Skerik’s Distillation of Punk

An unscripted jazzbo moment.

Being enamored with countless genres, Skerik allows any band,
player, or artist to influence the way he approaches his sax. From
moment to moment during a performance, the Northwest native has the
capacity to launch into a maelstrom of notes that, while maintaining a
tangential relationship to whatever melody his band is in the midst of,
has an aggressive tone unmatched by the players around him. Credit that
to his affinity for punk notables such as Minutemen bassist Mike
Watt.

“Mike Watt’s just a big inspiration to us,” he said over the phone
from New Orleans. “You can learn so much from these guys — Bad
Brains, Fugazi, Minutemen. I was really into a band like the Dead
Kennedys, because I just loved the rawness of the music and its
political stance — just saying shit in such a blunt way.”

That might sound like an odd way for a saxophonist to speak about
musical influences, but Skerik, who stops by Berkeley’s Starry Plough
on Friday, June 12, has been as influenced by punk as much as anything
else. From the bleating free-jazz of his self-released work on 2001’s
Psychochromatic and 2006’s Left for Dead in Seattle to
his whimsical additions to Les Claypool’s band on Of Whales and Woe a
few years ago, Skerik has incorporated electronic manipulations of his
instrument in ways that most other jazzbos would find disconcerting.
It’s not a rote definition of punk that Skerik subscribes to, but a
genuine perception that anything is possible. The musical acrobatics
that seem to fly from Skerik’s sax are ample proof of that.

Skerik’s appreciation of punk also extends to the way he handles the
business end of his career. Through a series of thorough web sites
devoted to his disparate musical endeavors, the saxophonist is able to
meet the new media’s needs while traversing small clubs and swank
venues across the nation and in Europe, where he’s briefly touring
before returning to the West Coast to gig. The approach that more and
more players are adapting, though, has as much to do with the DIY
spirit of punk’s past as good business sense. 

But it’s his appreciation for any interesting aural experiment that
has kept Skerik from being a household name. His devotion to all music
is readily displayed in each group that he performs with. From his
funky workouts with Charlie Hunter as a member of Garage a Trois to the
more muscular playing in Crack Sabbath — a metal-tinged trio
— Skerik has distanced himself from the pool of traditional
players, saying that he realized “everyone involved in it was just a
huge nerd,” and that at some point it all turned into “a jazz arms
race.”

On the first few albums that Skerik recorded — Sadhappy’s
Depth Charge (1992) and Guest (1994) with Critters
Buggin’ — each encompasses some combination of electronic music,
hip-hop, jazz, and rock. The indefinable sounds worked to disallow
music industry honchos from categorizing these efforts.

“We were around in the early Nineties, so that was the big feeding
frenzy. Nirvana and Soundgarden had come out,” he recalled. But in that
sea of sludgy hard-rock fetishists, Sadhappy was a completely
instrumental group that moved between jazz soloing and thrashy,
punk-informed rock. While ensembles without vocalists rarely achieve
major radio play or face time on MTV, this moment in Seattle’s music
history allowed anyone with even a modicum of talent to be a potential
star. Although offered a deal by Interscope Records and settling
on some specifics, after flying to New York for a meeting, Sadhappy and
a disenfranchised Skerik “never heard from ’em again” upon returning to
Seattle.

Subsequent to the major-label penetration of Seattle’s music scene,
Skerik spent time in London during the mid-1990s, playing with various
ensembles that broadened and added an air of sophistication to his
playing. And while even the 2006 recording Husky, with his
Syncopated Taint Septet, traffics in outbursts of spontaneity, there
are now as many grooves as anything else. Skerik hasn’t disregarded
difficult music, he’s just now begun to temper that confusing amalgam
of sounds with more standard funk and soul-jazz backdrops that seem as
primed for dancing as for listening. 

For his two Bay Area shows, Skerik will be joined by drummer Scott
Amendola, organist Wil Blades, and guitarist Will Bernard, who are
familiar with each other from a variety of shared recording and touring
dates. This collection of players, while sporting no official banner
under which to perform, exhibit what jazz — or any creative music
— is supposed to be. The few sets each night that the ensemble
will perform won’t be void of form, but can be guaranteed to include at
least a few unscripted moments.

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