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Ashley Kirby, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for Boulder's Zestfinger, insists on setting the record straight. "We love to jam, but not hippie jam," he asserts. "Our sound is very jazz- and funk-oriented. No trace of Jerry Garcia here."
Kirby's disclaimer is a necessity, since a cursory reading of Zestfinger's resume could easily make the band's seven members seem like wanderers in the neohippie netherland. Kirby, saxophonist Rick Demey, bassist Chris Wright and trumpeter/vocalist/songwriter Matt Planer played together for three years as the typically Boulderesque Pleasure Nuggets before forming Zestfinger last November with pianist/ Hammond B-3 expert Bill McKay, drummer Dave Watts and rhythm guitarist Scott Woods. And there's no denying that Zestfinger shares with its Grateful Dead-inspired peers a fondness for prolonged jams. "Everyone in the band is a great soloist, and everybody deserves the spotlight," claims Planer, who moonlights with Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass. "We leave a section of every song open to let things happen on stage. Some of the best jams we've had are when we all break down and stretch out. We love to keep our fingers zesty all night long."
But Woods adds that the band's penchant for extending tunes comes from an appreciation of jazz, not a love of the Dead. "All of us come from different musical cultures, so it's hard to categorize our sound," he explains. "When we break down, we take off into a slow, jazzy swing. It's definitely not the stereotypical Boulder approach. It's more like a free-form jazz improvisation. We try to explore a new definition of music."
Zestfinger's love of funk music is another key to its methodology. The group cites Parliament/Funkadelic and Maceo Parker as major influences, and it's been known to throw a rousing fifteen-minute cover of James Brown's "Soul Power" into its sets.
And then there are Kirby's lyrics, which he scribbles in a weathered notebook that rarely leaves his side. The notebook also contains erotic drawings and twisted short stories. His latest tale--a chilling story about a serial killer who cruises the dusty streets of Albuquerque searching for the vulnerable--is due to be translated into an eerie number this fall.
According to Kirby, his pensive couplets are intended as more than mere filler between instrumental workouts. "I want the audience to evoke a meaning from the song and then take it from there," he says. "The direct root of our music is not to appease the notion of getting to the bottom of something. We just provide the metaphor and then let the listener decide its meaning."
The introspective quality of Kirby's writing can be traced to his childhood. As a young boy, he had trouble identifying with other kids and sought solace in music and writing. Encouraged by a grandfather who wanted a musician in the family, he learned to sing by practicing Irish airs. Likewise, Planer's grandfather, a minister who oversaw a small Baptist congregation, played a significant role in his grandson's development by insisting that he join the church choir. But it was another acquaintance who pointed Planer in the right musical direction.
"The cello, not the trumpet, was my favorite instrument when I was little," Planer remembers. "But there was an old fisherman who used to bring his dog along with a six-pack and sit by the shore near our lake house in Wisconsin. One day he brought me a trumpet, and I put the cello aside."
Planer's instrument of choice is an important ingredient in Zestfinger's stew. The two-piece horn section draws its influence from New Orleans Dixieland, marking yet another deviation from the hippie genre.
But vocals are what truly differentiate Zestfinger from its Boulder brethren. Kirby is becomingly modest about his contributions in this regard. "I've been singing for four years, and I'm just beginning to learn what it is to sing," he concedes as he tosses his hair out of a blue velvet top hat.
Planer is more willing to boast. "All of our songs are centered around a powerhouse of three-part vocal harmonies," he contends. "We create a thick wall of sound, fill up the space rhythmically but leave enough room to let things happen on stage. We feed off live energy."
Banking on their reputation among clubgoers, the players are planning a debut CD that plays to their strengths. Half of the platter will be cut at their new studio in Boulder Heights, while the remainder is to be recorded live at the Fox Theatre this September.
The disc should help listeners decide: Is Zestfinger just another Boulder combo, or is the Zest better than the rest?