Though keyboardist Jim Hegarty considers himself the introvert of the STL Free Jazz Collective, he's also the group's de facto bandleader, having put together the six-piece group in advance of its March 2015 debut at the late, lamented Tavern of Fine Arts. A resident of St. Louis for about twenty years, Hegarty had gigged with most of these players and knew the rest. Matching personalities and skills, he was able to recruit the exact sextet that he hoped could do two things: reference St. Louis' lengthy, impressive history in free/improvised jazz, and, as importantly, not be held to replicating it.
Onstage, he says, "we take it very seriously, but it's not any one person that's leading the music. That's one of the most important things, the philosophical background of this band. Philosophically, this is a place for people to come together and they're all equal and they're all contributing. We collectively arrive in some spot just by doing it. There isn't anyone telling anyone else what to do, and we all value each other."
In addition to Hegarty, the band includes poet Michael Castro; Baba Mike Nelson on trumpet, shells and vocals; Jerome "Jay Dubz" Williams on alto saxophone; electric bassist Paul Steinbeck; and drummer/percussionist Gary Sykes. Castro's role is central, as he sets the pieces in motion through his poems; each player then builds off of the feel of those words and, soon, the improvised piece is off and running. Even when he introduces a poem that the group has heard before, the band's treatment is different every time.
"One of the reasons that I wanted Michael Castro in the group is that I wanted it to have some kind of text," Hegarty says. "I thought that it would give us something to connect with."
In a different yet complementary vein, "I think Baba brings an interesting visual component, with his shells. He'll walk out into the audience as he performs and I like that, too. He's a little more of a showman."
Nelson (whose first music teacher, in sixth grade, was the World Saxophone Quartet's Oliver Lake) dates back to the days of the Black Artists Group of the 1960s. In keeping, he knows a thing or two about this approach.
"When Jim came up with this idea, it was not to try to re-do what BAG did, but keep alive the spirit of collective improvisation," Nelson says. "That's how we approach the music. Jazz is the best way to describe it, in that when you hear this expression, it does have a jazzy feel to it. We collectively improvise off of the point that Michael begins our session; each song is a session. We don't know what that will look or sound like when we walk onto that stage. But we listen to the music and listen to what Michael's saying and think, 'How can I transform the feeling of the poem, the rhythm of the poem, the feeling that I'm feeling from the the poem?' This is all that you're digesting."
Nelson describes the process as "the ultimate improvisation."
"It's being in the moment, being totally receptive," he says. "You're not forcing yourself out there, you're not learning licks. I'm listening, having the courage to put an idea out there and make mistakes."
Typically, the group will perform two sets on a given night. The first, Hegarty explains, is often the longer of the two – about an hour at most. Then, after a brief intermission, the band will return and put in another 45 minutes or so. Within those two sets, the band often finds a form of communication — one that the audience may sense, but that's mostly being shared spiritually across the six minds/bodies on that stage.
"The conversation of the STL Free Jazz Collective is a different conversation," Nelson says. "It's whatever I want to express, but it's all stemming off of what Michael's saying in his poem and the colors that we get from his poem. You can't structure that."
At its best, he says, "it feels like passion, like making-love feelings. It's the energy. A very powerful energy."
Hegarty agrees. "When you're clicking, you almost feel as if you weren't a part of it, though you know you are," he says. "You see your hands playing. It gets a little weird."
The weirdness, it appears, shall continue, as the band is affirmed to sticking together. Even if a member can't make a gig, they're simply not replaced and the group plays short a man. That's the commitment level at play here.
They're also a bridge, linking those who track back to the BAG days to those growing up in jazz today.
They appeal, says Nelson, to "free-thinking players. Young guys coming out of music conservatories doing totally different things with their instruments. New Music Circle gets with those players and tries to nurture them. What we're doing is also appealing to those free-thinking musicians. They see guys older than them telling them: 'It's okay.'"
"My feeling is that they're like my brothers," Hegarty says. "We give each other hugs. We feel that way about each other. There's a sense of value and respect. It's a little like a sports team, in that we've all arrived with our talents in this space. It works when everyone else is there.
"So it's not exactly a family; there's no mom and pop, but we really are brothers. And I imagine they'd say that, too."