Feb. 24: Doubleheader at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club with The Selcouth Quartet

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Selcouth Quartet by D. James Goodwin
Selcouth Quartet slides into Jimmy’s Jazz Club for two shows on Feb. 24. Photo/D. James Goodwin

If You Go

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Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club (jimmysoncongress.com)

135 Congress Street, Portsmouth, NH 

Two Shows: 7 and 9:30 p,m.


PORTSMOUTH, NH – Brooklyn drummer extraordinaire Joe Russo has a lot going on with his career these days. He’s the leader of the popular Grateful Dead tribute band Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (aka JRAD), he’s collaborated with an abundance of bands and musicians and he still has time to be part of a duo with childhood friend and keyboardist Marco Benevento.

On top of all this, he has another project that released their self-titled debut album last October. It’s called the Selcouth Quartet and it has Russo being joined by multi-instrumentalist Stuart Bogie, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger and bassist Jon Shaw. This band rooted in improvisational jazz is going to be performing two shows at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club in Portsmouth on February 24 with the first show starting at 7 p.m. and the other one starting at 9:30 p.m.

We had a talk ahead of this weekend’s festivities about how this band started, making the self-titled debut in Iceland, what makes this project stand out from the others and what folks can expect from both performances.


Rob Duguay: What was the initial genesis for starting the Selcouth Quartet with Stuart, Jonathan and Jon? Was it through a random jam session or was this collaboration more planned out than that?

Joe Russo: It was actually a collaboration I had put together to open a show for Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum. He was going to be playing two nights at the Capitol Theatre [in Port Chester, New York] during the end of ‘22, so one night we were going to be opening with The Bogie Band, which is a large horn ensemble I have with Stuart Bogie. Then for the second night, I asked if I could put together a quartet just to improvise to open the night. The folks at the Capitol Theatre were cool enough to say “Yes”, but unfortunately those gigs got canceled so they never came to fruition. That kind of put this idea in my head and I really wanted to know what it would sound like putting Stuart, Jon and Jonathan together, so with that we kind of kept the concept alive.

We then had the opportunity to make this record in Iceland and we basically pitched this band as the idea. Thankfully, the people there were cool enough to go for it being that it wasn’t really a thing yet, but the idea was to go to Iceland and bring our amazing producer and engineer Daniel James Goodwin with us while capturing these five days to see what we’d come up with. That was kind of the early birth of this thing.

RD: What was the experience like making the album with Daniel up in Iceland? I know that he’s known for his experimental and unconventional approach to recording, so what’s that a consistent part of that particular process?

JR: It was amazing, Dan is my go-to guy. Pretty much every record that I’ve had any sort of input on, he’s been my choice for engineering it, mixing it and mastering it. He was an integral part of this experience for me, I knew he would have the thoughtfulness and approach to kind of capture this idea in such a musical way. The way he records things is so hyper-musical and thoughtful, so it was amazing. Being in that strange, beautiful, isolated place with those guys, Dan included, was just a perfect storm of creativity.

RD: What was the reasoning behind going to Iceland to make the record? Was it simply each of your schedules lining up to meet up there?

JR: My buddy Jay Sweet, who is the brains behind the Newport Folk & Jazz Festivals and I’ve known him for a very long time going back to his days at Paste Magazine, he had offered me this opportunity of this amazing studio on the Northern tip of Iceland where they were looking to bring in American musicians to make records and experience this thing. Thankfully, I had a bit of an open invite to bring something there and this was about a year and a half to two years of that being on the table. I then finally landed on this group as the thing that would be really cool to do and the caveat that kind of proved to be beneficial in the end was that there was a very limited amount of time. We were going out in January just after the new year. I have two little kids at home and I’m trying to spend as much time with my family as possible, so I basically had a week, including travel, to go there, make a record and come back.

In the end, what we were left with was five days of recording and after one day of getting snowed out, it was four days of recording [laughs]. This was a band that had no concept of what it was going to sound like from the moment we walked into that space. It was a little daunting at first to think that we had this limited amount of time to create something worthy of the trip, but in the end I think those constraints made it perfect.

RD: You alluded along the lines of this band being formed to have an improvisational aesthetic and approach, so would you say that’s what stands this band apart from other projects you’ve done with being the lead focus of Almost Dead or collaborating with the likes of Marco Benevento, Cass McCombs, John Medeski, Marc Ribot among others?

JR: The beautiful thing about this project is in itself, it became a long-form improvisation. We didn’t know what it was going to be and basically at the end of these four recording days, we ended up with a sound and an approach with this kind of material. The original concept going in was to have it be a fully improvised situation and after the first day of fully improvising, we thought that it would be nice to have a couple themes to build off of. I had some old scraps laying around and we basically tried to improvise with mile markers. The first track on the record, “100 Words For Wind”, that shout chorus we eventually get to I had written a few months before with the concept being us finding a way to get to this place.

It’s improvising, but there’s an end to it, so it was kind of taking that on and that proved to be really great. For another tune in “Smaller Horses,” I had sat down at the Rhodes while we were just chatting and I had worked up this keyboard theme. Then Jonathan and Stuart came in with a beautiful melody on top and Jon Shaw was like “Hey, let’s add this change” and all of a sudden we had collaborated and composed a tune within 15 minutes, so that was exciting. Then there’s another song titled “Dragon, Bull, Vulture, Giant” that was essentially through-composed and something that I had in my demo pile for a long time. It felt like it could fit the aesthetic where there’s a head, there’s a form and there’s room for improvisation, so we had something like that.

There’s also a number of tracks that are completely improvised on the record. “The Hidden People” was an excerpt from a long-form improvisation, both “Limited Light” and “Unlimited Light” were both full improvisations and one of the last tunes is “Before We’re Sunk,” which is something I had originally written for a completely different record that had a small vocal part. During the last day we were there, I just started playing it with the guys and I figured that we’d give it a shot. Then we had an incredible Icelandic vocalist named Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir come in and sing this vocal part that I had written originally for one of my solo records or whatever the hell it was going to be.

To circle back to your question, the thing that puts this apart is JRAD is JRAD, it’s a Grateful Dead cover band with a shit ton of improvisation in between. Me, Ribot and Medeski is a thing where we sit down, go and play. The Selcouth Quartet has now become a mixture of improvisation and actual material, which I don’t think any of us expected to leave that session with actual music to be able to make a go at replication in a live setting. What I originally meant by a long-form improvisation is that the whole band itself kind of had to check the weather every moment on what was happening and react. Basically, our reactions resulted in this record of mostly compositions now that’s leading into this next future bit for the band where we’re composing for the next record.

I’m sure that we’re still going to go in and improvise. The live shows are certainly improvising over these song forms along with pure from zero improvisation, but it’s nice to have a bit of a songbook to anchor a night with. Again, that wasn’t something we expected to come out of those sessions with.

RD: It seems like it was a very organic experience from what you’ve just described with the songwriting, improvisation and the mix between those structures.

JR: Yeah, completely.

RD: What are your thoughts on performing two sets in one night at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club in Portsmouth, NH this Saturday? Will both sets be the same or can people expect two different performances throughout the evening?

JR: There will definitely be two different performances. There’s going to be a cross-section of a songbook that will be interpreted differently each time as well as a couple different choices of songs, compositions and whatnot, but that’s the beauty of it. The forms are there to have a place to land if you need it, the rest of the time it’s just approaching it differently.

RD: Outside of performing with the Selcouth Quartet, what are some other things that you have going on this year? Do you plan on doing some shows with Almost Dead, any other collaborations or will the Selcouth Quartet be your central focus moving forward?

JR: Almost Dead is always there. We only do 40 shows with that thing a year though, which isn’t a lot, so outside of that the Selcouth Quartet is my absolute focus for the foreseeable future. I also have an improv series that I’ve been doing at The Sultan Room in Brooklyn once a month where I bring together different ensembles. That’s pure improvisation and we’ve done one with myself, Marco Benevento and Brad & Andrew Barr from The Slip and The Barr Brothers. I’ve done one with Marc Ribot and John Medeski and I have another one coming up with Medeski and Nels Cline, but these are all purely improvisational outfits.

I’m going to be trying to play with as many people as I can like Cass McCombs, Fruit Bats and stuff like that. I like diversifying what I get to do and I’m lucky to be able to exist in a lot of different worlds. Somewhere in between the instrumental improv thing, the Grateful Dead world and the indie band world or whatever you want to call it, I just feel very fortunate to keep the calendar full with a lot of different stuff.


 

About this Author

Robert Duguay

Robert Duguay is a freelance writer who covers the NH music scene.