This morning, on the final day of my visit to Berklee Valencia, I attended a gig/masterclass with the remarkable Dutch jazz trio Tin Men And The Telephone. ‘Jazz Trio’ is really an inadequate term for this ensemble. It might better be described as ‘interactive iPhone jazz gaming with live humans’.
The setup is as follows: the trio is piano, upright bass and drums. The drummer has a MIDI drum pad and snare sensor. The bassist has an effects pedal. The piano has a MIDI converter attachment, feeding a MAX patch, with occasional effects processing of the piano signal.


Tin Men and the Telephone: Tony (piano), Pat (bass) and Bobby (drums). All of the musical information on the backdrop – drum loop (left), melodic fragment (top) and chords (bottom) is generated in real time by audience members using an app. Did I mention they’re amazing improvisers?

The AUDIENCE has a downloaded app which is used to give the band musical information – notes, chords, grooves, dynamics, style and improvisatory form – generated by the crowd, and projected behind the stage. The audience-generated drum loops come through the PA and the band plays along, improvising in response to more real-time decisions made by the app users. Oh, and they also play from live-triggered pitch fragments based on video of political speeches – Trump, Putin and others. And some piano notes trigger video of tennis players returning serves at high speed.
It’s as weird, amazing and fun as it sounds. Here’s a short video:

Afterwards, the band members Tony (piano), Pat (bass) and Bobby (drums) sit down with the Berklee Masters MPTI students for a Q&A and a walkthrough of the tech. Being Berklee students, some of the questions are super-specific – MAX patching, triggering, latency, effects processing, signal routing etc. But after these questions are answered, the conversation takes a more business-oriented turn. How does an ensemble like this advertise itself? How do they deal with generational issues? (jazz venue owners may be an older generation than the app-literate clientele that the ensemble needs). What did they learn from their early prototypes of app development… and from Bjork’s Biophilia Apps and related educational work? How do you design an app with maximum usability but also sophisticated musical interactivity? How do you bridge the gap between a jazz audience who are used to early 20thC standards and a younger audience who come from a gaming culture? How do you make such an amazing experience on a budget?!
Tin Men and the Telephone represent, IMHO, just what music educators mean (or should mean) when they talk about entrepreneurialism. Make a product that audiences really want, innovate artistically, find a sustainable economic model, and then go out and entertain people. Today restored my faith in the entrepreneurial conversation – it is possible for small ensembles to innovate, inspire, entertain, and make a living. This is possibly the most fun I’ve ever had at a jazz gig – or perhaps at any gig. If you get a chance to see the band in person, it’s a great night out. Just don’t forget to bring your phone.