By Timothy Dwenger
Improvisation is the musical equivalent of free climbing or walking a tight-rope without a net, there is nothing to save you if you take that fateful wrong step or stop concentrating for a split second. It’s a conversation of sorts that requires each member of the band to listen carefully and respond thoughtfully and creatively while pushing the collective to the next level. When it’s done well it is truly transcendent and many musicians and fans alike spend their lives chasing those elusive moments of improvisational perfection that can be so fleeting.
Bassist Reed Mathis has explored the world of improvisation extensively with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Tea Leaf Green, Marco Benevento, Bill Kreutzmann and many more over the course of his career but, until now, he hasn’t really let his own creative motivations drive a project. With his new focus, Electric Beethoven, Mathis is taking the reins, breaking down boundaries, and forging into truly uncharted territory by using Beethoven’s symphonies as the jumping off point for an improvisational rock band. He is calling Electric Beethoven the world’s first CDM — Classical Dance Music — band.
“There was a night in 1996 when I was listening to the 3rd symphony and I saw this project as a possibility,” Mathis revealed when The Marquee caught up with him on the heels of the band’s first run of shows. “I’ve spent the last 20 years checking in from time-to-time and saying ‘Is there a way to do that yet?’”
During those 20 years, Mathis was incredibly active in the scene but, by his own admission, he was playing more of a sideman role. “Ever since I left Jacob Fred eight years ago I have been enabling my friends more than initiating my own thing,” he said. “There is a part of my personality that really, genuinely, likes to enable my friends, and it feels good. Helping my brilliant friends make their art feels really healthy, but sometimes I feel that it’s easy to hide behind service, it’s easy to cover up your own loneliness or self-loathing by being really generous with others. But eventually that’s not being selfless, it’s being scared and at some point all of us have to grow up a little bit and take responsibility for our own lives.”
With the idea for Electric Beethoven firmly implanted in his brain Mathis set-out to take responsibility for his life and for this project he had been dreaming about, and to find musicians to help him bring it to fruition. At the end of two years of recording he had nine tracks and 70 minutes of music rooted in Beethoven’s 3rd and 6th symphonies that featured a who’s who of the improvisational music world. By harnessing the talents of Page McConnell, Mike Gordon, Stanton Moore, Joe Russo, Robert Walter, his old friend Marco Benevento and others, Mathis was able to rally the community together behind this project and the resulting Beathoven record is something truly unique.
While an incredible accomplishment, the record was only the first phase of the endeavor. Mathis was bound and determined to take the project on the road and let it take on different realms in a live version. To accomplish that he enlisted the help of Jay Lane (Primus) on drums, Todd Stoops (Kung Fu, RAQ) on keys, and his longtime friend from Oklahoma, Clay Welch, on guitar.
“Part of how I put this band together is that I wanted improvisers and I wanted guys who are brave but I also wanted dance musicians. I didn’t want music school players, I wanted dance players. This music is supposed to be dance music and dance music is what takes shows from a voyeuristic situation to a participation situation. When the audience is dancing they are in the band, especially when the band is improvising because then the dancers are literally changing the music. We are playing to them, we are playing with them, they are playing with us. Beethoven’s music hasn’t been heard like that since he died.”
Once they got through the initial rehearsals, and the guys understood what Mathis was looking for, things started to take shape quickly and by the time they hit the road for the first time in September, things were about ready to blast off. “The first show was the Catskill Chill and we started to open up, then we played at Nectar’s in Burlington and all the songs were 50 minutes or longer and everybody was freaking out,” he said excitedly. “I was like ‘This is what I’m talking about guys!’ Not that I want it to be long necessarily, just that I want it to be actually created in the moment and unique to that moment. From Nectar’s on we were the band I was hoping we would be.”
As the band is poised to hit the road again it seems like everything has fallen into place but it is important to remember that the project is still in its infancy and has the potential to grow by leaps and bounds. While he is clearly the creative catalyst behind the Electric Beethoven, Mathis is quick to give credit to Ludwig himself. “The reason that this all makes sense and isn’t a gimmick or a novelty is that that’s the kind of musician that Beethoven was and that’s the way he lived his life,” Mathis said. “The way that orchestras sit there and play it note for note, totally literally, is the opposite of who he was and how he lived his life. It’s the opposite of where his music came from. Why did he write that music? He didn’t go to music school, he didn’t have an employer and he didn’t have an orchestra to play it. He wrote that stuff because he had to — spiritually, emotionally, he needed to express his rage and his transcendence. Especially after he lost his hearing he really had no choice, it was write that stuff or die. When you go see an orchestra play it, with all due respect, you don’t feel that.”
Go If You Dig:
- Ludwig van Beethoven
- Medeski, Martin & Wood
- Steve Kimock