"It's the idea of: 'I'll play your music if you'll play mine,'" Hunter Long says of his music organization Black House Collective. "I think that's the basic appeal of what we're doing."
Long has headed up Black House Collective since 2009, when he and fellow musician Russell Thorpe heard that arts nonprofit Charlotte Street Foundation had put out a call for performing artists looking for a studio residency. "We'd been playing in a band together that was coming to a close, and we thought, 'We're performing artists,'" Thorpe says.
So they developed an idea, Long wrote up the paperwork, and they got the residency. The gist: Black House Collective selects local musicians to participate in a 10-week composers' workshop. The ensemble typically takes the vague shape of a big band: trumpets, saxophones, trombones, drums, bass — but sometimes guitars, sometimes electronics. Every Sunday for 10 weeks, the musicians bring in compositions and have them critiqued by the group. Then they're rehashed and rehearsed, and at the end of the session, the best compositions are performed by the entire ensemble at a concert.
"Anybody who plays can bring compositions in," Long says. "Not everything works out, but everything gets decided by the entire ensemble. We talk about why things work and why they don't. The whole thing is designed to make the musicians better." Long describes Black House Collective as a sort of laboratory for experimental music. "Whatever anybody brings in, we'll play," he says. "There's no stylistic agenda or anything. Each performance isn't necessarily sonically cohesive, but that's sort of the point."
Long wasn't sure if anybody would be interested when Black House Collective started out, but "then [veteran KC trumpeter] Stan Kessler came and did a session, and that definitely gave us legitimacy," Long says. "Now we get a good mix of older, established musicians and younger people who we get from putting out calls at UMKC and KU." (Alums and current residents include scene stalwarts like TJ Martley, Mike Stover and Nick Howell.)
There are no auditions — it's still mostly a word-of-mouth type of organization — but Long says musicians need to be able to play at a high level. "The material has a tendency to get pretty difficult," he says.
In recent years the projects have grown more ambitious — a series of new operas were performed earlier this year — and as of last Thursday, Black House Collective has launched Black Lab, a concert series featuring two months of programming from musicians affiliated with the organization.
"Our whole thing is to celebrate and promote new music in KC, so a festival was always something we had thought about," Long says. "This seemed like a small way to dip our toes in and see if it was viable."
In Black House Collective workshops, there's only enough time for musicians to develop one piece of their own per 10-week session. With Black Lab, Long is seeking to give them more room to breathe. "The idea is that we can give our people a chance to do something unique they couldn't necessarily do at a club gig where they have to fill three hours," he says. "These are hour-and-a-half performances — two hours for the ones where we're doing two ensembles and an intermission — which is a lot easier and more freeing."
Opening night for the Black Lab series was September 5 at the Paragraph Gallery, and there will be shows every Thursday and Saturday evening at the Paragraph through October 26. Performances will cover a lot of sonic territory: chamber music, modern jazz, electronic music, rock music. "It's very loose, very ambiguous," Long says. Musicians presiding over their own evenings of compositions include Brad Cox, Mark Southerland, Brian Padavic, Shawn Hansen and Chris Hazelton. (See blackhouse.typepad.com for the full schedule.)
This week features Thorpe on Thursday, and Rich Wheeler and Matt Otto on Saturday. "They're the two top tenor [sax] players in town, and I really admire both of them," Long says of Wheeler and Otto. "They've done performances together before, and they'll have a band full of awesome players doing original music."
Thorpe's will be a two-part performance. He'll open with his band, Phonologotronic, which he says explores the relationship between sound, knowledge and memories. "We're trying to get at some ideas about nostalgia, so we'll use old No. 1 radio hits from the '70s and '80s as jumping-off points, present them as jazz tunes in a way people will recognize, and then twist them," Thorpe says. "We'll change keys, or switch to a different section instead of the chorus or something — trying to thwart expectations in strange ways."
The second half will feature Thorpe collaborating with Brad Van Wick in their project Mnemosyne, and for it, they're requiring more than just participation from fellow Black House Collective members. "We're going to ask the crowd to put on blindfolds," Thorpe says. "And we're going to ask some people in the audience to actually touch us musicians while we're playing, to see how those things change the perception of the music. So we'll be trying a lot of different things all at once — just kind of this big music experiment."