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In On The OutLab: Orchestrating the Return of a Budding Improv Jam Session 

Music News

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After several months off — holidays, scheduling conflicts, all that stuff that tends to mark the flipping of the calendar — one of Cleveland’s up-and-coming improv jams is returning in fine form on March 24. With a new home at the BOP STOP (2920 Detroit Ave.), the guys behind OutLab are hoping to keep the improvisational engines buzzing into 2015.

In short and to the uninitiated, OutLab is “a laboratory for spontaneous interactive musical exploration.” Think, however, less esoteric and more freeform.

The monthly events are hosted by local musicians Tom Orange and Dan Wenninger. They’ve come to dig roots into various improvisational music scenes around town.

“Dan and I had been talking for a while about doing a monthly thing related to the long-running [1Way] series that Dan has done with Chuck Karnak at Go Factory,” Orange says. Finding the musicians community across Northeast Ohio to be pretty widespread and active, the goal has always been to bring everybody together. Dan and Chuck’s 1Way series, some seven years running now, has been at least one foothold in the scene.

“That series has been free-improv, free music. It’s kind of a showcase stage,” Wenninger says. “A lot of people were showing at that, and a lot of people were showing at Tom’s shows. We kinda talked about, ‘How do we bring people in and how do we get them involved?’ People are coming out to watch the shows, but a lot of these people are musicians and a lot of them want to participate. This is a way that we can bring people in jam session-style. It’s community-building.”

And “jam session” is the key phrase here. OutLab doesn’t function like a classic open mic night or anything; the spirit of the event flows from the people who show up and from the very idea of improvisational music.

As everybody gets together, somebody will tend to start playing and will attract other musicians to add harmony or various layers. Groups might split off and form more focused grooves in the course of a night, but the gravity of the room will inevitably bring everyone back into a full group by the end of the get-together. There’s an amorphous element to the whole thing.

The series originated in the fall of 2013, when Mahall’s was looking for musicians to curate four-show residencies and when Orange and Wenninger were debating how best to move forward with a new monthly event.

“The Locker Room is cool,” Orange says, referring to the lower-level room at Mahall’s, where OutLab was set up for a year. “It felt like somebody’s parents’ basement. The sound is good down there too, because it's stone walls and tile floors. It's comfortable and the right size. Thirty people feels packed, 10 people doesn’t feel empty.”

Amid the scheduling conflicts and holidays, Orange and Wenninger found the recently reopened BOP STOP to be a solid fit for what they were hoping to do going forward. "The sight lines are great, and the sound is amazing," Wenninger says. The March 24 OutLab will be the group’s first event at the new joint.

The BOP STOP was donated to the Music Settlement in late 2013, giving that University Circle-based nonprofit a westside spot to hone programming and expand offerings. After the Music Settlement moved in, they eventually hired Oberlin grad Gabe Pollack to manage the place. With his music education and business acumen, the pairing with OutLab was a no-brainer.

Then, as now at the BOP STOP, there’s a very welcoming atmosphere to OutLab. Musicians of all stripes are encouraged to come out and start playing. “Drummers are always a little bit scarce. If there’s any particular instrumentalist that we try to encourage to come out, it’s drummers,” Orange notes.

Matt Kiroff brought out his analog synth a handful of times to OutLab. “It was really fun to come to a couple OutLabs and just work outside my usual medium,” he says. “That’s what’s cool about OutLab. A couple horn players showed up, a couple guitars — which seemed more in the psychedelic rock or noise genre. They had some drums onstage too.

“What I liked about it was the people who came — really interesting people to talk to and play with. In other words, it had a really sort of positive vibe to it on an interpersonal level. You know, anything that Tom or Dan does has that vibe to it. You don’t know what you’re going to expect, so you may feel more free to experiment.”

And like any good gathering of musicians, the chance for future endeavors is high. New bands have formed out of the OutLab series, and Orange knows at least one other band that has picked up a new member there.

"Having OutLab become a catalyst for further creativity is exactly what Dan and I hoped would happen," Orange says.

9 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Ave., 216-771-6551. Free.


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