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Breaking Jazz

Quartet Offensive Takes Left-Field Jazz From The Red Room to the Rock Club

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 3/5/2008

A few weeks back, Nathan Ellman-Bell, Quartet Offensive's drummer, sent out an internet invitation to an upcoming show with the tag line "Live Punk Jazz." "I just wrote that as a joke," he says sheepishly when reminded of it at a band rehearsal a few days later. "I thought it sounded cool."

"Who gave you the authority?" a bandmate says with mock indignation.

The rest of the ensemble moans and jokingly boos him about how lame his advertisement was, about how lame it is to advertise style at all. But Ellman-Bell unwittingly got it right. He very accurately described a group playing jazz that is far too zonked-out, tonally, to sell as straight-ahead, but is also far too constrained to form and groove to play for the Red Room crowd. The "punk" comes through Quartet Offensive's incongruity with the rest of Baltimore's jazz and improvisation communities. And with a lineup of musicians who are nothing short of virtuosic--bassist Adam Hopkins, guitarist Matt Frazao, and reeds player John Dierker round out the quartet--it is almost revelatory to be reminded that first-class improvisation is sometimes better when presented in a recognizable package.

Dierker, the group's veteran and a ubiquitous local player--he also performs with Lafayette Gilchrist's New Volcanoes, the Swingin' Swamis, Microkingdom, and 3081--met Hopkins, a Peabody Institute grad student, when Hopkins was playing bass for Satabdi Express, an Indian fusion group, at a gig at Mum's in Federal Hill. "I thought Adam was a heroin addict or something," Dierker says, mimicking Hopkins' slouch and pained expression while picking the bass.

They played as a duo for a while, then went through a few other musicians before settling on Frazao and Ellman-Bell, who also play together in the rhythm section of local hip-hop act Soul Cannon. The name Quartet Offensive was chosen over pitchers of beer at the Midtown Yacht Club, "as a way of ending the conversation, so we could move on to more important things, such as whether to order another pitcher of beer," Dierker says.

All four members, however, move in somewhat similar circles. Frazao and Dierker met independently at a Leprechaun Catering show at the Talking Head a few years back. And the fact that experimental and free-improv groups share bills with younger hip-hop and rock acts at a club like the Talking Head speaks to the creative dynamic that drives Quartet Offensive--Dierker says that Ellman-Bell, Frazao, and Hopkins are the youngest lineup he plays with. It's a mix of time-tested Baltimore weirdness paired with wet-behind-the-ears energy.

The tunes they play--all original, and often composed by Ellman-Bell or Hopkins--are not like much of the left-field jazz that you hear in this town, where each player sacrifices group dynamic in order to do his or her own thing, to be as expressive and spontaneous as possible. There's a framework here: a recognizable recipe of instrumentation, rhythmic structure, and arrangement that serves as a basis for each player to explore some really interesting spaces, once they get around to improvising.

"It's like an Ornette [Coleman] tune," Frazao says after a run-through of "Silent Movie," an upbeat number composed by Ellman-Bell. "It has a head, but then it's completely open."

The tune starts with a funky, off-kilter beat and a melody that dodges downbeats as well as any semblance of a key center. It's like 12-tone Stevie Wonder. There's much face-to-face communication between Frazao and Ellman-Bell, until they reach the solo parts and the groove disintegrates into a messy but measured squalling. Frazao tilts his head back, closes his eyes, and plays an angular, aggressive solo that feels distinctly rock 'n' roll.

Ellman-Bell plays this particular composition as though escaping traditional backbeats, adding fills at the end of every phrase. It's his favorite way to play--he prompts the rest of the band to follow him, and he appears delighted to have found musicians who are naturally able to do it. "Being a drummer, I come at things rhythmically before melodically and harmonically," he says. "I thought about adding chord changes to this song, but in the end, just decided against it."

They run through another tune, Hopkins' "All the Things You Failed to Be." It's a rhythmic exercise in jazz reference-dropping. It has the same changes as the classic bop tune "All the Things You Are," but Hopkins' version is written in a shaky 7/4. Hopkins picks a quick bass solo that has unmistakable snatches of the same wide, descending intervals that guide the original tune's melody. Another tune, as yet unnamed, is written in a wobbly five-beat pattern, but driven masterfully by Ellman-Bell's beat, which is almost danceable, Latin--a midtempo bossa nova. Again, the solos are off-putting, not exactly tonal, but the whole thing is grounded in traditional patterns.

"Playing in situations where there's no framework--sometimes it's great, but sometimes having every option available is the biggest limitation," Frazao says. "It gives a lot of clarity to my ideas."

They play another one, "Rumble," written by Hopkins. The forward-pushing bass line recalls the spy theme from a James Bond movie, with a hard, heavy backbeat from Ellman-Bell. Dierker's bass clarinet rises dissonantly over the rhythm, and Frazao's solo is biting and loud, his guitar pumped through some sort of heavy-metal EQ setting. It's a tune predicated on the idea that jazz need not swing, that a jazz guitar need not sound sweet or "cool." Before long, a steely sort of noise takes over the room, and harsh sounds dominate. At this moment, they actually sound like punks.

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