Loss & Gain With James Ilgenfritz, Brian Chase, & Robbie Lee

It may not be destiny exactly, but the trio of bassist James Ilgenfritz, drummer Brian Chase, and woodwinds specialist Robbie Lee coming together for an album of improvised excursions. Loss and Gain, out November 5 on Infrequent Seams, digs through free jazz-infused vestiges to find a trail of contemplation, vulnerability, and even moments of lighthearted expression. This trio has an almost-ESP-like connection, anticipating sonic left turns before they happen and meeting each other at the crux. Loss and Gain is full of abstract expressions that, when taken as a whole, paint an intricate self-reflection and open a space to truly listen.

On “no answer,” the first taste of what Loss and Gain offers, Ilgenfritz and Chase bound blissfully through angled corridors, concocting an effervescent scaffolded foundation for Lee’s meticulous, thoughtful runs. It grows in stature, the tempo, and chaos picking up as it cascades over the edges of confinement to melt into the flooded streets. This is my kind of soundscape wizardry. 

Ilgenfritz, Chase, and Lee answered a few questions (in a third person, collaborative collective voice unless otherwise specified) about Loss and Gain and working together. Loss and Gain is out November 5 via Infrequent Seams. Stream “no answer” and pre-order below.

How did the three of you first meet and what was it that clicked and made you all want to play music together?

James and Brian first met circa 2011 playing in a trio with pianist Thollem McDonas (whom we see has been covered recently in Foxy Digitalis!) After those gigs, the two kept up their musical rapport, often as a rhythm section for John Zorn’s improv nights at The Stone. Robbie and Brian’s relationship extends further back through a small circle of friends including Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone, and Matt Welch. So many of our friends are our favorite musicians! Robbie and James first played together in a duo for an event arranged by Lea Bertucci in Greenpoint. It was soon after this that the trio first assembled. 

A key element that clicked for us musically was our unusually devout appreciation for the micro-sonic sounds of our respective instruments. We value fine detail and refined texture as carrying an abundant amount of information. So much so that it functions as the information – the music – itself. Nuance is always an essential element, and whether the emphasis is on broad stylistic gestures, sustained sonorities, or rapid interplay, the music remains focused on detail.

The last 18 months have been a wild ride. During this time, how did you find space to create music, whether solo work or through collaboration?

Brian: For me, the past 18 months of creative work shifted to an emphasis on building skills as a postproduction audio engineer as well as managing his record label, Chaikin Records. He released four albums on the label during that time, three of which he mastered himself.  

James: I was in California at the beginning of the pandemic, where I was working on my Ph.D. Once everything went remote, I returned to the east coast and took part in a surprising number of remote and in-person events, while also working tirelessly to expand my record label Infrequent Seams. 

Robbie: It has been a great time to re-group and reset, mostly just mentally. I have a new baby, so didn’t go deep in the performance aspect, but many long nights, awake in quiet and in noise, were a chance to meditate on which aspects of creativity are truly meaningful, and which are the fluff that it’s time to cast off. I did spend a lot of time playing solo flute in the most resonant room I have, the shower(!), and found a really deep satisfaction in playing music that’s not meant to be heard by anyone else.

On this new record, I’m continually surprised by the different directions these pieces go and how much variation there is. With these pieces, was there a plan or was it improvised?

The core of the music is improvised. In a few cases, we set an intention of recording a series of ‘miniatures’ – pieces which could not extend past a designated amount of time. Brian brought in a composition called ‘happening’; the piece consisted of a carefully set sequence of pitches in Just Intonation for double bass. All of the other pieces were improvised with consideration for a variety of mood and energy.

There’s such a collective freedom and mutual spirit to these recordings where nobody (and everybody!) is the ‘leader’ and the sound unfolds organically. How did you all approach these sessions, or maybe what kind of mindset did you enter them with?

Much of the musical mindset for this group is based on a respect for the collective. The main tool is Listening, a tool which is crucial in making the music. Since there is so much nuance in sound and inflection, and it is all unfolding spontaneously, we stay open and receptive to anything and everything. When this mindset is in place then the music as Expression can shine forth. 

Openness and discipline are also key, as we strive to move the music forward and make something happen with commitment and integrity while remaining open to the possibility that at any moment that trajectory must be abandoned in favor of new information. Any musical event, whether bold or discrete, can develop into something greater, as long as we keep our attention focused on what’s happening.

How important is trust in these collaborative settings?

Trust is a key component in effective communication. Without trust then there may be – though not necessarily – a tendency to be dismissive, or defensive, or to shout, or any number of hindrances. And those feelings will be reflected in the music. Our goal is to build music together and to do that we have to work as a team. And that doesn’t guarantee that we’re always in agreement about what needs to happen next, but that we do always remain conscious of how that give-and-take enables us to move forward as a team.

What are the challenges of making music like this, in this kind of ‘social’ setting, compared to creating solo expressions of your work?

The challenge in collaborative projects is balancing the will of the individual with that of the others. The benefit of collaborative projects is also the same – the way in which everyone expands the potential of the music – a scenario of ‘the sum is greater than the parts’. In solo projects the challenge and benefit can be somewhat similar, finding and tapping into the insight and inspiration that will enable new creative freedom – a scenario that also involves surpassing preconceived limits. 

James: When I perform solo, I’m usually performing works composed for me by others, whereas in group situations I’m most interested in improvised music. In either case, what fascinates me is the dialog between the internal and external. I like to see what happens when different artistic subjectivities come into contact and bring about a new dimension in which to engage ideas that are suddenly less familiar when they’re played off the information coming from others.

Robbie: Even though we often strive for that kind of telepathic communication that’s so thrilling when it clicks, we also each have the power to step out in front and set the vibe and direction of any moment. It’s anyone’s choice whether to act as the missing puzzle piece or to shake things up, at any time. I’d call this selfless music that still depends on egos.

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