Free radicals charge the tower

Supercollider smashes jazz preconceptions

photo by Michael Weintrob

It was that kind of afternoon, so we caution Jon Gray, trumpeter/vocalist for the local jazz septet Supercollider, that we were going to start our interview in the middle.

“Groovy. I’m all about it,” he counters. Jazz bands. Seems like, over the course of jazz music’s more-or-less 100-year history, the music has alternately promoted bands as bands, then soloists fronting bands, then bands again … then soloists again. Duke Ellington, John Coltrane. Miles Davis, then the cult of fusion — bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, ostensibly bands but built around the soloist.

Well, OK, maybe that’s a lumbering over-generalization (apologies — it was that kind of afternoon), but as arguably the frontman of a septet, bred in an environment of both trad jazz and the vigorously collectivized jam-band ethos of the People’s Republic, we wondered how Gray viewed his own outfit.

“So … OK,” Gray draws a breath, trying to find a way to answer a non-question by referencing the avant-jazz Brooklyn group Kneebody.

“They’re a band of guys who should all be leaders,” he says. “But they all sort of diplomatically fall under this one thing. There’s a lot of that that’s around.

“There’s not a whole lot of bands like ours, that are a ‘band.’ I know what you mean. Jazz is kind of like a soloist’s art, a lot of times. … If you’re talking in reference to our group, our group is a jazz band in two different ways. We have horns, but also improvise a lot. … It’s a blues band when we’re playing blues, a fusion jazz band when we’re playing that stuff, kind of a singer-songwriter band when we’re doing that.”

We can’t be sure, short of asking them, whether the Tuesday night crowd at the Laughing Goat really thinks they’re a trad jazz band, or something hyphenated, or if it really matters. Taking in the band’s current trademark piece, for example, the two-part “Stars Collapse,” there isn’t much doubt — a passage of simmering murmurs giving way to a poised, chest-out, horn-driven lead line, for some reason reminding us of Tom Scott’s ballsy earlier work leading the L.A. Express. There are probably better points of reference here that escape us: tightly arranged brass carried over perfectly dropped changes, inflection and flourishes at the right places. Post-cool swing, unforced inertia.

This is, even for gifted and practiced musicians, a lot harder than it looks. Keeping the burn alive while playing into charts and hearing the song as its own entity, not just as a vehicle for maniacal soloing.

“The way Supercollider has always worked,” Gray explains, “is, I’ll write the music, but I’ll keep it super sparse. I’ll bring in a lead sheet, and I’ll have a couple of ideas for the horns in my head, and everyone will kind of fill in their parts. … And most of the time, what they put in there, just works.”

We’ve heard strains of this before, or something like this, in the Boulder Valley. The band was Fat Mama, the shockingly successful fusion/jam-band/funk outfit born from the CU College of Music in the mid 1990s and educated on the road through about 2001, including heavy touring on the East Coast. The lure of Boston-D.C. corridor work eventually claimed some of their members, keyboardist Erik Deutsch among them. Gray held the trumpet seat in the outfit and went on to play again with Deutsch and now- Supercollider reedman Jon Stewart in the luminous folk-jazz outfit County Road X.

But Gray, who divides his time between playing, composing and studies up in Fort Collins, insists that even his frequent trips to play with Deutsch (who is finishing up a new CD) in New York doesn’t really tempt him for the Big Move. Occasional sit-in guest Ron Miles, one of the Denver area’s undisputed jazz treasures, was similarly tempted at one time by the promise of steady work and jazz-rag visibility in the Big Apple, but resisted and stayed in the area. Gray (among many others) is glad he did, and shares his preference for Rocky Mountain time.

“[Stewart] and I both go to New York to play with Erik a lot of the time, and I ask myself that. Y’know, you get out there and you do all this stuff, and you get used to the pace. And about three days in, I just crash. I was raised in the South and just used to a slower pace. Yeah, I think it’d be nice to live in New York at some time in my life, but right now it’s just not worth it.”

For now, Supercollider has eased off their weekly gigs at the Goat.

“We did that gig once a week, for over a year, and recently, around the end of the school year, we scaled it back to once a month. Luckily, all the guys in Supercollider are in like nine other bands. I think we felt like we were over-exposing ourselves a little bit. Playing once a week, and I was in school, so we couldn’t really get together to practice, so all the new material we learned we kind of had to learn on the bandstand. On the fly. But I think all of us really liked the time we put in there.” 

On the Bill: Supercollider opens for Tower of Power at the Boulder Theater on Sunday, Aug. 7. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Must be 21 to enter. Tickets are $38. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786- 7030.