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Skerik: Concept is All Anyone Cares About

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SkerikSeattle-born saxophonist Skerik—née Eric Walton—isn't a jazz musician. Or at least, he wouldn't say he is, because no contemporary instrumentalist is more indifferent to—even contemptuous of—musical boundaries and genres. His early years in Seattle were deeply jazz-informed (his father was a jazz fan), but he was playing in rock groups at the same time he was involved in his school's jazz ensembles, and was as inspired by Bobby Keyes' tenor work on Rolling Stones records and Dick Parry's sax breaks on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon as he was by the playing of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Booker Ervin. His enthusiasms run deep and wide; his conversation is peppered with references to his musical heroes, be they seminal 1980s punk bands the Minutemen and the Bad Brains, underrated tenor man Eddie Harris, or any of a hundred other artists he reveres.

In the 1980s, Skerik's musical restlessness drove him out of Seattle and around the world. During stints in Paris, London and the South Pacific, he played blues, jazz, rock, soukous—really, everything. Upon his return to Seattle, he began experimenting with various electronic effects; he remains a master of these sax-enhancing tools, but is hardly confined to them. An association with drummer Matt Chamberlain led to the formation (with percussionist Mike Dillon and bassist Brad Houser) of Critters Buggin', the longstanding instrumental—and musician-revered—rock band. Around this time, Skerik started playing with, well, everyone: drummer Stanton Moore, bassist/vocalist Les Claypool, drummer Mike Clark, 8-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, guitarist John Scofield and former Pink Floyd bassist/vocalist Roger Waters. "When you're playing live, he's the guy you want in front of the band, Charlie Hunter told me when I interviewed him last year. "He's indefatigable; he just goes to this place where he can kind of do no wrong as your front man. You just feel like you want to work really hard to make sure that he's safe to do whatever he wants.

In 2002, Skerik formed the Syncopated Taint Septet, consisting of Skerik on tenor and baritone saxophone; Craig Flory on baritone sax and clarinet; Hans Teuber on alto and flute; Steve Moore on trombone and Wurlitzer; Joe Doria on Hammond; Dave Carter on trumpet; and John Wicks on drums. The band's first record, Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet (Ropeadope, 2003), was a bracing set recorded live at Seattle's Owl 'n Thistle club. It was very good. But the new Syncopated Taint record, Husky, released during the summer on Hyena Records, isn't very good. It's utterly great. The music (composed by Teuber, Moore and Doria) is sharply written and brilliantly arranged septet jazz that's marked by thrilling ensembles, singing soloing and a depth of dynamics that's all but unheard-of today. When I reviewed the CD for All About Jazz, I wrote, "Unless an unexpected masterpiece appears in the months to come, this qualifies as the best album of the year. That unexpected masterpiece hasn't appeared. Husky is the year's best record. Skerik's Syncopated Taint duties share time with his work in Critters Buggin', Garage a Trois (his groove quartet with Hunter, Moore and Dillon), his new Maelstrom Trio with organist Brian Coogan and drummer Simon Lott), and with countless other bands, side gigs and guest appearances.

Skerik's the ideal interviewee, because he's so opinionated and outspoken. But he's busy; he's perpetually on the move to another gig. That's why it was so horribly unfortunate that, when I interviewed him, my recording device had secretly broken. I remember Skerik being particularly hilarious that day, as well as fiercely passionate. Those words are lost forever; you can't hear a thing on the tape but a low, sibilant muttering. He was kind enough to let me call him back and do the whole thing over. He's pretty good in this interview as well.

All About Jazz: The group you lead is Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet. You've got two CDs out and the lineup's the same for each one. I want to talk about the new CD especially—it's my favorite album of this year, so that makes it pretty easy for me. Why don't you tell me what led to the formation of this band. I know it's composed of Seattle players, some of whom aren't particularly well-known outside of the city.

Skerik: Well, I moved to New York about three-and-a-half years ago, but I still keep a place in Seattle. And I always lived and played in Seattle, but around six years ago I started touring a lot, going out of town a lot with Les Claypool, Mike Clark, Charlie Hunter—all these people, a lot of different bands. And I would just come back from the road wanting to really get into more of an acoustic-bass thing and something that emphasized a lot of harmony. And the horn players in this band used to have a horn quartet with no rhythm section, and that was really fun. So basically, when I got back to Seattle after a tour, I had a couple of months off. So I thought I'd try to start something like that with a rhythm section, and it just came together really naturally. It was just really easy, a perfect fit, and we had great gigs every week—we got a little weekly gig at this little club in Seattle and it just started growing.

By no means did I want to start a band. I just wanted to get a little weekly gig going while I was home. But it's just one of those things—you're not trying to do something and all of a sudden, it just happens. Because no one in their right mind would want to start a seven-piece band, because it's a really quick way to go broke. But it's a really great creative thing, and we've had a really good time over the last four years.

AAJ: So was the choice of personnel for the group based on an idea of instrumentation or was it more about the people? Did you have a notion of, say, a "Hammond band? A "no-bass band? Or anything like that?

S: In my world, and in a lot of my friends' world, personalities dictate a band more than instrumentation. I find that works both ways, too, in terms of the people that hire me. Les Claypool wasn't looking for a saxophonist for his band, but he likes what I do with music. Those are the kinds of gigs I get hired for, because it's just kind of that way. So the people in this band were chosen for their personalities and their musical concepts more than their instrumentation. Instrumentation is totally random. These people were chosen for their opinions on music or their view of music. So whether they're playing bassoon or sousaphone or alto sax doesn't really matter.

AAJ: Just like your instrument doesn't matter when you get hired by someone? So you're just hired as a professional Skerik more than a professional saxophonist?

S: Oh, yeah. If people ever call or email me and they're looking for a saxophonist, I usually give them the names and numbers of some really good saxophone players. But if people want me to come play on something, I'll come check out the music.

AAJ: Well, despite the fact that this band came together organically, as human beings, and not out of any sort of professional ambitions—it's a pretty fantastic band.

S: Well, that's how you always get the best bands.

AAJ: So as the ostensible leader of the group, are you in any way guiding the direction of the group's sound?

S: Well, I'm not a composer. And there are some really amazing musicians in the band—great writers and arrangers. So I just kind of do what my strengths allow me to do, which is facilitate the music and enable us to play music together. Get the band a trailer, book the gigs, make sure everyone has a bed to sleep in at night, make sure everyone gets paid. I mean, that stuff is not to be underestimated, because if any one of those things is not happening, it's going to make it difficult to play music. So I'm just kind of the spokesperson for the group. But having said that, I do try to make musical suggestions to people—only when absolutely necessary. I feel that choosing engineers, choosing the studios in which we record, stuff like that—that's a creative act too, that has a lot to do with result. Not so much process, but actual result. So a lot of my actions help define the results, and sometimes processes too. But everyone has their strengths, and hopefully together, we have enough strengths to create a circle.

AAJ: Well, sometimes those sorts of skills that you describe produce quality, because they create an absence of fucked-upedness.

S: Exactly. It's all quality control. It's about putting everyone in a position where they feel comfortable, where they feel that they can create, where they feel excited and inspired.

AAJ: A lot has been made in some quarters of this music owing as much in its rhythms to, say, funk or hip-hop as it does to jazz music. Do you have any opinions about genre, about whether music is "jazz or not, at this point in your career?

S: Well, I subscribe to a couple different beliefs. One is that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad music. And everyone knows what that is to themselves. I used to live in Paris, France, and the record stores there were just alphabetical. So, it's like, "what genre of music do you play? And the answer is, "Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet.

Then, also, I read this great quote—something Kenny Werner said: "It used to be that the music defined itself. And now critics appear to want to define what the music is for the musicians.

AAJ: Sometimes I wish that I as a critic actually had that much power. I do think that that can be a menace for a musician, but at the same time, it's the record companies and other people that sell music that define it the most rigorously.

S: Yeah. Well, I just don't really pay attention to it. It doesn't have anything to do with me.

AAJ: Your first record, Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet, which came out in 2003 on Ropeadope, was a live record. That was a very utilitarian way to make a record. But for the new Husky, you went in and recorded in the studio with recording engineer S. Husky Höskulds. Tell me about making this recording.

S: Well, we had a lot of material that we'd been playing for about a year. So we were really comfortable with it and we were just in a real groove—everyone was playing really great and the band was a real band. We had done a couple of tours, so we were a well-oiled machine. So it was easy for us to go into the studio. We were all on a West Coast tour, and we were like one organ. So I said, "Hey, we've got a day off in L.A. Want me to book a little gig somewhere? Because we hate taking days off. We like to play every day, seven days a week, when we're on tour. So our front house engineer— and life coach—Randall Dunn, said, "Why don't you guys record? He's an engineer in Seattle, so he's always thinking about recording. I thought that was a great idea, so I called up Husky, and he had the day off. I called up the studio, and they had the day off. Everything just came together perfectly; it was just meant to be.

So we just went in there and tracked the record in a few hours on a Sunday, and then Husky took two days to mix it. I would have liked him to have three or four. But we tracked it to analog two-inch tape and it got mixed to half-inch tape—at the Sound Factory in L.A., no expense spared. It's one of the great studios in L.A. and in the country. Custom API console, all these great old mikes, amazing sounding rooms. So we just tracked it live in the studio—it sounds incredible. And Husky's this two- time Grammy-winning engineer—not that I really give a shit about the Grammies or the people that he's won them with, but let's put it this way: most of his mixes are refused by major labels. And that's always a good sign. So I just told him, "I want you to be as much a part of this record as us. Whatever you're hearing, and whatever you want to experiment with, production-wise—just go for it with no restrictions at all. So he did some really cool things, and I'm just super happy with it. It was just one of those moments where the music meets the musicians meets the studio meets the engineer meets the production, and everything just lines up perfectly. You don't get very many of those in your life, so I'm happy.
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