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January 1, 2012

2011 Year in Review

As we come to the end of 2011, for the third year in a row (see 2009 and 2010) I’m writing a “year in review” piece, documenting some of the most important musical experiences I’ve had during the past year.  The writing serves a couple of purposes: first, the seemingly ever-present need to promote one’s gigs and activities as a working freelance musician, and second, to be a journal of sorts that I can look back on.

My first musical event of 2011 (if you don’t count the ending of the Bobby Torres New Year’s Eve gig which technically extended into the new year) was on January 3rd, when I went over to Clay Giberson’s studio (where we had recorded Duo Chronicles in 2009/2010) to lay down some woodwind tracks for the new Go By Train record.  I’ve been listening to Go By Train since they started up and have been a long-time fan of Dan Balmer’s, so it was great to get a chance to participate on the record.

In February, I got another chance to play with Portland’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble.  This particular concert was filled with challenging music, curated by David Lang, including Kate Moore’s 101 and Oscar Bettison’s ppopp.  Playing avant-garde classical, or really any kind of classical music, always scares me some as there’s never an opportunity just call a tune and blow on a few choruses of rhythm changes, but it was a welcome chance to do something new and play with great players I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to perform with.  Later in the year, I played on another Third Angle concert, performing Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint.

In the middle of March, jazz musicians from the I-5 corridor stretching from Eugene and Corvallis up to Portland got together to do a performance of music written by James Miley and Justin Morell for Willamette University’s faculty music concert series.  As of yet, this has been a one-time event for the band, but I certainly hope it returns.  It was a great combination of people, including Portland people I get to play with often (Damian Erskine, Lars Campbell) and Eugene folks I rarely get to see (Joe Manis, Joe Freuen).  Here’s hoping that the group makes a return in 2012.

At the beginning of April, for the first time since being in the Portland Youth Philharmonic during high school, I performed at the Schnitzer Auditorium.  The performance was my first time getting the opportunity to play with the Oregon Symphony.  Although the program wasn’t exactly a curated collection great classical literature (it was a Beatles pops concert) it was still an amazing (and intimidating) chance to be on the stage with musicians of that caliber.  Virtuosity shined through in a few sections, most notably from Jeff Work on trumpet who had a couple of chances to shine on the Classical Mystery Tour material.

Luckily for the Portland jazz scene, the Blue Monk has started to have jazz regularly again (thanks to Mary Sue Tobin especially for her work on the Ninkasi Presents Sunday jazz series there).  In May I played there with saxophone-legend John Gross (author of Multiphonics for Saxophone) in his band Saxophobia.  I love playing in small groups with other saxophonists and Portland has a great variety of musical personalities to do that with — John Gross, Tim Willcox, Rob Davis, etc — all guys I would pay the price of admission to go listen to, so getting to play too is just icing on the cake.

May was also a significant month for me because I finally released Metronomics, an iOS app that I had been working on for a few months.  I originally built the app to work on my own sense of time (playing in the Damian Erskine Project being the primary motivation…) and decided to polish it up enough for others to use.  Now, thousands of musicians all over the world are using the app, which is a neat feeling, especially since I don’t have a CD under my own name yet, and this is the only commercial product of my own.

At the end of June, I played for the first time with Diane Schuur.  Portland (now Spokane) bassist Scott Steed got me on the gig, which was a four-night run at Jazz Alley in Seattle.  This was really my first gig with a big-name touring jazz artist and I’m grateful for the chance to play with her.  That gig also led to a week-long run in Japan during July, a few days in San Francisco during November, and a two-and-a-half week tour in Europe in December.  In January, I’ll head to Baton Rouge to play a one-night show with her there.  There are lots of stories to tell about that gig, but you might have to catch me in person to hear them.

Besides the Japan gig with Deedles (Diane’s nickname of choice) I didn’t play a ton of music during July, primarily because I took an uncharacteristic non-musical vacation during that month.  Ali had been gone finishing a nursing program in Georgia for the last half of June and first half of July and instead of flying home after she was done, we both flew to New York.  The trip was great — I got to catch up with friends, introduce them to Ali, see great music, visit museums, and brave 100+ degree weather in Manhattan.  Of course, all of that is insignificant compared to the highlight of the trip — I proposed to Ali and we became engaged on the roof of Belvedere Castle in Central Park.  My beautiful fiancé and I plan to get married next winter.

At the end of August, I went to Kung Fu Bakery (one of my favorite places in Portland to record) and worked on horn section tracks for a band known at the time as Marianna and the Baby Vamps.  Since the recording session, they’ve changed their name to The Bylines.  Not only did I get to work with some of my favorite horn-section compatriots (Paul Mazzio and John Moak — dubbed by Paul the “Budget Brass”), but I got to work again with Reece Marshburn and Marianna Thielen (also recently engaged).  Great band, great charts.

In September, school started up again and I began helping out with woodwinds at both Beaumont Middle School and Northwest Academy.  Both schools have programs led by Cynthia Plank, who is one of the most dedicated band directors I know.  She really goes far-and-beyond to get instruction for her students from professionals working in the local scene.

By the middle of October, Ali and I had bought our first home — a house in NE Portland with a music room in the basement for me to practice, rehearse, and teach in.  For the past year or so I had been spending a lot of time in the Mount Hood Community College practice rooms.  It was great that MHCC had made the facilities available to me (thanks to Susie Jones, and congratulations to her on her retirement this December), but it’s even nicer to have my own space.  I just recently finished the first round of soundproofing work that’ll lead to hours and hours of practice — I couldn’t be more excited.

Much of November and December was spent on the road with Diane Schuur.  Between her gigs, I continued with my other regular Portland bands.  During the course of the year, I had picked up a permanent spot in the Mel Brown Septet, which plays every Tuesday at Jimmy Mak’s.  I had been listening to that band since I was in middle school and subbing in it since high school, so it’s a great pleasure to be a full member now.  I’m excited to go to the gig every time we play.

Another regular gig that I’ve been enjoying is the Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra.  Chuck writes music that is unlike anything else I get to play — very intricate horn lines, often arranged from Bill Evans’ piano solos, for five horns.  You’ll never hear an eight piece jazz group play more quietly than we do.  On the opposite side of the volume spectrum (although we can play softly too) I’ve become a member of the Carlton Jackson/Dave Mills Big Band.  We play every third Monday of the month at Secret Society.  It’s another group I’ve been listening to since I was in high school and it’s comprised of great Portland players.  One of the highlights has been the tenor chairs, one of which is most often occupied by Dave Evans and other has been either John Gross, Pete Peterson, or Rob Davis.

2011 also continued musical relationships I’ve had in past years.  I played lots of gigs with Bobby Torres, Jessie Marquez, Ben Darwish’s Commotion, the Damian Erskine Project, the Art Abrams Swing Machine Big Band (which released the album we recorded in 2010 this year). and more.  Hopefully 2012 will continue those relationships and build new ones.  I find there’s almost always something musically exciting on the horizon.


December 31, 2009

2009 in Photos

2009 was a year full of great musical experiences for me.  In this post, I’m going to use photos to outline some of the most fun gigs I had the pleasure of playing.  This certainly isn’t all of the gigs that I played, but it’s a good selection of ones that had photo documentation. Thanks so much to all of the great musicians I got to play with this year.  More photos can be found at the Past Gigs page.

After having a December 2008 gig canceled due to the snowpocolypse, Commotion picked up a January 2009 gig, which was one of the first shows I played in the new year.  Great band, comprised of some of Portland’s younger musicians, including Ben Darwish, Chris Mosley (who has since left Portland for Austin, unfortunately), Damian Erskine, Russ Kleiner, and Chaz Hastings (also gone from Portland now).

In February, I got the chance to record an episode of the local podcast “Strange Love Live.”  The show features interviews with people involved in the local technology scene.  At the time, I was on the show to talk about a couple of websites that I was working on at the time, as well as to play a few tunes with Clay Giberson.  Later on in the year, Clay and I would get to go back on the show (which has grown tremendously in just a few months) to record an episode featuring Duo Chronicles.

In April, I got a call to come play in the pit orchestra for the touring version of Ratpack the musical.  Unlike a normal “pit” orchestra, though, we were on stage on giant translucent risers.

It was a great experience to be part of a show like that, with a great band of Portland musicians (including Tim Jensen, Pete Boule, Dick Titterington, Clay Giberson, Matt Carr, and more) joining the small contingent of touring musicians that traveled with the show.  One of the most entertaining parts to me was that the vast majority of the cast and crew was British, so even though the guys would be doing Frank and Dean impersonations on stage with perfect American accents, as soon as they got off, they dropped back into their Brit accents.

Portland Center Stage was my home away from home in May and June.  After having subbed in the orchestra pit a couple of times during their production of Guys and Dolls, I was asked to play the full run of their Spring musical, Grey Gardens.  We played a pretty unique score eight times a week including such classics as “Jerry Likes My Corn.”  Yeah, that song was as weird as the title makes it sound.  In a big change from Ratpack, where we were on the stage with the performers, Portland Center Stage puts the orchestra backstage where we watch on monitors and pipe the music in to the house from mics on all of us.  A very comfortable way to work.

In July, Drew Shoals put together the Drew Shoals Collective for one last show before he headed off to law school in Pennsylvania.  Always a pleasure to play with these guys (Drew, Ben Darwish, and Damian Erskine).  You can hear us on Drew’s 2008 Diatic Records release “The Greatest Haven’t Been Born Yet”

When the annual Cathedral Park Jazz Festival rolled around again, I got the chance to play with Dan Schulte’s sextet.  This was a really fun incarnation of the band, including George Mitchell on piano, Dan on bass, Christopher Woitach on guitar, Tim Willcox on tenor, John Moak on trombone, and Todd Strait on drums.  We got to finish off the set with a song of mine that I wrote for the event called “Xyphoid Process”

[audio:http://johnnastos.com/mp3/xyphoid_process.mp3]

Later on in July, Darrell Grant’s new group “On the Territory” played it’s first gig, in Coos Bay, Oregon.  The project incorporates a wide range of music (everything from Keith Jarrett to the Neville Brothers) and ties it all into a sense of place and community.

This initial gig was an amazing experience.  After driving to the gig with Darrell, where we spent the whole trip talking about music, life, philosophy, and just about everything in between, we arrived to the venue – a great restaurant and catering company called Black Gourmet.  Our host, Chef Jardin, was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and possibly the nicest venue owner the music business has ever seen.  The band (Cameron Morgan on guitar, Sam Howard on bass, Ji Tanzer on drums, Jessyka Luzzi on vocals, and Darrell on keyboards) played for an enthusiastic crowd and then was hosted overnight by local families.

In August, I was fortunate enough to get a call to sub for Renato Caranto at Kevin Deitz’s CD release party at Jimmy Mak’s.  The band (George Mitchell on piano, Mike Horsfall on vibes, Kevin on bass, Gary Hobbs on drums, and Paul Mazzio on trumpet) played a couple sets of Kevin’s original material – everything ranging from straight-ahead swinging jazz to 80’s jazz/pop.

That same week, I got a frantic phone call from Louis Pain at 8 PM (downbeat time for the gig) on Thursday night, explaining that there had been a mis-communication and Mel Brown’s B3 organ band needed a sub for Renato.  I raced downtown and was promptly stumped by the impossible parking scene in NW Portland on First Thursday.  After finally finding parking almost a mile away, I got to the gig, but the guys weren’t playing.  Apparently, Dan Balmer’s guitar was having some sort of equipment problems.  Eventually, we got everything sorted out and played a couple hours of music.  Lots of stress on this gig (getting the call when the gig should have already started, not being able to park, and – my personal favorite – having Louis teach me the bridge to “My Girl” during the set break by singing it to me), but also lots of fun.

Art Abram’s Swing Machine got to play at this year’s Washington Park concert series in the Rose Garden.  Art’s band has improved so much over the last year and a half, due to some personnel changes and musical choices.  It’s truly a pleasure to play with the group – especially our killer sax section with Mary Sue Tobin, Dave Evans (Jeff Homan was subbing on this gig), Allan Mair, and Pete Boule.  In fact, I’ll be closing out the year with them for New Year’s Eve.

Speaking of Art’s band, we performed this year at the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival with special guest Bobby Shew on trumpet and flugelhorn.  It was a wonderful show and a pleasure to share the stage with him and play his music.

I also played with Garry Hobb’s Stan Kenton Tribute Band, featuring Carl Saunders and Scott Whitfield.  This was a fun concert, with an especially interesting sax section including Clark Bondy, Tim Jensen, Kirt Peterson and Steve Owen.

I spent quite a few evenings on stage with Bobby Torres this year, both in his small group and his large ensemble.  This particular photo is from a concert we did for the Music on Main Street series next door to the Schnitzer Concert Hall.  Great band, great music, every time.

In late August, Darrel Grant’s “On the Territory” returned for Riverfest.  Great show, but difficult to play since the wind was strong enough to blow the music stands over.

Another gig with the Bobby Torres Ensemble.  This time, a cut-down version with Julana Torres on vocals, Brian Ward on keyboard, Damian Erskine on bass, James Travers on drums, and Bobby on percussion.

One of my favorite gigs to play is the Mel Brown Septet.  The group is made up of my teachers and mentors (Warren Rand, Stan Bock, Renato Caranto, Derek Sims, Gordon Lee, Andre St. James, and Mel Brown) and always feels like home.

Most of the time, I’m subbing for Warren when I play with this group, but on this occasion, I was playing for Renato.

Later on in the month, subbing for Warren this time.

Fall came, and I returned to Portland Center Stage for a run of Ragtime.  This time, a slightly larger orchestra pit, again with great musicians.  After eight shows a week for two months, I was ready to move on when that run was over.

One of the both saddest and most uplifting gigs of the year was in October when I played at the benefit concert for Jeff Cumpston, a drummer and educator who passed away this year in tragic accident in Zimbabwe.  The concert featured tons of Portland musicians who all paid tribute to our friend and colleague.

In November, I got the chance to play with Thara Memory’s Superband.  I remember trying to hear this band every chance I could when I was in high school.  Unfortunately, this was never easy, as they almost never played gigs that were open to minors.  Standing outside of Jimmy Mak’s while the band played was about as close as I ever got.  This particular concert featured a revamped version of the group, featuring Thara’s daughter, Tahirah Memory.  She brought part of her rhythm section (Brian Ward on piano and Ben Jones on bass) to join Thara’s regulars Frank Tribble on guitar, Israel Annoh on drums, and Stan Bock on trombone.

Darrell Grant’s On the Territory took the stage again in November, this time in a triple bill with Kabir Green’s group and Lynn Darroch’s jazz stories.  A highlight of the evening for me was getting to play with Lynn and Jonathan Swanson for Lynn’s story about saxophone legend Jim Pepper.

On December 1st, the Damian Erskine Project played it’s first concert.  We played at the Mission Theatre as part of their monthly jazz series.  The band (Ben Darwish on keyboard, David Goldblatt on keyboard, Raphael Trujillo on percussion, Reinhardt Melz on drums, Damian on bass, Paul Mazzio on trumpet, and Jason DuMars on soprano) played Damian’s ridiculously difficult music for a packed house of enthusiastic fans.  (Thanks to Cortney Erskine for the photo)

Reece Marshburn, whom I had met while playing Grey Gardens, hooked me up with a gig playing with Marianna and the Baby Vamps when their regular horn player was out of town.  We played a selection of songs featuring Marianna and her two backup singers at Tony Starlight’s.  Great band (Reece on piano, Ken Ollis on drums, and Bill Athens on bass) playing some pretty entertaining music.  Certainly not the normal type of music for me to play on a gig, but a lot of fun to do.

On December 14th, I put together a concert at Jimmy Mak’s with the Upper Left Trio playing a mixture of their music and my own compositions.  We even got to throw a couple of Duo Chronicles tunes in the mix.  It was a great concert and a pleasure to play with the trio (Clay Giberson, Jeff Leonard, and Charlie Doggett).  I’ve started putting some of the videos from the concert up on my YouTube channel.

The day after Christmas, Damian Erskine put together a smaller version of his group to open for Intervision at Jimmy Mak’s.  Great concert.  Still difficult music.

2009 was a fantastic year for gigs.  I’m looking forward to 2010 playing with all of the great musicians I mentioned above again and hopefully new ones as well.


March 14, 2008

Thursday Night

I headed over to the Tugboat tonight, where I caught a set of music by Chris Mosley‘s ExStatic band, featuring Damian ErskineRuss Kleiner, and Tim Willcox.  I had brought my tenor along, so I joined in on an entertaining version of “Tenor Madness” as well as “Reunion,” a Mosley original.

I always enjoy hearing Willcox and I’m very much looking forward to his upcoming CD release party.

Most of the rest of the day was spent working on JazzPDX, which is currently down during a server change.  When it comes back up, it’ll have a slightly different look, and the capability for quite a few new features.  I’m looking at the possibility of podcasting from the site (maybe with some collaborators), which is something I’m pretty excited about.

This weekend I start teaching at Cadenza Academy, the music education center Mike Pardew is a part of. 


March 4, 2008

E4 at Jimmy Mak’s

Last night was E4’s first show since the summer. We played at Jimmy Mak’s, subbing for Balmer while he’s on tour. We had a good sized crowd that actually stuck around through the second set.

We were lucky to have a number of friends stop by at sit in, including Ben Darwish, Shelly Rudolph, and Russ Kleiner. Also nice to see other new and old friends like journalist Tom D’Antoni, bassist Eric Gruber (who has played often in my acoustic band), and jazz super-fan and community activist Pam Jones.

Instead of the usual E4 setup, we tried it with Clay playing mostly acoustic piano, Damian on his new fretless, and me splitting my time between alto and tenor. I liked the new sound – I think there was a bit more flexibility than our usual style.

I’m hoping to get some pictures from the event soon, but for now, here’s a clip from my composition “Weasel Socks”:

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