Skeleton Key Orchestra
Circumvention 039 A-B

Perhaps it’s the number of music schools in California, the dissatisfaction musicians in the West have with regular commercial gigs they have, or a Left Coast insistence on group companionship, but the number of big – make it massive – bands extant seems to have grown exponentially there in recent years.

Los Angeles-based multi-reedist Vinny Golia has one, drummer Adam Rudolph’s Organic Orchestra is another in the Bay area, and trumpeter Jeff Kaiser Ockodektet works out of Ventura – and there are others. Individually though, percussionist Nathan Hubbard’s San Diego-based Skeleton Key Orchestra (SKO), is unique in many respects.

Most of the other aggregations are usually staffed by veteran pros and pretty Free Jazz-oriented. SKO, organized in 2001 by Hubbard, a member of the Trummerflora Collective, combines players of a number of San Diego’s creative music ensembles, most of whom have some association with the University of South California at San Diego. Building on the wide-ranging interests of these young performers, the eight compositions here reflect not only Free Jazz, Free Music and so-called contemporary serious music, but also electronics, environments and field recordings, text and voices and a patina of ethnic strains.

That accounts for some frustration in the more than 2½ hours of music on this, SKO’s debut double-CD. With only eight tracks, the longest of which is slightly less than 36½ minutes, and the briefest [sic] slightly less than 11½ minutes, the tendency to pack too much into the compositions is rife. Featuring groupings ranging from nine to 27 pieces, SKO tries to excel, as its bumf puts it, in “surreal electronic landscapes, free-wheeling high-energy collective improvisations, meditative woodwind fugues, improvised street marches and minimalistic repetition”.

Even Barry Guy’s decades long established London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra couldn’t do all that – and Guy didn’t try either. What’s encouraging about SKO is how well it and producer/composer/engineer/part-time conductor/field recordist Hubbard do first time out. Consider “A Murder of Crows” and “Raincastle”, which at 36:22 and 34:19 respectively each could have been single LPs in the 1960s.

More derivative, the former’s exposition mixes swirling eddies of polyphonic horn lines, electronic loops and a flanged guitar line. It’s reminiscent of experiments involving Alan Silva’s Celestrial Communication Orchestra or Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra in the 1970s. Here the spit out, circumscribed or swelling lines are expressed so often and in such profusion, that outside of a certain undulating movement the outcome is nearly muddy and shapeless. Initial variations involve harsh interface between metallic textures and intermittent sawing strings, redirected and distorted with effects pedals.

Following a near baroque string and horn interlude, only contorted, echoing guitar lines and a double-tongued, plunger exploration by trombonist Michael Dessen, in a half bop/half rock vein, prevent the sound from sliding into cop show soundtrack territory. Taped voices, funk licks and clanging ring modulator output make appearances along with short bursts of Aylerian reed squeaks and glottal punctuation, ringing guitar tones, laptop twists and fuzz-toned guitar licks. Soon a polytonal mix of marimba stings, hollow wood echoes, bell-ringing and drum rumbles are added from Hubbard and the four other percussionists. Eventually the repetitive resonation are reminiscent of those tunes on which Sun Ra gave every member of his Arkestra some percussion instrument. Stabilizing itself from a “Machine Gun”-like miasma, the reshaped theme simmers down to shakes, friction and rattles from hybrid trap kit, vibraphone, sampler and marimba, climaxing with offbeat rim shots and a final ride cymbal reverberation.

Lacking the same sort of definite finale, the more original “Raincastle”, dribbles away at the end without reaching a climax. From the top the idea is to mix pre-recorded sounds of a real rain shower with looping electronic fuzz, zigzagging flute lines plus grace notes from the brass and a massed orchestral countermelody. After Harris Eisenstadt introduces the pitter-patter of marimba mallet tinctures, the transition involves a low-key but propulsive flat picking guitar fill from Al Scholl, prepared piano scrapes from Stephanie Robinson, legato soaring strings from the section and bright fluting from Lee Elderton. As thematic shards are tossed back and forth, boppish cymbal beats and hollow percussion echoes give way to a vamping reed section in double counterpoint with brassy horn embellishments, both of which are superseded by an unidentified soprano voice singing a folksy ditty.

On top of roistering blasting trumpets, bass trombonist Alex Panos outlines a chromatic call to colors until three bassists divide a measured, tandem solo into sections that from one depends on slaps on ribs and belly of instrument, and another, harsh sul tasto lines figuratively cutting the bass in half. Before the unsatisfactory conclusion, guitarist Jon Garner picks out a pretty, light-fingered solo with ringing notes and impressive finger control. But divorced from any instrumental backing it sounds out of character, a divergence not a variation on the theme.

Attempts at apocalyptic, Beat-influenced poetry read by Hubbard and Valley Girl/Lit major erotic verses voiced on another track, would probably have been better relegated to another outing, though the percussionist does evoke Albert Ayler’s name to set up a feature for nearly all the reed players. Ancillary disconnect appears as well, however when besides sax screams and accelerating polyphonic horn smears, the track adds irregular scratching loops and buzzing signals and climaxes with consolidated riffs that seem more in Ray Coniff’s than Sun Ra’s territory. Jay Easton’s subterranean exhortation on contrabass saxophone is the track’s saving grace however.

Elsewhere multiple counterpoint among the horns can rang from Free Jazz to Swing in sections with slippery rhythm guitar work adding a Booker T and the MG’s funk melodiousness. This euphony also appears when the strings and woodwind tonal colors become almost recital-like pastoral. In contrast, another piece is partially built around a duet between sharp fiddle jettes and distorted, almost dirty, agitated guitar lines. The remainder has exciting broken octave work from bassists Joscha Oetz and Scott Walton, one slapping buzzy tremolos, the other exposing near shudders as he loosens the strings on the neck. Other echoes include processional trombone lines, undulating percussion tones and wavering reed tones that are reminiscent of the sort of Cool Jazz associated with 1950s’West Coast big bands.

With all these colors, textures and ideas available from nearly 30 musicians, Hubbard may have attempted a bit too much on SKO’s debut. But considering what was accomplished here, judicious editing next time out may make the ensemble a group to be reckoned with far beyond the Western United States.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1: 1.Is That You (Earl)?/Dogs Don’ Bark at Ghosts 2. Raincastle* 3. Sleeping Against Other Warnings (Limited Only by Our Dreams)# 4. East on 53rd Street

Disc 2: 1. A Murder of Crows+% 2. Making My Way Thru It/Waiting in Vain 3. Next Love (All Things Want to Fly) 4.Don’t Look Says the Crow (I Don't Believe You)*

Personnel: Isaac Tubb (trumpet, flugelhorn, pipe-processed trumpet, Tibetan bell and megaphone feedback); Karl Soukup (trumpet, pipe-processed trumpet, and conductor #); Steve Vertigan (trombone and pipe-processed trombone); Michael Dessen, Scott Kyle (trombones); Alex Panos (bass trombone and dopplerophone #4); Angela House (French horn); Eric Sbar (euphonium, pipe-processed euphonium and low bell); Derrick Oliver (tuba); Lee Elderton (alto and soprano saxophones, flute and dopplerophone #5); Ellen Weller (flute); Adnan Marquez (alto saxophone); Jason Robinson (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass flute and dopplerophone #1); Ward Baxter (tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, bass clarinet, electronics, high bell conductor %); Gabriel Sundy (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, flute, handclaps and dopplerophone #3); Jay Easton (baritone, bass and contra bass saxophones, bassoon); Gascia Ouzounian, Adam Ainsworth, and Louis Caverly (violins); Al Scholl (guitar, pedals, wobble board and handclaps); Jon Garner (guitar, sampled guitar, gourd shaker, pedals and wobble board); Jarrod Chilton (cello); Justin Grinnell (bass, electric bass, pedals, mini disc and handclaps); Joscha Oetz (bass and pedals); Scott Walton (bass and prepared piano); Leah Meadows (harp); Christopher Adler (piano and conductor*); Stephanie Robinson (pipe organ, prepared piano, sampler, synthesizer and processed voice); Harris Eisenstadt (drums and marimba); Nathan Hubbard (drums, percussion, congas, vibraphone, tapes, Tibetan bells, tam tam, tamalin frame drum, bohran, piano with mallets, simmons drums, sampled pipeophones, pitch-shifting vibes, processing, field recording, megaphone, drum machine poetry and conductor +]); Jon Szanto (glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, maracas, minidiscs and metal can); James Burton (drums and percussion); Curtis Glatter (hybrid trapkit, glockenspiel, chimes); Marcos Fernandes (CD player, electronics, percussion kit); Darren Evans(low conga, random surface drumming and loops); Damon Holzborn (laptop); Marcelo Radulovich (air synth and electronics)