There is so much about Jon von Boehm that speaks to both jazz and non-jazz fans. The unassuming, but ridiculously talented Nashville bassist and composer just may wind up leading the next wave in jazz-fusion, into a bright, new, and relevant future. With his self-titled debut album of original material just out, von Boehm may also very well give the cool kids — pop and R&B — a run for the money.
Already well-versed in rock, punk, and gospel, the well-honed session player traded in those guitar licks for studious forms of jazz before embarking on a two-year odyssey into his critically acclaimed new album, “one song at a time.”
The musicians on von Boehm’s recording project are also fans and great enablers of jazz-fusion, able to draw deeply from the wellspring of the beasts of funk, prog-rock, hippie psychedelia, as well as some Yellowjackets. They are also some of von Boehm’s favorites, always ready to give 100 percent to the original make-up of every one of the nine tracks favoring the fusion in improvisational jazz: co-producer/drummer Michael Green, keyboardists Walter Scott and Kenny Zarider, saxophonists Michael Gutierrez and Chris West, guitarists Denny Jiosa, Jonathan Crone, Dann Glenn, Ben Badenhorst, and Scott Goudeau, and vocalist Lara Landon.
The album will have jazz purists stop literally in their tracks to take in the liberal doses of ballsy mixing, matching, and mastering of both groove and technique. It’s pure Jon von Boehm, power in a box.
So’s a lengthy, thoughtful interview he granted AXS exclusively last Friday.
AXS: Your new, self-titled debut album: What is it all about in a nutshell?
Jon von Boehm: This record is about me stepping out on my own finally. It's a snapshot of where I am presently, as most records musicians do are. Six years from now, I’ll be in a different place musically, I hope! It also features musicians who I work with regularly because, who we play with is a big part of our musical identity as well.
AXS: Who is your target audience — or have you even thought that far?
JvB: I guess my target audience would be musicians of course, but also people who like good music. Not necessarily jazz listeners either. I could've made a record that's one giant math equation, one that could only be appreciated or understood by those with a Masters in Music, but I didn't want to go that route. Don't get me wrong, I know there's a lot of chops on my record. I just hope that underneath it all, it feels good and moves anyone who may listen to it. I've had people tell me that if they hadn't actually seen me play the music, they wouldn't have understood the difficulty of what I was doing. I really appreciate that a lot, because if stuff doesn't sound musical first, the technique’s useless.
AXS: What are you hoping to elicit in the new listener who maybe isn’t from the jazz genre?
JvB: Someone that did an iTunes review of the record said, “This is like jazz for people who don't like jazz!" ha ha! I actually like that a lot. I started out as a rock and punk-rock musician when I was a kid, then discovered jazz and fell in love with that as well. That those two styles couldn’t be on further ends of the spectrum, although they are the same in spirit, means a lot to me. When I write, I don't think about anything other than what makes me feel good and what emotional state I'm in at that moment. Since I have these influences, though, what I write comes out as a mix of the two genres. I think that's what gets non-jazz listeners into what I do. They can hear a burning sax solo one minute, then a distortion-drenched guitar solo the next. That's when I see them bobbing their heads and I jump out and say, “Gotcha!” ha ha. I just hope that, in the context of what I do, they can began to appreciate the joys of expression through improvisation in music.
AXS: What first inspired you to go for it with a debut album? IOW, why did you want to make a record?
JvB: I've spent a lot of time in the practice room and on stage. After so many countless hours of hard work, I was getting sick of having my art and ability be a slave to someone else's success or dreams. That's what it's like to be a session musician, more or less. Don't get me wrong, I'll still play for other people, but they have to understand they're hiring me and not a clone of someone else. If they want what I do, I'm all about it. Riding someone else's coattails to get ahead in your career is no way to live, at least not for me anyway. That's not really a career, that's a job. Putting out a record was the right thing to do, because I have a lot to say musically and I also have my own voice on the instrument. I've had a lot of fun doing it and look forward to many more records and collaboration.
AXS: What were you going for, a technical, stylistic showcase, an interactive mix, or—?
JvB: I guess I was just going for a representation of who and where I am at the moment musically. I really didn't think about directions so much. Direction just started happening as I wrote songs for this. I do have a project on the back-burner that does have more of an underlying theme and direction, I guess you could say. It'll be a solid trio with very few, if any, guest artists.
AXS: Your music definitely grooves while going forward in the jazz-fusion mix. Where does emotional context come in with the feel-good vibe, or does it?
JvB: Overall, I'm a pretty emotional person, so whatever I do, emotion is already automatically part of it. I'm one of those that cry at concerts when it's really good. So when I'm writing or working on an idea, if it doesn't pull something out of me emotionally, I don't even bother with it, I just can it. So yeah, if anybody hears my stuff and they feel an emotion, it's not that I set out for it to be that way, it just happened naturally.
AXS: At what point during the recording project did you realize you were on the right track?
JvB: The first track on the record is the first song that I actually recorded, which was “The Machine Lies.” That track is just bass, drums, and saxophone, but the sound is huge. The song takes you through all these different peaks and valleys; it’s quite the journey. I wrote that song in about 15 minutes one day. After that session, I said to myself, "Yeah I can do this." Any trepidation I had was gone from that point on.
AXS: What’s important to you as an artist, originality, showmanship, pyrotechnics, working well with other musicians to produce a cohesive, unique sound…?
JvB: These days, especially when I'm listening to or choosing other musicians, it’s originality. Or you could say people who have their own unique voice on their instrument. Cats who have that almost always have nothing to prove. It's a very different experience playing with them. They are relaxed and confident in who they are as musicians. When I'm playing with people like that, I'll look over my shoulder and watch them. I get to hear somebody who is truly able to express themselves in a more complete way. They're not thinking about their idols and what so-and-so would do. It's pretty amazing every time I'm in that situation.
AXS: I reviewed another jazz-fusion musician from Nashville, who’s also pushing those boundaries. What’s going on down in the home of the Grand Ole Opry?
JvB: As one would expect, there's a lot of great musicians here. A lot of the guys that play on the country sessions are all mostly accomplished jazz musicians. They will tell you though, it's better to play on a great country gig then it is to play on a crummy jazz gig, ha ha! It's not unusual to hear someone between takes play “Spain” like they've been playing it their whole life or blow through some Coltrane changes as a warm-up. Country isn't the only thing that goes on here though. There's great playing across a lot of different genres. There's jazz almost nightly, and the Nashville Jazz Workshop is a great organization too. As a musician, the resources here are amazing, plus you get that nice Southern hospitality.
AXS: Setting out as a jazz musician is an often thankless gig. What drives you to keep at it with so many other jazz musicians out there, and in a genre not exactly known for its popularity?
JvB: Passion. The need to express myself is too strong, regardless of how tough it may be. And when I'm playing, it really is like therapy. Nothing really compares to it and that's why I keep at it. Jazz isn't well known for its popularity, but then in other countries, I have a lot of listeners. Some more than others. Interesting how that works. The country that the genre comes from, it struggles, but in other countries, it’s appreciated more. Actually, I think that in some other countries, they have just a deeper appreciation for art as a whole and they realize how it enriches their society. With the way the industry is now and with use of social media, your listeners are much more like your family and friends. That also keeps me going. My listeners are part of my inner circle and I keep them close. They're more to me than a paycheck. When you have a big family cheering you on, you can’t help but continue.
AXS: You’d think there’d be fewer jazz musicians now. But that’s not the case. There are countless stories of young musicians who tire of the pop and rock, and get interested in the intricacies of a more challenging genre like jazz. What about this genre really gets your juices flowing?
JvB: I like to think I'm an intelligent person or at least a little smart ha! I read a lot, I keep up with things, I like science and so on. As a musician, jazz appeals to my intellect, but it also appeals to my emotional, artistic side. It's the best of both worlds. In order to play it well, you have to at least be somewhat accomplished. Then on the other hand, in improvisation, you have to let all that stuff go and play from the heart. You're always walking on this razor’s edge between the two when you're playing jazz and I think that's why I like it. I also think that's why it appeals to young, talented artists who want something more.
AXS: Why do you think you went the route of original instrumentals over doing covers? Does your youth have anything to do with it, maybe having something to prove?
JvB: I've been playing standards for over 20 years. Going down that route at this point didn't really appeal to me. Plus, some of my biggest influences are influences because of their writing and not so much because of their playing per se. I don't feel I had anything to prove, but I did want to have songs that featured what I'm doing. Since it is a bass player’s record, I needed to showcase that a little bit, and the best way to do it was to write material that would cater to it.
AXS: The prog-rock and funk influences are strong throughout this record. How did you incorporate these styles into the jazz framework?
JvB: That just goes back to my background as a musician and writing from a place with no preconceived ideas. I can honestly say that when I wrote the stuff, I wasn't thinking it needs to sound like a little bit of this with a splash of that. I just wrote what felt and sounded good to me. If anything, I would say if I needed something to sound a little prog-rockish, I would get a particular player to play on it. Or if I needed it to swing hard, I would get another guy to play on it, but overall, I didn't go in thinking about anything other than writing something that I thought sounded good to me. What you're hearing is just a combination of all the things I've done through the years up until now.
AXS: Your music’s actually pretty cool, Yellowjacket-ish, the rhythm, the changes. Where do you get your ideas from?
JvB: When I get an idea away from my instrument, it's usually a theme rather than sounds. Then I go home and write something within that framework. Sometimes when I'm with my instrument, I'll start noodling and come up with something that I really like and expand upon it. Some of my best work happened rather quickly, literally just a few minutes. It's like the floodgates open. Other ideas, I'll spend a lot of time on and then in the end they just sound like garbage. Some people would say, "Oh you're just being your own worst critic," but I've been playing long enough to know what sounds good and what doesn't. That's part of what being a professional musician is about. Plus, I've been fortunate in that every time I pick up my instrument, I feel all giddy. That too is a driving force to create. When that little idea catches fire and you start to hear it get bigger, and better, the excitement level goes up and you can't wait to hear it get finished. The end result of that is always very fulfilling.
AXS: Of all the songs on the record, which were particularly gratifying for you and why?
JvB: “Mad Harmonic Oscillator” is high on the list. That's a really good representation of where I'm at right now. “Selleck P.I.” is another one. Having Dann Glenn play on “The Thing Of It Is” was great, because I got to know him a bit and he was one of my big influences when I was younger too. It was an honor to have him on it. It doesn't hurt that he's a killer guitar player either. It’s a tough question, because there are a lot of great players on it and each recording session was a very different experience for me.
AXS: How would you characterize your own personal style?
JvB: I always tell people I'm a rock bass player that plays jazz licks, ha ha. That sounds kind of simple, but it really is true. I started out playing rock and punk, fell in love with jazz, went to a jazz school, and here I am.
AXS: As a bassist, it can be hard to stand out in a jazz group setting — well, unless you’re Stanley Clarke. What do you do to stand out, or is that even important? Where is your voice on this record, as a composer more than the featured solo artist?
JvB: I think what I do to stand out is just be myself. As musicians, who we are is our brand. Our uniqueness as an individual is what draws people to us. I guess I just stay true to that and only play what I'm good at when I'm performing in front of people. But in the woodshed, I work on the stuff that I'm not good at. I would say that my voice on the record is in the writing and in my playing, but I think people can usually tell it's me, because I allow other musicians that are playing on it to express themselves as much as they like within the context of the song.
AXS: What’s the usual avenue for young musicians like yourself to get heard, Bandcamp right?
JvB: Haha, although I do love Bandcamp, we need to use every avenue we can think of, but yet still pinpoint the audience that needs our product. If you want, you can use social media to your advantage. It's like a big art gallery that anybody can put their pictures up in. You can get thousands and maybe even millions of people to look at it, but the number of views you get out of video or what-not doesn't really matter if it's crap. People only invest in what they believe in. So if you put something out there, you have to try to keep the bar pretty high. At the same time, make your listeners feel like they are part of what you're doing. I see a lot of musicians take the Field of Dreams approach, where they think if they build it they will come. In other words, they put out a record that they think is great, but then they don't do anything at all to promote it. They just think, because it's good, people are just going to buy it. Not quite. You have to reach out to everybody you can think of. Your peers, people who are doing the same thing as you in other cities. So on and so on. When you find people who believe in your art, keep them close.
JvB: Hustle, hustle, and more hustle! Like a lot of us, I'm doing all of this without a publicist, booking agent, or management. If someone reading this wants to take me on in those areas, feel free to get a hold of me, ha ha! But in the meantime, I have to keep doing this on my own. It's amazing what just reaching out to people will get you if you have product that is good. You just have to take the time to sit down and do it. A phone call here and an email there. There are people out there who need what you have and you have to look at it as a mutually beneficial relationship when you find them. It's not just all about you in business — you have to help each other out. Look to artists who are doing the same thing as you, but are a little bit ahead of the game, and reach out to them and their contacts. Lots of networking and keeping those networks cultivated is crucial. A little bit of confidence goes a long way too. Not arrogance, but a belief in what you're doing.
AXS: How important is it for you to make media contacts and enlist the help of bloggers, music writers, in the marketing aspect of selling your jazz (because a lot of musicians don’t even bother)?
JvB: It is super important. How else are people not in your circles going to hear about you and hear about new music? I'm amazed by the people who don't bother. I saw someone post recently somewhere, "Here's to the musicians that care more about the music than popularity. Thank you!" Popularity should not be the focus when creating art, but without some amount of popularity, you can't sustain what you do. Otherwise, you're just practicing all day. I'm amazed at how a lot of musicians cannot separate art from business. I think that goes back to the whole expectation of, if it's good, people are just going to automatically find it, like it, and share it with everybody. If that were the case, every proud mama's kid would be world-famous by now. Also, these writers are doing it, because they love to. Give them something to talk about! The ones that don't bother tend to have a chip on their shoulder.
AXS: Where do you think jazz will end up in the future? Is it destined to end, become enveloped by fusion? Or maybe the better question is, where do you see your place in jazz?
JvB: I think one of the major points of jazz is innovation. The younger guys are blowing and getting some well-deserved attention. Miles saw it in his day. Some of the older guys are still wearing pinstripe suits, looking at the bass guitar like it's a disease and are barely getting a nod. Not that there is anything wrong with old school or new school. I love them both. It's just that in an age where music is pretty much free, I foresee some of the purists shooting themselves in the foot, because of the unwillingness to change. So, jazz enveloped by fusion? Maybe fusion is just jazz? I see more and more younger players putting their own stamp and twist on things. I would love to see myself considered one of them.
AXS: Are you gigging in support of the new album right now? What else is in the works?
JvB: I'm gigging, trying to stay busy and keep the ball rolling. After I play the summer NAMM show in July, I'm hoping to start a new side project on top of continuing to support this current record. The lineup for the live band is pretty killer. I'm happy to have them on board. I hope to get out there more and get to play for all my listeners. Getting to meet them in person is always a real joy. It always feels like a big family reunion.