Jesse Dietschi is equally comfortable in both classical and jazz.
With credits ranging from orchestral soloist to jazz session player, Dietschi, who participated in JAZZ.FM91’s Jazzology program back in 2009, is equally fluent in both musical idioms as a bassist, composer, and bandleader.
Dietschi has just released a new recording called Gradient, which, as he says, “invites the listener on a journey from modern jazz soundscapes to chamber music aesthetics and back again.” Joined by pianist Ewen Farncombe and drummer Ethan Ardelli, Dietschi features a selection of compositions that draw from his extensive training in both the jazz and orchestral fields to create lush, colourful and wide-ranging sounds and styles.
Dietschi joined us to talk about the new album.
When I think back to when you and I talked in 2009, you were focused on jazz. Now, you’re really straddling the classical world and the jazz world. What does a musician need to do — technically, physically, but also mentally — to live in both of those worlds?
It is a challenge. I equate it to young students or children who are growing up in multilingual households, learning multiple languages at the same time. In some ways, it takes longer because you’re doing everything twice, but they come out of it with this fluency that is really difficult to gain any other way. For me, there may have been certain technical aspects that may have taken me a little bit longer to execute at a high level, but coming out of it, now I feel like the training on one side helps the other so much. If music is trying to understand the scope of the repertoire that you’re handling, the jazz mentality is to use the wide-angle lens and to understand the big picture so that it can inform your improvising, whereas orchestral music is much more like the telephoto lens, where you’re getting really into the micro-details. Not that there aren’t both components in each, but I’ve noticed that when I work with orchestral musicians, the way that I think about music is a little bit different than them. When I started working in that music, there was a level of detail in the practice that I did that I really needed to step up my game. It took some time. I’m still working on it. I’m certainly not finished.
As a classical musician, your job is to play that note on the page as best as you can. The language is there for you, but it’s up to you to execute that language in the most perfect possible way.
That is close to how I would put it. I think “perfect” is a somewhat weighted term, and obviously subjective. People have strong opinions about right or wrong, but they vary from one person to the next. I think there’s certainly a level of accountability. When you’re improvising all the time, it’s easy to avoid things you don’t want to do or aren’t comfortable with, whereas certain repertoire in an orchestral setting — especially if you’re taking auditions — there’s just no avoiding it. That was very helpful for me. It’s very humbling. There’s so much nuance to both approaches that I feel like they both complete each other.
On this new recording Gradient, you are trying to bring a chamber music vibe to a jazz trio.
I’ve gone through a few different iterations. Some of my past projects have been much larger; they’ve had strings, woodwinds — septets, octets, that kind of thing. They were very fun to write for, and a lot of the compositions on this album started off as larger or mid-sized ensembles. This album was about paring that down, partially due to logistics, but I also found it streamlined things and really helped to integrate the musicians better into both sides, rather than having half of the musicians be chamber musicians and half of them be jazz musicians, where there was a bit of a disconnect. The downside to this approach is that it placed way more responsibility on their shoulders to be pushed out of their comfort zones and adapt. All three of us had much more challenging material to navigate.
When you get together with musicians, do they know what they’re getting into?
This project developed gradually. I had started playing with Ewen and Ethan right before the pandemic, and I think they got a taste of some of the stuff I was interested in. Over the pandemic, we were exchanging a lot of emails, trying to stay in touch. That time was when I realized that, as with many bassists, most of my time was spent performing other people’s projects. When the pandemic hit and all of that stopped, I realized that I was practically invisible. I did not have an online presence. I did not have my own music available. That helped spur me to finally getting my own album together. It happened gradually and organically, and it was really dependent upon those particular people.
DownBeat gave you a really favourable review. As a musician, that’s got to be something you want.
Yes. I never would have imagined getting into DownBeat. It wasn’t even something I was considering. When you look through the other reviews in that magazine, it’s the Joshua Redmans and the Blue Note recording artists, then there’s little ol’ me. They had this special feature where they wanted debut albums, and they were looking for people from different urban centres outside of New York, and I managed to check enough boxes. I’m so thankful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.