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A subtle gem

Burke Jam christens Churchmouse

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It’s not often that an album is epitomized by the last-minute inclusion of a flugelhorn. But, in a sense, that’s the case with the latest solo CD from gifted Missoula alt-folk composer Burke Jam. While working on the standout track of And Only One Sky, Jam’s deliberate and heavily atmospheric nine-song effort, he felt like some-thing was missing from the climactic build at the heart of the song. The track, titled “Oklaho-ma,” was already home to an affecting harmony of Nate Baker’s utterly grave upright bass, Jam’s down-tuned acoustic guitar, Nate Biehl’s quivering mandolin, Gibson Hartwell’s lilting pedal steel, Blake Bickell’s subtle percussion and the distant angelic vocals of Caroline Keys and Angi Purington—but it needed more. 

“I was in the studio listening to it and thinking, ‘You know what we need? We need a flugelhorn. We have to get a flugelhorn.’ And then I’m wondering, ‘Does anybody in Missoula even play a flugelhorn?,’” recalls the soft-spoken Jam. “I had no idea how to do it, but I knew we needed one.”

That realization sent Jam searching through his extensive network of local musicians and friends—many of whom appear on the album—and to a conversation with guitarist Chris Entz of local rockers The Hermans. Entz, who also plays in the University of Montana Jazz Band, knew Luke Juras, a pretty mean flugelhornist.   

“I called Luke’s dorm room, introduced myself and told him what I was working on,” says Jam. “He was up for it, came in and nailed it. His part actually makes the song.”

The anecdote isn’t just the key to “Oklahoma”—although Juras’ flugelhorn is the perfect accent to the episodic album opener—but also a window into how Jam went about creating And Only One Sky. Jam’s first solo album in three years is a showcase of nearly a dozen area musicians and, more importantly, Jam’s ability to congeal them around his own multi-instrumental talents. 

“I’m hugely into community,” says Jam, a member of former local soundscape artisans This is A Process of a Still Life. “It takes a community to get something done, especially as a young artist…I’ve met a lot of different players here over the years and been fortunate to work on a lot of things, and this was my chance to tap into that and work with them on a project of my own.”

The album is released under the band name Churchmouse, a moniker that allows Jam the flexibility to stretch beyond his usually sparse singer-songwriter solo work and bring in a rotating crew of guest players. Jam got the idea more than a year ago when he started working with local fringe festival phenomenon The Candidatos on their new play. He ended up performing a one-man improvisational soundtrack for The Candidatos’ Pushcarts using, among other things, a piano, toy piano, electric guitar and found objects for percussion. He performed live during the play, with his only assistance coming from fellow Process bandmate Ben Rouner manipulating his work from the sound booth.

“I really think we were both in the same place, exploring the same themes,” Jam says of working with The Candidatos. “I think if this album is about anything it’s about defining or holding onto a sense of identity and a sense of place, just like the play.”

The resulting album is an alluring mix of Jam’s work with The Candidatos and his previous solo projects. There are ominous piano-and-ambient noise interludes that mirror the score of Pushcarts, rustic acoustic ballads stripped down to their guitar-and-vocals core, and a few lush examples, like “Oklahoma,” of the two styles overlapping. Tying the styles together is Jam’s keen ear for detailed arrangements and a tempo that never gets above a steady purr—think Iron & Wine, if Sam Beam sounded more like a simmering Eddie Vedder. 

“I had a friend who listened to it and said it’s so subdued and so down-tempo that they didn’t know how to process it,” he says. “And that’s the thing—I want you to have to remove yourself and focus in. I wanted you to be able to step into the scene and the setting of the album.”

The trick now will be for Jam to transfer his new sound to the road. After a summer of fighting fires as a smokejumper, he’s readying for a short Western tour with Good Neighbor Policy before permanently moving to Seattle to rejoin his Process bandmates. 

“We’ll have a full band at the release show, but we’re not going to get 15 people and full orchestration every night,” he says. “The orchestration is gorgeous and lush, but I still think there’s a beauty in one person just playing a song. I’d like to think that, even without all the extras, like that flugelhorn, the songwriting can hold its own.”

Burke Jam and Churchmouse play a CD-release show for And Only One Sky at the Badlander Wednesday, Oct. 17, at 9 PM. Good Neighbor Policy opens. Cover TBA.

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