Instrumental music is a hard sell. Harder now than ever, it seems, what with hipsters feeding on the carcasses of Peter Bjorn and John and bushing out their beards in anticipation of a new Mumford and Sons release.
Unless you know where to look, music — even “independent” music — has become gray flatland of drabness.
In the 1970s, when progressive rock, jazz-fusion and soundtrack music were on the rise, there was suddenly a vast canvas on which bands could paint. Yes, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pink Floyd, Gong, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, ELP and, of course, Frank Zappa’s Mothers were among many groups that enjoyed long stretches of instrumental experimentation for an audience willing to expand their horizons — or, at the very least, ingest a handful of hallucinogens and go along for the ride.
By the late ’70s, though, squashed by disco and then new wave, attention spans had shortened, and instrumental music was relegated to the fringe.
Attempts to revive instrumental music in the popular realm quickly collapsed — the math-rock movement of the ’90s and the current but hopeless surge in prog-metal bands being the most visible examples. Still, musicians — real musicians, those who spend their lives learning their craft, honing their technique, shredding for countless hours hoping to compose and immaculately execute complex passages and dense orchestrations — are an irrepressible bunch.
They will find a way to play.
Most of the “real” musicians I know play in cover bands, making a living or supplementing their incomes while maintaining some connection with instrumental music. There’s zero money in it. Hell, even the most popular jam bands pad their tunes with lame-ass sing-along choruses. But there are an intrepid few that still try, bless their little hearts.
Case in point: Tambor.
The Jacksonville sextet is reminiscent of early Tortoise, heavy on the vibes and Rhodes keyboard, with attention paid to the layering on of chordal and rhythmic figures. Schooled musicians all, the boys in Tambor create landscapes in which listeners may roam, if they so choose. It’s the kind of music that can be challenging if you want it to be, or it can simply wash away into a cascade of melodies. It depends on your perspective.
Guitarist/percussionist and co-composer Chris Jackson, a multi-instrumentalist whom I occasionally join in another instrumental band, Tropic of Cancer, says finding an audience for this kind of stuff can be a pain in the ass. Well, he puts it this way: “The challenge is writing music that is engaging enough to retain the listener’s attention without the use of lyrics. This can be especially difficult to pull off in a city where classical and jazz often go under-appreciated.”
Citing minimalist composers Steve Reich and David Lang as influences, along with a host of jazz, Latin and African, and prog-rock artists, Jackson says that while he and fellow guitarist Ivan Skenes are the chief songwriters, Tambor is a collaborative effort. They all have a say in the final arrangement.
With six members (Jackson, Skenes, Josh Wessolowski on drums, Eric Riehm on sax and keys, Evan Peterson on bass and Sean Hendrix on vibraphone), Tambor isn’t exactly printing sawbucks. But that’s not a concern. “This group, since the beginning, has been completely focused on writing and playing music that we like to play,” says Jackson. “We’ve barely made a cent as of yet. Many of us gig on the side or have day jobs to supplement our income, allowing us to express the pure joy of music without being concerned about a paycheck.”
Bless their little hearts.
If you’ve a mind for adventure, Tambor plays on Friday, April 11, at Rain Dogs in 5 Points and on Sunday, April 13, at Underbelly during One Spark. The band is in the process of recording a nine-song album, due out this summer.