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All Our Sax Are Belong to Us

Jazz, to me, is a lot like dolphins. But before I justify that simile, I'd like to insert a disclaimer pointing out the fact that this column is titled The Rock Show, and therefore cannot be held expected to wax intelligently about a subject as esoteric as jazz theory. Furthermore, free jazz is inherently enigmatic and intuitive, and therefore evades, a priori, adequate expression via the written word. That being said ... back to jazz and dolphins.

First of all, most of us already know that dolphins are extremely intelligent, even through the sounds they use to communicate sound roughly like the random squeaks of sneakers on a basketball court. Walk into the middle of a free jazz saxophone quartet's set, and the immediate impression might be similar: random squeaks and squawks with no discernible melody or message in sight, like a concert of sax-toting monkeys.

But in exactly the opposite way to how scientists are trying to understand the language of dolphins--methodically, systematically, using complex machinery--it's actually very easy to follow jazz musicians on their strange inward journeys of improvisation, just by sitting back and letting it happen.

Most people talk about jazz in terms of what the musicians are doing; jazz guitarist Jacob Young has this to say about his general approach: "There are so many ways of attacking improvised music, so it's about trying to have a concept, not sticking too closely to rules, and learning to express yourself in a way that's convincing."

But if the musicians are not playing by the rules, then what framework do we use to listen? Herein lies the beauty of jazz, which eludes verbal articulation for the simple reason that it's a language unto itself, with its own syntax and slang, and watching performers like LISLE ELLIS (upright bass), LARRY OCHS (tenor and sopranino saxophones) and DONALD ROBINSON (drums), a.k.a. WHAT WE LIVE, converse with one another onstage is sometimes like listening to dolphins speak and suddenly realizing that you're part dolphin, and you totally get what they're saying.

But even if you didn't buy any of that, you still missed an interesting show if you weren't at the Kuumbwa last Thursday for the What We Live show. According to Och's website, the initial vision of the band was "to bring together a small group of musicians to investigate concepts central to the tradition of jazz-based improvisation--swing, song form, modalities, etc.--in a less explicit manner than the mainstream but in a more emphatically traditional way than offered by the practice of free jazz."

Jazz buffs might know what in the hell Ochs is talking about, but the trio found an even better point of access into their music: namely, Turkish folk singer SAADET TURKOZ. Whereas pop music gives its singers a prescribed set of waves to ride in on, Türköz was faced with syncopation and atonal anomalies that would make a DAVID LYNCH film seem predictable. But Türköz quickly established the power of the human voice to evoke time, place and emotion through phonetic mimicry of exotic accents and storytelling styles, while also creating palpable tension between what sounded like an instinctual drive toward melody and heartbeat rhythm of her voice and the musicians' drive to shake up the rhythm and explore uncharted waters.

Anti-Bushies' Afrobeat Orchestra

Moe's Alley was filled to the brim last Monday night, both onstage and off, when the Brooklyn-based, 11-piece ANTIBALAS AFROBEAT ORCHESTRA squeezed onto the stage and packed in the fans, who are now legion in California thanks to the band's recent appearance at the Coachella festival. Things got hot and sweaty rather suddenly, as Antibalas launched straight into a funky horn-heavy and Latin rhythm-infused full-frontal attack on inertia and entropy, instantly launching the audience into a sustained, frenzied groove. As tasty as the music was, the AAO's strong leftist message was as clear as a fortune in a cookie--in bed.

Upcoming

The local a cappella trio DIS MOI celebrate their CD release party at the Innerlight Ministries on Oct. 15.

Mike Connor

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From the October 13-20, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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