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Confessions of a Jazz Dork

There is something truly dorky about really liking jazz. While the musicians that tend to make jazz are erudite, articulate and sophisticated characters, most people who love jazz are total geeks; most hapless jazz fans bear far more resemblance to David's dad LOU SEDARIS than LOU RAWLS.

This realization came to me about half of the way through the second set of MATT WILSON's ARTS AND CRAFTS show at the Kuumbwa. Simultaneously, my doppelgànger and fellow dork BOBIK LVOV and I turned to each other and uttered: "Are you REALLY listening to this? These cats are burning the paint right off the walls."

Jazz attracts a specific cross-section of the greater geek population. It has all the things that sci-fi has--esoteric philosophical themes, math in action, a tradition of psychotropic drug abuse. Like live-action role playing or computer programming, the really cool parts are inside jokes. The shy are allowed to love it, both passionately and passively, because dancing is rarely involved.

Enjoying the genre really involves two things, both of which DAVID SEDARIS details rather nicely in his story "Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities." Sitting down for a show, most jazz heads simply rock back and forth slack-jawed through the set, mandibles drooping in awe of the instrumental genius being displayed. This activity is only interrupted by repeatedly telling fellow addicts: "Get a load of the chops on this guy."

Asked for a recap of the show they saw night before, most jazz fans are left speechless. It's not like they could remember the names of the tunes or sing any of the heads to their fellow dentists on Tuesday morning. Evocations of the power of the previous evening's music are left unexplained in favor of dramatically colored hyperbole like this Sedaris gem: "You could take a hatchet, and cut the man's lips right off his face, and he would still sound better than anyone else out there."

Without resorting to imagery involving mucus membranes gone horribly awry, Matt Wilson and his group are terribly goddamn interesting. LARRY GOLDINGS, though not funny, is an amazing musical mind, still searching for new sounds on the keys, including plucking individual strings like composer HENRY COWELL and covering the right hand melody on the glockenspiel. (Insert obligatory shoutout to RADIOHEAD here.) Bassist MARTIN WIND showed incredible control over his tone and phrasing, throwing down some of the finest thumb position work the Kuumbwa has seen in a while.

Wilson wasn't all that shabby on the drums, either. He's obviously a huge dork as well, judging from his stage banter. Some prime examples include telling the crowd to send mail to his hometown of Knoxville, Ind. (avant-garde jazz capital of southern central Indiana!) and warning the audience that putting on his record as the background to a romantic engagement is likely to result in triplets.

Everyone who loved this show should just give up now, hitch their pants up and take up golf. Then over vodka martinis we can collectively lean back and recount the show's finer moments, whispering, like Lou would, that the show was "beautiful, baby, just beautiful."

Salsa Exhibitionists

In stark contrast to those who bob their heads in the dark at the Kuumbwa, those who venture out to the forest to dance to PALENQUE at DON QUIXOTE'S have no fear of being seen in public. Up here, very tall shoes and shiny tops with fringework rule, as do un-ironic non-French berets in primary colors other than black. The dancing is complicated. Salsa shows rule.

Palenque is a traditional Afro-Cuban group, and its music--though it dealt no real shockers--was truly enjoyable. The vocals of GERMAN DONATIEN and NORMAN DOWNING were quite soulful, and the latter's tasteful additional percussion helped the incredibly complicated rhythms bubble nicely along. While the QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE might bring in the cowbell occasionally, this guy really knows that to do with it. Mambo, man, mambo.

It was interesting to hear this mostly guajira group after hearing KING SONNY ADE the previous Thursday. The shimmering guitar of work of Ade, one of Nigeria's most famous musicians, has a whole lot in common with the montunos that Palenque pushes around underneath the solos. While the rhythms are completely different, it's neat to hear how different the same chords can sound so radically different with new rhythms pulsing through them. Ade's band also has the coolest multitasking musician's chair in the entire musical world: pedal steel and talking drum. Somebody call BECK. Stat.

Peter Koht

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From the April 27-May 4, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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