It’s been more than 35 years since Colonel Bruce Hampton first unleashed his slightly demented, acid-dipped jazz-boogie on an unsuspecting public.
Since that time, his debut album (the infamous Southern freak-rock flop Music To Eat by The Hampton Grease Band) has come to be regarded as something of a minor classic of “out” music, and his subsequent forays into increasingly less antagonistic and avant-garde groove music have been met with widespread acclaim (pun intended), if not massive sales.
Though his most famous artifact to date is surely the live album he cut in the early ‘90s before abdicating his position as leader of groundbreaking jam supergroup-in-training The Aquarium Rescue Unit, other recording and live efforts with such intriguing handles as The Late Bronze Age and The Fiji Mariners continued to enthrall adventurous listeners.
Through it all one constant has remained: Bruce’s need for a foil. All of his best work has been done in the company of other musicians who brought their own strong wills and serious chops to the table. While Hampton may be the faceman for promoters to hang their ticket sales on, and for cultish enthusiasts to ruminate over, it’s always been as much about the other guys on stage or record as it has been about their titular leader/resident elder statesman of jam.
Savannah’s Bobby Lee Rogers knows this well, and seems unusually pragmatic about his role in The Codetalkers, Col. Hampton’s current bag of the last five years.
To hear this guitarist and former Berklee College of Music Professor tell it, he’s thrilled to be working with such a magnetic and truly inspired (and inspirational) composer, but Rogers at times sounds almost like he’s resigned himself to the inevitable conclusion that sometime, sooner or later, that partnership will undoubtedly come to an end at Bruce’s own hand.
“Yeah, we’ll probably wind up going out on our own and he’ll move on and become a coach for someone else. That’s how he always refers to himself – as a Minor League Coach,” the guitarist and songwriter offers up without being prompted.
“But he knows there’s always a place for him here. If you listen to Bruce’s music over the years – no matter who he was playing with, or how the bands might have been viewed at the time, he’s always done basically the same thing. That’s the way it is with The Codetalkers. This is just a slightly different format.”
“He’s never once said, ‘I’m gonna take this band and change them around to my way of doing things.’ He does this (forms bands) primarily to get other people whose work he respects out there in front of the public, and then he bows out. He’s done that with every band he’s ever been in.”
True to form, that’s exactly how The Codetalkers initially came together.
“It was about 6 years ago. He’d heard a bunch of my material, and told me I needed to get out and play this stuff. He let me step to the fore and do my own thing. I write most of the tunes –although we write some as a group and do our own arrangements of tracks off Bruce’s older albums that have been fan favorites for ages– and so far everyone seems to enjoy playing them and a lot of folks seem to enjoy hearing them! (laughs)”
The quartet (which also features bassist Ted Pecchio and drummer Tyler Greenwell) boasts an elastic, heavily improvised repertoire which veers wildly across the map, incorporating jazz and “chank”-style guitar licks, elements of Dada-esque vocal delivery and bursts of syncopated, frenzied, and –yes– melodic noise. Over the past half decade, they’ve earned a legion of fans though phenomenally tight (and loose) gigs at clubs, theatres and major jamband festivals.
Many of their followers are quite versed in the long lineage of Hampton’s musical pursuits, which Rogers says can prove to be a bit of challenge to overcome, but the group finds it best to simply confront that core group of cultists head on with Codetalkers material.
“(Bruce) hopes people will acknowledge what we’re doing today, not just what he has done in the past. It can be a bit of an uphill battle, but we do very well. The success of this band is based on all of us. It’s never been done before.” w
The Codetalkers play Trustees Theatre 9 p.m. Friday. Call 525-5050 or go to www.savannahmusicfestival.org for tickets.