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Many professional musicians feel that music instructors teach because they're not adequate performers. In some instances this is true--but not when it comes to Lynn Baker. The director of Jazz Studies and Commercial Music at Denver University's Lamont School of Music is also a daring saxophonist and composer who stands as proof that groundbreaking experimental sounds can be made somewhere other than New York City. "One of the things that I get upset about is that people seem to think there's no art happening anywhere but on the East Coast," he says. "Artistic elitism is fine, but who are they kidding? We're living in a real global village."
In his three years at DU, Baker has made this point repeatedly--and finally, listeners from outside the area are beginning to take notice. He and the other members of the Lamont Jazz Faculty Ensemble were named Artist Clinicians for this year's International Association of Jazz Educators convention, perhaps the most presitigious annual event in jazz education. Baker also received the 1995 Colorado Visions Individual Recognition Award in Jazz Composition for a recent series of jazz, classical and techno offerings he wrote. His upcoming concert at the Bluebird Theater will feature several of these originals as played by Baker and the WOYKS, a "modular collective" that includes several of the most versatile and talented players in Denver: drummer Rudy Royston, guitarist Jerry Hahn, bassist Dwight Killian and keyboardist David Hanson.
The skills of these instrumentalists are put to the test by Baker's knotty compositions. "It takes huge ears to play some of this stuff right," the composer concedes. "For example, there's this kind of weird piece I've written for four Mac computers. It combines concepts of minimalism with this John Cage sort of approach to game-playing. I built a game on the computer screen, kind of like Concentration, where you turn one box over and then you have to turn a matching box over. But instead of visual cues, this game has aural ones. Each of the four players play this game on different computers, but they all use the same aural cues. The playing of the game is the performance of the piece."
Other Baker works are just as imaginative and just as complex. One nonlinear piece combines twentieth-century classical-music forms, samples of chanting monks and MIDI files that are triggered by the intersection of computerized objects. Another falls into what Baker calls "a Star Trek kind of format. It works with the musical elements in a circle, and each one of them can go to the center or they can go to the next element on either side. When the computer makes the choice to go to the center, it's kind of like each of the musical elements is its own alternate universe and the center is like a wormhole. So when you're in a wormhole, the reality of any of these other universes doesn't exist. It is silence--so the musicians have to respond to silence as well."
If this offering sounds dauntingly intricate, it is--and a composition, now in the planning stages, that draws upon the mathematics of chaos theory, fractals and the like is equally adventurous. "I'm a real kick-the-barriers-down sort of person in general," Baker notes. "But I'm also interested in things that don't have improvisation in them. Even composed music doesn't always have to sound the same. You can mess with all sorts of musical elements. Volume. Tempo. Anything you change will give you something completely different."
Baker wasn't always interested in such musically radical styles. In fact, his first band (founded during the late Sixties, when he was in junior high) specialized in Dixieland jazz. "We read a lot of Dixieland transcripts," he recalls, "and some of the stuff we were playing was quite complicated. But I didn't know how hard it was, because it was so much fun. We called ourselves the Chowder House Eight, and our parents made us these little striped jackets and we wore little straw hats. We were so damn cute."
Later, while attending college in Eugene, Oregon, Baker's drift toward experimentalism brought him into contact with fellow student John Zorn, now the grand old man of New York's downtown scene. Before long, Baker was a member of a trio that applied the concepts of subatomic physics to the creation of music. These musical excursions in chance and cause and effect have shaped much of the writing he's done since then. Baker also cites John Coltrane and the saxophonists who followed in his giant steps as being among his primary musical influences--but he's critical of what he refers to as "this retrograde aesthestic that is really sapping the jazz community. It's being crammed down our throats these days--and I don't think that is what jazz is all about. It never has been what jazz is about, and it sure as hell isn't what those guys would be doing if they were here today."
About his own music, Baker predicts, "It will kick your butt, challenge you." He takes the same approach to his teaching, which he plans to continue no matter what direction his composing takes him. "You never can tell which way things will turn in your life," he says. "So I don't make those sort of plans, and then I'm not disappointed. Let's just say my life and my music--well, they're rolling."
Lynn Baker and the WOYKS. 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 25, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $5/$3 students and seniors, 322-2308 or 428-9235.
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