Oak Street is quiet on a Wednesday night. This strip of secondhand stores, head shops and coffeehouses in the Riverbend lies empty but for the occasional taxi and mohawked bicycle rider that roll down the road toward South Carrollton Avenue. They are coming from the Maple Leaf Bar, the last establishment still open at 11, where the night is just getting started. The din of clinking bottles and mingling voices spills out onto the street past a chalkboard enticing passers-by to check out tonight’s band: Khris Royal and Dark Matter.
The group stands on the stage before a dense crowd. The sound check is going slowly and the musicians shift their weight from foot to foot as they test each instrument. The guitarist, Danny Abel, plays a few notes and ever-so-gently turns one of his tuning pegs, smiling when he hears the right pitch. One of the bartenders comes up to the stage and places five shot glasses at Abel’s feet. He raises his eyebrows at the saxophone player and leader who nods back. He is not an imposing figure, but with long tied-back dreadlocks, neatly trimmed but scant facial hair and brown skin that looks darker that it really is under the dim red lights of the Maple Leaf, Royal has a familiar stage presence. With a quick glance to the rest of the band, the leader raises his alto to his lips and screams out a stream of rapid-fire rhythmic tones, the introduction to a song called “Bunny Hop.” The high register causes a few audience members to yell in support and pleasure and by the time the band reaches the bridge, it’s hard to find a head that isn’t bobbing.
It is these moments that Khris Royal, 24-year-old New Orleans-born reeds player and leader of Dark Matter, lives for. Khris Royal and Dark Matter are beginning to define themselves. They’re playing a CD-release party tonight at the Maple Leaf, but they have been making waves without a CD. They have played in Houston, Atlanta, Lafayette and the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama last May. Many of their style-blending jam band predecessors have started the same way, spreading their sound around the South and then moving to national acclaim. During a Dark Matter radio interview and concert broadcast on WWOZ, Art Neville called in four times to praise the band, telling the DJ to tell them that “their shit is cold-blooded!”
Khris Royal has come a long way. Music has been his passion since age 7, when he first picked up the horn.
“I always wanted to play,” he says. “I would sit in church behind the drums and watch the band. At first I wanted to play organ. Then it was trombone, but since my mom was paying the bills and my cousin already played trombone, I started on the saxophone.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Royal was exposed to a musical culture that allowed him to learn and develop what he loved to do. He attended the creative arts magnet elementary school McDonogh 15 in the French Quarter. Generations of outstanding musicians went there, and graduates include Grammy Award-winning trumpet player Nicholas Payton and the young, sought-after drummer Joe Dyson.
“It was a perfect place for Khris,” says his mother, Karran Harper Royal, an education advocate and special needs activist in the New Orleans public school system. “He has always had so much energy and McDonogh 15 really fostered his abilities. It was a student-focused school. I remember his kindergarten teacher Ms. Dillion. Her husband would come by and help with the class, and when Khris couldn’t sit still at circle time, he would take him around the Quarter and get snowballs down on Tchoupitoulas. But the best that McDonogh offered was that he could play music every day. He’s been doing that for 20 years and hasn’t stopped. He has always had endless energy.”
Royal has directed this energy toward improvisation since he started learning music. He played in McDonogh 15’s Red Hot Jazz Combo as well as the marching band, and maintained his jazz music focus through his studies at NOCCA.
“Khris is one of those guys with a great ear,” guitarist Danny Abel says. “It’s kind of frightening how good he is at getting through changes. You know, he’s very energetic and very responsive to contribution. He’s open to other people’s songs, even from my own band, and he’s gotten a lot more mature about his ego over the years. If he ever had an ego about the music, it was only for lack of confidence. Now we’ve been playing so long, we’re starting to get a sound. What makes him unique is that he has an ability to think as everyone in the band. He thinks about the music from a producer’s point of view.”
The holistic approach is not simply innate, but something that he explored in his studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Royal got a full scholarship to the famed conservatory at 16 years old, and he quickly left New Orleans to study studio engineering in Boston. Playing in an environment of abundant talented musicians, Royal realized he could get more than he got out of class. Still, he kept to sound engineering and learned to produce music on his laptop.
“I composed all the tunes in Dark Matter on my computer,” he says. “It helped that I can play each instrument well enough to show everyone exactly how I want it to sound. The whole song is in my head and I just put it out. It’s a visceral feeling.” This visceral feeling lies at the root of Royal’s improvisation, a skill and art that he brings to all his music, especially to “Bunny Hop” on a Wednesday night at the Maple Leaf.
The chorus is over and the band settles down to let Royal start his solo. He flares out his arms, baring sinewy muscles and sharp elbows. As he begins to dance to his own song, he sways his square shoulders from left to right and takes deep breaths that puff out his broad chest. Legato lines leap from his saxophone, punctuated by accents with force yet reserve that fall into time with expert precision.
As the rhythm of the song begins to drive harder, Royal’s solo takes off. His lines are melodic and smooth, born in bebop but raised in rhythm and blues. They are angular lines with rounded edges that sweep high and low over the range of the instrument. He begins stepwise, staying close to the scale and playing “good” notes, but before long he rises higher and higher, adding dissonance as he climbs. Chromatically, the notes jet out of the bell of the horn until Royal can hardly contain himself. He jerks back and forth, down and up, and side to side, crouching for lower notes and extending his legs as the sound rockets upward. Finally, eyes shut tight with ecstasy and expression and eyebrows furrowed, Royal spits fiery tones that cascade down in rolling arpeggios, seamlessly tumbling into the groove. As the crowd cheers, the guitarist starts his solo and Royal fades into the harmony, a role he refined when he worked as a recording session musician in Los Angeles.
Royal was called from Berklee to play in a horn section called Regiment in Los Angeles. Under the direction of two-time Grammy Award-winning producer and musician Theron Feemster, better known as Neff-U, Regiment provided backgrounds for popular hip-hop and R&B artists such as Mary J. Blige, Neyo, Erykah Badu and Ashanti. The group was also featured on Season Two of Cartoon Network’s hit show The Boondocks. While he thought the job was a good experience, Royal did not like working in a studio setting as a back-up musician.
“It’s cool because if anyone wanted a horn section, they would call us,” he says. “We would make something right on the spot. But it’s not very satisfying playing. You have to play everything exactly like they want it, and you rarely get a solo. If I did get a solo, nobody really cared. I put too much craft into my playing to just be in the background.”
His time in L.A. didn’t last long. In the summer of 2008, Royal returned from a trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest and found out that the trombone player in Regiment had been looking for a replacement saxophone player without knowing that Khris intended to go back home. Royal, angry that he had to find out through the trumpet player, packed up and was back at home in New Orleans in two days, leaving Regiment without a sax player—a parting slap in the face.
Royal restarted his career in New Orleans with an emphasis on “playing out.” He would sit in at whatever clubs he could, meeting and impressing musicians with whom he would play for years to come.
“I would be on Frenchmen Street literally from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. every night, sitting in, jamming and meeting people” he says. “I was playing in Pat Casey’s band, the New Sound, and with Delfeayo [Marsalis] before he got the big band thing started. I was playing all night long. The thing about New Orleans is that you can play anything anytime. I’ll do a straight-ahead gig, then a traditional gig, then funk, then rock the next night. I could play what I wanted to here, and it’s also nice that it only takes about 20 minutes to get anywhere in the city.”
As he worked his way into a regular seat as the funk-fueled jazz band New Sound’s regular saxophone player, Royal made inroads into the funk community. After meeting trumpeter Leon Brown (also a NOCCA graduate) at The Hookah on Decatur, Royal got a Friday night gig in his first few weeks back in town. Having entered a community of musicians—most of whom had played with the New Sound—Royal began to form Dark Matter. With Danny Abel as his guitarist, Kyle Roussell on keyboard, Terrence Houston on drums and DJ Raymond on bass, the “space-funk jazz fusion band,” as Royal describes it on his website, began rehearsing.
Inspiration comes from many sources for Royal. The songs have intriguing titles such as “Big Booty Express,” “Bunny Hop,” “Funkin’ in Denial” and “Kendrick’s World,” written for Khris’ 15-year-old brother. This medium-tempo tune blends rock, funk and hip-hop, using modern electronic instruments and the prominent distorted guitar sound typical of rock ‘n’ roll. While innovative, the style-mixing approach is not unique to Dark Matter alone.
“Don’t you think that Galactic, Trombone Shorty and Khris Royal are all mining the same vein?” asks Tulane music professor and ethnomusicologist Matt Sakakeeny. “This moment is not a New Orleans moment but a jam band moment,” says Sakakeeny. “There is a demand for that, and they’re taking the old styles and making something new out of them with an instrumentation that’s always in flux. There’s an emphasis on long song forms, fluidity and improvisation on instruments. New Orleans music fits right into that. Adding rock is how you make it into the jam band scene, and whether that’s innovation or just an overture to money and the audience is completely subjective. All of these bands are adapting their style for commercial success, and some of it is to avoid the ‘jazz image.’”
Royal identifies this sentiment in his music and responds to it with pragmatism. “A lot of people hear this and say, ‘That’s jazz, and I don’t listen to jazz.’ You want to do what sounds good and makes you happy, but really you have to play for people if you want to make a living. So it’s a balance.”
Most importantly, Royal is trying to communicate his music to a group of people who don’t often fall into the typical jazz listenership. “I’m just trying to connect with people my age because it’s dying. Jazz is dying. We have to find a way to connect with a younger audience….Just think about how many styles of music we have that come out of jazz. Here, we play small clubs, often without a guarantee, and to get people in the door we play things that in a lot of other cities you would never hear.”
While Royal’s career is starting to move forward, he still maintains ties close to home. Still not earning enough to fully support himself, he lives with his mother, father and brother. “I don’t mind at all,” his mother says. “I’m no longer a traditional kind of mom, but he still has to do his chores—clean the downstairs bathroom and put out the trash. And he’s always leaving junk in my living room!”
But living at home does create certain frictions. Mrs. Royal talks about the classic relationship Khris has with his brother Kendrick. She feels that Khris always tries to toughen up Kendrick, who is more of the “nerd type.” One day, after consistent aggravation on Khris’ part, Kendrick threw the remote control to their 52-inch television directly into the screen, breaking it just weeks after the last payment had been made.
Royal’s relationship with his brother and family is not all irritation and projectiles. When he is in the studio or out playing, he will often pay Kendrick to do his chores and keep the living room clean. In the past, he also has hired his brother to help carry his gear to gigs, of which there may be four in a day. His parents attend his shows and continue the support they have offered since his young childhood. They could hardly get out of the Maple Leaf as friends and strangers alike flanked their path to the door, showering them with congratulations on their son’s music.
Outside the club, a young blond woman in her early 20s approached Mr. and Mrs. Royal.
“Your son is amazing,” she says with a broad, expectant smile. “I mean he’s a celebrity! And now you are too.”
Mrs. Royal smiles back at her. “I wouldn’t say that, dear. We’re just happy that you like it. And I’m sure he is too. Are you from around here?”
This is the woman’s first time in New Orleans, and she is visiting a close friend from college. The friend’s dad died and the old group is back in the city for the funeral. As she leaves, she turns back around and with a thankful sigh says, “Your son’s music was just what we needed tonight. Thank you.”
Khris Royal and Dark Matter play their CD-release party tonight at the Maple Leaf tonight at 10:30 with Earphunk opening.