Slim Boy, Phat

Drummer JT Bates and his Fat Kid Wednesdays make a weighty impression on the local improv-jazz scene

The limited financial rewards of being a jazz musician in the Twin Cities is something that Bates has struggled with a lot over the years. In order to keep financially afloat, he has resorted to "professional jazz" in the past--the kind you play at weddings and bar mitzvahs in exchange for large checks and wide varieties of shrimp cocktail. These are not fond memories for him.

"I would be standing there by the buffet table, trying to get myself some free dinner, and I'd see this girl who I had never met before that night standing there in a wedding dress," Bates says. "And I'd think, She's getting married, and I'm playing something for her that I don't like. It just wasn't right." Bates cups his hands as if he's holding something fragile. "Whenever I played at weddings, I would think about everything that I held in this world that was right and beautiful, and as soon as someone stepped in and told us to play Van Morrison--it was always 'Moondance'--all of that beauty would just be gone."

Luckily, Bates has other revenue streams these days. Other than Fat Kid Wednesdays, he is currently performing with five other bands and is even working on solo drum performances ("I can see if I can get out there naked and hold my own," Bates says). He drums along with Ourmine, a band that explores the intersection of Latin music, electronica, and "a lot of grooves." With the noisy IDM duo Grid, Bates helps to manipulate electronic beats. He also plays with T, a rotating collective of improvised electronica and drum 'n' bass musicians that usually includes members of Poor Line Condition; and Suki Takahashi, a live drum 'n' bass quintet with a DJ, drums, and synths. (Suki Takahashi recently composed the soundtrack to the BMW promotional series "The Making of the Films," car-crash shorts directed by Ang Lee and David Fincher, among others.) Bates is especially proud of his work with Science vs. Flames, a multigenerational "double trio" that features members of Fat Kid Wednesdays, and Poor Line Condition, with FKW's saxophonist Michael Lewis's father Greg on trumpet. In many of these groups, Bates relishes the improvisational sets that let all the musicians play off one another.

Not so little drummer boy: JT Bates
Not so little drummer boy: JT Bates

When I ask him to describe the best thing about improv, his eyes light up, yet he says, "I guess I can't really describe the feeling of getting through a really good improv." Still, Bates notes, "The best thing I can say is that it's the experience of it all. When you're doing something, and someone else is listening to you and playing their own thing that builds from you, and everyone just understands each other, it's like this river rushing past you. It's something that you can't ever hold in your hands or describe, but it's a force and it's flowing. Sometimes you'll get a wave that comes up and then everybody tries to ride it, but all the time it's just going and going and there's no one out there who is going to stop it."

The river is coming, kiddies, and the tide is rising. These Fat Kids will have their day.

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