By Tristan Geary
“The Ivan Variations is kind of a departure for me, though some would argue that my whole career is a departure, and I hope they’re right!”
The Chandler Travis Philharmonic’s latest release, The Ivan Variations, is an eclectic musical omelette, a gooey mix-and-match that sticks together gutbucket grooves and dense horn arrangements, flickers of early jazz jams and a dixieland joyousness often punctuated with occasional yips and hollers. Above all, the disc typifies bandleader/ringmaster Chandler Travis’s distinctive sensibility, which prizes the peculiar via a shotgun marriage of the serious and the silly.
The Ivan Variations is part of a long and venerable musical tradition. The album introduces a musical theme and offers variations in different musical settings. The theme can be stated in blatantly obvious ways or artfully sneaked in. The ensemble has the uncanny ability to keep the seven-note theme in mind (without sounding repetitive or predictable) as it rams across numerous genres, from rock n’ roll and gospel to ska. The 10th track, Go treats the theme in a sentimental way: it proves the band members are excellent balladeers as well as rockers. The following track “Ivan Goes To Church” is a raucous gospel number in which preaching horns sermonize the theme. “Ivan Backwards” does just what it says.
Usually, and fittingly, the ensemble performs The Ivan Variations on Groundhog Day. This year, with live music not an option, the performance was released digitally. COVID has not dampened Chandler Travis’s customary banter and playfulness. I asked Travis about the inspiration behind the album and the difficulties of being an “outsider” musician.
Arts Fuse: How long was The Ivan Variations in the works before it came into existence? And how did the idea come about?
Chandler Travis: The original idea for “Ivan in Paris” was not designed to stick. We were not interested in having anyone hear it that much. Then, two or three years later, we started with the Chandler Philharmonic and that was when we found out that those [chord] changes were a lot of fun to play with. Fifteen or 16 years later we had a gig on Groundhog Day, and our drummer said “well, let’s play the same song.”
AF: How did you pick out that seven note theme that recurs in the variations?
CT: It was 1995 or so and someone had lent me an omnichord, a little plastic thing about the shape of an autoharp. It contains little rhythm samples, which is sort of how that song came about.
AF: My favorite variation on the album is “Go,” the only song that doesn’t have “Ivan” in the title. What’s the story behind that track?
CT: In that setting the tune required a sort of loneliness that it hadn’t had before. In my head I made it into a guy who was in prison, but I didn’t want to say it that specifically. There’s a friend of mine, Chris Ligon from Chicago, who is an amazing songwriter. He had written a song about a guy who was about to be executed and some of the vibe comes from that, although it’s an entirely different song. His is much more upbeat than mine.
AF: How many years have The Ivan Variations been performed on Groundhog Day?
CT: Four. Well, if you count this year because of the album then it’s five. And it really is kind of a ball-buster because a couple of those [songs] are not that normal. The one that always trips us up is the backwards version. It’s been a challenge trying to get it more exact each year. I thought we had it! Then I played it back and there is still a timing thing that isn’t quite right.
AF: I like how that tune is counted in backwards, “four, three, two, one!” And the musicians are just so marvelously messy.
CT: I love ’em, I know it’s a slob fest. It’s sloppy as hell. Those are great musicians. I’ve been trying to make sloppier records. When you have all the studio wizardry at your disposal it’s hard not to make things a little more perfect all the time. I was grateful to have an album that was sloppy as I would want it to be, and maybe then some.
AF: How much improvisation is going on in The Ivan Variations? How much freedom are you giving to the individual members of the band?
CT: There are some tunes that are pretty much completely through-composed. It depends a lot on the song. “Ivan Ska” was one of the songs that came about before the project had been completely conceived. We’d played “Ivan In Paris” as is for a little while and somewhere along the line we just thought: “OK we’re gonna do it as a ska tonight.” And it came out great.
AF: I love how the rhythm section can switch genres on a dime. From gospel and ska to rock n’ roll and ballad.
CT: You know how it is, you get excited listening to things and then you get ideas and the only way to hear them is to do them yourself.
AF: If someone were to ask you to describe your music, what would you say?
CT: Somebody once asked me “what was the best year for music?” I said 1966. I’ve since found out that a few of my friends of the same age agree. So it’s partly because well, we were 16. But it is also a fact that it was a truly amazing year for music: The Beatles and The Stones and The Kinks, The Who, and so on and so on. That’s my main meat, the British bands along with Motown and Stax [records]. And they led me to others: [Thelonious] Monk and Duke Ellington and Brazilian music. I’ve been big into the latter lately. Even in the stuff you really hate there’s probably something wonderful, tucked in there somewhere. Obviously, 90 percent of music is bullshit, so you’re always on the hunt for the great 10 percent.
AF: The Ivan Variations is often funny, either intentionally or unintentionally, as is most of your music. Why is humor so important to you?
CT: When I was a kid I loved novelty records. I still do. If 90 percent of music is bullshit and 10 percent is great, then with novelty records 95 percent is bullshit. But that five percent is…wow. I value silly much more than I prize satirical or biting. I like random strange noises sometimes; I like nonverbal ways of being silly. If you’re doing music that — at least in part — is kind of silly, you are automatically compared to Zappa and Weird Al Yankovic and a couple of others. I don’t feel any kinship with them. We’re coming from pretty different places. What I am trying to do is difficult: to place some really serious music next door to some really silly music, that’s pretty hard. I’ve been butting my head against that brick wall for years and years. I don’t think I’m ever gonna make people understand why this mix is so compelling to me. But it’s sure interesting to try.
AF: Is there someone who you feel puts silly next to serious effectively? Someone you feel is a kindred spirit?
CT: Peter Schickele/P.D.Q. Bach can be fun sometimes, and the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band have their moments. Randy Newman is a genius. I love everything he’s ever done. He has mastered the swing of going from the sarcastic to the heartbreaking. Talking about strange and funny music, I should mention that we put out a couple albums last year by other outsider musicians: Paulette Humanbeing and Pete Labonne.
AF: Any forthcoming projects?
CT: I am working on about 80 songs right now. What’s different at the moment is that it is taking way too long. It turns out that it’s a lot harder to arrange to get all my horn players and everyone else in the band to record their parts at home, separately. But we’re getting some great stuff done. I’m even recording drums at home now, which was always my last stand: “I don’t wanna do drums, don’t make me do drums!” But it turns out it’s really not that bad, it’s just a nuisance – it takes seven mics to record one idiot.
Tristan Geary is a jazz pianist and composer based in the Boston area. A recent graduate of Bard College in upstate NY, Tristan has been performing, composing, and teaching for many years. His writing has appeared in Sound of Boston, The Dog Door Cultural, and GBH.