In a working-class town north of Columbus, Ohio, a few years back, the rowdy patrons were drinking beer out of buckets--using straws--when the bartender clanged a ship's bell and announced, "I want all of you to hear this sax player!"
Such an introduction would have left most instrumentalists fearful that a set of slashed tires might end up being their only payment for the night--but not Jack Wright. A free-jazz improviser with tours of the United States and Europe behind him, he remained undaunted. "I jumped up on the top of the bar," notes Wright, a Philadelphia native who's lived in Boulder since 1988. "There wasn't any stage. I just stood on the bar and played really hard."
To the delight of the saxophonist, an avant-gardist renowned for the fierce intensity and steely edge of his playing, the reaction of the not-so-urbane crowd did not involve epithets, projectiles or sharp objects. "People loved it," he recalls. "They thought it was great. Afterward, they were talking with me about it and how they wished they had continued to play music."
Adventures like these have earned Wright a nickname from his colleagues--"the Johnny Appleseed of free improvisation." The moniker is an appropriate one: Wright has made it a point to scatter the seeds of his music far from the beaten path ever since he began experimenting with jazz nearly twenty years ago.
Wright first picked up a saxophone in 1954, at the age of ten. After years of more conventional sax playing, as well as side trips into bluegrass and choral music, he subsequently became interested in academia. He studied European history and later taught at City College of New York and Temple University--after which he changed course again.
"I got swept up in the political excitement of the late Sixties, with community organizing and Marxist groups," Wright reports. "I thought the academic game was in the way of the coming revolution." But as the urgency of leftist politics fizzled and faded with the end of the Vietnam War, Wright found himself without a cause. In search of a focus for his energetic, confrontational personality, he returned to the saxophone. "I picked up the horn out of curiosity, but I had a political judgment that art was just self-indulgent. I still think that's true"--he laughs--"but it no longer bothers me.
"I was really on the edge in those days, walking around with a noose over my head," he goes on. "So I committed myself blindly to music and rigorous practice." During the late Seventies these efforts led him in the direction of melodic, freeform jazz. "Of course, there had been a lot of people who were playing free music before then, but I really didn't know them. I just discovered it for myself," he says. "I began to blend this real sonic dimension with a lot of scalar studies. Playing became a real emotional thing for me; I was putting a lot of physical energy into it. I've always been a very physical player, really pushing as far as I could go to the end of the breath."
Over the years, Wright has gravitated toward similarly impassioned performers, many of them with national reputations; he's partnered with bassist William Parker, guitarist Chris Cochrane, reedist Paul Hoskin, drummer Murray Reams and the Shaking Ray Levis duo, among many others. But he wasn't always a team player. "In the Eighties my playing was largely solo even when playing with others, because I felt like the little boy who finally gets a chance to get heard--a kind of vindication," he explains. A vestige of this sinewy side of Wright can be found on Thaw, a CD that was recorded in 1992. The disc finds the saxophonist alongside nearly a dozen notable Boulder/Denver improvisers in a variety of settings, and most often, the result is discontinuous shards of inspired notes. The rhythm section may briefly underpin a segment, but the pieces as a whole are enveloped in bouts of eloquent reed frenzy.
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Recently, however, Wright has moved away from "Dionysiac explosions," as he describes his more extreme aural outbursts, and toward the "scalar complexities" of collective improvisation--a logical evolution for an instrumentalist whose range of technique has been broadening for two decades. Also a factor in this shift is the town Wright now calls home, which he sees as a less competitive, more collaborative artistic environment than the one found on the East Coast. "They talk of Boulder as a 'me-first' town, but the art world is nothing but that," he says. "Out here I began playing with others more communally. That is, not being the 'heavy' up front with all the driving emotions, but weaving and adding to the mix. Without thinking I had to be king of the hill, I could allow my music to be shaped by others. I still like to stun people with an explosive solo; it's very tempting to be the wild man from Borneo, blasting out like it was my last moment on the planet. But I've made room for more. Maybe I feel more secure than I did when I was the raging monster--or the hopeful professional climbing the ladder."
In addition to his efforts as a musician, Wright is also a visual artist, and the paintings he recently exhibited at Denver's Edge Gallery (abstract expressions alternately dominated by bright geometric forms and murky, erratic darkness) are very much in tune with his playing. He also organizes Theatre of the Moment, a creative-music series staged Tuesdays at Boulder's West End Tavern--but that doesn't mean he's pushed his own musical pursuits into the background. He is concentrating much of his attention on the piano, an instrument he has played intermittently since the Seventies, and continues to showcase on alto soprano and tenor sax with longtime associates such as drummer Bob Mulligan and bassist John Nichols.
When he's on stage with this last pair, Wright says he often finds himself, "after almost twenty years, playing some kind of jazz. It's still without chord changes, but working with pitches and scales as if they mattered. I've always practiced scales, even if I didn't perform them, and so I found a place for something I love to do. And I've always thought of myself as a jazz musician. I just thought jazz meant anything 'out there' that thrilled people with a kind of danger and adventure. That's my job, and that's what we're set to do."
Jack Wright Trio. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 1, Houston Fine Arts Center, 7111 Montview Boulevard, $5-$8, 759-1797.