There are a lot of great saxophonists in J.C. Kuhl: the impeccable post-bop virtuoso who can dance through the changes; the blistering free-jazz wild man; the funky improviser who can chunk out chorus after chorus of danceable groove; the pop technician laying down a perfect four-bar break; the big band section man who blends with the horns' unison swell.
During the past decade Kuhl's brushed the big time with Agents of Good Roots, run the regional circuit with the Modern Groove Syndicate and filled the big shoes of Skip Gailes in the jazz saxophone instructor role at Virginia Commonwealth University. But in all these incarnations, except for turning an alarming crimson while an intense solo builds to a climax, Kuhl draws little attention to himself.
Not that his skill goes unnoticed. "A lot of lesser players put more energy into self-promotion, but J.C. is one of the best I've ever played with," world-traveling trumpet virtuoso Rex Richardson says.
"Other cats try to sub with us when J.C. is not available," Modern Groove band mate Daniel Clarke says, "but they don't have his facility or range. When they see how hard the music written for him is, they just laugh."
"I trust him," says ex-Agents drummer Brian Jones, who says he's played more with J.C. than he has with anyone else. "He's strong, generous, open-minded about any musical endeavor. And he is one of the few guys that you can put anything in front of and he will play it from the heart."
"Say it's his middle-class Baltimore upbringing, growing up with five brothers — that's the reason he's the way he is," Clarke insists. "He hates it when I say that."
Kuhl left Baltimore behind when he moved to Richmond with fellow Towson University graduate and Bio Ritmo trumpeter Bob Miller in the summer of 1995. They had a summer gig with the park band at Kings Dominion and sat in with Doc Branch's long-running Friday night jazz jam at Rick's CafAc (now Emilio's). Kuhl was asked to audition for an opening sax slot in Agents of Good Roots. He waited until fall for a decision, which came as he was about to head home to Baltimore.
Kuhl said yes and didn't look back. "I never went home," he says. "I stayed and slept on [Agents singer, guitarist and keyboard player] Andrew Winn's floor. The next month I was on the road to a frat show at Tuscaloosa, [Ala.]."
The Agents played 250 shows a year for the next seven years. "I learned so much in that time frame," Kuhl says — "about music, the business side, the politics, the good and the bad. It was a whole education. We played with a crap-load of people, so many cool festivals, great musicians; great bands. … the Neville Brothers, John Scofield and especially Dave Matthews." Opening for Matthews at the height of his international breakthrough was a huge opportunity.
A contract with RCA in 1998 led to a commercialized big-label CD that was the band's main shot at fame. After sales fell short, the "Behind the Music" trajectory unspooled: contentious follow-up sessions; the dissolution of the contract; a catastrophic falling-out with their manager; an appropriate but not poisonous level of disillusion. By the time Agents coasted to a stop in 2002, Kuhl had a new home with Modern Groove Syndicate.
Kuhl's experience and contacts from his Agents days gave the band a head start, but dealing with club owners introduced a whole new level of pain. "If you are too weak they cheat you," he says. "But if you are too aggressive they don't want you back." Rather than following the traditional booking-agent approach of setting up many crappy gigs to get one good one, they decided to pick and choose. "We do what we want to do," he says, "which means we play less."
Making a living is all about filling the calendar, according to Kuhl. In addition to his gigs with Modern Groove Syndicate, he plays in John D'earth's long-running Thursday gig at Miller's in Charlottesville, as well as in a couple of Baltimore groups. He also gives private lessons to 35 students from VCU, Harrison Music and the Ashland Music Academy. Hard economic times are taking a bite, though, with people going out to clubs less, and families pulling kids out of lessons. Kuhl has been here before.
Of course family responsibilities, which include his 11-month-old son, Dillion ("He looks so much like a little J.C., it's ridiculous," Clarke says affectionately), is spurring Kuhl to take a more frontline role. "I'm working toward having a solo record out toward the end of the year," he says. "Composing is hard because you write it, hate it and tear it up. But one of Brian Jones' greatest quotes is: ‘Just write it down. It doesn’t have to be perfect, you may never play it again, but don't second guess.'" S
JC Kuhl plays with Modern Groove Syndicate at Cary Street CafAc Sept. 20. He also plays on two new CDs from Brian Jones, "Redhead" and "New Trio."