by Casey Dolan
The four-headed musical beast from New York, Rudder, played at the Baked Potato last night and will also play tonight. It’s safe to say that everyone’s spud was truly cooked as Rudder burned rubber, playing cuts from last year’s debut album and offering tantalizing examples from the upcoming one due to be completed by year’s end.
The quartet of Chris Cheek on tenor sax, Henry Hey on keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on bass and Keith Carlock on drums travel a well-trod musical path, perhaps one of the codified musical genres of all — the so-called evil ’70s creation of jazz funk, or jazz rock, or fusion (choose your poison). The progeny of the genius of Miles Davis and Tony Williams Lifetime ultimately made the genre stale and redundant, but, as with Medeski Martin and Wood who have surveyed similar terrain, Rudder has incorporated so many other influences as to make their music entirely their own. Cross-pollination and synthesis, once again, are proving to be fertile ground for innovation and improvisation.
This weekend’s two-night stand is Rudder’s second appearance in Los Angeles in a year and a different experience from the first. Last January, drummer Keith Carlock was the focus, astounding the crowd with his muscular swampy style and looking like an electrified muppet, arms moving so quickly that he was the recreation of the many-limbed god, Siva.
Carlock, the winner of the 2008 Modern Drummer Readers Poll, is such a fine drummer that he can handle all manners of tempi and dynamics and this was demonstrated more fully at this second showing of Rudder. Not quite so immersed in the 4/4 ashcan swamp school as before, Carlock covered the full range of dynamics, from tinkling the cymbals in creative moody pianissimo intros to the massive neanderthal wallop that he conjures out of a relatively small Yamaha kick. Indeed, after hearing what Carlock can do with such a small kit, one wonders why Terry Bozzio (among so many others) needs his ten gazillion drums? When Carlock really gets going, it is simply impossible for people in the audience not to shout out loud in their enthusiasm.
Carlock is still the crowd magnet, but it was the dimunitive Hey, coaxing every manner of sci-fi sound out of his keyboards (some would be appropriate for films shown on “Mystery Science Theater 3000“) and the most dead-on replicas of Hammond B4s and Fender Rhodes, who truly captivated the audience on Saturday night. His solo on the new tune, “Hip-Hop Harmonizer,” was inspired, not to mention that he twiddled knobs while, at the same time, running interference on a drunk attempting to confront Lefebvre mid-set. Very impressive. The sounds may have been glacial and spatial, but Hey managed to always return to the steamy funk, breaking up his quite lovely cluster comps with sparkling post-bop solos. Hey deserves greater notice as a keyboardist and it is clear that if there is any director in this democratic group, he is it.
Tenor sax player Chris Cheek has a reedy sound (moreso live than on record where there is a more rounded tone), but he colors it with all manners of effects including a wah-wah and delays. He’s the melodic center of Rudder (carrying such tunes as “Stablemaster”), sometimes almost romantically so, but one wishes he was even more adventurous and less willing to settle for what could almost be described as smooth jazz lines or the comfortable padding behind Hey or Carlock’s acrobatics. If Carlock occasionally dominates too forcefully, Cheek underplays. I frankly wanted to hear more Chris Cheek solos. He’s got as sterling a pedigree as anyone else in the band, having played with Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, and Bill Frisell. Every so often, he gave us glimpses of what he is capable of — crazy, fast modal lines a la Eric Dolphy or even a Ravi Coltrane. On a tune like “Stablemaster,” with its “uptown” head, you almost wish for some screeching in the solos. But it is also Cheek’s compositions which reveal the greatest rock influences, “SK8” and “Squarefoot” particularly, and that is a good thing, and, on the Rudder record, he is given the opportunity to overdub and create mini sections.
The new material did promise a hairier side of the band (although there were quiet moments as well and one of the most affecting moments of the evening was Hey’s ballad “Laurito” from the debut album). Much of that hairiness is attributable to bassist Tim Lefebvre, who stands nearly alone among contemporary bassists as a compositional colorist. He’s there one moment, locked in with Carlock, absent the next while exploring the instrument’s upper registers (I haven’t seen a bass player play up the neck quite so much), utilizing a low pass filter and, seemingly, automatic volume swell, delays, maybe even backwards effects. In short, he’s not only holding down the bottom end, he’s entertaining as well. And when a deep groove is required, he is providing it.
That is precisely what is at the core of Rudder’s live show. They obviously get a big kick out of playing with each other and no set lacks surprises for all of them. There were some mixed signals on the ending of one of the new tunes, but that was all in the spirit of the show. If Rudder could find the right coordinates, as the aforementioned Medeski Martin and Wood have done by touring with a band appealing to the “jamband” audience crowd or playing at such festivals, their course could be successfully plotted.
The band’s label, Nineteen-Eight Records, is offering three bonus tracks as downloads on their website. However, it will cost you $4. The snippets that are streamed are very brief.