Improvisation is a mighty word that holds the power to stir up fear and dread in the hearts of many artists. It has such potency, in fact, that we tend to shorten it to its far more emotionally tolerable and cute version, improv. Hear how pithy and fun that sounds? A little word like that could never hurt us or make us want to crawl into a dark corner, rocking back and forth, murmuring creepily to ourselves, "You're okay, you're okay, you're okay."
But those who consistently shy away from improvisation do themselves a great injustice as they actively and willingly deny the incredible, complex, hard-to-define experience it offers. With all senses engaged--yes, even your smeller--at a level both higher and deeper, improvisation provides us with the semi-structured freedom to generate artistic moments and works we had no idea we were capable of creating. And, boy howdy, does it feel good!
It is in this spirit that Unrehearsed MKE, the musically driven improv project, was founded back in March, 2013. Now held at its permanent home, The Jazz Estate--recently under new ownership--every first Sunday of the month, it continues to grow and thrive as a gotta-do-that performance opportunity for musicians and artists wanting to shed their comfort zones and get free, baby.
The backstory of Unrehearsed MKE, shared with me by founder/co-curator/drummer/composer/educator Devin Drobka, is an age-old one: A musician starts jamming with another musician who has an idea to create a project so good--in this case Out Of Your Head Baltimore & Brooklyn--that the other musician decides to do something similar in another city--Milwaukee--and BAM! Unrehearsed MKE is born.
How Drobka teamed up with his two fellow curators, double bassist Barry Paul Clark and alto saxophonist Steve Gallam, is equally familiar to anyone who's ever started a project as a lone wolf and also, ya know, has a life. According to Drobka,
"When I started the series I was doing everything and it was great when I first moved back and was trying to just get things happening and I had more time. Then when my life started picking up and I was doing some more touring I was needing help with curating and running it so I asked my good friend Barry to help me out and he did such a wonderful job that it just made sense to have more people involved. Steve joined us and the rest is history to this point. Both are such creative forces that it makes for such an amazing time working with them and having creative stimulation. We talk about this stuff a lot and each brings such a fresh perspective on improvising to their curatorial duties."
The main goal of Unrehearsed MKE is to bring together folks from different musical genres--jazz, experimental, rock, blues, what have you--as well as artists of other disciplines--visual art, dance, video, poetry, whatnot--to collaborate in spontaneous, improvisational performances. As the name suggests, there is no rehearsal, no preparation and no net, so expect the seat of your pantaloons to get a real workout!
As far as the curatorial process goes, Clark and Gallam have essentially the same approach but express it very much in their own individual terms.
Clark: "My curatorial approach often involves trying to put together musicians who I know have strong skills in their craft individually, but who are also very good listeners, and can communicate effectively and honestly in new situations. I think that's the basis of really well done improvisation, just being able to effectively and honestly communicate with others using your craft in a new situation. One thought I put into the curation sometimes, though not always, is to put together 'traditional' ensembles to perform this completely not traditional performance. For example, a string quartet or quintet with violin, viola, cello, bass, piano. Although some of the most non-traditional ensembles are the best, like having trombone, bass, synthesized electronics and percussion all improvising together!"
Gallam: "The curating process, at least for me, is all about variety and group size. I usually keep my groups small, since the other dudes typically have larger ensembles. Aside from many emails, questions, and Facebook messages, that's it! That's curating. The rest happens on the night in question when the musicians finally get together (much of the time they have never met each other before) and then we introduce them and tell them to get on with it. If it weren't for the fantastic group of musicians who genuinely enjoy this music, it would just be the 'Steve Gallam Trio feat. Barry Bass and Devin Drum' and we would do minor-key arrangements of John Philip Sousa marches backwards, and no one wants to see that."
HA! I'd like to agree that no one would want to see/hear Sousa marches backwards, Mr. Gallam, but we all know there's someone out there who would--someone who probably likes to wear a replica Sousa marching band conductor uniform with a few interesting alterations, but I'm just guessing.
Anyhoo, the next session of Unrehearsed MKE is this Sunday, August 3, at The Jazz Estate, 2423 N Murray Avenue in Milwaukee, beginning at 7:30PM. Extra Exciting Bonus: The second of three sets features experimental guru Hal Rammel on electric sound palette with Jay Mollerskov on electric guitar, so don't miss it!
For those musicians and artists who'd like join in on the pithy improv fun on a future date, contact unrehearsedmke at gmail dot com for more intel. Don't forget to tell 'em what you play/do, your availability and what moniker you most eagerly respond to when addressed.
(Thanks Devin, Barry & Steve!)