Straddling Jazz

The Golden Arm Trio



photograph by John Carrico

Though their sound has itsfoundations in the left-leaning outskirts of jazz, an apt description of the Golden Arm Trio's music is easier if you think in terms of approach rather than genre. For pianist/percussionist Graham Reynolds, the only constant in this ever-evolving Austin endeavor, the creative journey of improvisation comes in far ahead of commitment to a form. "Our improvisations really are free," explains Reynolds. "In a standard jazz group, you solo over the chord structure, so when you get to the improvisation, everyone but the soloist knows what he's going to do. They're going to react to the soloist and build, and have a certain degree of freedom, but they're working on a chord progression. When we get to the improv, sometimes we have a starting point, but more often than not, you get the improv, period, and whatever comes next. That leads to a lot of surprises."

The Golden Arm Trio's eponymous debut on Shamrock/Jinx is full of surprises. Culled from hours and hours of improvisation recorded over three months, the album takes listeners on a 60-minute wild ride through emotive composition, sparse funk, destructive cacophony, and playful bursts of experimentation. Live, the "trio" may be Reynolds playing solo, or it may be a full band featuring up to six musicians. If a unifying theme exists to the Trio's constantly shifting line-up and sound, it's the lack thereof.

"I sort of see that as a generational thing or an information age-type thing where we're bombarded with music from everywhere," says Reynolds. "We can hear music from everywhere, but despite that, people insist on playing these narrow genres. And it's very closed. It's sort of a process of self-denial. Everybody's heard all these other things and they've got it in them, but when they form a specific band, they won't allow that in. People don't have nearly the range or broadness of palate that they could."

Reynolds operates in direct contrast to that mentality. In fact, the rollercoaster intensity of his performances might even convince you he's at war. When playing piano, Reynolds often prepares the strings with objects, turning the strings into a de facto percussive instrument by hitting them with mallets. Other instruments in the Trio's percussion arsenal include two empty steel barrels that used to house some noxious chemical. Reynolds plays all over these barrels with a concentrated fury that belies his quiet, soft-spoken demeanor. This is definitely not the work of a man who wants to make a living playing jazz brunches.

Although Reynolds derives musical inspiration from disparate sources like Sergei Prokofiev, Fred Frith, and Prince, he's also influenced by the visual art of Robert Rauschenberg and Fluxus performance pieces by Yoko Ono.

"Art plays a big role in how I think about music," he says. "The thinking is that just about any of the arts can cross over if you boil it down to fundamental ideas."

To this end, Reynolds has collaborated on a number of performance art projects involving dance, puppetry, film, and even comedy. The Trio is currently working with a number of local filmmakers and the Cinemaker Co-Op to produce films for all 26 tracks on the new CD.

"I really enjoy doing music as a collaboration at these different performance art shows," says Reynolds. "It's a totally different outlet with totally different circles of people."

Within the local music scene, the Golden Arm Trio's niche is a unique straddling of the jazz and underground rock subcultures.

"When we're categorized, we're generally categorized in some sort of jazz category, but places like Emo's have definitely been more welcoming," says Reynolds.

So, why haven't proponents of a music so deeply steeped in improvisation been as quick to accept the Trio? For his part, Reynolds finds the Austin jazz scene to be fairly conservative when it comes to new directions.

"There are a lot of people, even people in jazz history courses, who consider jazz to have sort of died with Bitches Brew," says Reynolds. "A lot of those people play as if that's the case, which is fine, but it's conservative."

Flying in the face of convention is nothing new for Reynolds. He began taking piano lessons at 5 and quickly developed a resistance to rigid structures in favor of improvisation.

"My piano instructor in high school was very loose in that he went with our direction rather than some preset agenda he had," Reynolds recalls. "He taught us basic things, but if he saw a lack of interest in something, he didn't insist on it.

"I had problems with the academic structure in college because they felt you needed to learn certain things before you could learn other things, which is not an approach that works well for me."

The ongoing challenge of the Golden Arm Trio is to put chops in the service of unbridled free expression rather than money shot solos.

"Not that I'm against discipline, or practice, or study, or training, but it's important to keep a balance and develop your own form of expression at the same time," he says. "If you're not making sure your voice is staying alive the entire time, by the time you try to rediscover it, it's probably too late."


The Golden Arm Trio plays Emo's tonight, Thursday, and follows Steve Lacy's 10pm set at the Continental Club next Thursday, June 18.

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