Jazz writer Pamela Espeland begins a series of features for conversations with local musicians on the nature and practice of improvisation. First up is Adam Linz, a bassist and composer (Fat Kid Wednesdays) and MacPhail's Jazz Coordinator.
January 13, 2010

Photo by John Whiting

BASSIST AND COMPOSER ADAM LINZ is Jazz Coordinator at MacPhail Center for Music. He attended Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park, studied with Peter Olson at MacPhail, and earned his Bachelor of Music degree from William Paterson University in New Jersey. Linz co-leads the group Fat Kid Wednesdays with childhood friends Mike Lewis and JT Bates and plays with numerous groups and bands around the Twin Cities. He also teaches at Augsburg College and the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth (MITY). His latest solo release, A Kiss for Luck (2009), is the first on his new Larusso label.

Pamela Espeland: As an educator, how do you describe improvisation to your students?

Adam Linz: Improvisation is kinda like riding a bike for the first time, or a skateboard. Someone is there holding your hand. You're nervous, and you don't know what is going to happen. As you let go of those feelings, you enjoy it. Pretty soon, you want to do it every day. Sometimes all day. You do it with your friends, you learn new tricks, you become cocky and humble all at the same time. Then someone amazing puts you in your place, and you work at it all over again. You do it so much that you say, hey, I'm gonna do this for the rest of my life.... It defines you, and you shape it to fit your life. It changes with time and, pretty soon, it's just like breathing.

PLE: Especially to someone who's new to this, good improvisation and bad improvisation can sound a lot alike. How can a listener tell the difference?

AL: I really enjoy seeing somebody improvise who's not very good at it, as long as they have an audience behind them that's full of love, whether it's friends and family -- to know they're thinking, "I have no idea what this is, but that's a person I love up there, and I'm here for them."

What separates somebody like [saxophonist and legendary improviser] Evan Parker from some 14-year-old kid playing a solo sax set at the Bean in Uptown? Parker obviously grew up in the European improvisational community. He helped define and develop it. He also has a huge record collection. You can hear that he's an educated listener.

We are all moving toward the same point, which is development and connection and the ability to say, "We don't know what's going to happen up here, but we hope that it's going to feel great. If it feels great to us, we hope it feels great to you."

PLE: When did you first get interested in improvised music?

AL: I used to go to Cheapo in Uptown to buy CDs. A guy named John Morgan used to run that store. All of us -- JT [Bates], Michael [Lewis], [James] Buckley, Tim Glenn, John Davis, and I -- would go to Cheapo, and Morgan would hip us to great stuff. Improv from around the world, but especially the European tradition, which none of us knew about. Half of my collection came from John Morgan.

PLE: When did you start improvising?

AL: As a jazz musician in high school, playing with Michael [Lewis] and JT [Bates] and my teachers. Then I went to a very strict bebop college, William Paterson University. There were a lot of misfits there. We all started thinking we could play free-we could have sketches of music instead of charts.

When I moved back to the Twin Cities, we developed the scene at the Clown Lounge, and improvisation was a huge part of it. But Fat Kids and some of the other groups I play with still love to play traditional stuff. We're still turned on by all aspects of jazz, whether it's Louis Armstrong and Ella [Fitzgerald] or the new Tim Berne record or somebody from Japan playing a piece of wood with nails on it and rubber bands.

PLE: What goes on in your head when you're improvising?

AL: When I play with JT and Mike, I think about the past. I think about our friendship. We've been a band for 17 years. I think about the song, the background on the song, the background on the person who wrote the song.

Before I improvise with anybody, I drill them with questions. Where are you from? What's your family like? Where do you live now? Where have you lived? Where do you want to live? How are things?

PLE: Why does that matter?

I have to know the person I'm playing with before we play a single note. When Evan Parker came here and played with us [Fat Kids] for [the Minnesota] Sur Seine in 2005, I was scared shitless. This is Evan Parker! The guy! He invented modern improvising saxophone! Then we talked to him, and he is the sweetest person on the planet. He put my mind so at ease. I felt when I played with him, I could do anything I wanted to do, and he would react, and I would react, and I could be as silent as I wanted to be. I didn't have to prove anything to him.

PLE: Who have you learned the most from about improvising?

AL: Oddly enough, two classical guys at William Paterson. One was Hugh Aitken, my freshman comp teacher, a monster composer from NY who grew up with [John] Cage, [Anton] Webern, [Alban] Berg and Elliott Carter, and studied with Nadia Boulanger. The other was Ray Des Roches, who was head of the classical percussion department and was on every one of those Nonesuch modern contemporary classical records from the late 1960s and early 70s.

Hugh [Aitken] was this old crotchety guy. His palette was huge -- it was atonal, it was gorgeous. I went to class one day and he pulled me aside and said, "You know, you jazz guys, you're the same as me, as classical people or pop people. We're all just trying to cadence or not cadence. You either want to finish, or you're trying to avoid finishing."

PLE: I'm not sure I understand that.

AL: How many times have you thought a jazz tune was going to end, and all of a sudden they keep going, or there's a pause, or somebody blows a little? Starting is easy. Somebody starts and then you play, or you all start together and find these little rivers of harmony and melody. Ending is hard. How do you get everybody to end at the same time? Who should end? When should it end? How does the ending feel natural?

PLE: That is a mystery to many people in the audience.

AL: It's a mystery to me. That's the connection. Especially when we're playing freely. It's the connection of someone playing something we all recognize, it's the connection of a vamp at the end, it's the connection of trickling down to one person and letting them in.... In most music, the ending is huge, and then it stops, and that's when people know to clap. But in improvised music, the ending might be ten minutes of silence, or what we call lowercase playing, lots of small noises.

PLE: What improvisers do you like and suggest other people check out?

Peter Kowald was a bass player and monster improviser. He had a great spirit, a great free will.... I really like George Lewis, the trombone player who also teaches computer programming. I like Mat Maneri, violinist. Jen Shyu, vocalist. I'm a sucker for the classic guys -- Dave Burrell on piano, Sunny Murray on drums, Dave Holland on bass, [trumpeter] Kenny Wheeler.... My favorite guys are the ones that walk both lines. They're improvisers, but they can make a record with Charles Lloyd or a record with ECM.

Craig Taborn is huge for me. He's like the second coming of Cecil Taylor. And he's the nicest person. That means a lot to me.

PLE: Charles Mingus once said, "You can't improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something." What's your starting point?

AL: Sometimes my starting point is an interval I heard earlier in the day. Or, the vision of a couple I see walking down the street. Or, the people I'm playing for, the environment.... It's not just one thing. For Mingus it might have been a standard he could play off of and do his own thing. For Ornette [Coleman] it might have been a musical scale.

PLE: What would you say to somebody who's about to listen to improvised music for the first time?

AL: Have a good time -- don't have an agenda as a listener. Chances are, we don't have an agenda as players. But we're trying to invite you into our thing, and we want you to enjoy it. I'm not the type of artist who's like, "If you don't like it, fuck you, what's your problem, what are you, stupid?"

Look around and see what other people are doing. Are they intent on one person, are they focused on a certain instrument? What's your favorite instrument that you see up there? Focus on that. Then let the whole thing in.

In every genre there are quiet little revolutions going on, but the world is too fast, too busy to take notice. And I'm okay with that. We can try really hard, but we have to be happy with what we're able to do and who we're able to connect with in places like the Clown Lounge and the Rogue Buddha. We feel like we're doing things. We're putting things out in the world. We're meeting improvisers from all over. That's all we can do.


Related performances:

You can regularly hear the trio Fat Kid Wednesdays play in the Turf Club's Clown Lounge as part of the venue's "Jazz Implosion" line-up.

Adam Linz's new solo CD, A Kiss for Luck, is available through Larusso Records.


About the author: Pamela Espeland writes about jazz for, blogs about jazz at Bebopified and keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar.

MN Artists