All's Dope on the Western Front
Albert Ayler would be 'acid jazz' to me," says William Yale, bassist for the Denver- and Boulder-based United Dope Front. Ironically, the point helps explain why Constant Elevation, United Dope Front's second full-length recording, released last month, establishes the band as one of the area's finest purveyors of acid jazz. While most acid-jazzers would scratch their heads at the mention of free-jazz pioneer Ayler, it's just one of the many points of reference that the United Dope Front crew incorporates -- subtly or boldly -- into its vibe. Considering that "acid blues" refers to the bent, abrasive genius of folks like Captain Beefheart, it seems strange that "acid jazz" has come to signify something other than the arrhythmic, abrasive intuition of the avant-garde as expressed in saxophonist Ayler's free excursions in the '60s or, perhaps, John Zorn's ear-shattering ensembles. Instead, the late '80s witnessed the emergence of acid jazz proper with bands like the James Taylor Quartet and the Brand New Heavies; it was a soul, funk, hip-hop and jazz stew concerned primarily with the heat and stank of the groove.
United Dope is the heat and stank and more. The band is composed of players with rich backgrounds in jazz, hip-hop, rock and soul; Constant Elevation exploits that diversity -- along with the band's live vitality -- in several directions at once. On the one hand, United Dope Front's dancing concertgoers find the beat as enticing as anything by Liquid Soul or Galactic. On the other hand, the riffs are intricate, the instrumentation creative. It's enough to make you stop worrying about what section of the record shop you'd file it in and simply enjoy the sound in all its complexity.
"When I think about jazz, what that means at its core is improvisation," explains Andrew Diamond, keyboardist. "When people talk about jazz dance, just improvisational dance, that's all they're really getting at. Funk? You're getting at the smell of the room once the music's being played. It's just music that makes you sweat. We collide. We're at the collision of those two words."
That collision is a bootyful wreck that Coloradans may have seen coming when United Dope Front officially formed in 1997. The band's roots reach to DJ Timbuk's Three Count Jazz night at the Mercury Cafe, circa 1996 -- at which a revolving cast of improvisational musicians provided a spontaneous backdrop for Timbuk's beats and scratches. There saxophonist Ben Senterfit met the spin doctor, and soon the two were playing with guitarist Javier Gonzales and drummer Jeff Mintz -- first as the Social Narcotics, then the Narx, then as United Dope Front. Yale, a bassist, self-described tapehead and devotee of '60s psychedelic music, joined shortly after and brought with him a strange and geographically diverse musical perspective. He first moved to Boulder from New York via San Francisco to join Space Farm, an ambient dance group that reached the top of the dance charts in Belgium. In addition to UDF, Yale remains a part of Farrell Lowe's free improv Heuristic Ensemble, also in Boulder.
The young United Dope Front also began to gestate during the Soul Jazz Massive free-for-all series, a weekly acid jazz and hip-hop happening at Tulagi in Boulder that Diamond, Yale and sometimes Dope Front drummer Kenny James were all a part of during its life in the mid-'90s.
"Soul Jazz Massive was whoever showed up on any given night," recalls Diamond.
"A lot of times it could be a train wreck on stage," adds Yale. "Early United Dope Front is a distillation of the Soul Jazz idea of just hitting the stage and making it up for two sets, and hoping that you keep people dancing and you can say something at the same time."
"I would say that 75 percent of what we did with those bands was let the DJ start spinning something and then we would just build an entire band-groove song off a record that was already spinning in the background," says Diamond. "And it was completely different every single time. What we're doing now is trying to write songs, but the DJ will then step in and do something that fits in with what we're playing."
That historical role is partly why Diamond thinks Timbuk is still "the center of the band in many ways." The Denver-based native of São Paulo, Brazil, is high in the mix on both Constant Elevation and Sexual Chocolate Experiment, United Dope Front's fine first release.
If Timbuk is the center, however, he's in the middle of a fluid and abnormally active group of people. Senterfit, the group's manager by default, plies the saxophones and flute for the Front, on occasion wowing the crowd by blowing two horns at once, Rahsaan Roland Kirk style. In addition, he played with Chitlin for nearly three years, and Zuba, a local band that managed to place a tune on the soundtrack to There's Something About Mary, for about a year. During the production of Constant Elevation, guitarist Gonzalez, sometimes referred to as "the invisible United Dope Front member," flew back and forth between Denver and Newark, where he was earning a master's degree in jazz history. Now officially a master, he's moved back to Denver and the longstanding partnership he and Senterfit established; though born in Argentina, Gonzalez grew up in Boulder and played in Chitlin with Senterfit.
On Constant Elevation, percussion duties were shared by Kenny James (whose name should be familiar to locals, as he's played with the Samples and Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass in addition to fronting his own solo project, the Witching Hour, and running the production company CTM Entertainment) and Phil Martin; since the album's release, though, Chris Woodward, a former drummer for Warsaw, has taken over the gig full-time.
Vocalist and certified human beatbox Zach Freeman -- who was also in Kid Plastic, Graffiti Tribe and various a cappella groups -- joined the band just prior to the recording of Constant Elevation, though he has since relocated to New Mexico with his wife and daughter, a fact that may be good news for the youngster but unfortunate for those who enjoyed his impressive vocalizations. Not to worry, though, as Senterfit says that Freeman's talents have secured his "lifetime membership" status within the band; Freeman plans to make semi-regular trips to Colorado to play with the Front.
All in all, United Dope Front's players certainly have the qualifications to rework acid jazz as they hear it.
"I see, maybe, too much homogenization," says Yale. "There are enough funky bands as it is -- around here, especially." The title track to Constant Elevation, the most complex piece on the disc, backs up Yale's argument. Is it funky? Yes. But it's also brilliantly eclectic, with supafly bass lines, Spanish guitar eloquence and a vintage Rhodes organ capped with electronic curls. And it all works, no matter what you call it.
"We have a funk rhythm section with jazz soloing over the top of it, done to a funk song structure," continues Yale. "And, yeah, there's heads and solos; I guess that's jazz. But beyond that, the rhythm section never swings."
Issues of nomenclature aside, the Dope Front's goals are more modest than the irresistible beats they produce. "The main objective is to move -- dance," Yale says.
On that count, and most others, Constant Elevation hits the heights. Produced and engineered by Diamond (who, incidentally, is a med student on the brink of securing both his medical degree and doctorate, and whose prior production credits include work with the Pound Boys, a Denver house music outfit), Constant Elevation is the first release from the keyboardist's new Studio Diamante and was more than a year in the making. The album is thick with sounds, samples, scratches, brass and boasts; according to Senterfit, its production consumed Diamond for more than a year. Listening to the album, it's clear the time was well spent. "Iliumstimulus" finds the whole band soloing gloriously; "Yes It Is" sports a badass blaxploitation vibe; "Get It Right, Clyde" is driven by old-school 808 clap beats and James Brown Big Payback-style guitar. The sample magic of "Everything Will Be OK," which features an ex-cop's derisive recollections of the '60s, remains a fresh and evocative device. "Fade to Green" is slow, sexy and soulful. Perhaps of symbolic importance, "Dope on Dope" turns a looped snippet from "a complete failure of a gig" (as Diamond described it) at Soma in 1999 into a track of which the band can be proud.
While the world remains divided about whether it's acid jazz, soul jazz, funk jazz or just plain groove music, the Dope Front is as tight as ever -- apparently, for all the right reasons.
"The thing that unites us all is that we love playing our instruments together," says Diamond. "So what we'd all love to do is be in a position where we can actually just play nonstop. Just play and play and play and play and play. Because -- I don't have to tell you this -- playing your instrument for a crowd that's receptive is the best fucking thing in the world."
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