“Honestly, at first I was a little worried about it coming off as trite,” says Ike Sturm, bassist for the acoustic duo Endless Field, about recording their new album, Alive in the Wilderness, live in the dramatic outdoor setting of Utah’s Escalante National Monument. “Y’know: ‘Oh, wow, there are nature sounds! Listen—rushing water!’” However, when Sturm and his Endless Field partner, guitarist Jesse Lewis, finally began tracking both audio and video in the park, those concerns became moot points. “We let all those worries go,” Sturm says, “and let the environment transform the music. The trees, the water, even the sides of canyons with their natural reverb, all these things became new instruments in the ensemble.” What’s more, the pair are putting their money where their strings are: All proceeds from the album will be donated to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
A mix of lyrical through-composed heads with blowing sections and reflective in-the-moment improvisations, the album finds Sturm’s classically informed upright bass figures and Lewis’ Americana-meets-modal-jazz double-stop motifs merging organically in the baking Utah sun. (A modest percussion setup, along with ankle-wrapped bells, allows Jesse to add further detail in between fingerstyle figures on his Collings OM2H Cutaway.) But if these two New York City jazzmen—who’ve played with Theo Bleckmann, Billy Hart, Donny McCaslin, and more—thought lugging a double bass across Manhattan was tough, they had little idea how strenuous it would be transporting their gear with a film crew and recording team several hours a day just to arrive at the remote locations where they’d eventually settle in to record. And no running out to Guitar Center if you’re suddenly down a ¼-inch cable—heck, the nearest town was often a five-mile hike away.
“Yeah, definitely no Guitar Centers out there,” laughs Sturm, who’s also the music director at Manhattan’s fabled Saint Peter’s Church. “But the positive angle was that we were so exhausted from hiking in and out every day that it became a lot easier to be in one’s body instead of in your head, which is how I often feel in a regular studio setting. The mental game that happens when you’re in the studio is completely different than when you’re out in these wild spaces, because you’re more worried about ‘Oh, I just got bit by a horsefly’ rather than ‘Damn, I was a quarter-tone sharp on that note.’”
Another benefit of these oft-stunning locations was how they inspired feelings and impressions that could be turned into improvs on the spot. “In almost every space, we let ourselves go toward the end of regular tracking,” Sturm recalls. “Y’know, my dad, Fred Sturm, was a composer/arranger and chair of the jazz department at Eastman School of Music, and he always encouraged me as a kid to do your work, do your playing, but always at the end explore and have some fun. So we always gave ourselves that space where we’d finish the day, and even if we only had an hour—and because of the crunch of gear, lighting, and the hike, sometimes we wouldn’t even have that much—we would give ourselves a little time to say, ‘What is this space? What’s resonating right here? What’s happening?’ And we’d just play free and record that for the time we had. Listening back later, we realized that there were some really interesting things that emerged, so we grabbed our favorite moments and wove them into the album around the more composed tunes.”
Recorded using a solar battery by L.A.-based engineer/producer Dana Nielsen, each song and accompanying video was captured in a different location within the park. (You can view the results at www.EndlessFieldBand.com.) The heavily syncopated “Zim,” for example, drawing its inspiration from the music of Zimbabwe, was captured at an elevation of 9,000 feet at the awesome Grand Staircase National Monument. The epic bass solo “Wolfhead” was recorded in a vast, red rock-sided “slot canyon,” whose walls reached hundreds of feet high; the bristling low-end reverberation carries Sturm’s Phrygian-flavored bow sweeps into deep sonic territory. On a lighter note, the funky and spirited “Dance of the Bee” was tracked, appropriately, in a field of swinging yellow sunflowers.
Channeling musicianship into socially conscious action is more than a novelty for Endless Field; as previous volunteer work with Riverkeeper Sweeps and Habitat for Humanity attests, it’s their mission. Lewis explains: “Ike and I talk a lot about what we can do to make a better future for our kids, our planet, and our society. Everybody plays a role in that, and Ike and I realized that we can bring people together through our music and try to share with them things that inspire us, and so much of that for us is centered around nature. If we can then channel that energy to an organization like the NRDC, who’ve been on the front lines of protecting the planet for over 30 years, well … It’s just another way of pushing towards a better future through music.”