By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
The members of Denver's Blue City 5 take a philosophical approach to their work. The performers feel that their music is not going anywhere and doesn't come from anywhere, either. It simply exists in eternal space and time.
This theory might seem hard to swallow, particularly for an act described by pianist and musical director Dmitri "Sarge" Rynack as "the updated, ecological version of the Forties supper-club band--a Louis Jordan type of thing." But in this group, which also includes bassist Trixie Merkin, vocalist Jack Wartell and drummer Timmy Wilson, it's all but impossible to separate music from metaphysics.
"A lot of the energies in music--and life--are softer, quieter," Rynack explains. "What we're doing is not about getting anywhere or playing a thousand notes on stage at one time. It's about opening up. Life is about that."
Merkin's playing exemplifies these values: Instead of turning up her amplifier until her bass rattles listeners' loose dental fillings, she uses her instrument to approximate the quiet but ever-present beating of a heart. It's an approach that she says has baffled bookers at some local venues. "A lot of club owners don't really know what they want, but they sense that they need a different interaction in the room--and they think that can be accomplished if you just play loud. Turn it up," she says. "On some things, that's okay. But this is not about playing it loud. This is about understanding the music."
The musicians take an equally novel approach toward the 5's fifth member. You see, there isn't one--at least not on a regular basis. The band most often relies on jazz virtuoso Tonk Edwards or blues-to-the-bone player Johnny Long to add guitar parts for live dates. Fortunately, the act's nucleus is made up of Merkin and Rynack; while playing, they egg each other on to create more interesting sounds. In a very real sense, Blue City 5 is a mingling of their two very different personalities.
Rynack came to Blue City after spending eight years on the road with guitarist Anson Funderburgh's well-regarded blues band. He says relocating to Denver was part of a conscious effort to slow down and savor life. "In Anson's band, it was 300 nights a year of high-energy playing," he notes in a very cool, very Zen, very Neal Cassady-like tone. "Fast. Hard. And that's okay. That's a part of life, too. But everything has a high side and a low side. A dark side and a light side. All of it is good. It's just about playing in different orbits."
In contrast to Rynack's post-Beat aura, Merkin comes across as an artistic fireball. She just turned fifty, but she's got the body of a twenty-year-old. Merkin credits Sixties icon Dr. Richard Alpert--now known as Ram Dass--for getting her into music. "We were at Stanford," she recalls. "He gave us a whole bunch of hits of acid and a synthesizer." Merkin went on to become an in-demand bassist during the musical explosion that struck San Francisco circa the Summer of Love, with Rolling Stone dubbing her "Woman of the Year" in 1968. More recently, she co-founded Monkey Siren, and the eclectic costumes she designed for her fellow bandmembers helped define that group's visual style. She's also a great visual artist, albeit one who's very private about her work in the field.
Blue City's repertoire includes originals interspersed with interpretations of blues and jazz classics, and the performers' technical skills range from superb to promising. Wartell may resemble the sort of aging intellectual found at late-night coffeehouses or Naropa Institute seminars, but he sounds like a cross between a Sinatra-style lounge singer and an old blues belter. As for Wilson, he throws himself so completely into being, rather than just playing, his drums that he's practically faceless. Together with Rynack and Merkin, they are a weird sight: pre-boomers infusing hipness into geezer blues and swing. For all their talk about musical intangibles, they seem most fond of covering old blues tunes that sing the praises of fat women, big legs and middle-age sag.
Clearly, the band's presentation is eccentric enough to require both open ears and personal exposure. Rynack says it best: "We accept that as far as accessibility, what people recognize and how they listen and what they listen for--[that] isn't often what you are playing. We want to play less on stage, not more. That's a space that's good for what we do to come about. We're into the different energies. Where less is more."
Blue City 5. 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, November 11 and 12, Mall Exchange, 1580 Lawrence Street, $2, 573-1400.