Jason Stein is one of the few musicians working today focused entirely upon bass clarinet as a jazz and improvisational instrument. Originally from Long Island, New York, Stein studied at Bennington College with Charles Gayle and Milford Graves, and at the University of Michigan with Donald Walden and Ed Sarath. In 2005, Stein relocated to Chicago and has since recorded for such labels as Leo, Delmark, Atavistic, 482 Music and Clean Feed. Stein has performed throughout the US and Europe with a number of different bands as both a leader and a sideman.
Cisco Bradley: I’d like to talk to you about your tour with your sister Amy Schumer. How many shows did you play on the tour and over what span of time? It’s such an amazing level of exposure for this music, one that it rarely gets on such big stages across the US and beyond.
Jason Stein: The first show of the tour was in early December, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the last one was in February 2017 in Baltimore. We played about 80 or 90 shows in that span. It was one long tour grouped into a big bunch of shows in the spring and then a big bunch in the fall.
We were in Europe for about two weeks. I think we played about 10 shows over there … and about 10 in Canada and all the rest of them were in the States.
Cisco Bradley: Was the format always the same? You opened the night and were followed by Amy Schumer?
Jason Stein: It was pretty much always a similar set up. We would open for about 20 minutes or so and then there was an opening comic, they would do a 10 or 12-minute set, and then Amy would go on for an hour or an hour and a half.
Cisco Bradley: How did the tour come into being?
Jason Stein: For a long time Amy and I talked about doing stuff together. She was visiting me in Chicago in late 2014 and asked if it might be possible to set up a last minute show somewhere in town where we could both perform. My friend Mike Reed owns a great venue in town called Constellation. I got in touch with him and asked if we could do a last minute show the following evening. He was into it and so we did it over there. It was announced the morning of the show. The venue has a capacity of 300-400 people and it sold out in about 3 minutes. It was hilarious!
Cisco Bradley: Wow. It’s amazing everything came together so quickly.
Jason Stein: It was really a blast. The feeling in the room was amazing and it had that quality of a secret and very special show that was happening. The venues that Amy was normally appearing in were enormous so to see her in a small venue like that was clearly extremely exciting for folks. And having us open was definitely an experiment that I was super curious to feel out . It was a lot more comfortable than I thought it would be and folks was very responsive and enthusiastic. It was a blast.
We wound up doing 10 straight days of last minute shows being announced daily. Every show was amazing and afterwards Amy was like, “We should do a tour like this.” It was cool having that as a warm up to be able to feel it out.
Cisco Bradley: When did the first show happen at Constellation?
Jason Stein: I think it was late 2014.
Cisco Bradley: I figure at Constellation, and even more so on the tour, Amy Schumer was bringing in people who wouldn’t have gone there to hear music. How did you feel people responded to the music?
Jason Stein: It’s really hard to say. The thing I can say is that we’re playing in venues that range from like 10,000 to 20,000 people, mostly basketball arenas. We didn’t get to interact with the audience like we would at a small club. People would applaud enthusiastically between tunes and no one boo-ed, which I always took as a great success. When we would walk up on stage, it pretty consistently felt like there were folks in the crowd that knew what was going on with us and knew who we were and were into it.
But with that many people, who knows. I mean, I tend to be kind of cynical and, you know, assume that when it comes to new things or somewhat strange things that most folks are pretty inclined to just kind of tune stuff out, eating pizza, drinking beer, waiting for the thing that they came to see, which is totally cool. The way I thought about it was that we we’re sharing this strange space with a ton of folks and inviting them to experience something new and unfamiliar and it was up to folks if they wanted to let it in. I felt comfortable with that.
Cisco Bradley: Did you find the stadium venues difficult in terms of performing in such huge rooms?
Jason Stein: The challenge of figuring out how to deal with the necessary level of amplification was completely insane. And to try and have our sound get amplified into a room that huge but still sound like acoustic instruments, I mean you’re fighting nature right off the bat.
From an amplification standpoint, a bass clarinet in that setting is pretty crazy. It took us a few months to really get the sound right. We sound checked before almost every show for a month and communicated with the sound guy to make adjustments. It was always the same sound crew traveling with us, which was really nice. But it took a few months to get it right. We had monitors on stage that for the most part made it so that we could hear everything okay and we would work at sound check from room to room to figure out how to be able to hear things clearly enough to be comfortable. After a few months it really fell into place and we stopped having to sound check. It became a really nice thing to be able to just roll in a half hour before the show. The more comfortable it was to actually play on stage the more musical we could be and more we could actually create something.
Cisco Bradley: Your band, Locksmith Isidore, can you talk about the music you make together? Were you presenting new music for the tour or working on existing tunes?
Jason Stein: It was kind of a mix. That band has a few records and quite a bit of material. In general we tended to present material that was more in the explicit direction of jazz music. There’s nothing that we could have done that would have been actually sensible for the environment but playing music that you could tap your foot to seemed like a wise idea. Some of the more abstract, very free material we deal with would have been harder to pull off. So I chose some tunes from our existing book that seemed fun and exciting to play and then wrote some new material throughout the tour.
From a compositional standpoint I didn’t feel any sense of pressure to unnaturally conform to the environment. Amy made it clear she wanted us to play what we play, so we could just do what we do.
Cisco Bradley: You don’t have a venue owner that’s requiring you to get X number of people there. I suppose it’s nice to have some freedom away from all that.
Jason Stein: Totally. I mean man I cannot overstate how much the shows were completely not about us. We were the warm up set for an artist that all these thousands of people were ecstatic to see. Even though of course it did feel like a big deal to play on such a massive stage in front of so many people, it was not about us and there’s freedom in that.
Cisco Bradley: How would you describe the music to someone who hadn’t heard it before?
Jason Stein: Half the tunes are swinging with a melody that you could probably hum if you were so inclined. Some of them have harmonic forms, some don’t. A few other tunes are based on grooves in odd meters. They all have melodies that define a beginning and end of the tune with a lot of improvising in between.
Cisco Bradley: Had Locksmith Isidore been together for a while before this tour?
Jason Stein: Yes. Our first record came out on Clean Feed in 2008 and was my first record as a band leader. We released another two albums after that, another for Clean Feed and one for Not Two, and did a bunch of US and European tours between 2008 and 2012. I named the band after my Grandpa, Isidore Stein who was a locksmith in Queens.
Cisco Bradley: Do you have a favorite show from the tour or maybe more than one that stands out?
Jason Stein: The first show at Madison Square Garden was pretty amazing. MSG is pretty much the pinnacle of performance venues so to see my sister sell it out and then to be a part of the show was incredible. I grew up in New York on Long Island and I would go to shows at MSG as a kid and constantly use Penn Station going in and out of Manhattan. So going there to play was deep.
The other one that stands out to me was the show we did in Kansas City, where Charlie Parker is from. We were playing for 20,000 people and there was one minute during a tune where I found my way into playing a Ornithology and a bunch of people yelled from the audience because they recognized the tune. Damn that made me so happy.
Cisco Bradley: Do you feel like this kind of setting and this exposure and everything has opened up opportunities for you musically and professionally?
Jason Stein: I’ve been asked that a lot. I hope so. Ask me again in a year or two.
Cisco Bradley: I suppose it’s speculative. It’s hard to know how stuff is received and what people are thinking when they leave the venue. Do you feel like this gave greater exposure to the music in general?
Jason Stein: This goes back to it not being about us. When people leave the show what is on their minds is how hilarious and amazing my sister was to see. Beyond that I have no idea and I’m totally cool with that.
Cisco Bradley: What’s next for Locksmith Isidore?
Jason Stein: We’re about to record a new album in July at Electrical Audio in Chicago.
Cisco Bradley: Do you have any stories from being on the road, things from the tour, stuff that happened off stage?
Jason Stein: We did a show in Nashville pretty early in the tour, in February 2015 and T-bone Burnett was at the show. We went out to an amazing spot with bluegrass music afterwards and he was hanging with us and he came over to talk to me and was so sweet and and enthusiastic about the music. I think he knew that when you’re a musician and someone tells you that they liked what you did you never totally believe them and he took out his phone and showed me a text that he had sent to his friend saying wow this jazz trio is amazing and tearing it up on this huge stage. It was such a sweet thing to show that to me. I felt like shit if T-bone Burnett is digging what we’re doing it’s all good.
Cisco Bradley: Thanks so much for sharing your experience. Best of luck to you in the future.