The Cap Gun Quartet + 4 and the Thoth Trio, while vastly different musically, are both holding CD-release shows this week. But they share more than just a sense of timing: Both feature former members of Water Shed 5tet.
Water Shed 5tet spent the 1990s playing a brand of free-thinking jazz that cultivated an audience of underground-rock fans, straight-ahead jazz listeners and even devotees of the DJ club scene. Saxophonist/composer Ben Opie went on to lead the ensemble Opek as well as the acoustic, heady Thoth Trio, which releases its sophomore disc, Thoth Speaks, on Fri., March 21. Bassist Jeff Stringer, whose instrument gave Water Shed a raunchy, rockist sound, now spearheads Cap Gun Quartet + 4, which marks the release of Several Other Songs the night before.
Cap Gun began as a quartet with Stringer, pianist Victor Garzotto, drummer Rich Strong and Roger Dannenberg on trumpet. The amended name became necessary when Jay Matula -- another former Water Shed member -- began filling in for, and joining, Strong onstage. Dannenberg's son Richard has also joined the fold, on cello and violin.
Nearly every track on Several Other Songs sounds different from the tune it follows, which speaks to the group's far-reaching blend of progressive rock and jazz and its sense of dynamics. "Concourse B -- Amsterdam" begins the proceedings with a bright, somewhat orchestral texture before shifting into a straight jazzy vamp where Dannenberg takes the doubling effects off his trumpet for some straight blowing. "Mirror Mirror" creates an hypnotic nine-minute tone poem that includes quotes from Stravinsky and samples of a Smithsonian Folkways record about North American frogs.
Six of the tracks feature local poets -- Michael Wurster and Romella Kitchens -- and while the combination of poetry and jazz is often easier to spoof than to successfully create, the group hits the mark. The idea materialized after Wurster invited the quartet to a performance that incorporated the two art forms, and they eventually performed with Kitchens.
"I liked the variety of stuff we did," Stringer says of the performance. "We tried freaky noisy improvs and even covers like [Roberta Flack's] ‘Feel Like Makin' Love,' where we'd play the groove and Romella would read a poem that she had composed for it, then we would play the head." The tracks on the disc are more succinct and original, in some cases putting Wurster's staccato delivery in front of slinky jazz riffs and Kitchens' legato approach over subtly ominous free blowing.
The Thoth Trio's name has a double or perhaps triple meaning that reflects on its personnel. The moniker combines the surnames of its members, saxophonist Ben Opie, bassist Paul Thompson and drummer David Throckmorton. It also refers to the Egyptian deity credited with the invention of the written and spoken word, who was frequently referenced by Sun Ra, whose music the members of the trio play in Opek.
But Thoth is not merely a scaled-down version of Opek. "There's that open character to it, where you've got all your bases covered, but it's not thickened up with chords," Opie says. A setting whose context is open to larger possibilities for each improviser, it also grants Opie a mindset far different than the one needed to lead a 12-piece ensemble. "With Opek, I'm up there and I'm constantly making decisions. And with this group, it's just like [saying], ‘Let's take a bite out of this. Let's just play.'"
He compares Thoth's instrumentation to a classic 1957 set Sonny Rollins recorded at the Village Vanguard, where the tenor saxophonist was accompanied only by bassist Wilbur Ware and monster drummer Elvin Jones. While Thoth Speaks' album closer, "Chartreuse," bears a straight-swinging feel of Rollins' era, the group manages to straddle loose and grounded structures throughout the album. "Strontium" works its way from a free improvisation toward a focused theme at the end.
Several tracks find Opie and Thompson swapping roles as soloist and accompanist, which reinforces the collaborative nature of the group. The saxophonist says that although he and Thompson are credited with songwriting on both of their discs, Throckmorton's contributions are integral even if his name doesn't appear next to a title. "He's very involved in the arranging end of things," Opie says. "He has very good ideas about the way to shape pieces or adjust them so they're as good as they can be."
Cap Gun Quartet + 4 with Daryl Fleming & the Private Sector. 9:30 p.m. Thu., March 20. Thunderbird Café, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $5. 412-682-0177 or www.thunderbirdcafe.net
Thoth Trio. 9:30 p.m. Fri., March 21. Gullifty's, 1922 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. $5. 412-521-8222 or www.gulliftysrestaurant.com