Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey/Dead Kenny G’s, Nightlight Lounge, Bellingham, WA- 2/25
If you weren't at the Nightlight Lounge in Bellingham, WA on February 25 and not many were, maybe 50 altogether then you missed it. Because few words can easily describe what happens when maniacal saxophonist Skerik and percussionist Mike Dillon join Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey onstage.
Located underground, the Nightlight is a bit cave-like, yet it carries class with exposed stone and wood-paneled walls that create a cozy environment. Velvet curtains hang from the low ceiling, cushy black leather chairs are strategically positioned throughout and red lights in the floor cast an eerie glow. As Skerik took to the stage and declared, "People of Washington, The Dead Kenny Gs are here," the setting seemed all too appropriate, the light gleaming off his face.
The band began with a medley of percussion, progressing into a steady marching beat that soon gave way to something downright dark and sinister.
To be blunt, The Dead Kenny Gs’ hardcore punk jazz would devour its namesake in a battle of the bands, ripping him apart piece by piece ‘til nothing was left but bear mush. The band’s approach is frantic; Skerik screamed into the mic attached to his sax one minute, laid down a sultry, meandering solo the next. Brian Haas sat stoically at his keys, almost tentatively playing, and then in the blink of an eye was thrashing at his rig, creating deep and heavy sounds reminiscent of John Medeski. And all the while Dillon sat (or sometimes stood) in the back, banging and slamming on a drum kit, vibes, tabla and whatever else he could find. His rhythmic mastery enables The Dead Kenny Gs’ brand of jazz to work; Haas and Skerik have free reign to put down a few notes here, a few notes there while Dillon ensures the jam doesn’t completely fall apart as he gets down on his percussion playground.
"Geodesic Gnome" which Skerik dedicated to Buckminster Fuller, creator of the geodesic dome traveled from standard-jazz-trio to spacey electronica and back, with a little bit of funk thrown in at the end for good measure. As the tune came to a close, Haas threw on some kind of pre-recorded trance track and Skerik started dancing around repeatedly saying, "Do you like my jazz? Do you like my jazz?" before Haas demonstrated his own dance skills. As the keyboardist whipped out The Robot, Skerik contemptuously asked, "Do you like Brian Haas’ jazz? Huh? What about his jazz? Do you like his jazz?"
Very few outfits can play light and airy French cafe, then send it into crashing dissonance and have it work. But The Dead Kenny Gs make every move with such blistering authority that transitions somehow flow, the hanging-by-a-thread sound indeed intentional. As the trio ended its opening set, Haas leaned into his mic and said, "Glad you could come out on a Monday. We know you’re tired." (It was Saturday night.) It’s this kind of sarcastic, almost holier-than-thou attitude that makes The Dead Kenny Gs tick.
It wasn’t long before Haas was back onstage, this time with his JFJO counterparts in tow. Reed Mathis immediately began to make love to his bass plucking it, caressing it, pulling such high notes out of it it sounded like an electric guitar. In fact, Mathis thumped so hard that by the close of the band’s intro, he’d ripped the skin off a couple of fingers, good-naturedly shaking his head (and hand) at his dedicated approach. Haas soon picked up his melodica, tube in mouth, and placed a lead drone on top of the heavy, low-end bass sounds he pounded from his keys, moving from bored to spastic. JFJO can create a lot of noise for just three guys expansive, almost symphonic elements pouring out in jazz-rock fashion.
The funky "The Maestro" gave way to Bjork’s "Isobel," Haas using his melodica to serenade the crowd, much like a snake charmer. It seemed to take the band a little while to warm up and really get moving but by the time it entered its take on the Fab Four’s "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" the crowd was wailing and cheering and Mathis was sending soaring anthems into the atmosphere.
Haas then inquired about his fellow Dead Kenny G pals "Where are those naughty, naughty boys?" and Skerik and Dillon took to the stage for a little Monk, a little Mingus. Skerik climbed and climbed with his saxophone and the rest of the band met him at the top in an amalgamation of colliding sounds before shifting down into a funky, danceable groove. Dillon jammed on his vibraphone, carrying a smirk across his face. And the audience really threw on its dancing shoes, eager to let loose. The group twisted and turned, going from big band to slow, meditative randomness.
The JFJO trio returned to the stage for a brief encore, drummer Jason Smart dishing out some straight-ahead rock that grew louder and louder until slam-dancing could’ve ensued. It’s this kind of singular experience JFJO and The Dead Kenny Gs create that demands their audiences to be present. And if your bags aren’t packed when they leave port, well, you’ll just have to wait until that ship sets sail again.