The Tom Guralnick Trio makes challenging music--but that doesn't mean that Guralnick, an Albuquerque saxophonist, is insulted when people actually enjoy it. "Putting together the pieces and developing the pieces is a very collaborative, interactive process that's really fun," he notes. "And I think it's okay to have fun. And I think it's serious and really good music."
He's right. Pitchin', the most recent CD by the trio (Guralnick, trombonist/trumpeter/euphonium player Steve Feld and drummer Jefferson Voorhees), has more than its share of tricky moments, yet its playful edge and joyous, hard-bop feel are impossible to resist. Thanks for that are owed to Guralnick, whose attitudes about everyday living are exquisitely balanced. "There's a lot of chance in life, and I like it," he says. "You have to take what comes by you in life, and you use it, you reject, you accept it. And that is very much what playing music is about, also."
A Boston native, Guralnick began his college career at Harvard. But before he became deeply rooted there, a fellow classmate who was into bossa nova turned him on to the music of Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto and the like. This bit of serendipity ultimately led to undergraduate studies at Vermont's Bennington College, where he learned under the tutelage of Bill Dixon, an uncompromising free-jazz trumpeter whom Guralnick describes as "a pretty obscure but important new music guy." The switch turned out to be a positive one on several levels. "Loneliness led me to outside music," he jokes. "There were no girls at Harvard, but there were a lot of girls at Bennington."
After college, Guralnick's circuitous journey led him to a Boston-based group, Year of the Ear, that featured innovative percussionist David Moss and guitarist/synthesizer player Baird Hersey. Then, during the late Seventies, he relocated to Albuquerque, where he brought his influences together in a distinctive solo act. The concept was built around the "Mobile Saxophone & Mute Unit," a sculptural construction that utilizes saxes, homemade mutes, signal processing and various adapted wind instruments.
"My original idea was to be able to fill up some spaces in the solo performance and use it as an instrument to interact with," Guralnick says. "I moved more and more into the idea of self-referential stuff. In other words, I used no outside sources and no pre-recorded or pre-programmed stuff." Examples of such explorations can be heard on 1980's Albuquerque and 1995's Broken Dances for Muted Pieces, which take solo saxophone to new levels of expressiveness via a virtually endless array of voices. "It's really stretching the term 'jazz' to call my solo stuff jazz," he concedes. "I don't have any problem with it, but I think a lot of other people would."
In the early Eighties, Guralnick earned a master's degree in world music at Wesleyan University; he surveyed African music and Indian drumming, and for his thesis, he interviewed renowned players such as John Zorn, Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake and Joe McPhee as part of an examination of the solo saxophone. He also toured the U.S., Canada and Europe accompanied only by his mobile unit. But along the way, he felt himself being drawn away from the one-man-band notion by a love for the more structured jazz of inspirations like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Archie Shepp. As he puts it, "I started writing these exercises, and out of the exercises came these tunes and the desire to play with people--and the desire to not always be carrying 200 pounds of equipment, which is what my solo thing weighs. It's really intense, and I'm almost fifty!"
To lighten the load, Guralnick recruited longtime associate Feld, an author and enthnomusicologist (he's done extensive field work in Papua New Guinea) who teaches at New York University. Also coming aboard was timekeeper Voorhees, a former student of Ghanaian master drummer C.K. Ladzekop whose credits include tours with O.J. Ekemode and the Nigerian Allstars, among others. In addition to its singular chemistry, the group benefits from longevity. Some compositions have remained in the trio's active repertoire since the late Eighties, when the current membership solidified. "In seeing Steve Lacy in the last few years, I realize why I like him so much," Guralnick says. "Because he takes this fairly simple material, and he works it and reworks it and uses it as a kind of skeleton on which he hangs the improvisation. And that, I think, is what we've done."
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Pitchin' maintains its charm despite a stylistically aggressive range. The disc is peppered with Coleman-esque harmolodics ("Fornet" is dedicated to him), undercurrents of New Orleans funk, contemplations à la Coltrane, bebop brass over West African beats and outright New York skronk. "I'm definitely into shifting pitch centers--melodic fragments that are just melodic on their own," Guralnick admits. If nothing else, Pitchin' confirms that the trio is able to bring these fragments down to earth.
When Guralnick isn't performing, he's presenting shows by other artists. Once with the New Mexico Jazz Workshop, he currently runs Outpost Performance Space, a nonprofit storefront venue in Albuquerque. "What I hope I've done there is create an environment where one night we have folk music, the next we have blues, the next we have world music, the next we have experimental music, the next we have chamber music, the next we have avant-garde jazz," he says. "All those things can happen in the same place, and to me that's really exciting. I really am non-elitist about music. There are a few kinds of music I don't like, but I don't put a hierarchy on it." He adds, "As life goes on, I try to have more and more fun."
The Tom Guralnick Trio. 8 p.m. Saturday, June 5, St. Paul's United Methodist Church of Denver, 1615 Ogden Street, $10, 303-759-1797.