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Out of the Blue

The Blue Noise Band's brilliant amalgam of sounds may make jazz purists see red.

Talk about mood swings. Just about the time you grab a sonic handle on the Blue Noise Band ("Listen, Margaret, there's a real purty steel-guitar waltz"), it slips away and the tune instantly morphs into something else ("Jesus, Mags, it's Napalm Death!"). Born and raised in the musical melting pot of Austin, Texas, Blue Noise delights in bending genres and warping forms, defying categories and forging strange new alliances. Be prepared for this brazen quartet to fuse Yiddish folk music with Ornette-ish free jazz. And don't be surprised if Shostakovich suddenly crashes the party -- with a gangsta-rap posse in tow. No wonder the group's first CD was called Multi-Purpose (1999, Aerosol).

"We come from jazz roots," says BNB's 23-year-old saxophonist, David Lobel. "Structurally, that's how our music works. 'Head' arrangements and improvisational freedom. But you can't necessarily throw us in the jazz bin. We're very much into crossing boundaries."

No kidding. While jazz traditionalists may recoil at the notion of Duke Ellington slipping into bed with the Sex Mob, Blue Noise thinks it's high time that jazz expanded its vocabulary and took a jolt of adrenaline. "Jazz is progression," Lobel says. "It's supposed to move ahead. The whole idea of jazz was to take other musics and experiment with them, to push the musical limits." From such a view springs a BNB tune called "Ricky Ricardo's Balkan Dance Party," a blast of musical hallucination that manages to integrate Latin extroversion with mittel-European melancholy, and "v 2.5," in which fuzzed-out rock bass meets a delicate web of classical guitar lines.

Austin's Blue Noise Band colors between the lines of stylistic convention.
Austin's Blue Noise Band colors between the lines of stylistic convention.

The members of the quartet, all in their twenties, are ably (if diversely) outfitted for exploration. Raised in Great Neck, New York, Lobel has absorbed everyone from Claude Debussy to Eric Dolphy. His former University of Texas dormmate, guitarist Adrian Quesada, comes from Laredo, Texas, studied flamenco guitar in his youth and now favors funk grooves and hip-hop. Former Houstonite Tom Benton, the bassist, works in three other wide-ranging Austin bands, and drummer Jeremy Bruch, an Iowa native, comes out of the prestigious jazz studies program at North Texas State University. BNB's current personnel have been together two and a half years, and their new CD, Brad Green From Queens (Southern Love Records), named for a boyhood pal of Lobel's, represents an even more eclectic mix of styles than its predecessor.

"Where is real jazz coming from these days?" one online critic asks. "Right here. Just as John Coltrane was moved by African and Indian music, today's extra absorbent musician has to acknowledge the influence of Blakey, Bartók and the Butthole Surfers."

Wynton Marsalis and the jazz neo-cons would disagree, of course, but that's life. The Blue Noise Band clearly has less in common with Marsalis than with attitudinal rockers or with proponents of the so-called "European New Jazz," now wildly popular in France and Scandinavia, that combines the acoustic jazz tradition with elements of dance-club electronica. "The European guys are saying that American jazz stopped growing in the '70s and early '80s," Lobel says, "and in a lot of respects they're right. I've heard a lot of great new (U.S.) jazz albums, but are they pushing any limits? Not in particular."

BNB's current national tour -- 24 shows in four weeks -- is the group's second, and once more they are playing their usual weird mix of venues: punk clubs and jazz rooms, art galleries and rock halls. This is a band that's worked bar mitzvahs and birthday parties, and they once took a job playing for a nude rugby team. As always, the members keeps their ears open to the crowd. "We definitely take a vibe from the audience," Lobel says. "Whether it's a jazz club or a punk club, you can see it in their faces. If the audience wants really heavy, fast music, not too laid back, we tend to go with the flow. It's all a part of how we create." Thus does new-wave klezmer collide with hard bop and ear-splitting avant-rock. Guitarist Quesada explains it more bluntly: "That's the difference between us and straightahead jazz players. If the crowd wants to get rowdy, we'll get fuckin' rowdy, too. If people want to get stupid, we'll get even stupider."

Not exactly the stately and tuxedoed Modern Jazz Quartet's ethos, this. To date BNB hasn't trashed any guitars or set any stages afire, but there's still time. In any event, their chameleonic flexibility seems well suited to Austin, a hip university town long heralded as a conduit for many forms of live music. BNB's members all play in other Austin groups -- ranging from the avant-jazz Golden Arm Trio (Lobel) to a pop-improv band called Holy Ghost (Benton). These diverse outlets, Lobel believes, help keep the Blue Noise sound fresh. "Our personalities mix well, and we each carry a degree of musicianship where we get along well and respect each other. We also play with so many other people that we don't tire each other out with what we're doing when we're together."

Actually, Lobel says, Austin's reputation as a musician's nirvana is a bit overblown. "They call it the live-music capital of the world," he says, "but a lot of people we play with around town will deny that. There are a lot of bands in Austin, but I wouldn't say a lot of them are testing anything. Most of them are doing the Austin thing -- following in Stevie Ray's footsteps." Still, Austin club owners and audiences are receptive to experiment, Lobel says, so it was an ideal place for a hardworking, forward-looking group like BNB to sink its roots. "It's nourishing in the sense that you have the opportunity to gig as much as possible. Besides," the saxophonist says, "it's close to both coasts."

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