It seems everyone has a favorite "unknown" rock band. You know those groups that float below the mainstream surface, on tiny diy labels, playing basement clubs in midwestern cities, or touring out of a Chevy Astro Van. They're just too good, in the words of Jeff Tweedy, to get signed to a record deal, get a song on the radio, or even get a show. These bands are a constant subject of late-night conversations among hip collegians, with each person trying to seem hipper than the last. But the allure of these loving and telling one's friends about these bands is that there is a glimmer of hope that they could get famous. Like a Death Cab for Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, or Arcade Fire, whose new album just topped the Billboard charts.
It's another thing entirely to talk about unknown jazz musicians. For the most part, all jazz musicians are unknown, just some more unknown than others. So talking about an unknown jazz musician isn't really about creating buzz around friends, but rather acknowledging achievement that has unfortunately gone unnoticed by the limited means of the jazz press-promotion world. Here are a few "unknown" jazz musicians that deserve a little of your consideration.
Jason Rigby - Tenor Sax
Jason Rigby just really looks like a downtown jazz musician. He's got the perfectly unkempt hair, scraggly stubble, and slightly-distant stare. Although he spent a good part of his early life in Ohio, Rigby has more the demeanor of a northern Californian; chill and thoughtful, with an ethereal air. His sound is warm and breathy, descended from his teacher Rich Perry. But while Rigby may be cool in temperament and his sound evokes "cool" saxophonists like Paul Desmond and Warne Marsh, his music is far from relaxing accompaniment to a mid-summer's eve.
Instead, the music on Rigby's two albums, "Translucent Space" from 2005 and "The Sage" from 2009, is uncompromisingly abstract. But before you run away from the music and say "I just don't get it," you hear the warmth and passion of Rigby's playing, and his ability to elicit the same energy from the members of his band. The jagged music is oddly inviting; it's like looking down into the orange spires of Bryce Canyon. And when you accept the invitation into Rigby's soundworld of knotty rhythms and assymetrical melodies, you can't help but want to go back again and catch all the fine edges of his music.
Matt Gallagher – Trumpet
While many great jazz musicians flourish artistically under our noses in the hopping New York scene, others do the same far from West Village clubs and Brooklyn bars. Just a 90-minute trip (without traffic) down I-95 takes one to Philadelphia, home to a smaller, but just as dedicated jazz scene. Philadelphia has been an incubator of jazz masters, from Coltrane and McCoy Tyner to Christian McBride and Kurt Rosenwinkel. Though all these players found success elsewhere, many other fantastic musicians have taken up residence in the city.
One of the Philadelphians that deserves wider recognition is trumpeter Matt Gallagher. Gallagher is a fine bebop-oriented soloist, but is usually entrusted with the flashy-yet-thankless task of leading a big band trumpet section. It’s in this role that Gallagher shines most. He’s got a monster range, impeccable intonation, and a laser-beamed sound. He gives any band he’s in a swingin’ potency that you may have thought died 60 years ago. Be sure to check him out at Chris’ Jazz Club on Samson Street with the Lars Halle Big Band. His double c's can shake the walls.
Ralph Bowen – Tenor Saxophone
It’s almost impossible to find a jazz musician that doesn’t teach in some way. There just aren’t enough tours and club gigs in the genre to make a pure performance career tenable. That being said, there are some players that have devoted significant energies to mentoring young musicians in colleges and conservatories, often at the expense of their own performance careers.
Tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen came to a lot of people’s attention in the 1980s as a member of the young-lion band, Out of the Blue. According to his one-time bandmate, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, Bowen was one of the two or three most advanced saxophonists around, the familiar link between the Branford-Brecker generation and Chris Potter. But beginning in 1990, Bowen took over as chair of the jazz studies department at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Bowen’s commitment to education did not dampen his pursuit of greater playing heights. You can always hear him working on new scale permutations between his lessons at Rutgers, and his solo albums feature compositions that are mathematically complex yet downright funky.
Though Bowen may not get the press of a young lion anymore, his playing is even more confident and advanced, deserving another listen.
Wolfgang Muthspiel - Guitar
Like many other guitarists of his generation, Wolfgang Muthspiel did post-graduate work at the Paul Motian School for Electrified Bebop. But somehow, maybe due to his Austrian home address, this shredder doesn't have the name recognition of his peers (see Rosenwinkel, Kurt and Monder, Ben). And boy, does he shred with the best of them.
Muthspiel's playing is fluid and effortless, but never overly-imposing in its technical prowess. On his best album, a 2007 duo outing with drummer Brian Blade, Muthspiel makes you not miss the bass player, filling the space with labyrinthine lines and layered loops. But what really makes the record special is the intimacy of the two master players and how closely they follow each others' moves. When the pair nail a gut-busting downbeat on the power-chorded "Heavy Song," you can't help but scowl and nod in approval.