Bad Touch — alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, guitarist Nate Radley, organist Gary Versace and drummer Ted Poor — is one of those jazz groups whose members juggle other dozens of other professional commitments. In other words, it's like nearly every other working group out there.
Stillman has another, separate quartet and two duos, one called Elderflower (with guitarist Ryan Ferreira) and another with pianist Russ Lossing (called, simply, the Stillman / Lossing Duo), as well as upcoming sideman gigs with the Matt Pavolkas Horns Band, the Mike Formanek Sextet, the Ben Perowsky Trio, the Sean Smith Group and a half dozen other ensembles. Versace, a bandleader in his own right and a sideman with 50 or so credits to his name, is also a member of the Refuge Trio (with vocalist Theo Bleckmann and percussionist John Hollenbeck). Radley has a CD out called "The Big Eyes" (both Stillman and Poor play on it) and an ensemble of his own, while Poor, who plays with several other bands (in addition to Bad Touch), leads his own project called Mt. Varnum, which merges swing jazz with indie and classic rock.
But, hey, that's jazz: You work where and when you can, you teach when you aren't playing, and you always try to bring your a-game. Not surprisingly, Stillman said, Bad Touch rarely gets together for rehearsals, but in a sense that makes each time playing together special. "We think we're lucky if we can get together before a gig," Stillman said. "Gary is touring all the time, and Ted lives in Seattle… But I think we have a language together as a group, and I think we can always go back to that."
That language originated at least as far back as 2007, with an organ quartet Stillman assembled. Soon afterward, as Bad Touch, the quartet self-released an album, "Like A Magic Kiss," that drew on a number of jazz cross-currents, with freely improvised passages, extended contemporary swing-funk workouts, roundtable contrapuntal conversations and tightly organized changes, unfolding over shifting metric sands. They toured Germany, Switzerland and Belgium together at the end of 2012, and more recently returned to Europe to support their latest release, "Going Public," which came out this past January on Fresh Sound New Talent Records. Their upcoming show at Firehouse 12 in New Haven on April 18 is an album-release party of sorts and their first visit to the venue since 2008.
"Going Public," meanwhile, documents a band taking chances and engaging in more risky behavior, with rewarding results; "Verse" starts with a free-tempo opening, with Versace's organ offering impressionistic runs under Stillman's melodies, Radley's clear, triadic arpeggios and rolling toms from Poor, who suggests a pulse at the end, only long enough to insist that meter is only one of many modes available to the group. It's prescriptive, often gorgeous music that allows the listener to focus on any of the instruments separately, if they choose to.
"It's a tough thing to pull off," Stillman said of the group's approach to rhythm. "You're still playing the form, but we're deciding how to play the form together… All I can say is that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. That's why this group is so strong: we're all coming from the same place. We're listening and supporting each other."
At first, Stillman said, he was handling all the writing, and through his compositions the group developed its core sound. The pieces he brought in were subjected to what he calls "spontaneous arrangement," with band members treating the music to subtle variations every time they played. Now, everyone contributes. After touring with new material for two weeks straight, the quartet recorded "Going Public" in two days, playing mostly live, without overdubs, punch-ins or physical separation between the players. "The band plays its best when it's playing live," Stillman said. "The CD hopefully captures some of that."
"We think we're within the realm of jazz form and tradition," Stillman added. "We're not playing free jazz per se, although there are elements of that if it wants to go there."
Another track, "Holiday Of Un-Numbered Tears," has an elastic, elusive pulse, with all four members cycling through the chord progression under Stillman's lines, held together by extra-sensory perception.
"The approach is more like collaborative listening experience," Stillman said. "Nobody's giving cues, there's no pulse. It allows [Poor] more freedom to be more of a color instrument, to become a more melodic instrument… It's like we're trying to create four-part harmony or behave like a string quartet would."
LOREN STILLMAN AND BAD TOUCH perform on Friday, April 18, at 8:30 p.m. ($18) and 10 p.m. ($12) at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown St., New Haven. Information: firehouse12.com