Q: Could you describe your family background; was there music in your house growing up?
A: Neither of my parents were musicians, but both of my parents were avid music fans, music lovers. They came of age at a time in America when music was very important to youth culture. My parents are still huge, huge music fans; my father and I have often joked as to whether he talked me into playing guitar or whether I was motivated to do so by MTV. I have vivid memories of early MTV, my father has vivid memories of talking me into it. And I should mention that my parents had almost no interest in jazz whatsoever. My parents are much more into classic rock – my mother is a huge Eric Clapton fan, and both my parents are a bit obsessed with Little Feat, a American southern rock band. Still one of my favorites.
Q: Let’s talk about some of your early influences. Who comes to mind first?
A: Growing up, I was very into classic rock, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Beatles, things of that nature, mostly guitar-driven stuff. The first album I bought with my own money was the Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill.” Grunge hit when I was 12 or 13 years old; that was the first music I really got into, the first music that meant something to me. It makes sense considering my age at the time. When I got to high school and started to focus on guitar and explore jazz, I was immediately taken by Wes Montgomery. Even moreso by Jimmy Raney.
Q: When did you begin to know that music would be your path?
A: I started playing guitar when I was eight years old. I wasn’t very serious about it, though, I was a child. I practiced, however, and developed some proficiency. I played with friends and in the junior high school jazz band, nothing of terrible import. As a freshman in high school, I made the high school jazz band. Incidentally, the guitarist before me, Michael Drost, is a very successful guitar player in Chicago – we had the same teacher growing up.
The summer after my freshman year in high school, I attended the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Camp. It was a transformative experience. That week ignited a serious passion in me for guitar and more specifically jazz. In retrospect, jazz camps have their strengths and weaknesses; for me, the most incredible part was the three or four faculty performances each night. Just spectacular. To this day, I can vividly recall the night Dave Liebman performed. He gave an hour-long lecture about the first minute or so of Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” before performing Coltrane’s “India.” And it was incredible. Just incredible. And off I went. From then on I was practicing hours and hours and hours a day, music really took over my life.
Q: When you arrived at DePaul University, how did things progress? How fully formed were your ideas at the time?
A: I’ll start with the second part. The ideas I had at the time were radically different than the ideas I have now. At the time, I was more interested in “straight-ahead” jazz, which of course was the vast majority of what I had been exposed to. I was aware of and into Bill Frisell and John Scofield by then, but my overall understanding of jazz was much more limited, much more “inside.” I had a certain level of technical ability and had, in high school, studied with a number of Chicago’s more recognized guitar players – Fareed Haque, John McLean, Bob Palmieri (who ended up being my main professor at DePaul), et al. But I was still a child, of course.
As far as things progressing at DePaul, a ton of the credit belongs to Bob Palmieri. In studying with Bob, I was given the knowledge I needed (and then some!) and guided to find a voice in the music I wanted to explore. At DePaul, I was given free rein to discover and explore all sorts of different music – the European free jazz tradition, the AACM, Chicago’s “second wave” of free jazz (e.g. Ken Vandermark, Jeb Bishop). And at DePaul I started exploring classical composition, too. I spent much my time in the 20th century classical world, studying composition with Drs. George Flynn, Kurt Westerburg, and Jeff Kowalkowski. (London-based cellist and composer) Andrew Morgan and I founded a society to promote student performances of all sorts of crazy shit. With guitarist Aaron Solomon, Drew and I formed a free improv group called Seven Days of Stockhausen. It was a really great environment in which I was able to explore the different things I could do in and what I really wanted to do with music. And, yeah, by the end my conception of music was wider than at the beginning. Had I attended a more conservative jazz-oriented program, I would have come out a very, very different musician.
Q: You’ve spent some time in academic settings. I’d like to hear your views on jazz education. Do you feel that it is necessary for a student musician to go the academic route in order to develop as a jazz player?
A: This is a strange and difficult thing to think about. I am 100% a product of institutionalized jazz education – I went to a high school with a renowned jazz program and have pursued jazz for my entire academic career. But ultimately I find myself having very mixed feelings about about institutionalized jazz education.
Jazz is…not doing so well as a commercial music. Jazz is not doing so well as a cultural force. In many ways, jazz has survived due to the educational systems developed around it, due to this institutionalized system of jazz education. And I believe that jazz should be taught alongside any “classical” music at the university level. But, to me the incredible import of jazz – what jazz is – is the development over the 20th century and practice of improvisation in Western music. I don’t care about jazz as a genre, I don’t care about jazz as a “classical” music – these concepts are useless to me. Jazz is an important and invaluable part of world culture specifically NOT as the genre of “jazz” (in any era), even more specifically not as an attempt to capture, preserve, or recreate a piece of that historical record (be it Bird, ‘Trane, or Evan Parker). I strongly dislike and disagree with a philosophy of jazz education focused on teaching and as such preserving jazz (and even “improvisation,” so much as it is taught in this context) as a genre, effectively removing it from any sort of relevant cultural conversation. But, hey, I’m more or less a product of it so what can you do?
Q: How would you describe the growth of your own versatility? Do you have any role models with respect to being able to fit in so many contexts while still sounding like yourself?
A: I wouldn’t. The story of my adult life is one of narrowing and narrowing and narrowing what I’m able to accomplish on the guitar. At the age of 20, 21, I was an infinitely more versatile musician, able to play any number of different things in any number of different contexts. But I made a conscious decision to move away from versatility, to destroy a significant portion of my instrumental abilities. I decided to focus on developing a voice on the instrument, developing a voice as an improvisor, developing a more personal music that had meaning to me. And sure, in doing so I shut myself off from a lot of good work. For many, many years I was not capable of playing weddings, accompanying singer-songwriters, or really doing any music aside from my own. Through that process, though, I’ve gotten to the point where I can apply what is to me a more meaningful voice in a more meaningful way. Even now in different genres or on different projects. But, as far as versatility goes, I’ve gone the opposite way.
As for role models and people I really admire: we can start with Derek Bailey, of course. Not to mention John Scofield. And there’s Marc Ducret, the French guitarist. I am a huge fan of his musical voice and what he manages to accomplish on the instrument. I have a similar respect for John McLaughlin. I’ve loved John McLaughlin for years, but my appreciation grows deeper the older I get. In a similar vein, I love George Harrison’s playing. Now there is a man who has never played one wrong, one extraneous note – I deeply admire that. And hey how about Lindsey Buckingham? Another guy who manages to be spectacularly on point, simple, clear and constructive with everything note he plays.
Q: What kind of equipment/instrument do you use, and what is your relationship towards it? What do you think lies behind your choice of the equipment/instrument?
A: I have a deep-seated need for a precise, physical relationship to the guitar I’m playing. I need comfort and playability; more importantly, I need the guitar to physically respond to and “vibe” (ugh, sorry) with any number of (often-aggressive) techniques. I no longer use what might be considered “traditional” or even “modern” jazz guitars; I now almost exclusively use solid body electric (“rock” or “country”) guitars. Nine times out of ten I’m using one of two instruments, the first of which is a recent Fender ’52 Telecaster reissue. It’s one of the good ones, and man did it take me a long time to find a Telecaster that I was this comfortable with. The other guitar is a late-70s (knock-off, pre-lawsuit era) Hondo Les Paul Special that I bought almost 10 years ago. It has two truly bizarre pickups (I’ve had them examined, they seem to be poorly designed if “designed” at all) that sound spectacular, kind of empty and honky and mid-rangey in a way that really speaks to me. The guitar itself might as well be made out of plywood (not necessarily undesirable) and has a completely unique vibe and sound. I bought it for pennies, and oh Lord the money I’ve sunk into it. But I love how it plays, I love the way it responds, I love how personal a sound I can get out of it.
As far as more traditional jazz guitars, I’ve been really fortunate enough to have a good friendship with Ken Parker, formerly of Parker Guitars, now of Ken Parker Archtops. Ken is arguably the world’s foremost guitar builder; I’ve never played an instrument remotely like the ones Ken is building these days. I’m lucky enough to get to spend some time with those instruments from time to time and…man. Wow.
Q: The media has a tendency to categorize and pigeonhole both the music and the artist, so in your own words, how would you describe your music?
A: I generally describe my music as somewhat aggressive, avant-jazz with rock undertones. I was calling it “alt-jazz” for a while, but that seemed cheap and unspecific. Your question is spot-on – it is extremely difficult to describe your own music. But speaking of the media and pigeon-holing…
Many reviewers hear something humorous or ironic in our music when nothing could be further from the truth. Or at least the intent. For better or for worse, we approach our music with an earnestness and a decidedly modern (as opposed to postmodern) way of processing information. It’s an honest mistake – two of our members (Jon Irabagon and Moppa Elliott) play in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, a fantastic jazz group that plays decidedly humorous, irony-laden, post-modern jazz. (On the same record label, no less.) But, hey, maybe I’m the one who’s hearing things.
Q: Now your main project is Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord. What was the genesis of this project?
A: I started Big Five Chord in 2003 after dropping out of Manhattan School of Music master’s program. Part of leaving MSM was the realization that I would never again be comfortable in an academic jazz environment, that I would never be able to succeed in the way that many of my friends and colleagues were succeeding. If I was going to do this thing, pursue jazz, I needed to find a way to take action of my own volition and accord. So I put together a band with the intent of pursuing a collective musical vision, making an album, and starting to book some gigs. Hence Big Five Chord. Jon Irabagon and I have been good friends since we were 14. Moppa Elliott, we met in New York in 2002, he’s been one of my main conspirators ever since (I can count on one hand the number of gigs I’ve booked without Moppa on bass). The other chairs we filled with our close cohorts from MSM. People moved away, chairs got filled, but I’ve been very fortunate to pursue a true group concept over the course of about 10 years with very few lineup changes. It’s something I really cherish.
Q: This is something that really distinguishes your work—the way you’re fusing of different techniques mirrors you’re fusing of various styles and traditions, including the very prominent use of more modern genres. How did that come about?
A: To the extent that we’re fusing things, it’s neither conscious nor intentional. But I understand the question. Most of our songs have what can be thought of as a rock (or funk or hip-hop or R&B etc…) feel. And, yeah, we play a lot of country songs, the occasional rock cover. But it’s not something with philosophical underpinnings, really. It comes from is the music I love. When I was 13 years old, I lived for Nirvana and for Soundgarden and for Stone Temple Pilots and for Pearl Jam. And that music really holds up! (Seriously, have you listened to “Superunkown” lately?) And of course something so incredibly important to my musical evolution would be expressed in the music I make. As is any number of elements from the jazz tradition. When I sit down to compose music, I strive to keep it a natural process, I hope the music just…comes out. I have to sit down and make a concerted effort to compose, but rarely does the music come out of an exercise or any formal thought. For me, composition is a musical expression almost indistinguishable from improvisation.
Maybe three or four years of Big Five Chord, Moppa told me he thought of Big Five Chord as a rock band. I hadn’t thought of us that way, not in the least. But – fair enough – most of our songs do have contemporary grooves. And, hey, I use a lot of overdriven and distorted guitar tones. From Moppa’s perspective back there, he might be playing in a more rock or “fusion-y” style. But, really, I’ve never seen Big Five Chord as a rock or fusion band, not in the least. Whatever “fusion” or blending there is just a natural expression of my childhood in classic rock, my grungier teenage years, my time as a immersion-level jazz nerd, my awakening to late 90s rap (e.g. Company Flow’s “Funcrusher Plus”), and the ten million other things I’ve heard and am passionate about in the meantime. This isn’t a conscious effort, either, but I hope and trust that the music I make is an expression of what I love about music and what I understand about myself.
Q: Could you describe in a few words the concept behind the Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! and how you differentiate it from previous albums like Accomplish Jazz or All the Pretty Ponies?
A: There’s no concept behind these albums. Years ago, the great Evan Parker told our alto player Jon Irabagon to document everything. Document, document, document, document. And when I have enough to document, I make a record. “All the Pretty Ponies” stared out as yet another recording of a New York club gig – I have literally hundreds of these gigs recorded. When I played this recording for the band members, however, they told me it was a spectacular document and I needed to release it. It’s not the highest-quality recording, but I could not be prouder to have that performance out in the world. We’re actually down to the last 10 copies of the second printing of that disc, which is kind of astonishing.
Shortly after that, I had a bit of a breakdown and couldn’t play music for a while. I could play with rock bands here and there but I couldn’t bring myself to pursue my music in any way, shape, or form. My getting back into it in 2009 was very much tied to Hot Cup Records’ wanting to work with us, wanting to put something out. So I scraped some new music together and we made “Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord Accomplish Jazz.” And then after getting back in the swing of things and touring to support “Accomplish Jazz,” we were able to work towards recording “Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers!” But there’s no concepts at work.
One more thing about “concept” – a lot of people assume that my titles have more meaning than they do. I don’t believe in a linear relationship between any given piece of music (especially music as abstract as mine) and any sort of “title.” (Man, do the classical guys have it easy – “Symphony No. 1,” “Adagio for Strings,” etc…) Moppa feels similarly and names (names!) his compositions after towns in Pennsylvania. I take a different approach and “compose” my titles independent of the music. I want the titles to have a sense of humor (how’s that for irony – or how’s that, even?!?), a playfulness, a buoyancy. “All the Pretty Ponies” is a play on the Cormac McCarthy novel “All the Pretty Horses,” of course, which I would recommend to anyone who want to know what it means to be a jazz musician. The phrase “Accomplish Jazz” came from my feeling at MSM that many of my classmates could “do” jazz or “accomplish” jazz (i.e. “speak” jazz language, live in the jazz world) in a way I could not. I still think “Jon Lundbom and Big Five Chord Accomplish Jazz” is a great album title. “Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers!” was said to and repeated by our drummer Danny Fischer in describing the music of a particularly note-intensive colleague of ours. And I still think “Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers!” is the best description of a jazz improvisation I’ve heard.
Q: When you’re composing a piece for Big Five Chord, where do you ideas come from? Do you have non musical inspirations as well as strictly musical ideas?
A: In composing for jazz, especially for a group of trained and experienced improvisors like Big Five Chord, I am aiming to strike a balance between composed material and room for improvisation. If a composition is entirely composed, I don’t think that it qualifies as jazz (see above). For me, the composition needs enough distinct, composed material to qualify as a “song” and provide enough fodder for the improvisors to draw on for their improvisations. This is the main concept Big Five Chord and I have rehearsed over our ten years together, identifying and drawing on different elements of each composition for our improvisations on it. I imagine that it’s obvious we’re not improvising over a repeating form or harmonic structure, but I hope it’s just as obvious that we are working hard to improvise from the composition itself. We are trying to speak of and from the song, to be a part of the song by drawing on different, more intimate and varied elements. This is what I think about when composing. More basically, is there a particular groove or feel I want? Is there a particular ostinato I want in the bass? Are there certain melodies or melodic structures or harmonic elements I’m looking to develop? Will improvisors find this engaging and compelling to work with? I have any number of inspirations outside the music world but do not think about them in any concrete way.
Q: A few more things before we close this interview. Let’s talk a little about the various ensembles you are working with now…”Bryan Murray & the Haggards,” “The Stutts Brothers,” “Wolfe & the Wayside” or the “ICUP Orchestra,” etc. How they are distinct and what they mean to you.
A: Bryan and the Haggards. Once, on tour with this rock band, we were staying at a friend’s boyfriend’s house in Washington, DC. This boyfriend and I stayed up late talking and listening to music. In talking about music, he said Merle Haggard was his favorite artist. And that growing up as a young gay man in a trailer park in (I think) West Virginia, Merle Haggard’s music was the only thing that kept him from killing himself. Amazing. I went to bed, eventually; he stayed up making me a compilation CD covering the full range of Merle’s career (organized chronologically!) and man did I love the music. I sent a copy along to my good friend and our tenor sax player Mr. Bryan Murray. Brian’s from Nitro, West Virginia; he grew up with country music but wan’t necessarily a fan. He certainly didn’t know from Merle Haggard, either. Bryan fell in love with Merle Haggard, too, and started transcribing Merle Haggard tunes and bringing them around to jazz sessions. Bryan asked if we could play “Swingin’ Doors” on an upcoming Big Five Chord gig; I said if he transcribed six more Merle Haggard tunes we would play nothing but. Based on the success of that gig, Bryan started booking Bryan & the Haggards (nee Big Five Chord Plays the Music of Merle Haggard) gigs and building a repertoire of Merle Haggard tunes. The first Haggards album, “Pretend Its the End of the World,” is far and away the best-received thing I’ve been a part of. The fact that The New York Times wrote about it is still pretty astonishing to me. We just finished a new Haggards album that will be out in a couple months, and man you better get ready!
And, really, there’s no other project I’m involved in that regularly. Wolfe & the Wayside is a rock band I co-led with Aaron Wolfe for years. I couldn’t be more proud of the work we did, but things are pretty dried up these days. The Stutts Brothers is a super-low-key side project. My main passion over the past two years has been learning to play the banjo, mostly in the three-finger, Scruggs-style. Every now and again me and my buddies Jason “Ardell” Stutts and Danny Reisbick play some alt-country/folk/bluegrass and man is it ever a blast. And I’ve been playing banjo pretty regularly with a spectacular singer-songwriter named Andi Rae Healey, too. The ICUP Orchestra is on my resume, too, you can ask Moppa or Peter Evans a bit more about that one.
As I said above, I made a very conscious decision to limit what I was willing and able to do on the instrument. It limited my performance opportunities, as well, but I honestly think that I move closer and closer towards a unique and fulfilling voice on the instrument every day. And, hey, what more can you ask for?
Q: Can you tell us your future goals, what’s coming up?
A: As I mentioned above, we are finishing up a new Haggards album, it will be out on Hot Cup Records very, very soon. The next Big Five Chord album will be a double live album, we’re starting to explore some of the logistics around that. For years now, my goal with Big Five Chord has been to create opportunities with the hope that each success leads to bigger and better opportunities (and so on). Right now, we’re looking to ramp up our international touring, get this double live album off the ground, and make another studio album in the near future (I need to write some music for that…). Personally, I’m spending most of my time working towards really learning the banjo, really wrapping my head around what has been and can be done on the instrument. It’s great fun, a kind of fun I haven’t had in a very long time.
Q: One final question, which may be premature as you are still young, but you have defined an artistic career for yourself: what kind of cultural legacy do you see yourself bestowing on your times?
A: I’ve been thinking about this sort of stuff a lot lately. Honestly, I have enough trouble being in my own skin, enough trouble figuring out ways to live well, live right, be happy, keep music a positive force in my life. It hasn’t always been easy to fit music into my life in the right proportions in the right places; this alone is struggle enough. As far as a cultural legacy, I take issue with the “big man” appreciation of history. I dislike the history of jazz (or any subject, really) understood as a legacy of great man to great man to great man to great man. Music is a cultural force and better understood within that culture, as the interaction of people developing with each other. Jazz almost by definition. I don’t have an appreciation of my place in the world, much less my cultural legacy. I choose to live as well as I can, to try and find some joy, to try to find an honest place from which to make the music I am capable of making. That’s the best I can do. That’s the only way I want to live. Thanks.