The Madison-based trumpeter rolls out a new album and a composition inspired by the Terrace.
Paul Dietrich has been writing original jazz compositions for a relatively short time, but the 29-year-old Madison-based trumpeter has already developed something important: A sense of restraint. His quintet's second album, the recently released Focus, is far from minimalist, but rarely feels hurried or overcrowded. Even on a sprightly track like "The Quick Turn," melodic themes spread out across several measures, less likely to repeat than to gradually shift and iterate. Dietrich is not an especially flashy trumpet player, and even the solo passages on these tracks feel less about showcasing one instrument than finding different ways to blend things together. On "The Quick Turn," for instance, Dietrich and tenor sax player Dustin Laurenzi trade short, conversational phrases that at times flow into and around each other.
On "Puddles," pianist Paul Bedal's chords and bassist Tim Ipsen's bowed underpinnings seem less concerned with creating a progression than with stirring up a harmonically fluid backdrop for Laurenzi and Dietrich's slow, fragmentary lines. On tracks like "A View," drummer Andrew Green nudges the melodies along with his gently propulsive playing. Several tracks also include wordless vocals from Katie Ernst (a bassist and member of the Chicago band Twin Talk), who often doubles the sax and trumpet's melodies with an effect both graceful and slightly eerie.
Dietrich, a native of Ripon, also leads and composes for a big band in town, in addition to playing in ensembles led by Madison-based jazz artists including bassist Ben Ferris and trombone player Darren Sterud. His other big compositional project of late will be unveiled on Saturday, June 17 at the Memorial Union Terrace during the Isthmus Jazz Festival. It's an extended piece called "Scenes From Lake Mendota," and the festival specifically commissioned Dietrich to compose it as a way of celebrating the festival's 30th anniversary and the Terrace itself. He'll be conducting the UW-Madison Jazz Orchestra in the piece's first public performance at 6 p.m., shortly before one of his trumpet idols, Terence Blanchard, plays the festival's headlining set at the Union Theater. Dietrich and his mostly Chicago-based quintet (he met most of the members while attending grad school at DePaul) will play a belated release show for Focus on July 7 at Arts + Literature Laboratory. After that, he'll be working on some more new compositions, supported in part by a grant from the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium.
Dietrich spoke with me recently about his development as a composer, his teenage affinity for prog-rock, and the challenge of portraying the Terrace in musical form.
Tone Madison: One thing that's pretty consistent across this new album is that it tends to feel really reflective and restrained. Was there anything in particular that pushed you in that direction?
Paul Dietrich: I don't know if it's necessarily programmatic music where I had something specific in mind to write about. Ever since I was a kid, I really liked free music, and I guess that kind of just lasted into nowadays. I still appreciate jazz that's a little more angular and jagged, but I've always kind of liked the chill and restrained stuff. There's a few things on there that aren't.
Tone Madison: Oh, sure. But that overall feeling wasn't a deliberate thing?
Paul Dietrich: Not really. I think I kind of just wrote the music that I wanted to hear, I guess, and most of that was kind of laid-back. It wasn't for any specific reason.
Tone Madison: The vocals on the album often double the trumpet melody, which creates sort of an ethereal effect. How did you end up deciding to incorporate vocals in that particular way?
Paul Dietrich: I've been listening to some modern jazz in the last couple years that uses vocals as an instrument that just kind of carries a melody. The main one is this pianist who's originally from Armenia named Tigran Hamasyan. His early-career stuff is really bombastic and combines elements of Armenian folk music that has crazy time signatures, but he also was into thrash metal as a kid, so it's this really energetic, shifty-time-signature jazz. He released an album that was a choir from Armenia singing old hymns, like 10th-century hymns, and he played piano along with it. It's kind of reflective but there's some vocals on that. But in his small-group stuff too, sometimes he sings, and he has a female singer with the group too. There's some other stuff, like one of [pianist] Maria Schneider's albums uses a bunch of vocals just kind of doubling melodies that I was really into. I like how voice can blend with pretty much anything. It just kind of creates a cool effect, I think.
Tone Madison: There are definitely moments in this music where you could almost mistake the voice for another wind instrument. It blends a bit, but also creates a little tension.
Paul Dietrich: If you mix it right, it can almost sound like you're just putting reverb on the other instruments. It just kind of makes an echo effect. But that's the first time I've ever written anything for voice. It was kind of an experiment, but I liked how it turned out.
Tone Madison: When you first started composing original material, what were you interested in doing?
Paul Dietrich: I guess it depends how serious the compositions were. When I was in high school, I was listening to a lot of prog-rock and prog-metal. I played guitar and was kind of writing songs in that vein.
Tone Madison: When you say prog-metal, are we talking about Dream Theater or something?
Paul Dietrich: Dream Theater was the first one, actually. I loved Dream Theater for a while. My older brother was way into that kind of stuff. There were some European bands that were a little less well-known, like Porcupine Tree. That was the first kind of stuff I really tried to write, which is good, because that music can be kind of complicated so you have to think a little more. I started writing jazz as a student when I was in college, and it started out fairly straight-ahead, but after a while, I was just imitating music that I really liked, stuff that wasn't really swing. I mean, I like swing, but it's not what speaks to me the most, and I was kind of just imitating. Robert Glasper is one. He's pretty famous now...but I was really into his first couple of jazz trio albums, which definitely have some of that hip-hop or R&B influence [of his more recent music], but it's not R&B. I was into Terence Blanchard a lot, and he's going to be here [for the Isthmus Jazz Festival]. I was big into him and then there's a pianist in his band about 10 years ago named Aaron Parks, who I liked a lot. That had a big effect. There are some big-band writers, too, like Maria Schneider, who I mentioned. Darcy James Argue is another guy who's a big-band writer that writes some really cool stuff.
Tone Madison: When did it start to feel like you were moving past just imitating?
Paul Dietrich: I don't know if I've ever really felt like I moved past imitating. I don't feel like my songs sound exactly like these other people, but a lot of times I'll start out writing something—I'll listen to something and really study one specific song for a long time and get into that mode and then I'll kind of do my own thing built off that. Eventually it'll go in a different direction so I don't feel like I'm totally imitating.
Tone Madison: How do you think your compositional approach has changed since you put out the first quintet album, We Always Get There, in 2014?
Paul Dietrich: I don't think I've changed my methods a whole lot, I've just written a lot more. When I wrote that last album, I'd only been writing seriously for two or three years. I've just had a lot more practice. I'm a little more efficient now. I always feel a huge issue for me and a lot of people when they first start to compose is everybody tries to put all of their ideas into a single thing. I feel like that's true of most creative people.
Tone Madison: You have to edit yourself a bit.
Paul Dietrich: Yeah. And I feel like I'm a little bit better at that. I think most of my tunes are a little more streamlined than they used to be. But I didn't really change the way I approach actually writing the music.
Tone Madison: You've also composed a longer piece for the Isthmus Jazz Festival. How did that come about?
Paul Dietrich: So Johannes Wallmann, who directs the UW jazz program, and Ralph Russo, the director of the Union Theater, they approached me in December, and this year is the 30th anniversary of the Isthmus Jazz Festival, so they kind of want something to commemorate that a little bit. Ralph's ideas was to write a piece of music that kind of embodies the Union Terrace, so that was kind of my only instruction. Originally, we had some ideas for some soloists that didn't pan out, but we kept the original format, which is three movements, and each movement features a different instrument, a different soloist, and it's just UW students that are in the band. It's kind of almost your perspective if you were spending a day just sitting at the Terrace, what you might see. The first movement's just kind of about water, the lake, people doing fun things on the lake, and the second, slow movement movement is the sun setting, and the last movement is people getting drunk. It's called "Scenes From Lake Mendota."
Tone Madison: Was it challenging to figure out music that embodied these scenes?
Paul Dietrich: Kind of. I wasn't really struggling for ideas, but I think if you are struggling for ideas, sometimes it's nice to have somebody be like, "This is what I want this to be about." Because then if you have a specific image in your head, that will sometimes kind of knock some ideas loose.