Monday, November 4, 2013

A night at the Artists' Quarter: Dave King Trucking Company

Dave King
Saturday, November 2, 2013: Dave King, drums; Erik Fratzke, guitar; Brandon Wozniak, tenor saxophone; Adam Linz, bass

Some musicians are better talkers than others. Some say everything through their music, and words are their second language. Others aren’t comfortable conversing with strangers or addressing crowds. Still others speak mostly music-school jargon or street, a challenge for those of us who aren’t fluent.

And then there’s Dave King, drummer, composer, bandleader, and raconteur. Not only can he talk about music with clarity and wit, he can riff on pretty much anything else that pops into his head, which, if neural circuitry lit up, would look like Times Square at midnight. He improvises with words as fluidly and swiftly as he does with sticks and brushes. And he doesn't repeat himself. I've never heard him tell the same story twice.

King came to the Artists’ Quarter this weekend for the release of “Adopted Highway,” the second album by his band the Dave King Trucking Company. (The first, "Good Old Light," came out in 2011.)

Davis Wilson
"My lords and ladies! Please moderate your personal chatter!"
Davis Wilson, the AQ’s bearded doorman and master of ceremonies, introduced King to the crowd as “the greatest existential sit-down comic in jazz,” and then they were off: King on drums, Erik Fratzke on electric guitar, Brandon Wozniak on tenor saxophone, Adam Linz on bass. 

The band's second tenor saxophonist, Chris Speed, was absent. He appears on both albums but lives in NYC and only occasionally flies out when the Trucking Co. performs here.

Erik Fratzke
The band has a group sound all its own, created by five musicians who all have strong, well-formed individual voices: King from his years in Happy Apple, The Bad Plus, 12 Rods, Buffalo Collision, the Gang Font, and others; Fratzke from Happy Apple, Gang Font, Zebulon Pike, and dates with Reid Anderson (The Bad Plus) and Bill Carrothers; Wozniak with a long list of bands including the Atlantis Quartet, Zacc Harris Group, Chris Bates Quintet, Bryan Nichols Quintet, and Adam Meckler Quintet; Linz with Fat Kid Wednesdays, Meckler, Nichols, collaborations with Ellen Lease, Pat Moriarty, and Phil Hey, solo projects, and gigs with visitors including Japanese percussionist Tatsuye Nakatani.

The Trucking Co. benefits from all of that collective experience in performing, ensemble work, and composing. Most of the tunes on both albums were written by King; Fratzke contributed one tune to "Good Old Light" and another to "Adopted Highway," and Linz wrote one for "Highway." The music on both albums is complex, fiercely energetic, serious, playful, and also subtle and lyrical. It’s jazzy, bluesy, folk-and rock-inflected. In among the shifting, tangled rhythms are grooves as wide as highways, engaging melodies, infectious hooks, and strong solos.  

Dave King
On Saturday, the Trucking Co. played two sets of music drawn from both albums. The first set was more angular and aggressive, the second softer, more laid-back. Here's the set list, to the best of my abilities to reconstruct it:
Do You Live in a Star City?
You Can't Say "Poem in Concrete"
Mexico City Nights
Ice Princess
?? [King: "A song for my son's goldfish, who swam upside-down]
I Am Looking for Strength
Parallel Sister Track
Tender Is the Night
Soft Pack
This Is a Non-Lecture
Salted among the music, sometimes explaining the music (or not), were King's tales and commentaries. Here's a selection:
This is an art collective, it’s not even a band. It’s a post-modern art experience. This is not a song, it’s a tone poem. 
We played “Mexico City Nights” for the first time last night, and I noticed a couple of errors. Fratzke said, “We are not going out like that,” so we argued, then replayed it.  
“I Am Looking for Strength” is part of a declarative trilogy. The first part is “I Will Live Next to the Wrecking Yard.” The one we’re working on now is “I Will Invest in Red Lobster Again.” 
[After a sudden, brief detour into the Doors:] Jim Morrison! He’s heavy. I love reading poetry by 20-year-olds. The most asinine lyrics in the history of the Earth! “I checked out Robert Lowell. I’m not that good, but I look good.” 
My dad was the neighbor in “Home Improvement.” He thought Tim Allen was a troglodyte. [Dwayne King, Dave's father, biggest fan, and purveyor of CDs and records, is almost always in the house when Dave plays and features in many of his jokes.] 
[On Linz’s new composition, “Tender is the Night”:] Jackson Brown and Adam were roommates in college, at the University of Minnesota Morris. Jackson Brown got a phrenology degree, Adam’s was in horticulture.
The AQ was SRO, as it was Friday night, as it has been most Fridays and Saturdays since owner Kenny Horst announced that the club will close on January 1. Last week King wrote a piece for City Pages about the AQ and its importance to the Twin Cities music scene and his own career as a musician. King, the frequent kidder, was as serious as a heart attack. 

Brandon Wozniak
The loss of the AQ will be a major blow. It's the only full-time jazz club in the Twin Cities and for miles around. It looks and feels and acts like a jazz club. Black walls are covered in posters and photos of jazz musicians; one wall is devoted to album covers. There's a long bar ringed by stools and small round tables on the floor with not very comfortable chairs. No craft cocktails and no food, except for Taco Nights, when a local caterer brings in a crock pot, a stack of corn tortillas, and a homemade sheet cake. Davis at the door, ready with a greeting and story, and an old sofa where people gather. And musicians in the audience, always.

The music is unlike anything you'll hear anywhere else within driving distance, except at a few other places around the cities, where you'll hear it far less often. It's real music, immediate, not manipulated, smoothed, autotuned, or fixed in the mix, played by people who would play even if no one showed up, which sometimes happens. You never know what you’ll hear, and you never hear the same thing twice. There’s the thrill of immediacy, the feeling that we're all in this together, fellow travelers, taking risks.

The music is not only live, it’s alive. Breathing, kicking, laughing, crying, being beautiful, acting stupid, finding truth, telling lies, struggling to be understood, like all of us. It's not about ratings, numbers, polls, shareholders, or whether teenagers like it. It's not about being popular. For a moment called the Swing Era, jazz was popular, and that was almost its undoing. When you're popular, there's nowhere to go but down, and soon you're wearing a toe tag whether you're dead or not. 

Adam Linz, badass
Jazz today is often called dead, irrelevant, or in decline. If jazz were dead, there wouldn't be so many kids studying jazz at colleges and universities. Those are not kids whose parents made them go to jazz school. Nobody's parents do that. Jazz is a terrible career choice. With very few exceptions, no one gets rich playing jazz.

And yet, many people play it. They sacrifice to play it. Why? You might ask the same of those of us who listen to jazz. We heard it on the radio, found a parent's or grandparent's record collection, went to a concert out of curiosity or on a dare, or stumbled somewhere across Miles or Monk, Metheny or Anthony Braxton and fell in love. Maybe this happens less these days, but it still happens, and it will keep happening until all of our choices are made for us by algorithms.

The Artists' Quarter is a word-of-mouth place and always has been. That’s part of its sustainability problem – no advertising – but also part of its charm. Someone has to tell you about the AQ. I'm telling you now. If you haven't yet been there, time is running out to have an endangered experience.

The band, minus Chris Speed
All photos (C) 2013 John Whiting.

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