If you're a student in a jazz education program, you're bound to acquire a sound musical foundation. But when you draw inspiration from a variety of genres that go beyond jazz to include electronics, you'll likely have to create your own path to a new art.
That's how Koplant No, one of the most innovative ensembles in the Midwest, emerged after its members met as jazz students at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
The quartet includes Brian Lewis Smith on trumpet, laptop and keyboards; Drew Morton on bass, synthesizer, vibraphone and vocals; Rob Baner on drums, samples and vibraphone and Joel Vanderheyden on saxophone. Since 2008, they've fused a jazz sensibility with ambitious use of samples and electronic sounds to make engaging and expansive music.
After a successful appearance at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival last summer, Koplant No returns to the Twin Cities Friday night for a show at the Icehouse restaurant in Minneapolis. The musicians are on tour to promote their third recording, "Distants," a relaxed mix of music that builds on the melodies played by Smith and Vanderheyden on horns.
Rich with textures, space and varied rhythms, the music takes listeners on an emotional ride.
"As a jazz musician, I think I've always been drawn more to instrumental music as opposed to vocal music," Smith said. "I think a lot of instrumental music is about mood. What we're going for is to create moods and feeling.
"People can kind of visualize certain things like they're watching a film, like it's a soundtrack to something that's occurring in their own minds," he said. "To me that's perfect. That's kind of what I do when I listen to music."
Still, Koplant No is a jazz group and the musicians rehearse and play very much like jazz artists everywhere. But even though they developed their craft playing more traditional music their current work takes them beyond those boundaries.
Although other groups fuse electronic music and jazz, Smith said the result is often one or the other while Koplant No aims to take a true hybrid approach. Despite their use of a laptop, synthesizers, samples and pre-recorded bits of sound, however, the musicians draw heavily on improvisation.
"The way we play and the way we rehearse is very much like a jazz group. It's very democratic," Smith said. "The sounds we draw on are more from electronics. [But] The laptop can't figure out how to be like a human. It's a pretty intriguing thing to figure out how to approach this like a jazz group, using things which are kind of static."
At first, Koplant No made music that employed sounds from the laptop as background tracks for the musicians to top. Gradually they added software and sampling equipment that allowed them to introduce sounds as they played.
Like other jazz musicians, members of the ensemble sometimes begin forming their compositions at the piano, or by singing a melody. They also use charts and sets of chords. Other sounds will occur to them later, such as when Smith walked by a wind chime at his grandmother's house and recorded it on his phone.
The key to drawing on such inspiration is determining how to turn those sounds into music.
"We have to figure out how to orchestrate it and how to bring in electronics," Smith said, "and how we're going to make it sound like us."