Knowing I’m a jazz fan, people unfamiliar with the genre sometimes ask me to recommend a recording. I never really know what to say. Is there single recording that could act as a key to unlocking the jazz language? Probably not, but I’d make some obvious suggestions — Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue.” John Coltrane. Sonny Rollins. But if it was a Boston friend, I’d take them to see the Fringe. For even though I’d been listening to jazz for a few years when I discovered them, the Fringe were the real beginning of my own jazz education. And at the center of that education was the Fringe’s great drummer, Bob Gullotti.
Gullotti, who died at age 70 on Jan. 25, founded the Fringe with Berklee College of Music classmates George Garzone and Richard Appleman in 1971. In 1985, bassist Appleman left the band and was replaced by John Lockwood. Over the course of nearly 50 years, the Fringe became a Boston institution, playing a series of Monday night residencies — first at Michael’s Pub on Gainsborough Street near New England Conservatory, then at the Willow in Somerville, then, in Cambridge, at the Lizard Lounge and, currently, the Lilypad.
Over that time each of the Fringe’s players emerged as an acknowledged master — playing variously as leaders and sideman, as revered teachers (one of Gullotti’s more noteworthy later gigs was with Phish). But the Fringe was something special — the one constant.
They were known as Boston’s quintessential avant-garde trio, but they played with their own concept of “free.” They eventually abandoned the original tunes and covers of their early years, opting for spontaneous improvisations, with a quoted phrase or standard ballad passage occasionally floating through. But strong grooves and swing were always at the core of that free pulse.
In fact, it was hearing and watching the band create that “swing” that was so transformative for me. There was nothing more thrilling than watching Gullotti and Lockwood push the beat — a high-velocity “walk” of frenzied four-to-the-bar bass and Gullotti’s fiercely articulated dotted rhythms on the ride cymbal with snare and bass drum accents, Garzone’s tenor beginning in eighth-note strolls and accelerating into a blur.
Gullotti had studied with the great Boston post-bop master Alan Dawson, who emphasized fundamentals, so that no matter how free Gullotti’s playing became, the layers of complex patterns and timbres, the sheer control of phrasing and dynamics, was always evident. His free across-the-kit explosions always emerged from those patterns, making them all the more thrilling, especially when he, Garzone, and Lockwood reached and sustained a crescendo, bass and drums the tidal surge, tenor sax the headwind squall, each player’s independent pattern locked in as part of some other, fourth sound — the totality of the music itself.
Gullotti’s work ethic (he practiced relentlessly, and his assignments for students were known to be heavy with “material”) was perhaps a key part of why the Fringe’s music, though free, never sounded random. “He was one of the hardest workers I can think of,” said drummer Luther Gray, who, as part of Jerry Bergonzi’s band for the better part of a decade, played the Lilypad every Monday night before the Fringe. “That’s how he was able to have such control and be so confident all the time. Either consciously or unconsciously, everything was deliberate.”
Gray particularly savored Gullotti’s control of dynamics, the gradations of loud and soft, crescendo and decrescendo. “It could be the dynamics of a single phrase, or the larger form of dynamics in how a piece is organized, the peaks and valleys — not just him individually, but how he worked within the band, and how they responded.” He was, Gray said, one of the few drummers he’s known (Billy Hart is another) who can create a phrase with single crash cymbal hit, combining anticipation and surprise.
“[He] combined ironclad technical prowess with an apparently inexhaustible imagination,” wrote Nate Chinen in an obituary on the site of WBGO FM jazz radio.
The Monday night after Gullotti’s death, Garzone and Lockwood played a memorial performance at the Lilypad, and by the time of the Fringe’s usual starting time, the tiny gallery-performance space was packed, with seats pushed aside and a crowd several deep on the sidewalk. Garzone rambled humorously for a good 30 minutes talking about the band’s formation, about early inspirations like Pharoah Sanders and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and about how the band discovered their “free” voice during a performance of Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa.”
Then Garzone and Lockwood began to play — smoothly flowing eighth-note patterns of swing and counterpoint, free phrasing that whispered and moaned or strode with forthright confidence. The audience — a diverse mix of musicians and fans, graybeard veterans and young students with saxophone cases — whooped with delight at sweetly navigated cadences, laughed when a phrase from an Ornette Coleman tune entered the conversation.
Garzone had said the band was entering “a new era.” Before offering a final ballad, he told the crowd he could hear “the big guy” talking to him throughout the set — “Don’t play so many [expletive] notes! Take the horn out of your mouth!” But most of all, he said, he heard Gullotti telling him, “Keep going! Don’t stop!”