The Fringe at 40
Sophisticated primitives
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 bit much?

  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.