By Gina Tron
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To simplify labeling, the members of the Denver-based septet known as Groove Kitchen refer to their music as acid jazz--and they definitely don't believe the term should be interpreted pejoratively. Dogmatists may regard acid jazz as the redheaded stepchild of "real" jazz, but Kitchen guitarist Tom Burke sees it as "really uninhibited music. It takes some sort of accessible beat and adds a great element of freestyle jazz on top of it. It combines the really good musicianship of jazz, but it isn't necessarily so complicated. It's very accessible music."
Drummer Mark Prather feels it's also quite varied. "You listen to the stuff out of New York, and it's totally different than the stuff that comes out of San Francisco or London," he explains. "It's kind of a resurgence of young people having an interest in jazz. And if it takes a hip-hop beat or adding something else to make that happen, then great--just so people can start playing good music again."
It's surprising that Burke and Prather have time to even think about music. After all, both are full-time doctors completing emergency-medicine residencies at Denver General Hospital. This environment hardly seems like an apt breeding ground for the Groove Kitchen sound--jazz greased with thick coatings of Latin, funk and hip-hop rhythms. But as it turned out, area hospitals were teeming with future acid-jazzers. After coming up with the idea of starting a band while chatting at a hospital picnic, Burke and Prather recruited Eric Mondrow, a doctor who specializes in internal medicine, to play bass, and Jill Decker, who is on a pediatric-dentistry fellowship at Children's Hospital, to sing. The original lineup was supplemented by saxophonist Chris Lang and trumpeter Derrick Banach, who responded to an ad placed by the doctors; after Banach left in May to accompany former Denver bassist Fontaine Burnette on a European tour, trumpeter Shane Endsley filled the void. The Kitchen's final cook, soundman/percussionist Christian Lang, came aboard after assisting the players with Too Juiced to Fly, a six-song demo recorded last March.
"I thought it would be rhythmically challenging to add a percussionist," Prather says about Lang. "It frees me to go off and play some heavy, disjointed rhythms behind the band." Prather adds that he's unruffled by the prospect of other personnel changes. "We sort of like the flux. It's nice to have new people come in with new ideas. Ideally, we'd like to get to a point where people could just bring their horns and come to play or do whatever they do. Because there's really not an outlet in this town for young players. Where I come from in San Francisco, the old guys had all the club gigs. So all the young guys would put these bands together and put a little different twist on the music."
In Groove Kitchen's case, that translates to an onstage approach utilizing only organic ingredients. Prather says the act shies away from sampling because its absence "encourages improvisation. And we're all trying to be better musicians--because quality music and good musicianship is in again. It's in to be good."
Which is not to imply that the Kitchen aims to turn the jazz form upside down. "We're all pretty straightahead," Burke concedes. "Musically, all of our songs have a basic structure to them. Then, depending on the moods of everyone who's playing it, it really takes off when we're playing live. Once we started playing out, it really matured the sound of the band."
Indeed, the group appears to be coming along nicely. While the horn section is the tightest and strongest of the Kitchen's sonic elements, the other players show considerable promise. Whether this will continue has a lot to do with the primary careers of the core members. "I guess we'll wait and see what happens," Burke notes. "Obviously, we're all having a lot of fun with the band. We came to Denver to do residencies, and that demands a lot of time. But actually, the nights we've played out, we've had some good success. People stayed all night to hear the band."
Does Burke foresee a time when the Kitchen's popularity might force him to choose between music and medicine? "We'll worry about that when it happens," he replies.
"If it happens," corrects Prather--who has a pretty nice gig to fall back on.