ve been using up to this point,” Daisy says. “I sent her a total of 12 or 13 files, and I said, ‘You reimagine the material.'”
In an e-mail, Mori explains the process from her end. “Tim’s Light and Shade was all about remixing and reconstructing. He asked me to do whatever I liked with his percussion tracks. I was very excited, not only adding my sounds, but using all the beautiful materials to make new composition. I have done a few remixing projects, but not a whole album before.”
As Mori sent back finished tracks, Daisy heard his sounds doing things he never does. “My solo marimba playing is linear and one note at a time. But her process of reimagining it included adding echoes of what I had done, and all of this other material, which added this depth that I think can be lacking when you only hear the solo marimba,” he says. “She really filled it out. And for some of the other material on the record, she would take two files, so one would be, for example, just the rims of the snare drum, like a very Morse-code approach, very pointillistic, and then something with mallets and a floor tom. By using her sounds and her processing, she sculpted them into this completely new piece.”
On Light and Shade, which comes out February 1 through Relay Recordings, Mori not only creates new music by disassembling and reassembling Daisy’s tracks; she also draws out and enhances the movement in his playing by adding ephemeral events that scatter and swirl around his drumbeats. The effect creates the mercurial excitement of live performance even though the two artists were never in the same room.
Daisy is still pondering where this project might point him next. “Usually, after I finish a project, I put it down and I’m thinking about my next move,” he says. “I can’t think of anything yet. I know it’s going to come to me, but right now, I have to sit for a while before I decide what’s next.”
Unlike Daisy, Piet embarked on some lengthy detours on his way to playing free jazz in Chicago. He grew up in Palos Park, where he took up piano at age ten. He showed early promise, and before he reached his teens he was playing cocktail piano and classical music at parties, charity events, and recitals. He also accompanied a local children’s choir outside of school, an experience that taught him how to engage with an ensemble. “That was really instrumental in developing my ear beyond just what you do at the piano,” he recalls.
Piet first heard jazz at age 17, when he attended a summer camp at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and he went on to study it there. After graduating from Berklee in 2008, he briefly enrolled in Indiana University’s graduate program and then went to work on cruise ships for several years as a solo pianist and bandleader. “I would sometimes return to Chicago, and one of those times that I returned was in 2013, when Constellation opened,” he says. Feeling stifled by his cruise-ship work and inspired by the musicians he’d heard back home, Piet resettled here in 2014.
Alongside the gigs he took to make money, playing cocktail piano and accompanying choirs, Piet began seeking out people with whom he could improvise freely. He frequently attended Sound of the City, a Wednesday-night workshop at Constellation that combined a set by an established ensemble with a jam session. “That’s where I met a lot of younger people, or contemporaries of mine who were going on a regular basis to jam,” he says.
During this period, Piet attended to more than his musical development—he also decided to call in reinforcements in his fight against alcoholism and mental illness, which had been brewing since his early 20s. “Right as I was moving to Chicago and I quit ships, I was finally taking some steps to address my issues with addiction and with mental health,” he says. “In hindsight, I was probably improperly medicated for several years, because it’s tough to get the right thing going. I was immediately diagnosed with bipolar disorder and thrown into the world of heavy antipsychotics, which felt like a chemical lobotomy for a while. I think that what kept me stable from the time that I came to Chicago was actually much more sobriety and the access to music than it was the psychiatric medication.”
By 2016, Piet was clicking not only with his peers (including saxophonist Jake Wark and drummer Bill Harris, who play with him in Four Letter Words) but also with improvisers ten years his senior. The night after the 2016 presidential election, he played a concert with two of those older musicians, Dave Rempis and Daisy. “We all sort of came in and aired our grievances about what we had just found out, and then after that we just played,” Piet says. “It was very good.”
Between May and July 2017, Piet recorded Rummage Out (Clean Feed) with Daisy, Josh Berman, and Nick Mazzarella; Throw Tomatoes (Astral Spirits) with Daisy and Rempis; and City in a Garden (Ears & Eyes), a collection of small-group encounters with a variety of other local players who were all finding their footing at around the same time. In every setting, Piet is an assertive and flexible improviser, equally adept at managing his own dense flows of sound, using darting figures to set up his partners’ forays, and putting his hands into the piano’s interior to wrench out rainbows of resonance.
By all appearances, Piet should’ve had a good year in 2018, but things went seriously awry. He lost his insurance and went off his meds (without insurance, they cost him more than $2,000 per month), and the death of pianist Cecil Taylor in April hit him hard. Taylor had been a personal hero of Piet’s, and as he reflected on Taylor’s life, his increasingly intrusive thoughts cast a pall over his ability to take satisfaction in his own accomplishments. He felt fraudulent because he’d benefited from Taylor’s creativity and struggle for acceptance but hadn’t needed to put in as much effort himself.
“I thought, how am I supposed to think of what I did a year ago as anything special, when this person did this for years and years and really put so much work into it?” Piet says. “I woke up to what a long game being an improviser or even being a musician really is. And so I had to reconcile what I had stolen from him, if I had, for the ways that he had inspired me, but also the ways that he had paved the way for someone like me to just get up and play a lot of notes on the piano and have an audience say, well, we’ve heard Cecil Taylor, so we accept that.”
Taylor hadn’t just expanded the universe of musical possibility, thus giving Piet space to do what he wanted; he’d also provided an example of how to survive and thrive as a queer man in jazz. Piet was keenly aware that he hadn’t faced the same challenges as Taylor. “I’ve never had any issue within the community with being bisexual; it has never been a source of shame or really any trouble for me, except for how you have to come out to people,” he says. “In my case, as someone who is largely involved in romantic relationships with women, it’s this other thing that, if it doesn’t come up, it doesn’t come up. But at the same time, it is part of my identity. If anything, I’m just all the more aware of anyone like Cecil, who never had the generational luxury to really be out. That added to the guilt, to say OK, this guy struggled in so many other ways, but I shouldn’t.”
The negativity that consumed Piet came as his recording career took several leaps forward in quick succession. “At the time that I had two and then a third big release coming, I couldn’t handle it mentally, and that crept into my playing, where I was not able to play or to enjoy music of any kind,” he says. “If I went to a show, I was restless, and I really didn’t purchase much music most of 2019 or listen to anything.”
Piet had stopped booking creative-music gigs after the June 2018 release party for City in a Garden, and in October of that year he started his current day job. This allowed him to get back on medication—this time a new treatment that included antidepressants to alleviate his anhedonia. He rented his La Grange apartment in January 2019, and by the end of the year, he’d stabilized and felt ready to return to music. “I was hoping to get back out there more regularly, maybe try to switch up what sort of groups I was leading,” he says. “But moreover, I was just on the precipice of saying, OK, I know who I am as a musician, I know how to let that music out.” Instead, he spent the spring locked down at his parents’ home in the south suburbs.
Piet turned the circumstances to his advantage by honing his piano skills. “By June, I had been in quarantine with my folks for three months. That’s where my piano resides, and that’s where I started to really get my chops in line on multiple fronts,” he says. “Each day I would sit down, and maybe I was juggling a few different plates of concepts—you know, general technique, classical music, tunes, improvisational music—and I would just sit down and feel out what I wanted to do at that time. If I wanted to play Chopin for an hour, I played Chopin for an hour. If I wanted to play bebop, I’d do that.”
Soon Piet started itching to do something more creative. He considered making a conventional solo album, but he didn’t want to record without an audience. He needed a different approach. “The idea went from ‘OK, I gotta do something and I gotta do it in the studio because there is no other way,’ to maybe 15 minutes later saying, ‘I don’t know, I hate the idea of overdubbing things, but I think I have to do it that way. I have to challenge myself to construct, in the same process every time, something that is interactive and improvisatory.'”
At the end of June, Piet spent a single day in the studio. Inspired by the overdubbed experiments of Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans, the multipiano compositions of Morton Feldman and John Adams, and the composition Toneburst (Piece for Three Trombones Simultaneously) by trombonist George Lewis, he set himself the task of recording three layers of his own piano. First he’d improvise from a set of cues, and then he’d play two accompanying tracks in quick succession, listening to what he’d already played through headphones and improvising responses to it.
“I think it’s funny that in order to get myself outside of what I thought would be really self-indulgent, which would be a solo piano record, I had to make more of myself,” Piet says. “It helped rein me in to a degree, because I knew that if I just shot out all of these notes on the first take, I would be muddying the waters somewhat. I was really concerned about using these three passes to bring out things that were specific to the timbre of the piano itself.”
The 15 tracks on (Pentimento), released last week by Bill Harris’s Chicago-based Amalgam label, are sparser and more lyrical than the mercurial music that Piet has played in his regular trios. “I didn’t want to ask too much of the audience’s ear,” he says. “That’s why it’s only 30 minutes, and that’s why each track is two to three minutes at most. They’re all part of a set of vignettes that are exploring what the piano is capable of doing if there were three people playing.”
“It’s something that I only would have done under these circumstances,” Piet continues. “It’s both a document of a time and an experiment that maybe I would have done at some point in my life, but I probably won’t ever do it again. So it’s nice to finally get a creative work finished in a solid way and be able to ask myself, ‘What comes next?’ Because I don’t know. It won’t be another one of these records, and it won’t be anything I’ve ever done before, but it will be a continuation of these things.”
Given the impossibility of reproducing (Pentimento) live, Piet’s first step was to celebrate its release by playing a livestreamed concert last week at Constellation with Four Letter Words, his trio with Wark and Harris. Daisy hasn’t scheduled any sort of record-release event, but between the virtual collaboration on Light and Shade and the all-acoustic solo drum-kit explorations on Room to Breathe, he’s opened a range of creative options for himself. It’s futile to guess what form each artist’s next recording will take, but even if the music business returns to something like normal in the foreseeable future, they’ll still need the flexibility and creativity they had to learn during the pandemic in order to stay in the game. v