Clarinetist James Falzone’s office and studio in Kerry Hall, on the Capitol Hill campus of Cornish College of the Arts, not only offers a breathtaking view of Seattle sunsets. It’s a reminder of the high bar the school’s history has set for innovation.
Falzone, chair of music at Cornish since September of 2016 (the year he moved to Seattle from Chicago), says his space where he meets with students, practices his instrument, writes music and even plays “the occasional game of chess” was once an apartment for a faculty legend and pioneering, avant-garde composer. “John Cage was here as an accompanist for the dance program,” Falzone said.
Falzone, who will perform in an April 6 concert called “The Already and the Not Yet: Solo and Trio Music” at the Chapel in the Good Shepherd Center, is part of another long tradition at Cornish: cutting-edge jazz-masters-turned-educators, including pianist Art Lande (teaching there during the early 1980s) and trombonist Julian Priester (who taught there from 1979 to 2011). Falzone includes Cornish colleagues Tom Varner (French horn) and Wayne Horvitz (keyboards) — both composers, like Falzone — on this list.
Horvitz will be part of the trio for “The Already and the Not Yet,” playing piano and joining Falzone and bassist Abbey Blackwell in improvisations emerging within contemplative, liturgical music by Falzone.
A Chicago native who taught music at Illinois colleges (including the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and performed frequently, Falzone also held the position of music director at Grace Chicago Church for 16 years. That experience helped shape his ideas about composing and arranging as a form of service to others, and broadened his definition of liturgical music, especially where improvisation is involved.
“In one sense, liturgical music is for a sacred setting in any faith tradition. In Chicago, I was arranging hymns for congregational singing. It taught me humility, that music is not just for my own aesthetic or egotistical gain. But in a bigger sense, music is connected to the ineffable. Music moves us sometimes and can lead us to prayer or contemplation when we really don’t know why.”
What about that catchy title of his upcoming concert?
“ ‘The Already and the Not Yet’ is a philosophical concept. I’ve been interested in the connections between theology, the arts and improvisation for a while. In spiritual practice or in just thinking about existence, we have what is right in front of us, the already, and then there is the not yet, which are the mysteries of life, the things we can’t quite figure out. We live in this intersection. Most of my work as a musician has been improvised. You have all this experience and knowledge as a musician; that’s the already. But then you have to give yourself over to the not yet, the not planned, which is the mystery of improvisation.”
Since moving to Seattle, Falzone has been performing 30-minute, improvised, contemplative solo clarinet music in the Thomsen Chapel at Saint Mark’s Cathedral on a monthly, Sunday-evening basis. (The next one is April 7 at 7:30 p.m. Open to all.)
“I try to capture the mood in the room. People come and perhaps have their troubles, focusing on their struggles. I try to pick up on those imperfections. I find a lot of beauty there.”
Besides the Saint Mark’s program and his Cornish responsibilities, Falzone is a fixture on Seattle stages of all sorts, from Cafe Racer on Roosevelt Way Northeast to Benaroya Hall. He also tours the U.S., often with one or another band he has put together over the years, such as the Renga Ensemble (a sextet of clarinets and saxophones) and Wayfaring (a duo with singer-bassist Katie Ernst).
Falzone took to the clarinet at a young age when he first heard it linked to the cat character in Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” His pursuit of the instrument and his expansive tastes in jazz, classical, world music and more were greatly advanced by his uncle, Hollywood television composer James Di Pasquale (“Switch”), who got Falzone a clarinet and found a teacher for him.
“[Di Pasquale] would come to Chicago for the holidays and take me to a record store and buy me all kinds of records. They’re all in my studio [at Cornish].”
Falzone sees his role as an arts leader in Seattle as championing music-making at all levels.
“Like any great city, the magic is not only found in the more established institutions in Seattle. It’s perhaps more profoundly found at the underground spaces, produced by working artists scuffling to stay afloat. I’d like to see Cornish connected to and supporting them all, from the most polished to the grungiest. We all need one another, especially when the arts seem to be relegated to some sort of afterthought.”
James Falzone’s “The Already and the Not Yet,” 8 p.m. Saturday, April 6; Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., Seattle; $5-$15 donation at the door; waywardmusic.org
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect year for when John Cage left Cornish.