Festooned with magnets, pictures, memos, postcards and shopping lists, the kitchen refrigerator serves as our domestic bulletin board, the three-dimensional Facebook of the American family. So it was that when jazz trumpeter Kelly Rossum needed cover art that conceptualized the content of his latest CD, “Family,” using a snapshot of his icebox became a quick and elegant solution.
At his best, Rossum makes music that offers a similar sort of simple, almost casual, profundity — where the face value of a song is both emblematic of its essence and merely the first layer of a plush, creative narrative. “Family,” his fourth album, does this more thoroughly and consistently than any of his previous works. So naturally Rossum punctures the notion that there was any grand plan behind its formation.
“The way it started, the band was playing so great that I just thought I should turn the microphone on,” he says by phone from his Minneapolis home. “After a while I realized we had a pile of tunes all connected to family.”
That would include Rossum’s title track, which he had debuted for his parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. Then there is “Interlude,” which pianist Bryan Nichols wrote for his own wedding, and “This is where my head is at,” bassist Chris Bates’ tribute to his father — who also happens to be the dad of “Family” drummer J.T. Bates — on his retirement. Even Rossum’s spry and scampering “Mr. Blueberry” is a ditty in honor of the family cat.
Different from Out To Lunch’s work
Paeans to loved ones sprout few thorns, of course, and “Family” is often a far cry from Rossum’s work with the Out To Lunch Quintet, which takes its cue from the frequently torrid, bramble-bush complexity of saxophonist Eric Dolphy’s example, or Rossum’s last CD, “Line,” a free-jazz oriented workout by a quintet featuring three horns and no pianist.
“Yeah, this is more song-based, with simple melodies and harmonies and exploring improvisation,” says Rossum. “If people walk away singing, that’s part of the purpose.”
But another, equally weighty, “part of the purpose” is obviously to pervert predictability and ambush expectations. Take Rossum’s treatment of “Pure Imagination,” from the “Willie Wonka” movie. With its foreboding, bowed bass passages, ghostly piano, and creaky trumpet, this avant garde traipse through the dungeon of the chocolate factory is more Tim Burton than Gene Wilder. “It’s a little scary isn’t it? I always thought that song should be scary,” Rossum says with satisfaction.
A bevy of less-blatant surprises are woven into the fabric of the quartet’s interplay. The pianist Nichols demonstrates an inscrutable, genre-hopping technical aplomb similar to that of Matthew Shipp, not only on his own extended solos, but in the myriad musical fonts he deploys while punctuating the solos of his cohorts. Listen to the way Rossum varies his attack from the Crescent City ebullience of Louis Armstrong to the breathless fragility of Chet Baker to the cunning parsimony of Miles Davis. Or check the way the entire ensemble salts and twists the melody of “Greensleeves” like a pretzel on “This is where my head is at.” No matter how hummable, “Family” consistently reminds you that jazz is the abiding dialect.
As one steeped in musical academia — he’s an official doctor in musical arts, and is currently the jazz coordinator at the MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis — Rossum takes pains not to let his head dominate his heart, striving for creative sweet spot where the balance between intellect and intuition generates maximum inspiration.
“I am on the left wing of those academic debates in believing that jazz education has become a victim of itself,” he declares. “The pioneering work done in the ’50s and ’60s and solidified through the ’80s and ’90s is wonderful, but we can’t ignore the intuitive side. So I emphasize free jazz and work with my jazz students in a way that’s almost the exact opposite of that ‘jazz education’ way of repeating patterns and drills.
“Some of them are quite young, in grade school. But even if they’ve only been playing six months or so, the improvisation they do, even if they are limited technically, they get so much joy out of it. And as they move through their training they’ll retain that joy and no-fear attitude. For students who have had all the training, I try to crack the nut for them, open something up and say, ‘look at all this other stuff that is available.’ For advanced college students, the goal is to incorporate everything, combine the training and the improv.”
Booster on local jazz scene
After earning his master’s degree in the renowned music program at North Texas State, Rossum came to the University of Minnesota in his mid-20s 11 years ago to get his doctorate, and has since become a peripatetic presence and vocal booster on the local jazz scene.
“What I have come to realize is that so many musicians at the top of their game aren’t accidentally choosing to live here. The audience, the venues, the press — all create a wonderful environment that lets you make art. Then you have this [snowball] effect where so many great musicians draw other great musicians. But then — and this is a difference between here and even Chicago or New York, where things are very segregated — you’ve got these outstanding musicians who are very open-minded. It’s not just [cross-mixing] bebop and free jazz, but all kinds of music. J.T. [Bates] plays with hip hop-groups. I am able to do a lot of electronic things. Chris [Bates] also does a lot of electronic stuff and is out right now with a klezmer group.”
All four members of “Family” will come together this coming weekend at the Artists Quarter in St. Paul for an official CD release party. For Rossum, who also performs in Out To Lunch, the NOWNet, the Moriarty/Lease Quintet, and various other ensembles in addition to his teaching duties, it is another stake rooting him to his adopted hometown. It is a different experience from a childhood in which he was continually on the move, lending yet another facet to the conceptual underpinning of “Family.”
“My father worked for GE, and they relocated him a lot,” Rossum says. “In fact, that’s what really sold me on the art cover concept for the record. It turns out that I actually have a GE frig. If you look really carefully up in the left hand corner of the photo, you can see the logo.”