Leif Arntzen Band
April 22, 2013
The current version of the Leif Arntzen Band was formed in 2010 when Leif asked his friend [saxophonist] Michael Blake, to recommend a bass player. Blake offered up a number of young musicians from his own group that were talented jazz improvisers, composers, and bandleaders in their own right.
"I wanted a band where everybody had a developed voice already and had an idea of what they wanted to sound like, and felt comfortable composing on the spot—collective composition, that type of thing, and that kind of experience—that kind of drive was something I was really interested in trying to harness in some way," says Leif.
The band met in Leif's basement studio in the heart of Greenwich Village, a funky converted storage room full of old instruments, records, art and memorabilia, and developed its own concept of free playing. The key was a set of 'calls' or simple thematic riffs that signaled a change in leadership or direction of the music. Some pieces had a bass line or form, but the music was very simple and easy to grasp, allowing the band dive into to the essence of what they were doing and start facing larger aesthetic questions right away.
"The key was allowing each musician to freely express themselves within that group setting. When something felt good to play to I would play the horn, and when it seemed like time to lay out and let something else go on then I would lay out. I think that each of us were doing that, and that created an instant sort of trust that was going on when we were recording. Since there was no pressure to really play anything in particular, I think it made everybody really relax a little bit and just kind of play what felt good—usually what feels good is a mix, a little bit of variety in feel and, you know, major, minor, dissonance or whatever—I'm not really thinking in those terms. It just feels like you need to go up dynamically here or down a little bit, or slower or faster, and kind of 'come what may' and see what happens."
Bassist Michael Bates chimes in, "The open element to the music is just a different way of getting to a collective thing, or like an open thing. Knowing the music cold like that, you know, anything can happen at any time. The thing about this band is, for me its like we've kind of collectively come up with our own identity five or six different ways. When you're playing in your own band you're kind of trying to understand the identity of the band, or if you're a sideman you're trying to make the identity of the band happen—whereas this is a whole different approach."
Not that collectivity is a radical new thing in music—there is endless mythology around the concept of the band. But in jazz there are few real collectives, and those that do exist are generally run and creatively dominated by one person anyway. The Leif Arntzen Band consists of five virtuosic musicians, each with their own musical voice, united in a collective desire to express themselves through music.
On their upcoming CD, Continuous Break, there is a palpable energy that invites the listener into the process of creation. Recorded live without overdubbing or fixes, T.L.A.B. is striving for that elusive human quality that bridges genres and comes through in all the great records.
"I think that so many of the great records—not just jazz, but rock too, and folk—some of those recording sessions where the songwriter had spent a lifetime developing a particular song or a lyric, agonizing over a lyric for I don't know how long, it could've been years—but to just go in and play one or two takes and just get something magical happening with a group of musicians who didn't necessarily know the songs so well... but it's there—the essence of it is there, the warts of it and all—and that's what lasts. It makes it human and it includes every listener—I mean everyone gets to be a part of it, because you can hear that in the music. I think that people instinctively hear that, and that's why they keep listening to those records over and over. That's why I do."
When asked what it was exactly, Leif shrugs.
"It's the thing," suggests Bates, and Leif glances down at his trumpet.
"It's an intangible."