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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Surrounded by Reality collective reinvents Madison jazz
New group promotes the genre's experimental side
Breiner: 'Musicians here are getting hungry.'
Breiner: 'Musicians here are getting hungry.'
Credit:Phil Ejercito

After moving from New York to Madison in 2008, saxophonist Patrick Breiner soon discovered that "none of the bands that I wanted to see were coming through town."

So he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Breiner, 27, had studied jazz performance at the New School University and began performing locally with improvisational guitarist Luke Polipnick in 2009. Polipnick, 29, had just moved to Madison from Lincoln, Neb.

The pair soon plotted to book shows here featuring "high-quality avant-garde jazz and free improvisation," says Polipnick.

"I contacted [local Hot Money vocalist] Brooke Jackson when she was still co-directing the Project Lodge," he adds. "Her enthusiasm and knowledge were really exciting, so the three of us started scheming and threw our first concert together within a month."

Last year, they turned their endeavor into Surrounded by Reality, a promotional jazz organization that's changing Madison's improvisational music scene by tapping its experimental side.

"We want to be agents for positive change in the local music community," says Polipnick.

"There is a great scene here, but not many examples of what we're trying to promote. The focus here is much more on hard bop and the beautiful tradition from the middle of the last century. It is gradually shifting, and we are working on creating an audience for it."

Surrounded by Reality emerged during a period when Madison jazz venues have become more sparse. The recent closure of Restaurant Magnus is the latest example.

"There are a lot of great listeners in this town, and a lot of them are disillusioned because they don't know where to go to hear good music," says Breiner.

"We always dreamed of getting some big national players in," says Breiner. "And we have, including the Matt Wilson Quartet, Peter Brötzmann, Hamid Drake, Gerry Hemingway, Terrence McManus and the Danny Fox Trio."

Surrounded by Reality welcomes Chicago sax and bass players Mars Williams and Kent Kessler and Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love to the Project Lodge this Friday, Jan. 7, at 7:30 p.m.

Since moving to Madison, Breiner has been playing with a wide variety of local jazz musicians, such as Michael Brenneis, Alison Margaret, Lynette Margulies and Gerri DiMaggio. He sees Surrounded by Reality as one example of a do-it-yourself ethic that's emerging here.

"Musicians in Madison have been dealing with crummy employment options for, as near as I can tell, the last decade," says Breiner.

"Now that there are virtually no employment options, I'm seeing musicians freak out. But I'm also seeing them go through a really exciting transition. When you've got nothing to lose, then you have nothing to play for except yourself. Musicians here are starting to explore and write new music and look into alternative performance spaces. They're getting hungry."

Polipnick says the Madison Music Collective, which has been promoting local jazz since 1985, has helped support Surrounded by Reality.

"They've provided grants that allowed us to bring in some heavyweights, and we are grateful for their support," he says.

Breiner says that he, Polipnick and Jackson are still perfecting their division of labor for operating Surrounded by Reality.

"We tried to delegate certain roles, but each of us tends to take care of all the details for any show that we book," he says.

That's a challenge, since all three keep busy schedules.

Breiner teaches saxophone and clarinet at Madison Music Foundry and a small jazz ensemble at West High. He works part time at Madison Music Makers when he's not performing on tour.

Polipnick is studying guitar performance at Northern Illinois University.

Jackson is working as the program adviser to the Wisconsin Union Directorate's Music and Entertainment Committee at UW-Madison.

But Polipnick says all three are committed to keeping Surrounded by Reality a force in shaping the future of Madison jazz.

"We will keep it going as long as we are living here and the crowds come out."

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