Saxophones! Jazz!

15 Aug

Lisa_on_saxLast week was a pretty outstanding week for me in terms of live saxophone music. On Tuesday, I hit up Coda on Duboce to see Spaceheater play, and on wednesday, my old friend Sam’s saxophonetastic indie-jazz band Blue Cranes at Blue Six in the mission.  It was exciting and energizing to hear so much great reed playing in such a short period of time, thought I’d share a bit about both bands.

Spaceheater at Coda


Coda is a brand-new bar/restaurant/jazz club that is now hosting the temporarily-nomadic Jazz Mafia Tuesdays. It’s a really classy space, with high ceilings, brick walls, and a wide, open main room, onto which the main stage opens. They’ve only been open for a few weeks, so they’re still finding their groove – especially wrangling the sound in the room with the high ceilings and all the glass – but on the whole, so far, so good.

Spaceheater is a latin/dub/funk band led by saxophonist/flutist Evan Francis, and they are very cool.  Their personnel is rounded out by Marcus Stephens and Kasey Knudsen on tenor sax, Patrick “Pdub” Korte on drums, and Josh Hari on bass. They were also joined by a percussionist, but the two other names on their myspace site – Scott Thompson and Matt Lucas – are both famous comedians first (Thompson from Kids in the Hall and Lucas from Little Britain) and random singer/songwriters second (Thompson a guitarist from Michigan and Lucas a Christian pop singer).  Sigh.  There are too many people in this world, and not enough names.

Pdub Korte


Anyhow, the band was tight as hell – not a surprise, considering that they’re getting rhythmic support from Pdub Korte, who also plays with several other Jazz Mafia bands, most notably the Shotgun Wedding Quintet. If you’ve ever seen one of these groups play (tell me you have!), you know – not exactly a shortage of groove going on.  I don’t know Josh, but I really dug his bass playing – he and Korte clearly play together quite a bit, and it shows.

One of the most fun things about watching this group (and other jazz groups that fall under the Jazz Mafia umbrella) is seeing how these great players shift themselves to play so many roles.  When Evan and Kasey played with the Nice Guy Trio last month, it was all modern chamber saxophone, open and vulnerable, but also remarkably free.  When they play with Spaceheater, it’s a much more relaxed approach, rooted in the floor and easy to listen to.

So, yeah, everyone sounded great.  Kasey and Marcus are bangin’ players, and the rhythm section, as I mentioned, was killing it. What really stands out to me about the band is Evan’s writing and playing – he’s got a really interesting approach to horn voicing and composition, all parallel lines and close harmonies, usually voiced by two tenors and a flute.  It looks like the group has involved tenor, trombone and flute in the past, and I could see that working from a similar place, voicing-wise.  As it stood, the reed-centric horn section really had flow, and on a few of the tunes, in particular, Evan’s arranging just worked. And what’s more, the guy is just a really cool dude, and a burning flutist (he tore it up at Adam Theis’s hip-hop symphony) and it’s totally fun to watch him play.  This is what I’m talking about:

Spaceheater plays all over the place – they’ve got a residency at Yoshi’s SF on the first tuesday of every month and it’s only $3! They’re out front, not onstage, and I bet that’s a great place to see them.

Blue Cranes at Bluesix


Oh, man, this band.  Blue Cranes is an experimental sax-fronted quintet out of Portland.  And they rule.  Seriously.  Sam Howard, an old friend of mine from UMiami, subs on bass with them quite a bit, and has actually been down this way on tour before, but I hadn’t seen them until Wednesday night.  Before the show, I was asking him what they sound like, what the term “Indie Jazz,” which he’d used to explain their sound to me in the past, really meant.

“You know when Britney Spears shaved her head? It sounds like that.”


So... pretty much like this?

Blue Cranes’ setup involves a fairly standard jazz rhythm section – upright bass, drum kit and keyboards (both standard piano sounds and a synthesizer) played by Sam, Ji Tanzer and Rebecca Sanborn, and fronted by Joe Cunningham (“Sly Pig”) and Reed Wallsmith on the tenor and alto saxes, respectively.

What is less than standard about the band is the music they play, and the way they play it.  Basically, they play inside, triumphant pop melodies mixed with free-jazz explorations.  It’s not the template of all of their tunes, but several times, I was struck at how effectively the band would pivot from a driving, lyrical section of ones and fours and fives straight into a wide-open free-blowing situation, bringing things sometimes to an utter standstill before building them back up.  It was incredibly well implemented, particularly on their second tune of the night, “Love, Love, Love,” (by Seattle composer Wayne Horvitz), which came down to an almost impossibly sparse improvisation by Sly Pig and the band before building its way back to a ferocious ending.  You can see a video of them performing the tune here:

What’s more, by adding Sanborn’s Hanne Hukkelberg-esque synth (or, if you prefer, Napoleon Dynamite-ish), they really do get a sort of “Indie” sound that, when combined with the strong saxophone melodies, makes for a listening experience that is quite unique.  Other highlights from the set included an inspired cover of Sufjan’s “Seven Swans,” a punk-rock tune that played like an exercise in rhythmic displacement (Drums and bass on two and four!  Now one and three!  Now two and four!  Now back!)  Sam mentioned to me that they’ve been doing a lot of shows with punk bands, and that when they do a lot of this material, it’s about 200% louder than it was at Bluesix.

Inside Bluesix

Inside Bluesix

Which is cool, but man, as much as I dug the playing, and the writing, perhaps the thing I enjoyed most of all was the dynamic contrast that Blue Cranes brought.  From the quietest whisper to the loudest, fullest saxophone roar, it was just so engaging to listen to music that displayed so much contrast.  A good deal of this owes to the great room – I’ve never been to Bluesix before, but it is an absolutely fantastic place to see live music.  It’s quite a bit like the Red Poppy, actually – a listening room/art gallery with a small wine bar and a close, warm vibe that encourages focused listening.  I have never been to a bar where Pig’s solo on “Love Love Love” would have been possible.

Bluesix is run by bassist/rennaissance man Joe Lewis, a big, super-nice guy who plays around town with a ton of groups.  His dedication to music, and to running a room where great, uncommon music is possible, really shows – I really loved the club, and hope to play there soon.

I am, of course, not really doing either of these groups justice with my writing, but I hope that by telling you a few of my thoughts and impressions that you’ll check them out.  Spaceheater plays all over the city and features really groovy writing and some amazing horn arrangements.  Blue Cranes comes to town not infrequently and are doing some of the most interesting, rewarding, and exciting acoustic jazz I’ve seen in a long time.  Check them out, support them, and go see ’em live!

Blue Cranes

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