Renga Ensemble Debuts at the Bop Stop on March 1

By Mike Telin

It’s a banner week for Chicago-based clarinetist and composer James Falzone. Today marks the release of his Renga Ensemble’s debut recording The Room Is on the Allos Documents label. Tomorrow the group will embark on a nine-city tour promoting the album. Then, on Sunday, March 1 at 7:00 in the Bop Stop, Falzone and his Renga Ensemble colleagues Ken Vandermark, Keefe Jackson, Jason Stein, Ben Goldberg, and Ned Rothenberg, playing an assortment of clarinets and saxophones, will present a concert featuring music from the new recording along with improvised works.

Trying to define James Falzone is an impossible task — he’s capable, and willing, to tackle just about any type of music. So preparing for our Skype conversation was a challenge: what should the first question be? I opted to begin at the beginning: How did it all start?

“That’s the million dollar question, and there really is no direct answer,” Falzone said with a big laugh. “I was always interested in a lot of different kinds of music. I think this came from my early training with my uncle, who is a film composer. He’s also a great saxophonist and flutist who has played with the Chicago Symphony and studied composition with David Diamond. So he had an eclectic look at music.”

Falzone remembered that every time his uncle would visit from Los Angeles, he always brought records. “One day he gave me Stravinsky’s Firebird and a record by Charlie Parker. He didn’t tell me that one was jazz and one was classical. He simply told me it was great music, and when he returned he asked me how I liked them. Again, he never discussed them in terms of genres, so I never thought about the genres either.”

Eventually Falzone began to study privately with a Chicago teacher who was well-versed in both classical and jazz. “Every week the scope of the lessons would change. One week it was all about jazz and improvising — learning how to play Charlie Parker. The next week we’d work on Weber or the Mozart concerto. So by the time I got to high school and then into college, I was already involved in this wide breadth of music. I truly treated all music ecumenically.”

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