It's Sanskrit to Me
"What we're doing might as well be an ancient language," explains Tom Sublett, electric bassist for Denver's Sanskrit. "Nobody says, 'It might as well be Sanskrit' anymore, but at one time that was practically interchangeable with 'It's Greek to me.'"
Sublett, age thirty, and his Sanskrit collaborators (saxophonist Bret Sexton, drummer Jon Powers and guitarist Tim Edwards) understand that their lively variant on instrumental jazz will seem as obscure to some listeners as a dead vernacular. But they also realize that artifacts and ideas from antiquity sometimes maintain their elegance and beauty forever. Sanskrit, an Indian tongue author Joseph Campbell called "the great spiritual language of the world," certainly fills that bill--and the Vedic culture that used it fomented a musical tradition that has a correlation to the band's style as well. "There wasn't really a school of music at that time, so everybody developed individually," notes Sexton, 23. "When they came together, they had to have a set of rules so they could play together but still maintain the individuality of each player. That sounds a lot like what we do."
The Sanskrit-as-holy-text metaphor stops there: Although the musicians are into meditation and precursors like John McLaughlin, John Coltrane and the Beatles, all of whom turned to the East when searching for answers to life's great mysteries, they settled on the moniker mainly because they thought it had a nice ring. Moreover, they are not interested in restricting themselves to a single idiom. They are well-versed in traditional swing, rock rhythms and free expression--music that demands, and deserves, your attention. As Powers puts it, "If you called a crisis hotline or something, you wouldn't hear it playing in the background." He adds, "It really confronts everything in life for me on a very spiritual and personal basis. It's the most authentic form of expression I've found."
Live at Seven South, Sanskrit's debut CD, does a good job of capturing the act's impressive range of sound, moving from cool ambient-electric fusion and warped blues to modern abstraction and beyond. Recorded at Seven South this summer, the songs on the self-produced disc are occasionally supplemented by distant conversations and the clacking of billiard balls. But far from diminishing the effectiveness of the music, these unexpected intrusions actually enhance it, offering a veiled tribute to the joys of club-going.
The venues at which Sanskrit appears are generally outside the standard jazz circuit: The band is more likely to show up at Area 39 than at El Chapultepec. The reason for this state of affairs has everything to do with the musicians' distaste for pigeonholing. Sublett has a resume that includes work with combos specializing in heavy rock (Tribhanga, Rhythmic Insurrection), jazz (the Crisman Quintet, Rick Weingarten's Good Vibes Quartet) and amalgamations of the two forms (Windowpane). Edwards, whose versatility and fire call to mind guitarists like Sonny Sharrock, contributes to the blues-rock outfit Book of Runes. And Powers, 21, fronts the Jon Powers Group, a straightahead jazz endeavor that gigs regularly at the Purple Martini.
The University of Denver helped bring the group together. A Wyoming native, Sexton attended the school for two years until artistic differences and financial difficulties ended his stay there. "I was fighting with a lot of teachers," he recollects. "They weren't letting me do what I wanted to do." Before he split, however, he helped assemble Trio Fungus, a groove-oriented jazz-rock group that also featured Sublett, the holder of a music degree from DU, and Edwards, who moved here from Virginia in order to enter graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Like Sexton, Edwards, 35, subsequently realized that academia couldn't stack up to climbing onto a stage. "It was a lot of money to pay for writing research papers," he concedes. "I was learning more playing guitar in bands than analyzing scores."
In performance, Sanskrit covers material by David S. Ware, Kenny Garrett, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and other giants of jazz. But the instrumentalists' complete list of inspirations is even more extensive: Frank Zappa, Bob Marley, Black Sabbath, Igor Stravinsky, Johann Sebastian Bach and countless more have made an impact on them. What's more, they see no reason why these influences shouldn't show up in their work. As Edwards puts it, "In Sanskrit, we can come out and play pretty much whatever we want, no matter how outrageous it might seem to people."
"At this point in time, there's so much for everyone to draw on," Sexton elaborates. "And that's something we do in what we're playing, having played in all these different bands--playing everything from country to reggae to God knows what."
Such eclecticism may make it difficult for some listeners to grasp Sanskrit's dialect. But Sublett would rather err on the side of diversity than to simplify its sound. "That's the root behind the whole problem of 'you'd find it hard to define this band's music,'" he argues. "Every time I read that, I want to puke. The reason you're having a problem with that is because it's music!" He admits to losing sleep "over the fact that some people think music is for dancing," whereas it can also encourage running, sitting, thinking, driving, crying, loving and so much more.
That's how these four build their vocabulary, and if people describe the results as jazz, that's fine by them. Jazz isn't dead, they insist; rather, it's always growing, always changing. They hope their music is, too. "It's not so much the public concept of jazz as it is the spirit of jazz" that Sanskrit follows, Powers claims. "And to me, the spirit of jazz means pushing forward, always onward and upward for something greater, and doing it largely by means of improvisation."
Sexton believes that this methodology will appeal to a lot of listeners--particularly those who want more out of music than what they can find in the mainstream. "I think that's kind of what we appeal to and what the people that have done the music that we're doing have appealed to," he says. "All the avant-garde jazz from the 1960s wasn't selling big at all, but it definitely had a very specific place." In other words, it spoke Sanskrit's language.
Sanskrit. 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 3, Seven South, 7 South Broadway, free, 744-0513.
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