Bassist and Eastman alumnus Ike Sturm: “Eastman was such a rich place for me.”
By Dan Gross
Eastman alumnus Ike Sturm is a bassist, composer and bandleader in New York City. He also is the Music Director for the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter’s Church (the “Jazz Church”). He has performed with Alarm Will Sound, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Gene Bertoncini, Ingrid Jensen, Donny McCaslin, Bobby McFerrin, Ben Monder, Maria Schneider, and Kenny Wheeler. His large-scale Jazz Mass album received rave reviews and an outstanding 4-1/2 star rating from DownBeat magazine and was named among the “Best CDs of 2010.” Renowned bass critic Bill Milkowski described his 2015 release Shelter of Trees as “…undeniably beautiful.” His nine-person band, Evergreen, has toured across the United States, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Ike is currently collaborating with guitarist Jesse Lewis in a new band called Endless Field. Their inaugural release is planned for June 2017 on Biophilia Records.
Ike Sturm and his guitarist, Jesse Lewis, will be coming to Eastman tonight to give a master class and play with students in this semester’s “Jazz Café” series. performances are at 7:30 and 10 p.m. in Miller Atrium.
How would you describe your music?
That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, actually. I’ve got a brand new project that’s coming out next June that I’m recording right now with a guitarist friend of mine. One of our challenges is that we’ve been writing this music that’s speaking to us, which comes from a ton of different influences and inspirations. We’ve actually been doing the work to try to describe (it), and we’ve found that answer to be that typical jazz thing, where people say: “Oh, I don’t know, I play in a bunch of bands with a lot of stuff…” We’ve really been working on that lately.
I think our music is something that always has a lot of different elements; it comes from a lot of different origins. For me, that ties into my jazz tradition that I experienced as a kid, but also classical music, and the music that I was exposed to while I was at Eastman. In addition to that, I’ve always loved great popular music that’s well-orchestrated and well-conceived. That’s something I’m always trying to integrate. I’m not doing it intentionally, but as you start writing music, all these influences start to coalesce.
I would say that our music has some ambient qualities, sometimes we take some influences from electronic music, and at the end of the day, we’ve talked about how our goal it to have people describe our music as “our music.” So instead of citing all these genres, they would just point to our music and say, “that’s it.”
I don’t talk in terms of genres that can go in so many different ways. I like to think in terms of the vitality of an artist, instead of the thousands of songs that have gone into their identity. That’s the goal going ahead for us.
It seems like your faith and your father, Fred Sturm, were important and early influences. What was it like growing up in both a faith tradition and a jazz tradition?
Yeah. It makes me think of my entire family, because I’ve talked about this a lot recently. My latest record, Shelter of Trees, was dedicated to my dad, and it was a gift for me to be able to think about it, and have an outlet to express the things that I was feeling; to honor my dad in the best way I know how, in the way that he spoke. He thought about music as reaching for the next thing, and reaching for a higher and deeper level. (Ike’s father, the renowned arranger and composer Fred Sturm, taught at Eastman from 1991 to 2002; he died in August 2014.)
But when you asked me that, I immediately also think about my mom and my sister. My mom was a great percussionist and teacher, and discussing that faith element you mentioned… I think that came from both my parents, we used to go church with my mom, so she provided a lot of the religious background for us, but I also think my dad in his own way, had such an incredible spirit. He also was always calling us to think about anything.
I’ve been thinking about how much I love the environment and being outdoors, and when I think back to what memories that affect you as a kid, what leads you to those feelings? Thinking about my own daughters, and what experiences in their life will lead them to love or hate certain things? What happened to them that create those magic moments that they associate with feeling loved, and feeling a strong sense of community or family? I have an idea of what those things might be for them, but that’s their own experience.
For me, when I think about those things, I think about cross-country skiing with my dad out in the middle of a farm field in Wisconsin, or him taking us out on a river trail trip [that] folded, and I up laughing at it now, the way it totally blew up… But his intention was for us to have this great outdoor family time, and even though it seemed at the time like the worst thing ever as a kid, and I look back and I think, “Wow, that really affected me as an adult.” That’s probably a big reason why I love doing the things I do now.
When I think about ways that ways my family has affected me, I think about my sister as well. She’s a really gifted clarinetist. She was at Eastman when I was there, but she’s a really gifted artist, and that’s primarily her field now. She’s an art director. She’s affected me so much. Thinking about ways we would listen to music together, or check out a film a together, all sorts of things that end up affecting who you are as a person or an artist.
My dad was a huge influence, playing great music in the house, and we would go and see his concerts at Eastman. That was part of my upbringing. That’s the stuff you take for granted as a kid, but you pick up on certain experiences that are really special.
I remember when I was twelve, I met Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry — that stuff sticks with you. Or when Dianne Reeves came over to our house! I remember we’d eat dinner together. I was a little kid, but those memories stick with you and affect you.
You said your time at Eastman was influential. What made it that way? Did you study with your dad?
There’s so much. Eastman was such a rich place for me. I loved being there. I was there for seven years, from 1996 to 2003. We moved to New York when I was twelve, in 1991, and I was in eighth grade when my dad start teaching there. So I grew up in New York at a formative time when I was starting to pick up things and play a lot of bass. I was going to concerts, and seeing the big bands. Those guys were my heroes, the guys who were a few years older than me.
I got to study arranging and composition, and I got to study with Jeff Campbell and J.B. VanDemark, which is amazing. Most people don’t get to do that these days. I just had incredible instruction.
The friendships I had at school affected me maybe more than anything else. Not to diminish anything at the school, but those relationships… You’re hanging out at night, listening to music, writing things, and trying out things. That was my favorite aspect of being at school. When I look at it now, I think back to my recitals that I was able to give, those were real high points in my development, because I was able to point to a certain opportunity, and put everything I had artistically into that. We did things collaboratively with my sister with art and multimedia, I composed, and I stretched my abilities and concepts.
I love doing that so much, but it’s amazing to look back on that time and see I’m still pursuing that stuff, and what I began working on at that time, even the faith-based things that I did for my recital, which was a little weird to do as a part of your recital. But I see that now as a part of my past and something that I felt strongly about. I was able to dovetail it into what I’m doing now with my band and at St. Peter’s. I’m still reaching for the same things, and Eastman was the place it all came together.
You composed the award-winning Jazz Mass, and your position at St. Peter’s is a collection of words I thought I’d never see together: “Director of Jazz Ministry.” I didn’t think that was a “thing.”
Yeah, it’s not really a “thing!” I happened upon the only one situation like that. I always joke that I have to behave myself because if I lose my job, that’s it! There’s only one of these. It’s a great place.
I found about it through my wife (Misty Sturm, BM ’00). She’s a great singer and she went to Eastman as well, we met early on, her sophomore year, and we decided to move to New York, and our first year was that typical difficult first year in New York, where you think: “What are we doing? What is happening?” The last month I was here, I had 31 gigs or recordings in 30 days. Then I moved to New York, and it was crickets chirping.
I went to a gig on a Sunday morning, and I saw an ad in a newspaper, and the ad said “Lutheran church seeking jazz music composer.” I had no idea something like that existed. It was cool the way they structured it, they asked us to write music the way that we would in that situation, and to bring in our band. I brought my friends from Eastman at that time, and we played the music that I was working on. I was wondering if I should somehow tailor it more to the church, or change my concept somehow, but my wife said “No, you should absolutely write and do what you feel most passionately about, and that way, if you get it, you can be honest about your own direction.” One of those arrangements became a part of Jazz Mass.
It’s been an amazing place here, and it’s evolved in the twelve years I’ve been here. There have been a lot of ups and downs, and this point, it’s the first year I feel like we’re entering a new phase for me. We even have an intern from Eastman right now; bassist Mike Forfia is here doing a great job.
How does it feel coming back for this Jazz Café series? For those who are attending the performance and master class, what can they expect?
The thing I’m really excited about is bringing my friend up, Jesse Lewis, a great guitar player; he plays with a ton of bands in New York, and usually is a more of sideman, but his own playing is amazing and he’s going to be sharing some of his music. He was on my last record, and we’ve been friends for a long time, and we have a new band called Endless Field, and it’s just the two of us. We’re recording now, and this is the record that’s going to come out next year.
It’s going to be great coming back to Eastman, and I want put my best foot forward, and share with the students where my musical head is at these days, and be able to expose them to what Jesse is playing. I’m really excited about that. I was actually back a few years ago to play with Clay Jenkins, and that was the first time I came back and played some things that were special to Eastman, which meant a lot to me. So this will be a lot of fun too, and I can’t believe it’s coming up so fast!
Eastman Jazz Cafe with Ike Sturm, bass
Friday, October 7
7:30 and 10 p.m.