Worlds Collide In the Most Beautiful Way: TORCH occupies jazz, classical and tango

Torch 3

Is it glinting? Is it green? “The Surface of an Emerald” is certainly lit from within and expressed through the luminous and sensitive clarinet with just a hint of a jazz pulse from vibes. This is one of the jazzical songs that comprise Seattle-based TORCH’s self-named album.

Sparks fly and spurts of energy emit from clarinet and trumpet; vibes lend a mellow layer of blanket-behind…this is “Fire,” an unpredictable offering that underscores their intuitiveness as an ensemble. A lesson in flawlessly taking cues from one another.

Midway into “Picardy (Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence)” finds a break into syncopation led by the vibes, and while it seems like the instruments are going in three independent directions, the gauze connecting them ultimately pulls them back in close.

Gently smashing expectations and straddling motifs of classical and jazz, TORCH may be the most original and strangest-yet-loveliest music you need to hear.

Why and when did you first pick up your instrument?

Brian Chin: I fell in love with the trumpet years before I started to play. My grandfather was a jazz collector and enthusiast and used to make me mixed tapes.  I began playing in sixth grade as part of the school program. I actually did what I was told and practiced an hour every day and quickly knew that music was what I really wanted to do.  

Ben Thomas: I started playing percussion when I was 13. I wanted to study drums, but my teacher made me study orchestral percussion and I ended up focusing on mallet percussion [vibes] for years.  

What is the first jazz song you remember hearing?

Brian: I remember loving a collection that my grandfather made for me. On one tape was some Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and “Mack the Knife.”

Ben: I’m not sure about the tune, but the first jazz musician I got turned onto was Charlie Parker. I remember the first time I heard “Ko-Ko.” After that, I was hooked! 

Who are your favorite iconic artists?

Brian: Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Bjork; people who all do their own thing with joy.

Ben: Duke Ellington, Frank Zappa, Igor Stravinsky, Me’Shelle Ndegéocello, Astor Piazzolla, John Coltrane. 

Brian, when did you become principal trumpet at the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra and what is your role as such?

I won the job while in graduate school in 2001 and moved to Seattle shortly after.  We performed 10-15 concerts per year.  This was a great education, an opportunity to hone my craft and to play the majority of the standard repertoire. I resigned in 2014 when I launched the non-profit organization Common Tone Arts.

And how do you switch from/blend orchestral music and jazz?

Brian: In some ways, I feel caught between two worlds.  Ultimately, I believe my jazz background significantly helps my classical work and my classical background has helped me become a better musician and collaborator. Here in the 21st century, I am finding that the ‘contemporary classical world’ is moving toward groove and improvisation while the ‘jazz world’ is expanding its definitions and the compositions are very through-composed.  “Music is music” – I’m seeing fewer distinctions between genres.

Ben: I try to compose music that uses elements of both. One of the reasons that I enjoy playing modern tango is its use of a classical approach to composition while allowing for a variety of types of improvisation.   

How do you honor the roots of both jazz and classical in your ensemble, and as you write/arrange it?

Brian:  We have made it a point to remove as many of the genre labels as possible. However, it is true that TORCH is comprised of a rare collection of musicians who are all classically conservatory trained, but also jazz informed.  We are composers, we are performers, we are all on the path to being the best musicians we can be. Our group has roots in classical, jazz, tango and post-rock.

What does “Tangent 7 Tiny Desk” refer to?

Brian: “Tangent 7” is a piece composed by Ben, and the video “Tiny Desk” is a live version and part of our grant application to the NPR Tiny Desk concerts. The CD has just been released on May 1.

Ben: Tangent 7 is part of a series I have written of pieces that that are tangentially related to tango. They combine tango, chamber music and jazz.

Your favorite tracks on this album?

Brian: This is hard. We have many pieces that move me and we selected some favorites in a wide range of styles for this inaugural album.  I especially enjoy our adaptation of the piece “Nana” by Manuel DaFalla, “Picardy Set” by Eric Likkle and “Rabbit” that Ben wrote.

Ben: As Brian says, this is hard. “Tangent 7” is closest to where my head is right now, and I love Brian’s “Air” from our Elements suite. We’re also having a lot of fun with the Satie pieces, especially “Yachtie.” 

TORCH CD cover

The most challenging songs, either to score or to perform? 

Brian: Our original goal was to write music that was intellectually challenging while preserving a tangible and accessible sense of groove and pulse…without a drummer!  As such, our music tends to be very complex and difficult.  “Air” is one of the hardest pieces we have. It’s fast, intense, a difficult assembly and easy to mess up!

Ben: “Air” is a technical challenge for the whole band. And “Valse d’Alchemie” has been the most complicated in terms of putting all of the pieces together. 

Who are the members of your ensemble and what does each bring to your overall sound and style?

Brian: Per above, I play trumpets. Coming from a professional classical background. Professor of music at Seattle Pacific University teaching 20th Century Composition techniques and interested in elite performance.

Eric Likkel:  Clarinets. Is also a classically trained musician but has been making a living as an improviser in jazz, polka tango.  He is also a reverend and runs a church in Seattle.

Steve Schermer: Bass. Is a top call musician in Seattle and a member of the Pacific NW Ballet orchestra. He teaches at the University of Puget Sound.  

Ben: Vibes, Percussion, Bandoneon.  

What inspired you to start this band, and with its current (and unique, for jazz) instrumentation?

Brian: Ben Thomas and I started this band in 2012 with these questions: “Do we need a drummer to groove? Do you think it’s possible to write music that audiences love that is also intellectually challenging?” 

What do audiences ask you most?

“Did you record ‘Movement 3’ yet (our encore)?” The answer is no!   

Do you consider this CD is an intro to BOTH jazz and classical; will listeners find it eye-opening and educational (and of course enjoyable)?

We have found that talking about this music is the hardest part.  We hope that once people hear it, that are instantly drawn in and want to hear more. “Wow… that was way better (or not as weird) than what I was expecting” is a common response to our music.

How long had you been writing the music for this album?

We recorded much of this music in 2014 and dumped the record until we could make it on the level that will work nationally- This has taken years! Our earliest piece is “Surface of an Emerald,” which was written in 2004.

What is the graphic on the cover?

It’s by one of our collaborators, the visual artist Scott Kolbo.  The image is a still from a 30’ suite we composed with Kolbo called the “Elements.”  We hope to release this commercially within a year or so as well.  

How will you market this CD?

We have hired a publicist, Peter McDowell, of Peter McDowell Arts Consulting.

We will be pushing on the socials

We are affiliated with a non-profit Common Tone Arts and have a mailing list over 2k.

We are on all of the usual platforms: Bandcamp, Spotify etc… 

What do you want people to know about TORCH?

TORCH is attempting to demonstrate a model of music-making for the next phase of the 21st century: self-generated material, featuring a wide range of skill sets, non-genre specific, informed by improvisation. Mostly, that it is possible to create smart and challenging music that is also fun and engaging!  

What has been the reaction to your jazz/chamber feel?

“Collaborating with TORCH to create an original music/dance piece was a profoundly satisfying experience for me and the students involved. The musicians could readily adapt to the needs of the student dancers without compromising the quality of their music, which is innovative, challenging, and hauntingly beautiful. The musicians treated the students like peers, inspiring the students to reach towards the level of professionalism exhibited by the musicians with whom they shared a stage. I would work with them again in a heartbeat.”

Juliet McMains, Professor, Department of Dance, University of Washington

How would you compare this CD to past work of yours?

This project is by far our best work and I am proud of the final product.  We are excited about the future of this group and have some very compelling work to watch out for in the coming years.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of Brian Chin/TORCH and all are (c) Kimberly Vreeland Chin.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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