Freedom, not “free jazz”

With a repertoire comprised of original tunes with quirky melodies and a live show that frequently incorporates the sounds of siren-whistle and gong, Ear Doctor is not exactly your typical jazz combo. And they wouldn’t have it any other way. Jerry Shelato (tuba) comments that “We’ve all heard the standards, and we all know how the famous recordings of them sound and how people tend to play them-and to sort of ape them, almost-and that’s not even an element of what we do.”

The group known as Ear Doctor was formed in 1998 and consisted of three musicians: Shelato, Dan Honnold (saxophone) and Tom Paynter (keyboards, flute).

“[At first] we had no drummer,” Paynter remarks, making his bandmates chuckle. “We decided that we needed a drummer soon after that.” Although Ear Doctor’s drum seat has the most personnel changes, it is regularly filled by Jeff Magby or Mark McKnight. The band lineup also includes Ben Taylor (bass), who also does the sound recording for the group. “The three of us have been playing together since the early ’90s,” Paynter comments about Shelato and Honnold, “that’s 10 or 15 years of hanging out, listening to similar things, playing out things while we’re listening, and playing together-not only onstage, but in different formats.” All three are actively involved in the local music scene, including Paynter’s radio show “Mellifluous Cacophony” on WEFT 90.1 FM, Shelato’s performance in professional ensembles, and Honnold’s work as a concert piano technician for the University of Illinois. As Honnold observes, “I think it was kind of a no-brainer for all of us to become musicians.”

Ear Doctor’s sound is, to say the least, a bit out-of-the-ordinary. Aside from the strangeness of many of their melodies, their walking bass lines are doubled on tuba and are played on that instrument using non-standard brass performance technique. “I’m also playing jazz on the tuba, as opposed to playing ‘The Tuba’ in jazz,” Shelato points out. “[You have to] serve the tune, not the horn.” The band admits that their sound often eludes proper description, but “in terms of sonic similitude,” Paynter says that Ear Doctor’s sound has an affinity for groups such as the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, Sun Ra and the NRG Ensemble. As far as being an avant-garde, “free” group, all three firmly deny this as a popular misconception. “There are aspects of the sound, there are elements of [it] that are more abrasive or that may evoke that sort of a ’60s energy-jazz type of thing,” Honnold says, but, Shelato adds, Ear Doctor’s music is “more freedom than it is Free Jazz; I mean, ‘free jazz’ has a very specific connotation, and it’s more freedom within what it is [that] we do. That’s not to say that we never play free; we just don’t often do it for other people to consume.”

Although they have a so-called “modern” sound, their music actually follows fairly traditional jazz performance practice, albeit in unconventional ways. “We play within pretty traditional forms, so … it’s pretty straight-ahead-looking music,” says Paynter, who has written most of the group’s music. “It’s not just coming from left field or something, although when you hear [an Ear Doctor] song, it wouldn’t necessarily sound like [for example] a blues; it is, harmonically and [in terms of] number of measures-it’s just got a very strange melody …. one of the ways that I compose a lot of my stuff is just to sort of stretch the tradition until it almost becomes something different; but there’s still an audible link to what has come before.”

Paynter comments that although the head-solo-head form of most of their songs is the norm, “the one thing we do … to try to muddle that is interact and play during other people’s solos. So, like, if Dan’s playing a solo, it doesn’t have to be like a bebop idea of a solo where [the rhythm section is] just kind of laying down a framework, and he’s blowing over it; it’s more interactive. I might hear something he plays and interject something that would spur him a different way because while there is a fair amount notated in a very detailed way [in our music], there is much that is not notated and that can’t be notated.”

When soloing, Honnold says that “the most important thing to me … is to be able to express yourself. You can kind of tell in my playing that I don’t have the skills of your average jazz musician; I’ve never been very motivated to acquire them. If I can say what I want to say, and it’s something new and different, then I’m always pretty pleased with that. I’m not a big fan of the kind of jazz improvisers where there’s a real kind of cut-and-paste approach, where they’re cutting and pasting phrases and ideas that they’ve previously memorized. I do not like that, and I try really hard not to do that …. If I catch myself repeating a pattern, I try to change it by the end of the pattern.”

With respect to their live show, Paynter hopes that people pick up on the fact that “we’re cooperating, and sharing, and doing it well, and having a good time as we do it. Whether they remember any of the music is another thing, and maybe a little bit too much to ask on the first hearing, but I think it’s more of an impression of the way that the musicians are interacting in the band that’s interesting.”

Honnold adds, “I always hope that people will hear something interesting that they’d never heard before. And like what Tom said [about music we like], hopefully it’s something that people will consider warranting repeated listenings….I hope that people hear [us] and want to hear [us] again, either because they really liked it, or they kinda-sorta liked it and know that there’s probably something more that they could grab next time.”

“I’ve always noticed that the people who are not regular jazz fans seem to enjoy us more than the real hardcore jazz fans …. we get a lot of positive feedback from students and people who may not have ever even heard jazz and who probably don’t even consider us jazz. I always thought that that was interesting,” Honnold reflects. “[I don’t think that] a lot of the people who come to see us regularly are coming to see us for the jazz. I think they’re coming to see us for the originality of it.”

Ear Doctor will be appearing tonight (May 5) at Zorba’s. They will be joined in this show by Jay Ferguson on drums.

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