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LML Local Focus: Teddy Abrams & Friends @ Forecastle

Saying that it’s been a big three years for the Louisville Orchestra would be an understatement. Since 30-year old composer/pianist/clarinetist/conductor Teddy Abrams took over the reins in 2014, the popularity of the institution has grown tremendously, and there is a definitive, young, energetic vibe that is present at almost every performance. This was made most evident last year when Forecastle tapped the music director to curate a set chock full of local artists, and he’ll be donning the waterfront stage again this year. I sat down with Teddy at Please & Thank You (a fav spot of the NuLu resident), and while no one needs to read the 12-page transcription or listen to the 40-minute sound bite, I’ll provide the highlights for you. You can then catch Teddy & Friends on Friday from 9:00-10:30 on the Port Stage!

On being invited to Forecastle two years in a row…

It’s a huge honor to be asked to be part of the festival. Especially now, to make it a two-year tradition and to be involved as a person who’s not associated with a touring band is really amazing. It says so much about the festival that not only is it happening, but that people don’t think it’s that crazy. I’m sure there are some people who would look at it and go, ‘Why is a conductor on the lineup?!’ It just says Louisville is this incredible place where people are open to that kind of thing – they’re willing to try stuff and experiment, and to create a sense of community.”

And on the impact that the festival has had for the Orchestra…

“It speaks to the work we’ve been doing in the Orchestra the last three years. We’ve been trying to define the Orchestra as a real place for the musical community as opposed to just playing concerts. Even if it’s great music, it’s not enough to simply play a great show. As an orchestra, you’re supposed to be binding people together, and a lot of what we’ve done to showcase that is to involve musicians from all backgrounds and genres here in town. For me, that’s huge. That is as important as anything a conductor or an orchestra can do – how people can relate to it and what their relationship is with the organization. How do people see the Orchestra in the town? What does it mean to them? Do they see it as an agent of doing good? While those things are very broad and general, they contribute after having built it up over a long time and it’s why a rock festival would invite somebody like me to be a part of it.”

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Jecorey ‘1200’ Arthur, James Lindsey, and Teddy Abrams – Forecastle 2016

On the ‘Forecastle Symphony’…

“I love being the conductor/so-called classical musician who ends up putting people together in an unlikely way. I like to be the one who puts the DJs with the rock band and the jazz artists. It’s fascinating to see those things develop and that’s what the point of this is – to create a Forecastle Symphony – so it’s a symphony of musicians of all backgrounds, which I think is amazing. Who wouldn’t, as a hip hop artist or DJ, want the very best and talented jazz musicians playing with them? That’s a sign of strength for the musical family here. But it’s a production. When you’re experimenting with things, you’re kind of inventing the entire scope of it and the logistics of it, too. The hard thing about doing stuff that people don’t normally do is you have make the path, but that’s one of the rewards in the end because you’ve forged it.”

On what to expect from this year’s Forecastle Symphony…

“It’s logistically a little crazy – we’ve got 24 people involved in this. The list keeps growing, but we have a final set list now. The idea is to create a core symphony and then have individual members of the symphony or guest artists solo with us so they all get featured. There are a lot of people from last year that people know and love – people like Carly [Johnson], Jecorey [‘1200’ Arthur], James Lindsey – and there are a few new ones this year. Twin Limb is joining for a song that they’ve chosen, a David Bowie song. And White Reaper is going to join for a song, which is cool. We haven’t tried that with a whole band, so why not?”

On who is on his bucket list of collaborators around town…

“There’s so many amazing musicians in our community. At the Orchestra, for instance, a My Morning Jacket collaboration is long overdue. Bryson Tiller now is a huge deal. It’s nice to see him coming back and supporting the city. It’s interesting, when you look at someone like Jecorey, he is world-class talent and he’s really devoted to this place. I’ve actually encouraged him to go tour, but I respect that he really loves this city. He cares for it in a way that very few artists of that caliber do. In other words, it’s not just about finding people who are the most famous from Louisville, it’s actually recognizing that everybody’s path to their ‘life in music’ (as opposed to career) is different and their priorities as artists are different. I think one of the most talented guitar players in the country is Craig Wagner. I’m sure you’ve seen him a million times. And he’s right here. Craig is so humble, so down to earth, and incredibly easy to work with. If you’re looking for the best talent, then look for the best talent not just finding whatever the biggest name is.”

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Matt Myers and Teddy Abrams – Forecastle 2016

On a new piece he’s been working on about Muhammad Ali…

“I call it ‘immersive music’ (I created that name myself) – there’s no other way to describe it. It’s a rap-sung-narrative-dramatic piece: there’s staging, dance, video…it’s a huge production. What’s so amazing is that it really is true, his story is really intertwined with the city. It’s not something where he just utilized the resources from the city and went off and never came back. He could have done that. He could have spent his life anywhere. There’s a reason that when he died, his funeral was right here. I think he recognized that the city had some kind of magic in it that allowed that to happen. Anyone that finds some kind of relationship to the city owes it something. I hope that everybody who has gotten their start or booster or who has just lived here, continues that dynamic. There’s a reason that great things happen here. It’s not by chance. I think that’s why Ali had a funeral here that brought the world to Louisville. He’s been bringing himself to the whole world, I think his last act was the gift of bringing everyone here. That’s a lesson: if Muhammad Ali can do it, we can all be advocates for our city. That’s what makes a city, our individual advocacy. I try to do my best to be an advocate for art and music in the city. I think it’s an agent of good that causes positive change, or at least conversation and connection between people. The more people that do that – like Ali did, obviously on a very big scale – the better.”

On other musical experiences around Louisville…

“One of the members of the Forecastle Symphony, Joe Logan, is the organ player at St. Stephen’s Church. I think that is one of the premier musical experiences in the United States, certainly in Louisville. It’s a black Baptist church down in the West End and it’s one of the best musical experiences you are going to have – both the choir and the band. The band is outstanding. Outstanding. Like, really A-lister band. And those are some of the most down to earth guys, you wouldn’t know these are some of the best musicians in the city. Joe is a world-class organ player, improviser. I’ve played a few things over at St. Stephen and I’m neither black nor Baptist, but I love just going down there. If I went to church, and I’m Jewish – I probably go to temple a lot less than I go to St. Stephen, but whatever – I go to listen to the music, it’s an inspiring setting. I wish more people even knew about it.”

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Teddy Abrams & Friends – Forecastle 2016

On what he wants his legacy to be at Please & Thank You…

“Hopefully one day they name something after me there. The amount I come there…maybe a table. I don’t think I deserve a specific food item, not having contributed anything to the culinary world.”

On his morning routine at P&TY…

“I have a bunch of different books at my house, books in every room that I can just pick up. Morning time, I come here and I read a book. I try not to email or answer texts or anything that. Whatever, even if it’s 20-30 minutes, that’s really helped me.”

On the NuLu neighborhood…

“I’m one of the very few people who actually lives on Market. There are a couple of people who rent the second floors of some of these buildings, but I’m certainly the only person to have a house here. It’s interesting because all of my neighbors are basically businesses, but they are all great. It’s like something from a totally different era, which I appreciate. I can walk down the street and know everyone that works here and lives here. Where else are you going to find that? Ironically it’s in the middle of the city. I honestly think if I lived out in some less urban environment, I probably wouldn’t know all of the neighbors, and I love that. I get my hair cut there [Market St Barbers], who knows how many times I go to the bars and restaurants on this street. Now, watching it develop and grow is impressive. This is a very exciting time because all of this ground work was laid for this to be a successful neighborhood in the long term.”

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Sarah Jarosz and Teddy Abrams – Forecastle 2016

On getting the chance to enjoy being 30…

“Well, I kind of skipped being a 20-year old, so…if I was going chronologically I’d probably be a 40-year old. I worried about that when I turned 30, I was like, OMG. I never did anything that 20 year olds were supposed to do. Is that going to happen now or is that just permanently done? Either way, it’s really scary. It’s certainly scary that I’m worried all of a sudden my 20s are going to catch up with me and I’m going to start doing crazy things. But it’s equally scary to think that’s over now and I never got to do that.”

On bearing the weight of an orchestra from a young age…

“I was starting off at age 26, which is really young to have the weight of an organization that, just before I got here, was bankrupt and failing, and the budget was too small to do anything. Having that weight on your shoulders, it does mean you have to be on your best behavior. You cannot afford to lose any friends and you certainly cannot afford to be off-putting to anybody. That’s probably just good life advice. If everybody worked on that, the world would just be better. But specifically for the Orchestra, we had to make new friends every day. You recognize you’re representing your organization every time you have a conversation.”

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James Lindsey, Teddy Abrams, et al. – Forecastle 2016

And finally, on poetry, which he recommends you spend some time to read…

“This Ali piece I’m writing has a lot of poetry in it. It brought me back to thinking about how to integrate that into my life a little bit more. Poetry is not something that I think an average American either wants or has the desire to have a daily relationship with. It’s not a useful skill to the extent that other things are. (Being able to listen to music is a useful thing because most people do it and you’ll be socially outcast if you don’t know.) I found that, as I was trying to express all these things in this piece, I realized people had said everything I was trying to say and they said it beautifully for thousands of years. Why wouldn’t you want to live in that world? I understand why – it’s tiring, it takes a lot of work, it’s hard to read, it’s sometimes obscure language that’s weird. But I think there’s something that’s connected to the plane of existence in a new way. So I recommend spending a little time here and there. Bob Dylan is a poet. Led Zeppelin is/are poets, whatever you say. But reading some Shelley and some Whitman never hurt anyone at all. These guys and girls found a way to say something probably in the most beautiful form possible of language. If you see yourself at all as an artist, and I think everyone should because everyone has the potential to express creativity, then being in that role can help open that. I know it can sound dangerously superior and annoying to advocate for that, but there are lots of poets amongst us here in Louisville. One of the most moving experiences was at the Tim Faulkner Gallery, where Hannah Drake read a poem written by the young lady who was killed there. She read this and it was so transformative and moving and overwhelming. I just thought, ‘There’s a reason that she read a poem.’ It could have been a speech or a piece of music, but it was a poem. And it was a person speaking who was no longer there. It was a really beautiful moment for that place, that time.”

Thanks for hanging out, Teddy. I’m excited to see what you continue to do for our city!

-Brittany

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