James Falzone is not sitting back contentedly watching his star ascend. “One can only do what one wants to do and see what rises,” he suggests. As an accomplished performer, composer, improviser, and educator, Falzone pursues a musical vision rooted in the middle ground between the fully notated world of conservatory-trained musicians and the improvisation-based energy of jazz and creative music. It is a territory he explores with an omnivorous appetite for musical influences and aesthetic directions, whether leading his quartet KLANG through a set of contemporary jazz compositions at a late night haunt, directing liturgical music with the Grace Chicago Consort, or composing for orchestra.
“I’ve always been intrigued by a wide variety of musics. And I’m emotionally connected to them as well,” Falzone explains. “Not just that I find them interesting, but they move me. I’m as moved by John Coltrane as I am by John Luther Adams as I am by John Bon Jovi.”
Falzone’s musical aesthetic centers upon how he filters and embraces his wide-ranging interests. Rather than working within stylistic confines or pre-defined musical genres, he chooses to express his personal connection to the world at large through a concept he calls “Allos Musica”—other music.
“I wanted to start a project […] that could allow me to explore these different ideas,” Falzone says. “The whole Allos project is just a way to put an umbrella over all these different things that I’m interested in so that it wouldn’t just be James Falzone; it wouldn’t just be me playing. It would be everything that is under Allos Musica. My record company that I founded ten years ago now is called Allos Documents and everything just filters through that larger umbrella.”
One of his recent Allos Documents is Other Doors, a creative re-imagining of and tribute to the music of Benny Goodman realized by an expanded version of his KLANG quartet. It is a striking synthesis of the musical spirit of Goodman that looks forward as aggressively as it looks back.
When the Chicago Jazz Festival first tapped Falzone to realize a project celebrating the centennial of Benny Goodman’s birth in 2009, he wasn’t sure they had the right person for the job. “I’m not a nostalgic kind of player. I love Benny Goodman. I love the swing era. What clarinetist wouldn’t? […] It’s when the clarinet was a really popular instrument. But I have no interest in nostalgia.” So Falzone set about researching the life and music of Benny Goodman and found inspiration in the small ensemble works—particularly the trios and quartets of the 1920s and 1930s—and heard plenty of parallels between the Chicago of Goodman’s time and the Chicago of today. “I try and do what I thought Goodman was doing in his day, which was a.) being himself, and b.) allowing his sidemen—his community—to be themselves. Letting personalities intermingle and fight a little bit within the ensemble and so forth.”
His consideration for the players within his ensembles is similar to the consideration he extends toward his listeners as he takes into account the role that his music plays for those who hear it. This is a quality learned through ten years as the music director at Grace Chicago Church.
“There’s something about the weekliness of doing liturgical music. Each Sunday you come back and do this thing and it’s not about you. It’s about serving these people,” Falzone points out, citing composers he respects who have done this type of work such as Messiaen and Bach. “And that’s really a good place for any composer or any musician to be at from time to time. Where you’re not making music for your own interests, you’re making it to serve others. It’s really hard. It also has taught me a great deal about music and about how music functions in culture. I could come up with the coolest arrangement of some old hymn, but the congregation might not be able to sing it, and they’re there on Sunday for lots of different reasons that have nothing to do with me and my musical interests.”
Falzone’s solo clarinet piece, Sighs Too Deep for Words—composed as a structured, hour-long improvisation for clarinet and bells—represents one of his most pure statements as an artist. It is a piece that requires Falzone to enter into a meditative zone for the duration of the performance as he builds an internal dialog between three different “stations,” or performance zones. “Every time I do the piece it’s a whole different experience for me and the audience,” Falzone explains, going on to describe how different audiences can transform the piece. “I just did it a few weeks ago down at Southern Illinois University… it was mostly clarinet players in the audience. So it had a whole different feel, with them interested in how I was getting these sounds and so forth. I did it not long ago at a theological school and it took on a whole different feel. Nobody cared about the music. They were interested in more of the contemplative practice part of it, and the meditative part of it and the prayer part of it. It’s the kind of piece that has a little different manifestation depending on the audience.”
The power of that influence is an element he carries with him from project to project. “When I’m putting out a record or putting pen to paper and making a piece, I think about its effect on the audience – on the listener. It might not make me change a note. I’d still say, ‘This is what I want.’ But it makes me think about it in a way that I might not had I not been involved in this other kind of service music.”
It’s that extra layer of consideration informed by experience that goes into creating music that gives the otherwise widely varied musical expressions of James Falzone its unifying quality. It’s what allows him to distill so many different influences into an aesthetic that is identifiably his own, pushing at the boundaries of what music is and might be.