The middle-aged men behind Denver's Bob Gillis Group don't look like musicians. Trumpeter/ keyboardist Gillis could pass for the realtor who lives down the block, the cop who cruises the mall parking lot on Friday nights or a youth pastor at the neighborhood church--and drummer Alan Aluisi, bassist Bob Underwood and saxophonist/clarinetist Chuck Schneider, a part-time contributor, are just as nondescript. But beneath their normal-looking exteriors burns a creative fire to play jazz--not swing or bop, but challenging original music that employs samples, synthesizers and sequencers.
If you haven't heard of the group, you're not alone: The lineup has been together for nearly five years, but it did not play in public until a gig at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in July. In fact, Gillis is far better known for his work with Conjunto Colores, with whom he's played off and on for seventeen years, than for the band that shares his name. But in combination with Schneider, a music teacher, Underwood, a member of the Pan Jumbies who works in the orchestra of the Always...Patsy Cline production, and Aluisi, whose day job is not related to music, Gillis is making some of the freshest sounds in Colorado jazz.
According to Gillis, who speaks in the hushed tones of a golf-tournament commentator, the various players in the combo share a lot of history. "Alan and I went to UNC together, many years ago. Chuck was at DU at the same time. And all of us--Bob, Chuck, Alan and myself--had a band called Parameters that first assembled around 1980 from a band that had toured with Steve Getz, Stan's son. We had that band for about six years, and during that time, there were tons of different players in the rhythm section--sometimes Mark Simon, Eric Gunnison, Phil Sparks. Plus, we had a lot of great people, including guitarist Rory Stuart, contributing as writers."
Since then, Gillis continues, "we've all been sidemen for a lot of people. I call it O.P.M.: Other People's Music. But even though you can make a living doing that, you're not always playing the music closest to you. We used to take those kinds of jobs in Parameters, thinking that we just had to pay our dues. But if you do that enough times, you realize that it just is not fun."
In an effort to shake things up, Gillis moved away from Colorado in 1988. "I went to Los Angeles for a while--kind of taking a little sabbatical, with the idea being that I was going to write music until my savings ran out," he explains. "Then I went to Harrah's in Reno and played the shows, which is something I thought I'd never do. But I made some good money--enough to start saving up for the recording equipment and synthesizers that I have. Then, when I came back, I got together with musicians who were old friends with the intention that this would be a group I could write music for. And at the same time, I wanted to write for all these instruments that I had accumulated for my recording studio--not just the basic quartet format."
Why did it take Gillis so long to take the band public? He has no shortage of reasons. "It was such a technical nightmare just to think of how to perform something live with these instruments," he says. "It took a while to figure out a system that was going to work. So partly we haven't played out because we didn't feel ready musically. But the other part is that most of the places that we could play at are ones that I wasn't interested in, either because I didn't like the acoustics of the room or the type of clientele. I guess there are exceptions, but the kind of work that's available on a regular basis out there just isn't what I was interested in doing. So I guess we'd rather just make music. We were all at that stage in our lives where, even if the group never played anywhere but in my basement, if it was satisfying musically, that's all we needed."
Moreover, Gillis admits to having difficulty letting go of his songs. "I was writing music--or rewriting music. But the guys were great about it. We would work on something, and then I'd take it away from them and give them another version that I'd rather do. So we'd start all over again. Luckily, though, they're all patient people and liked the changes."
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As well they should have. Although Gillis is an ambitious composer who has dabbled with the twelve-tone structure pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg, his work is surprisingly accessible. Improvisation is in strong supply, but there's also more of a concentration on melody and less focus on contrasting textures than is common in such conjectural music. Hence, listeners with a strong dislike for outside jazz might not even realize that Gillis is working in that field.
"I definitely call this music experimental," Gillis allows, "but I don't know that you could classify it as being experimental in a truly dramatic way. It might just be that it is different from other things going on. I think the emphasis on the experimental nature comes from our intent to have something free and spontaneous as jazz working within, alongside and around pre-recorded and pre-sequenced tracks."
A wider audience may soon get an opportunity to learn about Gillis's music firsthand. Last year Gillis sent a tape of his group's work to the Colorado Council for the Arts and Humanities and wound up winning a 1997 Fellowship Award in Composition. The grant money he received enabled him to begin recording a CD that he hopes to have available by year's end. His expectations about it are decidedly modest. "It would just be nice to make enough to record again. Plus, I found the recording process really good for helping me focus on the end product of my music, because at some point I have to say the song is done. With recording, you can't rewrite it forever.
"Sure, I'd like people to hear our music," he acknowledges. "But if nothing ever happens with the CD, well, that's the way it is. That's the only way to look at it. Then you aren't going to be crushed or anything when your CD doesn't open up doors. You just keep going--because, you know, everything you do can't please every audience. If you're chasing commercial success, you might luck out, but you will always be one step behind the person who started the whole thing. At some point it has to become clear that you'd better just do your own thing. I mean, none of us are getting any younger.