Facing An Uncertain Future, Jazz Artists Get Creative

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Romain Collin took this photo from a cabin in Iceland, where the pianist stayed for weeks during the coronavirus pandemic.

(Photo: Romain Collin)

With the coronavirus pandemic spreading around the world, the United States government on March 11 announced tight restrictions on travel from Europe, prompting Romain Collin to book a flight back to New York. The pianist had been writing new music in a remote cabin in Iceland, and the sudden change in plans would shorten his solo retreat from one month to three weeks.

His bags were packed; his car, loaded. Then Collin paused. “I thought, ‘You know what? No,’” he recalled. “‘I have work to do.’” He canceled his flight and booked another for one week later—on March 18—then canceled that one, too.

“When I set up my home studio, it felt like for the first time in a long time, I was making music for myself,” Collin said. “Only now, I face the worry: Can I actually go back home?”

Artists in numerous countries were asking similar questions and facing dilemmas of their own as airline travel became increasingly prohibitive and jazz clubs and large venues began closing. Hunkered down in Prague, Brooklyn-based organ player Ondrej Pivec was on tour with singer Gregory Porter in late February when the band heard whispers of cancellations. By the time they hit Zurich, the artists encountered a harsh shift in tone.

“The [venues] told us they were limiting the number of people to 1,000,” Pivec said. “There were cops counting heads.” In Germany, promoters initially instructed band members to leave their luggage on the backline truck while they flew roundtrip to Paris for an on-camera appearance. “The night before, the promoter told us, ‘You should probably take all your stuff,’” Pivec said, “‘because, chances are, you’re not coming back.’”

World tours ended abruptly, and Pat Metheny’s was no exception. His band arrived in Argentina on March 11, when all stops on their Latin American itinerary were still green-lit. The following day, national decrees limiting the size of public gatherings were announced. Metheny’s group held vigil in Buenos Aires for days awaiting news. First the show in Lima, Peru, was called off, then their two dates in Brazil, but promoters in Chile were hanging on. “Santiago really wanted to do it,” drummer Antonio Sánchez said. Against all odds, the band’s tour manager arranged a direct flight from Argentina to Chile. “As soon as he was able to change everybody’s ticket,” Sánchez said, “he got a text saying, ‘Chile’s out.’”

Metheny group bassist Linda May Han Oh lamented the lost dates for her bandmates and for crews behind the scenes. “One promoter even flew to Buenos Aires to make sure everything was OK,” she told DownBeat in March. When they learned promoters had canceled their last date in Mexico City, the band finally returned home. Detailing how flight attendants in Singapore, Argentina and New Zealand, had infrared thermometers on hand to scan travelers before they boarded, Oh described a markedly different experience reentering the U.S. from Argentina: “Coming home to JFK [Airport there was only] a customs officer asking, ‘Have you been to China or Europe?’”

Across the Atlantic, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger and his wife, Neira Pekmez, were among the Americans stranded in Morocco facing fear and frustration.

“[U.S. embassy officials] told us, no matter what we heard, we did not have a flight the next morning, and to [await] further instruction,” said Preminger, who was in Casablanca the week of March 16. So, they waited. The next morning, they learned their flight had taken off. “The U.S. government did nothing to help,” he said.

The couple eventually caught a British Airways charter flight to London, then to New York. In an email asking for clarification on protocol during emergency situations, the consulate in Casablanca declined to answer specifics about events during that week, instead noting that as of 12:30 p.m. March 21, passengers no longer required flight confirmation from its offices.

“The U.S.A.—the greatest country in the world—didn’t lift a finger to help their 3,000-plus citizens in Morocco,” said Preminger. “We were abandoned by our own government.”

Yet, amid uncertainty, the impulse to work has persisted. When Oh returned home, she and her husband, pianist Fabian Almazan, took to Zoom to continue teaching at Berklee and The New School, respectively. “We’re trying to get our livestream game on,” said Oh, whose ensemble students have been video conferencing with Wayne Shorter, Berklee’s remote Artist-in-Residence. Admittedly, the setup is a tricky one. “We’re not playing for him,” she said. “We’re tracking stuff together and then playing it to him, but at least [the students] get to have this experience.”

Like their more experienced counterparts, young musicians also have faced tough decisions during the pandemic. Guitarist Jocelyn Gould and bassist Joshua Crumbly are among many emerging artists determined to release and promote debut records, despite the mounting economic damage caused by COVID-19. The tracks on Crumbly’s forthcoming release, Rise (Open Book), were inspired by key moments of impact and resilience in the young artist’s life.

“I think it could really speak to people during this strange time,” Crumbly said of the album. “You’ll notice [on social media] a lot of people are using the word ‘rise’ [to remain] optimistic getting through this. So, hopefully that title—and the feeling of this music—will speak to people right now.”

Posi-Tone released Gould’s album, Elegant Traveler, on March 20. Her tour schedule sank, but her spirits buoyed as she witnessed an unexpected response. “People all over the world have been purchasing my record,” she said. “It struck me as particularly surreal to have people from Italy ordering the new record amidst what’s happening in their country. It gave me a sense of everyone’s humanness throughout all of this.”

Many artists have faced the challenges with resilience—and even a bit of humor. Multi-instrumentalist Nicholas Payton rose to the sobering occasion, recording and releasing Quarantined With Nick through his own label, Paytone Records. Days before the New Orleans lockdown, guitarist and modular synth artist Cliff Hines and vocalist Sasha Masakowski joined Payton in his dining room to interpret a series of original compositions featuring such of-the-times titles as “Social Distance” and “Charmin Shortage Blues.”

“It starts off like it’s in the middle of some shit, which is basically how this [pandemic] hit us,” Payton said of the album. “The first two pieces represent the hysteria, fear and uncertainty. [Then] the album sort of warms up as it progresses, as I think we have to because, at the end of the day, we’re beings on this planet.”

After the two-day recording session, curfew orders rippled across the city, followed almost immediately by shelter-in-place decrees and the closing of nonessential businesses. “We needed to get this out to the public as soon as possible,” Payton said. “I’ve never recorded and completed an album that quick before.” And that feeling of urgency extended into post-production, as well. “The urgency of it had to resonate on all levels, even as I’m mixing it.”

By mid-April, the U.S. had reported more than 24,000 COVID-19-related deaths. But slowly, and in the middle of tragedy, artists are looking for hopeful signs and yearning for a return to normal life.

The Metheny tour has been rescheduled for April 2021, and many of Oh’s own leader dates in Finland and Italy—originally scheduled for spring 2020—have been rescheduled for February 2021. Prior to his follow-up interview with DownBeat, Collin received word that the last confirmed flight to the U.S. from Iceland would depart April 16. “[Isolating] has been a surreal and liberating experience,” he said. “I made a record. Now, I can go back to
New York.” DB




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