Catching Up With Bassist Chris Dahlgren


When I first saw jazz bassist Chris Dahlgren perform both of us were living in Cincinnati. He was clearly quite versatile, working in numerous settings and in different genres, although I always thought of him as a jazz musician first and foremost.  I saw Chris perform several times back then and heard about many of the projects mentioned in this interview, but until he listed some of them in his email responses to these questions it never really struck me how much of an impact he had on the music and overall artistic scene while he lived in Cincinnati.

Not surprisingly, he moved on, first to NYC and now Berlin. Since Chris left I’d occasionally hear about projects that he was involved with; for example, I knew he was working with Gebhard Ullmann and Anthony Braxton. When I ran across the CD Mystic Maze by Chris Dahlgren & Lexicon in a record store, however, I had no idea what it would sound like—and now that I’ve heard this strikingly original work, I’m not sure that knowing his entire oeuvre prior to that release would have prepared me for Mystic Maze. With a quintet that includes saxophonist and bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann, Dahlgren (while playing the bass) recites some highly vitriolic criticism directed at Bela Bartok when he was considered by many people as the enfant terrible of classical music. Spoken word recitations + jazz can be a dry affair, but Mystic Maze is actually quite entertaining; it’s odd how funny it is at the same that it helps prove what dummies critics can be. After hearing Mystic Maze, which is available on the German label jazzwerkstatt, I tracked Chris down and asked him if he’d be interested in answering some questions—and here are his responses.

What brought you to Cincinnati, and what did you do while you were here?

I came to Cinti in 1978 with my family when my father, Carl Dahlgren, was given a professorship at the Cinti. College-Concervatory of Music in Arts Administration. From 1979 -1986 I got my Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies, there. During the day I was a student exploring a protracted musical and liberal arts education, but at night my best education was when I played countless gigs with many of the best jazz players in town such as: John von Ohlen, Steve Schmidt, Jimmy McGary, Eugene Goss, Art Gore, Phil deGreg, Cal Collins, to name a few. I was lucky to be given the opportunity of being the in-house bassist at the ‘Blue Wisp’ jazz club for a couple of years which gave me the chance to play w. Steve & John as backing trio for some of the legendary musicians who would pass through town and play there.

The next big step in my musical evolution was in 1985 with pianist/composer Billy Larkin (with whom I had played earlier in the group ‘Ictus’ w. Paul Patterson and Chris Philpotts) when we started the duo ‘Ekimi’ and teamed up with producer Jeff Krys to form the label ‘Krysdahlark Records’. The music was a unique cross-over between jazz, songs, extended improvisation and ambient ‘new-age’ music that was both creatively fresh and interesting to us, but accessible to many people, at the same time. Ekimi also expanded to include more musicians over time and musicians on the label. Billy and I, during this time, also had a very meaningful collaboration with dancer/choreographer/performers Cheryl Wallace and Colleen Clark called ‘Movement, Music, and…’ which produced a lot of edgy, multi-media performance art. Towards the end of my Cinti tenure I also began to play with the very fine rock-pop band ‘Over the Rhine’ and worked with the woodcut maker, sculptor, singer-songwriter, multi-media artist Jay Bolotin on projects of his.)

In what ways do you think you advanced musically while you were here?

I advanced tremendously in Cincy, basically coming from being just a young, aspiring musician to developing my fundamental skills and then to begin to find (I’m still finding it…;-) my own voice.

Are there any Cincinnati musicians who particularly impressed you?

I think those that I’ve listed have all impressed me in one way or another. Of course, there were others, too. But by 1992 I felt I had hit ‘the ceiling’- the limit of what I could achieve for myself in Cincy and it was time to move on.

Where are you living now, and what made you decide to move there?

I’m living in Berlin, Germany since 2004. After leaving Cinti in 1992, I moved to NYC (the city of my birth). This twelve years is a whole other big chapter of my musical and personal life- to sum it up: it pushed me to evolve my playing and musical ideas to the next level and gave me the chance to interact with many fantastic musicians who were developing their own music in the way that I wanted to, as well. Then, after ten years I felt I needed another change, so from 2001-2003 I decided to go back to school and get my masters in Composition/Experimental music from Wesleyan University.

In America, jazz seems so far under the radar that it makes the 1980s seem like a golden era; for example (although it often involved some short road trips), back then I could see my favorite jazz artists on a regular basis. Ironically Europe has long been a sanctuary for jazz artists for quite some time; is the jazz scene still alive and well there?

Having lived here for nine years now, I would say ‘yes’. The arts (and artists) are still much better supported over here, although it’s getting harder here, too. Earlier, the European scene was more focused on American artists and trends, but over the past 10-15 years European jazz has become much more self-aware and self-focused. I think this is due to a variety of factors, such as the natural creative evolution of the music into regionally-specific cultures and traditions, as well as political and economic factors.

After I brought Mystic Maze home, I threw it in without reading the liner notes and had no idea what the story behind it was; I was going in and out of the room where it was playing and only heard snatches of it. In my ignorance I thought to myself, that’s some whacked-out poetry Chris Dahlgren’s written there. Then I learned that you were reciting some critics who, when Bartok was the new thing, were very annoyed by him, and resorted to some over-the-top hyper-inflated language that is entertainment unto itself. That causes me to wonder: did you have a Eureka moment as you were reading this criticism where you thought, damn, this needs to be set to music?

Yes, at first I wanted to hit back at those old critics (and all critics) to make the statement that by my turning their own words into music I could prove, conclusively, that art is the master of, and beyond, anything that can ever be said about. But, later, in getting to know these critiques intimately by working with them, I started becoming aware of some nostalgia in me that longed for the days that people felt music so strongly that they could even commit themselves to writing such things- wrong as they were. I mean they really hated it! Today, critics and most intellectuals (not to mention almost everyone else) have ruled-out their emotions in dealing with parsing-out the art which presents itself to them and I think this is completely deadening to the actual experience of art. The critics of today say nothing that speaks to the heart because they are afraid to stake their intellectual reputation on their own feelings. Because they (want us to think) they know everything, they say nothing.

I have a smattering of musical theory, but not enough to analyze what you’re doing here. It seems to me every syllable is falling on the beat but the beat is in very strange places. Can you explain what’s going on rhythmically to a layman?

Yes, sometimes the text is recited concurrently with the its analog in the notes. Statistical elements of the letters in the texts determine rhythmic values- frequency of occurrence is in inverse proportion to duration.

People who have written about Mystic Maze focus on the hostility to musical innovation, but it also seems whimsical. Does it bring a smile to your face to hear it?

Of course, I think it’s incredibly funny stuff- the WW I analogies to the Piano Concerto- wow! To me, music that has no humor can never be truly profound- it’s like the human body missing one or more of its limbs.

It must be a beotch to sing and play this music at the same time. Did that part take a little extra rehearsal time?

For sure.

At one point Anthony Braxton struck me as pedantic, but in the interviews I’ve seen with him I’ve come to realize that he comes across quite differently, with a bizarre sense of humor. What’s it like working with him as a musician?

It’s been wonderful, although at present I have not worked w. him in almost 2 years- I guess he’s moved on and so have I. Anyhow, Braxton has always amazed and inspired me with his imagination and sense of creative wonder.

What musical project or projects are you involved in now that we should know about?

In addition to continuing with ‘Lexicon’ and the Berlin co-op trio ‘Johnny La Marama‘ (w. Kalle Kalima and Eric Schaefer) I have several projects in the works that I’m excited about including my singer/song-writer project and playing viola da gamba and guitar and working-up some new bands w. present and past students of mine from the Jazz Institute, in Berlin.

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