Ron Bucknam regularly plays his guitar for the benefit of pastry-noshing literati at the Tattered Cover Bookstore, and his country-swing band, the Barncats, puts a charge into folks at VFW halls. But behind this modest musician is another one--an introspective virtuoso who has bravely, maybe foolishly, dedicated himself to the proposition that Coloradans are capable of digging sounds that can't be mistaken for something by Kenny G. "People often think you need to be in New York City to play art music," he points out. "But there are enough open-minded and informed people in Denver to keep one's spirit aloft."
A soft-spoken man with Zen leanings, Bucknam is that rare performer who actually seems to care more about the quality of his music than the quantity of people buying it. His most recent CD, the excellent Solo Subversion (on Homemade Hurricane, a label whose alliterative moniker was pinched from the James Joyce book Finnegans Wake), garnered praise by Westword as one of the top local releases of 1996, as well as pick status by Guitar Player magazine. But while he has a batch of equally challenging songs in the can, he doesn't yet know when, or if, they'll be let out. In the long run, though, such matters mean far less to him than a comment sent his way by Jack Teagarden, the soulful trombonist and bluesy singer, when he was just nine years old. "You must be a drummer," Teagarden told the Oceanside, New York, native, who started as a timekeeper before graduating to his six-string. "I could tell by how you were tapping your feet."
Teagarden wasn't the only jazz heavyweight to grace the impressionable boy's life: He also got a chance to get up close with Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Yusef Lateef and Barrett Deems, a drummer for Louis Armstrong who had, in Bucknam's words, "the fastest hands I've ever heard." Thanks for this access is owed to his French-born father, Charles, a gifted saxophonist, bandleader and producer of jazz radio shows. (His mother, Jean Sidley, died in her early twenties, when Ron was only one.) Other Bucknams were musically gifted as well. For instance, his grandmother, Lillian Bucknam, was an opera singer with a nationally broadcast NBC radio program whose career ended abruptly after throat surgery led to the tragic severing of her vocal cords. She was unable to speak for years, but there were compensations: According to Bucknam, she was able to see angels.
Losing himself in a blur of sticks, young Ron spent his days beating out rhythms on the floor inspired by patterns from his father's music collection (especially those by Max Roach). Two years and a few impromptu drum lessons later, he landed his first professional gig, providing polka and tarantella beats for ethnic weddings and socials at a Ukrainian rec center. The fourteen other members of his band shared some fine attributes: They were all young, Italian and female. Best of all, each one played accordion.
Drumming wasn't Bucknam's only skill; he also did some preteen dabbling on piano, bass and flute. "Early on, I discovered by playing piano in the dark with my eyes closed that the instrument could teach me to play it if I would just listen and be patient," he recalls. Eventually, he headed off to the University of Hawaii to pursue a dance/drama major, but after experiencing a mystical catharsis, he gave away of all his possessions and dropped out. A stretch as an overly dosed San Francisco street person followed, as did a stint in the Army. Then, in 1970, he and a couple of musicians, keyboardist Bob Lindberg and guitarist Richard Gere (yes, that Richard Gere), threw their hippie lots together in rural Peacham, Vermont. The three soon caught the attention of shotgun-toting rednecks from the area, who would deliver dead flowers to their door or invite them to go "hunting." They passed.
Playing in the sound and spirit of the Band, Bucknam, Lindberg and Gere stayed together long enough to write and perform the music for a rock version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Provincetown Playhouse. But upon the completion of the project, Gere, the future Tibetan gigolo, took off with the tapes. "I never heard from him again," Bucknam says. "Next time I saw him was on TV getting shot by Kojak."
As the electric guitar emerged as a new voice in his choir, Bucknam entered his woodshedding years, venturing into new, radical directions during marathon practice sessions. "I grew up immersed in jazz, so I took it somewhat for granted," he admits. "The first music that really captured my imagination was a small group work by Stravinski--maybe 'Octet for Winds.' The quirky, non-swinging rhythms and odd intervals were very exciting. It sounded like an audio version of an asymmetrical Alexander Calder mobile--very cerebral, but with a healthy sense of humor about itself."
A working relationship with jazz composer/pocket trumpeter Dennis Gonzales gave Bucknam a chance to show off this new style. He appeared on three albums issued on the Dallas-based Daagnim label, including Hints, the first LP put out under Bucknam's name. "The title refers to the magic, transcendent moments that occur in a group improvisation when you gel into one organic whole and play from the collective unconsciousness," Bucknam says, and the music fits this description. Dubbed "Wes Montgomery on acid" by one critic, the platter is a radical, avant-garde coagulation of psychedelic guitars, haunting piano and congas held together by Jim Hunter's fluid bass lines and punctuated by Gonzales's incisive, piercing horns.
Upon moving to Denver during the Eighties, Bucknam became a key part of the Front Range Improv Orchestra (FRIO), an ensemble that featured saxophonist Jack Wright and two core members of the Lords of Howling, percussionist Peter Halter and violinist/clarinetist/lyricist Chris Culhane. The music that resulted was wildly improvisational, which suited Bucknam just fine. "In a conversation, you don't repeat what you said three minutes ago so that you'll have an over-arching A-B-A format as your narrative," he says. "We put narrative imprints on works of art, I think, out of a fear that life is meaningless and that we're afraid of death." Bucknam and Culhane were so focused on breaking down such barriers that one of their experiments--an attempt to play as quietly as possible during a basement practice session--left them oblivious to a nearby natural disaster. While Bucknam drummed with modified brushes (one strand per hand) and Culhane dragged a bow across the strings of a violin as if trying not to wake it, a tornado uprooted trees, damaged cars and peeled away roofing a block away--but the musicians were so deep into their meditations that they didn't even notice.
FRIO's tireless zeal for futzing around led to countless home recordings, several live shows in the illustrious "concert hallway" of Boulder's KGNU-FM, and Bucknam's first cross-country tour. His next project--Coyote Palace, an act starring bassist Dirk Dickson and guitarists Mike O'Neill and Farrell Lowe--moved down a non-commercial path as well. The group's funky rhythms set a wonderful example of people using disparate musical backgrounds to good advantage. So, too, did the Nuthatches, a three-piece with bassist Dickson and "chick drummer" Shannon Spencer whose improvisations graced the Mercury Cafe's dinner hour for more than a year.
Solo Subversion doesn't slip so easily into the background; the trance-inducing one-man guitar opus deserves a close listen. Tracks on the disc--recorded in real time without the use of multi-tracking, sampling or computers--range from soothing deep-space nebula to relentless angst and busy scores that conjure up images of severely intimate ant-colony footage. Such visual references make sense: Bucknam was as inspired by the painters Miró, Kandinsky and Rothko as he was by Steve Reich, Anthony Braxton and John Cage. "All musical language is valid," he says. "But we're conditioned by TV and movie soundtracks to associate certain chords and dynamics with the arrival of the psycho or landing of the aliens." He's best able to go beyond such stereotypes, he feels, "when I get out of my own way."
During times not filled by solo performances or gigs with the Barncats, which is fronted by Bret Bertholf, formerly with the now-defunct Crosstie Walkers, Bucknam teaches these theories to guitarists and drummers alike. "I try to act as a guide to help people find the music within themselves," he points out. "We don't read and write music in the conventional sense but emphasize listening."
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Bucknam celebrates the beacon-like courage of John Coltrane, who he says was "willing to lose his audience to follow his inner voice--which, sadly, he did." Such uncompromising visions usually come at a price, but Bucknam believes that the payoff is worth it. As he puts it, "I feel a compunction to address the existential fear and anxiety that we all experience. No less than the entertainment value of performance, poignant music offers an opportunity for reaching out and comforting. We're all in the same leaking boat, so we may as well celebrate it head-on."
That should give the people at the Tattered Cover something to chew on.
Ron Bucknam. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, July 2 and 3, Tattered Cover Bookstore, 2955 East First Avenue, 303-322-7727.