Note: The following article appears in this week’s 72 Hours.
In advance of their Sky Stage show this weekend, local musician Jason Varnadore connects with fellow musician, friend and collaborator Jonathan Townes. Jonathan has been writing and recording music for most of his life and, in Jason’s words, is a musical genius. He recently moved back to Frederick after living in northern California. Here, Jason shares his friend’s rich musical story.
Tell me a little bit about your background. You grew up in Frederick, right? How’d you get started with music?
I was born in Detroit. My parents split when I was 2, and my mother and I moved to Frederick. I grew up in Frederick and graduated from Gov. Thomas Johnson High School. TJ had a wonderful visual and performing arts program that I was fortunate to be a part. We studied traditional music theory, had great music listening courses, and stumbled through incredibly challenging ear-training classes. I also spent a couple summers at Maryland Summer Center for the Arts in Towson. The first year, I was in the orchestra; I think I played second violin. The second year, I was in a program called Music as a Creative Language. My final project for that program was my first experience composing in a style called musique concrète.
At that time in your life, what type of music were you most drawn to?
I had been a fan of baroque music, bands like Kraftwerk, and of course Prince. But fusion was the style that really captured my attention. I was also interested in exploring atonality and rhythm beyond four-four and three-four. I think the furthest out I got was Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire.”
You attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. That’s a tough school to get into.
It was a fairly straightforward admission process. I applied to the school and made a trip to Boston for an interview. Although I found it rather odd I wasn’t required to audition. It may have to do with the fact that I applied as a music production and engineering major. I had already been studying jazz guitar. So that may have had a little to do with circumventing any auditions.
Who encouraged you to attend Berklee?
I had seen posters and fliers for Berklee in the music department at my high school. But Dr. Susan Taylor’s husband was the one who really encouraged me to apply. He was familiar with some of my compositions and thought Berklee was a perfect fit. Subsequently, it was the only college I applied to.
How long did you study at Berklee?
I was there from ‘88 until ‘93. Took a semester off in ‘90 to live in Chicago and work on my craft, playing in jam sessions, getting my first experiences of playing bebop outside of gigs around Boston, and learning the art of music copying. I didn’t stay in Chicago long, realizing the opportunities that going back to school offered — free recording studio time, rehearsal space, and so many musicians that had very similar musical goals.
You’ve been recording music your entire life. You released an alternative rock album in 2006 called “Lookatchurself Reggie Measuresworth.” What projects were you involved in before it?
My first commercial release was “Glossolalia.” I recorded that with friend and bassist Neal Fountain in Atlanta. He got John Medeski and Jeff Sipe to play with us on that album. We used seven of my tunes and improvised the other four. When I got to New York, I played in a band called Wet Paint. The leader, Doug Elliot, was insistent that all the music be improvised. We had multiple mind-blowing gigs, and I decided that I would only record improvised music from that point on. I released a few records with that manifesto – Muchehatminteyfresh’s “Mars,” Liveart’s “Liquid Stream of Electric Consciousness” and Liveart’s “This is Secret Music.” After those, I released “Zomo,” which was a return to my compositions. I pulled from tunes I had written between 1991 and 2004. It was a mishmash of jazz, drum ‘n’ bass, minimalism, ambient, funk and R&B. Just before “Lookatchurself,” I had produced and played on a couple of rock records. And those prepped me for shedding my jazz perspective. It was really liberating.
I really like “This is Secret Music.” It encompasses two discs and it really struck me how different each disc was from the other.
I think that was more a matter of fitting so much music on two discs than it was a stylistic choice. But I agree. Most of the songs on the second disc – Vishnu, North Sea, and The Caterpillar’s Opium Pipe, are really open and take several minutes to develop. We were all psyched about how that project turned out. It was the second record I made with Neal Fountain…really a follow up to Glossolalia.
Now that you’re back in Frederick, what are your plans?
Jenifer Nicodemus and I just held the first of what we hope will be many music parties. She hosted it at a farm in Ijamsville. It was an opportunity for me to play for friends and jam with a local band called Osmosis. We had a great time. She and I are planning our spring party right now. I’ll send you a Facebook invite when I have the details. [Jason laughs out loud. “Thanks, man.”] You and I are starting a recording studio. I’m excited about this project because the live room has a great sound. The room is suited to recording jazz and small orchestral groups or chamber group because of the high ceiling. I can’t wait to start booking bands. I think it’s going to be really special.
See Jonathan Townes play at Sky Stage in Frederick along with Jason’s band, The Boa, on Friday, Nov. 11. Jonathan plays at 8 p.m. and the Boa plays at 9. This is a free, all-ages show.