When guitarist Jon Lundbom recalls what has fired his imagination, he frequently talks about music that “blew my mind.” Three specific examples have inspired the writing for his band Big Five Chord. The first is Focus, the 1962 Stan Getz album that put the tenor saxophonist’s improvisations in the midst of Eddie Sauter’s written works for orchestra. The second is Ornette Coleman, whose disregard for chord changes liberated Lundbom. Third is Voodoo, the 2000 neo-soul album by D’Angelo that featured jazz musicians such as Roy Hargrove and toyed with beat placement and polyrhythms. On Lundbom’s ninth album with BFC, Harder on the Outside (Hot Cup), all these influences blend together in satisfying ways; engaging melodies and free-jazz interplay combine, without losing a sense of groove.
“A lot of people have written that my playing in Big Five Chord is free bop, which it can be at times,” Lundbom says. “I think that’s the Ornette Coleman influence. It’s going to be jazz but we’re going to do something other than just follow chord changes.”
One feature that makes the group distinctive is its “no head out” rule, which prohibits a return to the theme following the last solo. On Harder on the Outside, Lundbom’s fretwork, which ranges from warm to frenzied, often has the final say before a track comes to an unceremonious end. The abrupt stops are meant to make the writing and the solos more impactful. “It’s not like we’re playing standards where we’re cycling the same 32 bars over and over and over again,” Lundbom explains. “We’re embracing a more holistic improvisation. To force yourself into coming back to it at the end can be weird and artificial.”
Growing up just north of Chicago in Arlington Heights, Ill., Lundbom began playing the guitar in second grade. He attended DePaul University, discovering 20th-century classical composition while also immersing himself in the Windy City’s jazz scene. Saxophonist Bryan Murray was a graduate student when he and Lundbom, an undergrad, began playing weekly gigs at Phyllis’ Musical Inn. “I think Jon’s always had his own voice and his own direction,” Murray recalls. “He never tried to mimic someone else or sound like another player. He always had that drive, knew how he wanted to sound and worked at it.”
Lundbom moved to New York City two days before 9/11, hoping to attend graduate school. Things didn’t pan out, but he eventually formed BFC, a quintet based predominantly around his original compositions. Bassist Moppa Elliott has been a mainstay of the band since its 2003 debut and has released most of its albums on his Hot Cup imprint. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon, who worked with Elliott in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, has also played on most of BFC’s albums.
Murray, who moved to New York and joined Big Five Chord on 2009’s Accomplish Jazz, has brought more adventure to the group. In addition to playing tenor, he often whips out an instrument he’s dubbed the “balto!” saxophone, an alto sax with a baritone mouthpiece, held in place by toilet paper. “It was incredibly loud. Just disgusting and out of tune,” Murray says, recalling his discovery. “I played the four or five low notes [and they] all came out in multiphonics. It kind of goes up a half-step as you go up the octave.” The squonking instrument has become such a band hallmark that Murray has recorded with BFC under the pseudonym “Balto Exclamationpoint.” (You can find several video demonstrations of the balto! on Murray’s YouTube channel: bryan murray BALTO EXCLAMATIONPOINT. One clip is called “Round Midnight”—let’s just say it’s not what you’d expect based on the title.)
A collaboration between Lundbom and Murray gave further depth to Harder on the Outside. The saxophonist has been building a library of looped beats and started using BFC records as sources. Lundbom, who in 2015 moved from New York to Austin with his family, wrote new melodies to go over five of Murray’s beats, which the saxophonist recorded and released as Beats by Balto, Vol. 1 (Chant). For six of the eight tracks on Harder, Lundbom, Murray, Elliott, Justin Wood (alto and soprano saxophones), and Dan Monaghan (drums) recreate the Beats tracks in real time. It’s a provocative mix of grooves and tangled, fast-moving themes.
BFC doesn’t get many opportunities to perform these days, but the distance between band members doesn’t deter them, as Lundbom gets back to New York three or four times a year. They also record under the name Bryan and the Haggards, covering classic country songs. Meanwhile, Lundbom keeps busy with a Southern version of Big Five Chord, as well as an improvisational group he calls the Jon Lundbom Power! Trio! The two exclamation points suggest that this guitarist aims to blow some more minds.