Freedom In The Music: A Q&A With SoCal LoopFest Headliner Just Alliance

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Just Alliance. Photo by Sam Torreso.

On Wednesday and Thursday, October 28 and 29, the annual Southern California LoopFest returns to diPiazza Restaurant and Lounge. LoopFest, the brain-child of Noah Peterson, was inspired by Rick Walker's long running Y2K International Live Looping Festival in San Jose. The SoCal LoopFest will, over its two day run, feature artists from around the globe. Performers from the United States, France, England, Mexico, Canada, and Germany are scheduled to take the stage. The festival is a traveling celebration of an art form that first gained popularity in the '70s when English artist and music producer Brian Eno collaborated with King Crimson founder and guitarist Robert Fripp on their seminal album, No Pussyfooting.

There are two main kinds of live looping. The first, known as phrase looping, uses small segments of music, which repeat continuously, to create complex arrangements. An artist might create a rhythm part, overlay a bass part, add a chord progression, and then improvise over the whole thing. The second is, for lack of a better term, non-phrase-based looping, which uses a system where each part that's played repeats and, with each repetition, slowly fades out. This can create slowly evolving compositions. The main feature which both share is that everything is created live, with nothing pre-recorded.

Within both of these looping styles, you'll find people who tend to perform composed pieces. Peterson, for example, has written beautifully arranged songs for the saxophone and, aside from the natural variations inherent in live performances, will be pretty much the same from show to show. Others, like bassist Steuart Liebig, nearly always improvise all aspects of their performances.

John Allen, who performs as Just Alliance, is headlining Wednesday's show. He's solidly in the phrase looping camp, but blends composition and improvisation rather freely. Using only his voice, mad skills, and various effects, he creates performances that have thrilled thousands in his home town of Las Vegas. He recently performed at the LoopFest in Denver, which has stops in Seattle, Portland, Austin, and San Antono.

Long Beach Post: How did you get started with music?

Just Alliance: Music has always been a huge part of my life. I was exposed to a wide array of it when I was little. Rap, Rock, Oldies, Country, and Gospel. In the sixth grade I delved into classical music, and the stories behind some of the greatest pieces ever written really struck a chord with me. High school was spent shoulder deep in jazz, and the rich history behind it. Noodling on the the piano led to the upright bass, which lead to the trumpet.

Were there musicians in your family?

My Mother and her sisters sang old time gospel in their youth. When I was little she played a lot of that music-and traditional country-around the house. That was, and remains, the closest to musicians in the family outside of myself.

What sparked your journey into classical music?

In the sixth grade I had a music appreciation class. My teacher started us off with Bach. He gave us not only the music, but also a historic and cultural context behind the music as well. This continued all the way through the music of the 20th Century. Learning the "why" of the music was very captivating. Learning "why" a piece was composed gave life, and a new meaning, to music that, up until that point, I thought of as merely background music. I never thought of it that way again.

How long did it take before you felt like you could play music with it?

It wasn't until my second year of high school when my band director held a jazz clinic over the summer. He gave us the Bb Blues scale and put on an Aebersold. [Note: Jamey Aebersold created play-a-long recordings of jazz and blues standards that had simple arrangements and no solo parts.] The idea that I could take a particular scale and play anything I wanted was the turning point. After that, I was immersed in jazz for the next six years. I didn't buy one pop album that entire time. [It was] 100 percent jazz. 

Much is the same, now, with live looping as my initial foray into jazz: 100 percent freedom in the music. Your choices. Your rules. There was something about expressing yourself without the printed page that affected me. When I started listening to jazz, I began with big band and worked my way all the way up to "modern" jazz. It was exciting to pick up licks and styles along the way and drop them into a performance or jam session. Even today, much of my live performance is improvised!

When you listen to The Jazz Messengers, they have some of the coolest melodies (or heads) around. Once their improvisation starts, and everybody is taking a solo, it brings the music into such a higher level. Looping is much like that for me. Many times I will improvise entire sets out of the germination of the smallest fragment of a sound, melody or texture. It is never the same.

How did you discover live looping?

I heard of looping from other musicians I knew, but I never understood what they were talking about. One day, I was at home and was poking around the web and a website had a link that said, "Musician makes entire song with just his voice. #Onemanband" I clicked on it and my life changed forever right then and there. What I saw was just as exciting and just as much of a revelation as improvising over a 12 bar blues years before. One person, making all of the music, live! WHOAH!

To be honest. I didn't know what I was watching, what the gear was, let alone how it was done, but I knew I wanted to do it. It would take months of saving money to pick up my first effects pedal, but my very first loop pedal fell into my hands about a week or so after watching the video for the first time. Keep in mind that, up to this point, I was a trumpet player and had zero effects, knew zero effects, and couldn't tell you the difference between an XLR cable and a mic stand.

At first I didn't know how far this rabbit hole was going to take me. So I picked up a small loop pedal and a entry level mic and a small amp. When I started listening really closely to the initial video, I made my first landmark discovery in looping: vocal effects. I saved a bit of money and bought my first vocal unit. I remember the day after I bought it. I came home and panicked because I spent close to a rent check on an effects unit I had zero idea how to operate.

I locked myself in my apartment and watched every video I could, online, about my initial rig, and spent many nights saying, "Lets see what this button does." A couple of months later I performed in public for the first time as a loop artist. I brought my small rig, wrapped in a sheet and placed inside of a laundry basket, to an open mic. I set up onstage and performed, "Moondance." There were four people in the audience. Three weren't paying attention. Only the host was listening. He invited me back for the next week's open mic. My new looping career had begun! That was 2007.

What's the music scene like for you in Las Vegas?

Las Vegas has so many incredible musicians, both on and off the Strip. Many people don't realize that Vegas has around 2 million residents. There are the regular gigs in showrooms, restaurants and lounges on the Strip, but there is also an arts scene that is always having an event of some sort. I have gone from one end of the spectrum, playing an art opening for a couple of dozen people, to performing on the Strip for a couple of thousand.

Between performances, workshops in schools (elementary though college), and being an endorsed artist, there is always something to be working on and following up on. Sometimes it leads to performing in front of the shot-callers on the Strip. Other times it leads to helping a roomful of musicians in learning the fundamentals of their initial looping set ups.

You participated in several legs of last year's LoopFest. What was it like?

The loop festivals, last year, were full of some of the most incredible musicians I have ever witnessed. Musicians came from around the world, where the only common denominator was looping. Everybody had their unique approach and overall execution of looping. Even among the vocal loopers on the tour, we all had our own unique take on what we do. I made some very close friends from that tour, and am very much looking forward to doing it again in the fall.

What have been your most enthusiastic audiences?

I do workshops in schools around the country, many of them in middle and high schools. The younger students are very into what I am doing. I think, with the rise of technology's role in music production, live looping gives them another approach into making their own music.

Performing at the NAMM [National Association of Music Merchandisers] show is always exciting. Musicians and gear makers worldwide are there to see the latest and greatest. I've always enjoyed performing there.

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Just Alliance with students, photo courtesy of the artist.

What inspired you to work with students?

I taught middle school for close to eight or nine years. I went to college for music education, graduated, then discovered that the "traditional" method of school music wasn't for me. Once looping came into my life, I refashioned my approach to teaching music. My workshop is an extension, and product, of that. Many teachers don't realize that it has many of the hallmarks of music education, just packaged differently.

I've also done team-building and self-esteem workshops with high school students. They don't want another, "You can set your mind to this" seminar with some dated platform. I am very, very real. I tell them, "I struggled trying to fit in, to find a venue that would have me, to find musicians to confer with, so I started my own thing and now I do me."

How did you come to the name 'Just Alliance?'

At the time I started looping, many people called me by my initials, "J.A." I also knew that if I put my full name on a billboard, marquee or flier, people would come expecting a jazz quintet or something that is trumpet-based. A friend brought up the idea of a moniker. I wanted it to keep my initials and sum up why I do music. Something honest, pure and positive: Just. Oneness, family, community, friendship: Alliance. A positive oneness: A Just Alliance.

The festival begins at 7:00PM and wraps up around midnight on both nights. Admission is free.

To learn more about Just Alliance, including upcoming performances, visit JustAlliance.com. You can also find interviews with fellow loopers, discussions about teaching, and performance highlights on his blog.

To learn more about the other performers participating in the festival, visit SoCalLoopFest.com.

diPiazza Restaurant & Lounge has live music nearly every night of the week. To learn about their food and events, visit diPiazzas.com

 



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