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Bad Touch's Magic flow; plus Patricia Barber
By JON GARELICK  |  February 27, 2009

NO ATMS Bad Touch are one for all and all for one.

WFNX Jazz Brunch Top Five
1 The Bad Plus, For All I Care [Heads Up]
2 Marco Benevento, Me Not Me [Royal Potato Family]
3 Southside Johnny, Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits [Redeye]
4 Joe Zawinul, 75 [Heads Up]
5 Dave Fiuczynski, KiF Express [Fuzelicious Moresels]

It's standard operating procedure these days for young jazz bands to mix the free and the formal — passages of open improv alternating with predetermined keys, meters, and chord changes. In that sense, New York band Bad Touch — who come to the Regattabar this Tuesday — are typical. But Bad Touch are really good at it. Their success is in part due to the mix of personalities. Like the local quartet Gypsy Schaefer, the English post-bop band Empirical, or, for that matter, the old Modern Jazz Quartet, they're a collective. In Bad Touch's case, that means everyone is welcome to contribute compositions, and there is no nominal leader. It also means that this isn't a star soloist working with a backing band.

"The general mentality in New York is: where can I get work, and how can I work?" says alto-saxophonist Loren Stillman over the phone from Brooklyn. "There's no real bands or entities in New York that last. And I think there was a difference in the attitude with these guys: 'We love this, and yes, we do a lot of gigs we don't like doing, but this happens to be one we all feel strongly about.' So we pool our resources and nobody has to walk to the ATM machine at the end of the night" to make up for a weak club paydate.

In fact, the band began as Stillman's project about four years ago. In his mid 20s, with a growing résumé that included stints with Dave Liebman and John Abercrombie, he began writing for organ, bass, drums, and guitar, and eventually he settled in with guitarist Nate Radley, organist Gary Versace, and drummer Ted Poor. It was the first time — even as a leader — that Stillman, now 28, found himself working with a band of people roughly his age.

And in their æsthetics, the bandmembers all come from that tight-and-loose mentality. Four of the six pieces on their debut, Like a Magic Kiss, are by Stillman, two by Poor. But all share a sense of four-way push and pull, as though any player could take a piece in a new direction at any moment. That said, Poor's pieces — "Bad Touch" and "Wade" — tend, after preliminary airiness, to the gravity of hard grooves. Stillman's — like "Man of Mystery" — hang on his light, lyrical alto melodies, the accompanying chords and rhythms from organ, guitar, and drums moving in contrary motion, accelerating and decelerating, then everyone unpredictably falling into a cadence together. Stillman's title track opens with a rubato-melody "Prelude" before shifting into meter for the tune proper. As in a lot of jazz these days, there's a destination in mind, some clear signposts, even if no one is sure how they're all going to get there. And it doesn't hurt that smack in the middle of the CD is "Wade," which begins with a two-string guitar vamp and builds to a rock-band-like rave-up of swirling organ lines and driving rhythms.

Stillman likens the band's interactive voicings to a string quartet or chamber ensemble — background and foreground often shifting. And he names as ideals of ensemble give-and-take the bands of Paul Motian (with whom he's begun to work), the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, and Bob Brookmeyer's duos with Jim Hall.

His first heavy indoctrination in jazz practice came in one of Dave Liebman's summer workshops — marathon day-long sessions "where he talked about everything from the physical aspects of playing the instrument" to "anything you could think of that had to do with saxophone playing and improvisation and composition." He credits Liebman with opening him to "a world of new harmonic choices." There were discourses on how to get beyond standard chord progressions, how to work in multiple simultaneous tonal centers, or with bass lines moving independently of the chord progressions. Liebman also introduced Stillman to "non-traditional" jazz devices from the canon of 20th-century classical music and guided him in developing a personal sound palette — not just a tone on the instrument, but a repertoire of the devices and techniques that best suited him. Eventually, Liebman hired Stillman to work in his bands.

Meanwhile, Stillman has forged a relationship with legendary alto-saxophonist Lee Konitz, first with a formal lesson and after that with occasional jam sessions in Konitz's apartment. With Konitz, there is more of a nuts-and-bolts emphasis on harmony — playing pieces in different keys, raising them, say, a third or a half-step. "It's actually pretty hard to do," says Stillman, "and Lee does it effortlessly."

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Related: Inside out, Group efforts, Modern vintage, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Entertainment, Music, Patricia Barber,  More more >
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