It's always fun to engage with Bonzo Terks' Danny Van Duerm. He uses carefully chosen words to explain his craft -- he is precise and pays attention to detail, yet overcome with an undeniable passion.
That's the way the music of Quartet, the group's latest album, feels too. In an age where the term "jazz record" evokes an image of old vinyls collecting dust, Bonzo Terks refuses to stagnate. They have created an album held together with all the passion and intensity that went into creating it -- a loving look back and tip-of-the-hat to their jazz heroes, but with every intention of striking something new. Not surprising given its members have dipped their toes in a smattering of projects (including this epic Dead jam) before returning to Bonzo as their musical home.
It is jazz with a startling youthful energy but make no mistake, the sound is grown-up, sophisticated, even challenging. The entire album is a testament to the art of the possible with today's technology -- with a feel that alternates between smoldering and cheerful, the end result belies the do-it-yourself aesthetic that I found out was a central force in its formation.
Here's what Danny had to say in a conversation with The Barn on the conception and recording of the new album. Bonzo Terks play a record release party this Saturday at Jerry's Sandwiches in Wicker Park.
Is this the group's first album?
This is the groups first album. Well... first "real" album. We recorded an EP of sorts back in 2010 in the attic of my old apartment in Pilsen. That was one take tracked into 7 segments and 90% improvised -- track 7 would later become a tune called "So Many Miles". We were still a trio at the time and this was kind of our mission statement so to speak. We put it out digitally for free on our bandcamp under the name At Tic's. Since then we've grown to be a quartet, developed our sound much further and composed over 3 dozen original songs.
What motivated you to cut this record now?
What motivated us to produce a record at this moment was that our rate of growth has been exponential, creatively speaking. Only one song from our days as a trio will be on the record and that's strictly because it's a "classic." The record will feature 9 other songs that are relatively new for us.
Is this an extension of your live sound or did it take you in a new direction?
We wanted to get out of our comfort zone by playing songs that haven't had a lot of time to flesh out live. Most bands will write tunes and play them live a lot and fine tune it that way. We took our new songs and workshopped them very minimally. We then took them to the studio and hammered them out. That said, some of our songs take on a very "studio version" vibe -- that is to say they are shorter and to the point.
Was there are certain feel or theme that you were trying to capture?
Thematically, I'm not really sure if there is one for the record. All the songs sans an older were all pretty fresh. So maybe the theme is 'freshness'? What I can tell you is that this record embellishes our ability to play many different styles but never loses sight of our obsession (or maybe just my own) with jazz. We understand that this day and age people don't necessarily want to be challenged by the music they listen to. That's not to say that some of our tunes aren't straight forward. We play this music because we believe in it. And we're still going to be pushing jazz onto people who come to see us play.
Coming back to the "studio version" idea I touched on, this record is to a degree an extension of our live sound. I say this because it was all recorded with us in the same room at the same time. Much like how old jazz records were made. We're going for a very organic sound. No overdubs, no fancy effects. Where it is not an extension of our live sound is in the approach we took in playing the selected pieces. These were all too the point, with maybe one exception.
Where was it recorded?
This record was recorded in various two studios in Chicago and then later in Dan Clark's parents' living room. We had help recording it in the studios, but the living room session was engineered by myself. All mixing, mastering, and production of this record was done by myself.
Much of the record was mixed at my work. I park cars in the south loop and have the L train running every 5-10 minutes directly over my head. I then fine tuned and mastered everything on real studio monitors at my apartment. A very DIY approach in every sense.
Any tune that you are particularly proud of?
We're proud of all our material. It was a huge blast to work with a 7 ft grand piano in one of the professional studios on a tune I wrote for Cannonball Adderly appropriately titled "Cannon". We worked with the grand piano on a few other tunes including a ballad and a tune called "Song For Paradise" that didn't end up making it on the record. We chose the electric versions because they sounded better to us.
Any other tunes not make the cut?
There were two songs that were so new that we really hadn't totally figured them out yet. "Bud Abbott" was a song our drummer Dan Clark had a rhythm in mind for that was really complex. A lot going on in the 'A' section and at a fast pace too and that's just the drums! The coda was something that had happened in rehearsal that I started implying and miraculously remembered. The other tune "River Monster" (Luc Parcell) was something we toiled over for a while on the day of a recording session. We found something that worked and it ended up sounding really great so we just rolled with it.
It was also very refreshing to see how one of our signature tunes that we've been playing since the beginning ("Kid Bongos") has really stood the test of time. It is the only early song that will be on the record. There are a bunch of other great songs that we aren't putting on the record. Simply because we haven't gotten around to getting good studio takes of them. Those will have to wait, or maybe they'll never come out on record. Who knows?
As we press on, sometimes we temporarily forget about older songs and come back to them with better, fresh ideas and rearrange them.
How did the improvisational nature of the band play into making a record?
Live shows rely heavily on creative improvising. We're comfortable playing with each other and our live show is proof of that. We have passages in our compositions where it's completely free -- maybe a tag line and a specific amount of bars to play before said tag line. We rely on a lot of visual cues from one another for moving on to the next segment of a tune. "Soda Jerk" is like that. We wanted to have a more focused and tight representation to our sound this time around to embody the "studio" aesthetic, but we did also catch many moments of unedited improvising on this record, too.