A new live record documents the adventurous jazz/hip-hop project’s first encounter.
Photo by Bryan Mir.
This story was produced in partnership with Milwaukee Record.
Trumpeter Jaime Breiwick, producer/DJ Ian Carroll, and bassist John Christensen began their first show as KASE with a stop-start approach, patiently threading trumpet melodies and understated rhythms through the chatter of a Saturday-night crowd at the Highbury Pub in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. Over the next hour or so, the improvisational trio built up to more aggressive beats and a more enveloping palette of acoustic and electric sounds. They built on the thumping union of Carroll’s drum samples and Christensen’s upright bass, the eerie flow of Breiwick’s sustained trumpet notes over Carroll’s nimble record-scratching, and a balance of sturdy grooves against the subtlety of ambient music.
Pop Art, released on March 1, captures this real-time evolution. It’s a live recording of KASE’s February 2018 debut gig at the Highbury, where the group went on to have a monthly residency until the pandemic began. All of the group’s performances so far have been fully improvised. (“The only [planning] we ever do live is, like, ‘Jamie, do you want to start this?’ or ‘Ian, do you want to start this?” Christensen says.) On Pop Art, the experiment quickly takes on a remarkable fluidity. While exploring the decades-long affinity between jazz and hip-hop, everyone in KASE stretches into territory that sounds like neither.
“As we’ve progressed as a group, I’ve found my role to be more one of creating melodies and textures rather than your typical jazz solo format-structure,” says Breiwick, who is based in Racine. “I do use some effects pedals, and have been developing a language that is specific to that set up, that doesn’t necessarily translate to my standard ‘jazz’ vocabulary. It has been fun and challenging pushing myself outside of those comfort zones.”
Breiwick and Christensen also play together in Lesser Lakes Trio, but that band slowed down a few years ago after drummer Devin Drobka joined Field Report. “We can always play some jazz together, but we have so many other musical interests that we wanted to explore,” Christensen says, and he and Breiwick were eager to keep playing with each other. They reached out to Carroll, who studied under Breiwick in middle-school band. The set recorded for Pop Art was the first time the three actually played together.
Christensen, a longtime fixture in Madison’s jazz community, initially found it daunting to improvise with a DJ—especially one as flexible as Carroll. Under the name knowsthetime (and, years ago, *hitmayng), Carroll has seamlessly combined turntablism, Ableton software, hardware samplers, and at times synthesizers and cassette manipulation. His work in the Madison and Milwaukee music communities has spanned from old-school hip-hop beats to richly layered ambient tracks.
“That was my first concern—is this going to be really dicey? How’s the rhythm really gonna be?” Christensen recalls. “But [Carroll is] just great at it, and he’s able to add these multidimensional levels. He loops the samples once he gets it going, but all that’s done live too, it’s not like just putting on a loop.”
On “Flowstate,” Carroll pulls up a brittle snare sound that cuts neatly in between Christensen’s pumping bass line and Breiwick’s fluttering trumpet leads. Toward the middle of the piece, Carrol begins to scatter in a sequence of glimmering synth notes to give the piece a little more high-end space—eventually pulling those layers back to make way for an almost droning bowed passage from Christensen. On “Genesis,” Carroll arranges the clinks and ticks of various cymbal and hi-hat sounds to create a vast sonic cavern around Breiwick’s slowly winding figures and his own restless turntable work.
The dynamism of Pop Art has less to do with the actual notes and figures each member is playing and more to do with the different ways the players find of blending their sounds together and carving out sonic space. No one in KASE is trying to overload the listener with harmonic or rhythmic information. More often, they’re reaching for ways to rearrange the music as they’re making it up. Breiwick’s trumpet can shift from playing a lead role to oozing behind the drums. Carroll can get a crowd moving with massive kick-drum pulses or hang back and send woozy synth chords drifting out through a mist of reverb. Christensen relishes the opportunity in this band to provide a rumbling, woody anchor, but some of his finest work here is with a bow or up in the instrument’s higher registers.
“I think over the course of the [three] years we’ve been together, we’ve gotten both more experimental and more lean,” Breiwick says. “Less wanking from me, certainly.”
The album’s closing track, “Abstract Truth,” plunges right into a mix of ambient music and avant-jazz improvisation. The first three and a half minutes are almost uncomfortably quiet, then the action picks up as Carroll’s drum samples begin nudging up against Christensen’s prickly bass solo. Throughout all this—and most of the rest of the album—you’ll hear plenty of crowd noise seeping through. Rather than trying to minimize it, KASE allows these sounds to mesh with the music. Some music does carry well in a distracted, chatty setting, after all. Christensen likes playing to a mix of people who are there to actually see the band, those who aren’t, and those who get drawn in despite themselves. At the band’s home venue, people are more likely to show up to watch a soccer match than to see live jazz.
“Things can be a little too precious, especially in the jazz world, and ‘We must have a full listening audience’ and ‘Why aren’t they listening to me and why aren’t they participating?'” Christensen says. “Something about how this project was set up at the Highbury, which is a soccer bar, and just can get kind of rowdy and weird, and some moments you have the full audience and other moments, it’s all over the place.”
Given its commitment to improvisation, KASE has evolved since its first night, and the core trio wants to embrace a range of different collaborators from one performance to the next, in order to showcase the Midwest’s wealth of compelling jazz musicians, MCs, and spoken-word artists. Another KASE release, Alive (recorded about a year after Pop Art, but released a couple months earlier), features Madison-based saxophonist Tony Barba, rapper CRASHprez (a graduate of UW-Madison’s First Wave Program and former Tone Madison contributor), and pianist Scott Currier.
Carroll recently moved from Madison to Philadelphia to complete his PhD in clinical psychology, though he has stayed involved in KASE, mastering Pop Art from his new home. Breiwick and Christensen have recruited Jordan Lee, of Milwaukee hip-hop group Rusty Pelicans (more recently known as Rusty P’s), to serve as KASE’s DJ in the meantime. They’re looking forward to booking shows in both Madison and Milwaukee once there’s a clearer picture for post-pandemic live music, and they hope to keep on stretching the project’s boundaries.
“We want to have rappers, we want to have beat poets, we want to have keyboardists… we want it to be almost like a collective,” Christensen says. “Maybe two DJs, cats and dogs, fire trucks.”