If you've been to an avant-garde jazz show in Denver during the past decade, you've probably seen Alex Lemski, the president and driving force behind Denver's Creative Music Works, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Tall, gangly and intense, with a scraggly beard and a pate partially covered by thinning hair, he has the look of an Old Testament prophet in the midst of an impassioned jeremiad. Some people are discomfited by his obsessive dedication to freeform sounds, and their reactions are understandable: Lemski's single-mindedness and purity of purpose can be a bit unsettling at times. But there's no question that the very characteristics that make him something of an eccentric have kept him going when the average individual would have raised the white flag. And any Colorado fan of music that strives to bust through boundaries owes him a debt of gratitude.
Born in New York City, Lemski listened to the classical music and opera that his parents played around the house but found himself more diverted by the rock and roll that flourished during his Fifties-era adolescence. "But at an early age, I turned from Top 40 toward the less popular, perhaps more creative kinds of music," he says. This process accelerated after he joined the Air Force in 1961, when he was seventeen. He was stationed in England, and since he didn't bring any of his records with him, he was put in the position of listening to the discs of fellow GIs. "Some of them were fans of classic jazz and bossa nova--and those were the ones that really got my attention. Later I bought a few copies of Downbeat and began taking chances on some records: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan and John Coltrane, whose music had an immense emotional impact on me that I didn't really begin to understand until years later."
Lemski returned to New York City after leaving the armed services in 1965, but he subsequently found himself drawn toward the American West. He spent time in South Dakota and Utah before moving to Denver in the late Seventies. At first he despaired of finding anyone in the city with tastes in jazz similar to his own. But a couple of years later he met saxophonist Fred Hess, among the most talented and forward-looking artists in the region, and discovered a handful of other players interested in exploring the outer reaches of jazz. Lemski actively began trying to bring these musicians to the public's attention in 1987: "Fred and I went down to Gallery Bwana [formerly on the 1800 block of Blake] and asked the curator, Chris Culhane, if we could put on some shows. And he said, 'Yeah, man, let's get it on.' So we booked Fred and some others there on Sunday nights, charged a couple of bucks and heard some great music."
Word of mouth about these dates began circulating among jazz artists outside Colorado: Before long, Lemski was promoting shows by visiting performers like Philadelphia's Jack Wright (now a local resident) and Austin's Tina Marsh. In the years since then, Creative Music Works has introduced area listeners to the joyous, challenging sounds of David S. Ware, Joseph Jarman, Andrew Cyrille, Anthony Braxton, John Carter and many other virtuosos who likely wouldn't have bothered to stop in Denver were it not for Lemski's persistence and devotion.
Of course, bigger concerts required a bigger investment--and therein lay the rub. Lemski incorporated Creative Music Works in 1989, obtaining for the organization tax-exempt status, and has spent nearly as much of his time since then trying to establish funding as he has in staging programs. He's received grants and the like from a variety of operations, including the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF), the National Endowment for the Arts, the Denver Foundation and the John G. Duncan Charitable Trust, and there is a small but growing number of CMW members who pay dues to support his work. Thanks to these monies, Lemski has been able to branch out beyond concerts to sponsor jazz classes and seminars at various public schools throughout the area. But keeping the financial flow going is a continuing struggle. "Jazz is very strange to a lot of foundations," says Lemski, who works as a youth counselor when not wearing his Creative Music Works hat. "Some years we get something from them, other years we don't. But we're still knocking on doors."
And his mission keeps going forward. On Sunday, January 19, Creative Music Works presents Lynn Baker with WOYKS, a combo that also features drummer Marc Dalio and saxophonist Sam Coffman, at the Houston Fine Arts Center, 7111 Montview Blvd. Future performances include an early February date by Mike Vargas and Greg LaLiberte, and March appearances by the Creative Music Works Orchestra (directed by Ron Miles) and Mark Sabatella and the Spanish Inquisition. (Call 477-3081 for more information.) No doubt Lemski will be at each of these events, soaking in the music that means so much to him. "I can't express myself in the ways that they can, but I'm not jealous," he says. "I'm just proud to be associated with people who speak such an incredible language and are willing to go out on a limb. In mainstream music, there's not enough risk-taking--and that's supposed to be part of the American character, isn't it?"
Won Lump Some, an excellent Fort Collins band that relocated to the Bay Area last year, visited its old haunts the week before Christmas, and the result was another in what's become a series of confrontations between musicians, fans and police. According to police reports, the act's lead singer, Jason Hyland Mather, stripped while performing at Tony's Restaurant & Lounge on December 20, and when two officers attempted to pull him from the stage, the crowd erupted into a beer-bottle-tossing frenzy. Mather was subsequently charged with a pair of felony counts: inciting a riot and escaping while in custody for a felony. He remains in the Fort Collins area and will attend a pre-trial hearing on the matters February 14; beyond imparting this information, however, neither he nor any of the witnesses to the fracas will comment. It's too soon to know exactly what will come of the incident, but from what I've been able to glean from off-the-record sources, it seems clear that the police's version of the episode differs substantially from what others saw and heard. Stay tuned for more details.
You want local recordings? We've got local recordings.
Colorado Springs' own AUTONO is still at it after all these years, and Machines, on Big Ball Records, will make you glad the players have outlived most of their contemporaries. Chuck Snow (inexplicably referred to as "Dietrich Snow" in the liner notes) is in good voice, and his melodies are as sturdy as ever. Many of the cuts are less aggressive than they once might have been, but Snow's maturity draws out the pop verities at the heart of "Sun to Sun," "Last Angry Man" and "Back to Nowhere"--and "All You Can Eat" demonstrates that these guys can still tear it up when the mood strikes them. As for "El Mariachi," it exhibits both cleverness and complexity. Solid, built to last (Big Ball Records, P.O. Box 1949, Colorado Springs 80901-1949). Sonnus is from Boulder, but that doesn't mean the ghost of Pigpen hovers over Titled, its first CD. The band, made up of drummer Eric Lyde, bassist Jim Risner, guitarist Brian Kroll and vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Page, is an alterna-combo that occasionally gets downright nasty: "My Requiem" and "Quickened" are only two examples. There's plenty of Seattle in the cuts, and some of this influence is expressed in long-winded fashion; "Birthday" actually goes on for almost nine showboating minutes. There's talent here, but it's mated with a certain predictability that needs to go away before Sonnus can shine. Best of luck, guys (available in area record stores).
Under Shattered Skies, by Jubilant Bridge, isn't going to be confused with the flavor of the week: The music on the CD is of the acoustic variety, and it's deeply rooted in the folk tradition. But don't nod off yet. Vocalist Carol Van Alstine has a striking voice--clean, crisp and far purer than Michael Jackson's fondness for gloves. She's ably supported by dulcimer expert/vocalist Willie Jaeger and guitarist Scott Bennett, who perform with an earnestness that keeps the music feeling fresh. Van Alstine's "Before You Fly" and "Four Common Men Create the Weather (Diamonds)" are gorgeous, while "Independence Day," a Bruce Springsteen composition on which Jaeger sings lead, is converted into the Woody Guthrie-style ditty it's always wanted to be. For anyone who remembers Fairport Convention during the good old days, Jubilant Bridge is well worth crossing (Jubilant Bridge, P.O. Box 102695, Denver 80210). Instrumentally, Fiction, the latest CD from Mime, is a notable stride forward for the group; the minor-key guitars are dirty, distorted and properly foreboding. The vocals, by Jixon MacFarlane and Aaron Heideman, are effective as well, if a bit too obviously influenced by the late Ian Curtis; after turning your ears to "She Devours," "Nicotine," "Moonlight" and the title cut, you'll feel as if you've just been inducted into the Joy Division. Still, there are occasional experiments (like "Dusty Road") that defy expectations, as well as a general air of darkness that should help you overlook the slavishness. The outfit is moving in the right direction (Mime, P.O. Box 480892, Denver 80248).
King Rat's CD The Towne Liar was recorded this year, but it could have been released in 1980 or during any twelve-month period since then; the songs made me think of everyone from the Clash and the Alarm to Social Distortion. But the lyrics that lead vocalist/guitarist Luke Schmaltz barks out make the redundancies easier to take. "Trip Chick" and "Alone Star" are funny and snotty in equal measure, while "21" is such a good idea that it demands quoting: "I'm 21--I'm havin' fun/I'm 31--I'm having a son/41--I carry a gun/51--I hate everyone" and so on until "91--when is it gonna be done?/I'm 101--I don't have anyone." There's wisdom in that cynicism--enough, I hope, to convince these guys to stop shopping for music in the past and start looking to the future (available in area record stores). The Sauce, a recording by (I'm not making this up) the Sauce, is the aural equivalent of a good beating--but you don't have to be a masochist to enjoy it. Led by onetime Bunny Genghis star Tom Mick, the platter is enjoyably anarchic; you don't know from one minute to the next what's going to happen. "Turtle Buzz," the opening number, represents the sound of things falling apart; "System" kicks off with a Blind Melon intro that sucks you into a punky maelstrom; "Magnified & Magnificent" is half Joe Cocker, half Motsrhead; "Warm Up" is an unexpectedly arty instrumental; and "Shit Sunshine" is a grungy power ballad. When a band hits so many different spots on the map in one album, not everything sticks. But the Sauce retains the ability to surprise--and that's a quality worth applauding (Lok Music, P.O. Box 19612, Boulder 80302).
Tom Honor and Bill Burnside have been part of the local music community for many years now, and their latest outfit, dubbed Burnside and Honor Among Friends, is likely to please those of you who wish Denver was still the country-rock capital of the world. There's no track listing on their self-titled demo, but their songs (about Colorado sunsets and the like) are tuneful throwbacks to yesteryear (738-8873). Luis Munoz, a Costa Rica-born drummer, composer and bandleader whose album The Fruit of Eden appears on Fahrenheit Records (a spinoff from Denver's F2 Entertainment group) invites you to experience the quieter side of the Latin-jazz sound. "Calipso de las Americas" sports a fairly punchy horn chart, but it's the exception, not the rule; most of the other cuts here move at a deliberate tempo that won't startle any of your dinner guests. "Argentina" gave me a nice, "Girl From Ipanema" feeling, but most of the rest fell into the pleasant-wallpaper category (available in area record stores).
Put together the name Old Soul and the fact that the band with that handle moved from Los Angeles to Boulder, and you'll wind up with certain expectations. The band's self-titled CD (released by Celsius, a newly activated label that's also affiliated with F2 conforms to most of them. These guys are good players, and when they put their backs into a song such as "Oldest Religion," they can give it a decent boost. But like most jammers, they could use a strong dose of restraint (almost every song here goes on for longer than it should), and their idea of effective melodrama ("Crush Embrace") is my idea of nausea. Then again, I might not be this group's target audience. After all, Blues Traveler is not my cup of joe (available in area record stores). Another Boulder performer, Naomi Tobias, comes from a separate musical tradition: She's a confessional/poetic singer-songwriter, as exemplified by her new CD, Rising. "Madre del Mundo (Mother of the World)," in which Tobias uses menstruation as a metaphor ("Full moon, I am bleeding/Bleeding as all women do/For all of humanity"), will determine how receptive you'll be to her work. If you chuckle--as I must confess I did--you may as well get off the bus before it leaves the station. But listeners more sentient than I may well be impressed by the folk-pop "Enough Is Enough," the spritely "Phoenix," the pristine production values and Tobias's voice, which is alternately gentle and steely. And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go to a male-sensitivity seminar my wife wants me to attend (available in area record stores).
Harry Bruckner, whose death in December was noted in last week's column, will be memorialized at a benefit concert Monday, January 20, at the Little Bear. Among those scheduled, at press time, to play are Tom Butters, the Kenny Cox Band, Turner & Crowley, Cool Shooz, Mary Flower and Runaway Express. Those unable to attend can send contributions to the Harry Bruckner Memorial Fund, c/o Runaway Express, P.O. Box 2333, Englewood 80150.
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Meanwhile, another musician with Colorado connections has apparently died: Randy California, longtime guitarist for the band Spirit. According to Mike Nile, owner of Denver's Alley Records and a sometime Spirit member, California was visiting his mother in Hawaii on January 2 when he and his son Quinn were caught in an undertow. "Randy was able to throw Quinn on a wave, and he washed back to shore," Nile recounts. "But when Quinn turned around, Randy was gone." The Coast Guard stopped searching for the musician the following week; at press time, he was listed as disappeared and presumed drowned. Nile, who notes that another Spirit player, George Valuck, resides in Golden, doesn't know what California's passing means for the group, whose fine 1967 album The 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus was reissued on CD by Legacy/ Epic late last year. "We're all in a state of shock," he says.
Ludwig Hnatkowycz, who retired from playing bass with the Jinns a few years back only to subsequently return to the fold, has gone and done it again--retire, that is. Bandleader Pete Nalty says that the latest Jinns bassist is Marty Parrot, formerly of Truth of the Matter and Jetredball. Catch the new lineup on Friday, January 17, at the 15th Street Tavern, where the Jinns open for Slim Cessna's Auto Club. Also on Friday, the Homewreckers perform as a "Delta duo" at Arthur's, and the first in a series of performances by some of Colorado's best female musicians takes place at the Mercury Cafe: It features Vicki Taylor and Mary Stribling & Combo Amazo. And on Saturday, January 18, Fragile X celebrates the release of its new CD, A Drop in Time, at the Skyline Cafe, and the Swans bring their farewell tour to the Bluebird Theater. As for the rest of the week, you're on your own.
Backbeat's e-mail address is Michael_Roberts@ westword.comMichael_Roberts@. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com