It was a typical week for the drummer and composer Luther Gray. On Monday, he played his weekly gig with tenor sax giant Jerry Bergonzi. On Wednesday, it was Lawnmower — with alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs, bassist Winston Braman, and violinist Kaethe Hostetter. Thursday, he convened something billed as simply “The Luther Gray Group,” with violinist Mimi Rabson, cellist Junko Fujiwara, pianist Chris McCarthy, and bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa.
The gigs alternated between the Lilypad and Outpost 186, two small gallery/performance spaces a few blocks away from each other in Cambridge’s Inman Square, and spanned a variety of styles. Bergonzi’s quintet plays evolved, hard-swinging post bop. Lawnmower tends to split the difference between free jazz and rock. The Luther Gray Group played what’s best described as structured free improvisation, working from scores with Gray offering verbal “arrangements” in instructions before each piece. Although that group is ostensibly a jazz band, when Gray suggested “a Morton Feldman kind of thing” for one piece, no further explanation was necessary.
Gray is equally comfortable with jazz swing, free jazz, and punk rock, and he likes to mix them up. So it’s not all that surprising that for Lawnmower he’d enlist Braman — best known around town as a rock bassist, but with broad musical interests. “[For Lawnmower] I want to have rock musicians who improvise like rock musicians, but listen to other kinds of music,” says Gray. “If I start playing a jazz beat, I don’t want the bass player to start to walk, as I would if I were in a different scenario.”
Gray has two new CDs, “Lawnmower II” (the first edition in 2010 featured jazz-affected indie-rock guitarists Geoff Farina and Dan Littleton along with Hobbs), and a trio CD, “Drums and Horns, Horns and Drums,” with Hobbs and saxophonist Allan Chase. And though Chase and Hobbs are jazz players, they were both happy to tear into the Bad Brains’ “We Will Not” on Gray’s album.
It’s not unusual for jazz musicians of Gray’s generation to pull music from the rock and pop world into their universe. But Gray is especially adept at drawing from multiple influences in a single gig and making it part of a unified whole. With Bergonzi, he’s the dream post-bop drummer with his in-the-pocket groove, his beautifully articulated ride-cymbal rhythms, the variety of fills and after-beat exclamations with which he drives a tune from one chorus to the next. But on another gig, he’ll mix those elements up with free excursions in texture and time.
Chase draws comparisons with the avant-garde drummer Andrew Cyrille, who has “an amazing control of sounds on the drums, but underlying everything is a great swing feel and a great time feel.” Another point of comparison is Billy Hart, who can play in a variety of bands “and make them sound good, and make them sound right without giving up his own voice.”
The results are beguiling. On “Lawnmower II,” a piece like “Good Beat” lives up to its name, riding on an easy folkloric vamp laid down by Gray and Braman, whereas “Walk in the Park” could be some lost jazz ballad standard, marked by Hobbs and Hostetter’s dreamy interplay. The trio record has its beboppish moments, as well as pointed free interplay between Hobbs and Chase.
In Gray’s bands, context is everything. About Lawnmower, he says, “It’s not supposed to be a noisy fusion band or an amplified jazz band. It’s mixing worlds together rather than changing them to fit each other. So everything maintains its integrity, but at the same time is recontextualized. Rock bass lines, jazz rhythms, folk melodies arrive at your ears differently, and thus have a different effect.”
Gray came by his polyglot abilities honestly. He grew up in D.C., during the heyday of that city’s vibrant hardcore scene, home to bands like the Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Soulside, and Fugazi. So he played punk rock.
Then he heard the jazz drummer Victor Lewis in concert. “From then on I was one of those crazy jazz guys. What do they call it — the fervor of the newly converted.”
Gray studied music at the University of Miami, where he was deeply influenced by the drummer Steve Bagby, who showed him how to mix free and jazz drumming. Another key influence was the D.C. drummer Mickey Newman. “Mickey had the greatest cymbal beat I’ve ever heard. From studying with him I learned about time — how to feel it, how to express it.” And, though Newman was a swing-jazz drummer, he made another crucial point: If the beat is strong enough, you don’t have to play it. “And that’s where the free thing comes in — the time is still going, but you can do whatever you want.”
But rock never left Gray, and, back in D.C. in the late ’90s, he played both — rock most notably with Jenny Toomey and her band Tsunami, and jazz with the veteran Blue Note-session bassist Butch Warren. Toomey’s “Fall on Me” is on “Drums and Horns, Horns and Drums.”
Gray finds that both indie-rock and jazz share an appealing, non-commercial imperative. “There’s the freedom to use whatever you want. . . . You’re not supposed to do anything other than what you think sounds good.”
Guitarist Garrison Fewell began his career as a straightahead guitarist very much in the Jim Hall tradition. But in the past decade he’s ventured boldly into a variety of contexts for free improvisation. His forthcoming book, “Outside Music, Inside Voices: Dialogues on Improvisation and the Spirit of Creative Music,” explores the theme from both a technical and spiritual standpoint in a series of 25 conversations with the likes of Henry Threadgill, Milford Graves, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Myra Melford, and others. You can see and hear Fewell in action when he joins bassist Jacob William and drummer Curt Newton at Outpost 186 in Cambridge on June 30 . . . . The second annual Driff Records Festival takes place July 18 at the Lilypad in Cambridge. The local indie label will bring together the bands Matchbox and Bolt along with Tony Malaby (in a solo saxophone set), and the Driff Large Ensemble, which will put everyone together, including Malaby, and a few more.Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.