For the past couple of years, we’ve been sharing profiles of our Individual Arts Partnership and Jade Presents Arts Partnership grantees through a series called “Grantee Highlights.” Today we’d like to share a follow-up Q&A with musician Max Johnk who received a Jade Presents Arts Partnership grant to create a new CD with the Max Johnk Quartet called “Allweather,” which was released back in January. We felt that the lessons he learned in the process of producing the CD would inspire others:
What was a particularly memorable/proud/favorite/happy moment for you as an artist, made possible by the support of the grant?
I composed nine complete pieces for this project, and wrote many, many more pages of sketches that didn’t make it to the stage or studio. Of the pieces that I brought to the band, the ones with basic structures that left a lot of room for improvising and flexibility were clearly the most compelling.
Meanwhile, I had written one piece in particular that was tightly orchestrated, and had a lot of moving parts. While I feel it is a strong composition, and I may arrange it for another ensemble, the complexity of the piece made it a non-starter. The musicians had to spend so much of their focus on just keeping track of where they were in the piece, and what they were supposed to be doing, that we weren’t able to play musically or improvise meaningfully. We performed it once live, and it became clear that the band was at its best playing more compressed forms that allowed the musicians to focus on listening and interacting, rather than staring at music stands. I later wrote “Keep it Spare,” the least structured piece on the album, as a tribute to this lesson.
Did you meet your project goals?
My band and I accomplished all of my goals for the project. We released a full-length album of my original compositions, featuring musicians from the F-M music scene. The recording provides a clear, well-performed document of these compositions, and gives my band mates and me a useful promotional tool for booking more work in the future.
I feel we were able to fulfill these goals by having a clearly defined product we were aiming for, and when there were bumps in the road (lack of rehearsal, the need for additional recording) we were able to rely on our collective expertise beyond playing our instruments. For instance, Steve and Chris, my horn players, are both accomplished sound engineers, who were able to contribute equipment and technical expertise during the sessions. Steve also made a huge contribution when he engineered our second, unplanned recording session. Having collaborators who were invested in the project as more than work for hire was (and continues to be) a major blessing.
What advice would you pass along to other artists working on similar projects?
I would definitely recommend double checking any equipment or spaces you are going to use in person before you commit to using them. We recorded our first session at the Aquarium in downtown Fargo, because it had a great mixing board and microphones we could use for free. It is one of my favorite sounding rooms in the city when performing live, but I never noticed that when it is completely quiet, the refrigeration units behind the bar create a loud hum. We ended up not using the takes from this session for performance reasons, but those kind of details can be hard to spot, even in environments where you spend a lot of time but under different circumstances. Take the time to see how things will work, in the specific conditions you plan on using them.
My other recommendation for folks working with other musicians/artists on their projects is to make the schedule very early, then be clear what the time commitment will be to everyone involved . . . Find out what people have going on, so you don’t put anybody in the position to be under-prepared.
Thank you for sharing your experience and advice with us, Max! If you’d like to listen to the Max Johnk Quartet’s new album “Allweather,” click here.
All photos are courtesy of Samuel Thomas-Claeys.