It's been known around town for years: If you want a saxophonist schooled in hard bop for your gig, you need to call Kelly Bucheger.
This is not to imply that Bucheger, who moved here from Minneapolis in 1993, is limited to the late-1950s offshoot of bebop given to emphasizing rhythms other than straight swing. In fact, the guy seems at home doing just about anything jazz-related, whether that involves teaching at Canisius College, offering young players an opportunity to cut their teeth in real-time on Buffalo bandstands, running his own renowned blog, "Harder Bop," playing as a sideman to jazz luminaries like James Carter and John Zorn, or leading his band, What Would Mingus Do? through his own beautifully eclectic but memorable compositions.
For the past five years, Bucheger has been leading WWMD? through buzzed-about weekend sets in The Backroom @ Allen St. Hardware, where's he helped create a vibrant, youth-skewed jazz scene in the Allentown neighborhood, one that has now expanded around the corner from Hardware, to Pausa Art House.
On Dec. 2 and 3, Bucheger and WWMD? will break their own "all originals" tradition for a worthy reason - they'll take part in a program dubbed "Tidings of Comfort & Jazz" at the Kenan Center Taylor Theater (433 Locust St., Lockport) for which the band will offer its own interpretations of holiday-themed classics.
I caught up with Bucheger over the Thanksgiving holiday and he brought me up to speed on WWMD?, the expanding Buffalo jazz scene, and why jazz refuses to die.
Question: What Would Mingus Do? is a bit of a rarity on the local scene, in that the band plays all of its own compositions. How much of a challenge is it to get area audiences to open themselves up to present-day jazz compositions, rather than interpretations of tunes that everyone already knows?
Answer: It’s definitely a challenge — but only because folks don’t know what to expect. In my writing for WWMD?, I try to respect the “values” of standards, if that makes any sense. I try to write relatable, memorable melodies, following familiar song forms: stuff that you might actually think is a standard, just one you somehow missed. I’ve also really studied and learned from the hard bop movement in jazz in the late 1950s and into the ’60s, when jazz players were writing funky blues-inflected tunes with catchy melodic hooks — jazz originals that even “civilians” could just dig. I keep all that in mind while composing.
One other way I think WWMD? connects with audiences is that we bring a ton of energy to the bandstand, specifically because we’re not “just playing standards.” Because the material is also new to us, we can’t go on auto pilot with this stuff. We’ve really got to stay on our toes, and I think folks dig that vibe.
Q: The band’s namesake is obviously one of the truly great – and truly iconoclastic – composers in jazz history. In your view, what is it that made Mingus so refreshingly unique as a composer and bandleader?
A: Mingus is one of my heroes. But one thing that might seem a little weird, considering the name of the band: my music doesn’t sound at all like his. In fact, that’s not even an aspiration — it’d be like wishing I had his fingerprints and liked the same foods he did or something. Instead, what I’ve learned from Mingus as a composer and a bandleader - it’s something he learned from Ellington, and it’s the answer to the question posed by the band’s name - is to let your players bring their strengths out in your music. To be a good jazz composer, I think, in some ways means being the opposite of a control freak, and therefore the opposite of what composers are in most other genres. You put a piece in front of the band, you describe the gist of what you’re shooting for, and then you roll with the surprising ways they interpret and misinterpret your ideas.
Q: It seems to me that in the few years since Pausa Art House opened, we’ve seen real growth and expansion within the Buffalo jazz scene. I’m seeing more and more great young players emerging and finding a place to play where listeners are open to what they have to offer. Do you agree that things have changed for the better, from your perspective?
A: There was a time in Buffalo when you’d look out at the audience in a jazz venue and see nearly no young people at all. When WWMD? started playing in The Backroom @ Hardware, five years ago this month, I was super proud of the audience we developed there — they were young, college-aged or just after, and were not fellow jazz musicians. They were just curious, smart music fans who liked our energy and quirkiness, and dug the just-baked freshness of our artisanal, locally sourced, handcrafted material. I really loved the “anything goes, get ready to be surprised” vibe in that room.
And Pausa was like The Backroom 2.0, re-imagined to be even hipper and way more musician-friendly — grab everything good about The Backroom, and make it better. Pausa’s been huge for creative musicians in this town. Along with that, there was an emerging bumper crop of college kids working on jazz and starting to make their mark, who seemed to come out of nowhere. So all of the sudden there are these new players, while there’s this new venue to showcase them. I think it’s been amazingly great for the local scene.
Q: Some of the younger players I’m thinking of are actually in this current lineup of WWMD? – Jared Tinkham is an amazing player and educator, and Alec Dube is a thrill to hear on both trap kit and vibes. What do these guys bring to the party?
A: I’ve always tried to bring younger players into WWMD? Danny Ziemann and Russ Algera were the “youngsters” on my record House of Relics — they weren’t even old enough to drink when I first brought them into the group, but they were deep musicians who played with a wisdom well beyond their years. Younger musicians bring new ideas and a fresh perspective and energy to my tunes — in other words, they come up with new ways to surprise me. Of course, that only works if they’re already playing at an extremely high level — and while our rhythm section, with Jared, Alec, and bassist Joe Goehle might be recent college grads, they’re killer players who bring tons of creative smarts to the band. Our trumpeter Mark Filsinger isn’t really all that much older than these guys, but he’s already become a sort of “elder statesman” on the local jazz scene, with the great work he’s been doing at Buffalo State, and with his new Buffalo Jazz Collective.
What: Tidings of Comfort & Jazz, featuring What Would Mingus Do?
Where: Kenan Center Taylor Theater, 433 Locust St., Lockport
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 and 3
Tickets: $10 members, $15 general public.