A tale of two quartets: Jazz-based music in the saturated art market

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*Gutbucket*
*Suburban World Theatre*
*4.29.06*

*Gold Sounds*
*Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant*
*5.1.06-5.2.06*

Note that I refer to this music as “jazz-based,” rather than simply classifying it as “jazz.” I do this only to remind ourselves of the divergence between the increasing institutionalization of what is bludgeoned into the American public’s mind as JAZZ: AMERICA’S MUSIC, and that living practice of small-combo and improvised music that continues to flourish in many parts of the world, including the former global center of jazz, New York City. But if we were to dismiss the now-official wisdom of Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis, Ken Burns, et al., and instead see jazz as a wide-ranging cultural practice that extends from smooth R&B and instrumental pop on one end to post-avant-gardist and electronic experimentalism on the other, we would quickly realize that the Twin Cities has received, and continues to receive, wonderful musicians within this practice on a regular basis, including the two New York-based groups reviewed here. Unfortunately, not all of these musicians are equally promoted within the glutted art-market of the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

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The Suburban World Theatre is quite a remarkable space. Its interior design is unabashedly Spanish Rococo-esque, with delightfully gaudy Baroque trim and stucco facades, kitschy sculptures of Pan adorning the walls, midnight blue ceiling replete with faux-constellation and moving clouds, and rather large plaster walls separating seating areas, as if to simulate a Spanish courtyard. Originally opening as the Granada Theater in 1928, presenting vaudeville shows and the first “talkies” in Minneapolis, the theater was renovated a few years ago in the hopes that it could provide a unique kind of space for performance events, concerts, films, and fine dining.

Several years on, the renovated theater appears to have lost some of its initial luster. Historical renovation and preservation projects, ennobling the sordid underbelly of gentrification, seem to abound in the Twin Cities area—one of the most recent being the voluptuously refurnished Varsity Theater in Dinkytown. The space of the Suburban World Theatre itself, while still decadently magnificent, appears to be under-utilized, with the current performance schedule looking rather thin on the theater’s website (“www.suburbanworldtheatre.com”:http://www.suburbanworldtheatre.com/). And rumors of staff discontent circulated during the performance I attended, which seemed to me to be both unfortunate and wholly understandable, given the apparent difficulties the space has in attracting reasonably lucrative acts and the somewhat unsuccessful promotion efforts the space has undertaken for the impressive performers it has managed to present.

The result, on April 29, was a stellar concert attended by about thirty people, about a third of whom included the performers. The lineup began with Jelloslave, a classical/world-fusion quartet comprised of two cellists, a tabla player, and a drummer. The group produced some nice sounds in the vein of the Kronos Quartet-music that now circulates frequently on the peripheries of both the art music and popular music worlds. Among the more entertaining pieces they performed included their rather apt arrangement of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” from _Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band_. Here, the two cellists traded off licks in the manner of _jugalbandi_ dueling (not unlike “trading fours” in jazz), recalling the pitting of Harrison’s sitar against the string orchestra in the original song’s instrumental solo section.

The second group, Improvised Explosive Device, was more ambitious, combining ambient jazz/improv with laptop electronica and creating a fluid continuum of improvisation that lasted about an hour. The most striking device the group used in the course of their performance was the real-time sonic and visual manipulation of video clips, reminiscent of video-installation works like Christian Marclay’s _Video Quartet_ (2002), in which the sonic manipulation of soundtracks is accompanied by correctly synchronized images from the filmic source material. At one point, the band began to loop fragments of tunes from _West Side Story_, including “Cool” and “Mambo,” producing—particularly in the latter—a remarkable and spare state of abstraction that gracefully accompanied the repeated movements of the actors in the 1961 film.

After a satisfying pair of opening acts, the headlining New York-based act “Gutbucket”:http://www.gutweb.com appeared in one of the theater’s “courtyards” (rather than on stage) and delivered an absolutely riveting performance, impressing all witnesses with their unhinged energy and utmost professionalism. The group, consisting of four 1990s-era graduates from Columbia University and NYU and playing saxophone (Ken Thomson), electric guitar (Ty Citerman), bass (Eric Rockwin) and drums (Paul Chuffo), might be characterized as part of the most recent generation of New York experimental/improv musicians, which takes its cue from the “downtown” improvised music of early 1980s lower Manhattan. Usually written out of official jazz history, the largely white and punk rock-influenced experimental music scene of John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Arto Lindsay and many others was instead typically described as “postmodern,” in the language of the prevailing intellectual currents of the time. Indeed, the dizzying and wide-ranging array of rapid-fire style shifts in the music of groups like Zorn’s quintet on _Naked City_ (1989) or Mike Patton’s Mr. Bungle, let alone anticipatory global equivalents like the Bulgarian “wedding music” of the 1970s by Ivo Papasov and Yuri Yunakov, seemed to be the perfect embodiment of the aesthetic relativism and metacritical sensibility of postmodernist thought. Nonetheless, the debts that these New York musicians owed to an earlier wave of mostly black free jazz improvisers seems obvious and was, in contrast to much of the critical treatment and hype surrounding this scene, usually acknowledged by the musicians themselves. Twenty years hence, this form of “collage music” has lost the intellectual cache of an emergent formation and now merely seems to be nothing more or less than a distinct subgenre of contemporary improvised music.

Judging from their performance at the Suburban World Theatre and their recent disc _Sludge Test_ (2006, “Cantaloupe Music”:http://www.cantaloupemusic.com/), Gutbucket would appear to be a leading proponent of this brand of experimental collage-music. But if the earlier, 1980s-era musicians drew on a no-wave, post-punk variant of rock music, reflecting their generational heritage and artistic formation, Gutbucket seems to take its inspiration instead from the sonic landscape of grunge and early 1990s indie-rock, the last gasp of American hardcore punk that facilitated the subsumption of independent rock music of the 1980s into mainstream corporate pop-rock. One hears echoes of bands like Nirvana (as in the barre chord groove that appears towards the end of the eponymous track “Sludge Test”) or the Pixies (such as the dissonant pitch-bend riff in “Throsp%” reminiscent of Joey Santiago’s guitar playing). While performing, the band even behaved like a rock band might, particularly with Thomson in constant motion, jumping, bending, running around, and otherwise emulating the physical gestures of a rock band’s lead singer.

But the group’s musical references and source material range widely, far beyond the moment of grunge rock to encompass influences pre- and post-dating that quintessentially early-1990s style. For example, “Circadian Mindf**k” seems to cross Coltrane and modal jazz with Eastern European folk music, with the ending adopting the latter’s modal scales and additive rhythms while simultaneously managing to sound like Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” (For the record, the band has acknowledged the influence of Ivo Papasov on this track.) Gutbucket would appear to have some of the same quasi-filmic interests of Zorn, with a noir-ish and 1950s-esque sound surfacing on various songs, though again filtered through many lenses like early prog-rock and Ornette Coleman. “Disciplining the Fugitive” begins with a roughly textured, moderately distorted guitar layer that accompanies cool sax riffs recalling music akin to Mancini’s famous “Peter Gunn Theme” before transmogrifying into a manic frenzy worthy of King Crimson.

But perhaps the single most stunning moment in the concert was their more or less faithful rendition of the monophonic sixth movement of Olivier Messiaen’s _Quartet for the End of Time_ (1940-1), “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes” (Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets). In Gutbucket’s version, Messiaen’s jagged dance tune began with an accompanying “tribal” tom-tom beat, accumulating in intensity, while the slower, grandiose melodic fragments towards the middle of the piece snarled rather menacingly. Towards the end, the piece built to a fevered pitch, with a heavy, Black Sabbath-esque drumbeat and greatly distorted guitar adding an apocalpytic intensity not found in the original composition. The piece works brilliantly as the final track of _Sludge Test_, and it demonstrated a powerful impact on an audience that was, for the most part, completely unfamiliar with the original work.

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Unlike the Suburban World Theatre, the Dakota Jazz Club appears to be a frequently patronized venue. Strategically situated at present in downtown Minneapolis on Nicollet Mall, the club’s dark, woody interior and efficient wait staff make the space a very appealing, if much more expensive, place to hear live improvised music. A few weeks ago, the Gold Sounds project—well advertised and promoted in the City Pages—helped intrepid listeners not usually interested in contemporary jazz cross the barriers of music subculture and price ($30 tickets) with the aid of a unique concept. The group, led by New York-based virtuoso saxophonist James Carter, is premised on the fact that its four members, Carter, keyboardist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Reginald Veal, and drummer Ali Jackson, decided to perform their own jazz covers of songs by Pavement, arguably the greatest indie-rock band of the 1990s. Alan Suback’s liner notes for their recording _Gold Sounds_ (2005, “Brown Brothers”:http://www.brownbrothersrecordings.com/) would presumably represent the group’s opinion on the now-defunct Southern California band led by Stephen Malkmus: “When you cut through the band’s image as hipsters or slackers and just examine the songs, what is left is the finest collection of tunes of any rock/pop band since R.E.M.’s heyday.” I would certainly agree, and the idea to draw on this repertoire is at once inspired and in tune with present-day trends in jazz. With contemporary jazz reeling, on the one hand, from the genre’s downward trajectory from jazz-rock fusion into R&B smoothness, and, on the other hand, from the ossification of the “jazz tradition” at the hands of the neoconservative establishment, newer artists like Vijay Iyer or old-guard figures like Herbie Hancock are performing jazz arrangements and variants on pop/rock songs and are thereby, once again, following Miles Davis’s injunction to keep jazz connected to popular music (rather than trying to imitate or _become_ popular music).

But although Carter repeatedly proclaimed his Pavement fandom during the performances I attended, it was evident that the songs served mainly as a source of inspiration for a highly talented ensemble that hardly needed Pavement as an excuse to engage in some impressive music making. A good example of their method can be seen in their treatment of “Platform Blues,” from the band’s final album _Terror Twilight_ (1999). The original tune is composed in several different sections, many of which include repeated, mostly static basslines based on descending lines; in the Gold Sounds version, we find that just one of these basslines (which appears in the middle of the song) serves as the basis for the group’s improvisations in their version. By extracting wisps of melodies, grooves, or harmonic progressions from their song sources, the group is able to synthesize their post-bop and soul jazz idioms harmoniously with the music of Pavement. A more thoroughgoing engagement with the original song structures would, however, surely have been much more challenging to effect on account of the aesthetic distance between the two groups.

The whole affair at the Dakota Jazz Club was mostly rather relaxed and extremely enjoyable; on the flipside, one might argue that the stakes of the music were rather low, as seems to be the case these days in jazz generally. There were, though, exciting snippets of musical quotation characteristic of both the bebop tradition and the new improvised collage music. Carter, for example, would launch into Coltrane-esque “sheets of sound” figures, Coleman-influenced rapid sequential modulations, and the free jazz squawks and growls of Ayler. On one occasion, Carter even quoted, double-time, the beginning of “Ornithology” by Charlie Parker. Chestnut drew more often from the Western classical tradition, effortlessly slipping into Rachmaninov-like arpeggio patterns or quoting Mozart (the opening movement of the famous, “easy” C Major sonata, K. 545) and Prokofiev (the first Piano Concerto, I think).

The most successful treatment, it seemed to me, was their cover of the Pavement’s biggest hit, “Cut Your Hair,” from the band’s masterpiece _Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain_ (1994). Here, the originally peppy song was transformed into a slow, smooth neo-soul/gospel tune, with the group members singing a slowed down version of the “ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh” vocal line that opens and periodically returns in the original song, now with the new nonsense syllables “doo doo doo-wee ooh-wee wee-ah.” Performing a version of “Cut Your Hair” that was much less Pavement than, say, D’Angelo, on both nights Carter settled into a long soprano saxophone solo, during which he proceeded to use the formerly avant-gardist techniques of Ayler for comical effect. The saxophonist staged a highly theatrical mock argument with his horn, now presumably transformed into a haranguing woman—at times, Carter would squeak and squawk on the horn, then stop for a moment and stare bemusedly or despairingly at his chastising interlocutor. In addition to being musically very successful—sexy, soulful, funny—the effect was to transform the song into a characteristically African-American expression of gender dynamics that, in the original song, represented the relationship of the protagonist to both a normalizing lover and the stifling music industry. Carter, dressed in stylish hipster garb, momentarily became the black trickster equivalent of Malkmus’s persona in “Cut Your Hair,” thus demonstrating an engagement with the original song material on multiple levels.

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Both concerts demonstrated that there is no dearth of quality entertainment present in the Twin Cities these days, but clearly all acts—even roughly equivalent ones—are not promoted, reviewed, or attended in equal measure. For all of the multilayered pleasures of the Gold Sounds concert, I found the Gutbucket concert even more powerful and worthy of attention. Fortunately, I was not forced to choose between the two groups, but for most denizens of the area the choice was already made for them by the local media and venues that hosted both groups. And yet, one cannot fault papers such as the _City Pages_ or performance halls like the Suburban World Theatre for choosing to place a specified portion of their resources in the service of some artists, whether to the detriment of these artists or other, competing ones; such choices simply reflect the realities of capitalism within the entertainment industry. The greater issue at hand is that of the saturated music market, the hallmark of the gentrifying city whose function in the post-productive developed world is to serve as a site of regional, national, and international tourism, with liberal cosmopolitan urbanites serving as both facilitators and consumers of these tourist commodities.

But if G.R. Anderson, Jr. is correct, there would appear to be limits on the consuming capacity of what is often described as the largest per capita culture market in the United States outside of New York (1). The most important of these may be the economic and demographic divide between city and suburb, which of course also mirrors cultural and political divisions of great consequence. As the Twin Cities moves precipitously forward into the brave new world of Condoland at a time of increasing economic scarcity (itself masked by apparent growth and conveniently rosy economic predictions), I wonder how many venues will ultimately languish and fold under the weight of their own redundancy. Although I am loath to quickly succumb to crudely apocalyptic thinking and could not blithely celebrate such an outcome, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing in at least one way. For although tourism depends fundamentally on art, art has little need for tourism and feeds voraciously on the one condition the tourist city seeks to annihilate: boredom.

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fn1. See Anderson’s excellent essay “Nightlife, Next Exit,” _City Pages_, 17 May 2006, 12-21.

For more information, see:
“www.gutweb.com”:http://www.gutweb.com
“www.cantaloupemusic.com”:http://www.cantaloupemusic.com
“www.brownbrothersrecordings.com”:http://www.brownbrothersrecordings.com

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