By Noah Hubbell
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"College music has evolved into instrumental music being accepted," says Erik Deutsch, keyboardist for the singer-less Boulder-based collective Fat Mama. "Bands like Medeski, Martin & Wood and Groove Collective are popular now just because it's a nice evolution from the Grateful Dead and Phish. It's the next step, and I think our music fits in a really nice category there."
Jazz is the pigeonhole that seems to best fit Fat Mama. After all, the band (Deutsch, saxophonist Brett Joseph, bassist John Marvin Garrett, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, trumpeter/trombonist Jon Gray, didgeridoo player Mike Rhode, drummer Joe Russo, and percussionists John Albright and Timothy Quigley) is named after a Herbie Hancock tune and combines groove-oriented beats and jazz-fusion inflections a la Miles Davis circa Bitches Brew. But although the combo has assembled a sizable following, it's all but unknown among members of the jazz universe. Instead, most of its devotees are part of the enormous neo-hippie movement in Boulder and beyond.
One of the reasons such fans have fallen in love with Fat Mama is the performers' insistence upon never playing the same set twice. "Each show has a different theme," Goldberger notes. "One will be really tight and dancey, one will be really spacey and free, and another will be totally shredding." This variety has resulted in recordings of Fat Mama's live shows becoming sought-after items on the tape-trading circuit currently dominated by Deadheads and Phishheads. Joseph recalls talking to old friends from his hometown, Las Vegas, "and they'll be like, 'Have you heard of Fat Mama?' And I'm like, 'I'm in that band.'"
According to the saxophonist, the act evolved out of a "really pathetic reggae band" that included him, Albright and Garrett. The sound got jazzier with the addition of Gray (who, like Joseph, also did time in Zestfinger) and Goldberger. By February 1996, the musicians had rechristened themselves Fat Mama and began honing their chops at house parties. Russo, Quigley and Rhode completed the lineup and helped the band earn a reputation among bookers at venues such as the Fox Theatre and the Boulder Theater. Long before the group had completed a demo tape, it was playing before packed houses. The musicians knew they were on to something when they arrived for a gig at a bar/barn in the small mountain town of Rollinsville and found three hundred people waiting for them. Not bad for a combo that, as Joseph proudly stresses, "has always been an instrumental band and has never had a singer."
The Mamas insist that their rising profile hasn't squelched their urge to experiment. They enjoy, say, juxtaposing a klezmer-inspired song with a Kool & the Gang ditty, or dabbling in odd time signatures.
"It's cool when you can get away with playing a tune in 11/4 and get people to try to dance to it," Albright remarks with a laugh.
"Someone can come to our shows looking for an intellectual experience and get it, I think," Deutsch adds. "Or they can come looking for a non-intellectual groove experience and get that, too."
At present, approximately 70 percent of the numbers the band plays are originals, with the remainder drawn from covers that allow the instrumentalists to, in Deutsch's words, "stretch out and see what happens." An example is "What I Say," a Seventies-era Davis composition that Fat Mama has been known to turn into a thirty-minute exploration of the dynamics between tension and release, with each bandmember contributing to the dialogue.
The outfit's most formal conversation to date is Mamatus, a debut CD that will be formally introduced to the public at a record-release party May 13 at the Boulder Theater. Recorded at Kerr/Macy studio in south Denver (chosen because trumpeter Ron Miles cut his Gramavision debut there), the album is more refined and focused than many of Fat Mama's live turns, but gifted engineer/producer Kirby Orrick managed to capture more of its spontaneity than anyone could have expected. "The band has never gotten along better or sounded better," Deutsch comments.
The wide-ranging nature of Mamatus has everything to do with Goldberger, Gray and Deutsch, who split compositional duties. In Joseph's opinion, Gray's specialty is "more of the straightahead funk stuff," while Goldberger tends toward more atmospheric offerings. And Deutsch? His cohorts call him "the butt-jazz king"--by which they mean that he can use his Moog to reference anything from the smooth soul stylings of Jimmy Smith to the familiar sounds of classic rock. These influences combine on Deutsch's memorable "Pimp Slap," Goldberger's introspective "Camel Job/The Machine Never Stops," and Gray's "Blue Monte," which kicks off as an in-your-face funk jam before solos by Deutsch and Goldberger take it into an almost prog-rock-like direction.
Still, it's jazz that provides Fat Mama's common ground--and Deutsch hopes the band will ultimately earn respect from others in the field. "We want to be recognized among musicians as doing something real," he says. "I would love to have people in the jazz scene--the young guys who know music--to be like, 'Yeah, those guys are hip. They're doing something cool.'"
Until then, Deutsch is happy to be presenting jazz to listeners who may be unfamiliar with it. "We get people who've heard Phish and the Allmans. And then they come out to see us and say, 'Oh, that's what Miles sounds like. I'm into that.' And they'll check Miles out. I really think that happens.