Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Icarus Ensemble: Their romance

By the time the men of the Icarus Ensemble got to their amiably churning arrangement of the Rodgers-Hart chestnut "My Romance"  in the second set Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen, it was clear their blended musical backgrounds have by now coalesced so well around a fresh band identity that they don't "need a castle rising in Spain" or any of the other desiderata the song lists.

Their romance is with the music they make together — three of them colleagues in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the other two on the music faculty of Butler University. In its six-year existence, Icarus has put together a distinctive book of originals and arrangements. The songs are well-crafted, but not staid: full of surprises of phrasing and shifts of momentum and texture.

The group has to schedule carefully around the prior obligations of ISO members Peter Hansen (bass), Dean Franke (violin) and Mark Ortwein (reeds) and Butler teachers (with other performing demands, too) Gary Walters (piano) and Jon Crabiel (drums).

Icarus' total of 16 appearances so far at the Jazz Kitchen is indicative of the fan base it has built up. The reputation has been enhanced as well by three public performances with orchestra — the latest last weekend with the Wabash Valley Youth Symphony in Lafayette under the direction of David Glover, who is also on the ISO's conducting staff.

With Hansen's son Ian recording the most recent JK gig, Icarus is building up the focus it needs to enter the recording studio later this year and make the best use of the time there.  "We finally have the resources together to do this," Hansen told me before the second set.

With such catchy originals as "Lunar Love"  and "Circle Dance" in its book, Icarus is in a position to grab widespread attention. Improvisation is held within a framework of ear-catching melodies and those glittering bits that the pop world calls "hooks." You're likely to find as many sudden pauses and winking transitions as in Joseph Haydn — and here's hoping many Icarus fans are familiar with both jazz and Haydn.

The bandstand balance seemed a little off Monday night. It's clear Icarus has given lots of attention to its unique blend, especially given the large proportion of arco playing by Hansen. So it's likely that a good mix will be achieved in the recording studio, bringing up Franke's violin  more, both in unison with Hansen and Ortwein's bass clarinet or sax as well as when the violinist is playing in counterpoint. It would be good to hear that balance in live performance, too.

The Icarus romance with music seems genuine and well-founded. Hansen compared his extracurricular Icarus work to what he learned to appreciate more when his "day job" was imperiled last fall. "You have to think of the joy of music" amid challenges like the ISO lockout and the musicians' need to accept deep contract cuts, he said.

 "When we were playing on the Circle," he recalled, "I got so appreciative of all my colleagues in the ISO. They all got into this because they love it, and there's a lot that's challenging in the ISO. But as Tim Adams (former ISO timpanist) used to say, 'Don't let them take the joy away.'"

The way Icarus makes music shows that the band has plenty of joy in reserve.