By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
The old joke about free jazz (that it's called "free jazz" because it's worth every penny) helps to explain why, since 1993, the 36-year-old Seattle-based reed expert has taken the less-commercial path with bassist Brad Houser, vibe-and-tabla player Mike Dillon and drummer Matt Chamberlain. "We don't really make money off of this band," Skerik says. "We put it all back into the show. There's crazy instruments you've never seen. Costumes. Theater segments with thespians gone wrong. Characters called Orbitron, the Baron, Señor Balls, someone imitating Paul Allen or Bill Gates. We're serious about the music, but we try to hide it."
Categorizing the Critters' music under one neat umbrella is about as easy as catching wind in a net or weaving rope out of sand. Instrumental free jazz comes to mind so long as you emphasize the jarring, densely textured dance grooves. The troupe's penchant for spontaneous theatrics (let alone their frisky name) might conjure up visions of a hippie jamboree. It shouldn't. "We never really meant to be a band," Skerik concedes. "It's the biggest accidental thing ever. We just got together to play. We all play in other projects as side people. We're just fans of music, really. We're a combination of maybe 5 to 10 percent of every band we've ever liked. People like Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Horvitz, Rahsaan Roland Kirk -- any group of musicians that are committed to improvisation."
Under such loose but adventurous guidelines, the Critters -- multi-instrumentalists all -- find themselves covering the board style-wise: from raucous neo-bop to skronk-jazz, sci-fi punk to cyber dub, prog rock to tribal-flavored acid funk. As proponents of the free-jazz/avant-garde idiom (two compatible, overlapping genres that came of age in the '60s and were scorned by mainstream artists who continually deny its influence), the bandmembers adhere to the spirit of stretching boundaries, whether it seems logical or random. Such ideas honor the traditions set forth by innovator John Coltrane, who hurled himself into solos at blinding speed during his "sheets of sound" period, baffling listeners with the sheer quantity of his notes, or Cecil Taylor, the man whose percussive approach to jazz involved playing a piano as if it were a set of drums.
"It's always been a hard thing for us, naming the music," Skerik says. "Punk-jazz? People don't respond to that. Fusion has always been a bad word, even though logistically it makes sense. There's nothing wrong with the word itself, but the connotation it has in the modern vernacular is horrible. It's death! We eventually just started calling it bumpa music. It bumps you. There's a lot of low end."
Besides being anchored in its infectious bass, bumpa relies just as heavily on the imaginative drumming of fellow rhythm-section member, Chamberlain. Much in demand as a session player -- with high-profile clients including Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel, Macy Gray, Weapon of Choice, Chris Isaak and David Bowie -- Chamberlain has also spent plenty of time breaking down the ancient mysteries of some of the most intense and complex music around -- that made by Northern Africa's Master Musicians of Jajouka. The all-male Master Musicians, described by Beat writer and Tangier transplant William Burroughs as "a four-thousand-year-old rock-and-roll band," hail from the foothills of the rugged Rif Mountains of Morocco. They are internationally renowned for their purported ability to heal mental illness through music. Taught from an early age by elder members of the Master Musician family, the ever-evolving tribe of Moroccan mystics has received royal patronage for centuries by inciting something called "the ecstatic dance"; members are completely exempt from all work save perfecting their musical craft. Possessing Baraka, or the blessing of Allah, the Master Musicians re-create complicated festival music from their country's most important Islamic feast days. As keepers of the sacred music, they shoulder the burden of carrying tradition through the ages.
"How many bands are there in this country that have actually studied [Jajouka's] music and have actually incorporated parts of it into their own songs?" Skerik asks. "Matt has transcribed sections of their music where it takes five or six drummers to play a part. He's transcribed it so that each limb is playing one person's part on the drum set, so he can play four of the parts on a Jajouka song just to create odd times.
"The history of Jajouka in the last fifty years has been a spirit of collaboration," Skerik points out, citing pilgrimages to the village by both Coltrane and Coleman; the latter recorded "Midnight Sunrise" there on location for his 1973 album, Dancing in Your Head. "They're not monks," Skerik insists. "Their sole purpose is not just to play spiritual, trance-healing music. Their stuff is very multi-faceted. [Bandleader Bachir Attar] explained that the music he plays with us is music for everyone. You have to remember that Jajouka is uninfluenced by any other music. They've never collaborated with anyone structurally."