"It's more spontaneous and makes you feel alive, and that's really the reason why you do the music, is those moments."
Welcome to Residential, where Tone Madison meets the best acts holding down regular gigs on local stages and decks, from sturdy weeknight house bands to excellent and under-appreciated DJs.
The local jazz outfit known as The New Breed has been through many lineup changes and many gigs that turned out to be various degrees of unwelcoming. Since forming in 1999, the band has held down residencies at venues including the King Club, Restaurant Magnus, Samba, the Madison Concourse Hotel. Some places closed and some of them lost interest in having live music. "We just never really quite found a place that actually liked having us," bassist Nick Moran jokes. "We're like the cockroach."
But over the past four years, the New Breed has finally established a welcoming home base with a Tuesday night jam session at the Cardinal Bar, and has solidified around the core lineup of Moran, keyboard player Paul Hastil, and drummer Michael Brenneis. (Editor's note: the New Breed Jazz Jam changed venues to the North Street Cabaret in early 2018.) The weekly show is typically divided up into two sets. During the first, the core trio plays whatever it wants, often focusing on a particular jazz composer (and sometimes throwing in their own compositions) or featuring a special guest player. During the second, anyone who signs up is welcome to join the band for a song or two. It's a chance to watch some of the talented jazz musicians who lurk in Madison, as well as see out-of-town players who drop in from time to time. Even if you're not typically into jazz jams, the band has a welcoming attitude and Hastil's keyboard-playing face alone makes it worthwhile (see above). Moran, Brenneis and Hastil talked with us recently about creating a supportive atmosphere and giving themselves room to stretch out musically.
Tone Madison: In jazz there's all this mythology about jam sessions being kind of tough situations where lesser musicians are weeded out and so forth, but this night doesn't have much of a competitive vibe. What kind of experience do you want people to have when they jam with you?
Paul Hastil: As a musician I've always hated jam sessions.You go up and you get one chance and it's all this stress and you feel you're being judged and competing. The atmosphere here is that everyone's welcome and it's supportive and we try and make everyone sound the bet we can and to give them a chance to experience a level of interaction that boosts their progress and gives them a reference.
Nick Moran: We get musicians of all levels, so we try to make sure that everyone gets a chance to sit in if they sign up, and that's kind of unique for some jazz situations.
Michael Brenneis: And we try to do material that's appropriate to their skill level. We don't call something crazy that people can't play.
Tone Madison: Have you ever had someone request a song that you just wouldn't play?
Nick Moran: There's songs that we don't know. Especially with jazz tunes, it can get pretty dicey to try to make it up. So vocalists will sometimes come in and go, "Can you do 'Big Spender,'" which is a tune where we're all like, "No, not really."
Paul Hastil: Madison has some very talented artists here.It's a kind of odd situation, where they have a partner here who's going to the university, so we get young players who would normally be on the scene in New York City or another big city, and they're very hungry in terms of understanding and developing or forming a concept, so it's kind of neat because we're here and we get the best of the situation.
Nick Moran: And what's also cool is we get a lot of international folks, who are in Madison for a conference or whatever and they'll Google "jazz jams," and this will come up. We had a guy from Melbourne, Australia last month, we've had people from Japan come, people from Europe. They just find us, and a lot of them are really great musicians.
Tone Madison: Who are some of the more interesting people who've come out to play over the years?
Nick Moran: Of course, probably one of the most known jam-session attendees is Kathleen Camilla King, who plays mandolin, and she comes down here pretty frequently. What I enjoy about her playing is that even though we don't kind of dumb down the tune so she can follow along, we play standards, and when she gets her time to solo, she's really having cool ideas and making something out of it. I always love when she collaborates with someone like [trumpet player] Brian Lynch, who's world class, and then there's someone doing it for fun, and that's really interesting to see. We had a double-guitar guy for a long time, a guy with two guitar necks that would play two acoustic guitars and tap. I forget his name.
Michael Brenneis: We've never had bagpipes.
Paul Hastil: There was a famous jazz bagpipe player, Rufus Harley, in the '60s.
Nick Moran: No washtub basses yet.
Michael Brenneis: Yes we did! At the Cabana Room, someone sat in on washtub bass.
Nick Moran: Alright, I stand corrected.
Paul Hastil: And also the kind of spontaneous things that happen. When the Derek Trucks-Susan Tedeschi Band was in town, their horn guys were here the day before, and they found out about this and came down, and they were a gas. It was tenor and trumpet and an alto player. It was their entire horn section. And we even took breaks and there were other horn players sitting with them around the chairs out there playing together, and it was really infectious.
Nick Moran: Regina Carter poked her head in once during a really horrible rendition of "Summertime" and left, but at least she checked it out for a second. My personal favorite was I was playing bass and Edgar Meyer walked in, and I looked up and said, "Oh, Edgar Meyer." [Laughs] He hung out in the back and I got to talk to him for a while.
Michael Brenneis: And there was a bass player, and I can't think of his name, but he had played with Frank Zappa, and he was on the road with John Hiatt. He stopped in and played.
Nick Moran: When I go somewhere, I always look for a jam session myself, so in a way I feel like it's our duty to provide that kind of scene here in Madison, and if we can do that at least once a week, we're showing that Madison has a viable music scene.
Tone Madison: Lately you've been doing a lot of theme nights, where you'll focus on a specific composer—once you had a "New Breed Defiles Miles" night, and you've also done Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus nights. What's been the most challenging or interesting of those?
Nick Moran: Perhaps the one we're about to do tonight [this interview happened back in October—ed.]. Kenny Wheeler has some interesting tunes. But they're all challenging in different ways. For a while, we would do theme nights where jammers would pick tunes, just to mix it up a little bit. One of my favorites was when we did a Valentine's Day theme of love vs. hate. So I would come and sit down and go through a list of standards and pick some songs in case no one could think of anything.
Paul Hastil: We did a Gil Scott-Heron night with Rob Dz, and that was a very different night. Spoken word with jazz in an exciting idea, and Gil Scott-Heron was kind of one of the first people to do that. His music has a large jazz sensibility to it.
Nick Moran: And that was challenging for Rob, because he's a spoken-word MC, and he was singing some of those tunes, and you could tell he was a little nervous about it, but I thought he did a great job. And that's a challenge that falls on a lot of the special guests, because Paul transcribes a lot of the material that we're doing for the first set, and we'll probably play it once and who knows if we'll ever do it again. It's some really unique, complicated music that unless you're here for the first set, it's in the cosmos. I kind of enjoy that, because a lot of the other bands we're in, it's the same music every night. This becomes kind of a workshop.
Tone Madison: And you bring in a lot of featured guests. Who are some you'd like to have that you haven't yet?
Nick Moran: I'm trying to invite folks who need that attention. Someone like Anders Svanoe, who's a great horn player in town, but he's got a family and doesn't necessarily play out as much as he needs to, so to get him out to do a night on baritone sax is a rare treat. I'd like to get him back, actually. There's a new guy in town, Aaron Bahr, a trumpet player, who's been coming down and just graduated from New England Conservatory. I think he lives in DeForest. He's an amazing trumpet player.
Tone Madison: As musicians, what do you get out of playing this night that you don't get out of other things that you do?
Michael Brenneis: The first set is ours, so it's not an attempt to play nice background music for anything, it's not a show, it's more like, this is what we're creating as three individuals, and what's really cool is that the people dig it.
Paul Hastil: And also, we get a chance to stretch in a way that we might not in other contexts, and these guys have the ears and the experience to know what to do when things get stretched, so you can take risks. It's more spontaneous and makes you feel alive, and that's really the reason why you do the music, is those moments. We're improvisers and we like playing with people who can push the envelope.
Nick Moran: I'm not a religious person, but it's kind of like my church. It's a community of people that we're sharing a common idea and reaching, trying to bring it to the next level. When I leave here—and I get out of here really late—it's always this moment of peace. Maybe because I'm exhausted because I played for three hours, and my fingers are completely sore, but it's the best release.
Paul Hastil: And along that line, there's the music here but there's also the community that's here. All the people who are part of the jazz community, it's collegial and there's something that's wonderful about it. When other pianists show up, if it's Johannes Wallmann or David Stoler, there's a sense of sharing that we love and this feeling of camaraderie. When you're sharing that way, I think it fosters a spirit of growth, and it helps everybody.
Tone Madison: Is it ever a challenge to balance doing what you want to do with suiting the feel of the audience on a given night?
Michael Brenneis: Only on nights when Nick's not here. But normally, no.
Nick Moran: I've never felt that way. I've never felt like we couldn't take some kind of risk. And we've failed before onstage, and stopped tunes halfway through, and we never get booed, no rotten tomatoes thrown at us.
Tone Madison: Is it healthy to have those kinds of moments?
Paul Hastil: We have them all the time! [Everyone laughs.]
Michael Brenneis: I don't know about "healthy." There might be another word for it.