(Video Courtesy: Falcon Gott)
It all started in May 2016.
“We started dating recently,” said Eric Longnecker, eliciting laughs from his fellow band mates.
What happened in May, you ask? DeJon Allen, another member of the group, had his recital that featured fusion combo. Then, Longnecker approached Allen, along with Hannah Swanson, Taylor Petersen, Jake Brenden and Zack Sorenson, about forming a combo. When all six said yes, Off the Record Sextet was born.
“The off the record sextet, it kind of came about because it’s not through the school, technically,” said Sorenson. “We’re not doing it for credit, this is of our own design. And, because it’s not a class, it’s ‘off the record.’ We’re doing it after we’re done with classes, we’re doing it after we’ve had a full day of making music.”
Swanson pipes in: “It’s music for the sake of music.”
And when Allen says, “and we’re a sextet because we’re sexy,” the seriousness of the moment dissipates with the laughter of the band members.
The entire evening I spend with Off the Record (a Monday, the time they usually reserve for rehearsing) ebbs and flows between answering the questions I ask and cracking a joke, breaking up the intensity of the moment. This finds its way into their music, as well.
“If you watch the video (of our first gig), you can tell there’s very few moments where we’re, like, serious,” said Longnecker. “We’re serious the whole time, but if you watch the video, there’s parts where he’s laughing (pointing to Allen), I’m laughing and we’re all smiling and kind of just goofing around. That kind of environment of making music, where you’re all serious about what you’re doing but you’re having a good time while doing it, it’s so much easier to make a good product off of that.”
While Off the Record technically began in May 2016, the combo has been meeting consistently and rehearsing regularly for the past two months. In those two months, they had their first gig at Beckwith Recital Hall, played for the guest artist at Jazz Fest and Allen and Brenden have begun working on their first chart.
Despite only practicing together for two months, each was very enthusiastic when asked about their first gig:
Longnecker: “It was great!”
Allen: “So, so much fun!”
Sorenson: “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Swanson: “Exceeded all of our expectations.”
“It’s something to be said that, like, yeah it was a lot of fun, but it sounded really good,” Allen said empathetically, almost with disbelief. “We sound — not be pompous — but we sound good. It was musical. There were nuances, there were highs and lows, dynamics and changes. It’s really music and we sound good making music, even in the encore which we weren’t expecting.”
Longnecker, in response, “We had played once or twice in the past.”
“And every time I had forgotten how to play ‘B Flat Blues’ somehow,” Swanson laughs.
Sorenson sums it up when he says, “Was it absolutely perfect? No, but most things aren’t.”
The band characterizes their music as fusion, which, as Sorenson explains, takes elements of traditional jazz and adds in latin music, popular music, rock n roll or even classical orchestral music.
“It’s just this large, overarching umbrella genre that’s just jazz plus insert-something-else-here that’s completely different,” he says.
Taylor Petersen adds in more detail: “We went from ‘Take Five,’ a song by Dave Brubeck, all the way to Clair de Lune.”
“It’s a Debussy piece,” Sorenson says, taking off from Petersen. “It’s classical, impressionist piano. It’s like gorgeous and it’s a pretty recognizable piece by most classical standards and we’re like, ‘We’re going to play it on a saxophone and trombone.'”
“And we throw drums behind it,” Petersen finishes.
Combo fusion bands like this are characterized by their combination of genres that may not appear to fit together, but that somehow all work in perfect unity. This leads to, like Sorenson and Petersen were saying, contemporary jazz musicians being combined with classical piano.
The group’s biggest musical influences include Al Jerreau, Chick Corea and Kamasi Washington, among many, many more.
“It’s not even just the diversity of the music, it’s the diversity of the backgrounds of the people playing the music,” Jake Brenden says. “For me at least, for the last four years I came from military music.”
Swanson is a classically trained pianist. Longnecker is a garage band musician who didn’t know how to read music when he first arrived at NDSU. Sorenson and Petersen are both jazz musicians, and Allen is a “gospel drummer that tries.”
“It’s definitely one of the things that makes this combo so awesome,” Allen says.
As students and as musicians, the members of the band are extremely dedicated to their craft. Even if they’re not in classes, the six members can be found in the Music Education building. Longnecker, Allen and Brenden all work at the hall, in addition to Allen’s graduate student studies. Swanson accompanies many other performers. Petersen and Sorenson are each members of multiple ensembles and bands outside of Off the Record.
“This is one of the reasons why, when I was putting this together, I asked these people,” said Longnecker. “If you come in here on a Sunday at four in the evening, Taylor, Zack, Hannah, Jake and DeJon are probably here. And if one of them came, I’m going to be here. It’s one of those things where, ‘Oh, it’s three o’clock in the morning, if I went to the music building, who would be there?’ Probably this group of people.”
Currently, half of the group is a senior or senior equivalent, meaning they’re graduating at the end of this year. This has caused some uncertainty when it comes to the combo’s future.
“Eric’s graduating and Taylor’s graduating and DeJon’s transferring to finish his grad degree,” Sorenson says. “That leaves me and Hannah and Jake in kind of a strange spot. If this ends up being just a thing that lasts maybe through the summer or just through the semester, then I think that we can say that we’ve started something that will probably resonate with the rest of the school. Hopefully, it will help somebody start something similar. If it keeps going, if these cats stay in Fargo, that’s cool, too.”
Longnecker continues, “I wish that it worked out where we could have started this a while back. We could have started when DeJon did his recital and kept that going. But for whatever reason, the stars aligned on this group of six people and we’re doing it in the now.”
And in the now, they’re doing the best they can with what they have. After their very first recital on Feb. 17, the group is already planning on another gig soon. As previously stated, Brenden and Allen are currently working on the group’s first chart. And, as always, they keep rehearsing when they can find time.
“We’ve had 7:30 AM rehearsals,” Longnecker says.
“You try and find anything jazz-related that practices at 7:30 in the morning,” Petersen says with a laugh.
The principle feature of Off the Record’s music is their removal from academia, an independence that they continuously mention in our conversation.
“We all just talk about how, one of the best things about our group is that we’re removed from academia, so we have more freedom,” Swanson says. “Because of that, I think we’re learning more about the kind of music we’re playing. We’re able to experiment with things and figure things out on our own.”
However, the group makes it important to say that they’re not fully removed from the School of Music. They have many people to thank for where they’ve gotten so far, including their friends, family, Angela Price, Tammy Erdmann and the professors and staff in the music department. They also want to thank other professional musicians, including their influences and Sammy K and Anthony Williams, for their pointers on how to shape their sound.
While their future is uncertain, the group is very excited for whatever it holds for them. Hopefully, that includes a gig soon. Stay tuned.