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The New Cool: Kate Olson springs forward with K.O. Solo

Screen capture by Kate Olson
Kate Olson goes solo to for her Spring session streaming live Friday night.

Springtime is coming on a lot faster than the end of the pandemic, but there are more signs of artists and audiences reuniting in person in the near future. Making the most of quarantine restrictions, saxophonist Kate Olson presents a circus of sounds with her K.O. Solo project streaming live Friday night.

This transitional time has us all a little off-balance, and Olson says, "The music that I make is perfect for those kinds of liminal spaces where we're not exactly sure what's going on, but we'd like to have a soundtrack to it anyway."

The vernal equinox is a traditional source of hope, and Olson's versatile playing styles have a common hopeful feeling - even when things get a little strange.

The K.O. Solo project has roots in Olson's college days at the University of Michigan.

"One of the things I was developing was my ability to practice improvisation unaccompanied. A lot of the tropes you can set up as a solo improviser can also be used in performance," she explains.

A common component of jazz is collaboration with other musicians, treating improvising as a conversation. Olson points out that, when playing solo, "it's a conversation between the soloist and the audience."

How does that work when you're streaming to an audience you can't see?

"I like to create music that I'd like to listen to. Not everyone is always pursuing that. The difference between playing for yourself and playing for others is something that all soloists should keep in mind," Olson explains.

Around 2010, Olson met trombonist Naomi Moon Siegel at the Racer Sessions, the musical hothouse of Seattle's free-improv scene.

"She and I were both interested in adding effects to our playing," she says.

The two bought guitar effects pedals and started experimenting, but, Olson told me, "they weren't made for our instruments. So we were finding new ways to interface with this technology. ... That exploration between the two of us became Syrinx Effect. That gave us a playground to explore what we could do within the bounds of our instruments."

"It was important for us to be able to recreate what we did in the studio live," Olson says. "We approached it as learning a completely different instrument (effects) to bring that into our compositional and improvisational setting."

It was natural for Olson to translate the electronics learned with Syrinx Effect to her own K.O. Solo project. But the live performance aspect has moved beyond the audio to the visual medium.

Looking at her collection of lighting, Olson mentions static lights, cycled LED lights, party lights and noise-reactive lights. She told me that low-tech visualizers and screen savers add to the entertainment value.

"Streaming is so different from a live performance," Olson relates. "If someone walks into a bar for a drink and you're playing, they're obligated to be there with you for at least 10 or 20 minutes. With streaming, someone can turn you off after 30 seconds, and you didn't even know they were there."

It's pretty simple. Visually stimulating shows draw more audience members.

"I think that for jazz," Olson explains, adding a visual component is "an important avenue. We can't ignore that possibility."

I asked Olson how she sees the future of streaming performances beyond the pandemic quarantines. She's optimistic, telling me, "Any way that you're able to reach your audience is a benefit. Gamers have been part of a streaming culture for years. Now that it's becoming more mainstream, I don't see why we wouldn't continue to make it better and more interesting."

Olson's a born pessimist. "Set your expectations low and you'll always be pleasantly surprised," she tells me.

But she's hopeful. "When it is safe, we will see a huge number of people craving that live music experience. But I think it's going to be a long time until we're back there."

Keep your hopes up, but pack your patience. When live performances fully return, it will certainly be worth celebrating.

Until then, musicians like Kate Olson continue to find ways to reach a needy audience. I hope to join you - virtually - for the K.O. Solo live stream right before the New Cool Friday night. It will also be available on demand after the show at the LoudSwell YouTube page and Olson's Facebook page.

The New Cool airs Fridays from 9 to 11 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a 3rd generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.
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