A Few Good Men

by Alexander Gelfand
July 2006

A LOT OF INK HAS BEEN SPILLED over the notion that American jazz has become dominated by hidebound conservatives intent on slavishly honoring "the tradition." And there's a grain of truth to that claim, which gets a big boost every time Jazz at Lincoln Center or some other repertory organization rolls out yet another tribute to the music of yet another dead or dying jazz icon.

It is, however, just a grain. In New York City, for example, even the more conservative clubs like Birdland and the Blue Note—places that rely heavily on tourist dollars, and are not inclined to get all jiggy with their programming—are welcoming an ever-broader array of acts, many of which combine jazz with other genres, like hip-hop and electronica. Even Jazz at Lincoln Center, long held to be the avatar of the retro-garde, has opened its doors to hip-hoppers and world-music types in recent months. Despite all the talk of stagnation, mainstream tastes are apparently becoming more adventurous.

Still, there's adventurous—as in, "My, how interesting!"—and there's adventurous—as in, "Oh, good lord!" Alt-jazz clubs like Tonic, Barbès and the Stone specialize in the latter. But even they occasionally outdo themselves, as Tonic did this January, when it hosted a sextuple bill titled "NYC Jazz Alternatives/The New Generation." The event, which was timed to coincide with the annual conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators, was the brainchild of saxophonist Ken Thomson.

In addition to fronting the almost uncategorizable band Gutbucket, a quartet that also includes guitarist Ty Citerman, drummer Paul Chuffo and bassist Eric Rockwell, Thomson is manager of Cantaloupe Music, the record label founded by the avant-classical music collective, Bang on a Can. Thomson wanted the Tonic micro-festival to showcase the kind of alternative jazz artists who believe that jazz "can go beyond the four-to-the-floor concept fostered by the mainstream." And he succeeded, putting together a program that was less four-to-the-floor than balls-to-the-wall.

The setting only accentuated the event's edginess. Tonic might charitably be described as austere, and uncharitably described as a dump: The doors to the restrooms don't close, the lights dim periodically for no apparent reason, and there are just enough uncomfortable, molded plastic chairs for half the people in the room. I personally spent the evening seated next to a bearded lunatic who divided his time between eating something unidentifiable out of a cardboard box, and sneaking off to the men's room to light up a spliff.

The music was just as colorful, ranging from the Semitic jazz-rock of Rashanim (imagine the offspring of John McLaughlin, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a Hasidic wedding band) and the atonal chamber music of cellist Okkyung Lee (imagine a large, angry swarm of bees) to the hardcore punk-jazz of Gutbucket (imagine a balding, bespectacled Thomson hopping around on stage while whipping off a tricked-out cover version of Olivier Messiaen's 20th-century chamber-music classic, "Quartet for the End of Time.")

"Everything on that bill sounded like nothing else on that bill," Thomson later said with pride. Sounding like nothing else could well be Gutbucket's official motto. Elements of the group's music evoke familiar territory: The honks, shrieks and frenzied improvisation of free jazz; the manic energy and sheer volume of punk rock; the compositional sophistication and tight ensemble dynamics of chamber music. Gutbucket does not traffic in pastiche, however. Rather than segueing from genre to genre with a post-modern wink, Thomson and his bandmates cram everything into the blender all at once, and the result is a kind of musical sausage that bears only a passing resemblance to its constituent parts.

The band's polyglot approach, which can be heard to fine effect on its latest Cantaloupe release, Sludge Test, does not make for easy marketing.

"The trick with Gutbucket is figuring out where the hell we belong," Thomson said. "Obviously, the Village Vanguard wouldn't have us." Indeed, the band plays more jazz clubs in Europe than it does in the U.S., where it tends to appear at punk hangouts and alternative-music venues.

(Gutbucket recently played 120 Hamilton Street, a popular "punk-squat club" in New Jersey, and hit Brooklyn's eclectic North Six club before embarking on a tour of Germany, Switzerland, and Croatia. "We're really big in Croatia," Thomson said, with a hint of amusement.)

Yet despite holding down a day job in the music industry—as manager of Cantaloupe, he's responsible for coordinating the manufacture and marketing of CDs by artists who are almost as hard to pigeonhole as Gutbucket—Thomson maintains a refreshingly unjaundiced attitude toward his own art.

"All we're doing is writing and performing the music we love," he said. "It’s only afterwards that we have to figure out this marketing bullshit."

Copyright 2006 © Alexander Gelfand

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