Saxophonist-composer Ken Thomson has been something of a secret weapon in New York's cultural scene for years now: He's a leader of the Asphalt Orchestra, otherwise known as Lincoln Center's own street-marching band. They typically delight summer crowds in the arts center's plaza by playing stomping arrangements of Frank Zappa's "Zomby Woof," Meshuggah's metal-opus "Electric Red," and some Charles Mingus to boot. (We've included all three of those Asphalt interpretations in our appended playlist.)
Thomson isn't just a fine player; he also writes the complex-but-grooving music for the avant-jazzy Slow/Fast ensemble. Boasting Thomson's harmonies (and playing) as well as thrashing guitar and rhythm section work, their debut album, It Would Be Easier If…, is clearly derived from examples set by John Zorn and other downtown New York progenitors, but without seeming derivative.
With his latest album, Thaw -- a collaboration with the JACK Quartet -- Thomson is deepening his talent for what composer David Lang has called, admiringly, "extreme composing." If you want to check Lang's accuracy, just head to the second movement of "Perpetual," titled "Bad Idea." (Steve Reich has also shouted out the playing on this record, too, in case you were looking for more impressive co-signs.) Along with a stray track from Gutbucket, one of Thomson's longest-running outfits, our primer gives you a way to hear all the sides of his exciting discography. Enjoy!