The Gig: Jason Stein

Arena Avant-Garde

Jason Stein

Jason Stein (photo by Johnathan Crawford)

Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isidore walked onstage one night in October in semidarkness, to the bombast of a blockbuster rap hit. “Started from the bottom, now we’re here,” crowed Drake in his rat-a-tat singsong, through a massive, gut-rattling sound system.

No, it’s not the standard setup for an avant-garde jazz trio led by a bass clarinetist, but in one sense it’s become routine, at least for this trio in particular. Stein and his band had rolled into Madison Square Garden to open for the comedian, actor, writer and producer Amy Schumer, who happens to be his younger half-sister. They were embarked on the current leg of an arena standup tour that began late in 2015 and will run through New Year’s Eve, with more dates to come in 2017. And over the course of the tour, Locksmith Isidore has set what must be some kind of record for audience exposure to a rugged, purely acoustic free-jazz trio, notwithstanding the three years David Murray spent on the road with U2. (Don’t quote me on that.)

“We’ve played 60 or 70 shows since December of last year,” Stein said by phone the day after the show, and hours before his own gig in a cozier setting, the Greenwich House Music School. “We’ve gotten comfortable with the setting. So we can really dig in and play, and not just run through the set. It feels more like we’re actually creating something.”

Back in December, I reported the first news story about Stein’s unlikely gig, separately interviewing him and Schumer, who grew up in suburban Long Island. The comedian, who told me she failed miserably with her own attempts at musical training, still absorbed some of Jason’s jazz enthusiasm: “I listen to a lot of Coltrane, a lot of Kenny Garrett,” she said. She recalled being a teenager and tagging along with her brother to see shows, like a James Carter gig at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem.

Schumer also readily drew an analogy between jazz and standup comedy. “The bass clarinet’s not a fun instrument to hear someone learning,” she said dryly. “And that was the one that he was in love with. So that’s where it’s similar to comedy, because you’re only passable at five years, and you just have to put the time in to get better.”

Like many standup greats, she cut her teeth in New York clubs like the Comedy Cellar. As for Stein, who studied jazz at Bennington College and the University of Michigan, he moved to Chicago about a decade ago, quickly becoming a fixture of that city’s vibrant experimental scene. You can hear him on recent albums by drummer Frank Rosaly, clarinetist James Falzone, cornetist Josh Berman and baritone saxophonist Boris Hauf. With Locksmith Isidore, which features Jason Roebke on bass and Mike Pride on drums, Stein has released three albums, all between 2008 and 2010: A Calculus of Loss and Three Less Than Between, on Clean Feed, and Three Kinds of Happiness, on Not Two Records.

Locksmith Isidore—a phrase combining the name and trade of Stein’s grandfather, whose grinning face appears on the cover of A Calculus of Loss—favors a restless, interactive roil. Stein’s writing for the group occasionally builds on the harrumphing angularities of Eric Dolphy, an obvious bass clarinet hero, but his improvisational logic flows more out of Ornette Coleman. At the Garden the trio opened with “Eckhart Park,” a new tune with a swinging melody played in octaves by bass and bass clarinet, punctuated with muscular drum breaks. The second piece, also new, rode a rock beat in 19/8 time, and bore the title “As Many Chances as You Need.” From note one there was a genial fury to the performance, a focus on onrushing rhythm.

That high-impact combustibility was partly a nod to the setting. On record, Locksmith Isidore expresses a more abstract, textural finesse, skewing spookier and subtler. Still, you’d be crazy to suggest the band had dumbed things down for mass consumption. On “Man or Ray,” a mad scramble of a tune in the Coleman vein, bass and drums worked in an agitated tandem, while Stein’s solo toggled between boppish clarity and a series of gargles, honks and squeals. “Amy Music” had a slinkier tempo but an intervallic language that evoked Out to Lunch!, the Dolphy album. From my seat in Section 116, it was hard to tune out the din of conversation and carousing in the crowd. The friend I’d brought along characterized the gig as “a jazz suicide mission.”

And yet after every tune, the room erupted in cheers and applause—a reminder that even if a small percentage of the audience was actually listening, that amounted to a victory. Stein certainly sees it that way. “To me, even the people who are sitting and talking, having a drink, they’re still hanging with us,” he said. “That really feels meaningful to me. We’re spending time together in this environment with these sounds that they may never have heard before.”

Stein’s most recent album, Hearts & Minds (Astral Spirits), is a raucous and scintillating outing with Rosaly and keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo. (His one-nighter at Greenwich House Music School was a release show for this trio.) He has been developing new music for Locksmith Isidore’s next album on the road—in effect, treating the arena stage like a composer’s workshop, at least  for part of his set.

The particulars of Stein’s situation are obviously unique, but I asked him what general advice he’d give to any jazz musician suddenly thrust into a similar position. His reply was instantaneous, unequivocal and true to form: “I would definitely say play music that you believe in, and focus on authenticity and honesty and what feels right to you.”