Katie Ernst Credit: Jonathan Gibby

Katie Ernst is one of the most promising bassists in Chicago’s bustling jazz scene, but she didn’t get exposed to much music growing up in Naperville. “My dad had a couple of records,” she says. “One was by Simon & Garfunkel, and I liked that. I had younger sisters who listened to Raffi, and I listened to that too. I could accept anything, and I was into it.” Since then Ernst has gotten choosier about her listening—she’s developed an aesthetic of her own—but she’s also held on to that openness from her childhood. Combined with her quick wit, confidence, and charisma, it’s helped her seize opportunities that might’ve slipped past other musicians, or create opportunities of her own—at the ripe old age of 27, not only is she a dazzling talent whose potential makes her someone to watch, but she’s also something of a trusted eminence.

In summer 2011, having just earned a degree in jazz studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, Ernst began an internship at the Jazz Institute of Chicago, the venerable organization that programs the annual Chicago Jazz Festival—and further promotes the music by organizing free concerts year-round and running a wide variety of educational programs. The internship paid Ernst a stipend that allowed her to work there for a year, and she spent many of her evenings trying to break into the local scene.

At the time one of Ernst’s friends, saxophonist Corbin Andrick, led a weekly engagement and jam session at Lincoln Park bar Lilly’s. His bassist had just left for a gig on a cruise ship, and Ernst pounced. “It was great, because I wasn’t just going to a session and saying, ‘Hi, I’m Katie, I play the bass,'” she says. “I had a different relationship—people asked to play my bass.” She already knew some of the regular players at Lilly’s, having met them at a two-week annual jazz camp at the Birch Creek Music Performance Center in Door County, Wisconsin, that she’d attended for four years in the mid-aughts. Others, including acclaimed trumpeter Marquis Hill, she met there for the first time. “It was great to reconnect with the people in the house band,” she says. “But it gave me an instant ability to meet a bunch of young musicians in Chicago every week.”

Ernst kept that gig for three years. She admits that dumb luck helped her land the position in the first place, but it was through preparedness and eagerness to adapt that she made the most of it­—she’s grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns throughout her young career. For four years she’s played in Twin Talk, a leaderless trio with saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi and drummer Andrew Green, and after they drop their second album on Friday—a self-titled collection on local label Ears&Eyes—they’ll take their longest tour yet, a two-week east-coast trip that will pass through New York, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., among other locales. The tour launches Saturday, April 30, with a release concert at Constellation, and after Twin Talk return to town, they play Monday, May 19, at the California Clipper.

Twin Talk; Paul Giallorenzo, Julian Kirshner, and Anton Hatwich
Sat 4/30, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, constellation-chicago.com, $10, 18+

Twin Talk, Stirrup with Charles Rumback
Mon 5/16, 9:30 PM, California Clipper, 1002 N. California, californiaclipper.com, free, 21+

The album and tour are the latest points on Ernst’s steady upward trajectory, whose course she began to imagine in summer 2003—her first year at the Birch Creek camp. (She went every summer till 2006, then started at Eastman in 2007.) Someone at camp played her a recording by SuperBass—the all-star bass trio of Ray Brown, Christian McBride, and John Clayton—and it opened her ears to how much the instrument she’d been playing for five years could actually do. “It made me realize that the bass was much more than just the whole notes I was playing in orchestra,” she says. “That was when I really got fired up.”

That’s not to say Ernst wasn’t already curious and ambitious, though. When she was in second grade, a teacher’s offhand comment bolstered her confidence about using her voice. “I always sang in the choir, and at one point in my youth my piano teacher told my mom that I had a pleasant voice and that it was in tune,” she says. “So my mom somehow relayed that to me, and I always thought, ‘I have a pleasant voice and I’m always in tune,’ and that was all I needed.” She didn’t just play bass in her school’s orchestra and jazz ensembles but also sang in them—and she joined a madrigal group.

“My MO is to be doing a lot of things all of the time,” Ernst says. “That’s been consistent since I was able to decide what I was going to be doing at any time.” By the time she arrived at Eastman, the knowledge of jazz phrasing and improvisation that she’d accumulated as a bassist had seeped into her singing, and she was soon recruited to sing in the school’s big band; she even took an off-campus gig as a vocalist for veteran Dixieland combo the Smugtown Stompers.

Jazz Institute executive director Lauren Deutsch recognized Ernst’s energy and drive early on. While still in high school, the bassist had participated in JIC’s Jazz Links educational program, and Deutsch was happy to welcome her back for the internship. “I was impressed by her self-confidence and fearlessness, combined with an openness to working as part of a team,” she says. “Not surprising, really, since all of those are qualities of a good jazz player.

“She immediately had good ideas, including starting an initiative that would connect next-gen players to the Jazz Institute—an idea that fortuitously collided with the Drake Hotel’s interest in starting a monthly jazz series to draw young people,” adds Deutsch, who has kept Ernst on as a part-time employee since the internship ended. “It’s been great to watch her grow her career over the past six years, both musically and in all of the other areas in which she works. She has a keen vision that propels her forward, but rather than leaving everyone behind in the dust, she sweeps us all along in her wake.”

Andrew Green, Katie Ernst, and Dustin Laurenzi, aka Twin Talk, rehearsing at Green’s placeCredit: Jonathan Gibby

Twin Talk formed in early 2012, about six months after Ernst moved to Chicago. Though she knew Laurenzi through a mutual friend, she didn’t meet Green till the first time the three of them got together to read through some of Laurenzi’s compositions. “We all played sessions with lots of other people frequently, but there was something special about this particular grouping,” Ernst says. “Andrew [Green] and I would catch things together, turning on a dime, from the get-go.”

The three of them immediately decided to form a working band, initially called Laurenzi/Ernst/Green, and in 2013 they released the album Sightline, whose cool, agile sound is rooted in postbop but whose tempered energy recalls vintage west-coast jazz. Ernst adds vocals on a handful of tracks, giving the trio a fourth voice by singing lyrics of her own as well as wordless lines. Last year the group renamed itself—as Ernst puts it in the new album’s press materials, “We didn’t want to be a jazz law-firm anymore.”

As tightly as Ernst has bonded with Chicago’s thriving under-30 jazz community, she’s also grown increasingly invested in the city’s rich history. She’s been reading The Freedom Principle—a history of free jazz from the 50s through the 80s by Chicago critic John Litweiler—and thinking a lot about the AACM and Muhal Richard Abrams’s Experimental Band. “Our trio was thinking that we’re coming up with some new concept about being collaborative, but there’s already this precedent and huge canon for that,” she says. “Our belief system has already been established, and we can just feed off of it.”

Ernst doesn’t consider her education to have ended at Eastman. In 2013 and ’14 she participated in the prestigious Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead residency at the Kennedy Center. The program is under the direction of Mac­Arthur fellow and pianist Jason Moran, and it was there that he became of an admirer of Ernst—eventually he asked her to participate in a high-profile commission, a collaboration with artist Theaster Gates called Looks of a Lot that premiered at Symphony Center in June 2014. For that one-off performance, Ernst sang an English translation of Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger,” accompanied by the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band, and then played bass with Moran’s long-running trio the Bandwagon for the rest of the concert. “Katie Ernst I met because she was in the Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center for the past two years,” Moran said at the time. “After the first year, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s a really great composer, she’s a really great bassist, she’s a really great singer.’ I said, ‘I’m doing this thing next year, and I want you to be a part of it. I don’t know what you’re going to do yet, but I need you to be up there with us.'”

Last year Ernst released Little Words, an album of original settings of poems by Algonquin Round Table writer Dorothy Parker. She’s joined by her Twin Talk bandmates and New York pianist Samora Pinderhughes, and though her refined singing takes on a bigger role than usual, she remains committed to the bass. More recently Ernst has started a duo with a veteran of the local scene, clarinetist James Falzone. “She’s smart as a musician and smart as a person, and she’s wise beyond her years,” Falzone says. “There’s something joyful about her music making that makes her open to anything. There’s no baggage. People respond to that joy, both listeners and musicians. They respond to her positivity and her openness for making art.”

Twin Talk is Ernst’s current focus, and the new album demonstrates astonishing growth. Laurenzi plays with a beguiling cool that belies the sophistication and flexibility of his lines, and Green expertly drives the music without overpowering it. Ernst anchors the band with muscular, precise bass playing and adds her elegant vocals to four of the 11 tunes.

Twin Talk performs Ernst’s tune “Hush Hush” at Constellation in June 2015.

“I’ve been advised by some jazz higher-ups that it would be wise to do more vocals or make that the forefront of the band,” Ernst says wryly. “But I think that’s coming from a desire to be able to categorize the group in the vocal-jazz box or something. I think it’s more interesting to present something where you can’t figure out what it is. Sometimes I’ll sing words, sometimes I’ll just sing syllables, and sometimes I don’t sing at all. I think that’s way more interesting, with a wider palette to play with. Our last tour we did, we turned a corner in taking a lot more risks and getting a lot more open and free. I started to add more wordless vocals to our improvisations. It’s cool to have that option without feeling like this is my role specifically.”

Twin Talk is gaining confidence and attracting attention, but Ernst isn’t narrowly focused on her own ambition—she’s committed to giving back. She’s currently the jazz-ensemble director and jazz-bass teacher at Wheaton College, and she teaches at the same camp in Door Country she attended in high school. She also gives bass lessons at Whitney Young High School and coordinates the Jazz Links Student Council program for the Jazz Institute of Chicago. “My development has been so influenced by mentors, whether they’re just a couple of years older than me at jazz camp or they’re a professor,” she says. “There’s been this constant give-and-take, watching and learning from them, but there’s also these kids learning from me and my people. I love the idea of that mentorship cycle.”  v