St. Louis native Russell Gunn returns home for a much-anticipated gig at Bistro Europa

Dec 13, 2000 at 4:00 am
We've seen it all. We were there when Stravinsky unveiled Le Sacre du Printemps, were the first ones to toss a chair at that bastard composer mussing up our beloved music. We nudged a young Miles Davis onto Charlie Parker's stage in '45. After Elvis debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show, one of our staff members -- we're not saying which one -- "serviced" him in his dressing room. The Beatles at Shea Stadium? All those girls were actually booing, but you'll never hear about that in the goddamn liberal press. We were the ones passing out the brown acid at Woodstock. We loaned Kool Herc our Technics for his first block party in the Bronx, gave 808 State their first hit of ecstasy while they were listening to "Strings of Life." We were up onstage at Mississippi Nights with Kurt Cobain on the eve of Nevermind's breakthrough.

Been there. Done that.

But one of the three most transcendent evenings of music we've ever experienced happened at South by Southwest two years ago, when, in a bar on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, St. Louis' Russell Gunn and his octet tore the place down when he merged jazz and hip-hop in a way no one had ever done. His group, which featured two percussionists, saxophone, Fender Rhodes electric piano, bass, turntable, trombone and Gunn on trumpet, ignited dynamite under an increasingly stagnant form. Hearing him collapse the breakbeat rhythm into the improvisational fold was an epiphany; others have attempted to merge the sensibilities in the past, but none has nailed it as well as Gunn did on that night. In his hands, the merger made sense and created something new, an exclamation point at the end of the century, even if only 30 people witnessed it.

Others have noticed him, most important among them funk king D'Angelo, who has hired Gunn as a regular member of the singer's band, the Soultronics (you can see a shot of Gunn as a member of the band in the current Rolling Stone). When D'Angelo appeared at the Fox Theatre this summer, he called Gunn up front for a few blazing trumpet solos, and you could hear why D' was so enamored of the player.

Gunn and his quartet (alas, not the octet) appear at Bistro Europa this week; it will be his first St. Louis appearance with his own group. We often urge you to see live music that has floored us, and we often drown the recommendations in ridiculous hyperbole. But we're not doing the same with Russell Gunn, even when we compare a piddly show at a tiny Texas bar with the debut of Le Sacre du Printemps; he's simply the best trumpet player this town has produced since Miles Davis, is bringing remarkable innovations into jazz and is at the top of his game. He performs Wednesday-Sunday, Dec. 13-16. Go.

There aren't any songs on the fantastic new compilation Better Than Fruitcake that Mannheim Steamroller will be recording for next year's synthesizer nightmare, few that contain the requisite melodic cheese. But that's a good thing, of course, and if the end result of the holiday compilation, which features some of this city's most interesting rock and country voices interpreting old and creating new holiday songs, is that the Conformists' masterful dirge on "Silent Night" replaces the cheesy one we've long since grown numb to, then, well, give thanks.

Released by Vintage Vinyl's Sound System Records imprint, Better Than Fruitcake contains music by 19 St. Louis artists. The Patsies show their good taste by covering one of the few great Christmas standards, "Greensleeves," not straying too far from the original but weaving in a sinister transistor voice that successfully alters the mood, and Rocket Park set the lyrics of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." It's a clever stunt, and funny the first time through, though by listen No. 2 it's already grown stale (but the song is still getting radio play all over town).The Rockhouse Ramblers' interpretation of "My Christmas Wish" gives us vocalist Kip Loui singing below his usual register and ending up in deep Elvis territory, resulting in a smooth sound that's perfectly reflected in the moody arrangement. The Julia Sets' take on "(I Believe in) Father Christmas" is all awash in guitars and feedback melody, providing enough energy to kick the compilation in the pants just as it's starting to slow down. Grandpa's Ghost's droning take on "Once in Royal David's City" is just plain crazy, a dark, empty version that begins with the piano melody, then roams the cold, empty fields for close to seven minutes.

Better, though, are the contributions of artists who pen their own songs. The best are Larissa Dalle's fantastic "Far from Lonely," a pokey country rant so well written that it sounds like a standard, and Josh Weise's grim death song "Scratches on the Door," a wonderful bummer.

Better Than Fruitcake is something that this city doesn't see often enough: a collection of artists stretching and having fun on record, coming together to create a compilation that's more than just a bunch of songs by a bunch of bands. All the proceeds go directly to Operation Food Search, so the album is worth your money for that reason alone. But the high quality of the release is what makes it essential listening.