Debut of the KW Big Band

Debut of the KW Big Band

by Michael J. West

On February 25, D.C. jazz fans got a rare treat at Georgetown’s Blues Alley: the debut of a brand new big band. The KW big band features 18 musicians, who collectively perform the compositions and arrangements of guitarist Michael Kramer and pianist Tim Whalen, who also lead the band and provide the titular initials. 

The music they played on their first gig was complex stuff. Tunes were long, labyrinthine, and sometimes unwieldy, with multiple sections and phrasings that were audibly technically challenging. They used odd meters, too: Whalen’s pretty “Long Walk,” probably the centerpiece of the evening’s first set, and Kramer’s subsequent, bass-driven “Identity Politics” were in mind-boggling 13/4 and 9/4 times. Or they would have been mind-boggling—if the material hadn’t been so alluring, the ensemble so polished, the rhythm so smooth and swinging. 

That, say Kramer and Whalen, is really the point of what they do. “Even if it’s super complicated, it still needs to feel good,” Whalen explains, sitting next to Kramer at a lunch date in Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood. “I’m sure you’ve heard a lot where the rhythm gets to be more like a math project. So it’s important to us to find that overarching flow, and to do it very musically.”

“When we were rehearsing ‘Long Walk,’ Tim told the guys, ‘Don’t count! Don’t count!’” Kramer recalls. “’Don’t think it, just feel the groove, Just remember what it sounds like.’” That’s how I feel about it, too.”
Traditionally, big bands fall into two camps. Some are repertory bands, designed to put new life into existing large-ensemble arrangements. The others are outlets for new work by ambitious composers. KW falls into the latter camp: a vehicle that allows Kramer and Whalen to hear and to workshop their own writing. “It’s a playground to keep improving,” Whalen says.

Both composer-bandleaders are veterans of D.C.’s extension of the U.S. Army band. (Most of KW’s members are military musicians: There were a lot of regulation haircuts on Blues Alley’s stage.) Kramer is a member of its jazz ensemble, the U.S. Army Blues; Whalen is part of the rock combo, Downrange, and sometimes substitutes in the Blues, where the two got to know each other. Each wrote for the band, and each recognized and appreciated the other’s writing ability. In 2016 they put on a joint recital of their music at the Army Band’s theater facility.

“We both decided that we wanted to continue that experience,” says Kramer.

One of their most important realizations was that they had complementary composing styles. Whalen liked funky grooves and intricate section parts; Kramer wrote in a more cinematic, unfolding-melody style. Both had a passion for linear, nonrepetitive compositions that (in the guitarist’s words) “totally explode the song form.” It gave their music variety and range, but also a through-line that lent a common identity to both composer’s music. 

When it came to putting the band together, they leaned toward the musicians they’d worked with most frequently—which meant military musicians. “It’s people we know and are comfortable with,” Whalen explains. “We can call these people, they’re gonna be prepared, they’re gonna look at the music, they’re gonna be on time. I work with people on the outside all the time, but when it comes to having a huge group—herding 18 people is not easy! You want to have that group of people that you really understand.”

That influenced their writing as well. Apart from employing celebrated soloists like saxophonist Tedd Baker and trumpeter Graham Breedlove, they carefully considered the players of written parts. “When you have someone like Steve Fidyk in the band, or Joseph Henson, you don’t write a second alto part, or a drum part. You’re writing for a part for Joseph, or for Steve.”
Even after assembling a reliable group of musicians, though, it took a while to get everything together. Eighteen-piece orchestrations didn’t happen overnight, for one thing; for another, each of the members is a busy professional musician, and long-range planning was necessary to find a time when everyone was available. Even when the gig was booked, there wasn’t much time to prepare: KW had exactly one rehearsal for their Blues Alley debut, and it was on the afternoon of the show.

“It was the gig that established the group,” Whalen says.

There will not be a heavy schedule of such gigs, though. “We’d like to play, I’d say two or three times a year,” says the pianist. “I would rather play less gigs and try to make a bigger deal out of each one than just be playing constantly.”

“You can oversaturate,” Kramer adds. “This scene is a very vibrant scene, but even if Pat Metheny were to come and play at the Hamilton every week, he wouldn’t sell that out every single week, so how can Tim and I do that? Pat Metheny or Scofield comes to the Hamilton once a year, say for the DC Jazz Fest, and it’s packed. So we’re looking to have that kind of model, where we can fill a room full of people with this music. We can have new material every time out if we do that, too.”

Not that the already-prepared material will just be discarded now that it’s been played. “The next step is that we’re gonna record all this music,” says Whalen. The duo had originally intended their premiere to be a rehearsal for a recording session; that didn’t pan out, but they plan to launch a crowdfunding program and lay down their 14 current pieces in Whalen’s home studio.

In the meantime, though, they are excited and encouraged by the reception that the band got at Blues Alley. “This has never happened before,” says Kramer. “There were two or three instances where the audience actually clapped, not after a solo, but after an ensemble section. That’s what our band is about.”

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a freelance writer, editor, and jazz journalist who has been covering the Washington, D.C. jazz scene since 2009. He spends most days either hunkered down in the clubs or in his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.

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Ben Tufts: Drummer and Altruist

Ben Tufts: Drummer and Altruist

by Kimberly Shires

Ben Tufts is one of Washington, D.C.’s most prolific drummers, having worked with hundreds of artists. Ben’s versatility and easy nature has made him one of the go-to people for both studio work and live performances. Ben has performed a diverse range of styles including, but not limited to punk, rock, funk, top-40, metal, and Latin.

Alchemical Records met up with Ben at the Lost Dog Cafe, where he used to volunteer to spend time with with dogs waiting for adoption. Ben’s altruistic nature is not limited to dogs. Ben hosts an annual concert where all proceeds support the Craig Tufts Educational Scholarship Fund.

On April 6th, Ben Tufts & Friends will host their fifth annual tribute show. This year’s concert will be hosted at Gypsy Sally’s and will start at 8:30 PM. The show is a tribute to some of the great artists of 1969, such as Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez. Local artists will perform, including Kristie diLascio, Aztec Sun, Bobby Thompson, Holly Montgomery, and Hayley Fahey. The show will be sponsored by 7DrumCity in Washington, D.C. Proceeds from the show will be donated to the Craig Tufts Educational Scholarship Fund. For more information and to purchase tickets, click <a href=”http://www.gypsysallys.com/event/1833587-ben-tufts-friends-present-washington/”>here</a>.

The Craig Tufts Educational Scholarship Fund was set up in honor of Ben’s father, who passed away ten years ago after losing his battle with brain cancer. Craig Tufts, Chief Naturalist of the National Wildlife Federation, communicated his wish to establish the fund. Ben recounted a sentiment that he learned from his father’s by saying “if you want the ideas and the concepts that you hold dear…to outlive you, you’ve got to pass them on to somebody.” The Scholarship Fund sends one child each summer to participate in an outdoor education and adventure camp connected with the National Wildlife Federation. The 2017 winner, 10-year-old Melani Sleder, recorded 319 bird species, initiated a library program for young bird lovers, and became a certified nest-watcher. For more information about the Fund, visit: <a href=”www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Education-Programs/Craig-Tufts-Educational-Scholarship>www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Education-Programs/Craig-Tufts-Educational-Scholarship</a>.

Last year, at least 50 musicians donated their time for the two-night event. Ben said it is important to feature diversity, and he is committed to booking female artists on half of the bill. Ben keeps a spreadsheet of artists he books for local venues to ensure that he strikes a gender balance and includes artists of color as well as LGBTQ artists. Ben loves that artistry connects people, narrows gaps, and strengthens community through the inclusion of all sorts of people. Ben said that, statistically speaking, female drummers do not start many bands, despite being just as skilled as the rest of the drumming community. Ben says, “It’s crushing that my female students haven’t seemed driven to start bands like my male students have.”

Ben identifies strongly as a teacher, and he has drumming studios at both 7DrumCity in Washington, D.C. and the Contemporary Music Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Ben credits his father with his love of teaching, reflecting that “when you see somebody get excited about something, it makes you ask yourself if you should be excited about it too.” Ben remembers his father would suddenly stop and say “look and listen” with the an expression of sheer joy on his face, one that he kept throughout his life.

Reminiscing on his days growing up on a farm, Ben laughed, “My friends were records.” His childhood record collection and his curiosity led to a wide range of tastes including rock, R&B, pop, jazz, and beyond. His diverse interests pushed him to build a wide portfolio of drumming styles. Ben reflected, “All I ever did was listen to music, so I got drawn to stories. A good song is a good story, and the genre doesn’t matter.” Genres typically originate from a region. Ben added, “It’s hard to express yourself effectively in any genre without understanding at least some of its traditions.”

Ben was first influenced by his parents record collection and self-identified as a rock-and-roll kid. He was obsessed with the Beatles and the first couple of Led Zeppelin records. Ben laughed, “I was a little snob and didn’t like anything contemporary in the 1980s until Nirvana came out…. It was hard for me to get really excited about music where I couldn’t hear somebody’s hands working or hear the air in the room.” The first record to really grab his attention in the 1990s however was Fishbone’s <i>Reality of My Surroundings</i>. An interest in stories told by women led to a love of Tori Amos, Veruca Salt, and Ani DiFranco. While in college, Ben tenaciously mined through old school jazz, R&B, and soul. “I don’t know what it was…but I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Ben does not half-heartedly listen to music, and he admits that he can obsessively listen to the same artist over and over. He noted, “when you listen to an album 1,000 times, it is part of you.” Some of his recent highlights have been Elvis Costello, the Police, Hiatus Kaiyote, Anais Mitchell and D’Angelo. At one point, Ben actually had to ask a friend to borrow his old D’Angelo album, just to take it out of his hands. In Ben’s words, “It was like a disease.”

Despite being the accomplished drummer he is today, Ben didn’t set out to be a drummer. As a kid, Ben drew stick figures of himself performing in a band, but oddly enough he never drew himself as the drummer. Ben started playing when he joined his junior high school band program. He decided that the drums were far more rockstar than the clarinet. Ben resolved, “I didn’t start playing music so that I could play the drums. I started playing the drums so that I could play music.”

Ben is currently the drummer for three local bands, Fuzzqueen, Uptown Boys Choir, and Virginia Creep and works for hire with dozens of other acts and singer-songwriters. Ben considers each band to be his family, which is “sacred in the most secular interpretation possible.” Ben expressed that all musical interactions are based on relationships, and he honors the relationships he has established locally. Ben has had opportunities to tour with national bands, but has almost always declined because he didn’t want to cancel the dozens of local shows he had already booked. Ben believes it is better to keep your promises to his local relationships than to gamble on a prospect on the other side of the country.

Ben is currently rehearsing with three or four bands right now that he has never played out with live. He also might be composing the music for a podcast which will require him to flex his composition muscles, and to learn how to be a recording engineer, which is very exciting for him.

Ben is proud to be a drummer and a teacher, and he has a sense of humbled pride in everything he has been able to accomplish so far. Ben is most proud of the work he has done with other artists when he really “believes in the music,” a sentiment that guides him in many of his artistic pursuits.

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Kimberly Shires

Kimberly Shires is a native of the DC Metropolitan area. Kimberly is a freelance writer, music degree holder, road bike warrior, songwriter, corporate ladder climber, and a Subaru driving nature enthusiast.

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