Get in the Vamp

Saxophonist Wally Shoup blasts new life into free jazz.

I'm not one of those people who wants to hear the same thing over and over again," says alto saxophonist and pioneer of improvised music Wally Shoup. "I always use the metaphor of the roller coaster. When you're on a roller coaster, it's exciting. You don't necessarily know what's around the bend, but you want to go there."

Shoup's speaking voice sounds much like his horn: warm and gruff, yet tender, with a hint of an easygoing Southern drawl tempering its intensity. He starts and stops each sentence a few times, calling up and then discarding words like he does notes on his sax, chiseling away adjectives and asides until he slowly reveals the shape of what he's trying to get across.

"A big part of playing the music I do is being able to have this direct control over it," says Shoup from his Seattle home, "being able to shape it into coherent forms as I play, instantaneously. That's part of the real beauty and joy of it."

The heart of the improviser: Wally Shoup.
photo courtesy of Steve Kline, Earshot Jazz
The heart of the improviser: Wally Shoup.


With PW3
7 p.m. Friday, May 23
Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street

8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 24
Gallery Sovereign, 1537 Pearl Street, Boulder

Jeph Jerman performs solo
7 p.m. Thursday, May 22
Cordell Taylor Gallery, 2350 Lawrence Street

Joy and beauty have informed and illuminated Shoup's music for almost a quarter-century. From sculpted noise experiments to sax-and-drums opuses to collaborations with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, he has been releasing music since 1981, when his self-produced LP Scree-Run Waltz became an instant artifact of avant-garde esoterica. Born in 1944 and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Shoup spent his formative adolescence immersed in the sounds of the golden age of post-bop jazz -- and the improvisational heart that beats at its center.

"Since I'm a guy who grew up listening to black music in the South, the blues and jazz and R&B, I incorporate that into my playing," he says. "I got introduced to free jazz in the late '60s, when I was living in Atlanta: late Coltrane, Art Ensemble [of Chicago], Pharoah Sanders. I didn't play music then, though. I kind of felt like free jazz was the domain of black musicians, and I'm white. But my voice is definitely influenced by African-American music."

Shoup's musical epiphany came in 1972, with his first listen to the Music Improvisation Company. The group was headed by the radical English players Evan Parker and Derek Bailey, whose innovations paved the way for much of the post-jazz experimental music that followed. "I was living in Colorado by then, and that was where I first heard the Music Improvisation Company record," Shoup says. "It's what you might call non-idiomatic, free improvisation. It wasn't jazz-based. They were trying to find some new ways of improvising. I realized that was the kind of music I wanted to know about, and the only way I could know more about it was by playing it."

Shoup had relocated to Manitou Springs and then to Colorado Springs in the early '70s, a move that was as spiritual as it was spatial. "It's hard to leave the South," he explains. "I was 28, and a friend of mine had just moved out to Colorado. He kind of sold me on the mountains, on the different kind of atmosphere. I came out and started opening up to new music, opening up to this new vision of myself as an artist."

Shoup, of course, might have picked a more fertile artistic field to plow than Colorado Springs in the 1970s.

"Around '73 or '74, I was just so sick of the stifling concept of music in that town. Eagles cover bands, basically. I did hear some really good music at the old Ebbets Field in Denver, though. I saw Pharoah Sanders there, Captain Beefheart. But everything else was all sweet and nice, all Rocky Mountain High. So I found a group of guys and instituted this kind of free-form band, the Creative Music Ensemble. I was still developing some chops on the sax, so I wasn't a player yet; I was just the instigator. I had them play a number of gigs, and it just outraged and pissed people off. I was sort of the cheerleader, pushing these guys even in the face of hostility," Shoup remembers, chuckling. "People didn't know what to make of it. It was kind of like Mahavishnu meets Merzbow or something."

The Creative Music Ensemble wasn't the only front on which Shoup was active. He convinced Colorado College's radio station, KRCC, to give him a weekly three-hour show -- or, as Shoup puts it, "a weekly barrage and assault." Besides spinning vinyl from his own extensive collection of jazz and experimental music, he began using the studio itself as an instrument, manipulating multiple turntables and mixing in guest musicians who would improvise over the records, all live on the air.

"It was a real exciting time. I was able to get a lot of my ideas out there," says Shoup. Finally feeling proficient enough on the saxophone to front his own group, he formed a trio with Ross Rabin and Keith Gardner and began playing the odd show across the Front Range. "We played everywhere: bars, schools, the public library. I had a saxophone and a couple of beat-up electric guitars. Ross had some pickup mikes on his drums so that he could make them sound kind of quasi-electronic. And then I had a number of weird metal-sculpture things that I would put a contact mike on and then play with files. Metallic noisescapes, that was our thing. We just let it rip."

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