It began in a smoky bar in Nederland. I know, you've heard that one before. Nearly every Colorado-based musical story opens in one Nederland bar or another. For the sake of argument, let's say this one was the Wolf Tongue Brewery. And let's say it was a night of acid jazz, a weekly routine featuring a not entirely open mic tradition of bringing together accomplished musicians, mostly dedicated to their own bands, but breaking out of their molds to collaborate on some largely improvisational jazz jamming.
Enter the Theory of Everything. Once skyrocketing careers took some of the principals out of the area, either for extensive touring or for the dreaded relocation, the opportunity to share a stage together has become rarer and rarer. But Saturday night brought the T.O.E. Jam III, the third appearance in almost two years of the Nederland/Boulder area musicians.
The current incarnation features Tye North on bass, late of Leftover Salmon, Ross Martin of the Tony Furtado Band on guitar, Michael Kang of String Cheese Incident on mandolin, violin, and guitar, Dave Watt of his eponymous Motet on drums, and the newest theoretician, Robert Walters, sitting behind the keyboards where Kyle Hollingsworth once sat.
Special guests for the Jam included Jimmy on saxophone, "a bad mo-fo," according to North, and a member of Walters' traveling band; hammered dulcimer maestro Jamie Janover helping with percussions, and another unidentified member of the Motet adding percussion and the occasional vocals.
The T.O.E. Jam is a serious attempt at venturing deep into the jazz realms, even if its only acid jazz. They came prepared with sheet music (gasp!) and a subdued attitude, keeping their cool until they blew themselves away. Delving into the kind of material they might each hint at once a show with their respective bands, T.O.E. Jam III was an unanchored journey through musical terrain that surprised and enthralled the musicians nearly as much as it did the crowd.
Grooving was the goal in the Boulder Theater, and though the various bands' fan bases may be ecstatic twirling dervishes, Saturday's crowd was ready to focus on the funk with an intensity not always accessible when the various line-ups are soaring through their own comfort level. This jam was meant to be a challenge, not a mere free flight, and the T.O.E. boys did not disappoint.
If the first set seemed unusually pre-meditated, things loosened up in the expansive second set. Walters, Martin, and Kang traded experimental leads, giving each other the room to forage deep into their musical imaginations and push each other into unexpected territory. Walters, the only non-local in the bunch, added a healthy dose of vintage organismic grooving on the keys, and his presence propelled the transitory group's sound into a distinct direction that made the wigging of hips escapable and the twisting of toes inevitable. With Jimmy sitting in on sax throughout the evening, it was clear that another significant musical relationship was being forged on stage.
Covering everyone from Alison Brown ("Samba del Sol") and Bela Fleck ("Down in the Swamp") to Led Zepplin ("Good Times and Bad Times") and Bill Withers ("Lean on Me") while teasing the Dead ("Dark Star") and Vince Giuraldi ("Linus and Lucy"), the jazz jammers managed to create a seamless continuity out of the evening, blending their individual and unique musical signatures with the pristine topography of their forebears.
Mandolin master Matt Flinner joined the spirit of the jamfest, sitting in for the final number of the second set and giving Kang a chance to rosin up the bow and give his acoustic violin a work out, the only pseudo bluegrass number of the night providing ample opportunity for a final fit of frenzied audience boogey before closing the night with a Motown moment that pulled out all the stops on the feel-good Withers classic, restoring a sense of calm to the boggled minds in the crowd and giving them a fighting chance at restoring their equilibrium in time to navigate themselves back home.
The band hopes to return for a fourth ever engagement in the fall, but in the meantime there are several other brief collaborations in the works. Watts and Martin will join with Furtado, Matt Spencer, and String Cheese Incident band members Billy Nershi and Michael Travis for an All-Star Jam as part of an AIDS Benefit Wednesday, June 13 at the Boulder Theater.
And on the following Tuesday, June 19, Kang and North take to the Fox Theater with their other All-Star "collaboration" band called Commotion, which consists of David Grisman alumni and Psychograss founding members Darol Anger on violins and Mike Marshall on guitars, cello guitar, and ouditar; frequent Flecktone and Oregon founding member Paul McCandless on sax, oboe, and bass clarinet, fellow Leftover Salmon alum Jeff Sipe on drums, and Anger-Marshall Bandmate Aaron Johnston on drums and percussion. This rarity group has only played nine dates--all West Coast--since releasing Head West last fall, and the Fox will host their Colorado debut, to be followed later in the week with an appearance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
See more concert photos from Michael Weintroub at www.groovetography.com.