A little over a year ago, jazz composer and pianist Ezra Weiss was leading a 17-piece ensemble of woodwinds, trombones, trumpets and flugelhorns.
"I like to work in large ensembles," he says. "My favorite thing is big bands, and [now] that's just, like, off the table."
The Ezra Weiss Big Band's debut album, We Limit Not the Truth of God, was released in the summer of 2019 and addressed to Weiss' kids, with messages about togetherness and the then-current state of the world. Shortly thereafter, of course, the band became an unexpected health hazard.
These days, Weiss tends to operate as more of a one-man band. On a typical day, he homeschools his kids until 2 pm before diving into a few hours of "emails and schoolwork and prepping lessons and grading" for the piano classes he teaches at Portland State University. Writing music comes last, if he has the time.
His recent shows have been stripped-back, virtual affairs. The night before his interview with WW, he played piano for a livestreamed gig funded by donations.
"[It] was maybe my third time performing with people in the past year," he says. "[It] was a quartet, which is the biggest-sized group I've played with in the past year. Everything's changed…I felt very out of shape."
Weiss' pandemic workspace is a standard blend of home comforts and professional tech, with a futon, a desktop Mac, and a Yahama keyboard.
"There are some things that actually work way better in this environment," he says, "and then some things that are literally impossible."
1. Ring Light
Weiss has been spending an unforeseen amount of time recording videos. His PSU teaching process has become an asynchronous exchange of videos with his students, so he invested 20 bucks into a webcam-friendly ring light. "I finally got really sick of me looking dark and just, invisible, basically," he says. "I keep [my office] a lot cleaner than I used to because I spend a lot more time in it. It's gotten way more tech-savvy.
2. Musical Tempest (Red Orchestra) by Salvador Dalí
Weiss' walls bear a striking print of Salvador Dalí's Musical Tempest (Red Orchestra). The 1957 painting features a figure playing an instrument that can only be described as a hybrid of a grand piano and a stone water fountain, while another figure plays a warped cello that, upon second glance, is actually a third figure, all against a backdrop that resembles a matador's muleta. "I'm just kind of drawn to it. It feels very passionate," Weiss says. "It's two beings creating music, and it's pretty trippy. It's an inspiring sort of energy."
3. "The Most Famous Photo in Jazz"
For a bygone birthday, a friend gave Weiss a collage print of one of the most iconic photos in jazz history. Snapped by Bob Parent in 1953, the photo shows bebop masters Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes playing at Open Door on West 3rd Street in New York City. In contrast to the current, virtual pandemic jazz scene, the photo was taken in a cramped, presumably droplet-splattered, and now-defunct jazz joint, and no known recordings of the performance survive.
4. The Golem's Gift
A current fixture on Weiss' keyboard music rack is a copy of Benny Zelkowicz's contemporary Jewish fable, The Golem's Gift, about a clay creature and his efforts to heal the world. Prior to the pandemic, Weiss and Zelkowicz—former peers at Oberlin Conservatory of Music—planned to develop the book into a musical to debut in May at the Northwest Children's Theater. With the theater's in-person performance season scrapped, Weiss has been taking his sweet time on the project. "I'll manage to get a day or two—and by that I mean, like, a couple hours over the course of a day or two—[to] work on it," he says, "and then I won't have another opportunity to mess with it for a week or two."
5. Custom Keyboard
Weiss' keyboard is decked out with extra MIDI controllers, studio monitors and a microphone for audio recording. "I keep talking to musician friends of mine, and we've all gotten more into music tech stuff and kind of nerding out," he says. "That's kind of the new fun thing to do, because you can't really play with other people, so you try to get all of these sounds another way."