THE DAN O'BRIEN GROUP
The Dan O’Brien Group
by Chuck Bates, PhD
I’m sitting down to listen to, and review, the new Dan O’Brien Group CD called “Inside Out’. I don’t know anything about it yet, but on the other hand I already know a lot about it before I hear it. I’m just back from hearing Dan play with Jay Thomas on tenor, John Hansen on piano, Dan on bass, and the same Greg Williamson on trap set who plays on this CD, at a premier Seattle Jazz venue, and I must say the band restored my faith in the proposition that jazz is the only true religion.. I know this CD is going to cook because tonight Williamson and O’Brien were playing so in the pocket, sufficient to smoke anybody anytime anywhere.
The other reason why I know a lot about the CD I haven’t heard yet, is because I played in a band with Dan in 1968-1970 and heard him play 4,102,506 of his earliest notes. His solos then were incoherent to us guys in the band. At the time we assumed it was some kind of charade. He was already too outside for us to grasp his meaning, us being too young and linear to recognize a visionary. Audiences sensed his enthusiasm, and clapped heartily, but they were as bemused and mystified as the band. But Dan stayed true to his vision, and 33 years later he has validated it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
In the interim, we have played a little and talked a lot, so I feel that I have a feel for this guy. He was Seattle’s first Latin jazz bassist, forming the band Papaya which released a now obscure LP in about 1970. It was, alas, too far ahead of its time, anticipating the commercial success of Spiro Gyra and Latin fusion by many years. If you listen closely, you’ll hear Dan break into a rough approximation of TumPao Afro Cuban bass in the middle of “Saint Thomas”. For centuries afterwards, jazz historians in academia are going to be debating whether Dan anticipated the Afro Cuban movement by thirty years, or dropped a beat by accident. The truth will never be known because Dan isn’t telling.
I traced his progress, through the New England School of Music where he stepped up to the plate as a new student and blew away Professor Miroslav Viteous, under whom he subsequently studied. Dan then spent years dominating the Boston Jazz scene before moving up to New York where he played until the late 1990’s with just about every jazz luminary you ever heard of.
Then he had the mature good sense to give up the road, return to to Seattle, marry a voluptuous young woman, have a fabulous son, and play around the Pacific Northwest. That’s it in a nutshell. Time to listen to the CD.
“Inside Out” is a journey into outside jazz. It starts with a pure bass statement of purpose and then leads the listener into ever deeper levels of outside playing. It could serve as a gradual transition from the known into the unknown for many listeners. Dan’s solo bass first cut is a “take no prisoners” warning to the uninitiated. The person well acquainted with outside jazz, possessing a tutored ear for it, need not read on. The rest of this review is a guide for the person unaccustomed to such relatively inaccessible music.
Jazz is like baseball. There are base hits, runs, and outs. At any given moment there are dozens of right notes and wrong ones available to the player (no accident that both sports have “players”, and walks [walking bass?] and runs [arppegios?]). In jazz the idea is to score as many right notes as possible in the allotted moment, with wrong notes subtracted from your score by about a hundredfold. That is to say, you can play 100 right notes in four bars, and lose that score entirely with the striking of one wrong one. But you aren’t allowed to play it safe and play a few hundred whole notes all night. That isn’t even scored as a walk. If you run up a high enough score, in the thousands, you get applause and keep your job; you win the game. If you strike out too many times, you are thrown out of the ballpark.
Scorekeepers frown on the use of notes that cannot be put into “right” or “wrong” categories, and there are several varieties. There are the blurred and mumbled notes that defy scoring, the intentional slightly outside notes that resolve nicely into right notes, and just plain mistakes you usually play twice to prove it was on purpose. Last of all, there are outside wrong notes you play all night, only hitting right notes by accident.
A sort of Zen, paradoxical aspect of jazz scorekeeping, is that if you prove you know all the right notes from the wrong ones, you are allowed to get credit for lots of wrong ones in the name of “outside” art, a convention invented by Monk. The corollary to that axiom is that a housecat walking a keyboard does not get to call his jazz “outside” and receive a score, unless of course he first proves he can play it straight.
This is an oversimplification because points are also awarded to players for additional feats such as creativity, lyricism, taste, driving rhythmic sense, structure, grace, innovation, emotional expression, and elegance. This is elucidated in the book, “Magister Ludi (The Bead Game)” By Herman Hesse.
But back to right notes and wrong notes. One kind of outside playing teases you with the tension of notes that are “wrong” yet run together in structures of their own, a logic divorced from the core structure, that eventually resolve back into the tune, thus providing release of the tension. The listener derives the kind of pleasure provided by removing a rock from his shoe, or watching a circus performer not fall to his death from the high wire.
After certain patterns of wrong notes have been adopted by a lot of semi-outside players and become clichés, lo and behold, the notes in it are scored as “right” by conventional jazz ears. These might be called McCoy Tynerisms for instance. The very opposite of this kind of playing is to play the same hackneyed clichés throughout your career, so fast, so crisp, and with so much conviction, that it is as if you were playing each one for the first time, not the ten millionth time. These might be called Oscar Petersenisms.
On Dan’s CD the dose of “outside” teasing tension is gradually titrated, as if to lead the listener gradually to another kind of tougher outside playing. This kind says “I revolt against the scoring system and choose to play for the sake of the aggregate sound itself, looking for meaning in a baseball game where there are no strikes, no balls, no umpires on the bandstand and entirely new rules only hinted at. This ball field is best viewed from the Good Year blimp since close detailed examination is going to be anxiety provoking. The last track, “Morning Part 2” is that kind of outside. No more teasing. No more easy release from tension. Relentlessly outside. The uninitiated listener is going to get uncomfortable, turn off the CD and miss a big chance to grow musically. The listener willing to suffer some discomfort is going to be richly rewarded. Here are some listening tips based on my small experience.
In 1965 I got into a Seattle jazz club with phony ID to hear the Charles Lloyd Quartet with Dejonette and a young unknown Keith Jarrett. I stayed after everybody left, and when the club was empty and the band gone, Charles Lloyd played to please himself for about two hours, not knowing I was eavesdropping in the wings. He played just about like Coltrane at his most subversive pinnacle of blowing. I thought he was stark raving mad but it gave me goose pimples like no bebop ever did. A mind opening experience. First taste of outside. It helped to be young and impressionable. For the next decade, like every other hip jazzoid, I acknowleged that John Coltrane was da man, while studiously avoiding listening to his outside recordings any more than I had to, to save face.
I heard Cecil Taylor’s band play non-stop 100% outside for two sets, and it made me rethink my preconceptions about what the words music and jazz mean. I probably understood 1% of what was going on. It was uncomfortable but I knew something important was there to be learned, so I stuck it out.
The next time I was assaulted by music I couldn’t understand well enough to hear was The Miles “Bitches Brew” concert with Jacko, Aerto, Keith Jarrett, and Dejonette. I dozed off during a confusing 50 minute tune with nobody soloing yet everybody soloing continuously, and then awoke in the middle of it with no musical preconceptions for just long enough to actually hear some of the emotional and musical meaning of what they were playing. It was great. Dozing off is one way to temporarily disarm the jazz umpire in your brain, keeping score. Presumably, certain drugs could achieve a similar effect, though many would just give you a ruthless jazz umpire on PCP and steroids with an AK-47. The truly serious listener would be advised to borrow a CPAP respirator from a neighbor with sleep apnea, and take curare intravenously while listening to the last track. That way you couldn't turn it off.
My mind temporarily opened while reviewing this CD. By accident, the player started all over again after a play-through of the recording, and I dozed off at 3AM in the middle of the second playback, only to awaken in the middle of the totally “outside” last track, briefly able to hear it with ears not governed by the conventional jazz scoring system. It was absolutely awesome musically, and deeply moving emotionally.
“Song For Che” has immediacy and relevance! After the end of the cold war, the collapse of the USSR, and the publication of the “Gulag Archipelago”, Marxism lost much of its glamour. But today, in the Bush new world order, Revolutionary Marxism becomes a fonder memory, and even Stalinism doesn’t look as bad as it did, by comparison. There’s still time for Bush to surpass Stalin’s body count. Dan’s rendition of “Song For Che” is a subversive political act, doubly courageous in the context of post Bill Of Rights America, ruled by a blustering school yard bully named Cheney. That song could get you locked up at Guantanamo indefinitely, Dan, as a musical terrorist. Don’t forget what they did to Che. That solo took guts.
The pianist Craig Hoyer has a most unique flowing liquid technique. The agile grace of these melodic lines makes many other pianists sound stiff and awkward by comparison. What an amazing touch and control this guy has. Am I missing something? He’s world class as far as I’m concerned. Right up there. His name should be on everyone’s lips. Outside playing gives most jazz players enough rope to hang themselves. Hoyer took that hangman’s rope and tied it to the branch of the tree overlooking the swimming hole in the river of your youth. Dare to swing on it and you’ll have a perfectly safe splash. He is comfortable, coherent, and having fun. He has a lot to say, though the dialect is known only to a select few. Wait a minute! Where are the piano clichés? Christ! He isn’t playing anybody elses’. It doesn’t sound like he’s playing even his own clichés. Could this mean he is more interested in making music than being a flash on piano? Or could it mean that he doesn’t have to play licks because anything he’s doing makes him a flash stunner. Clichés and licks come from the fingers. Truly musical lines come from the heart. Maybe Hoyer’s fingers are so adept, that they can afford the luxury of staying connected to his musical heart, instead of retreating into licks when anxious and eager to impress. If Craig Hoyer would run for president in 2004, I’d vote for him, after going door to door soliciting votes. Tacoma has a great view of Mount Ranier, and Craig Hoyer. Without either, Tacoma would be half what it is.
Mike West on tenor is something else. I want to compare him to Eric Alexander who has set an industry standard for tenor lately. Eric graduated from Olympia High School, currently attended by all three of my kids, so I’m loyal to him as a home town boy who made good. I’ve listened intently to almost everything he has recorded and I love what he does. His technique and driving time sense is entirely masterful. When I heard him live, he put more tenor runs on the scoreboard than anybody, sans a single out, in more ways than one, I’m afraid. He was all inside. Some outs would have helped.
Mike West has most of the technique Eric has, though not all, but enough by far. He has the time sense that drives a line implacably to its end. He’s sending line drives deep into center field. What Mike has that Eric doesn’t, is fire in his belly and another fire burning two charkas lower down. When you get done with a night of listening to Eric, you have re-read Magister Ludi. It’s all up in your frontal lobes, and they are singing his praise, all lit up and excited to the limited extent that they are able. When you hear Mike, you get the technique and the chops, and the intellectually pleasing variations, plus your pelvic brain gets a dose. He’s a maniac. He’s living dangerously. He’s playing out of his gut and his cajones, as well as his central nervous system. He’s blowing outside, like a bull in a china shop. Why isn’t he breaking any crockery then? How can he do that? In the middle of the CD, he’s the one leading the charge, walking the edge and purposefully falling over into the abyss from time to time, just to give you a tweak the way he is tweaking himself. As the CD progresses into the seeming chaos of increasingly outside anarchy, he’s the guy who is control as he goes out of control, the one who is putting a bullet in the forehead of the jazz umpire, while striding down the street to see if the ultimate commissioner of baseball bad guy (who owns the Sheriff and the judge and all the local grazing land) is going to pull on him. Sort of a Yojimbo (Toshiro Mifune/Akira Kurosawa [available on video]) or Fist full of Dollars, (Clint Eastwood). To belabor a metaphor, Mike is playing the way Mifune lops off an arm with his sword, and moves on to decapitate the next bad guy before the first arm hits the ground, all in swooping elegant grace. It’s a good thing Eric Alexander doesn’t have Mike’s testosterone and outside bent, or the world would be a far less safer place for American Family Values. For the sake of public safety, Mike should be kept in a steel cage, and thrown raw meat three times a week, after he is awarded the congressional medal of honor.
Greg Williamson plays drums with the best guys in Seattle where the gigs call for playing it straight which he does so well. The club owners are risking financial ruin every night they book a real jazz band for heaven’s sake. They are to be praised for their purism, since they could be making real money booking smooth jazz acts for the 15,000 Microsoft millionaires there. So Greg is in a bebop box 51 weekends of the year, and on the 52nd, Dan breaks him out to play free jazz on this CD. What do you find? A drummer who can operate in that domain with total confidence and mastery. He has something to say. Listen up!
In conclusion, this CD should be kept in the machine and played repeatedly for weeks. Let it creep up on you. Make love by it. Go to sleep listening to it. Play it in the house even when you aren't there, so as to acclimatize the woodwork to it. If you will give it a chance to be absorbed, you are going to find real depth here. I'm hearing it for the 20th time as I write this, and every listen has been rewarded with another pearl of musical wisdom revealed. Enjoy!
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