Call It What You Will
The Monterey Jazz Festival’s New Grooves party showcases expansive ideas about what jazz means.
Thursday, September 15, 2005
It’s unlikely that many of the attendees at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival include the band Banyan on their list of jazz favorites. And it’s even less likely that any of the band’s recordings can be found in the jazz section of their local record store. However, an honest listen to Banyan’s intuitive improvisation, superlative playing, and melodic-yet-daring experimentations shows that this band is clearly expanding the definition of jazz.
Since its inception three years ago, MJF’s Friday night New Grooves party has been doing what it will do this year, with help from Banyan: introduce new styles, fresh sounds and music that expands the jazz idiom just a little bit wider.
Banyan was founded by Stephen Perkins, drummer for the post-punk progressive rock bands Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros. Perkins’ bandmates for the MJF gig include Mike Watt (an LA-based punk rock bassist still revered for his work with the bands Minutemen and fIREHOSE), Nels Cline (a longtime avant-garde jazz and rock guitarist who has recently joined the alt-country band Wilco), and trumpeter Willie Waldman (who has recorded with rap icons Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, and Xzibit). While these credentials may not sound like your typical MJF players, the music they are playing is undeniably jazz.
Combining languorous fusion numbers with driving, up-tempo tunes, Banyan displays musicianship that is varied and impressive in its authenticity.
“Banyan is all about personality,” explains Stephen Perkins. “It’s all improv and it’s all about letting our audience know who we are and what we’re about. When we get on stage together, we’re all pushing the envelope as far as we can as a band, and still letting our own individual styles come through.
“I’m kind of hyper and all about primitive, tribal rhythms, and you can hear that in my drumming. There is no one more punk-rock than Mike Watt, and his style is very proud, melodic and aggressive, yet entirely unpretentious. He has a great spirit that comes flying out of his bass.
“Nels Cline is from Jupiter as far as guitar playing goes, but is also extremely intelligent. He is always trying to take it as far out there as he can, into the spaceadelic realms.
“Willie Waldman is a trumpet player who loves to play in a hard-rock style. He rises to the electric occasion, in a Bitches Brew and On the Corner kind of way. He has a lot of energy—like a cheerleader for the group.
“We’re all the type of people who like to live life as much as we can and put that into our music. We want to be as honest as we can as players and improvisers.”
The music is daring, inventive, compelling and somehow always accessible. Banyan is all about inclusion—inclusion of surroundings, players, influences and life experiences. Friday night’s performance will also feature Memphis legends Calvin Newborn on guitar and Herman Green on saxophone.
“Those guys bring a traditional flavor to our free-form West Coast style,” Perkins says. “Our sound is definitely going to change over the course of the night, especially once we add those two into the mix. There is going to be a real sense of unpredictability on stage.
“We’re also going to have artist Norton Wisdom on stage with us, painting while we play, kind of like a real-life laser light show.
“I am extremely honored and excited to be playing here, presenting our music to a new audience, so I intend to make it a real soul search.”
• • • SCOFIELD'S NEW TRICKS
It is rare when a musician can effortlessly travel from one style to the next while keeping the same level of virtuosity and sincerity in each one, but guitar legend John Scofield is one of those players.
This year’s Showcase Artist, Scofield is known for playing a brand of jazz that’s nearer familiar territory for most MJF regulars. However, Scofield’s Uberjam band, which will join Banyan for the New Grooves set, is a far cry from his standard act.
Scofield describes it as “electronic funky jazz that combines electronic samples and contemporary funk beats.”
He sees it as a kind of bridge between the past and the future.
“The beats were around before the samples, but it’s very 21st century,” he says. “It’s all a kind of dance music and it’s all supposed to groove.”
Scofield is reluctant to even name this genre of jazz. “No category is ever really accurate when you try to classify music,” he says, “so I like it just to be.
“I think this kind of music may be the kind I am most comfortable playing. I started out playing jazz-rock. The Uberjam concept has been progressing and evolving since 1998. The compositions come out of the jams, so it’s a very collective process. I had to search for a long time to find the right players for this band, but now that I’ve found them, the groove can be relentless. Avi Bortnick is monster of rhythm guitar and he’s turned into magician with his sampling. Adam Deitch is the funk master, the exact guy I wanted on drums, and Mark Kelly is a fantastic, solid bass player. These guys give me everything they have and it just takes off.”
This year’s New Grooves does portend to be an evening that will take off into the realm of unexplored musical territory. When artists drop their barriers and get down to the raw improvisational soul of their music, there is nothing truer to the spirit of jazz. This New Groove will do an old jazz fan good.
BANYAN AND UBERJAM PLAY IN DIZZY’S DEN AT THE MONTEREY FAIRGROUNDS FRIDAY NIGHT.