Dan Bruce talks music, composing and the :beta collective CD Release at Constellation October 26th
Dan Bruce has spent the last decade honing his craft—jazz guitar, composing, and leading—in the Chicago area as one member of a growing contingent of postmodern artists that have nurtured their own craft within this scintillating milieu.
Bruce, whose latest collaborative effort, called :beta collective, will be celebrating the release of their new recording on ears&eyes records entitled "Earthshine" at a CD release concert Thursday night (October 26th) at Constellation in Chicago, commented:
“Chicago has a large scene of ‘modern’ jazz musicians (as vague as that term is...) who compose original music. A lot of us listen to the similar groups and are into a certain approach to making music. It makes sense to me that within this scene some of the best players will get included in a bunch of different groups. For myself, it is a real treat to write specifically for musicians when you are familiar with what they can and will do when interpreting music from the written page.”
He continued, “My music is a combination of very specific composed sections, solo sections with set changes that are more modal than functional in nature, and sections of free improvisation. I want the composed parts to be very tight, I want the solo sections to be somewhat loose (generally play the changes, but also getting outside of the changes is cool too), and I want the free sections to make sense and come off as musical.”
Lately, this musical intermingling has produced some of the strongest performances by ensembles in recent years, including Dana Hall’s Spring and Geof Bradfield’s Yes. One common element of those and Bruce’s ‘collective’ is the active presence of bassist Clark Sommers.
“Chicago is blessed with a huge number of phenomenal bass players!”, exclaimed Bruce. “In addition to being an incredible bassist, Clark has mastered the balance between interactive, unpredictable playing and adhering to the role of the bass. He will go somewhat loose or out if that is where the music is going, but he never stops supplying the foundational context that ties together what the rest of the band is doing, and he never lets the groove lose energy. I think this makes him a first choice for many composers.”
Being a musician is pretty much a description of Bruce’s life: “I always loved music. My mother was a classical concert pianist when I was young, and she would play a lot of ragtime at home. But I did not always plan on guitar. I was terrible at cornet, trombone, saxophone, and drums before picking up the guitar. I guess I was interested enough in guitar to stick with it until I was less terrible… Jim Hall was one of the first big influences on me (once I was actually studying jazz). He was the first person I really transcribed. John Abercrombie was another big influence early on- listening to Gateway was really what first got me into jazz, mostly because I could relate to it as a rock player. It seemed like they were "jamming" and he was using distortion, so it sounded closer to what I was already doing. Bill Frisell was another huge influence. My largest influence over the past few years has been Ben Monder. Lately I have also been transcribing Lage Lund. His phrasing is incredible. I need more of that...”
Life, however, persists. While percolating in Chicago, Bruce supplanted his career with adjunct work at local colleges mixed with private lessons and lecture courses, followed by a stint as Music Department chairperson as the Chicago Academy for the Arts, a performing arts high school. Recently, Bruce and his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where his wife has a new job and family ties. That, and the cost savings incurred (sorry, Chicago) will actually allow him to more actively further his growth in composition and performance.
“I have also been able to leave town more often since she has help from her family, so I've been able to get to NYC and Toronto, and some other places to perform. I have also been back in Chicago about once a month on average to perform, and I'm still in a number of groups there. So I'm hoping to keep my connections to the Chicago scene alive, and I plan on continuing to work on the beta collective project.”
That’s good news for us listeners. The :beta collective consists of Russ Johnson on trumpet, Chris Madsen on sax, Rob Clearfield on piano and Fender Rhodes, Sommers on bass, and Jon Deitemyer on drums, all highly sought-after players. Bruce collected this new ensemble with his compositional vision in mind. “I know that Jon and Rob are going to bring a certain ‘looseness,’ a large dynamic sense, and a highly interactive approach to what is on the page. Russ and Chris will sound fantastic playing over ‘post-bop modal’ changes, and will sound great in more free harmonic settings. It allows me to try and write to their strengths, and know that whatever I come up with will be that much better once the players get comfortable on it and bring their thing to it.
“I have had a group that has performed my compositions off and on during my time in Chicago, and it has had a number of core players. It was usually a quintet, but this time I knew I wanted to have two horns. Most earlier incantations included Rob and Jon, so I filled out the group with players I really admire, and who I thought would really fit my style of writing. A good deal of the album was written after the group was solidified, and I was composing with these musicians in mind. A couple of the tunes were already written, I just arranged them for sextet and made some edits. And "Major_ Chord" is written by a good friend of mine and great drummer, Nathan Douds. I have played that tune with him, and I thought it would fit this group really well.”
Many, like this writer, think composition with performers in mind is one fuel to growth in jazz interest. For Bruce, “I think this approach is getting more common, as there are more bands playing original music. You are able to get to a much deeper level of interpretation and interaction when the same people play the same music over a period of time. It is hard to get to that level on pickup gigs that may have different people each time. I like to think that the musicians performing my music know that I expect them to take chances with it and do what they hear. That is why I wrote for them.”
While this reviewer noted some similarity between Bruce’s work and the Dave Holland Quintet’s output when the late Kenny Wheeler was on board, the fuel for Bruce’s composing comes from a wide array of influences. “I definitely love the Dave Holland album The Razor's Edge and that was an early influence, but I'm probably more into Kenny Wheeler's groups. John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet [represents] some of my favorite writing, especially the album Royal Toast. Other composition influences include Guillermo Klein, Mary Halvorson, Craig Taborn, Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth. I had a friend once tell me that whenever they hit a wall composing they listen to Bartok's String Quartets. That has worked really well. Also Beethoven's late quartets. I will be trying to figure out Bach for the rest of my life.”
What does the future hold for this rising musician? “Right now I am very focused on this group and this release. I do expect to continue performing/recording with this group. We have a Midwest tour booked in the spring, and I'm submitting for a bunch of festivals next summer. I'm continuing to compose for the group, and I plan on trying to keep the momentum going.”
Meanwhile, Bruce is also highly sought. “I continue to play with Chicago bassist Ashley Summers' group, Raison d'Etre. We did the Toronto Jazz Festival this summer, and it looks like we may have some more performances coming up in Toronto and NYC.
“There is also a new trio I've been playing with including New York City nylon-string guitarist Dan Lippel and Cleveland bassist Aidan Plank. We did a tour last Fall in the Midwest, Pensylvania, and NYC and recorded an album that is set for release on New Focus Recordings in the Spring of 2018. This trio is a lot fun because the other musicians are incredible (Dan plays with the new music ensemble ICE and has his own solo classical guitar career, and Aidan is a phenomenal improviser who plays with Joe Lovano and other greats when they are in town). We have all been close friends for twenty years. We play a mix of free improvised music and compositions that blur the lines between contemporary classical music and modern jazz. There are plans for a tour around the release of the album.
“I was lucky to be a part of Justin Endler's album "Secret Music" under the band name MawPaw, which was released earlier this year, and it looks like the group may be doing something in the Midwest early next year. That is a phenomenal album, and something different for me since I don't do a lot of rock playing these days. And the Nathan Douds Ensemble, led by the wonderful drummer based in Minneapolis, is planning a tour in Fall 2018.”
You could excuse Dan Bruce if he experiences a head-spinning moment or two in the next year, given the mix of domestic change and musical involvement, but if the new :beta collective album is any indication, he’s able to manage his life and career just fine. For more information on the new Release