One of fire music’s best friends to the area, Gerard Cox, has done it again with this weekend’s inaugural Vessel Festival at Franklinton’s mixed-media haven The Vanderelli Room. Friday night and all day Saturday ($5 for students, $10 for adults at the door) are studded with the cream of local and regional improvisers along with open-minded players from around the world. Names familiar to readers of this site like Caleb Miller, Alex Burgoyne, and John Allen rub shoulders with players like Cleveland’s Dan Wenninger, Akron’s Don Volenik, and even farther afield artists like legendary Bay Area saxophonist Rent Romus who makes this stop the record release for his Rent Romus/Deciduous: Midwestern Edition Volume 1 featuring players from the area. I was lucky enough to talk with Romus, highlights from that conversation are below along with videos of a small selection of players you’ll see at the festival and the full schedule are after the jump.
Born in Hancock, Michigan, Rent Romus has been putting out records and wowing crowds for almost 30 years, making what Glenn Astarita from All About Jazz said was characterized by “cunning tonal contrasts and geometric patterns.” He’s played with legends like John Tchicai and Chico Freeman, a who’s who of the SF scene, and also mentored and encouraged young players. Ahead of the curve in controlling the means of production and distribution, he’s booked shows through Outsounds Presents and released albums (his own and others’) on Edgetone Records for over a decade.
Rent Romus said, “I’m always glad to come back to the Midwest. This’ll be my fourth trip, I’ve played Columbus including What You Will, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Cleveland. With communities of performing musicians and improvisers, there’s a similar language, pretty much, everybody speaks throughout the world. But each area has its own focus – some playing is more groove-oriented, some tend to be a little more European free improv. I’ve noticed the midwest improvisers tend to have a much deeper sense of the root of American free jazz. Of course, great artists in that mold have come out of this area: Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Albert Ayler. I’m connected to that here, from years of playing jazz and the [Bay area] community. But it’s very, very clear that the strength of your improvising community is that root.
“I’m very happy to come back to Ohio and work with everyone. Even though the community in Columbus is physically smaller, I find it very open and giving without a lot of cliques. Whereas here, I see some cliques. Maybe because of some cultural difference there and because artists have to support each other there in the face of not a lot of outside support. I’m looking forward to being around that camaraderie again.”
I asked him about the record he’s bringing to debut here. “I came up for a festival in Detroit last year, April, and Gerard [Cox] said ‘If you’re in the area, you should come down and record.’ So James Cornish, my host (also appearing at the festival), and I drove down and Gerard set up a session. The studio had isolation booths without line of site. I could see John Allen but I couldn’t see anyone else. The headphones were a little buzzy. On a personal level, I was playing a little bit blind. But the upside of that was everybody really listened. There was very little discussion beforehand, the record is completely improvised and, for the most part, intuitive. It was great to meet and play with Steve Simula, with our shared Finnish background, and Caleb Miller. I’d played with the other horns in Detroit about a year before but I feel like we really honed in on our sound here.”
About his home base of San Francisco, Romus said, “I sit in a unique place, running a nonprofit named Outsounds. I book 80-90 shows. A lot of people come through looking for shows, so I kind of have my finger on the pulse. I’m never run out of new people looking for opportunities to experiment with improvisation and experimental music. Mills College supplies a great number of people many of whom end up staying. In the last 10 years, the Berkeley Conservatory has stepped up. For instance, they did a workshop with instrument inventor Tom Nunn with classically trained musicians building Skatchboxes, these cardboard instruments played with combs then performing with them. Things like that are happening here with classical institutions that understand the history and bring in young folks who understand all the history of the music and put that into a nonstandard format. That makes the scene very rich, though of course, it’s harder for these young people to stay because it’s gotten so expensive.”
On booking, Romus said, “My philosophy is I don’t care about audience draw. I care, I work very hard to get people in seats, but I don’t let small audiences burn me out. That’s the biggest danger. It’s easy to feel, ‘Why am I doing this?’ when only 10 people or 2 people or no one shows up. But every so often we do a show where people do show up and there’s no formula. I feel it’s the transitory nature of this music. How musicians are personally, how they connect, how their music reaches or doesn’t reach people. But I always try to book based on what I’m hearing.
“If I hear something new in the way someone’s approaching creating music, they’re probably going to get a gig from me. Because I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Sometimes I’m on tour and who the hell am I, right? The other thing in my series is it’s not always three instrumental improvisers. It’s been experimental soul singers, punk rock mixed with Cantonese culture, harsh noise. Sometimes I’ll mix hard-edged skronk with laptop music. It keeps me going to experience all these great artists.
Sometimes I go, ‘Huh, how’d they do that? I wonder if I can do the same thing on my saxophone.’ I have a joke: I sometimes tell people ‘I’m going to book you and then I’ll steal your shit. You won’t know it, it will come out totally different. But it’s inspired by the spirit of what I hear.'”
Romus has a busy year ahead including releasing three albums drawn from his first tour to the land of his ancestors, Finland, new work from his Life’s Blood Ensemble, and more. Anyone interested in the cross-pollination of genres and jazz played at its highest level should not miss this show.
Schedule (times/players/descriptions subject to change):
Friday September 22nd
8 pm- SBF: L.A. Jenkins- guitar, Martin Rippel- trumpet/electronics, Chris Weldon- cello/electronics.
9 pm- Sun Trash: Nick Weckman- trombone, electronics, Caleb Miller- keyboards, clarinet, saxophone.
10 pm- Romus / Deciduous: Rent Romus- saxophones, Hasan Abdur-Razzaq- saxophones, Caleb Miller- keyboards, John Phillip Allen- bass, Steve Simula- percussion, Gerard Cox- drums. CD RELEASE for Romus/Deciduous on Edgetone Records, a collaboration between Rent Romus and the Columbus improvising musicians in this band.
Saturday September 23rd
12 pm- Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum Jasimine Agape Pennywell- vox, Dale Johnson- piano, storytelling, Gerard Cox- drums, with special guest Alex Burgoyne- saxophone.
1 pm- Mario Bosca Quartet- Caleb Miller- saxophones, Owen Hopper- guitar, Max Marsillo- drums, and Mario Bosca- bass.
2 pm- Don Volenik Trio (Akron)- trumpet, with Ed Hallahan- bass, and Keni Rollin Clayton- drums. With special guest Rent Romus- saxophones.
3 pm- Alex Burgoyne- saxophones, Caleb Miller- keyboards, Eli Chambers- drums.
4 pm- Big Lakes Big Bays (Detroit/Bay Area collaborative) James Cornish- trumpet, Jordan Schranz- bass, Collete McCaslin- trumpet/soprano/percussion, Rent Romus- saxophones, Tony Zilincik- tuba.
5 pm- Dan Wenninger- tenor/soprano saxophones, with Alex Burgoyne- alto sax, Mario Bosca- bass, and Kurt Prisbe- drums. With special guest Hasan Abdur-Razzaq.
6 pm- Reincarnation Trio. Haneef Smart- flute, Josh Strange- vibraphone, Willie Smart- drums.
7 pm- Swinging Saloon Doors- Gerard Cox- piano/traps combo, with guests unknown. Will play sightless again, and respond to whomever should enter with sounds and ideas.
8 pm- Faux Pas Quartet (Indianapolis)- Aaron Urbanski – keyboard, synthesis and processing, Charles Shriner – EWI, synthesis and processing, Duncan Putman– bass, Jen Schmetzer- voice, processors.
9 pm- Lisa Bella Donna- drums, with special surprise guests.
10 pm- Shepard: Bryan Stewart- beats/bass/soprano saxophone, Aaron Putnam- beats, keyboards, Michael Alan Cundiff- percussion/vox, Gerard Cox- trumpet/percussion, Steven Wymer- guitar/percussion.