Matt Baumann does not look like a wild-eyed, avant garde Jazz experimentalist. The 28-year-old St. Louis native who moved here two and a half years ago has the intense, contemplatively quiet demeanor of a bassist, a tall anchoring presence grounding a loud Indie Rock band’s chaos.
But the music of the alto/tenor saxophonist reflects many facets of his diverse creative persona; it seems unfair to call it simply Jazz. Baumann’s artistic dichotomy is clearly exhibited in the Sharonville apartment he shares with his wife, a music teacher at Princeton High School. Posters of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler dominate the living room; the dining room features Warren Zevon’s 1981 Rolling Stone cover, a shot of the singer/songwriter being pulled by disembodied hands to each corner of the photograph.
The most prominent spine in his CD collection belongs to Orphans, Tom Waits’ three-disc odds and sods collection. Although his music doesn’t sound remotely like any of them, Baumann name-checks Coltrane, Ayler, Zevon and Waits (and David S. Ware, Sonny Rollins and Jan Garbarek) with equal reverence.
“My dad had a bunch of Coltrane records, and when I first heard Coltrane I bought a tenor saxophone and took playing more seriously, which I hadn’t before,” says Baumann. “This may be a disconnect, but a lot of my influences come from singer/songwriters. People like Jason Molina and the band Songs: Ohia. Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Dave Bazan — they’re huge even though it doesn’t relate. What I hear in those recordings, I try in a way to duplicate; it may not sound like it, but it makes sense to me.”
Baumann released seven albums in 2008: his ethereal simultaneous debuts Deserter and Drifter (the former inspired by his solo move, the latter inspired by Christopher McCandless’ Into the Wild); the earthier, bluesier Grounded; the hauntingly desolate An Island (inspired by Tom Neale’s book, An Island to One’s Self); a free download live album; the collaboration Beauty Bent, Not Broken with guitarist/college friend Eric Barnett; and his latest, the just-released Sojourner (all available through Baumann’s web site at www.mattbaumannmusic.com, though most are shelved at Shake It Records)
Aside from Baumann’s work with Barnett (he also duos with tablist Jim Feist), all of his sonic explorations involve the myriad wind and percussive sounds created solely by his saxophones. Each successive release has found Baumann incorporating increasing levels of Ambient quietude, culminating with the sparse, spacious and ephemeral Sojourner.
“When the sax is played softly, there are subtle colors in the instrument that you don’t hear much,” says Baumann. “Sojourner is probably the quietest album I’ve done. I try to use space as a resource.”
Baumann’s creative conflicts began early. A product of a musical family — both of his parents hold music degrees from the University of Michigan — he studied in the Classical program at Bowling Green but quickly found himself at odds with the curriculum when his Jazz interests intersected with his Classical education.
“I was always interested in more improvised music and we weren’t allowed to do so much because you had to fulfill requirements for the degree,” says Baumann. “I started studying Jazz seriously in my second year and as outside as I was in the Classical studio, I became an outsider in the Jazz studio. I was in this weird middle ground. Both of my teachers commented that I was too Jazz for this and too Classical for that.”
Baumann was ultimately inspired to examine saxophone as a lone instrument when he stumbled onto the solo excursions of avant trumpeter Bill Dixon. His double disc set Collection opened up a vista of possibilities.
“There was always this lonely, desolate sound I liked, because it’s a reflection of myself,” says Baumann. “Bill Dixon was doing this amazing stuff — it’s out of this world music. It’s melancholy but there are moments of fire. When I heard it, I thought, ‘I’m really going to do this.’ That’s the catalyst behind the whole thing.”
When he moved to Cincinnati with his wife-to-be in 2006, he joined a band but left when his outside recording activities became a point of contention within the group. Baumann has tried to book monthly solo/duo gigs but, like most local musicians, he juggles his day job as a Kroger produce manager with his recording/performing schedule and some semblance of a home life while pursuing his musical ambitions.
“I work in corporate America for money, but this is my real passion,” he says. “One night, I was upset about a bad band rehearsal, and I said to my wife, ‘Do you think I could play solo and do anything with that?’ And she said, ‘You can do anything you want.’ So I had to think if I’m going to do something like this, I have to find a way to make it for myself and for other people. My albums are short and that’s on purpose. I want people to enjoy what’s there in the time that it is.”
With seven releases this year, Baumann is taking a break from recording in 2009 and concentrating on live appearances. He has another collaboration album with Barnett planned and hopes to do some demo recording with Feist in order to drum up booking interest. Beyond that he just wants to continue exploring the muted melancholy of his current Ambient direction.
“I’m trying to take things in another direction or maybe make things more ambient,” he says with a grin. “I really like the direction the albums have progressed. It’s gone from kind of jazzy to this ambient thing. It’s calming for me to play. It’s therapeutic but it’s also something I love very much.”
MATT BAUMANN performs with Jim Feist and Eric Barnett at 9 p.m. Saturday at Kaldi’s. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.