Mainstream Jazz for Aliens
Slumgum sweetens the mix at The Roost
Jon Armstrong, saxophonist in the jazz quartet Slumgum, attended a concert of avant-garde music with his wife. Though the music was interesting and the musicians top-notch, he felt less than satisfied, a little unsettled even. On the way out of the hall, he asked his wife what she thought of the evening.
“They weren’t great tour guides,” he recalls her saying, and you couldn’t really trust where you were going with the musicians.
“I’ve taken that to heart,” says Armstrong. “You want the audience to absolutely give themselves to you, and you have to develop that trust, so they will follow you wherever you go. Then, you can show them a nice tour. You can really go show them some interesting places.”
That sensibility distinguishes the music of Slumgum, which includes Rory Cowal (piano), Dave Tranchina (bass) and Trevor Anderies (drums). Thoughtful and adventurous, the quartet makes the listener feel at home with beautiful melodies and familiar elements from diverse musical traditions—classical, jazz, ambient, world—and unlike many avant-garde groups, these musicians do not abjure consonance or the simple triad. From that comfortable platform, the group launches itself and its audience into unexpected and wonderfully uncharted places. On Sunday, fueled by critical acclaim for Slumgum’s third recording, The Sky His Own, which features guest trumpeter Hugh Ragin, they will be taking off from The Roost.
Meeting as students at the California Institute of the Arts, the four members of Slumgum (the name is a beekeeping term) brought varied musical backgrounds to the quartet, and the CalArts program encouraged them to explore other musical traditions and incorporate them into their jazz studies. That, in part, explains the various influences they bring to bear on their compositions. Shadowed by Brahms, Cowal may be laying down a bed of shimmering romantic arpeggios on the piano while Armstrong soars over it, his free honks spiced with Carnatic elements. Tranchina and Anderies, meanwhile, might be working out a rock and roll rhythm underneath.
As varied as Slumgum compositions are, ranging from hard-driving postbop epics to short impressionistic poems, most share another quirky characteristic: unexpected but nonetheless well-integrated shifts in texture, rhythm, genre or mood. An unusual compositional technique accounts for those shifts.
Armstrong notes that an album featuring compositions from four different contributors, four different sensibilities, could be disorienting for listeners. Beginning with its second album, Quardboard Flavored Fiber, the quartet found a way to incorporate each voice while creating a unified, identifiable sound: They starting bringing unfinished compositions to their sessions.
“We sort of stumbled on it, but now we recognize it as a strength,” says Armstrong. This allows each member to play around with the composition and make suggestions, adding a needed melody, say, or a bass line. This approach requires a longer gestational period to achieve a complete composition, says Armstrong, but the result is a more coherent album—with those unexpected shifts reflecting the influence of the different voices.
For their appearance at The Roost, Slumgum has chosen to open the first set and close the second set as a quartet, but in between, they will perform 12 duet pieces. Each member is writing three new compositions, one for each of the duets that can be formed by the other three.
“Part of our sound has been generated by duo practice,” says Armstrong. It’s a technique the group uses to work out challenging sections in compositions and keep the gestational process moving forward.
The quartet wants to showcase that process, but there’s danger lurking. “It’s like a game,” says Armstrong. “You can pull pranks. Since you’re not playing, you can write some real hard stuff and say, ‘Aww, learn it!’ ”