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Ken Thomson Turns His Reed Work to Chamber Jazz

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Improvisation is a big, if not the biggest, pillar of jazz music. For many, it's what gives the music its unique identity, separating it from pop and the rest. Musicians wax poetic about the experience of playing that way, and I've written extensively about it through the years, particularly applauding those groups that practice free playing in which little if anything is written out or composed ahead of time.

But in recent years I've become more patient with jazz musicians who emphasize the art of crafting great tunes. Nothing is more annoying than listening to a talented but unrehearsed band play a set where the formula strictly adheres to the head/melody—lead solo—secondary solo(s)—back to the head for the conclusion. Obviously, this works for the music's roots as a style refined during jam sessions, but this unswerving formula can get quite tedious when it's applied song after song.

Reedist Ken Thomson is never boring. He's a bouncing, twirling loose cannon when he plays live with the long-running band Gutbucket, which has four albums out and a fifth coming in January. He also is the co-leader of Bang on a Can's postmodern 12-piece marching band Asphalt Orchestra, which plays everything from Mingus to classical avant-gardist Conlon Nancarrow to metal's Meshuggah as it marches, jumps and dances.

Thomson now returns with 'Things Would be Easier If,' a toned-down and thoughtful effort with Slow/Fast (Thomson, trumpeter Russ Johnson, guitarist Nir Felder, bassist Adam Armstrong and drummer Fred Kennedy). Like much of his work, the album is a combination of rock, jazz and modern chamber music, but whereas Asphalt defies easy categorization and Gutbucket is overtly punk jazz, Slow/Fast leans towards composition-heavy chamber jazz.

“The idea was to do five 10-minute songs and to only have improvisation when it was absolutely necessary," Thomson explains. “I was using improvisation to inform the composition, which is different than the standard jazz model where you have your head and you have your vehicle for improvisation. For me, I wanted to have the improvisation be a vehicle for the composition."

The music has a energetic playfulness to it that runs counter to the Thomson's somewhat academic description of the album—most rambunctious is the shredding, odd-metered 'Goddamn You Ice Cream Truck,' which was inspired by the music emanating from a Mister Softee truck that sat outside his Brooklyn, N.Y. apartment.

According to Thomson, “The question I hear is that whether I incorporated the [truck's] jingle in the song and the answer is no. The title was actually done before the song was done. The windows of my apartment would be open because it's hot and I often write from my head to paper, and it happened a few times where I was working something and then this jingle would come in and I would suddenly lose everything I was working on. It was the aural equivalent of my computer crashing."

Humor is an ongoing element in Thomson's music, but there is nothing funny about the elegant 'No No No.' This 11-minute gem is imbued with long tones that blend together like different colors on a painter's palette. Unlike Gutbucket's material, which tends toward spasmodic and to-the-point, 'Slow/Fast' methodically brings the song to a boil and then dissolves it into a Thomson solo that eventually fades out. While there is very little movement, Thomson and Co. create a taut piece that holds the listener's attention throughout.

Driven by the long dual horn lines of Thomson on alto saxophone and Johnson, 'Wanderangst' is probably the jazziest-sounding tune of the five. Again time signatures, melodies, moods and lead instrument shift from section to section in a way that suggests some heavy-duty arranging.

“I often feel disappointed when I hear a record where it seems like the guys just walked into he studio one day and recorded it," Thomson points out. “To me if I feel like I'm going more and more towards composition it's because I'm putting a lot of effort into my compositions because it really illustrates who I am and what I want it to be."

Thomson spends a fair amount of time arranging for different groups and commissions, as well—including a new Asphalt Orchestra track with David Byrne and St. Vincent. He also plays in about eight other bands and is on the faculty for Bang on a Can's Summer Festival, so it's safe to say that Ken Thomson is working at full capacity these days.

“I don't know what else I could add right now," he says as he runs down his schedule, which includes live dates with Slow/Fast. “I'm maxed, for sure, but it's a good kind of maxed. It's maxed with the kind of stuff that I want to be doing, and I'm pretty happy about that."

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