Converging on Greatness
Assembling the members of Convergence for a gig is easier said than done. You see, bassist Mark Simon, keyboardist Eric Gunnison and drummer Paul Romaine call Denver home, while trumpeter Greg Gisbert and saxophonist/composer John Gunther are former Denverites who currently reside in New York City. But despite the distance that separates the players, their rare performances are marked by a genuine sense of unity.
Speaking about a gig at New York's Blue Note last November, Romaine says, "The overall comment we heard was that nobody plays like that around there. And they said you could tell we were a band. That kind of energy usually isn't there, because with so many of the guys out there, everything is just so thrown together. Like, they'll play together for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, and then they go on to the next thing. Typically, that's the way the industry is set up; you do a project, and when it's done, you play with the next bunch of people. So it was neat to hear that they could tell that we had all been playing with each other for some time and that we had this kind of understanding of where each other was. They could feel the vibe between us, and they could feel our connectedness."
"I think it's just the rapport that we have," Simon elaborates. "Even though Greg and John now live in New York, when we get together there's just a real natural blend that happens. And it also has a lot to do with the compositions that are written, Eric and John being the main writers in the group. They write the tunes for the strong points of each person, so the music really lends itself to what we can do as players."
They can do a great deal. Take Simon, for example. A veteran (like Gunnison) of Carmen McRae's final working lineup, he spends Sundays and Mondays in the rhythm section at El Chapultepec, weeknights on the bandstand at Trios or Enoteca, and weekends as part of Lannie Garrett's latest configuration, a big band. But of all the ensembles with which he plays, Convergence is the one closest to his heart. "I think we kind of mutually agree that this would be an ideal band to work with full-time," he confirms. "If I had my choice, I'd say yeah, this is one group that I could really see myself doing more with. Everybody is so nice. We all get along--no ego trips going on, and nobody is trying to be a leader. There's a real mutual feeling of respect, and we're all comfortable with each other."
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Just as important is the level of skill that the instrumentalists bring to the project. Gunnison leads his own lineup and is a key part of bands led by Ginger Baker and Ron Miles; Romaine, a veteran of the Woody Herman Orchestra, is a sought-after Denver freelancer; and Gisbert and Gunther are key parts of the Big Apple's jazz network who each have a solo CD to his credit (Gisbert's is available on the Criss Cross label, while Gunther's was released by CIMP). Gisbert, who, like Gunther, is a decade younger than Convergence's Denver dwellers, was initially regarded as something of a wunderkind; he was already jamming with the veterans at the 'Pec when he was sixteen. But his big-city experiences haven't dimmed his respect for his Colorado collaborators. "I'm just grateful to play with these musicians," he notes with passionate intensity.
Gunther shares Gisbert's enthusiasm. "I really learned to play music with this particular group of folks," he reveals. "I remember I would go down and hear Mark and Paul playing at the Champa Bar. I must've been only about fifteen or sixteen then. Then I would go down to Chapultepec and sit in with Eric. That was, for me, the real formative stages of learning to play music and being a musician. Plus I've known Greg since we were in eighth or ninth grade. So when I'm writing, particularly for this kind of group--you know, a quintet with sax and trumpet--it's always with that kind of sound and those guys in mind."
This closeness pays off throughout As One, Convergence's second CD, to be released at the end of August by Synergy Music, Inc. To Mike Fitts, the offering's producer, the lineup is special because "they've been playing together for a really long time, and they have a certain quality of knowing each other that really comes across in the music. That's why we decided to call the CD As One. Everyone that I played the CD for said it sounded like one instrument, because they play that well together."
The material on As One, which was culled from two discs' worth of songs recorded during a six-day stretch in the studio, is a varied lot that includes a slew of compositions from Gunther, two by Gunnison and a cover of Thad Jones's "Cherry Juice" that Romaine describes as "my favorite tune on the CD. I had the score to it, so we did it. It's a seventeen-piece big-band chart scaled down with the five of us playing all the parts. Everything that you find in the big-band version is in our quintet version at some point."
The players' willingness to take chances is only one of the qualities Gunther admires about his bandmates. "There are so many great things about working with these guys. If I or somebody else brings in a composition, everybody is so open that everyone gives what they think they can add to it, and then it becomes something completely different. The band is really more than the sum of each of us individually, and the compositions manifest that."
Logistically, the odds are against Convergence ever becoming more than a part-time operation. The musicians are putting out feelers to planners at jazz festivals in Europe, and they hope to perform together at some stateside dates during the next year or so. But even if these plans fail to bear fruit, all five vow to keep Convergence converging well into the future. In Romaine's words, "If there was ever a group where I felt like I could realize my full potential musically and express what I really wanted to sound like, this would be the group. I feel like it brings out the best in each of us.
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