"I think that in jazz as a whole, the musicians have a problem with reaching out to the audiences," says percussionist Bobby DeLuna of the Bobby DeLuna and Richard Kermode Band. "Audiences just watch a jazz band. They don't listen." By contrast, he claims, "We play off the audience. If the audience has energy, then we have energy. We try not to get into that artistic mode of, `We're going to do what we're going to do, and if you don't like it, tough.' There's no ego on our bandstand."
There is, however, plenty of ego offstage, where DeLuna expends incredible energy hyping his quartet (other members are keyboardist Kermode, bassist Jimmy Trujillo and drummer Jason Smith). But DeLuna isn't simply doing the bullshit walk. Although the group has been together for just over two months--they debuted last December under the name And How!--it's already one of the freshest, tightest, most inventive groupings playing around town.
The bandmembers have impressive credentials. DeLuna, for example, was a member of the late Seventies lineup of El Chicano, the California-based Latin-rock band best known for the 1970 hit single "Viva Tirado--Part 1"; in addition, he's recorded and appeared live with soul songstress Esther Phillips and toured with the punchy Confunkshun. He's lived in Denver for the past two years but has made most of his money by playing on and producing recordings in California, Japan and Brazil. As for Kermode, he was a member of the Kozmic Blues Band, which backed the late Janis Joplin on the 1969 platter I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again, Mama. He also appeared with Joplin at the first Woodstock festival. "Let's just say I knew Janis really well and leave it at that," he says. By the early Seventies Kermode had joined Santana: He appears on the studio offering Welcome, as well as on Lotus, which was taped live in Japan. A Kermode composition, "Yours Is the Light," appears on Lotus.
Despite these achievements, though, the instrumentalist who's attracting the most attention from Denver-area listeners is Trujillo, who's been part of many local acts, most notably Gary Sosias's Conjunto Colores. Trujillo's joined in the rhythm section by Smith, who's a mere tyke compared to his cohorts; he's gigged with Julian Priester and worked with Denver saxophonist Laura Newman.
The sound these musicians produce is extremely attractive, but it may not strike the right chord with purists. DeLuna and company combine jazz with heavy borrowings from styles such as Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Latin, salsa, classical and rock, leading to no small amount of confusion about just what kind of group this is. Because of its eclectic nature, the combo has not yet found a niche in the local scene.
Kermode isn't upset by this state of affairs--having only been in the city since late last year, he says he hasn't yet formed an opinion about the jazz community. But DeLuna admits to being surprised and somewhat frustrated by the situation. He's outwardly optimistic about the future, but he suggests that the resistance he's encountered thus far makes him feel like a pledge to an elite fraternity. "The local scene seems a little inaccessible," he says. "Denver musicians and club owners have a tendency to be a little bit skittish toward outsiders. We've spoken to club owners about working here. But there's a pretty tight lock on the scene. It's a big city, but it's also a small town.
"You'd think they'd be a little more open-minded and open-armed," he continues. "I don't want to offend anybody, but a lot of bands are playing the same old stuff. I think it's important to keep the change flowing and bring more diverse sounds to audiences instead of the regular old swing-a-ling-ling-ling thing where you sit in a club night after night and hear fourteen choruses of `Cherokee.'"
Fortunately, the group is garnering more attention of late. The foursome recently opened for percussionist Pete Escovedo at the Bluebird Theater and appears regularly at north Denver's New Alpine Inc. It's progress, but not as much as DeLuna feels his band deserves. "One point I want to make to the other musicians and bands and club owners around this town," he declares, "is that we're here and we're not going anywhere. We're going to be here, and we'd like the door to be wide open. We're accessible, and I'd like to see them open their eyes a little bit wider. I think Denver audiences are being robbed by not having access to us at some of the clubs. I think they're having something kept from them. I think that's unfair to the audiences."
That's a pompous statement, but in a sense, DeLuna is dead right. The Bobby DeLuna and Richard Kermode Band is making some very fine music. And that--not who they are, where they've been or who they've known--will eventually make folks sit up and take notice.
The Bobby DeLuna and Richard Kermode Band. Wednesdays through Sundays, times vary, New Alpine Inc., 3552 Tejon, free. Call 455-3977 for more information.