Two graduates of David Baker’s IU jazz program try to make do in the new COVID world.
By Jeff Cebulski
Saying that the COVID-19 outbreak has upended the broad entertainment industry is a colossal understatement, considering that “industry” here usually means “human participants.” Those who made music their business career are indubitably suffering these days, including club owners and performers.
A lot of creativity has blossomed, though, as musicians ply their trade online for tips. Some charitable institutions have emerged as well. But overall, the fact that gatherings rule the context has eliminated most of the opportunities thus far.
What if you are a relatively young jazz up-and-comer, with a family to boot? I found such a couple, who have graced the stage at Andy’s a couple of times.
L to R: Charlie Ballantine, Amanda Gardier (photos: Mark Sheldon)
Charlie Ballantine and Amanda Gardier were two of the late David Baker’s final generation of students at Indiana University. Since their graduation, they have married and begun a family. River, a wonderfully quiet daughter, is now around five months old. Both are instructors: Amanda is a professor at Ball State, while Charlie teaches guitar at Marian University in Indianapolis. Charlie was the first to record his guitar-based music, gaining recent recognition with an album of Dylan songs and a trio recording, Cold Coffee. A new album, Vonnegut, has just been released on vinyl. Amanda, an alto saxophonist, has released two albums, Empathy and Flyover Country. While they perform together (such as at Andy’s and in clubs in Indianapolis, where they live), they have recorded together less often, choosing instead to craft separate personas that mirror their separate muses.
I emailed both of them about their lives, together and separate. New daughter River is grabbing their significant attention, of course, though the prospects of the near future are never far from their thoughts.
Jeff Cebulski: I can only imagine your lives have been tossed around during this time, given the halting of your career plans and the birth of your daughter. How challenging has it been for you to operate in two worlds, parent/spouse and musician, during the lockdown?
Amanda: There have been both benefits and challenges to having a child at the start of the lockdown. While it has been very difficult for my husband and me to lose out on a lot of income as a result of the pandemic, it has been nice to have plenty of free time to bond with our newborn daughter. Since paid maternity leave does not really exist in our profession, we had both planned to return to performing/teaching very quickly after our daughter River was born. However, this pandemic has created a situation in which that is not possible. So the silver lining is that we have both been able to establish a very close bond with our daughter, and we will both have vivid memories of her first few months.
Charlie: We have really been looking on the bright side and just enjoying the fact that we get to spend every second of our daughter’s infancy with her. Originally I had an album release and twenty to thirty tour dates scheduled throughout the summer, so even though none of that went as planned I couldn’t be happier with how I am getting to spend my time. We are just trying to stay optimistic in hoping that the musician side of our lives comes back and presents more great opportunities for us to create, travel, and continue to pursue our careers.
JC: Does being a musician have any benefit in handling the long moments of isolation?
Amanda: As a musician, I have the benefit of always having something driving me forward. Most musicians and artists are never truly satisfied with their work; we are constantly striving to improve at our craft and develop new projects. Therefore, it is easy to find the motivation to work hard and produce creative work every day. However, it has been difficult to go this long without performing in front of live audiences and/or with a live band. A lot of my inspiration and creative energy is drawn from performing in front of people and collaborating with other artists. I am definitely looking forward to the day that we can return to performing for live audiences regularly.
Charlie: For me it’s been pretty tough because even though we spend a lot of time isolated and practicing, playing music for a living has a lot of social components. Even when I’m not out gigging and have the night off I usually use that as an opportunity to go hear my friends play or to just go and hang with musicians in any context I can find. Not playing shows has been tough but I think not being able to hang out in any way with our fellow musicians has been one of the biggest drawbacks to this pandemic.
JC: You have had at least two online performances. How have they gone? Any particular challenges?
Amanda: Charlie and I have both been very happy with the response we have received for our online performances. The support that we have received from our community has been very comforting and encouraging during this pandemic. However, there is still some awkwardness in performing in front of a phone instead of a live audience. It can be difficult to not hear and feel the feedback from the audience in real time while we perform. That being said, I am still very lucky to be able to perform from home with my husband, and we are thankful to have the opportunity to share our music with audiences online.
Charlie: The online format has been good for a lot of reasons. It keeps us on our toes and gives us something to prepare for musically, it gives us a chance to present something to our fans who have missed seeing live music, and it has been a great new medium to try and supplement the financial setbacks of the last few months. The one really difficult thing about the online format is that it’s almost impossible to simulate the energy of playing for a live audience. It’s really tough to channel that creative energy when you are in your living room looking into a phone or camera. We didn’t realize how much of a difference the audience makes when you are playing music but they really are such a massive part of the end result.
Being educated at Indiana, under the guidance of David Baker, must have prepared these two for the rigors of the music profession, even if this pandemic was unforeseen. Amanda commented: “David Baker’s dedication to his craft was very impactful. His knowledge of the artform was unparalleled, and he passionately ran the Jazz Studies program at IU far into his old age. The fact that he did not let the injuries incurred from his car crash deter him from finding new ways to perform and teach is inspirational.”
Young professional musicians like these will need all of that inspiration to survive, one thinks.
Amanda is one of many women who are riding a wave of artistic career development. Her music, like a lot of ensembles today, can be classified as neo-post bop, where the blues takes a back seat to more angular themes, melodies, and rhythms. Empathy, which received a nice initial review in DownBeat, was recorded with her longtime Indiana homies, including Charlie, solid bassist Jesse Whitman, rising drummer Chris Parker, and veteran tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon. The compositions spread the musicians across the spectrum, creating more ambiance than sonic insistence. “Giants,” the opening cut, deftly places her husband far right in dramatic juxtaposition to Dixon’s own faintly droning expression, creating tension that mirrors that of much of Christian Scott’s music. Dixon’s tenor is often layered in lower registered accompaniment to Amanda’s bright phrasings. Gardier is clearly a democratic leader, prizing her compositions over her presence. Yet, she represents a mature talent, exhibited in her dancing solo that adorns songs like “Revolving Door.”
Flyover Country, recorded with a new band selected specifically for this music, extends this maturity, with her playing drawing closer to more classic approaches while maintaining the postmodern constructions. Like many Midwestern artists, this album has, at its core, an appeal to the territory, with songs like “Midwestern Gothic,” “Buddy,” “40 Tattoos,” and the title cut. My favorite is “Hidden,” a duet with bassist Brendan Keller-Tuberg, where Gardier’s lyricism and dexterity are on full display.
I asked Amanda about her history and this new effort:
JC: Where did your interest in jazz, more specifically playing the alto, originate?
Amanda: I started playing saxophone in 5th grade, and first joined jazz band in school in 6th grade. I was very fortunate to attend a school district that had a very strong music program. My middle school band director introduced me to a lot of great recordings, which encouraged me to start listening to jazz at an early age. One of my favorites back then was Life on Planet Groove by Maceo Parker; he was definitely my initial inspiration on the alto saxophone.
JC: Aside from the music itself, a chief difference between your first and second albums was the personnel—Flyover Country is with a totally new band. What drove your decision to move in that direction?
Amanda: The music that I wrote for this album naturally fit the quartet format. The compositions didn’t have quite as many intertwining parts, and the melodies naturally lent themselves to a more “intimate” instrumentation. The music of The Bad Plus really influenced a lot of my compositions, so I decided to use Brendan Keller-Tuberg on bass because the Bad Plus have largely influenced his musical aesthetic. From there, I knew that Ellie Pruneau would be a good choice for piano because she has collaborated regularly with Brendan on other musical projects. Similarly, I thought that [drummer] Carrington Clinton’s playing would complement Ellie and Brendan’s playing well.
Around the same time, her husband Charlie came out with his fifth recording, Cold Coffee.
Following the Dylan song album Life Is Brief, Coffee displays all of Ballantine’s aesthetic, from rock-infused excursions to more dainty, thoughtful tone poems, all delivered with a Midwestern twang that immediately recalls players like Bill Frisell and early Pat Metheny.
Ballantine’s early efforts like Providence and Where Is My Mind? tended to be sprawling, atmospheric test runs while Charlie developed a unique style. Life Is Brief, which moved him closer to a Frisell-influenced aesthetic, coalesced his interests and sensibilities into a more focused approach, to the liking of many who have followed his career.
I talked to him about his recent music and his influences:
JC: Your recent album Cold Coffee seems like a breakthrough for you, combining various motifs and approaches. How do you feel about it?
Charlie: Cold Coffee was a fun challenge that was difficult to approach. When I wrote it I was fresh off of Life Is Brief so I felt like I had to really separate myself from this incredible set of timeless songwriting material and just try and write what was in my head at the time. The only guideline or restriction I set for that album was that I knew I wanted it to be a guitar trio record. All of my favorite records are guitar trio and it was something I had not done as a band leader yet.
JC: Your Dylan record certainly got attention. Now I hear you’ve released [on vinyl] another thematic recording based on the work of Kurt Vonnegut. What’s the story behind that?
Charlie: The new album, Vonnegut, is something I’ve been working on for a couple of years. I have been a fan of his writing since I was in high school and as I was rereading a couple of his novels a while back I just began composing pieces based on the characters and themes in his novels. He is also a big part of my hometown Indianapolis so as much as it is a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut, it’s also a tribute to all of the great things that have come from that city.
JC: Why the guitar, and why jazz?
Charlie: My dad is a guitarist so growing up it was just a sound that was always around. There were Telecasters laying all over the place so at some point when I was a teenager I just decided to pick one up. I probably caught the jazz bug when I was in college. I went down to Indiana University for journalism and after about a year and a half of hearing student concerts, hanging with great young players, and experiencing the incredible program that David Baker built I really fell in love with the music.
JC: Who are your major influences in regard to both playing and composing?
Charlie: My influences are hard to pin down because they are pretty eclectic. When I was younger Jimi Hendrix was definitely the artist that hooked me to the guitar but as my taste moved towards jazz I really started digging into Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Jim Hall, and Joe Pass. The traditional players had a huge influence on my approach to music but more recently I’ve been really inspired by everything Bill Frisell is doing as well as Julian Lage, Gilad Hekselman, John Scofield, and Kurt Rosenwinkel.
Charlie’s new album, Vonnegut, is an ensemble effort, including his wife Amanda and Rob Dixon. The single release, “Sympathy For Malachi Constant," is adorned by Gardier’s lovely solo:
As Charlie stated, all the post-album release activity has been shelved for now. Besides some Facebook duet activity, the couple have organized an outdoor, neighborhood concert that caught the attention of a number of Indianapolis jazz mates. Meanwhile, life goes on.
Amanda: Lately, I have been spending a lot of time arranging music. I have been collaborating with other artists in Indianapolis and arranging their music for larger ensembles for upcoming performances at the Indy Jazz Fest. I have also been working on arranging popular music for the Indy Saxophone Quartet. I formed that group last year, but haven’t been able to organize as many performances as I would have liked due to my pregnancy and the COVID-19 pandemic. I am hoping to build the ensemble’s repertoire and schedule more performances moving forward. I am also looking forward to returning to Ball State University in the fall to teach jazz saxophone.
All this, of course, is mixed with the parental stuff that both musicians take seriously and with the omnipresent need to earn some income. While they enjoy the support of their extended families, Charlie and Amanda take their responsibilities seriously, and they dedicate creative energy to maintaining their careers as best they can.
So . . . if you want to support these young jazz entrepreneurs, please check out their websites:
“Jazz with Mr. C” is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org.