At the performance of Greg Garrison’s Improvised Roots at Denver’s Dazzle jazz club, Garrison introduced a new piece called “I’m Not Sure What That Is”. The title was an apt description of the tune, which sometimes played in two distant keys at once, but also of the group itself. If you categorize music, nothing in Garrison’s group makes sense. The group features folk singer/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan, bluegrass mandolinist/banjoist Matt Flinner, avant-garde jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, and straight-ahead jazz reedman John Gunther. Garrison, the musical omnibudsman that leads the group, plays a roots-oriented style of acoustic bass. The group was arranged on stage with the jazz players on stage left, and the folk/bluegrass side on stage right. Before the performance, I wondered how the music would sound and how the whole thing would work.
Such are the problems with musical categories. Take away the categories and you have five exceptionally talented musicians with widely-varying backgrounds who are all interested in communicating through the language of music. That’s not politically correct whitewash; that’s the mission of Improvised Roots. Further, it is not just an idea that works in theory, but one that creates intriguing music. I saw a lot of smiles amongst the musicians during the performance, and they always came when one of the players played something that expanded the original conception of the music. Flinner’s “Big Bug Bop” started out with a rhythmic idea featuring a pronounced back beat, but when Gunther entered with a long-lined flute solo, he instantly changed the feel to a smooth samba-like groove. When the band played the piece again in the second set, Douglas entered with Gunther and created a different, and more complex rhythmic feel. The second performance built intensity in a way that the previous performance hadn’t, and Douglas capped off the piece with a blazing trumpet solo.
Douglas is well-known for his commanding trumpet tone and his exploratory improvisations. What is particularly noteworthy is that his style is quite accessible. He brings you along on his soloistic journey and no matter what odd turns it may take, you come along. Gunther’s style is more traditional, but he found ample means of expression on a virtual arsenal of reed instruments, including flute, clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor sax. O’Donovan’s voice is pure, vibrato-less, and quite flexible. She effortlessly scatted the complex melody of Douglas’ “Bolicati” with the horns, and infused her sound with soulful emotion on Stephen Foster’s “Voice of Bygone Days” and Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway”. Flinner is a brilliant technician on both mandolin and banjo, and he effectively brought his instruments into the solo spotlight with precise and emotive statements. Garrison did not solo, but his strong bass kept the group rhythmically grounded throughout the evening.
All of the musicians brought original music for the group. Douglas’ quixotic “Beware of Doug” fit so well into this format that it’s hard to imagine it played any other way. Yet, it takes an extraordinary group to play this piece with its unusual form and surprising modulations (all over a basic two-beat bass!). O’Donovan’s “Peace of Wild Things” incorporated a fiddle tune which was played by Douglas, Gunther and Flinner. It really didn’t matter that the tune was not played in precise unison; in fact, it was more interesting when it went out of sync! O’Donovan and Douglas collaborated on a tune called “The Trail”. Douglas originally composed the tune after playing an Italian music festival where performers and audience alike had to hike up a mountain to get to the performance venue. O’Donovan’s lyric dealt with a “post-apocalyptic landscape” (she said that she’d always wanted to set those words) and despite the vast difference in subject matter, the words and music fit together perfectly. Gunther’s “Cowboy-Type Tune” was one of the highlights of the evening. Set with odd phrase lengths and a modulation in the middle of the solo section, it was a challenging piece to improvise on, but both Gunther and Flinner played brilliant solos that made the music more of a personal statement and less of a musical exercise.
The group’s booking at Dazzle was set over a month ago, but they’ve come across an unexpected scheduling issue. The Denver Broncos’ overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers moved the team into the AFC Division Playoff game against the New England Patriots. As a result, Bronco-mania has reached fever pitch in Denver. The game will be played tonight as Garrison’s group plays their final night at Dazzle. The group acknowledged the scheduling conflict last night and wondered aloud if Jesus supported both sports and the arts. So here’s an idea: If you’re a Denver jazz fan who hasn’t made plans for watching the game, TiVo Tebow and go hear some world-class music at Dazzle with Greg Garrison and Improvised Roots!
Photo by Rodney W. Shaw (L to R: John Gunther, Dave Douglas, Aoife O’Donovan, Greg Garrison, Matt Flinner).