The Fringe at 40
By JON GARELICK | May 15, 2012
RHYTHM OF THE MOMENT Now 40, Boston avant-garde standard-bearers the
Fringe Bob Gullotti,
John Lockwood, and George Garzone long ago gave up playing tunes.
"I'm feeling a little light-headed," George Garzone told the audience
last Saturday at the Boston Conservatory Theater, closing his eyes and
bringing a hand to his brow. The 62-year-old saxophonist had just finished a
ferocious set with the Fringe, and the uninitiated might have taken him at
his word. This was the band's 40th anniversary concert an emotional event,
after all and the music had been typically unrelenting. Maybe it was all a
But this was an audience of Fringe adepts, and titters rippled through
the crowd at Garzone's remarks. Some probably guessed what was coming.
Introducing the second set, Garzone's brother-in-law Nick Racheotes read a
short description of "the Neanderthal man," come to a strange world, where
he sees "a whole generation speaking into its hands." Cries from the back of
the auditorium. A figure in animal skins and shaggy hair lurks upstage,
grabbing a drum cymbal as shield. More grunts and yelps. Another caveman
prods members of the audience with a tree branch-walking stick/weapon before
throwing a woman over his shoulder and taking her onstage. Soon all three
"Neanderthals" are onstage at their instruments random drum thuds,
saxophone squawks, bass plunks, and oscillating electronics.
Before long, of course, the drummer Bob Gullotti is playing cross-rhythms
and subdivisions of the beat at high velocity, bassist John Lockwood has
moved from a lovely kora-like solo to fast runs of counterpoint, and Garzone
despite a long black wig that keeps interfering with his embouchure is
ripping off flurries of 16th and 32nd notes. Some Neanderthals.
But the point of this bit of hokum is clear. The Fringe have always
emphasized the elemental primitive forces that drive their music. The
"inner Neanderthal," as Racheotes said. Despite the unparalleled mastery of
their individual talents, despite the abstraction of the jazz they make no
"tunes," no funk grooves, a taste for tonal ambiguity and the obliteration
of chord changes and fixed rhythms they're always after music that comes
from the heart and the gut. Maybe that's how they've managed to draw a new
generation of listeners year after year to their regular Monday-night
sessions. Not just their students, but fellow musicians of equal mastery for
whom the Fringe represent an ideal.
The band began as three Berklee students determined to master the
uncompromising demands of straight-ahead jazz, but also fascinated by the
avant-garde. With bassist Richard Appleman as a founding member, they held
court at Michael's Pub on Gainsborough Street for a decade. Appleman left
when the obligations of family life and his job as chairman of the Berklee
bass department drew him in other directions. By 1985, Lockwood was the
band's bassist, and they continued to hold Monday night court at the Willow
in Somerville, the Lizard Lounge, and now the Lily Pad.
The Fringe used to write tunes, some of which are remembered fondly ("To
the Bridge," "Ides," "Me and the Ma") and played a few choice covers (Archie
Shepp's "Keep Your Heart Right" was a favorite). But after a while the tunes
disappeared. The band wanted to keep themselves and the music on edge.
Despite the spontaneity of their approach, the music was surprisingly
accessible. Garzone implied scales and chord changes with his runs of 8ths
and 16ths, Gullotti's "pulse" was equally articulate, and Lockwood's
beautiful tone and accuracy of pitch were never in doubt. All of which
prepared you for those indefinable hurricanes of sound that were bigger than
any single player.
At this point, as Whitney Balliett said of Ornette Coleman, the band are
improvising not on tunes or changes, but on themselves. Or as Garzone tells
Downbeat magazine in the June issue, they're concentrating on "the rhythm of
the moment." Maybe that's why even after 40 years they continue to
surprise and inspire. And they continue to set a standard for all of jazz
not just the avant-garde of what this music is, and what it can be. ^
The Fringe play every Monday night at the Lily Pad, 1353 Cambridge Street,
Cambridge, starting at 10.