Episode 3-Caleb Wheeler Curtis: Improvisation in Space, Time, and Sound

Caleb Wheeler Curtis designs playgrounds for his band members when he composes, creating opportunities for improvisation within a structured framework. It’s all about space to freely express oneself. This Ann Arbor, Michigan native who now lives in Brooklyn, New York City, has recently released to critical acclaim his fifth album, Heatmap. Caleb and I spent some time talking about this recording and his growth as a musician.

 Caleb is the consummate collaborator with a discography that details a journey full of an adventure in music.  Beginning with Walking Distance: Neighborhood in 2015, Caleb’s relationships weaved a path rich with partnerships and mentors who provided a foundation for him, that guided him in his writings and arrangements. He is the first one to tell you that getting to the place where he considered himself to be a professional musician was not easy. Caleb firmly believes it requires commitment to your art.

 Caleb is fortunate to have Imani Records producer and owner and Grammy nominee Orrin Evans as a mentor, giving him opportunities to stretch as a musician and guidance as a composer and bandleader. Heatmap, produced by Orrin Evans, is a product of such collaborations and mentorships. Caleb played in Evans’ band, Captain Black Big Band, performing on his two Grammy nominated recordings. He and Orrin Evans developed a bond that Caleb identifies as critical to his growth as a musician and composer.

 Caleb’s compositions reflect an approach that provides space for each musician to expand and bring to the experience their own artistry and talent thus giving his compositions a fresh breath for improvising. His approach is strong without being forced; one critic acknowledges. And while his musical spirit has an open willingness for exploration, his musical upbringing with strong mentorship gives it an inherent wisdom.

 Caleb Wheeler Curtis was a MacDowell Fellow, an artist’s residency program in rural Peterborough, New Hampshire. There, Caleb was given his own space and time to compose, play the piano uninterrupted by the daily forces of urban life. The end-product, 10 originals on which Caleb plays on alto saxophone except for one track on soprano. Heatmap features, of course Curtis on saxophone, Orrin Evans on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Gerald Cleaver on the drums. Caleb and his band can be heard on two tracks played in their entirety on Strictly Jazz Sounds. I asked him to explain his composition style.

 His credits as a collaborator, composer and saxophonist (mostly alto) led to recordings from Freebird featuring Jason Moran in 2018. Curtis also teamed up to record Curtis+Garabedian+Sperrazza: New York in 2018 with Vinnie Sperrazza and Noah Garabedian; and Curtis/Carter/Ferber: Doing Nothing Is Hard Business, a project that included Rahsaan Carter and Mark Ferber in 2020. Curtis’s discography also includes playing on two Grammy-nominated recordings with the Orrin Evans-led group the Captain Black Big Band: Presence, released in 2018 and The Intangible Between, dropped in 2020. Curtis released two albums for the Orrin Evans-owned record label Imani, Brothers in 2018 and Ain’t No Storm in 2021. It doesn’t stop there. In 2021 Curtis collaborated to release two recordings, No One Is Anyone, with Noah Garabedian, Vinnie Sperrazza and Orrin Evans and Substrate with Swiss pianist Laurent Nicoud.

Caleb earned a music degree from Michigan State University, and later a masters in music from William Paterson University. Since then, he has focused on the New York jazz scene from Brooklyn. 

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