The Bottesini Project band leader, Paul Riola.
The Bottesini Project band leader, Paul Riola.
If you go
What: The Bottesini Project
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Absolute Vinyl Records and Stereo, 5360 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, 303-955-1519
Cost: free
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The Bottesini Project wants its music to sound like Kurt Vonnegut.

Yes, the novelist.

“He's so good with repetition and variation and always a sense of humor, however dark,” said drummer Jay Ellis, who is also a professor in the CU Program for Writing and Rhetoric. “I do like his structure and his space breaks and that is always a tricky thing when you're playing spontaneous composition essentially - when to move to something else, when to stop doing what you're doing.”

What's impressive is that Ellis doesn't seem to have thought about this before he said it. He just started riffing off what saxophonist and band leader Paul Riola, who's mentioned the writer as an influence in the past, had to say.

“When I first turned on to Kurt Vonnegut I had just started listening to jazz, and a lot f his language flows very much in the same way that jazz flows,” Ellis, the band leader and saxophonist, said.

This riffing, and this in-sync way of thinking, if exactly what The Bottesini Project is about.

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It started in 2006 with Riola and an ever-changing roster of musicians. The idea was that he could bring in different personalities and instruments to create the specific sound he wanted for a performance, something he calls a “programmatic approach to free improvising.” That means, for example, he might bring in a violinist and accordionist to get an Eastern European sound.

“In the past, when I had the revolving line up...what I was hoping to explore was a broader palette,” Riola said.
Ashley Dean
Ashley Dean
“Within more academic circles of music study, the term actually is idiomatic. I prefer the term programmatic.”

About a year and a half ago, The Bottesini Project roster solidified, altering its sound. Ellis and Riola were joined by Danny Meyer on tenor sax, Kim Stone on bass, and Glen Whitehead on trumpet. “Linguistically speaking, the music is going to be coming out of the late ‘60s avant-guard freak jazz music,” Riola said.

“You know, the whole Ornette Coleman thing, because that's naturally there with the instrumentation. We're pretty swinging.”

But the goal remains the same. The Bottesini Project wants improvisation to sound like written, rehearsed music.

“If the audience thinks that they're listening to composed music, then we're doing our job the correct way,” Riola said. “And I know that runs counter to what the idea of improvised music is.”

It's not an easy task, and Riola said the trick is “the group empathy and the group language.” It's especially important that the rhythm section be mentally in-sync, and Ellis and Stone often hang out and play by themselves.

“It's really important for me as a band leader that everyone has that relationship, but most importantly that the bass player and drum player have a hook up,” Riola said. “Everything else follows.”

Just as important is the fact that the musicians in The Bottesini Project play smart. They're working with more than just being proficient on their instruments. They know their music theory and history.

“When people ask me what kind of music I play, an easy shorthand for me being a drummer [is to say] I'm not always going ding ding dinga ding constantly, or I don't always have to have that high hat on,” Ellis said.

That's his description for the average listener. For music people, he says he's got his “left foot in bebop and right foot in avant-guard jazz.”

Whatever The Bottesini Project is doing with their feet or instruments, they're nailing it, and something a friend once told Riola sums it up nicely:

“You do compose, you're just composing with people.”