Jazz Student’s Recital Takes Sound And Runs With It

As I walk into the Radio Bean on the edge of downtown Burlington, Alex Toth, a senior and jazz-concentrated music major here at UVM, raises a “hold on one second” finger while the other hand grasps his trumpet. Toth and this particular ensemble, intimately crunched together in the corner of the barroom, are a last-minute assembly to fill a gig and have never before played together. Still, the notes of each instrument lace together a perfectly loose knot of free form jazz. Nothing is written here except the vocals, sung by Toth’s girlfriend, Annakalmia “Kal” Traver, and the rest of the sound is simply an improvised conversation between horn, string, percussion, and voice. Toth would tell you that is a lot of what the jazz tradition is about-being untraditional. “There’s all kinds of things that are called tradition,” he explains. “Tying your shoes, getting potty trained…there’s a way that you’re taught things. I’m not just pulling [music] out of the air, there’s a jazz tradition man, an approach.” One of Toth’s approaches, he says, is improvisation, and Toth exhibited this in his senior recital last Sunday. Anyone who attended was probably impressed with his creative approach to the music major’s equivalent of a senior thesis. As he walked onto the stage he looked a little nervous, but any discernable uneasiness on his face vanished when he bussed the trumpet’s mouthpiece and, head to the sky, squeezed out a soft crooning tone which turned out to be the calm before the storm-actually, more like a tempest. Onstage with Toth were pianist Peter Krag, alto saxophonist and vocalist Kal Traver, Dan Ryan on drums and John Rogone plucking the upright bass. All are members of UVM’s young jazz department but they also make up Toth’s major project, Alex Toth and the Lazybirds who are releasing their debut album this month. Towards the end of their first piece, an original called “Birdhhead,” I thought my head was playing tricks on me when, out of the blue, the quintet began to whistle over the piano and percussion-yes, as in bluebirds welcoming the arrival of spring, which is still months away here in Burlington. “I was going to go out in nature or on the internet and transcribe bird calls,” Toth recounts. The only problem with nature right now is that it’s cold and there aren’t any birds.” Even without real birds the audience got a taste of spring, because the collage of sounds resonated an attractive celestial hum (especially when the audience joined in) which would become a precursor to the surprises on the way. Toth’s decision to implement such things so fascinatingly out of the ordinary is perhaps why it was so effective in purveying the jazz tradition. The rest of the recital was dotted with similar sensational piquancy. There was the five-horn saxophone section (originally a ten-horn operation) that crept in from behind the audience, conversing via reed as they swaggered down the aisles and met on stage. There was Toth’s spoken word poetry, performed with impressive energy and salted (not saturated) with obscenities (this recital was the first ever to have a parental advisory) that beckoned the sax section to scream. And they did. The woodwinds screamed, as did Toth, random piercing notes in what sounded like an on-stage melee, every man for himself. “It definitely stretched the boundaries of what a music recital can be,” admits Toth. “I’m always pushing limits and music is a great medium for doing that. Hopefully what I’m doing is going to reach people; what I’m doing is going to tickle people. It’s going to play with them. It’s going to piss them off or make them happy.” There was one thing Toth did on stage that pushed the limits, but perplexed me at the time. During one of his songs, he dropped his trumpet mute on the ground and it made a metallic “ting” sound. He then dropped it a few more times in a dice-rolling motion with varying tonal results. Toth is vexed himself when he tries to explain it. “It’s hard for me to talk too specifically about this stuff. It’s like, we’re in a conversation now, but you might see something out the window that all of a sudden changes your stream of thought, and you go on a new stream. You haven’t lost your thoughts; you’re just on a new stream.” Toth calls it focused improvisation. He originally dropped the mute by accident but, in the moment, decided that it worked well and made a conscious decision to do it again. “Some of the best ideas are mistakes,” says Toth, echoing Miles Davis. “I feel like that’s how new things are born.” Toth’s recital was a success in such respects. His tunes even seemed to go beyond jazz in that they created a certain ambiance in the room. It’s this kind of unconventional creativity that Toth says he tries to bring to every aspect of his life. “I don’t even think of myself always as a musician…I don’t even like, often think about the word ‘jazz’ as a specific thing. It’s really just sound.” Perhaps the only way to aptly describe Toth’s eclectic music styling is by calling it creative.********************* Being the classy human being that he is, Alex Toth buys a pitcher of Pabst at the bar and honors me with the mug while he sips from the oversized jug. “I got us your favorite beer,” he jokes. Such instances as these-leisurely enjoying a drink while people-watching on Winooski Avenue-were rare for Alex once he began to identify himself not just as a musician, but a trumpet player, because that’s when jazz more or less took over his life. No longer the fourth-grader who joined the band for a free trip to Six Flags, he began to get enthusiastically serious about his brass. He became passionately involved, and says he was driven by feelings of inadequacy. One gets the feeling though, that Toth defines inadequacy as anything short of perfection. Sipping his brew, he recounts nights when his friend’s would make failed attempts at peeling him away from practice to go out and have fun. The problem was he was having fun already. And, although a very social person, Toth says he would make himself practice for several hours before hitting the town. “It’s almost tearfully painful,” says Toth of his craving for excellence. “But it’s mixed up with a ton of fire.” Whatever his practice techniques, they worked. Alex Toth is busy. Aside from his Lazybirds’ debut album, Vermont Sky Session, he plays with multiple bands of various genres, including Guagua, and Soulvation Army, but has experience with a surfeit of other musicians. His performances around town over the past three and a half years have ingrained Alex in the Burlington music scene, but he is far from static. It is his diverse talents and goals that allow him the ability to float around the music scene like a free-agent in Major League Baseball. Other musicians from the jazz department seem to act as interchangeable parts too, and Toth says this is the beauty of the music scene right now in Burlington. “I think there’s this kind of renaissance going on right now in Burlington. We all share band members and push each other so much, that’s like, what’s great about the music community here.” These band members have been coming more and more from the jazz department despite its infancy, and Toth, who came here as an undecided psychology major, gives credit where credit is due. He cannot say enough about Dr. Alexander Stewart, the head of the jazz department at UVM, and says that without him he might not even be at school here. “I give Stewart a lot of props. He’s a great player, he’s a great person, and he does things he doesn’t have to do. He really reinforced jazz for me. This program really gets the jazz tradition across.” Perhaps the most tangible sign of his success though is Alex Toth and the Lazybirds’ debut album, Vermont Sky Session, about which Toth is anxious with excitement, scheduled to come out by March 15. “It’s my baby,” says Toth proudly. He is admittedly still learning the business side of music, on which he plans to sustain himself, and is impressed by the professional sound quality of the album, hinting that although he is successful local musician, he is still a learning disciple of the untraditional jazz tradition.