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Friday, March 4, 2016

A Professor, a Neuroscientist, a Carpenter & an Artist Walk Into a Bar ...

A San Antonio Scene Report 

by Joel Barela 

A few years back, Matthew Shipp laid it out: “If jazz can’t create new stars, rather than relying on people who played with Miles Davis in the '70s, then it really does deserve to die.”  Friends, that is a mic-drop if I’ve ever heard/seen/read one.

I’ll get to it.

So I’m in San Antonio.  The place is Hi-Tones.  It’s a bar with a sizable floor and a big outdoor smoking yard where you can also grab some street food from the carts or a t-shirt if the band inside has them.  It’s an old fashioned, steel door kind of place and when you open that door, it’s fucking loud.  My wife’s with me and we go grab a beer and some bourbon and try to stake a spot to catch this band we’ve heard about.  It’s tough though because there are maybe three chairs in the whole place and besides a few howlers at the counter, people are dancing.  Not some swing shit either.  It’s a tad more … free.  The place is red all over and it stinks of sweat.  The band is a quartet – alto sax, bass, guitar and drums – and there’s nothing acoustic about it.  Later, I'll read local publications call the band's sound "jazz with a leather jacket energy."  And yeah, it's fucking heavy.  But it's also completely unpredictable.  One minute, the band is screaming "Bullets for breakfast!" (also the name of their debut album), the next minute they're launching into a jazz onslaught with a rhythm section keeping time like its in a curbside brawl while the guitar and sax play more exploratory, contemplative runs atop the carnage.  The difference in approach is both intriguing to hear (and even better to see live) and perfectly described by bandleader/bassist/producer Phillip Luna, "We're all alpha players."  And for a band of alphas, they have the perfect name: Royal Punisher.  And yeah, the whole "alpha" thing will of course mean that the band won't be several jazz fans' cup of tea.  But that's kind of the point.  If that kind of "tea" is your thing, pop your pinky up and find a nice lounge or hall where you can sit on your ass and watch some "traditionalist" fill his horn with spit while you convince yourself that you're experiencing something with every fiber of your body.  Now, to be fair, can music move you if you're not dancing frantically in a bar with peeled-paint walls? Of course.  And sure, I can't speak for everywhere.  New York has its thing.  Berlin has its thing.  I get it.  But here's the San Antonio thing: seated jazz clubs are for blue hairs and tourists.  The set continued with its unpredictable curves.  Bullets moved from screams to solos to a ramped up biting of Caravan's theme.  A cover of Zappa's Peaches En Regalia was surprisingly complex given the limitations of a quartet interpreting the original piece.  And with The Last Word, Royal Punisher latches onto a concept often cast aside in jazz of all forms: the beauty of repetition.  I love the chaos of a virtuoso's frenetic ideas and insistence on going twenty different places in as many measures.  That said, sometimes, it's nice to hear a riff worth repeating actually be repeated.  In The Last Word, said riff popped up again and again ... and again.  Each time, it prompted an explosive response.  And afterward, I talked to Luna about the project:

*Who are the players in the band?
Phillip Luna, bass 
Don Robin, guitar
Kory Cook, drums
Estevan Garcia, saxophone

*How did you guys link up?
Estevan and I had just stopped playing with another band - an original jazz-ish Morphine-esque trio (I played drums in this band) called Psychics. We play a few Psychics tunes in RP. Don had been playing a weekly house jam with a group of fellow doctors as well as Ken Robinson, a drummer Estevan and I had played/toured with for many years but were no longer in a band with together. Ken decided to bring Don to meet up at my studio and see if we would vibe. Estevan and I had been moving more towards jazz and playing a lot of improvisation and Don came from a jazz/improv background. We started gigging immediately, reading standards from the Real Book. We weren't very good but my reputation afforded us gigs wherever we wanted and the novelty of long hair, youngish (for jazz) rockers playing heavy hacked up versions of standards created some excitement. At some point, frustrated with our progress of making the actual transition between being garage rockers to jazz players, Ken decided to move along and focus on a rock career and Kory Cook joined the band. His first gig with us was JazzS'Alive. After awhile we began writing original tunes and mostly playing original improv sets live. 

*How long has the band been active? 
We have been together about six or seven years. 

*What's the story with day jobs?
Kory is the music director and an RTF Professor at KRTU at Trinity University. Don is a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and Estevan has been a carpenter for as long as I can remember.  I am primarily an artist/musician and all the things that go along with that. If anything, our day gigs are really useful sometimes, considering some of us are in the industry. Even Don works in the area of improvisation and neuroscience.

*Where did the name Royal Punisher come from? 
Don was wearing a hat from the Bieli winery whose feature wine is The Royal Punisher. Seemed a great name for a jazz band! And one that approaches music as we do.

*How would you describe the RP sound? 
Post-Punk Heavy Jazz. Kory is easily one of the best drummers I've ever ever seen. Don knows chords and chord subs and improv like English. Estevan was my drum major in high school marching band. He was also in jazz band. We both played sax. He was in jazz band, but I couldn't pass all my classes so I couldn't join. I learned jazz bass about six or seven years ago. I think it sounds like putting those four people in one room and pressing play on each of them individually. We would probably each describe the sound differently based on what we are each trying to get out of it personally. I'll leave up to you to describe our sound ... I don't know ... Cats being killed?

*How has the local support been? Are there any plans to tour at some point? 
Local support has been very strong. We were voted Best Jazz Act in San Antonio 2011, 2012, 2014.  We always get amazing feedback from gigs from all kinds of music lovers and people of all ages.  Some of the more established jazz players who like to play the usual standards in a formal way are less enthused, but we like that a lot. Our record is currently ranked on Jazz Week - the national report for jazz radio airplay - and are always actively looking for licensing opportunities through our publisher. Yes, we want to tour. We are perpetually planning one but our schedules are really hard to wrangle.

*Can you describe the process of making Bullets for Breakfast? 
It actually took a little longer than we would have liked from the time we wrote the tunes and the time the record was released. Most of the time was spent figuring out the exact process we would use in the studio to get the tunes down. We spent way too long stubbornly insisting that all the tunes be recorded live (in studio), but live in the sense that we all play at once and keep the whole take beginning to end. We refused to consider any other way until frustration got the best of us and, in one night, decided to get Kory and I in the room and let us go at the bass and drum tracks. That was really all it took to get things going. Most of the rhythm tracks are first or second takes at the most and the other guys were able to shred their parts in one session each, so the album was done in a matter of several weeks from then. After having been trying to pound it out live for many, many months, I booked the record release before the record was even mastered - so mastering, art collab and production was a crazy race to get it done. 

The writing process is another story entirely.  We each bring songs or sketches and then try and communicate those ideas to each other; then what happens happens.  I'm not sure if we ever really land anywhere near the writer's intent.  We write mostly the road map and make sure not to make too many obstacles for the others while we each do our thing.  I record a majority of our rehearsals.  I mic everyone up demo style so we can listen back and save any good moments for later.  Songwriting can be a desperate thing, where you pretty much will try anything to get the tune.  We employ every writing method any of us has ever learned in order to get to an exciting musical moment together.

*Future plans?
We are currently recording an EP to be released soon. At the same, time we are writing our next album. We book as many live shows as we can. When we discuss our future plans, it's mostly in the context of writing and recording. We envision the future of RP as a marathon rather than a race. We feel like we have a lot of material to cover and a lot about music and each other to learn. So we really want to record and release as often as we are able so we can just keep on gettin' down the road per say.

Bullets for Breakfast is available as a CD and a digital download (with a vinyl pressing imminent).  Who's to say if these guys are among the "stars" Shipp hopes to find in modern jazz.  All I can say is this, in that San Antonio spot that night, as these guys punished their instruments into something new and interesting with potential for days, jazz seemed pretty fucking far from dead.


joe.po said...

... cool .. I saw these guys a few years ago in Antonio and didn't know about the release of "Bullets for breakfast" // Thanks for the recall, absolutely agree with your statements: excited and satisfied.

Colin Green said...

I’m not sure I really understand Shipp’s comment. Who exactly are the jazz “stars” who played with Miles in the 70s to whom he’s referring? And surely the point is that Miles’ sidemen were notable, not because they played with Miles but because they were excellent musicians in their own right – he had a great ear for quality players.

As readers of the blog will know, for many years there have been plenty of jazz stars who didn’t play with Miles, Shipp amongst them. He seems to be a identifying a problem I didn’t know ever existed.

Bg Porter said...

Herbie? Chick? Wayne? I think that (and I realize the hazard of trying to put words in Matt Shipp's mouth) the point is more that by focusing so much attention on guys now in their 70s or later jazz has eaten its seed corn.

Personally, I don't think that's true. I'd like to see younger cats playing bigger halls, too.

Colin Green said...

Without wishing to seem pedantic, thats the 60s, not 70s. The three you mention are stars – more elder statesman – but that’s not due to their having played with Miles but what they’ve done since. Shorter is still producing great music and Corea has had something of an Indian Summer. They’ve earned that status, no doubt something Shipp will attain in his latter years. Perhaps not as well known, but that’s free jazz for you.

I still don’t understand how their position somehow undermines or has a negative effect. Why should jazz die because of them? Clearly, it hasn’t: both mainstream and free jazz seem in a pretty healthy state to me and have been for some time. – more albums produced than ever before and much of quality. I just don’t see that there’s a problem to which the band reviewed or anyone else for that matter, is a solution.

Tim Niland said...

Excellent post - Bravo. Sounds like it was a blast!