Alpine Clarity

Alpine Clarity – Released June 25th, 2014

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A New Musical Adventure

The Transformation…

Everyone who lives or has lived in New York City understands that it is a place for the dreamers, the driven, and the brave. Every aspect of life is a challenge, from dealing with neighbors, construction, the cost of living, the MTA, and the fight for a future – especially as a musician. Some of the most momentus careers in the history the arts were built by visionaries who were forced to create within the confines of existing in NYC. These seeds of influence have grown and blossomed despite the challenge of living in a concrete jungle – similar to a rose that manages to germinate in the crack of a sidewalk.

Artists and musicians are unafraid to display their battle wounds and tell stories of triumph about their life in the Big Apple, and often feel a sense of pride when they tell others that they live in “the city”. Since I’ve left New York, I’ve enjoyed sharing my experiences with others, somewhat humbly but with a very proud feather in my Goorin Brother’s cap.

New Yorkers are always fighting for something, whether it be for space, money, or recognition in one’s field. Staying ahead of the game is not just a matter of advancing one’s career. It is also a matter of whether or not you get to eat next month. Yes, an artist living under these conditions can still create, and these conditions can put added moxie into one’s work, but what if this artist didn’t have these conditions? Would his or her work maintain that message of urgency and conviction? In 2011 and 2012 I underwent some personal transformations, and had to face the stark realty of some incredibly daunting decisions. This time in my life gobsmacked me with one of the most difficult questions all humans face – Am I Happy?

In the heat of the city, it’s easy to forget about the rest of the world – nature included. Walking through the streets of New York is like being inside all day long. A concrete floor and walls surround you, and one barely ever looks up to glance at the rectangle of blue overhead. Nothing usually really matters except the task at hand – the gig, the date, the show, whatever it may be. In the summer of 2012 I was invited to do an orchestra pit gig for a theater company in Whitefish, Montana. At the time I was in a lull in my music career and had no pressing projects on the horizon, which was a welcome reprieve from the usual grind. Flying into Kalispell airport, I had no idea of the lessons that I was about to learn.

The month I resided in Whitefish I felt as though I was at summer camp – I had this feeling of reckless abandon and freedom I’d never experienced before. After rehearsals or shows with the orchestra, I’d walk over to the local watering holes to spend time with friends, or drive to the beach to see the sun set at 10pm, or go to Safeway for BBQ supplies and PUSH A GROCERY CART DOWN THE AISLE (New Yorkers you know what I’m taking about). Everything I wanted to do was within walking distance or a short traffic-less drive. I could visit several friends a day without having to decide on which borough I was going to commute to first. The added layer of resistance I was used to dealing with in NYC was gone. Daily I found myself with oodles of extra time on my hands where all I had to do was sit and breathe in the fresh, pine air, and I didn’t have to feel guilty about it. I was working, paying my bills, and most importantly I was having fun. FUN. After doing some calculations, I weighed my options relating to life, career, and money. Everything pointed to me moving to Montana. So I did.

It was the most fearless decision I ever made and haven’t looked back since. I’m so thankful for the education that NYC gave me about life, music and courage, but I came to realize that I don’t have to be a martyr for my art anymore. Just because I lived in one of the worlds most populous cultural hubs doesn’t mean that I was going to create something meaningful. New York is not the be all end all of having a successful life as an artist. In fact, New York may have seasoned my soul for the life ahead, but Montana is my beginning…

 

The Music…

 

Montana mornings are glorious. The sun rises early, the coffee is strong, and the land breathes and resets for a new day. Montanans are extremely hard-working people. The cost of living is much lower than everywhere else, but the income is generally less in return. The biggest difference here is that people don’t work to live, or live to work. They just live. Life is first, work is, well, work.

Here in Montana I am surrounded by constant snow-capped reminders of what it means to be human. I’ve come to learn that the most important part of my life is me, who I am, and what I’ve been put on this planet to do. Sounds selfish, but this is true for all of us. This lesson has made me reflect on my love of music, and why I do what I do.

Musicians are constantly filtering influences through their creative veins, as we are taught to from early on in our development. Listening to and learning from others is crucial to digesting the rules of musical language. But along with this comes the expectation that one is going to “live up to” the greatness of a past legend, or properly pay homage to him or her through emulating a particular style of playing. As a sideman one is expected to be a musical “chameleon” and have the ability to adapt to one’s musical surroundings. I’ve come to realize that while a craftsman can recognize and recreate this aesthetic, a true artist has the ability to manipulate it into something new and true to his or her musical identity. This made me ask myself, what is my musical identity? I’d released two albums as a leader, and while they’ve reflected my abilities as a composer and woodwind player, neither project was a true marker of who I was as an artist. Realizing this has brought me back to my own internal foundation of happiness.

In my second year at the Juilliard jazz program, Lee Konitz came in to do a masterclass. It was just him and his alto, standing in one of the stark white dance studios on the fourth floor surrounded by a dozen eager jazz majors. He asked a student volunteer to play duo with him. An intrepid, tall tenor man stepped forth and took the challenge. He and Lee then played duo together on Lee’s favorite tune “All the Things You Are”. They played the melody, each played a solo, then traded for a few choruses. The rendition ended with a rousing applause from the student body, complete with encouraging calls of “whaaaaaat!” and “that was killin'”. Lee then thanked the tenor student for playing with him, but said that he had a few questions about his playing. The tenor student was eager to hear the critique from such a master and storied performer. Lee mentioned, “Well, you played this line in your solo”, and proceeded to emulate the riff. He then asked “Why did you play that?” The tenor student said, “Um, well, er, it seemed like it worked within the chords.” Lee responded “Huh, ok. Well, when you traded fours with me you played ‘diddly-do, diddly-do, quite a bit. Did you enjoy that? Was it fun?” with not one ounce of sarcasm in his voice. The tenor student was at a loss of words. He was confronted with one of the simplest questions – Did you have fun? Are you happy with what you played? In these moments, questions like these get to the root of why we do what we do as musicians. Conservatories can teach us the “what”, but the “why” often gets lost in the din of studying the technicalities of music.

I used to be spend a large amount of my days hiking around the city with a half dozen horns on my back. Now that I had chosen not to do that anymore, I found myself with hours of extra time. I decided to use these hours to do musical things that made me happy. I decided that at the moment, the instrument that made me happiest was the flute. I also decided that practicing jazz tunes was not making me happy at the moment, so I turned to classical flute studies and repertoire. Simply shedding the years of expectations that come from being labeled a “jazz” musician gave me an incredible feeling of artistic weightlessness and clarity. I could do whatever it was I wanted to do.

I then started exploring new musical repertoire with the same giddiness as a kid rifling through picture books about dinosaurs. Some days I played flute for hours. Some days I didn’t want to . So I didn’t. I drove through the mountains, or drank beer, or played montunos on my baby grand piano. If I felt like it I would study some more flute.

As my musical development progressed, I slowly found myself interpreting written passages with renewed energy and objectivism. If I was practicing Bach, I didn’t always hold true to baroque trilling. I chose when and where I placed vibrato. I decided if I wanted to repeat a section or not. At times I would start improvising off of a harmonic or melodic themes within a classical piece, similar to how a jazz musician would solo between the heads of a tune. I had come to realize that even though I might have been playing someone else’s music, when it boils down to it I’m the one playing it and I can play it however I want to. Plain and simple. I can let all the conservatory classes and musical language lessons subconsciously seep into my musical decisions, but I was driving the bus.

Being the driven and alway motivated person that I am, I decided to compile these pieces into an album. An album that I was fully proud of and that reflected every aspect of myself as a musician, artist, and most importantly, a human being. From start to finish I wanted this project to reflect the visceral essence of where I’m at in my life and my creativity right now.

Logistically, the vision for this album was “Made in Montana”, everything from the inspiration to the final product. I recorded at Snowghost Studios in Whitefish – one of the best studios I’ve ever been in. I used two local musicians Don Caverly and Rebecca Nelson to accompany me on some pieces, and asked Richie Barshay (whose sister Hillary lives here) to perform on a track while he was here skiing, managed to convince Gerald Clayton, one of the world’s greatest pianists, to accompany me on some very gutsy interpretations of existing pieces, and commissioned Darcy James Argue to write a duo for Gerald and I to perform, which turned out to be the first duo that Darcy has ever written. None of this would have been possible had I not moved away from New York to find new creative energy to accomplish this. And as a side note, it cost less for me to gather everyone here to Whitefish to record than it would have cost me to fly to NYC and track at Avatar for two days. Just sayin’.

My hopes with this record have been fulfilled already. The single most important reason for releasing album is the music. I’ve released a record that is an earmark in my career as a musician and interpreter of music. We live in an age where people don’t pay for music anymore, so money is not the point. There is a plethora of artists clamoring for recognition in this field. Contrary to the motives behind my last two recorded efforts, Alpine Clarity is not an attempt to be heard or seen above the chaos of the music world. It is a reflection my musical personality as a composer, flautist and producer. It is the project of which I am most proud.

I’ve been blessed with the freedom to breathe, exist, the mountains, the clean air and the gift of reprieve here in Montana, and this record would not be possible without those things. And remember, this is just the beginning.

You can purchase this record on iTunes, and please note that 20% of the sales go directly to benefit Goovetrail, my charitable organization that brings live music to hospitals, care facilities, veteran’s homes, and schools. Please visit www.groovetrail.org.

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Play it Sam!

This is an article I wrote for Find It Montana, a new website about the wonderful happenings in Big Sky Country.

 

“Play it, Sam!” By Erica von Kleist, Published April 21, 2014

Food and music are kindred spirits. They nourish the soul, engage the mind, relax the body, and dually quell a desire for both sustenance and self-expression. In today’s world it’s easy to fill up on fast food, and indulge in the musical “flavor of the week”. The world’s working class is less likely than ever to take in a thoughtful meal and live entertainment being that every fathomable source of digital amusement is available at the touch of a button.

Recently, a beautiful upright grand piano has taken up residence at the new Tupelo Grille & Lounge in Whitefish. It rests stately up against the back wall of the chic yet rustic bar, flanked by two plush contemporary couches. Not counting the city’s current dedicated performance halls, this piano is the only acoustic piano in downtown Whitefish, which is a bit of a shock considering how much the local residents love live music. This charming instrument is setting the stage for a much-needed aesthetic outlet – live dinner musical entertainment.

The piano was provided by musicians, for musicians. Heather Kaufman, a mother, writer, musician and entrepreneur recently took up residence in Whitefish and is currently endeavoring a new venture in the purple A-frame on 93. Heather formerly ran the bakery in Polebridge, and has had the piano for many years. Her sons, three brilliantly creative young men, practiced on the instrument when they were younger, consequently etching sentimentalities and memories into it’s smoky, dark wood exterior. In recent years the piano resided in Heather’s house in Fortine, which was recently sold. This left her with the choice of letting the piano stay with the house and the new owners, or find it a home. Luckily Tupelo had just opened the doors of its new space, thus creating a perfect temporary dwelling for the instrument.

Thanks to Heather’s generosity and trust, local pianists now have a place to sow their musical oats and perform on an instrument befitting their talents. The piano creates the perfect juxtaposition of old-school saloon-style Montana feeling with a modern twist, reflecting the essence of Whitefish itself. Starting in May, Tupelo will be hosting “piano-bar” nights featuring the best local artists, paired with some of the area’s top cuisine. Patrons will have an opportunity to enjoy live entertainment whilst dining and indulging in libation. For more information on showtimes, visitwww.northwestartistsyndicate.com

In the Spirit of Swing

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This is the article I wrote for the Jazz at Lincoln Center ‘s 25th Anniversary book “In the Spirit of Swing”. Wynton called me up one day and asked me to write a piece for the book, but did not give me any opinion on what to write about. I decided to write about the importance of staying true to your own artistic self, regardless of the politics involved in any situation. It’s crucial for artists to have a very strong resolve about who they are and what their “sound” is, and stay focused on that no matter what the court of public opinion may throw at you. Here is what I wrote:

“Jazz at Lincoln Center has always stood by a steady philosophy. Jazz swings. Jazz has blues. Jazz is a musical language that has remained true to its traditions while still evolving throughout a century of history. In my short career I have had the opportunity to be a part of this tradition, and much of my experience has been through Jazz at Lincoln Center.

For me it began in high school as a member of the Hall High School Concert Jazz Band, performing at the Essentially Ellington Festival. Four years in a row the band covered some of the greatest music ever written, which in itself is an education to last a lifetime, let alone competing against some of the country’s most talented young people, all vying for accolades from Wynton, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, and countless other jazz greats who judged the bands.

My inspiration to move to New York came from having been exposed to great jazz at a young age, and the energy and soul therein. Since then I have partaken in almost every aspect of Jazz at Lincoln Center, as a graduate of the Juilliard Jazz program, to being a touring member of the JLCO. I have also worked as a mentor for the Essentially Ellington festival, and performed at Dizzy’s Club with my groups. Jazz at Lincoln Center has become like a second home for me.

What draws people to want to be a part of Jazz at Lincoln Center is its consistency. Audiences at Rose Hall know they’re going to hear a class-act, swinging, high-quality performance by a seasoned group of masters. However, several critics have argued that since Jazz at Lincoln Center is funded partly by public monies, it should reflect all aspects of society, often alluding to the fact that there isn’t a woman in the band. They question why a racially diverse orchestra who is represented by musicians of all ages can’t include at least one female. Since public tax money is partially contributing to the institution’s success, shouldn’t it provide equal opportunity to musicians of all races, backgrounds, and genders?

When it comes to choosing musicians for an ensemble, bandleaders often consider a number of factors. Is this person punctual? Do they jibe well with the other band members? Can they play all the instruments the music requires? Depending on the gig, factors like gender, body type, and other superficial qualities may come into play. Do they look good in the costumes? Can they dance? Sometimes bandleaders do in fact hire a musician based on gender. There are all-female bands in existence where the number one prerequisite is obviously the fact that the members are women. Every bandleader has his or her own priorities when forming an ensemble, and each priority is valid. To each his own.

I know that in the past I have been hired because of my gender. Rarely do I ever escape a performance where someone in the audience approaches me, applauding my resolve to become a jazz musician despite the fact that I am a woman. Quite honestly, I don’t actually KNOW what it feels like to be a female jazz musician, simply because I’ve never been a man before.

Wynton has always chosen his band members very carefully. In his groups, the absolute first requirement of all the musicians is “Can he or she swing?” This is by far the most crucial factor in determining if someone is right for the band, and has been since Jazz at Lincoln Center started twenty-five years ago. The orchestra is comprised of some of the most gifted, talented, knowledgeable, and yes, swinging jazz musicians alive. Each member has earned a spot in the band, not because he was born looking a certain way, but because he has studied the music, and has an innate gift of executing it with the soul and feeling appropriate for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Diversity is alive and well in the band, not due to strategy, but due to happenstance. I too have had the privilege of performing and touring with the band, and I just happen to be female. I most certainly prefer it this way, because I know I’m hired based upon merit, not on my appearance. This makes me proud because I worked a lot harder to become an accomplished musician than I did to become a female.

The tide of public opinion ebbs and flows. Some institutions have proven to be malleable in their philosophies, bending whenever a negatively-tinged article is published, or if a prominent funder expresses distaste with a decision. Music is first and foremost at Jazz at Lincoln Center – it is the creed on which the establishment is based. If other ideals supersede those that make the music great, then the foundation on which Jazz at Lincoln Center stands becomes compromised. For twenty-five years Jazz at Lincoln Center has brought jazz, swinging jazz, to the masses. Consistency has been the key to its success, and it’s what its structure is built upon. This has been the mission since the beginning, and this is why Jazz at Lincoln Center is and will always be The House of Swing.

Erica von Kleist”

 

 

The Importance of Practicing

Here is a letter I recently handed out to the students in my studio.Erica_HornsToHavanaWorkshop2011_depth1

 

“Dear Students,

 

I am so excited to have such smart, talented students in my studio this fall! Every day I look forward to working with each of you, and sharing in the wonderful energy you bring into my home.

 

I want to stress to you how important it is to practice your instrument. Honestly, the first few weeks of teaching you all have been a bit of a slow start. Usually I only have to endure a couple of lessons a week where a student has not practiced – unfortunately this September has been rampant with non-practicers!

 

Many of you have asked me why we don’t do harder songs, or why we spend so much time on one song. It’s generally because you are not spending enough time on your instrument outside of lessons. There’s only so much I can teach you when your own personal improvement is very slow. Practicing for 30 minutes a day is the minimum!

 

I’m very proud of you all for being so active in school, sports, and extra curricular activities! But just like your soccer abilities need practice, a musical instrument needs just as much attention. You practice drills in a sport so that you build strength and muscle memory – you have fun when you finally get to play a game because you’re not thinking about the details and instead focusing on heart, energy, and playing the game. Practicing an instrument regularly works the same way. As you get better, you won’t be so concerned with the notes and rhythms you’ve been muddling through half-heartedly for weeks. You’ll finally be able to make music on your instrument, and actually know what it feels like to play music.

 

As with anything in school, music, sports, or life, if you take the time to work on something, you will see improvement. All great people we look up to spent huge amounts of time practicing their craft. If there’s anything life can teach you, it’s that practicing pays off! Heck, it’s helped me travel the world, and sent me to the Grammy awards…twice!

 

So far, these first few weeks of lessons have generally consisted of me helping you practice during our time together. This makes for a very expensive rehearsal! Use your lessons as a time to ask me questions, and for us to have fun playing music together.

 

I guarantee you that if you start dedicating yourself to your instrument for 30 minutes a day this fall, you’ll reach a whole new level you never thought you were capable of.  The more you practice, the more fun you will have playing music! The more fun you have playing music, the more you’ll want to practice.

 

Erica von Kleist”