At the start of the Dave Stone Free Jazz Unit's monstrous display of power at the Centro Sociale last Wednesday, 10 improvisers crammed themselves onto the tiny stage, and it seemed as though all the weight would cause it to collapse. And that was before the first note was played. The Unit looked like a misfit big band with a bunch of misfit toys -- cowbells and rain tubes and sheets of metal, wind chimes, trumpets blown through fans, two drum sets, acoustic bass, Stone's tenor sax and alto clarinet, Roland synthesizer -- and as drummer Jim Orso fired the starter's gun with his drumsticks, the Dave Stone Free Jazz Unit was off and running, creating such a din that it clouded the ears.
Of course, a bunch of musicians all competing for the same aural space can be a bit overwhelming, to say the least, especially when they begin with so much gusto. Each was playing at the upper range of his volume, and even without a PA system the pandemonium nailed itself into the walls; it sounded like a train wreck. But that's not the ultimate goal, and on examining the wreckage, the task is to discover a common cause and, bluntly, to figure out a way to gracefully shut everyone the hell up and add a bit of quiet to the mix. Add some dynamics, let the beast breathe a bit. And, sure enough, just as the paint started to peel off the walls and eardrums started getting tired, an implosion sucked the air out of the sound as a gasp of silence filled the stage, and the overwhelming volume was replaced with the sort of sonic beauty and fulfillment that can only be created by free-jazz improvisers tapping into a collective mind. It was almost as though there were an invisible conductor in front of the group, making the throat-slit signal with his baton.
It was at this moment that the crowd begin to realize that these weren't a bunch of hacks banging the shit out of instruments to create noise just for the hell of it, that they were in it for the, for lack of a better word, spirituality, the essence akin to climbing the highest peak in order to peer down on the beauty below. And you could see it on audiences' the faces as quiet tectonic sounds shifted among the musicians: a little grin here, a thousand-yard-stare there. Music that needed no words to explain itself (though that didn't stop surprise guest Floyd LeFlore from bellowing some poetic words, which served to bring the whole thing down from the astral plane for a moment).
Those involved on this night: Dave Stone, Eric Markowitz, Ajay Khanna, Chris Smentkowski, David Parker, Mike Fitzgerald, Jim Orso, Jeremy Brantlinger, Tim Garrigan, Bob Galloway, Derek Leu and Floyd LeFlore (who, as a member of the Black Artists Group in the '70s, served to place the evening's session within a continuum).
After the big band discovered the magic and created a few distinct and transcendent pieces, the tone shifted as musicians wandered away from the stage to allow smaller ensembles to explore different juxtapositions, with mixed results. A few of the groupings failed to reach that secret place; others visited it immediately, and as the hours were whiled away, so did, one by one, the crowd; it seems that only a chosen few aficionados had the wherewithal and brainpower to go whole-hog (we had to split after two hours).
Here's hoping Stone's Unit will continue to search for the same transcendence they uncovered on that earlier night.
BIG APPLE-BOUND:Two members of the Dave Stone Free Jazz Unit, Tim Garrigan and Jeremy Brantlinger -- along with Nathan Warren -- comprise Phut, and for the last few years they've been squeezing out double-guitar-and-drum nut-rock that's heavy on the schizophrenia and light on the Haldol. In these years, Phut has gradually developed a musical language that draws from the looseness of improvisation, the energy of punk and skewed vision of experimentalism, the result being complex and tight compositions. Live, they're the best rock band in St. Louis, bar none, and though their language is thick on the accents and will be dismissed by the rigid and the clueless, they've been a constant light in the city's music scene. Unfortunately for all of us, Phut is disbanding, the result of guitarist Garrigan's impending move to the Big Apple. They're playing one more gig, at the Side Door, on Thursday, Aug. 3, and we encourage all to help celebrate their accomplishments.
LOUNGE LIFE: After the passing of Fred Boettcher, owner of Frederick's Music Lounge on Chippewa Street, the future of the vaunted establishment was in doubt, though all assumed that somehow, some way, Fred Jr., a.k.a. Fred Friction, would inherit and run the place. The assumption was correct: He, along with St. Louis ska kingpin Paul Stark, has not only reopened the place but is offering incentives other than the ever-present bumper pool, conversation and Thursday-night hootenanny. To wit, "Monday Movies," a weekly gathering, will, throughout the summer, feature viewings of original episodes of Twin Peaks, Pee Wee's Playhouse, St. Louis Decades and various other offerings. Says Friction of the success so far, in his usual deadpan delivery: "It's been going over wonderfully. People like the idea of going to a theater where they can drink and smoke.
"I want to be truer to what the sign says outside -- Frederick's Music Lounge," he adds. In the past, patrons had to either hit the lounge on a Thursday or humbly request Fred Sr.'s presence at the piano. But, says Friction, he and Stark willl be adding live music on alternating Tuesdays, as well as on Fridays: Last night, Nadine played. Tuesday, Aug. 8, will feature a performance by the Bottle Rockets. "Their drummer can't make it," he adds, "so they've invited me to sit in on drums with them. But I told them that since they've got such a shitty drummer with them, I can't pay them, except in beer. And they said that was OK. So I've got to listen to all the Bottle Rockets I can between now and then, or just fake it."
Friction and Stark have gussied the place up a bit and are working on the patio outside -- some folks didn't even know of the existence of a patio. "You need to get lost on the way to the bathroom," Friction says, "and go through the wrong door. You'll end up outside. There's a little wishing well, subdued lighting, tables, chairs, a picnic table, a lot of overgrowth and bugs. And we might have a bug-stomping contest coming up soon, because it's cheaper than hiring an exterminator."
EARLY WARNING: The Arcanum Festival is shaping up to be quite an event, one holding so much promise that we've been more than a bit skeptical that the promised lineup is in fact legit. After countless phone calls and confirmations, though, it seems that the festival's line-up, which takes place at the Black River Amphitheater in Lesterville, Mo. (about an hour-and-a-half's drive from downtown) on Aug. 19 and 20, is indeed mostly confirmed and will feature an amazing array of legendary and innovative electronic-dance-music and hip-hop artists.
A quick glimpse of some of the highlights: Prince Paul and Dan "the Automator" Nakamura (collectively known as the Handsome Boy Modeling School); Detroit techno founder Kevin Saunderson; Astralwerks recording artist Q-Burns Abstract Message; Chicago house innovator Jesse Saunders; British avant-techno-head Mixmaster Morris, a.k.a. Irresistible Force; Invisibl Skratch Piklz founder Q-Bert; Detroit techno/electro successor Ectomorph; Brit abstract freak Jega and more than 50 others.