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21-year-old Fringe still plays on frontiers of jazz

The Fringe
Willow Jazz Club.
April 9.

By Dave Fox
Staff Reporter

Local jazz trio the Fringe, giants of the Boston jazz scene, celebrated their twenty-first anniversary with a pair of performances at the Willow Jazz Club in Somerville this past weekend. As you might expect after twenty-one years, the Fringe's individual members are so aware of each other's playing that their music is extraordinarily cohesive, even in the midst of a three-way improvisation, and they always have something new to say with their music.

Consisting of saxophonist George Garzone, bassist John Lockwood, and drummer Bob Gullotti, the Fringe concentrate on making music at the absolute frontiers of jazz. Specifically, they do not play standards or pre-composed "tunes"; rather, one member will begin playing, and the others will join in with their own interpretations of the prevailing mood. The lack of a piano, guitar, or any other "chord" instrument opens up the tonal possibilities immensely, and the formidable technique of each of these musicians allows them to exploit this freedom to an amazing degree.

Garzone, who plays tenor and soprano saxes, is what I would term a "saxophone player's saxophonist." He divides his time between teaching at the Berklee College of Music, collaborating with such artists as John Patitucci, Bill Evans, Joe Lovano, and Dave Liebman, and maintaining an imposing presence on the Boston jazz scene with the Fringe and other groups. In spite of his towering achievements, Garzone remains open and friendly to his students, his admirers, and aspiring musicians.

John Lockwood and Bob Gullotti are equally accomplished musicians. Lockwood has played and recorded with such diverse artists as Nick Brignola, Pharoah Sanders, Freddie Hubbard, and Sonny Stitt. His bass playing focuses on the "core" of the music, rather than the surface, allowing him to adapt to different musical styles and settings. Similarly, Gullotti approaches the drums with a great deal of emotion, allowing him to weave a perfectly appropriate percussive background behind the two tonal instrumentalists no matter where the music leads them, and also allowing him to perform dramatic drum solos. He has played and recorded with a wide variety of artists, including Jerry Bergonzi, Richard Beirach, Steve Turre, and Miroslav Vitous.

When Garzone, Lockwood, and Gullotti get together as the Fringe, intense, thought-provoking music is the guaranteed result. Friday evening was a case in point. The Fringe opened with a thirty-minute piece, which Garzone began on soprano sax with Gullotti adding cymbal accents. Garzone's playing was flawless as he let the music flow, from sort of somber to rather lively. At the appropriate point in the music, Lockwood entered with an understated bass line. By this point, Garzone had already dazzled the sax players in the audience (including yours truly) with highly technical playing that was also very musical. (These attributes do not necessarily go hand-in-hand!) When Garzone had had his say, he turned the spotlight over to Lockwood, who offered a bass solo that was a good response to the soprano sax statement. Garzone then came back in and pulled all the stops out, offering an extended solo featuring good use of the entire range of the horn, from shuffling low notes to screaming altissimo notes. This lead to another bass solo, more technical (but no less musical) than the first. Lockwood's playing was fast, perfectly in tune (often not the case with many upright bass players), and used the entire length of the fingerboard, including single-string jumps of more than an octave. This was truly magnificent bass playing of a sort not often heard.

Lockwood's bass solo gave way to a wonderful drum solo by Gullotti, using brushes. He put a lot of energy into the solo, using the brushes in a very rapid manner. This put the crowd on edge, as evidenced by the big ovation at the solo's completion. At this point, Garzone and Lockwood entered simultaneously, and the trio gradually resolved the piece into a sort of coordinated jazz hook, alternating with more free sections. This further resolved into the ending of the piece.

The music continued in this fashion throughout the evening, covering many styles and feelings, from calypso to hard bop to styles that cannot be categorized. This was marked with wonderful improvisation, with Garzone in particular showing a clarity of thought and ability to continually come up with fresh ideas, reminiscent of Sonny Rollins in the 1950s (although Garzone's sound is his own).

Near the end of the evening, the Fringe displayed their playful side in a very humorous incident. During an improvised piece, Garzone with his wireless-mike-equipped tenor sax gradually made his way to a room at the back of the club, and shut the door, while still playing. After a few moments (with strains of Garzone's sax filling the club), Lockwood and Gullotti exchanged glances. Gullotti grabbed one cymbal and stand, Lockwood unplugged his bass from his amp, and both made their way to the back room. The crowd was then treated to the trio all playing through Garzone's mike -- from a room with the door closed! Not to be outdone by the trio, the mostly young audience decided that turnabout was fair play, and so one by one they all went out into the street. When the Fringe emerged from the room, Garzone commented, "They all left!", and so the trio joined the audience in the street (at 12:30 a.m.!). Of course, everyone filed back into the club, and the Fringe concluded the piece with some humorous licks. The laughter in the crowd and the trio went on for several minutes, reflecting the unique nature of this incident (bordering almost on performance art!).

The Fringe performed two sets of extreme cutting edge jazz appropriate to their name, filled with consummate musicianship and improvisational skills not often heard. This music is not for everyone, but to true lovers of improvisation or sax, bass, or drums partisans, the Fringe is a must-hear trio. Fortunately for Boston jazz fans, the Fringe hold forth at the Willow Jazz Club every Wednesday night. They are absolutely worth hearing.