Brian Krock released one of the most acclaimed jazz records of 2018, the self-titled debut outing from his big band, Big Heart Machine. His compositions drew raves from outlets like the New York Times (“suspenseful, layered music”) and Chicago Reader (“tricky, multipartite compositions that breathlessly wend their way through shifting landscapes that are sometimes ethereal, sometimes muscular, but always rigorously plotted”).
Not content to rest on those laurels, Krock followed that success with April’s release of the beguiling self-titled debut of his quartet Liddle which he’s promoting on a tour that comes through Filament in Franklinton on Monday, May 13th at 8pm. More details here. I spoke with Krock by phone prior to the tour; continue reading for thoughts from that conversation and videos of the band.
Asking about the speed with which Liddle followed on Big Heart Machine’s heels, Krock pointed out they share the same rhythm section: Olli Hirvonen on guitar, Marty Kenney on bass, and Nathan Ellman-Bell on drums. “Those guys are my best friends. Olli, I kind of say is my musical soulmate. He and I met [on] both of our first week in New York; he’s from Helsinki, I’m from Chicago, but we had so much in common. We both grew up listening to the same progressive rock and shred guitar music and were immediately compatible playing together. He’s become a key component of how I identify my sound. He played a huge role in the Big Heart Machine record and I always write with him in mind.”
Krock drew out those connections to the other players. “Olli and I were in a band together called Life Size and the bass player was Marty Kenney. The drummer, Nathan Ellman-Bell is a member of Olli’s trio [with Marty] called Red Reiter.”
Matt Mitchell, one of the finest pianists for this thorny chamber-jazz, rounds out the group on record as a high-profile guest. Krock said, “[He] kind of took us under his wing. He heard some of our music and really liked it. We went back and forth on Facebook Messenger and eventually we got to play with him; I knew I wanted him to be involved.”
On the evolution of the project, Krock said, “Liddle has existed longer than Big Heart Machine. Funnily enough, the band used to be called Heart Machine; when I put the big band together without overthinking I called it Big Heart Machine. I thought I should tackle recording Big Heart Machine first because I knew it would be a much bigger project, but both projects were fomenting at the same time. Before that record even came out, [we] started rehearsing in earnest for the Liddle record.”
The compositions feel like one voice lived-in and sung-through by close collaborators. The twisting, knotty, pulse and acerbic shredding of “Memphis,” intrigued me. I joked that I’d be more likely to call it “North Carolina” after Corrosion of Conformity, than anything in the sound world that recalled that city on the river I love so much.
I was also enraptured by the two-minute “Memphis (Intro),” the only track where Krock shares composing credit with Hirvonen. Krock said, “The song’s called ‘Memphis’ because I wrote it in Memphis. We were on tour and I made a beat in Ableton Live; I showed it to the guys who liked it and wanted to play it. The song kind of came together in an organic way, then when we were in the studio, Olli improvised different soundscapes [and] I loved them all so much I had trouble picking one to include on the record. The intro track you’re hearing is a bunch of improvisations from Olli [I edited together]. It turned out so cool, I wanted some space for people to hear what Olli does.”
The only other non-Brian Krock composition is a joy ride through Anthony Braxton’s classic “Composition No. 23b.” I’ve always found a sense of excitement and play supercharging the rigor in Braxton’s work, too often left out of more academic conversations. Liddle amp up those qualities in their thunderous, anthemic take.
When I asked about this cover and their relationship with Braxton’s music, Krock waxed effusive. “[Composition No. 23b] is something Olli and I have practiced together a lot. I think that Anthony Braxton’s turning 75 this year and he’s easily one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century but he still doesn’t get his due, in my opinion. We should be seeing major orchestras around the country playing his music but, for whatever reason, he hasn’t gotten that recognition from the contemporary music machine. I think there’s probably a lot of race stuff involved and, also, his music is so challenging. For all of Liddle, he’s a lodestar, someone we all listen to and deeply admire; that recording in particular, New York 1974, is one of my favorite quartet recordings.”
“[Composition No. 23b] sets you up for improvising in such a beautiful way,” Krock concluded, which set up my question about how tightly arranged these compositions are, so full of sudden surprises and hairpin turns. He said, ”It’s such a fine line to dance around. Obviously, I’m a fan of tightly-arranged compositions but my biggest hero is Duke Ellington. I try to emulate [Ellington’s] great gift which is allowing his musicians to be themselves by giving them space.”
Krock expanded, “Even in Big Heart Machine, it’s important to me to go to my bandmates’ gigs when they’re playing as leader so I can learn how they like to express themselves, what kind of music they like to play. That way, when I’m arranging, I can say to myself, ‘Let Olli do what he does.’ That’s a big decision as an arranger, but it doesn’t require very much work. It puts a lot of trust in the musicians. And, as a listener, I like it when the lines are blurred, when I don’t know what’s improvised. On this record it’s probably about 50-50; very meticulously composed music but I don’t consider the sheet music the bible, it’s a jumping-off point or a rubric.”
The tour promises to feature material not heard by the world at large. Krock said, “Literally half an hour ago [before the phone call], we just finished rehearsing. We’re putting together a whole new book of music for the tour. There are some departures [from the record] but it’s still the same four people. We’re maturing, we’re growing closer together. I’ve never been more excited about music I’ve written than this new music; it’s confident and it’s personal to us. I’m excited for people to hear it. We’re going to do a live recording of the very last show, at a really cool club that doubles as a record label called Firehouse 12 [in New Haven].”
Toward the end of our conversation, Krock said, “I’m so excited to come to Columbus, I love Columbus. It’s one of the best parts of Ohio. I’m a fan of Gerard Cox, I’m a fan of the Filament series, I’m looking forward to playing [Columbus] as a leader.”
Filament has rapidly established itself not only as an incubator and space for local bands to stretch out but as a preeminent touring venue for improvised music that doesn’t often come through Columbus. The Liddle show promises to be another feather in its cap and a not-to-be-missed new music event of the season.