Drawing on an improvisational heritage that includes Ornette Coleman, Fat Kid Wednesdays have been playing together for almost 20 years. Robert O’Connor listens in
Fat Kid Wednesdays: ‘Skylark’:
For 12 years, until its management dramatically changed hands earlier this year, Fat Kid Wednesdays held a jazz night every Monday at the Clown Lounge, underneath the Turf Club. The Turf Club has been at the corner of University and Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota for almost 70 years and has always been a hangout for local and independent musicians.
The Clown Lounge, in the club’s basement, hasn’t been around as long, but Fat Kid Wednesdays helped it grow into a popular hangout for free jazz, putting it alongside the Artist Quarter in St. Paul and the Dakota in Minneapolis as a place to find great jazz in the Twin Cities (The trio plays regularly at both of these places).
Fat Kid Wednesdays has three main players: Adam Linz on bass, Michael Lewis on Sax and JT Bates drums. They’ve been playing together since their days at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park. Being friends, and being friends for that long helps in improvising, says Linz, who is also the jazz director at the MacPhail School of Music. “I try to be a little more melodic in what I do, and try to not just be a bass player.” Linz told Pamela Espeland, who writes about jazz for MinnPost, that they would regularly visit Cheapo in Uptown, Minneapolis and a guy named John Morgan would show them improv records by the likes of Evan Parker.
The trio’s songs are inspired by the music they listen to – which can range from traditional jazz to folk to rock to classical. Linz told me he goes to the movies a lot, so a lot of his songs are inspired by that. Some times they’re inspired by moments on the road – feelings they have that they don’t want to forget, or a good experience somewhere that they remember. When they play they try and recapture moments. At the same time, they want to share this with the audience – they want the audience to have a good time and to feel it with them.
Free jazz has a lineage like most art movements. Adam takes inspiration from free jazz players like Evan Parker and Ornette Coleman who let loose, but also had some sense of structure. Both of them fly, yes, but they’re still anchored on to something.
Coleman’s biggest influence on him was Charlie Parker, who would take the chord changes of standards, put his own melodies over them and make the song his own, even create a new standard with it. ‘Ornithology’ is really ‘How High the Moon’ with a new melody. Evan Parker’s biggest influence was John Coltrane whose improvisations were driven by his experiments in chord stacking and modes.
“Improvisation is kinda like riding a bike for the first time,” Linz told Espeland. “Someone is there holding your hand. You’re nervous and you don’t know what is going to happen. As you let go of those feelings, you enjoy it… it defines you, and you shape it to fit your life. It changes with time and, pretty soon, it’s just like breathing.”
Fat Kids Wednesdays have their own songs, which Linz says are inspired by anything. “I listen to all kinds of stuff, not just jazz.” They’ll bring in new pieces that are usually complete, though sometimes they’re not. And they go from there – changes are usually made to the final piece.
Linz says its important for the audience to have a good time and not walk away confused. If a player improvises, they shouldn’t be incomprehensible. “I’ve seen that attitude among some people, ‘I know what I’m doing and it’s too bad that they don’t,’ and that’s something we try not to do.”
Research at John Hopkins has shown that the old saying “music is the universal language” might have some scientific basis. Dr. Charles Limb described the experiment and the findings at a recent TED talk. He would have a piece of music that musicians would memorize and play and then he would have them improvise over it, with their brains being monitored by an MRI.
What he found was that when the musicians were playing the prepared piece, the motor areas of the brain were active, but when they improvised, the language areas were active.
The arrogance of players who play without that grounding is analogous to someone speaking in a language only they understand.
But with Fat Kid Wednesdays, they try to speak in a language everyone likes. As Linz put it: “We’re just friends having a good time, and we hope the audience has a good time.”
TED Talk, Dr. Charles Limb, ‘Your Brain on Improv’: