Dan Bruce brings :beta collective modern jazz group from Chicago to Cleveland
Dan Bruce’s modern jazz group, :beta collective, has taken on a new identity since it was initially conceived in 2015.
Bruce, born in Dayton but living in Chicago for more than a decade, relocated to Cleveland and reformed his musical collective to include notable Northeast Ohio jazz instrumentalists and performers.
The all-new :beta collective debuted at the BOP Stop in February and will release an album called “Time to Mind the Mystics” April 29.
Bruce was a staple in the Chicago jazz scene and began blending his musical colleagues in the original :beta collective with Cleveland artists he met upon his return to Ohio.
The current :beta collective lineup features Chris Anderson on trombone, Chris Coles on alto and tenor sax and vocoder, Brad Wagner on soprano and tenor sax and bass clarinet, Will Wedmedyk on vibraphone, Aidan Plank on bass and Anthony Taddeo on drums and percussion.
The group is noted for its energetic, highly improvised performances, paired with all original compositions.
The collective’s new album will capture the magic of the group’s concerts with an added element of new technology and electronic sounds that Bruce began exploring during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Forming the Midwest jazz collective
Bruce was born in Dayton and attended graduate school in Texas. He and his wife later moved to Chicago, and Bruce, a trained guitarist, became very involved in teaching and performing in the city’s jazz community.
He put together :beta collective as a six-piece jazz ensemble, and in 2018, the group went on tour in support of their debut album, “Earthshine.”
That same year, Bruce and his family decided to move to Cleveland, where the cost of living wasn’t as expensive.
As he transitioned from one Midwest city to the next, he began inviting Cleveland musicians to support :beta collective during their tour.
“On parts of that tour was Theron Brown [and] Chris Coles from around here. But then also, you know, trumpet was Chad McCullough from Chicago. There were a few other Chicago people from there and just a lot of Chicago-Cleveland connections there. So, it became a nice stepping stone into then when I was here full time,” Bruce said.
When he moved to Cleveland, there were already several musicians who had played the collective’s music, so he was able to fill in and expand the group.
“We're kind of walking a fine line between very highly composed music, where all the details are kind of right there for you, and free improvisation."
“I'm trying to get as many sounds as possible out of the people I have without having a 20-piece group because that's ridiculous,” he said. “Or, you know, very hard to manage, I guess.”
Bruce composes the pieces for :beta collective, but the group’s sound is known to be highly improvised in the spirit of jazz tradition.
“We're kind of walking a fine line between very highly composed music, where all the details are kind of right there for you, and free improvisation,” he said.
The musicians work to pair those two ways of playing in their songs, mixing something worked out in advance with places that are a mystery as to what will happen next.
“To me, that's the most exciting thing as a performer,” Bruce said. “As I've gotten older and older, it's like I realize I also just want people to like the music without having to understand it.”
Bruce wants the collective’s music to be “rhythmically relatable,” where the pulse of the song isn’t hidden, while what’s happening above it may be sonically complex.
“My hope, and I think what I found is, is it makes it a lot more easily accessible if you can kind of tap your foot, or kind of at least keep in line with the pulse that we're feeling on stage,” he said.
Visualizing to compose colorful works
Bruce composes songs for :beta collective with each player’s unique musical identity in mind.
He said the performers bring a level of risk and spontaneity that adds flavor to what he has written on the page.
The blend of free improvisation and thoroughly composed music set to a distinct groove is what makes the jazz group’s sound unmistakable and easily identifiable.
Bruce debuted the Cleveland collective’s lineup earlier this year to a packed house and introduced four new works during the event.
As a composer and performer, Bruce said he loves that his group can morph and have different “colors” that come out when the artists play.
These colors differ vastly from piece to piece, he said, which creates elements of surprise for the listener.
“I'm listening more for colors at least initially, like broad swaths of color than even really the details of the music when I'm hearing music for the first time,” Bruce said.
Often, the songs Bruce composes will begin with a story. Sometimes he will think of a scene or a setting, as if he’s composing a score for a film.
He’ll match that visualization with a certain feeling.
“I can sit down at home and kind of visualize, or in my own head I can hear so many different textures that it's just very inspiring when I'm when I'm trying to write,” he said. “So, it's been really fun to try and just think kind of like soundscapes.”
Recently, Bruce has begun experimenting with effects in post-production to add new layers and textures to the collective’s songs.
“I love being able to change my sound from song to song and to have something that can I think maybe better go along with the vibe of the song that we're about to play,” Bruce said.
The group went into the studio in the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic to record an album.
The recording was put on account of widespread lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders.
The musicians had played the music a decent amount prior to the recording sessions, so they sat on the material for a while.
This gave Bruce an opportunity to reimagine the songs.
“My joke to some people was it became my ‘Pet Sounds’ to some degree because I started thinking, ‘Well, I could add this, or I could add this, or what about this?’ So, in some ways, it became a little more like a rock album where I did think about some things we could layer in post-production,” Bruce said.
He got into electronic music during the pandemic and began programming in Ableton Live.
In post-production, he layered in some electronic elements over the acoustic instrumentation to create a new, rich sound.
A cornerstone of the collective is that after they’ve played their songs for a while, certain parts will develop into something new and different.
“We'd been playing this music for a long time, and I'm very glad for that because I think when I write, my writing is a starting point,” he said. “And then I put that in front of these musicians, and the reason I like to play with these musicians is because every time we play the song, it just it grows a little and maybe the boundaries get pushed a little.”
Releasing an album with rich themes and textures
The collective’s new album, “Time to Mind the Mystics,” revolves around Bruce’s interest in technology.
The idea of looking forward, in terms of technological advancement, paired with holding onto one’s past became a prevalent theme in his songwriting.
He said technology can be wonderful and scary at the same time, and this inspired much of the thought that went into the album.
“I think that for everything that we embrace, it should be in support of our humanity,” Bruce said.
While there’s a lot of technology utilized on the album, some aspects of technological progression can be concerning, he said, especially as he thinks about future generations.
Bruce said he doesn’t want virtual reality to replace in-person experiences, like seeing a poetry reading or experiencing live music.
“For me, the ideal is at least musically, we're using this technology in hopes that if you come and see us live,” he said. “I talk about this a lot in the shows, you're actually sharing your humanity with us. And by humanity, I mean, like the expression of what we have that no other species on Earth has.”
Technology should support us being human together, he said.
While the eight-track album is instrumental, Bruce said listeners can pick up on the inspiration and themes he had in mind by reading the liner notes.
"The reason I like to play with these musicians is because every time we play the song, it just it grows a little and maybe the boundaries get pushed a little.”
The album’s title track expresses Bruce’s excitement for being alive and experiencing the magic of music.
“And that tune, it's got synths on it. I'm playing through a ring modulator, which ends up sounding like a robot half the time,” he said.
To juxtapose, there’s a song on the album called “Slant” that was developed in 2016 as Bruce reflected on the presidential election.
“The idea became, everybody kind of has a different slant on things or a different take on things, and we're starting to hold on to those so much that we can't interact with each other,” Bruce said.
Bruce took the song and set it in a “not-too-distant” future. There is a character of a therapist in the song, who ends up being an algorithm.
“To me, it's just kind of the dark humor of somebody going to speak with an algorithm about how to better connect to humans. But I could see us not being that far from that,” he said.
Performing new works with the Cleveland collective
Audiences will have the opportunity to experience human connection and see :beta collective perform live at an album release concert for “Time to Mind the Mystics” at 7 p.m. April 28.
The performance will take place at Negative Space Gallery, located in the second-floor warehouse of 1541 E. 38th St. in Cleveland.
The show is free, and copies of :beta collective’s album will be for sale at the event using a “pay what you want” model.
The album release show will feature Cleveland vocalist Alyssa Boyd.
Bruce said the collective will feature rotating vocalists at upcoming shows, and the next phase of the band with vocal arrangements will be called beta plus.
The group will also perform at the Rubber City Jazz and Blues Festival in September.