For Mark Ortwein, playing in the esteemed Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra certainly has its perks. Being one of many in this grand music body though, the contra bassoonist admits his personal creative needs were not being fully met.
That is, until he became a part of Indianapolis’ Icarus Ensemble.
“Playing in the Symphony full-time, you’re told how to play, and you can only play what’s on the page. There’s not much creativity, although it’s a great job,” he says. “But this [group] gives me complete freedom. I can write whatever I want to write. I can play whatever I want to play. It’s a real artistic outlet that I wasn’t getting.”
Consisting of three ISO members (including Ortwein) and a pair of Butler University professors, the ensemble explores a diverse range of jazz sounds using an unconventional set of instruments. After playing together for many years now, the group celebrated the release of their first full-length album at The Jazz Kitchen on Sunday. A long time in the making, Icarus Ensemble’s self-titled debut includes 11 original compositions from members of the quintet, as well as one original arrangement from Ortwein.
Many years before Icarus Ensemble’s official start, pianist Gary Walters remembers talking with bassist Peter Hansen and fellow musician friend Chuck Carter about their love for the avant-jazz group Oregon. They discussed how they’d love to create a similar band of their own someday. Unfortunately, Carter passed away before the three were ever able to bring this idea to fruition. In his honor though, Hansen came to Walters, in hopes of getting the ensemble, which became Icarus, together.
The pianist remembers, “He said, ‘We oughta get that group started in memory of Chuck,’ and I said, ‘I’m game.’” From here, the co-founders recruited Jon Crabiel (drums and percussion), Dean Franke (violin) and Ortwein (saxes, electric bassoon and bass clarinet), eventually making their first live appearance at a University of Indianapolis Faculty Artist Concert in February 2007.
While juggling busy schedules, the group has continued to regularly play out since then, making several appearances at The Jazz Kitchen among other places. Despite their jazzy nature though, Hansen admits Icarus Ensemble certainly has a symphony-inspired side to it too.
“We’re all sight-readers, but then there’s always a section that’s quite open for improvisation,” he says. “So it kind of provides both worlds - the symphonic world and the jazz world – with a place to meet.”
Alongside traditional jazz bands, Icarus Ensemble’s choices in instrumentation are also a bit out of the ordinary. Hansen points out, “Having an electric bassoon is unusual and having a violin in a jazz group is somewhat unusual as well.” On top of this, both he and Crabiel both play with their own unique approaches.
“I play with the bow a lot, and you don’t have a lot of jazz bass players playing with bow,” he says. “Jon’s playing a drum set, but I’m always encouraging him to play hand drums and play some of the things that make different sounds, instead of a traditional jazz drum set.”
On top of this, each ensemble member also brings his own diverse collection of influences to the composition process, which is heard quite clearly on their debut album. In Ortwein’s tunes alone, for example, listeners can hear elements of Latin jazz and New Orleans funk, as well as a solo session reminiscent of the great Miles Davis. In addition, Hansen is also proud to say that there are definitely some Oregon-esque songs on the album too.
“There are a few tunes that stick out as being the most like what I was envisioning when we started the group, and that feels really good to hear those and think, ‘Oh yeah. That’s what we’re after,’” he says.
Like Ortwein, the co-founder has also gained a great deal of creative satisfaction from playing with Icarus Ensemble.
“We could never play a Shostakovich symphony, and that’s one of the most thrilling things I’ve done this [ISO] season and in my career as a symphonic bassist,” Hansen says. “But at the same time, we can do things that are so much more scaled down and just sound so different than what I’m typically used to hearing in the orchestra. I love ‘em both.”
Looking ahead, Icarus Ensemble will continue writing new material in hopes of eventually producing another album. Until then though, they simply wish to reach as many new ears as they can, playing concerts when the busy ISO schedule permits.