i///u photo by Luis Arellanes. (L-R): Scott Elder, Jason Chan, Katyrose Jordan, Andrew Sumabat, Billy Wu, and Julio Estrada
BY JONATHAN SHIPLEY
It was John Steinbeck who wrote, “When two people meet, each one is changed by the other so you’ve got two new people.” I don’t know if Steinbeck ever played the piano, or picked up a guitar, or plucked at a bass, or tooted on a trombone, but the same could be said of jazz music. When two musicians play together they change and evolve; they grow and develop; they talk and listen; they converse; they both improvise into a different way of being.
The Seattle-based neo-soul band i///u becomes new every time they get together. The six-piece band formed originally while many of them were undergrads at the University of Washington (UW).
Scott Elder is the band’s bass player. “I started it,” he said, “with Katyrose in our freshman fall quarter in a symphonic orchestra ensemble class.”
Katyrose Jordan (vocals, flute, saxophone) remembers, “I was casually teaching my stand partner some jazz chords at the piano when Scott came trotting up and immediately started playing ‘Autumn Leaves.’ We hit it off right away.”
“The band will be the first to tell you that I recruited every member,” Elder said, “by pitching them the idea of making impactful music alongside soon-to-be-friends. Here we are today, six years later.”
The band’s current iteration consists of Elder, Jordan, Billy Wu (drums), Jason Chan (keys), Julio Estrada (guitar), and Andrew Sumabat (saxophone, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, EWI). Their in-house visual creative is Stuart Danford.
“We’ve gone through so many defining musical discoveries together. We’ve done it together every step of the way,” Jordan said. “One major challenge was learning how to utilize each of our unique and widely varying musical backgrounds.”
Elder agrees. “We were able to test different styles and sounds during our college years.” The band could create a song one night in a UW dorm room and one week later perform it in the backyard of someone’s house in front of hundreds of people. Within a month they could record a new song and have it available on streaming services soon after.
“With so many people at a time,” Jordan admits, “it was a challenge to make music where everyone felt that the collective sound was true to them.”
They were people, finding their way musically on stage, improvising toward an improving collective good.
They label themselves on their Facebook page as neo-soul. Music genres are fluid, but jazz is certainly at the heart of a lot of their work. Sumabat considers jazz to be one of the most important musical genres because it teaches three important things: improvisation, collaboration, and the blues.
Improvisation, he feels, gives one freedom of self-expression and a sense of self-worth. But, in order to improvise, one has to look inward and know thyself. “To collaborate,” Sumabat said, “means how to find common ground with others and learn how best to serve one another as a community.” Further, he believes, “The blues teaches us all that no matter what struggles we go through in this life, we will get through it together.”
The COVID pandemic was certainly a tidal wave of grief, despair, and soul-searching. Having come off winning MoPOP’s 2019 Sound Off! competition, the pandemic was a blow for i///u, just as it was for the entirety of Seattle’s music scene.
Their debut West Coast tour was scrapped. It was to coincide with their first EP, Junebugs. Remotely, they fashioned another EP, Five Lives to a Circle. They had 12-hour-long Zoom sessions working on their music.
“It was depressing to cancel our tour and it weighed heavily on us for months,” Estrada said. He also realizes that there are silver linings in every dark cloud. “I grew as a songwriter and a producer. I would not have been able to accomplish as much without the forced isolation.”
Elder said, “Mental health was a challenge for us collectively while in the throes of trying to remain productive.” It was hard. But, Seattle is nothing if not resilient. “We can’t thank Seattle enough for empowering musicians and revitalizing a scene after such a hopeless period.”
From hopelessness comes hope. In March, i///u received the Earshot Jazz Golden Ear Award for NW Alternative Jazz Group of the Year, as voted by the community. A testament to their years of creation through the dark. This coming summer will be big for i///u. A debut album is forthcoming. Regional festival appearances are forthcoming, including a Sunday mainstage slot at Capitol Hill Block Party. Their first headlining gig at Neumos, of which they were over the moon about, happened at the beginning of April.
Their manager, Spencer Rex, said, “We want to get out there. We are dreaming big.”
Dreaming, they are, and succeeding, at becoming new people.