Mr. Chair makes like a swirling cloud
The Madison-based quartet celebrates the release of a triple album on September 5 at the Majestic. (Photo: Mr. Chair’s members are, from left to right: Mike Koszewski, Ben Ferris, Jason Kutz, and Mark Hetzler. Photo by Anya Kubilus.)
The members of Mr. Chair—pianist Jason Kutz, trombone player Mark Hetzler, bassist Ben Ferris, and drummer Mike Koszewski—have built an unwieldy universe around their music since launching the band in 2016. The band's debut album, Nebulebula, runs just shy of two hours, and will come out in two-CD and triple-vinyl editions, which include liner notes from recording engineer Buzz Kemper and from UW-Madison geoscientist Stephen Meyers, who has become an integral collaborator, inspiring the band to take on scientific concepts and in some cases literally help him teach science. The release show for the album, on Thursday, September 5 at the Majestic, will feature 13 guest musicians in addition to the core quartet, and will incorporate videos the band created with Meyers.
When I interviewed the band last week, there was talk somewhere in there of serving cheese, baked goods, and a special-edition Nebulebula beer from east-side brewery Giant Jones (it's a hybrid of a porter and a double IPA). There's an after-party. Previous Mr. Chair shows have incorporated live drawing and scientific lectures, and the band collaborates actively with vocalist Leslie Damaso, with whom they'll perform on September 20 at The Winnebago as part of Infamous Local Fest. (Full disclosure: Tone Madison is a co-presenter of Infamous Local.)
In short, everything about this band is a lot, and as it continues it only seems likely to breed even more of a lot. But no one in the band seems particularly stressed or distracted about all the disparate elements they're juggling. Nor do any of these far-flung extras seem to dilute the music itself. The 14 tracks on Nebulebula incorporate the through-composed sweep of classical music with the conversational immediacy of jazz, and even with material from five different composers (including an Erik Satie piece) and contributions from 14 other musicians, the quartet pulls it off with warmth, playfulness, and a clear capacity to get immersed in the moment. At its most technically dizzying, it's still got plenty of fluidity. It translates on a gut musical level, whether or not a given listener is looking for an interdisciplinary science lesson or eating a particular kind of cheese.
Even if the band is given to ambitious projects—members spoke with us in 2017 about reinterpreting Stravinsky's 1920 ballet Pulcinella, a project they still plan to record—it grew out of a simple desire to enjoy each other's company and musical chemistry. "Let's find good human beings to work with" is how Koszewski sums up Mr. Chair's founding M.O.
"I never remember having a conversation about what style of music we were going to play, and yet it seemed like an unspoken thing that automatically, instantly, we started to bring any and all things into it and it always seemed like a natural approach," says Hetzler, who is also a professor of trombone at UW-Madison and also mixes up jazz, classical, and experimental music in another quartet, Sinister Resonance.
As Mr. Chair started recording what would eventually become the album, it was also developing its relationship with Meyers, who explains in the liner notes that he first got to know Kutz as his son's piano teacher. After actually seeing Mr. Chair, Meyers asked the band to actually become part of a large undergraduate survey class he teaches, and specifically to perform in the lecture hall as Meyers explained the Big Bang. Nebulebula's title track, which also opens the record, grew from that commission.
Kutz composed the piece, and as he went about researching the Big Bang and thinking about how to grapple with such a massive concept in musical terms, he fixated upon nebulas. And he explained to Meyers that he didn't want to make anything too didactic. "It has to still sound good. It has to sound like something musically that you can follow, that you don't necessarily have to be thinking about a scientific concept to enjoy it," Kutz says. "I'm taking this concept of a nebula, where there's swirling masses of dust that are moving fast, and there's something large that's forming." Unlike another playfully augmented term, "moonmoon," "nebulebula" originated not with the scientific community but with Kutz. In a very Mr. Chair way, he took an already very large idea and decided to tack on a little extra.
The band has gone on to work with Meyers in more class sessions and bring Meyers along for the occasional lecture-meets-show event. They've made videos that Meyers uses to explain different scientific concepts to his students by placing the instruments in unlikely situations. In one, Koszewski set up his drum kit on a frozen Lake Mendota, to the amusement of nearby ice fishers, and played while a variety of sensors placed in the ice and down in the water captured the vibrations, helping to illustrate how sound carries through different kinds of matter. These videos aren't online, but will be incorporated into Thursday's performance.
As Meyers spent more time with the band, a cosmic theme began to seep into the album. It's not always overt (and in fact the album art draws on the opposite extreme, using dazzling microscopic images from UW-Madison's Huisken Lab) but there's definitely a spacey through-line at work here. The four musicians in Mr. Chair now think of Meyers as an essential collaborator—Meyers isn't in rehearsal or discussing the work with them in musical terms, but working with him shakes up the creative process in healthy ways. "Us doing a lecture means we have to actually formalize our thoughts, put them into some kind of cohesive structure and then execute it," Hetzler says. "And as we've done it over the last two and a half years, I think we've found out what works, what maybe doesn't work, we've tweaked it and evolved it."
Kutz explains that Meyers, in his interdisciplinary zeal, asserts that everyone can be a scientist and that everyone can also be an artist. This conviction also helped the band out of a jam with police at the state capitol, where Meyers joined them for an un-permitted photoshoot and Hetzler let off a trombone blast to see what the reverb would sound like.
"We had a photoshoot in the gallery in the Capitol, and the police came out and stopped us," Hetzler says. "They wanted to know who we were. We didn't do the right things to get the shot. Steve walked right over to the guy, pulled out this meteorite, hands it to the policeman, and proceeds to tell the policeman, 'You're a scientist!' Literally! And you should have seen the look on this dude's face. But he automatically disarmed the situation and turned it into this moment."
Kutz adds: "At first [the cop] declined the meteorite and said, 'I want to know what you guys are doing, you guys can't do that in here.' And Steve totally defused it and the guy actually is like, 'OK, I'll take that meteorite!'"
"Nebulebula" starts with a rush of fleet melodies and staggering drums, then gradually pulls back, culminating in a piano phrase that flickers over handsomely reverbed trombone and bowed bass. It zooms in to contemplate the fevered interactions of different states of matter, and zooms out to consider the majesty of the whole, and for all that, the track focuses squarely on lively interplay. "That track is the most in the middle, I think, of where the sound of this band is," Ferris says. "It's got so many of the aspects of what we do in there. If you were only going to listen to one thing, this is a big part of what this group does."
On the second track, "Waves," composer and guest flugelhorn player Charles Lazarus gives listeners eight and a half minutes to cool off with slowly unspooling phrases. "Burner Phone" gradually ramps the tension back up, and there's plenty of tension across this album, though tracks like the Hetzler-composed "Falling," which opens the second half, let the band explore near-ambient expanses of modulated trombone and trilling piano.
Mr. Chair also looks beyond the jazz and classical realms for collaborators. After reading an Isthmus story about multi-faceted R&B/hip-hop artist and UW-Madison student Dequadray White, the band members asked him to consider contributing some vocals. (Coincidentally, White's latest release as Dequadray draws on celestial themes—it's an EP named for the star Anatares.) White wrote lyrics to Hetzler's composition "Purity," and the result is a classical suite that also showcases the versatility of White's singing, layered with his own harmonies and a powerful lift from four members of the Mount Zion Baptist Choir: Terra Allen, Latanya Maymon, Toya Robinson, and Tamera Stanley.
As a lyricist, White is matches the lofty scope of the composition. He doesn't try to write to "Purity" as if it's a conventionally structured song. There are certainly catchy moments, but the lyrics here play out more as an episodic poem, delving deep into introspection while at the same time exploring the implacable pull of societies and systems: "It feels like I'm constantly aware / Of the burden in the bones that we share / The wear and tear of my optimism startles me to question / 'Will it ever get better'?" White will perform at the release show, and has also collaborated with Mr. Chair on live arrangements of his own songs, including one of the Antares EP's high points, "Proof."
The guest players in Mr. Chair's world tend to shape the material in an integral way, rather than just filling in some pre-determined element: "Purity" challenges the four core band members to stretch out, but also expands the notion of what a Dequadray song can be (though Dequadray's work is already quite varied). Band members also got very hands-on with the studio itself while recording with Kemper at the Audio For The Arts studio in downtown Madison, and later while mixing the album with another veteran engineer, Mike Zirkel. (Justin Perkins mastered it, so it's definitely an album from Wisconsin.) In a similar way, "Mile Of Ledges" incorporates a string quartet—violinists Paran Amirinazari and Beth Larson, viola player Ariel Garcia, and cellist Mark Bridges—into a rapid-fire exchange that hinges on vertiginous melodies and searing bursts of distortion. It also boasts a thrilling drum solo from Koszewski, whose other projects have included the mutant jazz-rock outfit Lovely Socialite.
"Information Age" pulls the album back to the mundanities of daily digital life, at least for those of us old enough to have used the old-timey AOL program that arrived via CDs in the mail. This meandering stop-start composition incorporates samples right out of the early-'90s internet, like the keening of a dial-up modem, the whoosh of an email being sent, and that eager declaration, "You've got mail!" It's jarring and at times laugh-out-loud funny, and that's how the band intended it. Hetzler actually managed to clear the AOL samples, thanks to a brother-in-law with tech connections. Kutz at one point wanted "Information Age" to be the first track on the album, but perhaps wisely changed his mind. Kutz: "I think it comes at a good point when humor hits at a better place later in the album," Kutz says.
The triple-album format, of course, invites such excess and experimentation. But the band members also had a simpler reason for putting so much material into one release: they wanted to capture this chapter of Mr. Chair as fully as possible, so that they could feel free to move on to other distinct sound worlds. "Somehow all four of us just said 'fuck it,'" Hetzler says. "I hate to sound so blunt, but when we were thinking about individual pieces, we didn't know which ones to just leave behind...maybe an outside listener could hear the whole album and say, 'Eh maybe I'd drop that one.' But if you asked 10 different people, you'd have 10 different answers to that question."
No one in Mr. Chair actually expects most listeners to actually take in the whole of Nebulebula in one sitting, though it works as a cohesive album if you've got the time for it. They actually welcome the fact that people will pick their favorites and skip around. Kutz was actually shocked recently when some musician colleagues he sent the album to recently actually sat down and listened to it front to back: "I was like, 'holy shit, people are actually gonna do that?'"