Denver's Perry Weissman 3, a five-piece combo featuring no one named Perry, is, by default, a jazz machine. However, none of its members are wholly comfortable with this definition.
"We started out doing jazz standards, so we always have ended up calling ourselves a jazz band, but we would rather not," states guitarist Brian Murphy, a veteran of the deeply unjazzy Warlock Pinchers. "I'm really conservative about using the word 'jazz,' because it's meaningful to me. And if somebody has been training for eighteen years to play jazz and they are great and can do all these things, I don't want to come up and say, 'Yeah, I used to be in a punk-rock band--and now I'm jazz!'"
The term "lounge" might better suit Murphy and his fellow jazz virgins (bassist Dane Terry, guitarist Michael Serviolo, trombonist Rick Benjamin and drummer Merisa Bissinger). But they distance themselves from many of its connotations as well. "It's ironic and strange that there's this lounge movement, because we don't know anything about that," insists the casually clad Terry. "We wouldn't be dressed like this if we did." And even though the musicians have been known to rip through renditions of "Take the 'A' Train" and "All of Me," Serviolo denies any kinship with the neo-swing fraternity. "We're too diverse," he says. "There's too much rock and roll. And our arrangements are more poppy in style than jazz. It's like a pop band that improvises."
"It's like a 'this' that does 'that,'" Murphy offers. "It's like a chicken that gives milk."
This strange creature came to life two years ago, when Serviolo (formerly of Acid Ranch, elan and Jux County) and Benjamin (a onetime member of Big Foot Torso and Judge Roughneck) began meeting for the sole purpose of learning jazz gems like "Stella by Starlight" and "Green Dolphin Street." Their mission, according to Benjamin, was to fill glaring holes in their musical education. "After being a horn player for all these years, I didn't know one standard song," he admits, shaking his head. "I thought, 'Someday, when I get out of playing in an R&B band or rap band or whatever it is I'm doing, I'll sit down and get the real book and just learn these songs.'"
Shortly thereafter, Bissinger, a classically trained flute player who was then Benjamin's co-worker at the Wax Trax oldies branch, successfully petitioned the duo to let her play drums with them. "So it was just Mike and Rick and I playing standards purely for the sake of hearing the tunes and going, 'Wow, this is fun,'" she recalls. "It was purely for our own edification. It had nothing to do with forming a band."
A subsequent recruit, Terry, was just as green on his instrument as Bissinger was on hers. "I'm playing this fretless bass, which I have not really played extensively before," he confesses. "And my background is prog rock. By the time I was 21, I had committed most of the King Crimson discography to memory, but I couldn't walk through a Basie tune. I never learned how to do that stuff. So this represents me going back to kindergarten."
Given their relative inexperience with jazz, the players are likely to strike some purists as sloppy dilettantes. But Serviolo believes that the act's blatant dissociation from the genre's culture constitutes its ace in the hole. "We're giving jazz a little kick in the ass, in a sense," he contends. "And we're also kind of amateurs at the same time."
Terry agrees. "The thing about approaching it like youngsters is that we're wrestling with some of the physicalities of the instruments and the intricacies of the music, but we also don't feel any constraints to do or not do what any jazz band in town would feel compelled to do. If they are playing at La Coupole or something, they've got to come across a certain way. They can't have a weird-ass E-bow guitar solo in the middle. They wouldn't allow it."
At the same time, Benjamin maintains, "we're not filtering out our own experiences from other backgrounds." An example is their psychedelic rejuvenation of Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," which differs substantially from typical renderings of jazz classics. "I've heard about eighteen million versions of 'Epistrophy,'" Murphy claims, "and they're all really slow, and none of them are dissonant the way it's supposed to be." But that's not to imply that the new arrangement was entirely planned. "I think we all knew the melody, but we didn't know how you're supposed to play it," Bissinger allows. "I'm sure there's, like, a stop in the middle of it, too, that everyone knows. But those are basically things that we aren't privy to."
Fortunately, this lack of jazz references doesn't translate to a dearth of interpretive skill or any cautiousness about putting it on display. In Murphy's opinion, "When we run into something that we're not familiar with, we are less likely to hold back and play it really coy. Rick, for instance, would be more likely to lean on the keyboard than to play back. We'd rather be aggressive and do what someone else might think is ruining the song.
"Jazz is very easily and very often seen as an intellectual exercise--this intellectual background music that's kind of hip," Murphy goes on. "And a lot more people can play it than classical music, so they choose to put it in restaurants. But we like to go out there and be more in your face about it--not in a punk-rock-spit kind of way, but more in an honest way. We're blunt, and we're going to play this the way we are going to play it, and if I totally forget what key this is in, then I'm just going to hold my guitar up to the amp until it feeds back, and I'm going to fit that into the song one way or another."
When a Weissman launches into wanton noise, expect the others to back him up. "Everybody else will listen to him and support him, and if he's going to make it work, we'll help him make it work," Benjamin says. "Nobody's left out on their own, and no one is told, 'Don't be like that.'"
Still, the band's soloists try not to abuse the right to wank. In contrast to his work as Lance Corona, a pseudonym he uses in a bizarre-guitar side project, Serviolo notes that "I personally like to play inside and as straight as possible sometimes. I get a kick out of it. I like that perfection aspect of it."
"That's because Mike's the left-brained guitarist and Brian's the right-brained guitarist," Terry observes. "Mike's Mister Mathematics, and Brian's a Calder mobile."
As for Bissinger and Terry, they rarely showboat. "We play in two groups, Gamelan Tunas Mekar and a shadow-puppet group," Terry says. "In that context, you learn to play your part to support the ensemble. There is no busting out of the mold or going outside. Going inside is the whole idea there. So bringing that ethic to a band like this, we find that for her to keep the song swinging from beginning to end and for me not to miss any of the changes means we've done our job.
"We're not really cutting ourselves any slack by saying that," he continues. "We're working hard to learn how to do this, and we're accomplishing the baseline of what's necessary. We're going to evolve and get better at that, but I'm still working on hand blisters. By us sticking to the job, I'm playing like a Bacharach session guy. When the other guys go outside and play the Monk stuff, you can have this wild shit going on, but you still sit there and go, 'It sounds like jazz...'"
That's truer on some nights than on others. "You've got to keep in mind that we've done rock gigs and we've done jazz gigs and we've done improv gigs," Serviolo remarks. "So if need be, we can go into any one of those modes."
"If we go somewhere where we have to play for 45 minutes, then we are going to tend to fill it up with more originals than not," elaborates Bissinger, who chooses each evening's set list from more than forty vintage compositions and a growing bevy of newly penned tunes. "When we play the Lion's Lair, we tend to play louder and more raucous, more 'Colfax.' But when we are at City Spirit, where we have to play for three hours--well, you can't play rock for three hours unless you're stupid."
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"Or you're Bruce Springsteen," Serviolo mutters.
This flexibility is a point of pride for Terry, who notes, "I would venture to guess that there's few bands in town that have played the Lion's Lair and the Brown Palace," where the group recently did a wedding-reception gig. Their resilience also comes in handy in dealing with random absenteeism. "Any three of us could play at any time," Murphy says. "It's like redundancy in case of disaster." At a recent performance, Benjamin filtered his horn through what he describes as "a small echo-reverb thing" in order to fill up space left by a missing bandmate. By employing such methodology, he goes on, "we are able to reinterpret the songs in a different way every time we come up and play. If somebody can't make a gig, we try to land on our feet. We try to keep the arrangements loose enough--and the songs, I think, are strong enough to where it won't fall apart."
Indeed, the quintet's own material is gaining strength--so much so that it's slowly taking over the Weissman repertoire. "If we practiced and played seven nights a week and we lived together, then our songs would be the ultimate expression of what we're trying to say," Murphy comments. "But since we don't, everything is always competing for space in our lives and in rehearsal, and lately we have this backlog of originals. We're all like, 'I'm coming to practice, and I've got to get my original down tonight. I really want to play "Caravan," by Ellington, but that can wait! I've got this original!'"
In other words, the musicians in the Perry Weissman 3 are still learning the ABCs of jazz, but they've already gone far beyond their initial objective. "The opportunity to achieve something within a disciplined context is something that's different from the anarchy of being in a punk-rock band," Terry says. "It's equally powerful, but it's a lot more subtle."
"The only thing that's different now is that what we're playing is stylistically a little different," Serviolo suggests. "And I think that that's to our credit.