UVM music grad succeeds at next level

Alex Toth is a growing local legend. Since coming to Burlington four years ago, he has had the opportunity to play his trumpet and share musical philosophies with such acts as Napoleon Brockhardt, Todd Johnson of the band Salem, Ike Willis, and most recently, Ithaca reggae group, John Brown’s Body, which is set to hit the Higher Ground stage Wednesday on an east coast tour to support their latest album, “Pressure Points.” In spite of such astonishing musical credentials, Toth’s demeanor is really quite unassuming. While talking with him about his different roles in his many projects and listening to him tell me of “ecstatic experiences” inside local clubs, or swapping riffs with Wynton Marsalis, Toth exudes a passion for music that is refreshingly authentic. Earlier this week I had the privilege of sitting and smoking a few cigarettes with him, and talking about music, self-management, and the upcoming JBB show at Higher Ground. With an average of four gigs per week-sometimes with as many different bands-Toth’ss passion for his music seems to stem from spontaneity and experimentation in an effort to continually improve. “My appreciation of all the music I play is very much heightened when I play different genres,” says Toth. And he plays many different genres: From the local funk band Soulvation Army to the Caribbean jams of Seven Days’ Jazz Album of the Year winners Guagua, the progressive rock act Swale, and most recently with John Brown’s Body, he keeps his style refined. But The Lazybirds, Toth’s jazz group, is his true infatuation. It’s with the Lazybirds that all his styles coalesce into one pure musical expression. “With the Lazybirds, Kal (Annakalmia Traver, his sax and flute player, occasional singer, and girlfriend) and I have the most freedom to do whatever we want and we do whatever we want,” Toth says. The Lazybirds are composed of five, sometimes six members. Toth and Kal (who will be playing trumpet and saxophone, respectively, on Wednesday for JBB) along with Peter “The Doctor” Krag on keys, front one of the tightest acts in town. With Russel Flynn on bass and Danny “Danimal” Ryan a.k.a. “the John Bonham of jazz” on the kit, the rhythm section is the real source of this tightness, giving the melodic instruments more liberty to experiment. Gef Kim is the incredibly talented guitar player for this band, and his jazz style, perhaps most suitable in his primary band, Guagua, is impeccably Caribbean. Toth’s style is a bit more eclectic. Eclectic is one word, but it doesn’t begin to describe his proficiency in each different genre he plays, and more essentially, his understanding of musical composition and the dynamics he uses when he plays. One of his songs, “Loud and Proud,” is a testament to the beauty of minimalism. It starts off with a hip-hop drum and bass beat. When Toth comes in on the trumpet, he gives the entire song a complete funk feel by accentuating the off-beat, eventually riding a crescendo into a brash, muddy trumpet solo reminiscent of Louis Armstrong-a sound he also employs on the Charles Mingus track “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” But a man with Toth’s sound control need not rely on a brash, fuzzy tone to excel on his instrument though it is a talent he boasts on tracks like “Am/Trak,” an Amiri Baraka poem on John Coltrane set to a detached, sometimes disturbing sporadic display of jazz skill and band dynamics. Toth’s varied musical styles reflect various influences. From Lee Morgan, Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, he learned that jazz embodies the essence of musical creativity. “Freddie Hubbard got me into the practice room, he’s just a monster on jazz trumpet,” says Toth. Compositionally speaking though, Toth cites the creativity of Grammy-winning saxophone player Wayne Shorter as having a major impact on his writing. He also credits Alex Stewart, the head of the UVM jazz department from which Toth graduated in spring, as a major source of inspiration. He considers his relationship with Stewart invaluable to his musical success. This success has not come easily, however, and he faults UVM’s jazz program with not having dealt well enough of the business and management aspects for music performance majors-a role that he has had to take on himself. “I could burn out real quickly with non-musical stuff,” Toth says. At least for now Toth is in no danger of burning out from the business aspect of music. His time with John Brown’s Body has left him in awe of their professionalism and stage presence. “This is the first time I’ve been with a band where the bass has literally shaken my skin,” he says. To be sure, JBB puts on a good show, and front men Elliott Martin and Kevin Consello know how to keep the crowd excited with their innovative songwriting and unique reggae approach. Needless to say the UVM graduate will be having a blast Wednesday with JBB at Higher Ground…and for the remaining ten dates on the east coast tour…and when they tour the west coast. Burning out? More like blazing love.