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Skerik’s Bandalabra

by Jeff Nania on September 13, 2012

RED SQUARE, SEPT. 10

“One man steals on another man’s birthday,” Skerik improvised on two events he had heard about. “It’s one man’s birthday, another man had his bike stolen. What does it mean? I think they’re both motivated by the same thing: SEX.” And then he playfully sang about the two grand motivators, money and sex, as the rest of the group got a groove happening behind him. “There’s only one peaceful way to deal with this,” he said as he lowered the sax to his mouth and blew the horn.

Skerik technically plays tenor sax, but onstage he does so much more than just that. Every time he brings another electronic effect or a new technique into the mix, he does it in a way that makes it seem like a whole new instrument. He is not gratuitous with his use of effects, but rather knows exactly what belongs where. For instance, the very first mostly improvised “piece” of the evening got going with some repetitive licks but then saw more extended improvisation with long lines and the whole deal. The second piece started with a single crescendo from Skerik’s horn, pushing through a harmonizer that repeated over and over until the group essentially boiled over. Later, he waxed revolutionary as he vocalized through the horn like a megaphone.

“When the Capitol is empty, convene at Red Square,” Skerik declared after a positive uproar from the captivated audience—50 to 60 on a Monday night. “The revolution will begin at Red Square” he said, and you could believe it after what the group just played.

The quartet were able to blend the integrity of “jazz,” in a traditional instrumentation of upright bass, jazz kit and hollow-body guitar, with forays into Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk, with the downright badass force of punk, electric blues and Afrobeat, with minimalist Steve Reich-ian soundscapes.

“I feel like we should take advantage of you . . .” Skerik said, “sonically, I mean,” before they went into some “jazz shit.” He blew the melody to Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” over and over, as is tradition, but in a very nontraditional way, and ended the tune by playing the head to Monk’s “Ruby My Dear.” As soon as that one ended, they went into the most Afrobeat tune of the night with real rhythmic staccato guitar and deep, woody drum and bass.

The approach of Skerik’s group was essentially to create live improvisations that are as stable as written-out compositions. They had certain themes that they worked from, but Skerik often would searchingly improvise until the group coalesced on a groove.

The Bandalabra have their first album out, called Live at the Royal Room, which was recorded at their first public performance and in which you can hear some of the recognizable grooves and spaces that recur at their live shows. The real magic of this project is in the way they meld mind and body music into a futuristic bistro of sound.

“It’s last-song-of-the-night time” Skerik said, “And we’re going to let Andy start it.” Skerik sort of suggested they do some Led Zeppelin and guitarist Andy Coe, sure enough, went into a brilliant “No Quarter” that jammed its way into “Kashmir.” Before heading into the epic Zep jam, Skerik and Coe teased the infamous theme to Dragnet and brought it back to finish the night for real.

The Seattle-based group have been playing together as a unit for about a year, but their first tour stop was in Minneapolis on Sept. 3, making Albany their one-week anniversary.