Tim Daisy on crossing stylistic boundaries

The Chicago-based drummer and composer plays November 5 at Arts + Literature Laboratory.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

Tim Daisy straddles the worlds of jazz and experimental music with a scope that verges on bewildering. Since getting his proper start in Chicago’s music scene in the late 1990s, the percussionist has composed, improvised, and collaborated in a way that tends to make genres and techniques melt into each other. His 2016 solo album Relucent, for instance, finds Daisy playing conversational marimba pieces over scuttling crackles of noise generated by radios and turntables—an approach partially inspired by Christian Marclay, who is known among other things for cutting up vinyl records and Frankensteining the pieces from different ones together. His other releases this year include The Halfway There Suite, composed and performed in July to mark Daisy’s 40th birthday. The sextet on Halfway There sounds a bit more like a straightforward jazz outing, but with a slightly tweaked instrumental configuration (clarinet, cello, trumpet, trombone, tenor sax, and drums) and a complex balance of meandering improvisation and catchy, prodding melodic themes. Another release from this year, October Music Vol. 2, consists of seven composed duets, each with a different collaborator, from the lashing distortion of “Radiant” (with guitarist Andrew Clinkman) to the willful abstraction of “Wires And Static” (with experimental musician Aaron Zarzutzki on modular synth and percussion).

Daisy’s better-known collaborations over the years have included Vox Arcana (a trio with clarinetist James Falzone and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm), drumming with sax/clarinet great Ken Vandermark in The Vandermark Five and other groups, and the abrasive “avant-chamber” group Wrack. His self-run label, Relay Recordings, documents an even more far-flung group of collaborators and interests, and has put out several things on which Daisy isn’t the bandleader or doesn’t play, especially through its New Composers Series, which highlights original work from other experimental composers. One frequent presence on Relay lately has been trumpeter Russ Johnson, who actually lives in Milwaukee but spends a lot of time playing in Chicago. Daisy played on and released Johnson’s latest album, 2014’s Meeting Point, and Johnson plays on October Music Vol. 2 and The Halfway There Suite. The two will join New York-based bassist Max Johnson (no relation to Russ) for a trio show on Saturday, November 5 at Arts + Literature Laboratory.

Ahead of the show, I wanted to ask Daisy what people could expect from the trio, and hear more about his wide-ranging collaborations and interests. He answered my email while touring Europe with Vandermark over the past couple of weeks. Daisy ended up sharing a lot about his early inspirations as a musician, his tendency to experiment with unusual solo and group configurations, and a recent performance with Dutch vocal artist Jaap Blonk.

Tone Madison: You’ve worked with a broad array of collaborators and drawn on a lot of different traditions and tendencies. What was the starting point for you when you first started playing music seriously—i.e. what kinds of things were you into at that time, what did you want to make—and how did you come to branch out into all these different areas?

Tim Daisy: I would say that my move to Chicago in 1997 was the starting point for me regarding my current work in sound. I had grown up in a musical household in Lake County, Illinois and was surrounded by instruments as a child. (My dad plays drums, and my brother plays guitar.) So, I always played music in the basement of our house. However, I didn't start taking things more seriously until I met a great teacher named Joe Varhula. He taught drums at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, which is where I went to school. Joe instilled a sense of discipline into my musical life that was seriously lacking up until then. He introduced me to the marimba, had me work on timpani solos, snare drum etudes—in addition to regular practice on the drum set. He really motivated me to get my shit together!

At around the same time, age 17 or 18 I believe, I was introduced by a friend to the work of Miles Davis. (I had no exposure to jazz music up until this point, and honestly thought that jazz was boring shit that old people listened to!) So, when I first hear Miles' seminal work Bitches Brew, the floodgates were opened and a new universe of sound was made available to me. And things kind of spiraled from there. I started checking out more material from Miles (interestingly it was the late-period electric work that I was exposed to before I even knew about his great quintet of the 1950's and 1960's. I learned about his early music a bit later.) One thing I started to do at the time was to look at the personnel on these Miles recordings, and then try to find other records with the same musicians playing on them. This really helped widen my palate so to speak. I was introduced to the work of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, (just to name a few) using this method. And my discoveries continued from there.

My aesthetic development, both as a performer and composer, was and continues to be motivated by the hundreds of musicians and artists whom I have listened to, worked with, composed for, and toured with since moving into the city. It's all of these great folks that I have been fortunate enough to work with who have helped shaped who I am and who keep me inspired and motivated to move forward in music. So, to answer one of your questions more directly: how did I come to branch out into all of the different areas that I work in? It really is the result of the collaborative spirit found in the Chicago music scene. There is an openness and a willingness to cross stylistic boundaries that is very inspiring. At least with the circle of artists with whom I have aligned myself with.

My first three years in the city, I would attend the Empty Bottle's Wednesday night jazz series which was organized byJohn Corbett and Ken Vandermark. Some of the musicians and groups that I was able to hear live during this period included: Lol Coxhill, Peter Brotzmann, Ab Baars, Mats Gustafson, ICP Orchestra, Han Bennink, Paul Lytton, Joe McPhee, Evan Parker, Steve Lacy, Fred Anderson, Hamid Drake. This gives you an idea of the amount of tremendous talent from a wide stylistic spectrum that I was exposed to. A very inspiring and formative period for me.

Tone Madison: You cited Christian Marclay as an influence on Relucent. How did you first come across his work, and how has it shaped your ideas about composition and sound collage?

Tim Daisy: I was introduced to the work of Christian Marclay by my friend Kyle Bruckmann [an oboist and composer living in Oakland, California and the leader of Wrack]. He gave me a recording of [Marclay's album] Records a few years back. Since that time I have checked out much more of his output, including his work in video and film. Discovering Marclay's work has widened my perspective in the use of collage as a medium for sound and visual art exploration—continuing what I have already learned by absorbing John Cage's Variations series of works as well as the collage paintings of Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters.

I have begun to integrate Califone turntables into my solo work. Perhaps the difference in my approach from what I have heard from Marclay, is that I treat the record players as one of many sound-making devices which are utilized in my solo context, along with a mix of found objects, gongs, various bells, and radios. The Califone is not the focal point of my improvisations, just one of many sounds that I integrate into the music.

Tone Madison: What can people expect from the trio set with Russ and Max Johnson?

Tim Daisy: This will be a first-time meeting for this trio. I have worked with Russ Johnson in a few different contexts since his move back to the Midwest from New York. Russ has been a real asset to the improvised music scene in both Chicago and Milwaukee and it’s been really great getting to work with him on and off for the past few years. Musically speaking, anything is quite possible as a result of his high level of musicianship and his broad knowledge of many different styles of music.

I first played with bassist Max Johnson in Brooklyn at a venue called Ibeam. I was on a solo tour in 2015 and asked Max and the great alto saxophonist and pianist Michael Attias if they would join me for the second set. We had a wonderful time playing together and I have made it a point to keep in contact with both Max and Michael since our meeting. When Max emailed me that he was going to be in the Chicago area, I immediately thought of trying a trio with him and Russ. I feel that their personalities both musically and otherwise, and their high level of playing, will lead to some very interesting results.

Tone Madison: What are some other things you'd like to explore in the near future, as far as compositional/performance techniques or incorporating new instruments?

Tim Daisy: I have become interested in forming groups with a somewhat unusual instrumentation over the last year or so. This began with my trio Red Space project, which includes Jeb Bishop on trombone and Mars Williams on reeds. Continuing with this idea, I have a recording planned in December for a new trio with clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, and drums. The personnel will include Ken Vandermark on the baritone and bass clarinet, and Michael Thieke on clarinet. (A really great musician from Berlin.) Using a less common instrumentation has helped me develop some new compositional ideas and has also given me a fresh perspective on the role of the instruments in an ensemble. For example, I might take a line that I had previously written for the double bass, and then substitute the bass clarinet instead. Now I have a whole new set of possibilities as there are certain sounds and extended techniques that are possible with the woodwinds that are not possible with the strings. And vice versa of course. But these are the ideas that I am interested in at the moment. The possibilities and the challenges in composing for an unusual or less common set of instruments.

I am also planning on working a bit more with my solo music. I have recently begun working "on the ground" with turntables and radios and multiple found objects. My impetus for this new way of working was to help me get out of a creative rut which I found myself in on the drumset. I needed to knock down a wall so to speak and develop some new ideas. After a year or more of this solo setup, I feel that I have been able to develop some new concepts and improvisational strategies. What I would like to work on next, is integrating some of these new ideas on the drumset in a solo context. I am not entirely sure how I will do this yet, but I'm aiming at some type of on the ground + on the drums hybrid setup. I have a lot to think about this winter!

Tone Madison: What was it like performing with Jaap Blonk this past summer?

Tim Daisy: It was an absolute pleasure working with Jaap Blonk. A true master of his craft with an unlimited supply of creative ideas to work with and bounce ideas off of. We did a trio set with Jaap and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello about two months ago at the Elastic Arts Foundation in Chicago. The entire set was focused and went many different places. Jaap incorporated his electronic setup as well as his voice, and I had a small drum kit, a turntable, and multiple small percussion items. Fred utilized his electronics and cello and I felt that the music really took off. We had a wide pallette of sounds to work with and we utilized them to full effect! I really hope to get a chance to work with this trio again as I feel there is a lot more we can do.

Tone Madison: You mentioned Kyle Bruckmann and I realized that I saw you play with Wrack in Madison a few years ago—is that outfit still going at all?

Tim Daisy: Since Kyle has moved out to the Bay Area, it has been a bit difficult to keep the Wrack project moving forward. The rest of the group lives in the Midwest and in order for us to work, Kyle would either have to fly into Chicago or the rest of the group would have to fly out to the west coast. Considering the situation with experimental music funding in the United States, this is not an easy thing to accomplish. We did receive a grant from Chamber Music America a few years back which made this a possibility. Kyle composed a new work for an extended version of the group (which included Jeb Bishop on trombone and Darren Johnston on trumpet). This was a really nice week of work and I would be more than happy to do this again, but short of getting another source of funding together, I think it would be too impractical to try another round with the Chicago/Oakland version of the group.

Tone Madison: What’s next for you as far as recording/collaboration plans?

Tim Daisy: In addition to the new trio with Ken Vandermark and Michael Thieke, I plan to record a new solo work for percussion and radios. This will happen in the winter. Also, Max Johnson, Russ Johnson and I will go into the studio after the string of concerts that we play in the Midwest. The other idea that I have toying around in my head is a new group that incorporates the marimba. Since the great clarinetist James Falzone has moved out to Seattle to take a teaching position at the Cornish College of the Arts, I am having to put my trio Vox Arcana on hiatus. This was the only group in which I had incorporated the marimba into the performances. In the past, I had used the marimba as a compositional tool and had not performed on it live. So, a new working group with marimba and percussion—maybe a quartet—with an unusual instrumentation of course! We will see.