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Album Premiere: Idle Minds by Eric Wurzelbacher

Eric W.
17 December 2021

Eric Wurzelbacher – Photo Credit: Brandon Coleman

Saxophonist Eric Wurzelbacher combines past, present, and future jazz in his new release Idle Minds.

Wurzelbacher and his band (drummer Charlie Schefft*, keyboardist Ryan Jones, and bassist Justin Dawson) are very much students of the genre, though jazz is clearly not the only influence they bring to the table.

Big Takeover is pleased to host the premiere of the engaging album in its entirety today.

The tracks “Burnout” and “Hozhoni” for example, are classic cool jazz numbers with straightforward, catchy heads that veer off into different and unexpected directions. The band shines in their improvised bop solo sections as one player then another takes their instrument for a spin. Hints of Thelonius Monk-inspired whole tone runs dot the piano solos in “Burnout” as the soulful upright bass takes things from a cool Miles Davis to a hot B-section evocative of the sweeping dunes and oases of Duke Ellington’s Caravan.

Then there are songs like “Deception” which bring Idle Minds into a much more modern era featuring distorted electric keys evocative of Booker T. & the M.G.‘s. Here Justin Dawson moves seamlessly from the upright to the electric bass as he brings the funk. The band sounds like they’re having a blast as they play around with some tricky time signatures. About halfway through the song, the vibe changes even more drastically than “Burnout” into something closer to early prog-rock. The instrumental sections in Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” come to mind. “Deception” has a sense of intrigue and danger. Also, Wurzelbacher adds really cool phasing and echo effects on the sax.

“Elfie” is another more modern-sounding number. It begins with a hip descending funk groove that really gets you moving. This might not be the most cultured comparison, but—you know how great the Hey Arnold theme song is? It grooves. This one is kind of like… Arnold Noire.

The tenor sax on “Green Giant” really gives the track some giant-sized girth. The band shows off what workhorse musicians they all are as they stretch their musical chops. All these songs have such serious energy. When they groove, they groove hard. When they bop, they bop hard. It’s a masterclass in jazz. Charlie Schefft’s absolutely rock-solid drumming weaves together with Wurzelbacher’s exceptional improvisations and Ryan Jones’s effortless keysmanship. They listen to each other so well, complimenting each other’s phrasing through section after section, you feel like you’re eavesdropping on their private conversation.

In “Honey B” we remember why we love the upright bass. Sure the electric has its place, but in a song like this, there is no comparison to the full, rich tones of the upright. A hesitant piano melody tiptoes around the ascending baseline until they both join together in unison. The sax swirls around in a similar way as the drums pitter-patter playfully, experimenting with the seemingly unlimited space they’re given. The song builds to a discordant cacophony and ends as softly and timidly as it began.

These are long tracks; between five and eight minutes generally, and they’re all a blast. They’re groovy and expressive. Every member of this band is a highly proficient musician and they show it without being pretentious or self-serving. If you’re a jazz fan and looking for something that straddles the line between old school and new school, definitely check out Idle Minds.

Eric Wurzelbacher generously took part in a heartfelt and insightful Q&A interview to discuss his band and his music:

The band is so tuned into each other. How did you reach this level of nonverbal communication in your mutual improvisation?

“First of all, thank you for the kind words. It’s a combination of many things coming to play simultaneously. The most objective and obvious thing would be that we rehearsed these particular songs a lot and had loose preconceived ideas of when to make certain transitions and where solos were going to evolve to. Many times throughout the album you can actually hear when my sound pulls away from the microphone for a second right before a new section in the song, which is a result of me physically cuing the next section. A lot of these cues are also accompanied by particular motifs as well to make the transitions extra clear and ensure the music flows smoothly. The more subjective, underlying reason for being tuned in with each other is also the most important in my mind. We all trust each other. This takes years to develop sometimes; I know that I can take musical risks and be as honest as I want and the rest of the musicians will have my back and actually compliment what I’m doing. What’s also incredibly important is that these risks never come from a place of ego; they are taken in hopes of reaching another level musically and making the group as a whole sound better. This is why I love improvised music so much at its core; it’s a new journey every time you play the same song. It’s also a very sensitive art form; all of these things (objective and subjective) have to be in place in order to reach this higher level. This can be very frustrating at times as a musician and specifically a band leader, but when you do reach that blissful musical connection, it makes it all worth it.”

What are some of your major influences (musical or otherwise)? Is there anything you’ve been listening to on repeat lately?

“Well according to my Spofify recap… I love Kenny Garrett and Soundgarden haha. I have said this many times before, but I really do love every type of music. Factors such as the weather, relationships, and personal experiences greatly influence what I’m listening to on any given day. I do tend to favor (I hesitate to throw out genres) rock and jazz. The intensity and aggression in rock has been a coping mechanism for me since I can remember. I’ve never been into super dark, nihilistic music, but I do really appreciate music that acknowledges how daunting our human existence can be, but attempts to overcome and empower its listeners. For me, Led Zeppelin was my first huge influence, then it morphed to other rock bands of the classic rock era, then eventually I landed on grunge. Soundgarden has been a staple for me since high school, along with other bands of that era (Pearl Jam, RATM, Incubus, etc.)”

“All while I was digging deep into these artists, I simultaneously was really attracted to the sound of Charlie Parker and had recently begun to learn how to play the saxophone. My brother and I used to play video games and have a Bird album on repeat while we would sing the solos out loud. It hadn’t occurred to me until years later how hip that was for the time and how much that helped develop my ears for improvising. Shortly after my Charlie Parker, Cannonball, and Coltrane obsession, I started digging into more modern players such as Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin, and last but not least, Kenny Garrett. When I landed on Kenny Garrett’s album “Songbook”, it was all over after that. My love for his spiritual approach, intensity towards music, and his compositions has influenced me as a musician significantly. In the midst of navigating through the uncomfortable, egotistical environment of music school in college, Garrett’s music really spoke to me as the truth and felt like I remembered why I originally was ever entranced by music to begin with. This musical approach is something I cherish greatly and try my best to spread it amongst fellow musicians and students.”

You drift into the Arabic mode quite a bit in these songs. What about the feel of that scale appeals to you or is it just another tool in the kit that deserves much play as a major or minor scale?

“This is the first time this has actually been brought up about this album. During the writing process for many of these songs, I would keep unintentionally drifting into this sound, as you are referring to it as the Arabic mode. This particular sound has always appealed to me. It combines light and darkness in a way that cannot be achieved with major and or minor. To get really academic, it allows for the major third to be heard while keeping many other dissonances. This relates to what I was talking about with my musical influences and overall mindset about the world. Things that are unrealistically happy have never appealed to me; it feels like they are in denial of reality and not productive. Things that are completely dark, nihilistic, and void of any hope have never appealed to me as well; to me what’s the point of living with this kind of mindset? Both of these extremes seem mentally and/or spiritually stagnant to me; they leave no room for growth. This Arabic mode or sound you’re referring to acknowledges the darkness and sometimes grim reality in life, but also offers hope and love for all things. This is obviously just my interpretation of these sounds as I know certain sounds and/or scales can mean totally different things to other individuals and cultures.”

“As a musician who composes music as a means of personal expression, it is really important for me that the sound of my songs reflect my perspective on life as accurately as possible. If you look at all of the most impactful artists in the history of mankind, they have always reached this level of honesty and self- realization that many people will never attain. My goal is to one day hopefully get anywhere close to this kind of honesty and artistic expression in order to impact and empower listeners.”

Many of these songs were written during the pandemic. How did things like quarantine and the overall atmosphere affect the writing process and content of these songs?

“It was a very difficult time for many, and still is today in many aspects. I am forever grateful that at least I was able to go outside and enjoy my very small parcel of land that I have here in Cincinnati. I can’t imagine what many people went through who live in large metropolitan cities. My brother is a doctor in Brooklyn, NY and lived through the absolute worst of it; it still haunts him today. For me, I was very fortunate overall. Me, my family, and friends all stayed pretty healthy throughout. The worst thing for me, besides hearing about the suffering of others, was the hatred and animosity that spawned from it. There were a few months where it felt like everybody was fighting about everything. This is human nature unfortunately. Trap us all in a box and feed us polarizing news stories… not a good recipe. I even felt tension with my own parents a few times about really trivial political differences.”

“This feeling of pain and hopelessness for society did inspire me to want to do something, so I did what I know best and dug into music and tried to create. In some respects it was definitely for self healing purposes, but I am also always thinking about the potential impact these songs may have on the listener. Once again, being aware of everything that was going on and trying to be as honest as possible, the content of these songs acknowledges how messed up things are in the world, but also offers hope and love for all things and people; that was at least my intent behind it all.”

“The specific writing process was quite different and more difficult than normal. Usually I will have an idea that I put into music to read with my group. When I hear it played with other musicians, I immediately want to change a handful of things. Songs never sound the same when musicians play them as they do in my head. So then I will modify the music and meet again with musicians to see if it sounds closer to what I want while taking suggestions from my bandmates as well. We will repeat this until the song feels complete. This process was greatly slowed down during the peak of the pandemic because at times it didn’t feel right to meet up in person and different band members had different levels of comfort with meeting in person as well. Overall, I’m super glad I have this album as a means of expression as it certainly helped me cope with the pandemic (as I hope it does for listeners as well) and it will forever be a timestamp to reflect on this unprecedented time in history.”