People Series: Elise Builds a Neural Network... of Jazz

What do design, jazz and the 100 billion neurons in the human brain have in common? Ask Uncorked designer Elise Cramer and she’ll touch on themes of improvisation, invention, frameworks and rule-breaking.

A musician who first learned piano in elementary school, Elise majored in neuroscience and minored in jazz studies in college, a combination that comes alive in her improvisatory jam sessions at house shows and jazz clubs around the Pacific Northwest.

“A lot of times chess is used as the stimulus to see how we solve problems,” Elise says. “There’s a huge argument for doing that with jazz musicians. Musical improvisation is an incredibly complicated task that reveals cognitive patterns even more complex than those used while playing chess.”

But let’s head back to the beginning. After learning piano, Elise picked up the saxophone, and then added the guitar, drums and ukulele to her arsenal. But sax stayed on top. “It looked cool,” she says, “It was the antithesis of femininity around the flute and clarinet. There were no other women in jazz or ones that played sax in school.”

“I also saw the Kenny G. album cover and really liked his hair. He was a really good bebop player. He used to be able to shred.” [Editor’s note: What do you mean used to???]

As Elise progressed, she thought more about the way the different players in an ensemble would react to and interact with each other: “As I understood jazz more, I wanted to be able to play what I was hearing. It’s a super social thing for me. I met a lot of great people through it and I enjoyed the act of doing it with other people.”

And her appetite for playing only continues to grow. “In psychology they talk about the idea of entering flow. I can do that while playing and lose track of time. Once I got to a certain level it was like a meditative thing. I understood when I got better. I knew everything I needed to do to improve. I need to play this faster. Start the metronome at 20 and move it one tick faster and faster.”

Once Elise’s playing matured, she started finding larger audiences. “My first band was called PB&Jazz, in high school. We just booked jazz gigs around Portland. I also played at the farmer’s market every Saturday. We got paid really well, $25 bucks an hour. My friend played guitar and I played sax.”

More recently, her group, Cosmo Alto, has been playing house shows. A club gig in Seattle in April led to their big break: they were asked to open for Homeshake, a band led by Mac Demarco’s guitarist Peter Sagar, a few weeks later.

The band went through a flurry of songwriting and rehearsal before the show. “We became a band in those two and a half weeks,” Elise says. In that time, the group wrote a set’s worth of original music, ironed out the instrumentation, and decided how they were going to make everything work together on stage. “It was awesome,” Elise says. “It was a sold out show. The place was packed. People didn’t know there was an opener so everyone showed up right on time. There was a small stage and people immediately moved to the front and got up real close to us.”

Cosmo Alto is now getting into the studio when they can. But, the group’s ambition, like their composition style, is light and leaves room for improvisation. “There are musicians who just want to tour and go on the road; we just want to play more together,” Elise says. “Playing live shows is where we have the most fun. We put together this eight song set in two weeks. Now we’re getting to have fun with those songs that we made.”

Here is a taste:

“This is one of the first songs that came together as a “real song” for the band. Our guitarist/singer, Cosmo Alto (yes, that’s his real name) brought the song to us and we all were immediately drawn to the opening guitar lick and how well the song builds. We worked to add in our individual flair: sax hits, vocal harmonies, and a poppy bass line. Collaborating with our friend Jeremy Klein, we recorded the song over a few sessions in his studio last month. It’s been a fun experiment to figure out how to translate the energy of a live performance into a recorded song, and we learned things from the process of recording, ‘No Need,’ that will translate to future recording sessions.”

About Elise Cramer: Elise is a designer at Uncorked Studios. In her work, she tries to find the intersection of usability, emotion, purpose and invention and blends those insights to make products that make sense. She approaches design with empathy for the user, keeping the research top-of-mind. When she isn’t at Uncorked, you can find Elise taking metal-working classes at ADX, learning about new inventions and (obviously) playing a lot of music.

More about the Uncorked People Series: The Uncorked People Series features the stories of Uncorked folks and what makes them who they are. It tells the tales of the insatiably curious and multifaceted people that make the company what it is. The blogs are published once a month. Stay tuned for more.

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