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Clip: Keefe Jackson/Touch & Go online

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  • Carl Z.
    The Big Pond Back in Arkansas, Keefe Jackson could pay the bills playing other people s music
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 3, 2006

      The Big Pond

      Back in Arkansas, Keefe Jackson could pay the bills playing other
      people's music -- but to play his own, he had to come here.

      By Peter Margasak
      November 3, 2006

      By touring together or appearing on one another's recordings,
      important artists like Ken Vandermark, Rob Mazurek, and Tortoise have
      helped establish Chicago's reputation as a friendly musical community
      unconstrained by stylistic orthodoxies -- and that reputation has
      proved irresistible to many up-and-coming jazz players in the last
      decade. But when reedist Keefe Jackson moved to Chicago in 2001 from
      Arkansas, he wasn't thinking about all that. "I was familiar with the
      history of music that had happened here, but I didn't really know what
      was currently taking place," he says. "I had heard a couple of
      Vandermark records, but for me it wasn't about coming here because of
      what was happening. I just assumed there were lots of opportunities
      and musicians."

      He assumed correctly, of course, and within a few months Jackson, now
      29, had fallen in with the loose group of younger players who gig
      regularly at the Hungry Brain. Now his tenor saxophone figures
      prominently in several strong ensembles, from the Chicago Luzern
      Exchange to the Lucky 7s -- and late last month at the Hideout, after
      more than five years of collaborations and sideman work, he released
      his first album as a bandleader. The nuanced postbop on the superb
      Ready Everyday (Delmark), by Jackson's sextet Fast Citizens, is a far
      cry from the in-your-face free jazz that made the 90s Chicago scene
      famous, but the tunes still give the players lots of leeway to
      reimagine the direction and complexion of their lively contrapuntal

      Jackson started playing cello by the Suzuki method at age three, and
      his parents started taking him to concerts as soon as they could; by
      the time his cello teacher moved away, he'd already developed a
      fascination with jazz, particularly the saxophone. He wouldn't get his
      first horn till he was ten, but within five years he was jobbing in a
      jazz band. (He notes that Bill Clinton, while attorney general of
      Arkansas, pushed through laws letting underage musicians play in

      After a year at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, in 1996
      Jackson decided to follow that band to Portland, Maine, when the
      bassist leading the group uprooted it to move closer to his kid. "I
      wanted to gain a lot of experience in a broad kind of way," Jackson
      says. Soon he was in several groups, playing not just jazz but rock,
      funk, and especially klezmer.

      Jackson would return to Fayetteville before long, though, to look
      after his mother, who died of thyroid cancer in 1998. The local
      economy was more robust -- Wal-Mart, which has its corporate
      headquarters in nearby Bentonville, was enjoying a string of
      particularly good years, and a slew of new restaurants and cafes had
      opened. Jackson found gigs playing mainstream jazz almost every night
      and for the first time was able to support himself as a musician.
      Still, he made repeated visits to New York and Chicago, looking for a
      more adventurous scene. "In order to make a name for yourself you have
      to live in a big city, for jazz anyway," he says. In Chicago he saw
      concerts at clubs like the Velvet Lounge, the New Apartment Lounge,
      and the Empty Bottle, and the atmosphere and audiences appealed to
      him. Soon he forgot about going to New York. "Chicago felt like it
      wasn't as expensive," he says, "and it was more friendly and open."

      After establishing relationships with local players over the course of
      a couple years, he started presenting his own music, most notably with
      a large band he called Keefe Jackson's Project Project. In 2005 he
      made his first appearance on disc: Several Lights (Delmark), the
      excellent debut by the Chicago Luzern Exchange, also featured
      cornetist Josh Berman, drummer Frank Rosaly, and Swiss tubaist Marc
      Unternahrer. The album paved the way for tours of the U.S. and Europe,
      Jackson's first as anything but a sideman. Since then he's put out
      records with the Lucky 7s -- formed by players from Chicago and New
      Orleans shortly after Katrina -- and with the 774th Street Quartet, an
      all-saxophone group that includes Guillermo Gregorio, former Chicagoan
      Aram Shelton, and Swiss bass saxist Thomas Mejer. Jackson also has
      high hopes for Fast Citizens -- Berman, Rosaly, Shelton, bassist Anton
      Hatwich, and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm -- though the members' busy
      schedules (and Shelton's move to the Bay Area) make it hard for them
      to get together regularly.

      Jackson has to work a part-time job to get by in Chicago, despite
      playing in half a dozen regular bands, but he's not disappointed. "I'm
      definitely surprised and happy to have the kind of musical
      relationships that I have," he says. "In this kind of music there's
      really not any 'making it.' You might still be waiting tables and
      playing the gigs you like to play with people you like, putting out a
      couple of records and doing some tours. . . . That's making it."

      Keefe Jackson's Project Project plays the Hungry Brain on November 26.

      Another Way to Skin That Cat

      Last week I wrote about the digital-download service developed by
      Bettina Richards at Thrill Jockey, but she's hardly the only person in
      Chicago working on new models to help indies compete online. In early
      2005 Justin Sinkovich, the former leader of Atombombpocketknife,
      launched a digital-distribution service for Touch and Go Records that
      spares its distributed imprints the difficulty of dealing with vendors
      like iTunes and eMusic. Rather than sell their music directly, Touch
      and Go uses its pull to get it into big online stores.

      Sinkovich has long been an advocate for digital distribution: in 1999
      he cofounded the download service Epitonic and in 2003 helped start
      the still-viable BetterPropaganda. He says that as a distributor Touch
      and Go approaches downloads much like physical product, picking and
      choosing among labels to keep the operation at a manageable size. In
      addition to Touch and Go releases, Sinkovich handles music from Jade
      Tree, Overcoat, Voodoo-Eros, Suicide Squeeze, Sounds Are Active,
      Estrus, Asthmatic Kitty, In the Fishtank, 2.13.61, and his own label,
      File 13.

      "Many of the labels we digitally distribute are labels that we were
      already physically distributing," he says. "However, there are a
      couple of labels that we are friends with that needed help with their
      digital distribution, so we started working with them."

      Touch and Go takes a small cut of the proceeds from its vendors --
      Sinkovich says he's not at liberty to reveal how much -- but
      presumably it's a fair trade-off for the distributed labels, which
      need extra leverage when they're forced to compete with majors for
      visibility and placement. "Many digital retailers are not willing to
      work directly with smaller independent labels, so many indie labels
      have to be part of a bigger group just to get into these digital
      stores," says Sinkovich. Touch and Go lowers barriers to entry in
      other ways too. "There's a lot of information that has to be attached
      to each track -- like the identifying ISRC number, what countries it
      can be sold in, publishing information, et cetera. Indie labels are
      usually really overworked as it is, so they don't have the time to
      figure all these new requirements out. We have more resources and
      systems built to manage all this data, the audio, and the artwork for
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