[29 April 2011]
I have a dream.
If I could get some of what I envision, we would live in a world where peace, love, and understanding wasn’t funny. The Wall Street miscreants and the super-sized weasels enabling their machinations would be having a house party in the Big House. Reality TV would not be real, and Oprah Winfrey would be unable to infantilize millions of women looking for enlightenment in all the wrong places. A modicum of the bilious exhaust Rupert Murdoch spews would back-up and cause him to explode like a Spinal Tap drummer. Electric cars, solar panels, and science would be accepted (and venerated) the way billionaires, right-wing prophets, and camera-ready politicians are in our scared new world. A lot of other things, obviously, but not least of these that jazz musicians would get the attention American Idol contestants receive. In this right-side up society, Skerik would be a household name.
Skerik (née Eric Walton) is like a Zelig of the musical underground, having associated and performed with an impressive roster of some of the more beloved avant-garde cult figures of our time, including Les Claypool, Charlie Hunter, Stanton Moore, and Bobby Previte. He is leader and mastermind of the ensembles Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois, and Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet. If any of those band names sound too crafty by half, don’t be dissuaded. Also, don’t underestimate any of these projects as being heavy on hilarity and light on proficiency: the noise is most assuredly brought, and any album by any of these groups (including the Les Claypool Frog Brigade) is enthusiastically recommended.
Skerik is an architect of sounds: he constructs sonic scenes, and you are never quite sure how or what is making all of those strange yet exultant noises, but the results are always stylized and immediately recognizable. He operates mostly on tenor and baritone saxophone, but between the gadgets and effects it can sound like a small orchestra, albeit one emerging like steam from a sewage drain during a thunderstorm (in a good way).
There is actually quite a bit more to be said regarding Skerik’s indefatigable nature and (almost) anything goes approach, but you get the picture. His latest project is one you can fall in love with at first sight: the Dead Kenny G’s. I know, right? Again, the amusing moniker, wonderful as it is, may not prepare a new listener for the seriousness of the music and dexterity of the musicians. Of course, anyone familiar with Skerik already understands that his chops are first-rate and he combines passion with irreverence to produce music that is absolutely unique and deeply soulful.
The new release, Operation Long Leash, is the second from this particular outfit (Bewildered Herd came first in 2009). The vibe is pretty much identical: rollicking space jazz that comes in distorted, delightful waves (by space I mean inner space, naturally). Only a trio, the sound is grounded by Brad Hauser’s muscular bass playing and Mike Dillon’s even more muscular drumming. Dillon is also an accomplished vibraphonist, and his embellishment can lighten up the impenetrable if pleasant burst of sax undulations, as well as recall a more straightforward, older school jazz sound. It’s always a kitchen-sink sensibility (again, in a good way) with Skerik, but it’s seldom overwhelming and never grating or over the top.
The proceedings kick off with an instant classic called “Devil’s Playground” (composed by Dillon) that would not be out of place on Critters Buggin’s last release, 2004’s Stampede, which makes perfect sense since all three of these musicians played on that album. The tune shucks and jives in an ebullient call-and-response (again sounding like at least five or six people) and then, as the pace quickens, Skerik storms to the front with a sax solo that is capable of converting any newbie. This is a definitive statement of purpose: the band’s name does mean something; it’s not necessarily a sardonic slap to smooth jazz zombie Kenny G, or even smooth jazz itself, so much as a resolute denunciation of all-things artificial. Skerik and his compatriots are using their uncompromised art to draw an aesthetic line in the sand, and rather than getting all uptight or dejected, they have some fun at the expense of crass commercialization and the general lack of integrity that contaminates our art, our food, and what passes for our political discourse. But never mind all of that: It’s fun, fearless, and, if you are the ass-shaking type, you can get down accordingly.
In attempting to articulate the band’s sound and vision, Skerik has name-checked Bad Brains, the Melvins, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sunn O))), and Fela Kuti. One can discern elements of all these (in a very good way), but what emerges is organic and original, comparable to nothing else. Each subsequent song straddles the line between dark, almost psychedelic abstraction and lucid interplay. Less capable or inspired artists might be too easily inclined to ease into jam-band noodling, but this outfit is too tight and focused: Only two of the songs are over five minutes, and most are right around three-and-a-half. Length is not an issue so long as the music is interesting (of course), but the ability to pull off short-ish songs with so much going on is a considerable achievement. If you want to get a flavor, a couple of representative—and compelling—tracks would include “Black 5” and “Jazz Millionaire”. The latter, of course, tells you just about everything about where these guys are coming from—and it swings as fiercely as anything anyone else out there is doing.
Did I mention that the photo on the inside-flap of the CD features the band in curly black wigs, pointing playfully at the camera? Or that Skerik’s white shirt is splattered with blood? You’ll have to hear this to believe it.