Saxophonist and composer Dan Meinhardt debuts on ears&eyes Records leading his quartet of Chicago-based musicians on their eponymous release: Outset. Defined as “the beginning or start,” it is a fitting title for this collection of original music, a boldly honest introduction to this group. Thanks in part to a grant from the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Individual Artist Program, Meinhardt has gathered some of Chicago’s finest artists to bring this music to life. On this release, he is joined by Justin Copeland on trumpet, Tim Ipsen on bass, and Andrew Green on drums. ears&eyes Records, based in Chicago, has emerged as a label that champions exciting new voices in the modern jazz scene; Outset’s album is no exception.
The band that has become known as Outset has been a working band almost as long as he’s been in Chicago, though Meinhardt’s relationships with the individual musicians vary in length from 4 to 22 years (Ipsen and Meinhardt met in kindergarten). Meinhardt’s decision to put a band together was the result of wanting to establish roots in Chicago. “I wanted Chicago to be my new home when I got here after grad school,” says Meinhardt, “but I didn’t feel I could call it home until I had my own band. Luckily, I had a number of friends around the city that wanted to help make that happen.” The recording of the album at Chicago’s Locallective was the culmination of two years of road-testing and refining material.
Meinhardt has a patience to his playing and writing, a clear sound without much vibrato, that bears resemblance to Joe Henderson - light, but pointed when it needs to be. “I usually gravitate towards less forceful music,” Meinhardt says. “Players like Joe remind me that you can have a soft voice and still say a lot,” a fact not lost on Meinhardt’s compositions. His understated, less-is-more mentality is brought into focus throughout the compositions on Outset. The collective solo by Meinhardt and Copeland on “Dropped” shows that Meinhardt can still lean into a more aggressive sound found in many current saxophonists, while his subtle solo introduction to “New Rain” demonstrates the great restraint and dynamic control on the instrument.
The quest for simplicity and clarity in Meinhardt’s writing is captured by the pared-down orchestration of Outset. Because this group lacks the accompaniment of a piano or guitar, they frequently play with expectation: “Points for Trying” finds Meinhardt and Copeland using their horns to accompany Green’s drum feature; Meinhardt and Ipsen have a beautiful saxophone-bass duet on “Something Mellow” while Copeland outlines the basic rhythmic motif with his flugelhorn; the subdued “New Rain” even finds Ipsen and Green playing texture more prominently than time. The simplified instrumentation means there’s a heightened focus on melody and mood, rather than getting bogged down in complicated harmony. Says Meinhardt: “I didn’t set out to write a cohesive set of music. The fact that each of these songs ended up being so episodic individually eventually tied them together better than anything I would have planned in advance. I wanted to draw the listeners toward the mood and vibe of each piece.”
The chordless quartet sounds fuller than you’d expect from this instrumentation throughout the set, a testament to how Meinhardt’s writing interacts with these musicians. Meinhardt and Copeland are two hands of the same body. On their own, they each achieve great results; together, it’s a feat of coordination, as on “Points for Trying” or “Bixotic.” At the same time, you have the legs in Ipsen and Green, gracefully and purposefully driving this music everywhere it needs to go, starting with the punk-funk of “Dropped,” through the breakdown of “Something Mellow,” concluding in the luxurious swing of “Wayneish.”
From Kenosha, Wisconsin, Dan Meinhardt took up the saxophone at the age of ten. Upon arriving at Lawrence University, he studied concurrently with classical saxophonist Steven Jordheim and renowned jazz composer/educator Fred Sturm, among others. Following the completion of his Bachelor’s at Lawrence, Meinhardt moved to Eugene, Oregon to pursue his Master’s Degree at the University of Oregon under the tutelage of saxophonist/composer Steve Owen.
Meinhardt’s presence in the Chicago scene is growing, both as a leader and sideman, thanks to his attention to clarity and restraint in all of his collaborative relationships. The insights he gained from working closely with other leaders sharpened Meinhardt’s focus when he turned to the music for Outset. “Because I get to play with a variety of musicians on a regular basis, I’ve been able to talk about and form stronger ideas about my music, finding the clearest way to say what I mean,” Meinhardt explains. He adds with a laugh, “Probably even more important has been finding the times not to say anything at all.” With the release of Outset, Meinhardt has found the perfect conversational balance.