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Border crossings
Bill Frisell, Bobby Previte, and Donal Fox push the jazz envelope

If part of being an American is deciding what an American is, then the same goes for jazz. The best jazz always makes us ask what jazz is. Jazz is about stretching boundaries, which is why many of its practitioners have avoided the word. Ellington openly abhorred it, preferring to call his own and any music he admired "beyond category." And often, it’s difficult to identify exactly what it is that makes music jazz. "It wouldn’t qualify as jazz but for the important fact that it was what jazz musicians were doing," Ben Ratliff wrote about the Chicago-based AACM projects of the late ’60 and early ’70s.

So it comes as not much of a surprise when drummer/composer Bobby Previte interrupts our recent telephone conversation to say, "By the way, I don’t really call myself a jazz musician."

But if you don’t call what Previte does jazz, what else would it be? Previte came on the scene in the early ’80s in downtown New York as part of an aggressively eclectic crew of fellow travelers who included Tim Berne, Marty Ehrlich, John Zorn, and Wayne Horvitz. His own music encompassed a variety of forms and strategies deployed in ensembles large and small — through-composed miniature chamber pieces, horn-textured mixes of writing and improvising, fusionoid proto-electronica freakouts.

Previte has been releasing albums by his band Bump, who come to the ICA next Friday, since 1985. On their last couple of Palmetto CDs, Just Add Water (2001) and Counterclockwise (2003), the emphasis has been on funk and rock beats, but that doesn’t nearly say it all. Just Add Water, abetted by Ray Anderson’s tailgating trombone, mixes Previte’s sense of humor with lyricism, the latter especially on the waltz time "Leave Here Now." Counterclockwise, on the other hand, has a harder edge underlined by the angular-melody, funk-beat "Soul," which recurs throughout the album in interstitial variations, with Previte offering the Motown shout-out "Dee-troit!" But the moods vary constantly, the funk breaking into tempo-less excursions for Horvitz’s piano, Ehrlich’s tenor sax, and Curtis Fowlkes’s trombone, or electric-bassist Steve Swallow’s guitar-like upper-register solos.

"I try to split the band almost in three," Previte explains. "It has a very unjazz-like unresponsive bottom, more like you’d find on a Motown record. And the horns aren’t playing funk. I wasn’t trying to create funk. I was trying to meld two worlds — the world of Messiaen, Stockhausen, Xenakis, and the Art Ensemble [of Chicago], those kinds of things, the extended literature for horns, and with it a kind of soul-music bottom. And the piano was kind of a bridge between them."

Previte calls Bump his "test tube" for new music, in which he tries to solve musical problems. "Can I do this? Can I do that? What if I put these elements together? What way can I change this well-known element so it seems like something it’s not?" He calls all these questions, however, a subtext to what matters most — an emotional, visceral impact. "The only question you should ask yourself is, ‘Does this sound good?’ And if it doesn’t sound good, all that other stuff just goes out the window."

Bump’s appearance at the ICA will be their Boston debut. With Ehrlich, Fowlkes, Swallow, and Horvitz, it’s a kind of supergroup representation of that original ’80s downtown New York æsthetic. "These guys are down to try anything. On the tune ‘Counterclockwise,’ I put a fuzz on Steve Swallow’s bass. A lot of times, he’s playing in a very un–Steve Swallow manner. I ask him to do things a lot of other people I think don’t ask him to do. But that’s a testimony to his curiosity and his aliveness. He’s not trying to be Steve Swallow. He’s only trying to be a musician."

ECHOING PREVITE, guitarist Bill Frisell once told writer Francis Davis, "I love it when things go together that aren’t supposed to but it all makes perfect sense." Another charter member of that downtown New York scene that revolved around the Knitting Factory, Frisell, who comes to the Somerville Theatre on May 2 with organist Sam Yahel and drummer Brian Blade, was a Berklee-educated Westerner (born in Baltimore, raised in Denver) who’d studied with Jim Hall. Over the years, he has more and more pursued non-jazz-like source material, including country and contemporary pop, until his music has become an unclassifiable sort of instrumental Americana, even when he’s gotten together with hardcore-jazz heavyweights like Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. "Who but the guileless Frisell," Davis wrote, "would invite a bassist admired for his harmonic sophistication and a black drummer who gives the impression of being an African chieftain to join him for a rendition of Stephen Foster’s ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’?"

It would be easy to think of various Frisell projects for the Nonesuch label as concept albums — 1997’s Nashville being a prime example. By that yardstick, last year’s The Intercontinentals, with its mix of African, Brazilian, Greek, and American musicians, was his "world music" album. But Frisell sees most of these projects (with the exception of Nashville, which was suggested by a record-company executive), as driven by personal relationships rather than musical concepts.

"I sort of think of it as having more to do with the people than the music," he tells me over the phone. "Sometimes it’s about experimenting or taking a chance on trying to connect with a bunch of new people, which is kind of what The Intercontinentals was. Sometimes it’s more about trying to show some sort of long-term progress — like the Blues Dream album — with people I was playing with a lot."

Those musical relationships even subsume Frisell’s pathbreaking playing, which, with its extended harmonic language and subtle use of electronic effects, has the kind of reach that few guitarists have equaled. Likewise, he doesn’t necessarily hire a pedal steel or dobro player based on sound alone. "Of course, I can’t say I’m not thinking about the instrument, but I guess what I think about more than that is the way the person thinks or how I feel about them — the chemistry that there is between me and that person and thinking about how the people I know might interact with each other."

The Intercontinentals began with musicians Frisell had met at a festival in Seattle, his home town since 1989. And he has an uncanny knack of turning these encounters into unified musical statements. By contrast, the early Buena Vista Social Club albums would never have existed if not for Ry Cooder’s advocacy, but his solos are also the worst thing about them — his blues slide picking comes from another world. As self-effacing as he is, Frisell never pretends he’s not making a Bill Frisell album. "The biggest challenge was to let everyone do what they do," he says of The Intercontinentals, "but I still wanted to rein it in and make my own music without squashing what they did naturally. I didn’t want it to be like: here’s a Greek tune and here’s an African tune. I was trying to squeeze it into my world somehow and still let them play."

So even though all the elements are there, don’t necessarily expect a classic greasy-groove organ-trio date when Frisell jams with Hammond B-3 man Yahel and drummer Blade. "I haven’t really written new music yet. But I don’t want to make it super-complicated." He adds, "We have 10 days before we get to Boston, which is actually the last gig. We’ll have it as together as it’s going to be."

COMPOSER/PIANIST DONAL FOX, on the other hand, has mixed Western classical music and jazz his whole performing life. Aside from his writing and performing with various organizations around the world, Fox’s mix of Monk and Bach has become a staple of the Regattabar schedules. This Friday and Saturday, he comes into the R-Bar with a new trio featuring former Chick Corea bassist John Patitucci and revered jazz drummer Al Foster.

"John and I had been talking for a couple of years," Fox tells me on the phone from his Roxbury home. "He’s been pigeonholed as this virtuoso six-string electric bassist with Chick Corea’s Elektric Band, so when he came to New York in the mid ’90s to play acoustic bass, a lot of people didn’t consider him an acoustic jazz bassist. It’s just funny the categories people get stuck in. And the more we talked, the more we realized we have in common. He loves Italian Baroque music, for instance, and his wife [Sachi] is a classical cellist." For the Regattabar gig, Fox will be expanding on the Monk-and-Bach theme by adding his arrangements of tangos by Astor Piazzolla.

In his role as a concert-music soloist, Fox will give the New York premiere of a piece written for him by Boston composer T.J. Anderson, Boogie Woogie Concertante, at Lincoln Center’s LaGuardia Concert Hall on Sunday with the Manhattan School of Music Jazz Philharmonic. He performed in the piece’s world premiere in 2003 at Harvard with Tom Everett and the Harvard Wind Band. It’s written around several improvised solo sections for piano. "The orchestra plays, and then there’s an instruction for the piano that says, ‘Improvise for up to three minutes,’ and there’s a blank page." Chuckling, Fox concludes, "If the piece works, T.J. takes all the credit, and if it doesn’t, he blames me."

Donal Fox, with John Patitucci and Al Foster, plays the Regattabar in the Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett Street in Harvard Square, April 23 and 24; call (617) 876-7777. Bobby Previte and Bump play at the ICA, 955 Boylston Street in Boston, on April 30; call (617) 354-9698. Bill Frisell, with Sam Yahel and Brian Blade, plays the Somerville Theatre, at 55 Davis Square, on May 2; call (617) 931-2000.

Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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