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Jason Stein finally has reached his comfort zone.
Creatively, the Chicago bass clarinetist is a willing sideman, lending open-mindedness and versatility to some of jazz’s most talked-about and experimental outfits—bassist Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society, drummer Mike Reed’s Flesh and Bone, and clarinetist James Falzone’s Renga Ensemble, just to name a few. Genre-wise, Stein has refused to be marginalized by his instrument, pushing it to eyebrow-raising echelons of avant-garde possibility. His musical journey has covered ample ground during time spent in New York and Chicago—reforming the Locksmith Isidore trio to tour with his sister, comedian Amy Schumer, in 2016.
After a lengthy quest among his forward-thinking peers, Stein further refined his abilities as a bandleader for the follow-up to Locksmith Isidore’s 2010 Three Kinds Of Happiness (Not Two), blending the New York sensibility of drummer Mike Pride with the spacious artistry of Chicago bassist Jason Roebke. The bandleader’s inspiration as a songwriter and composer comes from a place of familiarity, though: his family, teachers and musical mentors. And on Locksmith Isidore’s latest outing, After Caroline (Northern Spy), listeners can hear it all come to fruition.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
In regard to your own musical trajectory, where does After Caroline sit?
This record is a big thing for me, creatively. On the one hand, Locksmith Isidore is the first band that I really had organized as a leader, and it’s also the first group that I released a recording as a leader [2008’s A Calculus Of Loss on Clean Feed]. For a while, it was my main gig, but then I just took a break from the group to pursue other projects.
Up until this point, we hadn’t been working together for a number of years, and we’ve only been playing together as of fairly recently.
How did the group initially come about?
It originated when I live in New York. It was there that I had started to play with Mike Pride, and I had a mutual friend [cello player Kevin Davis] that I lived with. I got a gig at Tonic in like 2007, Mike seemed like a likely fit, and I asked him to do it. Jason fell in shortly after.
Mike, he’s all over the place. He’s got a pretty illustrious punk rock career in his history with Millions of Dead Cops. His influences are broader than that, too, because he’s also done a lot more with experimental art, outside of music. But still, he leans on avant-garde jazz and has been in New York forever. Roebke, he covers a lot of ground, especially with his history in Chicago [as a student of Roscoe Mitchell]. He’s great with highly abstract improvising, but we all commonly fall back on our appreciation for jazz material.
What’s the difference between Locksmith Isidore then and now?
When Locksmith Isidore first started, I had been playing in a lot of different bands, especially when I moved to Chicago, and I really didn’t know what I was doing, directionally. I knew I wanted to make records, but hadn’t really done it.
The first recording was just the tail-end of a longer recording session I had done involving Mike. From there I was like, “Well, I suppose I have a recording. I guess I should figure out one of these things called ‘a label.’” From those types of experiences, I learned a lot about how the industry worked. And as of recently, we’d grown accustomed to the rooms we were playing.
When we initially got back together, we’d been playing these shows at, like, Madison Square Garden with my sister. It was a breath of fresh air when we recorded the album, because we hadn’t played in a room that was less than 10,000 people in like two or three years. And we were all so relieved and much more comfortable with that more intimate environment.
Your upbringing had a huge impact on the development of the album.
Yes, even the name. I named the group after my grandfather Isidore Stein, who was a locksmith in Queens. For any record of mine in general, there’s a lot of thematic material that I draw from my family—and especially my grandfather.
My dad passed away when I was 10, and I actually feel like that’s where a lot of the material is drawn from. Although there is a lot having to do with my grandmother Caroline, a lot of it revolves around stuff having to do with my dad. There’s also a song [“Walden’s Thing”] that I wrote for [saxophonist] Donald Walden while I was at the University of Michigan.
Did your grandmother’s death during the recording affect the direction of the album?
I don’t think I would have made a dramatically different record had that not been going on, but it was certainly a part of where I was coming from. I had already written a song having to do with her, “You Taught Me How To Love.” That incident, with regard to the recording, was already swirling around in my head for sure, regardless. She passed away within a day of recording, and I had her on my mind a lot. It definitely affected the feeling of the day to me.
Could the album be described as “meditative?”
Some of the pieces are definitely more abstract and quiet, but a lot of it is pretty active. Quite the opposite, I find it super interactive. We’ve developed a lot over the past two years, and it was really nice to get into a studio and dig into it. I guess more than anything, I consider it being more “focused” than ever.
What’s the ensemble’s interaction like?
It’s our different personalities for sure, but these guys are friends to me. That intimacy is just kind of all over all of our playing in general. There aren’t really specific examples, musically. It’s more like an energy, especially with Mike.
We’re all pretty flexible, so from a writing standpoint, I can get into writing almost anything, and they’re down to do it. With this band in particular, I like to cover a lot of ground, whether it’s freer jazz or something slightly different like that. But it’s definitely an intimacy thing. I’m comfortable with them. We play and have played together very frequently, and it shows. DB
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