the cheap 3nsemble

On a recent visit to Atlanta’s High Museum, I became overwhelmed while standing in front of a large abstract painting. My mind flooded with middle-aged emotions – melancholy, nostalgia, agitation, frustration, romanticism, and restlessness – and I was sharply aware of my failure to make, and put into the world, music that is truly personal and not the product of trying to satisfy the expectations of other people. I resigned myself to walking my own musical path without concern for either rejection or acceptance - this CD is the first step. I hoped to capture the feelings evoked by the painting and to make music dominated by melodicism and space rather than rhythmic density.

My wife, vocalist Amy Munson, taught me that the pursuit of a right decision is usually clear from obstacles, and this project has been another example of this in my own life. Shortly after the museum trip, I played at a local jam session with saxophonist Chis Otts and immediately enlisted him as a collaborator – bringing into the project his warm and broad tone and compositional talents. Chris is an award-winning performer, composer, and arranger, and received the BMI Future Jazz Masters Scholarship for his debut album Layers.

All inquiries about the right guitar player to complete this group led straight to Patrick Arthur as the ideal choice. In addition to his own group Grüt, Patrick recently appeared on Morgan Guerin’s debut album The Saga (#3 on the iTunes jazz charts).

Before heading into the studio, this new trio performed locally only twice as the “Cheap Ensemble”. The moniker was inspired by Ronnie Scott’s quote “I play very cheaply, but I don’t play free.” This debut CD marks the start of what I hope will be long journey of musical exploration with these two excellent musicians.

The opening track Ithaca was composed by Roberto Somoza as a tribute to guitarist and educator Steve Brown, who first exposed me to improvised music. It is included here to honor both a musical mentor and also the place where I met my wife. While originally composed as a bolero, it is interpreted here to reflect the cold, grey stillness of the long winters over Lake Cayuga. Even without its lyrics inspired by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Poor Butterfly conveys the mixture of longing, desire, regret, and relief that can follow romantic choices. Volkslied is the first of Chris Ott’s two original compositions included here, and retains its lyricism through an evocative acoustic guitar solo and an escalating final section. Offered here as a tribute to Gene Wilder, Pure Imagination attempts to capture both the strange and the sweet from the classic movie. The inclusion of Matrix was inspired by the impossibly hip Roy Haynes who first inspired me to really dig into jazz drumming, and is deconstructed to allow the trio to explore both its “free” and “groove” tendencies and expand its emotional range. Ott’s second original composition, Reflection, again allows the trio to experiment with time and texture. Arthur’s broad guitar orchestration creates the perfect bed on which to place Ott’s rich tenor tone. Arthur’s composition, Front, sustains a sloshy backbeat feel though metric changes and a rare drum solo. Bruce Hornsby’s composition Fortunate Son is included here in extended form to celebrate Williamsburg, Virginia, where we lived for 16 years and where my children were born, and the people we left behind there when we moved to Atlanta.

The ?heap 3nsemble is incredibly grateful to the following individuals whose talents and contributions have enriched this project: Jason Chapman and the amazing recording studio he built with his own hands; legendary engineer James Farber; Roberta Findlay and Owen Mulholland at Sear Sound; Mark Wilder at Battery Mastering Studios; Steve Brown; Roberto Somoza; our families; and finally iconic artist Gerhard Richter – whose work inspired this project and who allowed his painting to be the cover for this CD.

-Dana Fitzsimons (January 15, 2017)