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To really take in the expansive music of Mr. Chair, you might want to take a seat.
To start, its members met a decade ago in the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Music jazz orchestra — before the school had a specialized jazz program. “When we were in the school, we were technically in a classical program,” says Mike Koszewski, who has played drums and percussion for Mr. Chair since its founding in 2016.
For many years before that, Koszewski played in a variety of jazz combos in Madison with Ben Ferris, a prolific local electric and standup acoustic bass player.
“He’s played with everybody. A lot of my gigs are through this guy,” Koszewski says of Ferris. “But Mr. Chair has been the main thing for the past three years and is the most intensive project we’ve both been a part of.”
Koszewski takes a stab at describing Mr. Chair — a quartet rounded out by Mark Hetzler on trombone and electronics and Jason Kutz on piano and keyboards.
“I say we are a classically infused, multigenre ensemble,” he says. “I don’t always say ‘band.’ Sometimes I say we’re a collective, sometimes I say we’re an ensemble. I have a different answer every single time. It’s like a blessing and a curse that we’re trying so many different things.”
The best expression of Mr. Chair is the new album “Nebulebula.” Released in September, the group’s first recording is a double CD/triple LP — 118 minutes of music that runs the gamut from acoustic classical and jazz compositions to moments of hip-hop, Latin groove and a hint of heavy metal.
“We saw very quickly that there were going to be no limitations on a particular style or genre making it into a piece,” Koszewski says. “The rich backgrounds of the four of us are all fused into one project, where anything can happen and anything is valid if it makes musical sense to us.”
Mr. Chair opened its Sept. 5 album release show at the Majestic Theatre with an audio supercut of Sen. Elizabeth Warren in September 2016 grilling the CEO of Wells Fargo about the bank scamming thousands of its customers. During the Senate Banking Committee hearing, Warren repeatedly addressed the chairman as “Mr. Chair.” The day pianist Kutz heard the original broadcast, he told his fellow band members about it and they agreed to name themselves Mr. Chair.
The Majestic show spotlighted many of the band’s collaborators, including Stephen Meyers, UW–Madison’s Vilas Distinguished Professor of Geoscience. Onstage, Meyers recalled being inspired after first seeing the band play live, to commission them to perform a newly composed piece — it would be the album’s title track, “Nebulebula” — during his intro to geoscience course.
Meyers says Mr. Chair’s music has provided aural texture to his explanations of how our solar system was formed and how sound waves move through the Earth’s interior. He says he looks forward to further partnering the band with his “tadada Scientific Lab,” an innovative approach to science education.
The band, Meyers says, “helps communicate the emotion of science. In Mr. Chair I found kindred spirits that were game for playfully pushing the limits of education, music, art and science.”
Koszewski says the collaboration with Meyers, which also involved the band creating videos, was unique. “He’s made our music richer and we’ve been able to make his lecturing richer, too,” he says.
“We can’t write complex math equations into our music, but we can represent and reimagine the ideas and speak about them in a musical language. And he can keep his freshmen more engaged [and wondering] ‘What is this band going to do next?’”
Meyers’ commission largely paid for the making of the album. The album was recorded at engineer Buzz Kemper’s Audio for the Arts (where Kutz also worked as a sound engineer) and was mixed in the Madison home of Mike Zirkel, formerly of Smart Studios. Live at Majestic, Kemper performed the spoken word poem the band asked him to write specifically for the track “Blue.”
In addition to collaborating with other Madison-area musicians, Mr. Chair arranges classical pieces and its original works to be played with full orchestras.
“We’re trying to do a lot,” Koszewski says.