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ISU Combo Bullish On Jazz

Trombonist Mason Riedel laughed when asked how his Illinois State University Jazz Combo acquired its name. He had just been called by Jazz Up Front owner James Gaston about filling in last minute on a Thursday night.

“He asked me if I had a group and I said ‘yes.’ He said ‘what’s the name?’ And we really didn’t have a name,” said Riedel. “So I came up with Chow 4-Piece.”

Stephanie Chow is the group’s guitarist.

“She’s one of our more ‘improvisationally’ gifted members, so I figured why not,” Riedel chuckled. “She was surprised, and her family was sure excited when they heard our name.”

Chow 4-Piece returns to Bloomington’s downtown jazz club April 12. Fellow trombonist Joe Tiemann, a veteran of the lively Tampa, Florida jazz scene was thrilled when he learned a real jazz club was operating in central Illinois.

“It’s a great venue to hang out and practice, jam, and play jazz,” said Tiemann. “It’s also great that Jazz Up Front cares about live music because so many places have just gone to a jukebox. And it’s great people like the way we sound.”

Tiemann moved to the Twin Cities to study jazz at ISU after earning a Master’s degree in classical trombone performance from the University of South Florida. He said ISU Jazz director Tom Marko is helping him adapt to the improvisational nature of jazz.

“But it’s not just play anything you want,” said Tiemann. “Right now Dr. Marko has me doing an awful lot of transcribing and just trying to learn from guys like (legendary trombonists) J.J. (Johnson), Curtis Fuller, Delfeayo Marsalis, and Carl Fontana. I’m just trying to figure out what those guys were doing. You know an old professor once said ‘if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.”

So how do you find your own voice in an improvisational music by transcribing solo’s done decades ago? Tiemann said you take what you already know and adapt it to your sound.

“If you listen across a lot of different albums, a lot of times they (Johnson, Fuller, Marsalis etc) pulled from the same stuff. If you listen to guys like Jim Pugh who teaches over at the University of Illinois, he can play Carl Fontana better than Carl Fontana played,” said Tiemann.

But is he then still Jim Pugh?

“Oh yeah, he puts his own spin on it. And I put my own spin on things too. It’s learning the vocabulary. It’s like a classical musician listening to great classical players to hear how they are phrasing something,” said Tiemann.

Riedel concurred.

“Transcribing other people’s solos in my mind is comparable to using a Bach piano learning piece, like a prelude or something similar. You’re taking a melody someone chose to use and you’re kind of mixing it into your choice of sounds, melodies and patterns,” said Riedel.

Riedell is also a grad student hoping to parlay his studies into teaching at the university level. And despite the seemingly annual pronouncement that jazz is dead, he’s optimistic even beyond the classic big band and combo lineup.

“There’s a lot of jazz fusion and even jazz revitalization right now,” said Riedel.

He said a current trend is brass band music.

“There’s a couple popular bands. Lucky Chops is one that’s coming up. Their arrangement is trumpet, tenor saxophone, baritone sax, trombone, tuba and drum set. There’s another one called No B.S. Brass Band from Richmond, Virginia also making the climb and have become very popular.” Said Riedel.

Tiemann added that newer jazz bands aren’t sticking to the sounds of Tommy Dorsey or Miles Davis, though Davis was a jazz trailblazer his entire life.

“Jazz is evolving just like any other music,” said Tiemann. “I’m excited to see where it goes. There’s definitely a future there, you just have to carve your way to it.”  

All six members of Chow 4-Piece will share the stage in some form beginning at 7:00 p.m. April 12 at Jazz Up Front. In addition to Tiemann, Riedel, and Chow, the combo includes bassist Sam Tedeschi, drummer Steve Bomar, and trumpet player Clinton Linkmeyer.

Listen to the entire interview with Mason Riedel and Joe Tiemann of Chow 4-Piece and GLT's Jon Norton.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.