Finding His Way Home

Through free improvisation, jazz drummer and Ampersand LIVE contributor Chris Icasiano welcomes all — amateur and aficionado — into his musical, cultural, and geographic home.

Christopher Icasiano knows what it is to feel out of place. He grew up Filipino American in predominantly white Redmond. At the time he lacked the intellectual framework to understand what it meant and knew only the inchoate feelings of difference and discontent. Much of what followed that suburban childhood seems to be a rectification — a recent visit to his ancestral home, the creation of safe, inclusive artistic spaces that counter the racism and sexism rampant in the world of jazz, and a resounding, unselfconscious expression of intimate emotional states through drumming.

Icasiano refers to himself as a free improvisation and experimental musician, out of necessity, because people tend to expect such labels, and with circumspection, because he resists their constraints. Icasiano studied jazz at the University of Washington and found his home in free improvisation, the word “free” loosening the strictures of genre just enough for him to settle in. “[When I play,] I’m trying to translate the feeling that I’m having in the moment to my instrument, to have my instrument convey those feelings and emotions in a way that only really comes out when I play the drums … These are things that exist in me that I can’t talk about or don’t have words for.”

Watch Chris October 29 at Ampersand LIVE

Icasiano performing “R.B.G.” with Bad Luck , the sax-drum duo which has been his primary creative outlet for over 15 years. (Live on KEXP)

Icasiano runs a weekly improvisation-based music series at Seattle’s Cafe Racer (for now, on Zoom) called the Racer Sessions that foments collaboration, community, and new musical ideas. He wants others to feel at home in this musical space too, though he appreciates the initial discomfort some might experience. “I feel like it is actually really accessible,” he says. Though listeners might find the sounds unfamiliar, they should feel his intensity, that there is “this person saying something about themselves that is coming out through the drums. It doesn’t matter what it sounds like or what form it takes. I want them to experience me as an individual through my music.”

Icasiano’s latest album “Provinces,” his first as a soloist, is an affirmation of his musical style and an exploration of his Filipino heritage. Icasiano recently traveled to the Philippines for the first time. There, in the small town where his mother grew up, he felt an immediate and powerful kinship with his family and history that belied a life lived in America. Most of the album was written and recorded before the trip, but he collected field recordings, “sonic artifacts” he calls them, of street sounds, of wind and water in the countryside, and talk at the family dinner table, which he later incorporated into the tracks.

Much of his musical aesthetic is inspired by the “dark, green” beauty of western Washington, something he detects in his fellow local musicians’ work too. “There are two combative elements, this grit, or in musical terms, dissonance, these things that can be hard and challenging in the music. But then there is also an element of beauty and lushness which can come in a lot of different forms — really beautiful, lush harmonies or just rich, deep sound — that washes over you. That’s a character of the music that I hear coming from the Northwest for sure.”

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