Improving Upon Perfection, Part Seven

(Parts 1-6 of this series here, here, here, here, here and here.)

Having just written, at length, about King Crimson (check it HERE), it seems appropriate to revisit another song from their remarkable early-’80s era. It makes even more sense to choose the song “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (an anagram for “heat in the jungle”) as we head into what might be the hottest day of the year.

Here is a snippet from the KC feature, appraising this era of the band:

It was during the next string of albums, commencing with Discipline (1981) that King Crimson set itself apart as the only original era prog band to make significant (not to mention enjoyable) music after 1980. A case could be made that Discipline represents some of their finest playing/composing. Retaining Bruford and recruiting the ludicrously versatile bassist Tony Levin, it was the audacious decision to employ a second guitarist (Adrian Belew, who also handled vocal duties) that gives this collective its characteristic sound.

Fripp had not been inactive during King Crimson’s hiatus: his work with Brian Eno, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel feature some of the most inspired—and imitated—guitar pyrotechnics of his career. His exposure to new wave, complemented by an increasingly globe-ranging palette, alongside Belew’s supple support, results in material that is challenging yet concise.

(On this track the impact of second-guitarist, vocalist and visionary Adrian Belew is immediate and indelible.)

From 1981:

And, for good measure, here they are doing it live.

How do you improve upon that? Well, you can’t obviously. But you can have fun with it. Les Claypool, excuse me, Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, incorporated this gem (who does that? who would ever have thought to go there? who could have pulled it off? These are all rhetorical questions) into their live sets in the early ’00s.

I’ve written a bit about Claypool (HERE), and suffice it to say, he ranks high on the ledger of artists (and iconoclasts) I most admire.

This album clocked in at #49 on my personal list of 50 albums from the last decade (more on that HERE). My assessment of the album is below:

Official title: Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade: Live Frogs, Set One. To be certain, set two (a ballsy –and brilliant– cover of Pink Floyd’s uncoverable masterpiece Animals) is also enthusiastically recommended. As impressive as Claypool and crew’s deconstruction of Floyd is, the most satisfying cover on either set is their spirited take on King Crimson’s (uncoverable!) “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (Critters Buggin saxophonist and guest genius Skerik –more on him HERE– is typically en fuego throughout these proceedings). You have to bring more than a little to the table to keep up with Claypool, but if you’ve got game, and are ready to follow him down the rabbit hole, the subsequent delights are considerable.

Claypool has been nothing if not productive and boundary-pushing in his admirable career, but the turn of the century found him as inspired and engaged as he’s ever been: between the Flying Frog gigs and his short-lived stint with semi-supergroup Oysterhead, Les was living large. This music does not appeal to any superficial demographic, but it’s also not weird for weird’s sake; it’s intense, ebullient and a window into the restless mind of one our true contemporary trailblazers.

And, for good measure, here they are doing it live.


Garage A Trois: Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil

Skerik & Co. do it again.

One of the great things about supergroups is that they are…great (or super—take your pick).

The reason so many so-called supergroups have flamed out, at least in the rock world, is because of those twin-killers of chemistry: ego and ambition. Think the Police. Other times, some or all of the musicians simply could not coexist. Think Cream.

This is seldom an issue in jazz circles for one major reason. All jazz outfits, comparatively in terms of talent and acumen, are by default supergroups. Yet big heads are rare. This is not to suggest that jazz musicians—particularly the fortunate handful who have achieved some degree of fame—are impervious to either ego or ambition, but it applies according to scale.

Which brings us to Garage A Trois. Now four official releases in, they are also officially a quartet, having added vibes wizard Mike Dillon on their second outing, and this release, like 2009’s Power Patriot, features keyboardist Marco Benevento standing in for—or replacing—guitarist Charlie Hunter.

A case could be made that this band gets better with each release. In truth, each previous album has unique and indispensable moments, and all of them are definitely recommended. Nevertheless, Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil sounds like a serious band trying to make a cohesive, focused statement. They have, managing to deepen their distinctive sound with a set of songs that are strategically sequenced for maximum effect.

None of this should be at all surprising. The quartet, very familiar with one another (especially Dillon and sax player/spiritual leader Skerik, who currently work together in both the Dead Kenny Gs and Critters Buggin’), is fully playing to its individual and collective strengths. And with all respect to the incredible guitarist Charlie Hunter (who played on the first two albums), Marco Benevento is a perfect fit for this band: his combination of impeccable chops and quirky cleverness is an ideal match for Skerik’s saxophonic assault. Finally, there is Stanton Moore, the funky drummer, who rolls with the punches, providing (mostly) muscle or finesse with typical Big Easy élan.

Between Benevento’s swarm of sounds and Skerik’s patented saxophonic stylings, it is not always possible to determine which instruments are doing what, but, of course, it doesn’t matter. These guys are tinkerers, but they are also masterful technicians; as always, to expand on convention generally presumes a certain level of mastery. To make music that sounds like this (and nothing else sounds like this), you have to not only know how it will sound, but how to make those sounds.

That last point might get to the heart of what makes this particular incarnation of Garage A Trois so powerful. Skerik has spent more than a decade whittling away at jazz (and musical) cliché, cultivating a unique and rewarding approach. There is not really anyone else out there who can encroach on the territory he’s created for himself and his various ensembles. Add the prodigiously, almost frighteningly talented Benevento—another musician who has worked hard and had a lot of fun obliterating the typical rules of engagement—and we have two of the more audacious iconoclasts on the scene.

It may (but shouldn’t) be surprising to know that, despite the aforementioned accolades, this music is never indulgent or self-consciously inaccessible. In fact, it’s remarkably straightforward, albeit in the sense that it won’t remind you of many things you’ve ever heard. Although if you have spent any time appreciating Morricone film scores and are at least acquainted with free jazz from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and won’t blink if those two source points get funneled through a distinctively funky filter, this may be something you want a part of. The compositions on this set are incredibly tight and most clock in at four minutes or less. If they were longer, that would, naturally, be okay as well, but the restraint demonstrated is clearly in the service of atmosphere and effect.

Getting back to how well the material is sequenced: the first four tracks, all composed by the ever-improving and impressive Mike Dillon, are full of the filthy mirth one might expect and upbeat—and with Stanton Moore in the house, the emphasis is on the beat. The next several songs are showcases for the other members: “The Drum Department” allows Moore to exhibit his “drum pummeling” as the credits boast, while “Swellage” and “Thumb” (both composed by Benevento) are like surreal cartoon music—Carl Stalling on shrooms. “Baby Mama Drama” is a bit darker and enables Skerik to creep from corner to corner, imparting a film noir vibe. The noir/soundtrack elements (complete with echoey effects and cries that may be human or…not) build to an inevitable and appropriate conclusion with a cover of John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” theme. It is a brilliant choice that epitomizes the feel of the entire album: gritty ‘70s underground shot through a postmodern prism as only these four cats could conceive it.

It’s always difficult, to varying degrees, to try and describe music in a way that is both honest and accurate. How, ultimately, can you choose words to reflect a form of expression that purposefully eschews spoken language? You are entitled, if not obliged, to report what types of feelings and images the sounds evoke, and if you are familiar with the artists’ aesthetic, you can reasonably offer some suggestions of what they may be after. It is still, in the end, a hopelessly inadequate way of articulating what Garage A Trois pulls off yet again. Perhaps the most efficient strategy would be to say, simply and urgently: you need this shit.


The Dead Kenny Gs: Operation Long Leash

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.


Stanton Moore: III
Stanton Moore
US release date: 26 September 2006
UK release date: 30 October 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

A Native Son Makes an Unwavering Statement for the City That Made Him.

Musician’s musician? Underappreciated artist? Magnet for talented contemporaries? Stanton Moore is all of these things, and more. And so, even if his third album as a leader does not make him more of a household name, it certainly contributes to an already estimable and original body of work.
That his latest recording, the uncomplicatedly titled III, arrives little more than a year after Hurricane Katrina is both appropriate and inevitable: as much as any present-day musician, Moore is a product of and ambassador for the Big Easy. Born and bred in New Orleans, Moore cut his teeth in the early ‘90s funk band Galactic, and throughout that decade formed friendships and cultivated associations with kindred spirits in and outside of his hometown, which culminated in his first solo outing All Kooked Out!. The line-up on his even better second solo album, 2001’s Flyin’ the Koop, reads like a who’s who of many of the more cerebral jam-band jazzers of the new millennium: Skerik (sax player and sonic provocateur, who has played with seemingly everyone, from Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade to his own incredible band Critters Buggin’), Karl Denson (Greyboy Allstars, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe), and Chris Wood (Medesk, Martin and Wood). At the same time, Moore joined forces with eight-string guitar wizard Charlie Hunter and, along with the peripatetic Skerik, formed the drolly named Garage a Trois, who have proceeded to casually dash off inspired albums, culminating in their latest, 2005’s tour de force Outre Mer.
Less than a month after Outre Mer, Hurricane Katrina hit, bringing New Orleans a one-two punch of Nature’s ire and governmental incompetence, and it is in the wake of this disaster that Moore assembled the band that recorded III. Moore was among the innumerable residents who experienced substantial property damage, but made his presence felt in Katrina’s aftermath, donating equipment and participating in a number of benefit concerts. Needless to say, his decision to record in the renowned Preservation Hall in New Orleans is a statement of both defiance and reverence.
Perhaps because of the self-induced pressure—or lack thereof—of making an album in the French Quarter, Moore has risen to the occasion and produced a very personal, yet engaging effort. As with every endeavor Moore oversees, there is an organic, almost effortless groove, and the funk flows freely. Much of the dirty authenticity this album achieves is attributable to organist Robert Walter (Greyboy Allstars), who composed half of the songs. And those (understandably) expecting to hear Charlie Hunter will be (pleasantly) surprised by the appearance of Will Bernard (T.J. Kirk). Luckily, Skerik lends his inimitable assistance and trombonist Mark Mullins (Bonerama) makes some stellar contributions. The first seven songs cruise along with confidence and a Big Easy élan, as if this group has played together for years. Early highlights include “Licorice”, which sounds like a greasier Medeski, Martin and Wood, with Bernard’s less-is-more soloing providing depth and edge. “Chilcock” is an irresistible jam straight outta J.B.’s territory, featuring some tasty trombone licks courtesy of Mullins. By the seventh track, “Maple Plank”, Bernard really starts to assert himself, and suddenly the thick and frothy organ is undercut with some barbed wire slide guitar while Moore pumps the engine like a cool conductor.
Thus far, the album has been a charged and exciting affair, but it is on the last three songs that the proceedings—thus far very solid—are elevated to something quite special. The trifecta of covers begins with a poignant rendition of Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Water from an Ancient Well”. The stirring restraint of this gorgeous composition is followed by an ominous take on “When the Levee Breaks”, a Delta blues song originally written in response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (another remake of which consequently concludes the most popular album of a moderately well-known rock band). A song that at once recalls a recent catastrophe and portends a larger one (which, of course, came to pass), the message is no longer a warning so much as a tribute to powerless voices that should not be silenced. Moore’s snare and the somber organ turn this into a sort of military-style waltz, a properly elegiac treatment of this long-predicted, and arguably preventable tragedy, while Bernard’s sinister slide provides indignant commentary on the sorry state of affairs. And, finally, the “mini-suite” culminates with the spiritual “I Shall Not Be Moved”, an appropriately serene declaration that manages to be both triumphant and redemptory. To be certain, this is superlative music performed by artists at the top of their games, and while that is more than enough, some albums simply cannot be separated from the context of their creation. That Stanton Moore chose these last three songs and recorded on the soil that made him a native son only augments this soulful encomium for the city he works in, and for.