Schenectady area jazz musician Tim Olsen likes variety.
His résumé includes performing, composing and arranging for small jazz ensembles, big bands, orchestras and church choirs. As associate professor of music at Union College, Olsen teaches everything from music theory to American music history, and he is the director of the college’s Jazz Ensemble. And in his own groups, Olsen plays both piano and his first instrument, trumpet, tackling material ranging in style from Latin to swing to fusion.
“When I was in grad school, my adviser said, ‘You know, you really ought to drop something,’ ” Olsen said. “I couldn’t give any of it up — I couldn’t decide what to give up, so I just did it all. And people might say, well, I don’t know — we’re sort of in a world of specialists, but I enjoy being a generalist because I think I can still bring depth to jazz; I can still bring depth to Latin music; I can still bring depth to writing papers in freshman English or whatever. So that’s basically what I do — I think about the future classes I’m teaching and how I can make interesting gigs happen.”
Tim Olsen Quartet
Where: 9 Maple Avenue, Saratoga Springs
When: 9 p.m. Friday
How Much: $2
More Info: 583-2582, www.9mapleave.com
Switching things up
The song selections at Olsen’s gigs, usually all-original material that he has arranged and composed over the years, aren’t the only source of variety in Olsen’s shows. He likes to switch lineups and instrumentation, utilizing numerous variations on the quartet, quintet and sextet formats — he often plays with lineups featuring three horn players and only one rhythm instrument. At his next gig Friday night at 9 Maple Avenue, where he regularly performs every other month, he’ll have a quartet featuring himself on piano and longtime collaborators Rick Rosoff on drums and trombone, Pete Toigo on bass and Eric Walentowicz on saxophone.
“In the ideal setting, which we’re going to have on Friday, I get a bass player, but sometimes I have trouble getting a bass player and so I do more like a Benny Goodman Trio kind of a thing, where the piano is the bass — there is no actual bass player,” Olsen said. “It’s interesting because I work with Rick Rosoff, who plays very, very strong trombone, but he also is a very strong drummer, and so sometimes I have Rick play trombone and so I end up with piano and drums in the rhythm section, and I get two horns.”
A native of St. Paul, Minn., Olsen got his start on cornet and trumpet while in school. He picked up piano on his own. “Our neighbors had a piano in their basement, and with a Methodist hymnal sitting on top, so I just started plunking out old school hymns,” he said.
Through his middle school jazz band, Olsen began exploring contemporary artists such as Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton. He also got into composing around this time, hooking up with the Minnesota Composers Forum (now just the American Composers Forum).
Olsen got his bachelor’s in music at Washington University in St. Louis and went to graduate school first at the University of Minnesota, and then at Yale, where he had access to the college’s Benny Goodman archives.
“I’m really interested in that era, ’30s and ’40s, but I also love Miles Davis and Art Blakey and the Messengers, and Horace Silver’s probably one of my top guys,” Olsen said.
He came to Union College in 1994, and was soon gigging with local musicians such as Thomas and trumpeter Steve Lambert. Since 1995, he has also been the music director for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Schenectady, directing the choirs and playing organ.
For Olsen, being a teacher, a choir director and a band leader is interconnected. He draws influence from all of his varied experiences — often songs he talks about in his classes end up in his band’s set lists, or a modified arrangement he did for the Joey Thomas Big Band will find its way into his student ensembles’ repertoires.
“When I’m teaching a class or playing pieces, or when I’m just listening to the radio — whenever I’m listening to the radio, I always have a sheet of paper handy around, writing down the name of a song that I can look up — wow, I can use that song and talk about it in one of my classes, or I can play that song on a gig because I really like the way that song works,” Olsen said. “And so I’ll take a song apart and think about what makes it special in its own way — is it rhythm, is it melody, is it harmony, is it blah, blah, blah, orchestration or the tone color or whatever, and just try to re-create that.”