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Thelonius Monkey

Cieri club: Dave Cieri tickles the ivories -- and your senses.
John Johnston

It's a Tuesday night at Dulcinea's 100th Monkey, a cozy jazz club on Colfax Avenue. A handful of people sit on overstuffed couches listening devoutly to Dave Cieri and the Arms and Legs Quartet as the ensemble finesses its way through a set comprising jazz standards and improvisational departures. Nobody speaks; the music helps to erase the concerns of the day. Each musician is an integral appendage of the collective, filling the space with the pure measured tones of his or her instrument. Cieri plays the piano, Rebecca Mickhalik blows alto sax, Doug Anderson thrums the standup bass and Rich Santucci swats the skins. Both audience and performers are absorbed in the experience, and the music seems almost effortless. The group reels off a thoughtful version of Wayne Shorter's "Fee Fi Fo Fum," then segues smoothly into another composition. Most of the crowd sips beer, though coffee would not be out of place at Dulcinea's, a seamless blend of java house and Deadhead watering hole.

"Things are drastically different for me now," says the soft-spoken though intense Cieri, who despite his black T-shirt and vaguely Kerouackian aspect could pass for an out-of-work dot-commie or a graduate-level teaching assistant. "I guess I've gotten more curious about music, and I've morphed into something new."

Cieri has indeed taken his act and his mind to a new place. Having honed his keyboard chops with the Boulder-bred Chief Broom in the latter half of the '90s, the philosophy student left collegeville a few years back to set up shop in Denver. Textbooks, Hacky Sacks and jam bands have given way to jazz joints, Colfax street life and unfettered artistic and personal exploration. More or less gone are his days of literally pounding an amp-driven organ behind grinding rock beats at frenzied party venues and jam-oriented festivals. Now most evenings find him nurturing his inner Thelonius Monk in the more cerebral confines of Dulcinea's.

"I really enjoy playing here," says Cieri, who is part of three separate musical formations, each of which performs weekly at the club. Tuesday usually features his Arms and Legs Quartet; on Friday, it's the Quartet Offensive, an edgier jazz and funk ensemble; Saturday harks back to the rowdier Chief Broom days, with former co-conspirator Jessica Goodkin lending her bluesy vocals to the mix; and Sunday is "free-jazz" night, when Cieri and his comrades play music that is "totally unscripted." Surprisingly, electric guitars are seldom present. With Cieri acting as a kind of artist-in-residence, the scene at Dulcinea's bespeaks beatnik jazz more than hippie jam, although Cieri insists the two forms are kin.

"Really, jazz is not that far from rock music," he says. "The thing that rock started to do in the '60s and '70s was to embody a jazz spirit in respect to improvising. The whole jam-band thing is similar to the jazz-improvisation vein. So going from that kind of improvising in rock to exploring the jazz element is part and parcel, in my mind. Yeah, jazz is a little more involved, but the concepts tend to be similar. What I like about jazz is that the vocabulary is conducive to describing more of the world. It makes me feel more complete, and it helps me express myself more fully, which is why I started playing music in the first place."

Until recently, Cieri had no formal music training, other than a bit of home schooling from his mother, a former concert pianist and protegé who performed with both the Milwaukee and Chicago symphony orchestras over the span of her career. At present, Cieri is a student of seasoned jazz pianist Art Lande, who spends his time in Boulder (he plays at the West End tavern on Wednesday nights) when he's not touring internationally.

"I was definitely raised in a musical household, and that gave me a pretty solid foundation. But I can't say enough about Art's playing and musicianship," Cieri says. "Studying with him has been a revelation. He's amazing. He sits in with us at Dulcinea's on occasion, which is always a lot of fun."

What few lessons Cieri has had appear to have stuck. He emanates a low-key though undeniable musical leadership. People who work with him, including club owners and bar staff, speak reverentially of him. Anecdotes of his unique and dedicated approach to his craft include the time Dulcinea's doorman Aaron Reyes witnessed an hour-long solo rehearsal during which Cieri undertook an exercise that consisted of playing the same two notes, a half-step apart, slowly and repeatedly. Reyes, an avid musician himself, was impressed.

"Notes are composed of multiple overtones," Cieri explains. "And when you're playing a solo, those notes go zipping by almost unheard. But when you isolate them and really listen to them, to their fullness, you get a much deeper understanding of them. And by really taking them in and listening closely, you can get a better handle of their full range of possibilities."

Despite such rarefied and intellectual maunderings, Cieri is known for his aggressive approach to soloing, at times hitting the keyboard with staccato chops that elicit an atonal torrent of sound. The results can be slightly cacophonous, but they work. When Cieri's on, it's as if he is channeling the ghost of jazzmen past, near the edge of trance, though he claims to be very much in the present during these moments.

"I concentrate within a given piece and try to let whatever the composition dictates happen," he explains. "I strive for removing myself and my own prejudices. Every piece has its own personality, and I try to encourage those personalities. I'm actually very conscious and in the present -- though, paradoxically, to actualize the present like that can border on transcendence. I think society tries to distract us from the present, to detach us from our feelings. Through music, we can actually focus on the here and now and explore our feelings about it. Fortunately, some people are strong enough to resist societal distractions."

Cieri is one such independent thinker. He reads a variety of literature on a regular basis in an attempt to meld his music with his former academic discipline. His favorite compositions include "Masada," by New Yorker John Zorn, and he claims proto-individualist Ayn Rand as one of his major influences, using the author's intensely self-centered ideology as a platform for his own creative predilections.

"A lot of philosophers might not consider her a true philosopher, but I really like her take on things," he says. "Her views on the necessity of being selfish in order for people to create in a direct manner might sound negative, but she describes them beautifully. When I read The Fountainhead, it synthesized something I had inside of me: I realized the first person I need to do this for is myself. If I proceed in an artistic sense from a point of selfishness, everything else will unfold naturally. Ironically enough, the greatest feelings of community that I have experienced occurred when I was playing in one of my groups. These experiences make me realize that I can't exist as an individual without society. As individuals, we're all working to get something out of society. And part of being an individual is realizing that I'm part of a collective. The individual and the group are not mutually exclusive."

While Cieri enjoys his nights at Dulcinea's, he also likes to spread his passion around to other venues. This past spring, he ventured out of the club for a gig at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom with the Willie Waldman Project, a group that also featured legendary bass player Rob Wasserman. The free-thinking pianist, who also makes use of organ and a little clavinet through a wah, feels comfortable and inspired in Denver and wants to keep it that way.

"I feel like Denver is on the edge of something; it's searching for its identity. It feels like it's still in its adolescence, but there's something around the corner," he says. "People say New York is the place to be for a budding musician, but I feel like if I scratch around in Denver, I find the most interesting creative people. A lot of these people I've met through playing at Dulcinea's. Rebecca, our sax player, just showed up one night. I've found her to be one of the most intriguing musicians I've ever worked with."

Selling jazz to a pop- and roots-rock- oriented town might be a harrowing prospect, but Cieri is bolstered by the reception his work has received from younger audiences in Denver.

"We have people show up who might not be wholly familiar with this style of music, but when they hear it, there's something about it that they are capable of recognizing and understanding, even if they haven't looked at it before."


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