"Phone Call to Infinity,” Ian Narcisi’s new progressive rock EP, is just about out, with three new songs – “Five Below Nothing,” “Absent Today” and “Behind the Dawn.”
Mr. Narcisi has produced several CDs already with bassist Erik Swanson and different guitarists, all co-produced with and engineered by Tim Sandusky of Studio Ballistico: “Off Purpose” (2006), “Niche in Time” (2007), “Weight of the Words” (2008) and “Feel No Evil” (2009). The new one, too, is independently produced. It is also created in the same way: Rather than the musicians’ meeting and rehearsing repeatedly until they are satisfied, Mr. Narcisi and his group use a method appropriate for this cyber age.
Mr. Narcisi first records the basic keyboard track of a tune with rough vocals and electronic drums and sends it via computer to Mr. Sandusky, Mr. Swanson and guitarist Dave Bowers. They listen and get a feel for his ideas. Mr. Narcisi says he “likes to give the other musicians a chance to make an impact,” and meets with them at their “respective scheduled studio times.” Mr. Narcisi follows up by re-recording with acoustic drums and recording fine-tuned vocals at the studio. He harmonizes on top of that. “It’s cool,” he says, “’cause you don’t know what you’re going to come up with.”
By the time Mr. Swanson comes into the studio to add the bass line to the mix, he has heard keyboards, acoustic drums and vocals together. Within the next couple of days, Mr. Bowers adds guitar. Finally Mr. Sandusky does the mixdown and mastering.
Mr. Narcisi’s music has been likened to that of Pink Floyd and Radiohead; one hears a touch of a jazzy King Crimson, a little Stone Roses or Kula Shaker, and a little Muse as well. He experiments with sound(s); his lyrics are philosophical/spiritual without being religious, and are both positive and thought-provoking.
“Phone Call to Infinity” continues in the same vein, but more mature, more secure in sound, ideas and in harmony between musicians. The parts of each song fit together more seamlessly in this CD than in his earlier work, culminating in more cohesive individual pieces. Mr. Narcisi’s vocal enunciation is less rushed, with a more centered and maybe a little less jazzy feel than that of his earlier work, with excellent results. The pleasing combination in “Phone Call” of classical (especially in the intro to “Five Below Nothing,”), jazz and rock elements in the instrumentals hark back to “Just Because” on “Feel No Evil,” here repetitions bring in an echo of Steve Reich. “Behind the Dawn” includes noticeably non-Western harmonies that are very effective. The intentionally thready but significant vocals in all three songs produce an effect reminiscent of dreamy-sounding Laura Veirs (“Year of Meteors,” “July Flame”), but more assertive. Mr. Narcisi has an impressive vocal range, including a strong falsetto that he employs very well.
The result is a set of songs that urges one to listen well – and more than once – and is uniquely Mr. Narcisi.
“Phone Call to Infinity” will be available at ianmusic.com, website of Ian Narcisi, from Dec. 28, on Dec. 30 at CDBaby, both as digital download and physical EP, and around Jan. 3 at iTunes/Amazon.
Ian Narcisi grew up with his family – parents, brother, two sisters – in Hinsdale, where his parents remain. His dad, Lou, an architect, who, he says, “could easily have been an opera singer,” and his “phenomenal mom,” Ann, are “classical nuts.” Sisters Megan and Jill play piano and sing, respectively, and Jay plays guitar.
At 10, Mr. Narcisi took piano lessons for about a year, but really took to music, he says, when he started taking drum lessons with jazz drummer Mark Anderson at Roselle Music, an hour-long trip from home. Mr. Anderson taught him for eight years, and prepared Mr. Narcisi to audition for the American Conservatory of Music, then in the Chicago Loop. He was accepted and started in 1990.
At the Conservatory, says Mr. Narcisi, he could choose the classical or the jazz program. Though he also loves classical music, he chose the jazz program, where from 1990 he studied with vibraphonist Brad Stirtz, arranger and guitarist Greg Shearer, pianist and composer Hans Wurman and drummer Mark Smith, with whom he studied steel drums as well.
Though he loves classical music as well, he wound up in the jazz program there, studying with Brad Stertz, who was sometimes on the road with Joe Walsh. Mr. Narcisi focused on keyboard, music theory and composition with Mr. Stertz; he studied drums, guitar, vibes, and steel drum with Mark Smith.
When the American Conservatory folded in 1990-91, under a shadow of financial mismanagement, Mr. Narcisi says, “it was really sad. Everything was wonderful [and then] the school collapsed. … The beautiful part of the story was the teachers taught for two months without pay to ensure students finished – all of them.”
After the demise of the American Conservatory in Chicago, he decided to try something else: He earned a B.A. in Communications and entertainment writing at Elmhurst college in 1995. He interned as a meteorologist with weatherman Tom Skilling of WGN Channel 9, and also with Jim Ramsey.
In music, Mr. Narcisi continued to play drums and provide back-up vocals in a number of area bands, even while he moved over to the computer field from meteorology.
Mr. Narcisi says his sister Jill got him started with voice lessons with Chicago mezzo-soprano Janice Pantazelos. For a birthday present one year, he says, Jill gave him “a check written to Janice for my birthday.” Once he started, he kept going: “That check awakened me into the world of vocal training, recitals and concerts,” he says. “I trained with Janice (opera and rock training) for approximately two years.”
Ian and his wife Cyn, an accomplished visual artist and yoga instructor, journeyed to India last December, a trip they had long dreamed of taking, says Mr. Narcisi, and that “opened [him] up to new experience” and “enhanced [his music] tremendously.” Though, he says, “Indian music had actually crept into my music long before Cyn and I went there,” the trip generated many new ideas, resulting in an unprecedented number of new songs: “I think India allowed my creative self to expand exponentially by having the three weeks of solitude and discovery in a culture so spiritually rich combined with being surrounded by a people who are so kind and intelligent.”
Mr. Narcisi moved to Evanston in 2000. His brother Jay, by that time living in Evanston himself, asked him to “check out this apartment” two blocks away – and he ended up moving here. His current “day gig” is with IfByPhone, an Evanston “cloud telephony” company. Evanston, he says, is an “exciting” city: “Art fairs, all those different bands playing, [recording] studios … It’s awesome.