James Brown made his mark as the Godfather of Funk, but he apparently led a second and secret life as a composer of contemporary chamber music, specializing in brief, jazz-inflected pieces for saxophone quartets. He often collaborated simultaneously with several other composers—among them, Steve Reich, Johann Sebastian Bach and Duke Ellington.
At least, that would be a perfectly reasonable deduction after hearing the music of Thrascher, a contemporary saxophone quartet—Randy Hamm (soprano), Tim Ishii (alto), Ed Petersen (tenor), Glenn Kostur (baritone)—that crosses, bends and blends musical genres.
In actuality, Thrascher devotes itself to original compositions. “We’re too cheap to pay royalties,” says Kostur over a tuna melt at Flying Star.
The players are also dedicated to not taking themselves too seriously. Take the time Kostur dressed up in a homemade turtle costume to present a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle over music composed by Petersen. “I don’t know how it went over. I think it confused a lot of people, but we had a lot of fun,” says Kostur.
This Saturday, Thrascher (without Yertle) appears both solo and with the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Bobby Shew at the Albuquerque Jazz Festival. The concert is presented by the New Mexico Jazz Workshop as part of its 33rd annual Guest Artist Series.
Named after performer/educator Sigurd Raschèr, the hero of saxophone geeks everywhere, Thrascher got its start in the late ’90s in Wisconsin, where the four were instructors at a summer jazz camp.
Ten years later, the group has played at prestigious venues and at such geeky gatherings as the North American Saxophone Alliance and the World Saxophone Congress. It’s also produced two CDs, Axes of Evil and Another Sound Thrasching, with a third, tentatively titled Music for No Occasion, slated for 2009 release. (Blow on over to thrascher.com for these releases and much more.)
Although the group’s tongue is often found somewhere in its cheek, its sophisticated compositions can sneak up and bite you with their passion and beauty.
“I have a hard time describing what Thrascher is and what we do,” says Kostur. “Even though all four of us come at this thing with a jazz background, we’ve also spent a lot of time playing in more conventional classical saxophone quartets and new music chamber ensembles, and we’ve all done a million gigs playing different styles of music.”
Thrascher’s repertoire reflects that diversity. Strictly unobservant of the boundaries between musical genres, it references big bands, minimalism and free jazz, classical chamber music and funk (often in the same tune). Although the group’s tongue is often found somewhere in its cheek, its sophisticated compositions can sneak up and bite you with their passion and beauty.
Most tunes incorporate improvisation, which run the gamut from playing over a song’s form to free blowing. In fact, improvisation is known within the group as “the thrasch,” and ultimately, says Kostur, “it’s all about the thrasch.”
Even in the written parts of compositions they’ve played many times, the group finds new ways to approach the material. “It’s one of the most spontaneous groups I’ve ever played in,” says Kostur. “It keeps reinvigorating the music for us, and I think that excitement and interest and energy in what we’re doing up there translates into an interesting musical experience for the audience.”