THE LIFE OF THE WORKING ARTIST IS FREQUENTLY BOUND BY CONSTRAINTS: commerce, genre, expectation, and opportunity. The experience is at times antithetical to the artistic impulse, which is defined by a desire to shatter barriers and communicate with immediacy and, at its best, with community-forming intensity.
King for Two Days at the Walker seems a testament to one percussionist's achievements in working out this particular conundrum; over the course of two evenings, drummer Dave King's half-dozen-plus bands and projects will come together in what is presumably intended as a celebration of sound. From the look of it, it also seems a statement about a particular path of artistic freedom.
"Dave is about how much he defies labels," says Walker senior curator of performing arts, Philip Bither. "That's so important to art today, and art programming historically. You can't label him as just a jazz or rock drummer. He integrates experimental music and maverick traditions -- electronic and jazz and rock and other things -- into his compositions and his work with different bands."
While the bulk of King's work can be found filed in the jazz section (for those who still peruse record stores), the bands with which he is involved both embrace the forms of jazz and push against their boundaries. Not that this is so difficult to comprehend: jazz began, of course, with spirited renditions of familiar tunes and then spread into improvisation, exhibitionist musicianship, and an enthusiastically viral ability to borrow and steal from other genres as it saw fit.
The first night of King's residency on the Walker stage comprises a snapshot of where the music is today. Opening is Buffalo Collision, a combo emphasizing improvisation (here's not the place to outline the amount of discipline involved in jazz improv; suffice to say it is very difficult to make such a thing look easy). The Bad Plus and Happy Apple follow, King's two primary bands, followed by The Bad Apple, a combination of the two. It's difficult to summarize the sound of either The Bad Plus or Happy Apple, except perhaps to observe that they share King's drumming, always riding a push-pull teeter-totter between precision, artistry, and an anarchic boyishness seeking the appropriate moment in which to reveal itself. Happy Apple is driven by Michael Lewis on saxophone, and the group's recordings, at times, exhibit the near-telepathic interplay of individuals who have spent more than a decade playing together.
The Bad Plus, with Ethan Iverson on piano and Reid Anderson on bass, in addition to King, are a band that produces exquisite sounds while seeming to continually toy with the expectations of what they are doing. Over the years, they have dipped into the rock songbook to create inventive jazz covers of tunes by artists such as The Police, Pink Floyd, and David Bowie. Whether intentional or not, the move has put them on the radar of listeners whose ears are ready for new takes on classic tunes.
Genre-busting it may be, if one is bound to over-think matters in terms of genre. Labeling music, in its initial impulse, is a way to suggest commonality, a broad sense of recommendation. Jazz has always borrowed tunes, and rockers have always performed covers. King's upcoming weekend, with its bevy of bands, invokes memories of the ever-changing combos of jazz's classic period -- but also a sense of the boundary-bothering era of progressive rock, when a restless tub-pounder like Bill Bruford could end up on great recordings by groups such as Yes and King Crimson. "These are the kinds of artists doing important work these days," adds Bither. "Breaking art forms out of the labels and straightjackets they've been, unfortunately, stuck with."
The second night of King for Two Days (presumably, he will find time to rest at some point between times) presents the debut of new bands: the electronic instrumental outfit Golden Valley is Now, and guitar-sax jazz unit Dave King Trucking Company (a surprise guest band is also on the bill, rumored to feature a bass player from a crucial 1980s Twin Cities rock band). It's usually the case that great players sound better the more they play, so one expects King's live work to approach the euphoric. "Dave is a great live performer, with such a great comedic touch," Bither says. "He has a sense of drama and theatricality. People who think this kind of music is too complex or hard-hitting find watching him really entertaining. He's such a force of nature that he adds dimensions to any live performance he's involved with."
And here's the deeply encouraging sense of dedicating two nights to the bands with which King performs and records: a devotion to fun and play, in addition to musicianship, an unstated manifesto of seeking interesting sounds that please both their creators and those who convene to listen. King has gone on record recollecting memories of watching jazz at the Walker in the 1980s and being massively inspired by the musicians he saw there (including performances by sax player Tim Berne and cellist Hank Roberts, who will play in Buffalo Collision). He's also young enough for this weekend to serve as a springboard rather than a summing up.
"We have a long history with Dave," Bither adds "He grew up kind of cutting his teeth coming to see a whole bunch of cool, avant-garde jazz and rock shows at the Walker. He was inspired by, and educated in part by a lot of major music figures he saw there." And one hopes that some young person, or several, might also buy tickets for King for Two Days and be similarly inspired by the possibilities of the musical, or the artistic life. From one perspective, the obstacles are daunting: making a living, finding a voice, figuring out one's place amid tradition and convention. But from another, following King's example, there are as many possibilities as stumbling blocks. Keeping doors open, making connections, following the sounds that have yet to be made: in this way, anyone passionately devoted to their art can be a new king.
Related performance details:
King for Two Days: A Dave King Celebration will be at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis March 12 & 13, and will feature performances from Buffalo Collision, The Bad Plus, Happy Apple, The Bad Apple, Golden Valley Is Now, and Dave King Trucking Company. In addition, Dave King will join James Everest on stage for a free evening of music and conversation on Thursday, March 11, as part of the Making Music series co-presented by the Walker, mnartists.org, and The Whole Music Club.
About the author: Quinton Skinner is the author of the novels 14 Degrees Below Zero and Amnesia Nights, as well as non-fiction books on music and parenting. He has written extensively on Twin Cities theater in local and national publications. He lives in Minneapolis.