Slow hand

By JON GARELICK  |  October 21, 2009

Still, says Udden when I hook up with him on the phone to Brooklyn, “Not a single tune started from a jazz influence.” Instead, pieces usually started with Udden writing on guitar. And as for identifying as a jazz musician: “When people ask, I say I’m holding a saxophone, so it’s jazz. But we mostly play folk and rock. It’s tricky: this is what I hear when I write music. If I really wanted audiences that bad, I’d probably just start a Beatles cover band or something like that. The jazz world — I hate to say it, but I’m identifying with it less and less, even though that’s probably the only world that will accept this music.”

But just about all the musicians on the CD come from jazz backgrounds. Nathan Blehar is another NEC grad, in this case one who dropped saxophone and switched to acoustic guitar. He played saxophone on Torch Songs, but here he plays nylon-string acoustic guitar — the “total Leonard Cohen head,” confirms Udden, who played the intro to “Christmas Song.”

Jazz usually values rhythmic and harmonic complexity. On Torch Songs, Udden says he tried to write simple, “half-notey” melodies with tricky harmonies. For Plainville, he tried to write trickier, “eighth-notey” melodies over simpler harmonies. And he turned to verse-chorus pop and folk forms rather than through-composed jazz-like forms. “Curbs,” he says, combines the beat of the Pixies’ “UMass” with a bouncing melody he mimicked from folkie Joanna Newsom’s “Bridges and Balloons.” “I usually don’t tell the band what it is or what I’m trying to do, so it takes on a life of its own.” The other problem, he says, was “deciding what was going to make this interesting and hold together as an instrumental tune without lyrics.”

As for rhythm, Udden says that drummer RJ Miller “is very much a jazz drummer, but in this group he really approaches it like a rock drummer,” sticking with an assigned role for a given piece. “So many jazz drummers just don’t have that restraint. I didn’t even notice until we mixed ‘Plainville’ that RJ plays brushes on snare the whole tune. He never plays another drum on the whole track.” With less give-and-take between soloist and rhythm section, “you have to get inspiration from someplace else.”

To hear Udden tell it, he became a jazz musician almost by accident. He laughs about being excited when he heard a kid play “The Pink Panther” in third or fourth grade (“I still dig Mancini”), and then when he heard a visiting band with saxophonist David Pope on tenor. “He was wearing these cool suspenders, and he took a solo and was leaning way back, riffing on tenor sax, and it was the coolest thing I ever saw.” Still, Udden was an indifferent player until his sister joined the marching band — “so I joined the marching band.” This was at Wrentham’s King Philip Regional High School, which is known for its music program. Udden was rehearsing three hours a day, four days a week, “and the horn was in my mouth that much time. So I got enough technique to get into the jazz band.” Another turning point came after the band had performed and his father said to him, “It would be a real shame if you didn’t do something with this.”

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