For a drummer, Justin Peake spends very little time at his kit. A few judicious taps on the cymbal, then it’s off to his laptop, where the sound is captured and electronically perpetuated as an evolving series of digital blips and screeches. Sitting back, he lets computerized processes take their course, intervening with a few taps at the keyboard when things need coaxing along.
This is no private experimentation. Peake, alongside fellow drummer Simon Lott, is performing upstairs at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street. A sparse but appreciative crowd mills about in front of the stage, savoring the music. Some sip drinks at the bar, others spill out onto the balcony for a cigarette or casual discussion.
The sound is not what generally springs to mind at the mention of New Orleans music. It ranges from jarring bursts of electronic noise to delicately synthesized hums, punctuated by Peake’s minimal approach to the drums. The sounds take an intricate route from their genesis at the kit through a succession of cryptic digital manipulations before emerging from the speakers.
Peake belongs to a rich corner of the New Orleans music scene, one that is nonetheless largely invisible within the town’s broader musical culture. In the birthplace of jazz—a music born out of the freedom of creative improvisation—it’s only natural that there should be a dedicated faction of artists taking that freedom to its limits. Peake’s electro-acousticism is just one branch of an extremely varied tradition.
It’s a very small community,” Peake says. “It doesn’t cater to tourism as much, unfortunately.”
“I got addicted to New Orleans in 1997,” says Andy Durta. “My first night in town, I went and saw (bassist) James Singleton’s 3 Now 3. I had no idea what the hell I was getting into.”
Durta is perhaps better known by his pseudonym, “Scatterjazz”. He tracks interesting performers of the experimental/improvisatory variety from the U.S. and abroad, finds venues for them, and hooks them up with musicians with whom they can perform. His tastes, while broad, tend toward the melodic-jazz end of the avant-garde spectrum.
“In 2006, I brought Frank Gratkowski here, who’s a saxophone player from Germany,” Durta says. “It inspired me to realize that some of the really great players from Europe and elsewhere hadn’t been here. They don’t know how strong our improvising/modern jazz scene is. We have one of the very few best scenes in the country. The musicians here are as strong as anywhere, if not stronger.”
Durta does his best to find truly interesting performers. “There’s noisy music I listen to sometimes where I don’t get a sense that the musicians really could do more traditional jazz styles,” he says. “That stuff’s less interesting to me.” It’s a frequently leveled criticism that free improvisers use artistic license as a smokescreen for lack of ability, which is why seeing skilled practitioners of more traditional styles engaging in the creative scene can be so reassuring.
“I like to know that I’m in the hands of people that have mastered other worlds,” Durta continues. “People who make those sorts of noisy sounds really well generally know how to make any sound they want out of their instrument. Within a moment, they give me something that lets me know that they can play bebop or they can play swing, but they’re consciously doing what they’re doing.”
People tend to have a certain character in mind when they think of the avant-garde musician: the conceited eccentric, blowing silly noises out of his horn in an ostentatious attempt to distance himself—it’s a predominantly male community—from the mainstream musical world that shuns him. Whatever the picture, it certainly doesn’t look much like trombonist Jeff Albert.
The music of Albert’s own quartet lives between the worlds of the composed and free-improvised. But he can often be found playing a variety of more straight-ahead styles, with groups like George Porter, Jr.’s Runnin’ Pardners or the John Mahoney Big Band. He thinks of the idioms not as opposed to one another, but rather as different points in a continuum. “In my conceptualization, it’s not that it’s all that different,” he says. “It’s just that in my band, it’s my version of how I organize this music.”
Albert is the co-founder and curator of the weekly Open Ears series at Blue Nile, of which Justin Peake’s performance is a part. Before the series began in late 2007, there was no truly consistent venue for this music in New Orleans. “Stuff would happen at the Mermaid [Lounge], which doesn’t even exist anymore,” says Albert. “The Dragon’s Den was once a real haven for left-of-center musical happenings—it still is to some extent, but not to the level that it was. [Open Ears] was started with the intention of having a place to present interesting music without having to argue with someone to get it done.”
Open Ears got off to a slow start, but the audience grew. “One night I looked around and said, ‘I don’t know most of these people,’” Albert remembers. “That was a sign to me that Open Ears was becoming successful.”
In a town whose name is virtually synonymous with generations-old musical tradition, the music faces an uphill battle in attracting a larger audience. “People look at it and say ‘Oh, well, that’s not a New Orleans thing. That must be some anomaly,’” says Albert. “When actually, it goes all the way back. Louis Armstrong was the radical in 1925. Ornette [Coleman] spent some time here, Kidd Jordan’s from here. Michael Ray was here for a long time. There’s always been this outside angle to New Orleans music. Sometimes you’ve had to search it out and find it, but I think it’s always been there.”
What’s remarkable about the scene in New Orleans is how many of the musicians make their living playing more mainstream styles. Even Peake—whose improvised performances can be particularly turbulent—records under the producer-alias Beautiful Bells, creating more straightforward sample-and-beat-based electronic music.
It’s April at the Big Top in Central City, and the Konk Pack is deep in a lengthy improvisation. Thomas Lehn’s analog synthesizer dips and trembles wildly alongside Tim Hodgkinson’s shrewdly plucked lap-slide-guitar and the shimmering tonal backdrop of Roger Turner’s drum kit. It’s in the nature of a performance like this one, where organizational structures are nearly absent, to veer wildly between cohesion and chaos. One moment order is barely discernible, and the very next the three have united in an inspired bit of coordinated spontaneity.
The trio’s members hail from England and Germany. They’ve been courted by “Anxious Sound” a.k.a Rob Cambre who, like Durta, liaisons with creative musicians from afar and gives them an audience in New Orleans. When Cambre started booking acts like this in the mid-’90s, there was very little precedent. “I was doing it on this very old-fashioned, DIY punk-rock level,” Cambre says. “Call, book the gig, make your own flyers, send out your own press release.
“When I first started organizing concerts like this in ’96-’97, it was considered very, very strange, to the point where a lot of people, even friends and fellow musicians were frankly rude about it. I had people look at me like I was a lunatic for trying to present this music in New Orleans, even though at that point the idiom already had a 40-year track record. That’s less so now because it’s undeniably a part of the cultural landscape. Since they can’t deny its existence anymore, it’s given it some degree of legitimacy and acceptance.”
Cambre sees a spiritual kinship between free and traditional music. “A lot of collective improvising is not really so different in sonics or methodology from how an early New Orleans ensemble would handle things,” he says. “The dawn of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins was the dawn of the importance of the soloist. After those two musicians in particular, jazz began to be about featuring a soloist, whereas in the era that led up to them, it was much more about collective play. Free jazz, I think, reiterated the importance of the collective.”
Many in the Konk Pack audience were likely drawn to the show by Andy Durta’s Scatterjazz email newsletter. In his most recent mailing, he referred to the Konk Pack as an “astonishing, inimitable German-British unclassifiable sound trio.”
That designation highlights the difficulty in describing a musical world in which each performer seems to have his own distinct language. “‘Creative Music’ is a term I find myself using more and more,” Durta says. “It doesn’t imply jazz in any way, though it tends to come out of an improv/noisy jazz world.” But Durta himself acknowledges the shortcomings of the “creative music” moniker, carrying as it does the unfortunate implication that other music is “uncreative.”
For Peake, even broad terms like “experimental” can be troublesome. “For me, experimental music is a very specific genre that really involves hypothesis and undetermined outcome in the literal sense of scientific experimentation,” he says.
A reporter once asked Charlie Parker what he called his strange instrumental style. His reply: “Let’s just call it music.” That’s a sentiment that would surely find sympathy here.
It’s summertime at Open Ears, and the Jeff Albert Quartet has taken the stage. As the group reaches the climax of a dense collective improvisation, Albert nods and the four emerge into a composed section, horns in parallel. This prompts a short round of hoots and applause.
It’s a small crowd but you wouldn’t know it from the energy on stage. The affinity between the players is mesmerizing. “There’re a lot of great improvisers who publicly deal with this music less than they would like to just because of financial considerations,” says Albert. “Tuesday night of making $22 at Open Ears or $75 at whatever else they’re doing—if that $75 is paying their phone bill, they don’t have a lot of choice.”
Those numbers exert a strong influence on musicians. “People get locked in to what it is they’re known for,” says Peake. “Once they’ve built a following, I think it’s a dangerous thing that they don’t branch out from that.”
“It’s like recreation,” says Durta. “They can’t expect to pay their rent that way. It’s sad; it would be great if we could get them to pay their rent that way.”
It’s a prominent school of thought that places free and experimental forms in opposition to the bop-based styles that continue to dominate the mainstream of jazz. But if everyone can agree on one thing, it’s that the creative spontaneity of improvisation is at the heart of jazz. Here that creativity is on full display. The music is full of melody, of dynamism and energy.
“The whole conversation of how you define jazz—I don’t know that that conversation’s all that productive,” Albert says. “There’s music, and I like a lot of it. And some of it’s called jazz, and some of it’s not.”