"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.