Our Little Punk Rock Jazz Thing

The three bands featured at a recent edition of “Free Jazz Fridays” — Women’s Worth, Vohltz, and Swords and Sandals — landed on a bill together because of their common mission to collapse the boundaries between punk rock and experimental jazz. While the bands’ instrumentation comprised nonelectronic, accessible things like pianos and alto saxophones, the musicians and their audience looked as if they’d been transplanted from nearby LoBot Gallery or 21 Grand.
Unlike a stereotypical stuffy jazz crowd, these guys wore Converse sneakers, Tattersall shirts, and ironic trucker hats. They drank Tecate. They carried dog-eared paperbacks and doodled in them. They were, apparently, ideal audience members for experimental pianist Scott Looney, who rents the West Oakland studio where Free Jazz Fridays take place every other week. Looney, who usually remains sequestered in his bedroom, delivered a rousing introduction that night, and even plugged the Monday night show at Yoshi’s — with the disclaimer that he hates Yoshi’s.

This was obviously a show based around incest, as the bands kept swapping personnel. Woman’s Worth — a not-so-aptly named, all-guy trio consisting of sax, trumpet, and drums- went on first. Their setup included a string of pennants, the kind you’d see at a used car dealership, but made of felt instead of plastic, each bearing a different letter to spell the band’s name. They played three surprisingly short and curt songs with abrupt punk endings.

In the first and third songs, the two horns tried cramming as many notes as possible in the space of a measure, while the drummer did a dramatic punk-rock-style beatdown with hella kick and hella snare. The second song was Woman’s Worth’s version of a love ballad — the drummer used his fingertips instead of sticks to create a softer, tom-tom-like pitch. After their set, he thanked the performance space and gave a couple shoutouts, including one to West Oakland.

Next came Vholtz, which recycled the sax player and drummer from Woman’s Worth and added two guitars and another sax that looked like it was made of tin. More noise-oriented than the previous group, Vholtz used feedback and echo as though they were additional instruments. The band played one really long song, persisting even when people clapped at the wrong time. Their dynamics were pretty straightforward: 1) really really soft and 2) really really loud.

The last band, Sword and Sandals, recycled a sax player from Woman’s Worth and added a keyboardist (though you couldn’t hear him most of the time since the piano didn’t have a mic), another sax player who dressed to resemble a military cadet, and a drummer who used to be in the relatively successful indie band the Coachwhips . But for his constant, thunderous drumrolls — which served more to create a wall of sound than keep time — Sword and Sandals was a more melodic and tuneful band than the other two.

Sword and Sandals’ drummer, who wore a velcro wristband with sleigh bells attached, outpaced his fellow bandmembers by far. Using a dilapidated drum set with one cymbal bent up and torn (as though someone had chewed a piece off), he kept getting funkier and funkier ideas of how to play it. For instance: Dude attached a string to his snare and plucked it. At one point he wedged one of his sticks between two cymbals and flicked at it with his fingers. Meanwhile, the sax players played frenetic cadenzas on top of each other as though they were jockeying for position.

For the most part, it wasn’t a conventionally beautiful or tuneful show. The beauty was in the musicians’ curiosity about their instruments, and about sound on a larger scale. The drummer for Sword and Sandals would pick up cymbals of different sizes and stack them on top of each other, murmuring, “Oh, these are cool.” Audience members would nod approvingly. When the show ended, Free Jazz Fridays founder Rob Woodworth held up an e-mail list and invited everyone to sign up. “What’s e-mail?” someone asked. Someone else screamed “Yay, music!”

“Jerks,” muttered the Sword and Sandals drummer. Then he grinned.


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