Author: Rob Enslin
Want to improve your improvisational skills? Then Jess King has some advice for you: “Make sure you’re not the smartest person in the room. If you start telling people how to play their instruments, you’re not going to be popular.”
A charter member of the Syracuse chapter of Music for People (MfP), King understands the selfless collaboration that goes into group music making–be it a Brahms quintet, a Cole Porter song or a Max Richter score. For nearly a decade, she has played bassoon and contrabassoon in Symphoria and the Syracuse Opera Orchestra, while participating in numerous chamber groups throughout the region. King also is an in-demand teacher, as evidenced by her private studio and recent stints at Syracuse University and Hamilton College.
But don’t let the classical pedigree and bookish glasses fool you. King considers herself not a bassoon-nerd, but, rather, a nerd who plays bassoon. “I have students who can outdo me in conversations about famous bassoonists and gear,” says the Eastman-trained performer, who also sings, drums and plays guitar for fun. “Knowing that stuff doesn’t make you a great player–only practicing does.”
A member of MfP’s Musicianship and Leadership Program (MLP), King extols the virtues of free improvisation. Ergo her involvement with WunderJam, which, until recently, has presented monthly, MfP-inspired jam sessions at Wunderbar in downtown Syracuse.
MfP recently caught up with the musical polyglot to discuss the importance of creative self-expression, especially during COVID-19.
How did you get involved with Music for People?
It began in 2014, when I met Alina Plourde [an oboist who directs MfP-Syracuse]. We were on a bus, on our way to a Symphoria gig, and I approached her about playing chamber music sometime. Thank goodness, she was interested. Alina brought up her experience as an improviser and asked me if I would be interested in doing improvised music. When she mentioned Music for People, I was all in.
A few months later, I went to the Art of Improvisation workshop at SUNY Fredonia with her and pianist Steve Rosenfeld. It was a fabulous experience and a great way to transition from improvising in private to improvising in public.
What’s been your greatest MfP experience?
I’ve had so many transcendent experiences that there’s no way to choose just one. That said, the best moments are those where everyone is listening, being sensitive and offering space to one another. Listening is more than important than being technically proficient on your instrument.
Is it true that you have a “ridiculous record collection”?
It includes every genre I can think of. I take most pride in my funk and contemporary classical albums—and I do mean albums. If something is released on vinyl, I try to find it. Some of my recent purchases include new albums by the bassist Thundercat, rapper Childish Gambino, the neo-jazz group Moonchild and the groove band Khruangbin. I know minimalism [i.e., simple living] is in, but I just love to own physical representations of music.
The best moments are those where everyone is listening, being sensitive and offering space to one another. Listening is more than important than being technically proficient on your instrument.Jess King
How are you dealing with the pandemic?
I used to spend most days playing with about 50 other musicians [in Symphoria]. Transitioning from that to being alone has been a big shock. But more and more collaborative projects are coming together, and I’m starting to feel pulled back [into playing].
There’s nothing wrong with taking time to adjust. For instance, I’ve been spending a lot of time gardening and working on my house. It’s just that we need to be gentle with ourselves and each other during this new social experiment.
In 12 words or less, what’s WunderJam?
Cosmic entities experimenting musically on each other, grooving toward quantum catharsis.
What advice do you have for classical musicians interested in free improvisation?
You’ve got to make friends with people who want to explore other genres. You may be the funkiest viola da gamba player out there, but without a drummer or a singer, you’re probably not going to get far. When you cross from one genre to another, your credentials don’t come with you—you’re a student again.
Do you have an MfP Idol?
I don’t idolize people because it implies that I’ll never get to where they are. But I do admire many people in MfP, at all levels of the program.
Some of them, such as Alina, [Board President] Todd Rogers and [Program Director] Mary Knysh are great collaborators who get things done. Others, including [MLP student] Susan Hynds and [MLP graduate] Jane Buttars, are wellsprings of creativity. Then there are others, such as [MLP student] Laura Enslin, who contribute energy and positivity to every MLP session.
All of these people and countless others exhibit tenacity and perseverance—traits I deeply admire.