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Greys' Anatomy

Greyboy Allstars
Jonathan Hay

Star Trek: Classy soul-jazz hipsters the Greyboy Allstars return to town to give Palookaville's Saturday night crowd a dose of infectious grooves.

Leading proponents of the West Coast's soul jazz renaissance respect both their roots and their own future

By John Fitzgerald

THE SCATTERED DUST FUZZ from the needle falls when the men of the Greyboy Allstars hold the jazz helm with their drop-kick jazz beats and solid groove solutions. The band's sound resonates with late '60s and early '70s soul jazz, combining elements of hip hop, rock & roll and--dare we say it?--funk. For nearly three years, the San Diego quintet has been playing to large Santa Cruz crowds of swirling hippies and scenester kids, all of whom move together to the group's quintessential '90s sound.

"What keeps bringing you guys back to Santa Cruz?" I ask Allstars Karl Denson, Robert Walter and Zak Najors before the three take to the airwaves for a radio-show interview.

"The amount of people who show up and dance to our shows," says Denson. "And the money, of course."

"We feel like we could play anything and you [Santa Cruzans] all would like it," says Najors, whose furious drumming sounds like an avalanche of rhinos roaring down a mountain. "Some of it's a challenge to play to the audience. We just want to try and drop some different flavors."

These Allstars have played all over the country--they are especially big in college towns, where most of their fan base lies--and have three European tours in their collective pocket. So how do the continental audiences compare with those in the United States?

According to Denson and Walter, jazz is understood and appreciated more in Europe and Japan than here, its country of origin. "They [European audiences] are more educated in jazz and in our music," says Denson, scratching his goatee and nodding to people as they walk by our conversation in front of downtown SC's Palookaville. "They seem to have heard our music before seeing us, so they know what to expect musically, and they also know the songs we cover."

Along with these three gentlemen, two other monsieurs fill out the Greyboy lineup. Guitarist Mike Andrews, a.k.a. Elgin Park, has got that wah peddle wired to his head. The man behind the gorilla groove bass train is Chris Stillwell. His palpitating pulse pounds out the rhythm until your feet become his.

While the soul-jazz the Allstars have pursued from the get-go remains the band's core sound, what musical permutations might the future hold?

"We've definitely still got the dance aspect of our music going, but we've gotten more improvisational--[there's] more exploring goin' on, especially playin' live," says Walter. "We're gonna be playin' this style of jazz for awhile. The other option is to get into more 'serious' jazz. Most mainstream jazz tends to be very serious and elitist. We want people to move and we want our music to be accessible to anybody."

Own Sound Advice

BUT BEING accessible can be too good a thing--witness acid jazz, an alternative from mainstream jazz, which has metamorphosed into mindless techno beats and sad sax playing. "At first the idea was good--just another term to lump together a style of jazz that was being produced," Walter says. "But now anything with a saxophone and a dance beat has been incorporated into the genre. It's not jazz. Some other bands are trying to lay down grooves that people will dance to, mostly repetitive drum loops with some kind of brass laid over the top. They cut corners on the beats they claim to have and the jazz they play is horrible. Nothing remains--they are neither a dance group, nor are they jazz musicians."

"As much of a hip-hop element that we put into our music," Najors says, "we put in three times as much jazz. We are a jazz group first and foremost, with parts of other styles of music mixed in."

"We are working on our songwriting, moving forward and in reverse within this style of jazz, and trying to create our own sound," Denson adds.

This progression into the band's "own sound" can be found on its new album, A Town Called Earth, which came out earlier this month.

"It's basically just a result of all the touring that we've done," Walter says. "We started to try and find our own identity a little bit. At first we were trying to emulate our favorite jazz records. This time we started to show more of our rock influences--stuff we all listened to as kids--and a little more psychedelic stuff to widen the boundaries. We had the concept that if this record was going to represent us for the next few years, we might as well take it in as many directions as we want. We were also relying less on funk and getting more into the composition, but it's all got that funk element."

"We also wanted to make the album more tonal, more serene," Najors adds.

"Oh, yeah, this is the album that everyone feels best about. We had more time to record it. We went up to San Francisco and kinda got away from our families and stuff and really focused on the music," Walter says assuringly. "We also approached this record as being a work of art by itself rather than just a record of the band--that's when you really have fun with it. We did a little overdubbing here and there. But for the most part, we kept it as close to live as possible."

The champions of '90s soul jazz, the Greyboy Allstars pay respects to the jazz artists who created the genre.

"We were playin' in New York when Reuben Wilson sat in on a couple of our songs," Walter says. "I just stood there and dropped it. I learned so much about my instrument that evening just watching him play." At this week's show, legendary jazz guitarist Melvin Sparks will perform with the group. "It's impossible for us not to get excited when he plays," Walter says. "It's like, 'man, we're playin' with the cat who wrote some of the songs we play.' It's incredible!"

As we make our way back into Palookaville, the jazz starts jumpin', and the house is movin' the floor as if it were the turntable and The Allstars the needle. You can hear the roll of the snare drum resting as the sticks shadow-glide the beat, knowing the next move is on and then the gauntlet groove blasts down the avenue to fuel the funktion. The crazy roadhouse sax pours forth a rain of mad sweet sound, while the racing guitar rhythm guns it with the Rhodes. This is jazz: always everywhere but with the same idea in mind.

As Walter says, "The best aspect of all music comes together in soul jazz, and that is why we play it."

The Greyboy Allstars perform Sat. (9pm) at Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave., SC. Tickets cost $11 door, $9.50 advance.

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From the June 25-July 2, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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