Artist Feature

Jason Stein
By Ken Waxman

Serendipity plays a large part in many musicians’ careers. And it’s serendipity that has meant that bass clarinetist Jason Stein has recently been performing his own music for large arena audiences. That’s because Stein, 39, is the brother of comedy superstar Amy Schumer and his Locksmith Isidore trio has become her opening act, regularly playing for tens of thousands of Schumer fans. Stein isn’t letting these high-profile gigs take over his life though. This month for instance, the night after he plays at Madison Square Garden (MSG) with Schumer, his Hearts and Minds trio with keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo and drummer Chad Taylor, is at the Greenwich House Music School.

“It’s probably one-two hundredth the size of Madison Square Garden,” jokes Chicago-based Stein. “But a big part of me aims to transmit the music. Playing a small venue or a large arena are different sides of a cube; but you do so with the same instincts.” Stein admits that it’s hard to get a response at stadiums, so his performance has to be “strategic”. “The music very jazz-oriented,” he explains. “It’s what I would play at a ‘normal’ show without another 20 minutes of free music.” Stein has no illusions that this association with Schumer will affect his career over the long run though. But it’s just one of those instances of serendipity that has occurred since he first took up the bass clarinet at the advanced age of 21.

Stein was already a professional, playing what he calls guitar in a Grant Green style. Born in Long Island, Stein was drawn to music early on and had a large cassette collection. Michael Jackson was his hero, and film exists of him at age seven performing all the songs from Thriller dressed like Jackson complete with home-made sequined glove. Guitar lessons came next with the “rawness and energy” of icons like Jimmy Page his influences, although his guitar teacher taught him “Giant Steps”. “I was 15 years old and figured I would never use it, but when I started playing the horn it came in handy,” he recalls.

Stein’s conversion to jazz came during a car trip from New York to Wyoming during which his friend played the soundtrack to Straight No Chaser. “I said ‘Holy shit Monk has a personal language which he’s developed through his instrument. As a guitarist I felt I was just reiterating ideas. When I played a Les Zeppelin tune I was playing Jimmy Page not myself.”

However his musical defining moment arrived after he had decided to dump music and study journalism at Vermont’s Bennington College. Impressed by Eric Dolphy’s work on Olé and Live at the Village Vanguard, he decided to buy a bass clarinet for fun. He found a beat-up, plastic instrument in a local band shop and even had to ask the woman how to get a sound out of it. “But once I played a few notes, I felt something and even she felt something – it was really natural for me.” By the time he arrived at Bennington it was to study music. During his one semester there he studied with Charles Gayle and Milford Graves, heard a fellow student’s records of European improvising stylists like Evan Parker and practiced eight hours a day. “Gayle gave me example of other languages, and I was really impressed by Parker,” recalls Stein. “He had a very personal style that I could see myself expanding upon.”

While he was picking up pointers about free playing that would help him later on, Stein wasn’t satisfied with his lack of rudiments. “My idea was to learn as many tunes as I could so I’d be able to play gigs,” he says. He switched to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor to study with Donald Walden. “He was a tenor saxophonist from Detroit for whom bebop was the language. He could be mighty harsh in his comments, especially if he thought you weren’t playing up to your standard, but that’s what I wanted,” Stein admits. Graduating with a bachelor of music degree in 2005, Stein moved to Chicago, where Giallorenzo, an old friend from Long Island had a performance space. Stein was able to live in the building’s basement space for $150 a month and play all he wanted. Soon he was working as part of a shifting group of young experimenting players in Chicago. Within a year Ken Vandermark asked him to join his Bridge 61 band and with it he toured Europe a few times. “It may have been a little too fast for me,” he states, “but during that time I saw a lot of what it was like being a professional musician on the road. Plus what I was paid was enough to cover my rent for six months.”

Stein began recording with others and CDs under his leadership at around the same time, including the first Locksmith Isidore sessions, named for his paternal grandfather from Queens, and taking as many gigs as he could. “My instinct from the beginning has to be flexible, but in my own way,” he says. “Say Tuesday night I’ll do a jazz gigs with lots of tunes, then Wednesday night play only free jazz.” Audaciously his second CD In Exchange for a Process was for solo bass clarinet. “I’ve always loved to play solo and in building a solo vocabulary, so I figured I might as well make a record and see what occurred.” This solo vocabulary led to concerts during which he’d play alone for the first set then with others afterwards. “It’s all about the juxtaposition of music and musicians,” he declares. “The experience of not knowing what you’re going to play next.”

Locksmith Isidore wasn’t his main group before the Schumer happenstance. But to play those shows he needed musicians such as drummer Mike Pride and bassist Jason Roebke, with whom he was comfortable and with which he had built up a distinctive repertoire. Stein plans to record the trio before the end of the year as well as another quartet he has with tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Keefe Jackson, bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Tom Rainey. Hearts and Minds with links to experimental and noise music is unique though, he notes. “One of the challenges of playing the bass clarinet in a variety of contexts is being able to play loud enough to play over drums. With Hearts and Minds I use a very open setup that helps me to play very loud when I want to.”

Still Stein says he’d rather be a sideman on others’ CDs than put out too many of his own. About four years ago, after he had made a few albums he decided that with the number of albums on the market, if he released something he wanted it to be special. “I get enough work playing in other people’s bands,” he asserts.

That’s why he’s as happy to play for 20 people as 20,000. “At a club you know that the people who have paid $7 at the door have come to see you. When you play they expect you to take them somewhere and feel the music. A big part of it to me is having the sense of connectivity to pull people into the music.”

Recommended Listening:

• Locksmith Isidore – A Calculus of Loss (Clean Feed 2008)

• Jason Stein – In Exchange for a Process (Leo 2009)

• Jason Stein's Locksmith Isidore – Three Kinds of Happiness (Not Two 2009)

• Jason Stein Quartet – The Story this Time (Delmark 2011)

• Hearts and Minds Hearts and Minds (Astral Spirits 2016)

—For The New York City Jazz Record October 2016