Damn the jam!
The "jam band" label is both blessing and curse. In the interest of intellectual shorthand, music critics and fans (present company included) equally are at fault in perpetuating categories, labels and appellations to define the music around us. And dubbing a music group a jam band can attract and repel listeners with equal force.
This out-of-control pigeonholing also gives a bad name to the legitimate tradition of musical improvisation --whether born of the Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers Band axis or the free jazz galaxy of Ornette and Coltrane.
To many observers, the term "jamming" nowadays--as unfair as it seems--connotes a loose party of touchy-feely, patchouli-wearing musicians indulging in fluffy, self-indulgent noodling in the absence of real compositional ideas.
Doubt not the diversity of this sound. Jam-band music can run the gamut from the hallowed anything-goes rock innovations of Phish to the spacey stoner funk of Particle, from the bluegrassy String Cheese Incident to the organ-heavy groove of jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood.
All of those mighty combos have played in Tucson. Now comes to our sleepy burg a new champion of jam gravitas--the New Orleans group Friends of Gravity, which will hold forth Thursday, March 31, at Plush.
Upping the improvisatory quotient exponentially will be the Los Angeles-based jazz trumpter Carlos Washington, a horn man of no small repute currently touring with the Friends of Gravity. Washington spends most of his time as a member of the neo-soul band Giant People, which comes on like a combination of Booker T. and the MGs and Tower of Power.
The 6-year-old Friends of Gravity, self-described as a "funky, rocking, improvisational trio" (as if that says a lot), is comprised of N'Awlins and Baton Rouge denizens Andy Bourgeois on keyboards and sax, Tommy Sciple on acoustic and electric basses and Simon Lott on drums, percussion and sampler.
According to legend, the group began as an acoustic piano trio, but they found few rock clubs they played in had a piano. So Bourgeois transitioned to the Hammond B3 organ, distinctive electric keyboards such as the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer, various synthesizers and even the melodica. Likewise, Sciple took on the electric six-string bass and mucho effects pedals, and Lott started fiddling with a sampler.
Suffice to say, the music on the band's recent CD release Thankful is smoking and arty and groove-oriented without leaning too much in the direction of Medeski and Co. or in the opposite direction toward Kansas and the Dixie Dregs. Influences such as Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman, Radiohead, the Meters, Jimi Hendrix and Bill Laswell can be heard.
It wasn't possible to interview either FOG or Washington--we suspect the madness that is the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference recently played havoc with the schedules and voice mails of music publicists nationwide.
We did, however, manage to cull some authoritative praise from other print and Internet sources, such as the following.
The Summit Daily News says, "C
arlos Washington is an exciting trumpet player who is leading a new soul movement blending jazz, funk, hip-hop and world music to create a cutting-edge sound."
The online Jam Base opines, "Damn, if you missed Friends of Gravity last night, you should be kicking yourself right now. ... These guys are so tight and energetic, every head in the room was bobbing and there were roaring cheers after every tune."
Sounds kinda like a jam band, no? Perhaps someone doth protest too much. So be it. I surrender to the jam.