Tuesday, September 11
Better than: A tale of one city.
When it comes to music, Tolstoy’s dictum about the only two kinds of stories—1) someone goes on a journey, or 2) a stranger comes to town—can usually be distilled into a single notion: We hop on the train to hear the stranger in town. When Seattle saxophonist Skerik (born Eric Walton) brought his new group Bandalabra here Tuesday night, however, it provided the occasion for the former Prospect Heights resident to reconnect with several of some former Emerald City associates in an unusual there-kind-of-here sort of way. And so, after a relatively short set with his new quartet, the floodgates opened for about a hundred minutes of off-the-cuff multi-horn grooving of a daringly high order.
“Hope you guys like grunge,” warned Skerik by way of introducing his Seattle-sourced quartet, “because that’s what we all play.” With an organizing principle Skerik has suggested splits the difference between Fela Kuti and Steve Reich—by creating an ever-evolving, hard-grooving polyrhythmic matrix—the only thing Bandalabra shares with Nirvana is sheer nerve. An old-fashioned R&B honker, when you get right down to it, Skerik epitomizes the concept of tenor man as popular entertainer; and he approaches each gig with high energy, spiky one-liners, and implied drama. Skerik’s resume includes founding stints with the gelatinous Critters Buggin, power trio Garage A Trois, and, most ambitiously, the quintuple-horn majesty of his Syncopated Taint Septet. A longtime associate of gonzo funk-rocker Les Claypool, Skerik tends to appeal to the improv-rock crowd by offering a diffident, aggro alternative to said demographic.
On one level, Bandalabra is simply a jazz band improvising rock music. Skerik, or another member, will lay down a riff; it will be picked up by the rest, worked through some vamps, and feature a couple of solos until someone suggests something else. Gleefully nimble acoustic double-bassist Evan Flory Barnes holds down the bottom, alongside powerhouse drummer D’vonne Lewis, while simultaneously soaring overhead as the band’s melodic focus. Welding his Gibson Byrdland like a pedal-driven Strat, journeyman guitarist Andy Coe solos compellingly in just about any style when not adding single-note rhythm lines to the uninterrupted warp-woof, which included an extended 5/4 groove, a Spanish-tinged jam, and a long, slow slide from the funky delights of “Charlie Don’t Like It,” from their recent Live at the Royal Room, into “Jennacosta,” a delicious downtempo stroll reminiscent of Traffic’s John Barleycorn era. “We’re acid jazz,” snarked Skerik at set’s end, “acid rock, Acid Mothers Temple.”
Augmented by former Seattleites Cochemea Gastelum (baritone sax), Jessica Lurie (alto sax), and Elizabeth Pupo-Walker (percussion), the group remanifested following a break as the Bandalabra Orchestra, and the evening took a distinctly New Orleans turn for the bigger. If the quartet occasionally seemed to lose focus while searching for its next best idea, this group’s magic lay in the horn section’s mind-melding on-the-fly rearrangements, with all parts of the machine falling apart and realigning into a series of climaxes. The topper arrived in the beatifically be-Afroed form of Reggie Watts, yet another former Seattleite, who grabbed a mike and did magical things with it as the Orchestra chugged powerfully behind him. Not unlike Skerik, who joined him for a goofy, electronically enhanced vocal improv, Watts parodies what he loves best, voicing distended jazz, funk, and soul cartoons with virtuosic ease and a turntablist sensibility. This was an act you could definitely take on the road.
Critical bias: Several years ago, one could, and sometimes did, run into Skerik strolling down Seventh Avenue in Park Slope with his kid.
Random notebook dump: Save me from sound dudes who believe it necessary to “keep the energy up” by playing ear-splitting indie rock during set breaks.