"I want them to feel it": jazz musician Mike Casey on one of music's most undefinable genres

Mike Casey is a Connecticut-based jazz musician who draws on a variety of influences
when composing music. Photo courtesy of Airen Miller Photography. 

Jazz: just the word alone conjures up many images, perhaps old photographs of noir-drenched scenarios, a dark underground club in New York, a range of colors and beats bounding together in a seamless and yet non seamless dysphoria.

One thing that jazz is not supposed to be, however, is forgettable.

Mike Casey, 23, originally hails from Hartford, Connecticut, and fronts the Mike Casey Trio. As a saxophonist, he is very passionate about bringing jazz to the forefront of musical experience.

“It kind of just becomes background music if the crowd is there to eat and not listen, which is something that jazz musicians often deal with because, many times, it’s instrumental music,” Casey said. “There’s no words, so someone who doesn’t understand the music might just think, ‘Oh, this is supposed to be background music’ but it was never really supposed to be background music.”

The difference between jazz and other types of music, like funk, is that it exceeds more than one dimension.
Mike Casey, captured by Airen Miller

This, according to Casey, is because the other musicians in the group are not necessarily following a lead musician, but are instead initiating a conversation through their music. (One of his co-conversationalists has been harpist Brandee Younger.)

“In jazz, if I’m soloing, not only are there people playing with me but they’re actually improvising how they respond and how they accompany me and I’m reacting to what they do and how they accompany me,” Casey said.

In 2017, the Mike Casey Trio released their debut album, the Sound of Surprise, which has been hailed as “enjoyable from first to last note” by jazz critic Sammy Stein.

The chordless trio, comprised of Casey, who alternates between tenor and alto sax, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Corey Garcia, jive well together.

Casey went to high school with Dwonszyk and the two have been playing together in one way or another for eight years. He met Garcia three years ago in Hartford and said he has contributed quite a bit in concept and style.

“We have some really awesome chemistry and we’re able to kind of read each other’s minds and surprise each other and kind of make things happen in new, interesting ways,” Casey said.

For Casey, who describes his music as “passionate, raw and powerful,” it is imperative to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience.

One of the tracks on the album, Dagobah, has a surprising inspiration: Star Wars.

“Dagobah is the swamp planet that Yoda is hiding out on and Skywalker is supposed to teach Yoda how to learn to be a jedi,” Casey said. “It’s a weird place for a jedi hiding out. He was pretty nervous about going there.”

Casey compared his decision to stay in Hartford to Dagobah, as he believed it facilitated a learning experience that he perhaps might not have received in other places.

“If you ask any young musician where are you going to study jazz, you’d expect to hear New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston, even Chicago,” Casey said. “But Hartford, by all odds, has actually had a lot of amazing jazz musicians for whatever it is you do.”

He has, however, already graced several nightclubs in New York, including the famous Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.

According to Casey, jazz is anything but background music for the denizens of New York’s famously jazz-infused neighborhood.

“With people in Harlem, jazz music to them is not just a movement. It’s a religious experience,” Casey said. “It’s like a spiritual thing and even though, usually, people are there listening, you can just feel that their connection to it is different than most other places I’ve played.”

Born out of the African-American struggle, said Casey, jazz was historically the music of the Civil Rights Movement and represents freedom.

One need look no further than Max Roach’s bone-chilling “Freedom Now Suite” to ascertain that jazz music has, at its essence, liberation and boundary-defying characteristics.

Casey, however, feels that he is not a prodigy and in this regard, identifies with one of his idols who also frequented Minton’s Playhouse.

“Thelonious Monk has already been an influence to me in the sense of that he was willing to stick to what he believes and what he wants to sound like, no matter what, and that’s something that I think I relate to because, in a certain sense, I’m a late bloomer when it comes to jazz music,” Casey said. “Jazz has always been kind of obsessed with prodigies and people becoming really good really quickly and although I’ve been playing for a while, that wasn’t really my story.”

Part of Casey’s story was finding his voice as a musician.

Or so he thought, until a conversation with another of his idols sparked a realization about creative discovery.

“That’s kind of how I always looked at it until that conversation with Sonny (Rollins), where he said, ‘You already sound like you. You are you. It’s really not necessarily finding it. It’s more about becoming a better version and refining it,’” Casey said. “Changing that outlook on it has helped me tremendously and made me kind of dig deeper within myself.”

At the end of the day, it’s about connecting with the audience.

Mike Casey playing with Marc Cary's Harlem Sessions
at Gin Fizz in 2015. Photographer unknown.  

“I want people not just to observe and listen but to really feel what I’m doing and that doesn’t mean you have to like it. They might hate it,” Casey said. “But, at least, I want them to feel it.”


This article was originally published in Recount Magazine.