Tucson jazz fans with a taste for the avant-garde will enjoy the special holiday gift of seeing and hearing the Brooklyn-based "supergroup" Endangered Blood when it plays Solar Culture Gallery on Monday, Dec. 13.
Music geeks like me will be drooling at the combined experience of the players in Endangered Blood, which recently released its debut album, Endangered Blood, on Skirl Records. Check out this lineup:
Tenor saxophonist Chris Speed has played with the groups Human Feel, Orange Then Blue, the Claudia Quintet, Pachora and yeah NO, and in bands led by Tim Berne, Dave Douglas and Myra Melford. Drummer Jim Black has known Speed for about 25 years, playing in some of the same groups, as well as with Laurie Anderson, Dave Liebman, Ellery Eskelin and with his own rock-oriented AlasNoAxis.
Bassist Trevor Dunn is a veteran of bands such as Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3, the Rova Saxophone Quartet, the Broken Arm Trio, Fantômas, and his Trio Convulsant. Finally, completing the band is native Tucsonan Oscar Noriega, who also has played with Tim Berne, as well as Lee Konitz, Cuong Vu and his own Banda Sinaloense de Los Muertos.
In other contexts, the members of this group have played everything from gypsy music to soul-jazz, from hard bop to free jazz, from Middle Eastern music to experimental metal.
But Speed recently said Endangered Blood is the most "jazz" project in which any of its members is currently involved. He communicated with the Tucson Weekly via e-mail while the group was in Europe.
"We play solos; we play swing; there's plenty of jazz chords, two saxophones and an acoustic bass. Of course, we are putting our own stamp on the jazzy elements, but we are definitely a jazz band."
All of the tunes on Endangered Blood are original compositions, except for Thelonious Monk's classic "Epistrophy," on which the band definitely puts its own stamp.
"I love Thelonious Monk's compositions, and we found a personal way to play this song that captures the integrity and spirit of Monk's original version without sounding too derivative. So, yes, I guess it is just a sweet tune that we give a fresh reading to, and we make it fit with our sound," Speed said.
Although all of the tunes on the new album are credited to Speed as composer, they feature contributions from the whole ensemble, he said. "They are my compositions, and everyone contributes compositionally and improvisationally."
Endangered Blood came together to play a benefit concert for an ailing friend.
"Two years ago, a friend of ours had brain cancer, a terrible shock, and we played a benefit show (as did many other friends) to raise some funds. We called ourselves the Benefit Band, and by demand kept playing shows. Thankfully, our friend is cured and cancer-free, so we changed the name."
Speed has the utmost respect for his bandmates, but in terms of praise, he kept it simple and to the point: "These guys are incredibly gifted and inspiring musicians, and fun to hang out with. ...We're not afraid to get our hands dirty with the music and have a great time making fun of each other."
Although the business of making music has become a difficult one in these times, Speed noted that the quality of jazz and creative music keeps getting better.
"There is so much great music happening, and not so many opportunities, especially to make a living at it," he said. "Maybe it has always been like this. I just try to stay focused on making music well, while dealing with the business is a necessary evil that I try to spend as little time as possible on.
"Being realistic is helpful, and I learned early on that the best way to sell your music is to tour. ... We go wherever people will have us, and I find if the music is good, people will like it, whether or not it is jazz."
Although the members of Endangered Blood come from around the country, they converged on New York City—the borough of Brooklyn, to be exact. "We are a neighborhood band, all living within three blocks of each other," Speed said.
Speed and Black are originally from Seattle and both studied at the New England Conservatory in Boston before moving to New York in the early 1990s. Dunn spent many years in San Francisco before heading east; he has been in Brooklyn for 11 years.
The upcoming concert will provide a brief homecoming for sax player Noriega, who grew up on Tucson's southside and attended Sunnyside High School. He studied at the University of Arizona for a year before leaving Tucson in 1986. From there, he studied at Arizona State University and then headed to Boston, followed by New York.
Speed refers to Noriega as a "Brooklyn legend."
"Oscar is an incredibly soulful and inventive musician, and we've been playing together for years," Speed said. "We also have a clarinet trio with Anthony Burr, and our record The Clarinets was the flagship release from Skirl Records. I should add he is an amazing cook, plays the drums, likes to dance and co-leads Brooklyn's only banda band."
Speaking of musicians from Tucson, opening the Endangered Blood show will be pianist, composer, singer and songwriter Sara P. Smith, who also lives here and has been on the road in the United States and Europe with Endangered Blood.
Formerly from Chicago, Smith settled in Tucson a few years back after an active career as a jazz trombonist, playing and/or recording with such performers as Dizzy Gillespie, Tortoise, Isotope 217, the Chicago Underground Orchestra, Duke McVinnie, Shivaree and actor-painter-poet Viggo Mortensen, among others.
Smith will perform with her group, which includes drummer Gil Rodriguez and bassist Jack Wood. "She's has an incredible spirit, and is a gem of a musician," Speed said of Smith.