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Born Under a Budget

Stanton Moore brings one-time pickup band Frequinox through town to play some classics of soul jazz

By Peter Koht

Thankfully, Alex Andreas has more taste than most music business Svengalis. (Herb Alpert, there's a special room in hell just for you.) Andreas, the owner of the ultrahip Boom Boom Room in San Francisco, put together Frequinox rather accidentally after he realized he couldn't afford to cart all eight pieces of Galactic out from The Big Easy. Plucking the group's drummer Stanton Moore and bassist Robert Mercurio out of the lineup, Andreas put them onstage with keyboardist Robert Walter and Berkley-based guitarist Will Bernard and let them make noise. The name of that particular show was appropriate to describe the sound of the group: "Is That Jazz?"

Lack of rehearsal time led to building a set out of a handful of obscure charts written by James Brown, the Meters and the Marti Gras Indians. This latter group, while relatively unknown outside New Orleans, wrote some of the slinkiest songs ever put down on vinyl. These tunes provided ample grounds for some seriously entertaining musical exploration and eventually led to Frequinox's sporadic existence.

It might seem counterintuitive that this highly innovative project was formed as a cover band. Stanton Moore explains how he really wasn't worried about image when they started out. "With other projects, you feel like you have to break ground with each new record," he says; "with Frequinox, we don't have to worry about what's hip. We only get together to have fun and play tunes we like."

It's a rare opportunity to see so many busy musicians mount the stage at the same time. Frequinox has always been a unit whose schedules are more difficult to manage than the repertoire. Mercurio and Moore are almost always wrapped up in Galactic business, while Walter presides over the 20th Congress. Bernard usually holds down the guitar chair in Bay Area favorites Motherbug. Until last week, the longest Frequinox tour was 11 dates.

Reached by phone after 15 gigs in the last 11 days of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Moore is oddly energized by the intensity of his last few weeks-- and it doesn't hurt that there are few compositional ringers in the band, including the venerable Donald Harrison on saxophones. (A veteran of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and one of New Orleans' finest horn players, Harrison has no shortage of acid jazz credibility. He was on the scene playing with Jack McDuff and Charles Earland when the rest of the band was still trying to figure out a minor scale.

"It's really cool to be playing out with this guy that played with all these awesome drummers. It's so cool that he is spending his time working in this project," Moore says enthusiastically. "I've known him for almost my whole life, ever since I starting getting into jazz. "

Frequinox lays down some classic grooves so lackadaisical and loopy that sporadic movement of the extremities is almost involuntary. (For once, Kuumbwa is stowing the plastic chairs and clearing the floor for dancing.) With typical Southern spice. Frequinox busts down the staid face of institutionalized jazz and liberates its creaky limbs for one last dance. Not too shabby for a group cobbled together by a desperate club owner.

Frequinox plays Wednesday, May 11, at 7 and 9pm at the Kuumbwa, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz; tickets are $20-$23; 831.427.2227.

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From the May 11-18, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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