The explosion of interest in so-called alternative music that began in the early ’90s has largely neglected perhaps the most alternative of all musical genres; experimental or “new” music. Coming out of free jazz and extended improvisation, new music performers seek to extend the possibilities first identified by John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Derek Bailey, and Cecil Taylor (among many others) and to use sound in new and exciting ways. Thanks to saxophonist and composer Colter Frazier, Santa Barbara has a consistently high quality series presenting the best new music in the west at Muddy Waters Cafe twice a month.
This Thursday’s edition features an appearance by pianist Jacob Koller and his Music for Bowlers trio. Koller’s approach, which has been compared to that of break-out new music group the Bad Plus, is broad-ranging and highly accessible. Sharing the bill with Koller’s Bowlers are Colter Frazier and percussionist Rob Wallace, along with veteran bassist Hal Onserud and the Hal Onserud Trio. Onserud has all the best qualities of a new music player-intense musicality, razor-sharp reflexes, and a boundlessly weird and irreverent imagination. I have spoken with Frazier on a few occasions since first meeting him in 2007. What follows is drawn largely from two interviews.
You are so young to be involved in this scene. How did you get exposed to new music? I played clarinet for a long time in school bands, then switched to sax. I went to UC Santa Cruz, and that’s where I came into contact with free improv-through playing in jam bands.
You have worked hard to make this music happen here. Why is that? That kind of stuff [new music/free improv] is my one true love. I play in cocktail lounges and on yachts in town as the sax player in conventional jazz combos, but honestly that’s for money. My creative energies are all going to this. In the Colter Frazier Quartet I’ve just finished recording a CD of all my compositions, scored for sax, drums, bass, and viola. Rob Wallace is the drummer, and Nick Coventry plays viola. He’s also in oso and he was in Les Gendarmes du Swing. Nick’s everywhere musically. He’s badass.
I have a duo with Rob Wallace that I have done for a while, but the quartet with the viola is where I am headed now, especially as a composer. When I first started this group I was mostly writing for violin, because Nick plays both. But then I wrote one piece for the viola, and there is something with the timbre of the tenor sax and the viola, the way they blend and their range that I found compelling, so that’s the direction we decided to go. The music is composed, but with improvised sections, and not a lot of very composed melodies. The viola is mostly bowed, rather than pizzicato.
How do you get people out to the shows? Yes, well, new music-it’s a word-of-mouth genre. When I started doing shows in the fall of 2006, I was in Isla Vista, and mostly the people who showed up were undergraduates. The crowds are not big, and it fluctuates, but since that’s where I started this, I have appropriate expectations, and I really enjoy the people who come out. That’s been one of the greatest things about doing all these shows-the people are there because of the music. With my productions, there are no other factors involved but the love of the music. People don’t come to drink : but they can have a drink. And it’s definitely not about being seen there, or belonging to a certain clique.
What makes this your passion? Because, for a musician, it’s the most personal music you can play. Nothing is doctored or fixed up beforehand, and to have an audience that is just there to appreciate what you do is amazing. I’ve played spaces with this music where people are there for other motives, and this music in that atmosphere doesn’t necessarily work. That’s why I would rather have a small audience that really wants it, that wants to be there.
Do you get tired from doing two shows a month? I go in waves of energy, but mostly I’m stoked about it. It’s been a great way for me to connect with a lot of people.
Are the musicians easy to relate to? Yes, for sure. There are no handlers in this scene. Musicians don’t show up with their publicists, because they are their publicists. I also feel a sense of mission. The genre is so : kind of suppressed, culturally. It might even be at a low ebb now in terms of awareness. So that gives me a cause to be for-something bigger than just myself and my own music.
The Santa Barbara New Music Series takes place every second and fourth Thursday of the month at Muddy Waters Cafe (508 E. Haley St.) at 8 p.m. This week’s performance features Jacob Koller’s Music for Bowlers and the Hal Onserud Trio. For more information, visit colterfrazier.com.