Sunday, April 29: final day in Seattle before heading back to Philly. I had some errands to run…returned my rental bike, shipped some unsold books back home (that will I will unload via enforced sales to my students this fall.) Fortunately, I would not have to worry about filling my time on this day. The Thrown Ups’ Leighton Beezer invited me to a jam session that afternoon at the home of the Walkabouts’ Carla Torgerson.
As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog (and in the book), Leighton has a very specific approach to his playing. No songs, no practice…entirely improv. He puts together musical ensembles, usually at the last minute, leading to un-charted experimental creative waters. I’ve seen him play a few times, and it never ceases to amaze me. I remember going to a Philly gig last summer featuring a band of his called Empire Vista. Unlike past Leighton shows, however, EV sounded different. They played hooky arrangements with defined vocals—in other words, they played songs. “You thought they were songs?” Leighton later corrected.
I arrived at Carla’s place around 3:30 that afternoon. Even though her home sits fairly close to I-5, it feels like the country, with a long driveway that extends maybe a hundred yards from the street. In addition to Leighton and Carla, this collective would also feature keyboardist (and Walkabout) Glenn Slater, singer John Conte (from the Living) and drummer Scott Schickler (from Swallow, the Thrown Ups, and the Limp Richerds.) After enjoying some lunch, we all headed to Carla’s studio. Her space is something to behold, with a wall of acoustic and electric guitars, as well as a banjo emblazoned with a Sub Pop sticker. (And, if you look hard enough, you’ll see a photo of the Fastbacks’ Kim Warnick with Eddie Vedder.) The studio also includes two keyboards and a spinet piano.
Scott and Glenn sat behind their drum kit and keyboard, respectively. Leighton stood with his guitar next to Glenn, with John seated on the bench in front of the piano. Carla also played a second keyboard, standing near Scott.
The whole improvisational/non-verbal communication thing between musicians fascinates me. Nobody says, “Okay, let’s start with such and such a song in B, then go back to A three times, blah blah blah.” Instead, somebody just starts playing, Scott finds a beat, and the other players settle into a groove.
Since no one manned a bass, Glenn provided the low end parts. John would add some soulful improvised vocals, not constantly, just when he felt the urge. Each “song” lasted maybe 10 minutes or so, ebbing or flowing depending on what everyone felt at the moment. At one break, Leighton mentioned how the musicians “talked” to each other through notes, or riffs…someone might hear what another player is doing and then “answer” him or her with a note combination of his/her own. Then, the original player would hear that, and then would respond with something else. The musicians listened to themselves and each other at the same time. For a bad guitar player like myself, I find the experience beautiful and mystical.
I found myself watching Scott most of the time, as he either responded or drove the band with his steady, precise drumming. He also managed to take several swigs of beer without missing a beat. He’d lay one stick down, pick up his beer and drink, while hitting the snare and cymbal with his free hand and bass drum with his foot. Later, after I told Scott how impressed I was with that, he mentioned how back in the day, drumming prodigy Greg Gilmore (Living, 10 Minute Warning, Mother Love Bone) would actually light a cigarette during gigs. He would literally pick up a pack, pull out a cigarette, and ignite it without losing his place.
For the last piece, Carla switched to acoustic guitar. At one point, she started playing a riff that began in B-Flat, I think, then would venture out and circle back to the original chord. Leighton played his own thing, but would meet Carla back at that B-Flat each time. Glenn then added a bass fill, and magic happened.
As the session ended, I was a little sad, but mostly it felt like the perfect way to end this trip. I headed back home, knowing I would see my friends again soon enough.