Free of Skronk: L-R: Aaron Lehr (filling in for Sean Moore), Jesse Wickman, Zack Matz, Ari Piotrkowski, and Damian Cohn.
Jazz It Up
The Frenzy Trio Quintet plays games with free jazz
By Karl Byrn
In the North Bay music scene, it's a given that downtown Petaluma is a hard-to-beat hotspot. Two of the most enduring music venues in the area, the rootsy Mystic Theatre and the punk-rock Phoenix Theatre, were joined this summer by the intimate and stylish Zebulon's Lounge, which since July 6 has been offering live jazz nightly.
Zebulon's is pulling from a large store of serious jazz talent in the area, much of it coming from Sonoma State University students and teachers. The Frenzy Trio Quintet (or just Frenzy), who play at Zebulon's every other Thursday, have another surprise for live music fans: free jazz that's melodic and focused.
"If people are hearing something familiar, then they'll be more accepting of the crazier stuff," says drummer Jesse Wickman, describing the group's ability to move on cue from long stretches of bebop listenability and groove to quick spells of chaos.
Wickman points out that the heart of free jazz is improvisation, not the stereotype of unlistenable "skronk" that many jazz fans associate with late-period John Coltrane. Frenzy play a challenging type of improv that, even for well-trained ears, isn't too far from the standards-based bebop of other acts at the nightclub.
But where standards-based jazz applies improv skills to written charts, the Frenzy Trio Quintet improvises to what free jazzers call "improv games" or "game pieces." Some games may be simple-- following a certain rhythm or doing a piece with no rhythm. A favorite game of the Frenzy players is having a leader who nods instruments one at a time into a crescendo before nodding each one back out.
For now, Frenzy has more of a spur-of-the-moment approach. "We look at each other and say, 'What do you guys want to do?'" Wickman says. If no one names a game, "someone starts doing something, and everyone else starts paying attention. It's all about listening to each other." So the Frenzy players move fluidly through music that has no compositional anchors, following each other's moods and tones through patterns that thrust, stop, rebuild, and repeat.
When it's time to shift from more conventional bebop grooves into frenetic, ambient spasms with Wickman rattling shakers and horn players moaning whole notes, then "everyone just moves in that direction." He adds fondly, "Everyone starts to get that look in their eyes; you just know by the look. You get that look that says 'Metal!' and it means, 'Here we go!'"
Starting as a trio, Wickman and guitarist Sean Moore (leader of his own Sean Moore Quartet) heeded the call of trombonist Achilles Polynis to seize the opportunity Zebulon's offered to perform free jazz. Polynis has since left, but with consistent sit-ins from bassist Zack Matz and tenor sax player Damien Cohn (of the electronic-sample improv group Scattershot Theory), and with the newest addition of alto sax player Ari Piotrkowski, the expanded trio now has a core group of performers.
Frenzy's style reflects the creative energy at Zebulon's. The club, a lushly remodeled space around the corner from the Mystic, also operates as a gallery, features a specialty sake cocktail menu and wine, and hosts a writers' salon every other Tuesday that draws standing-room-only crowds. Co-owner Trevor Cole (who books the musicians while co-owner Karen Ford books the artists) notes that he's "happy to provide a forum for new music."
The group shares the appreciation. "We feel like saying thank you for letting us play free jazz," Wickman notes, adding that the special thing about the jazz at Zebulon's is that "it's not a scene, but a scene that's about listening to music."
Frenzy perform regularly at Zebulon's Lounge, 21 Fourth St., Petaluma. 707.769.7948. Their next date is Thursday, Oct. 31, at 8:30pm.
From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.