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Todd Sickafoose’s Bear Daydreams

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    Posted: 08 Dec 2023 at 4:57am

Todd Sickafoose is at his parents’ place in the San Francisco Bay Area. He just returned from camping — fitting, considering the title of his latest release, Bear Proof (Secret Hatch), the long-awaited follow-up to his 2008 album Tiny Resistors (Cryptogramophone), the collaborative-compositional tour de force that redefined possibilities for mid-sized jazz chamber groups.

“People have asked, ‘Why so long?’” Sickafoose says, regarding the 15-year gap between albums. “I don’t have a great answer, except that life is full of other things for me … not just other music but also life, and family and moving.” He relocated back to the West Coast from Brooklyn in 2010, ultimately landing in Eugene, Oregon, when his wife accepted a faculty position at the University of Oregon in 2014. One of his “other music” projects happened to earn him both a Tony (2019) and Grammy (2020) as the orchestrator for the hit musical Hadestown.

Not to mention his main gig as bassist for singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who first heard Sickafoose in 2003 in the opening act for one of her tours, and after recording with him, invited him to tour with her as a duo.

Sickafoose maintains a distinctive identity as a composer-arranger across the spectrum of style and genre. He favors a group of seven to eight players: a tiny orchestra, layered yet nimble. “That seventh or eighth person just explodes the number of combinations, of duos and trios. … You just scratch the surface of that with an hour’s worth of music.”

His orchestrations sound nothing like the music-school arranging templates propagated within the music/television/film industry. That’s not uncommon for those who studied music, as he did at California Institute of the Arts. And while CalArts Animation is a hive for the worker bees of Disney and Pixar, its music department is steadfast in having its students create a decidedly artistic rather than commercial product. Sickafoose plans to do a clinic there when he brings Bear Proof to Los Angeles for the Angel City Jazz Festival. “I was thinking this is good timing, because this is the most CalArts thing I’ve ever done,” he muses.

He ruminated on Bear Proof for a year; dreaming and journaling, before attempting to notate it. “I like the idea of being able to daydream about something for a while,” he says. “John Luther Adams [another composer and CalArts alum] talks a lot about how an idea can feel more … free, when it’s just a loose idea, and the moment you try to speak of the idea it becomes a bit shackled by language, the baggage of the particular words that you choose. Sometimes music can be like that, too. … You start having these ‘fast ideas,’ the kind of ideas that we use when we’re playing and improvising, instead of the ‘slow ideas’ which are more outside of those bounds. Adams talks about trying to keep music that he’s working on in his imagination for as long as possible before writing anything down. I don’t know if I’m any good at it, but I tried to do that a little bit with this.”

Sickafoose imagined a folk-chamber ensemble performing a suite of pieces continuously for over an hour. The band, with violinist Jenny Scheinman, guitarist Adam Levy, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, Rob Reich on accordion, pianist Erik Deutsch, Alison Miller on drums and the composer on bass, rehearsed for a few days before a mini-tour in California, playing the piece quite a few times before going into the studio and recording it exactly the same way: live, no stops, no overdubs — like a one-act theater production.

“You get that energy of being a couple of minutes, or 20 minutes or 40 minutes into something so you’re deep into it, listening in a different way than we sometimes are in the studio,” says Sickafoose. “There’s a violin solo that Jenny plays … I feel like she gets to a place that I’ve heard her get to 100 times, standing next to her on a stage — this kind of swirling thing that she can do — and it’s very hard to capture that on a recording, but because we were playing for a long time … we got there. I feel really proud of having helped to do that.”

Scheinman is one of Sickafoose’s longest working collaborators. They started playing together in San Francisco in the late ’90s and early 2000s, both ending up in New York after that, extending their circle to envelop the other artists who play on Bear Proof. Alison Miller joined DiFranco’s band in 2005, as would Scheinman, inevitably. They all found themselves in Miller’s group Boom Tic Boom, along with Goldberg and Knuffke, who played together for the first time in 2014 — with Bear Proof, making this release and tour in 2023 the opening of a time capsule (or bear cannister).

“I feel so excited by the things I’ve learned from … [all] these people who I’m actually making this stuff with — they’re my biggest influences,” says Sickafoose. “People use the term ‘code switching’ — you can kind of code switch as a musician when you find yourself in different realms, but it’s more the way you’re thinking and talking about the music, because a lot of times the actual playing of the music and the experiencing of the music is unified.

“That’s how I feel about all these things for me. Playing with Ani DiFranco, working on HadestownBear Proof, they all feel unified to me in an aesthetic sense of actually doing the work. The only difference is interfacing with other people; you speak a slightly different language about how you’re working on it.” DB

from https://downbeat.com
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