Jon Wirtz - Tourist
JON WIRTZ - 'TOURIST' - Available from jonwirtzmusic.com
Released April 16, 2013
Melbourne is blessed with one of the finest Community Radio networks in the world. I often trawl the mega-hertz late at night to see what the indie programmers are getting into. A month back, I landed on a station playing something that caught my attention. In the dark, and with no glasses, i could not see what station I had dialled in.
I missed the first moments of the track, but as it settled into a nice rhythmic swing, I kept listening. Intrigued, I listened for the back announcement.
I thought I heard it introduced as a track by John Worth. When I woke in the morning, all I could remember was that name, and the the title had something to do with politics. Not a lot to go on.
What I eventually gleamed from a few hours of googling, was that there was an artist called Jon Wirtz, and he had a tune called “POLITICO”. It came from the 2013 album, “TOURIST “.
In short order, a copy was ordered, and having listened to it many times, my initial thought that this was something subtly different and worth sharing, was affirmed.
Jon Wirtz is a pianist / composer/ producer now based in Denver, Colorado.
“TOURIST” is his second album, following “SEA LEVEL” from 2010.
I have struggled a little to define what it is about “TOURIST” that for me, marks it out as something worth investigating.
I think what that 'something' may be, is given that it is largely an instrumental album, I can discern a quality not evident in many comparable albums - the sense of a narrative arc in the music sequencing.
I find that I listen to the whole album intently, and it does indeed evoke some sort of inner monologue. It never seems to be merely a selection of tunes thrown together to make an albums worth. Much thought has gone into the composition, sonic aesthetics, and sequencing. This gives it a depth and multi-layering that unfolds with every listen.
So, what is it like?
The album floats in on a simple but elegant piano line above which an angelic, wordless vocal line by Sarah Morris hovers.
The short piece is called “SLUMBER”, and this is perhaps the key Jon provides to allow an understanding of what he is going for here - a daydream perhaps, certainly some sort of reverie. Indeed, much of the album seems to bypass that rational part of the mind, and goes for something deeper, more elusive.
In a minute it's gone, and suddenly the opening bars of “POLITICO” slide into focus.
A cool and sinuous rhythm, deft chordal work from virtuoso Dan Schwinds' guitar, playing alongside Jons' restrained, punctuating keyboard lines - very tasty indeed.
The sudden shift two thirds of the way through is a brilliant compositional move.
“GRATITUDE” follows. This is what has to be called a slow rap, but one that I could envision being belted out in classic gospel fashion in some inner city church.
To add to that impression, the three piece female backing vocals, and the Hammond B3 give a certain verisimilitude to the track.
The lyric is a rather sweet one spoken by its composer, Stephen Malloy Brackett.
Now, for an Australian ear not really aligned with either the gospel or rap traditions, this track would be my only caveat for the album. An American ear would hear it differently. That said, it is a nice sentiment being expressed here, and one that obviously chimes with Jons' values.
For me, I just feel it breaks the otherwise continous arc of the album.
“CAMOUFLAGE FOR A SUNNY DAY” comes in on a rather stately keyboard figure, underlined by a string bass. The attack and decay on display here is breathtaking. Audiophiles blessed with high resolution systems will bask in this.
As the lines fade into silence, on both keys and bass, the overtones and harmonics are excellent. The sense of recorded space is vast. Bliss.
“DESPITE APPEARANCES (ALL IS WELL)” comes next. This one takes it down a few notches. A definite late night feel, even as it builds in intensity with washes of treated guitar in the left channel, playing behind Jons' keyboards. It ends with a lovely finger picked guitar line. Very satisfying.
“COUNTRY” is possibly the most upbeat track here. A strong sense of the outdoors at play. Sweet lines of peddle steel guitar, link with Hammond B3 to produce, I don't know - is there such a thing as COUNTRY-JAZZ or has Jon Wirtz just invented it?
This track could have sat comfortably on a “BROTHERS AND SISTERS ” era ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND album, or perhaps a BRUCE HORNBY set. It cooks in that special way American music swings, and has me hitting the repeat button.
Wind chimes, and natural sounds usher in the title track “TOURIST”. Gentle guitar doubling the keyboard lines, later, the string bass.
The simplicity of the melody throws into sharp relief the richness of the sonic colors caught here. Gentle and quite lovely. You get another sense of the soul of the composer here.
“WATCHING THE WORLD WAKE UP” is, I think, a nod to the wider world of piano based jazz. Tightly written, and sharply performed, it will be many listeners favourite track. It will probably become a standard, because it is one that an accomplished musician could aspire to play, where the other tracks are so individual and distinctive, I can only imagine Jon doing them justice.
Penultimate track, “IN THE BODY” has already been partnered with a short film. To call it atmospheric and other-worldly is underselling it.
A work of sparseness, echo, and trailing notes. A pronounced feeling of reflection and stillness.
In a brilliant creative stroke, The final note fades into the first note on the final track.
And what a finale this is ...
“AWAKENING” arrives with a quiet and elegant melody line that gently leads to the dramatic shift at 1:30 minutes when the glorious, burnished tones of Gabriel Mervices' trumpet take centre stage. The percussion slowly builds, the trumpet rises and rises, leading the song to one of the most satisfying conclusions I have heard in a long time.
Uplifting, heartfelt, beautiful. But it also leaves a lingering sense of awe, perhaps hope, certainly acceptance.
That the Composer is so self effacing as to give the climactic lines of an album to another player, says a lot about what sort of man we are considering here.
Jon produced the album, and chose the players, yet there is not a scintilla of ego evident here.
Will it appeal to the jazz crowd? Yes.
Will the eclectic -taste crew find something here? Certainly.
Wider listening audience? Its the sort of album that opens ears to new things.
How about the audiophiles? Excellent sonics and great music usually put a smile on those faces. Both present here in spades.
After writing this piece, I have been in contact with Jon. He was surprised but delighted to hear the album was being played on this side of the planet; not something he had even considered.
Read on for what Jon had to say.
DM : Jon, thank you for taking the time to talk about your music with the StereoNET readers. Your music will be new to most Australian and New Zealand readers. When I first heard a track from “TOURIST” my initial reaction was that this came from a very mature musician who has very definite thoughts on the way the music was going to go. So I was surprised this to learn this comes so early in your career, and that you only gave up your day job last year.
Jon : Wow, thank you. When you say “early in my career,” I suppose only when you consider that beginning. I've only been doing the full time music thing for about 2 years, but I've been playing for 26 years, writing for about 22 or 23 years, and listening for longer. With this record, I did have somewhat of an idea of what I was shooting for, which was for it to be a thematic record that sounded like “home,” and had its own voice. I didn't want a random collection of songs, I wanted this to be something the listener experiences, from start to finish. Something they can enjoy on a lazy summer day, or while staying warm around the house in the midst of winter.
DM : I know what my thoughts are as to who your influences are. Who inspires you, and as a youngster, what genres of music did you enjoy? Did you ever play in a rock or prog band?
Jon : I'm curious to hear your guesses as to my influences, as a lot of people think George Winston and Joe Sample, though I've never really listened to either. I know it's cliche to say, but honestly, 'life' inspires me. It could be an experience with friends or my spouse, a phrase someone utters or a joke, anything can trigger a mood or song. As far as musicians go, I'd say Brad Mehldau, Robert Glasper, John Medeski, Page McConnell, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers and a lot of classic rock and jamband guys influenced me. These days I've been into electronic music much more - DJ Shadow, Pretty Lights, artists with a vibe. I genuinely like everything though. I've played in all kinds of bands - rock, pop, funk, jamband, jazz, a DJ Shadow cover band, country, bluegrass, gypsy jazz, you name it. As a kid I was really into the blues, pop and Motown.
DM : As I get to know the “TOURIST” album, I have been trying to define what catches my attention, and sets it apart from similar albums. After a lot of consideration, I think its the fact that it is, indeed, AN ALBUM. By that, I mean, a listener can discern a narrative flow from song to song. It takes you somewhere with its shifts of time, texture and dynamics. What were you striving for?
Jon : That is such a great compliment, as that was exactly was I going for. Cohesiveness. When I shop for albums, I do just that - I shop for ALBUMS. I don't buy singles, and if I buy an album, it's because I have faith the artist will deliver from start to finish. I'm not interested in 3 good tracks and 7 throwaways.
DM : The players seem very sympatico. Are they long time associates?
Jon : I was fortunate to have so many great players on this record, almost all of whom I've played with quite a bit. Some more than others, but there was no one I was meeting or playing with for the first time.
DM : Did you go for live takes, or were the basic tracks augmented with dubs?
Jon : We went with live takes, and when necessary, we'd correct something if there was a horrible note. That was very rare though.
DM : Was the albums first live performance with the expanded line up, or the three piece you are playing with at the moment?
Jon : Neither actually. The first performance of the album's material was as a 3 piece, but not the same guys you hear on the record. The solidified lineup is now a little different.
DM : As a musician and composer, how aware were you of the current 'loudness wars' debate?”
Jon : I'm not familiar at all with the 'loudness wars' debate actually . . . .
DM : Can you tell us a little about the actual production and studio choices made during the recording?
Jon : One reason I'm proud of this record is that it's received a lot of positive response, and it was something I produced myself. This time around, it was surprisingly easy. When each tune was written, I already knew what I wanted to hear - pedal steel on one tune, bass/drums trio on others, electric guitar on some, trumpet on some, gospel vocalists on another, etc. Every musician who played on this record was my first phone call, I didn't have to “settle” for anyone. I also wanted to find a compromise - which I feel I did - between recording something that could be duplicated live for the most part, while still using the studio as a tool in itself.
DM : Are you happy with the final product as presented to the listening public?
Jon : Yes, I am very proud of this record.
DM : In your quiet moments, do you head for the acoustic keys, or take a walk on the wildside?
Jon : Ha ha, these days I've been playing a much more involved rig: Fender Rhodes run through pedals and a loop-station, Moog sub-phatty, and three other keyboards also run through loop-stations. It's a lot of work just to set up and tear down, so I spend most of my time practicing on my acoustic piano.
DM : You recently did a live one hour two-man improvisation with a drummer. Who kicked it off, and what are your reflections on what transpired.
Jon : That was my idea, and it was kinda funny how it ended up to be me and a drummer. The initial idea was that I wanted to do a show of 100% improvisation, solo acoustic piano. As time went on, I was getting a little bored with my ideas, so I decided to use the rig I mentioned above. That seemed a little too gimmicky though when I started messing around, and it occurred to me that the thing that was missing was another musician to bounce ideas off of and converse. So I decided to call a friend of mine, Jon Powers, who I've played and toured with in various musical situations over the years. The show went great. We played well, we had a great crowd, and everything was incredibly well received. Since that show Jon and I have been writing and rehearsing quite a bit together, and have named the project Rocketsauce. We were just in the studio in early April, and expect to be putting out some music very soon.
DM : Jon, if you could walk on stage tomorrow and improvise with two musical heroes, who would they be?
Jon : Wow, that's a tough one . . . . well, if we're talking about “all-time,” then I'd say Miles Davis and Tony Williams? Maybe? With living musicians, I might say Wayne Shorter and Brian Blade? I really don't know, that answer probably changes depending on when you ask me.
DM : Would you consider yourself an audiophile? Can you give the readers a hint at what you listen to at home.
Jon : No, I wouldn't consider myself an audiophile. My ears are getting better, as I definitely got an education during the mixing/mastering process of Tourist, but I still have a ways to go in developing them. My iPod and iTunes crashed a while ago, so I lost about 75% of my music collection that I'd been accumulating for years. So these days, I've been revisiting my roots more often, listening to Phish, classic rock, Medeski Martin & Wood, Brad Mehldau, Miles 2nd Great Quintet, My Morning Jacket, as well as newer stuff I've been turned onto like Pretty Lights, Goat Rodeo, Punch Brothers and some other bands. I listen to a lot of stand up comedy and podcasts too.
DM : Jon, can you give us any hints about the direction the next album may take?
Jon : I'm not entirely sure, though I'd guess the next one will be less acoustic. But who knows?
DM : Is it a Hammond B3 I hear on a few of the tracks, or a patch? If the latter, it sounds very convincing.
Jon : Nope, it's the real thing, a big ol' Hammond B3 with the Leslie. I don't get to use those very often, so it was fun to play. (The Leslie Speaker is one with two rotating horns within the cabinet, much prized in progressive and jazz music.)
DM : Big Head Todd and The Monsters are almost totally unknown over here, apart from me and five mates. Is it a regional connection, or do you guys hangout? Tell me a little about the association.
Jon : It's a very loose regional connection, honestly. I've met their keyboardist Jeremy Lawton on various occasions, bumping into each other at gigs or through mutual friends. When I was touring with Matt Morris, we opened for them at the First Bank Center in Colorado.
DM : Jon, its been a pleasure to hear your thoughts about your music, and we can only hope a promoter in Australia may get with it, and bring you over for some shows. We have a great Jazz festival in a regional city called Wangaratta, and Melbourne itself hosts an International Jazz Festival and some excellent jazz clubs. Best wishes for the debut of “Rocket Sauce” this weekend.
Jon: Thanks so much David!
For more information please visit jonwirtzmusic.com
A walking encyclopedia of music, David’s broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.