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Maggie Cousin’s music leaps across traditions and textures

The saxophonist leads the “Millennial Jazz” residency on first and fourth Saturdays at Café Coda.

Photos by Isaac Izard.

Variety dominates at the Maggie Cousin Quartet’s “Millennial Jazz” residency, every first and fourth Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Café Coda. Across the gig’s two early-evening sets, the alto saxophonist tends to lead their band through rhythmic feels that range from assured swing to roiling tension and compositions that embrace both congenial melody and free-jazz dissonance, mixing original material with music drawn from a whole assortment of eras and traditions within jazz. These musicians are bold as both composers and interpreters, and seem determined not to let the shows get repetitive.

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For Cousin, an undergrad in UW-Madison’s music school, these shows are a way to develop the elusive qualities that make a given musician’s sound stand out—things that even the most rigorous course of study doesn’t necessarily teach and certainly can’t quantify.

“I think textures are more important than people think about,” Cousin says. “The first thing that people notice, or the most important thing that helps people connect with music, isn’t a melody or a harmony. It’s what the texture is, the sounds that are actually coming together…there’s no way to say, ‘this is a certain type of thing and this is something else,’ but it’s so important to be thinking about. The way to do that is just hearing things and trying to replicate that too, and just making sure that you’re listening, doing that type of homework. I guess that’s really all they can say in an academic institution, is just listen to people and find out what kind of sound you want to build, and just hope you go and do it.” 

The Millennial Jazz residency began last fall after Cousin made an impression on Coda’s owner, saxophonist Hanah Jon Taylor, with their playing at the venue’s improvisation sessions. The name reflects both Coda’s desire to pull in a younger crowd and the fact that it puts Cousin among peers. Recent installments have featured the lineup of Lily Finnegan on drums, Meredith Nesbitt on bass, and Sean Lloyd on guitar. Finnegan and Lloyd also contribute original compositions to the sets, and this particular lineup seems to have a special chemistry, though other musicians have also played in the quartet, including bassist Aden Stier, drummer Jordan Kowalski, and guitarist Anthony Utehs.

The first time I walked into one of the recurring shows this year, Cousin was playing sax and bass clarinet at once. “That was a Joe Henderson tune called ‘Earth’ that Lily brought in originally,” Cousin says. “We just kept playing it because we liked the tune, and over time we shaped it into the arrangement we have…what we were really trying to do, or the reason I had the idea to play them both at the same time, is because in the original there’s a lot of Indian instrumentation, there are drones and stuff going on. I wanted to have a way to fill out the texture of it and to have more stuff going on, rather than just the quartet. There’s just more sound going on there. I found out that I could play the melody on bass clarinet and just hold down a note on the sax.”

The quartet reaches into contemporary jazz too, including a jaunty rendition of trumpeter Jaimie Branch’s “Simple Silver Surfer,” released just last year. It’s a joy to hear the music of younger composers not just mixed in with, but placed into a knowledgeable conversation with, pieces like Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” the opening track of 1959’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come. Cousin, Nesbitt, Finnegan, and Lloyd pull away from the itchy urgency of the recorded version most of us are familiar with, taking an approach that’s more patient and suspenseful.

“We definitely do it a lot slower,” Cousin says. “I love that melody. I think it’s hauntingly beautiful. I’ve just always heard it way slower. I feel like it works so well to just stretch out every note. You can have people hanging on every single note that you play, you can leave big gaps in between the phrases. That’s just always worked for the way I’ve been hearing the melody, the way I’ve been hearing the mood of it. I think there’s a lot of sadness in the melody that comes out in the original as well, but that’s the main thing that I’m trying to lean into.”

The residency is also a fertile workshop for members’ original compositions. These include Finnegan’s “Bluefin” and Cousin’s “Buddy,” “Stingray Hours,” and “I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m Gay,” a tune as splendidly defiant as its title. 

“With ‘Stingray Hours,’ I wanted to do something harmonically that was very crunchy, this kind of dissonance just hitting you in the face,” Cousin says. “The first phrase of that melody is just this big tritone going down…it’s a little bit abstract right away, and then the whole thing kind of came together…With ‘Buddy,’ I just wanted to write a swinging thing. I came up with the melody first and put the chords under it. For ‘I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m Gay,’ Aden Stier, another bass player I play with, just showed me this thing he found on the internet of this old postcard from the ’20s. There’s this cat with a suitcase and it just says, ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m gay,’ and I just liked that a lot, so I’m like, I should write a song like that. As far as the composition of that, I was definitely going for an Ornette kind of thing, with a tune like ‘Law Years,’ or some of the stuff where it’s these groups of phrases that are in time, but not really in time with each other. All the kind of hits and the little slides that are going on in the rhythm section are things that came together when we were playing it, things they decided to do that ended up being a part of the tune the more we played it.”

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Cousin is versatile within jazz, but also moves between different pockets of Madison’s ever-fragmented music community: They produce tracks for rappers, spin dance music sets under the DJ name Maggie Autumn at events like the queer.IRL series, and play sax in projects including the hip-hop outfit D’Funk And The Grease Monkeys and fusion band Maestranza.

Cousin grew up in the Twin Cities and remembers getting their first hip-hop album for Christmas in fifth grade—Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth. “That was the first music that I feel like I was into independently of anyone else, of teachers or parents,” Cousin says. Their recent production work includes EPs for Ish The Alias and January, and Cousin is currently collaborating with Madison MCs Mike Smoov and Reckless Motion on new releases. All this work exposes Cousin to radically different musical approaches and to ideas that challenge their fundamental thinking about music and sound.

“I used to kind of have this idea that developing your sound was about just being in the practice room all day and just kind of shedding until you figure out what it is you want to do. But you’re always going to be bringing in influences from the stuff that you’re checking out and the stuff you’re surrounded with whether you like it or not, so the best way to have a unique sound is just to do that,” Cousin says. “I feel like I know I’m forming a unique sound now, because there’s no one else I’m aware of who’s doing all these things at the same time in the same way.”

“I’m always making connections between different kinds of music. The biggest thing I’ve gotten out of doing dance music is it’s really changed the way I think about time, because the way that you make a really good techno song has nothing to do with harmony or melody—it’s just about where every subtle thing is sitting. If you’re listening to that kind of stuff, you’re going to become more aware of all the different options you have for placing notes and what that feels like, and how you can get different kinds of things together. Reversing that, I feel like playing free jazz helped me get into that kind of stuff. It feels really natural for me to get really into the textures and the mix of something, and the subtle differences between having a plugin on something and not. It’s informed by the choices I might make if I’m playing sax, and choosing to over-blow something or choosing to use a high register or a low register, or if I want to just play overtones and just be way up in the altissimo range of the horn.”

“The other thing that that has really changed in my playing is being more open to just playing one thing and just sitting on it. There’s these [techno] tracks that are great and they’re just eight minutes of these three instruments just kind of pounding away at the same thing, and I get so into that. That’s also a lot like the free-jazz kind of stuff.”

As Cousin continues working on several disparate fronts, expect all those experiences to keep feeding back into their sets at Café Coda. 

“It’s always gonna be a place where we can workshop stuff….we have enough trust in each other’s playing that we can be trying out new stuff on the bandstand and it’ll work,” Cousin says. “It’s an area where I can focus on consolidating my idea of my sound and something that I think has turned into something really unique the more it’s happened. We’re kind of getting more synced up with each other’s playing.”

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