Many of Seattle’s millennial-to-late-Gen-Xer jazz-informed musicians find themselves thwarting traditional genre for a mishmash of their favorite styles — everything from hip-hop to electronica to metal — and expanding the ears of Seattle audiences in the process.
It had all the makings of a typical Seattle rock house show: beer-sipping college kids crowded into the living room of a Wallingford house, a makeshift stage strung with cheap paper lanterns, a big Fender amplifier shoved beside the couch. But in place of rasping, long-haired dudes with weathered telecasters, three saxophonists improvised over a driving Rhodes riff.
You’d think Smack Talk, an instrumental group that combines catchy hooks and funk energy with complex jazz structure and harmony, would be a far cry from the bands that usually play Seattle’s punked-out DIY spaces. But then the audience crowded the stage and started to dance.
“I will hear people say, like, ‘oh, I told my friends to come to this show where they can listen to some chill jazz.’ And I’m like, well, we’re a lot of different things, not just jazz,” bandleader Sidney Hauser said. “They think we’re either playing like Kenny G or we’re doing straight-ahead Charlie Parker charts and we’re not doing any of that. I think when you combine jazz [with other styles] people connect to it more.”
Smack Talk isn’t on their own. Many of Seattle’s younger crew of jazz-informed musicians, millennials to late Gen-Xers, find themselves thwarting traditional genre for a mishmash of all their favorite styles — everything from hip-hop to electronica to metal — and expanding the ears of Seattle audiences in the process.
Certainly, there’s precedent for this sort of jazz fusion in Seattle, including in the ’90s with Maktub, a progressive rock band led by musician-comedian Reggie Watts, as well as the ambient-punk-jazz group Critters Buggin, led by Seattle saxophone veteran Skerik.
Today’s genre-benders are finding their own sound.
In 2006, Seattle drummer D’Vonne Lewis founded Industrial Revelation, an instrumental quartet that combines the rhythmic freneticism of bebop, with the dance-ability of electronica and hip-hop. That sound, in conjunction with their instrumentation — drums, keys, acoustic bass and trumpet — means Industrial Revelation can’t quite be defined, and they like it that way. Industrial Revelation plays the Timber! Outdoor Music Festival on July 14.
“We don’t really [go off of genre]. We go off of feelings,” Lewis said. “We don’t want all the songs to sound the same so we add a rock groove or Afro-Cuban or whatever different rhythm. And then it all just flows together.”
Similarly, Bad Luck is a tenor-drums duo steeped in drone-y saxophone melodies, virtuosic drum soliloquys, and plays with pedals and effects. They formed in 2007, and though graduates of the UW’s jazz program, they identify less with traditional jazz than with the stark intensity of metal and noise music.
“Toward the end of my career at UW, I was starting to move away from approaching jazz in a more traditional style because it didn’t speak to me as much as [something] that is informed by jazz but also has a completely different aesthetic more in line with the music that I was listening to,” said Bad Luck’s drummer Chris Icasiano.
This aesthetic comes from the diversity of listening experiences Icasiano and others of his generation had growing up.
“We are the generation that grew up with a fully formed MTV and Napster, and the first crew to use iPods and CD burners. We flip genres as fast as tracks on an iPod,” said Nate Omdal, local bassist and lead organizer for the Musicians’ Association of Seattle. “I feel that all the diverse stuff that was available to us is coming out in our music.”
At the same time, this younger generation is also shaped by the internet, including social media and digital news media. “You open your phone and you see all of this evidence of things that are happening and you’re just going to get angrier and angrier. Like, you can literally go on Facebook and see a cop shooting a black person in cold blood,” said Ruby Dunphy, drummer for women-fronted arena-rock band Thunderpussy.
“What’s that quote from jazz musician Nina Simone?” Dunphy said. “ ‘An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the time.’ ”
Toward that end, this generation of musicians is collapsing barriers not just in the music itself, but also in their communities, making a conscious effort to include people of different genders and cultures.
“I feel like with the institutionalization of jazz, it’s become something that is more accessible to white people or people with more class and wealth. And, because of that, it’s erasing blackness from the music, which I think is a huge problem,” Icasiano said. “I also looked at my male privilege: So many shows I’ve been to are largely white-dude bills.”
Instead of looking purely at a band’s sound, Icasiano, who also books events for clubs, approaches things differently.
“Bookers and promoters need to start the process grounded in their values, and then make decisions about programming that reflect their values,” Icasiano said. “When I’m programming a show, I first start with the fact that I value diversity: unique voice, perspective, and underrepresented talents of women, POC, trans and nonbinary folks. After that acknowledgment, I then start to think about a bill that will be compelling and challenging.”
Bad Luck’s next show, for example, puts them alongside Sub Pop’s new-age, elegiac Tiny Vipers, soft-rock band Hoop, and Red Ribbon, whose most recent album oscillates between muted grunge-punk and tender indie-folk. Bad Luck, et al., play Chop Suey on July 19.
But championing more musically diverse spaces does challenge long-held music-industry beliefs — namely, the idea that sticking to one genre is the only way to create a marketable brand. But with the internet’s impact on the music industry, bands have been forced to experiment with how to market their music for decades now.
“I think in a way [we’ve had some trouble] because they don’t know if we’re a jazz group or if we can hold down a full show,” Industrial Revelation’s Lewis said. “And, then people hire us and they always want us to headline. So, it’s like, man this is confusing! But that’s why we just be like, ‘Let’s just keep going.’ ”
Most mention how house-show environments and long-running local jam sessions, like Racer Sessions and Mo’Jam at Nectar Lounge, have helped them build a following for their music that doesn’t start with a genre tag.
“Most of the gigs that we played early on were all house shows and things that were extensions of the DIY scene here. And when you’re dealing with that you’re also playing a bunch of shows with a lot of crazy different bands, like punk, harsh noise, hardcore, folk groups … which influences you,” Icasiano said. “And there’s something about getting a bunch of young people into a room — they love everything. I’m inspired by that.”
Jazz community fixtures are supportive. For instance, Earshot Jazz magazine featured Cornish graduate SassyBlack on its cover in July 2017. Her music, which collages her voice, rich with jazz styling, over space-age electronic beats, is a departure from the more straight-ahead jazz artists they usually cover.
“Earshot was actually a really nice way to circle back around to what I was doing originally. Even with [my previous band, avant-garde hip-hop group] THEESatisfaction, I’ve always [identified] as jazz,” said SassyBlack. “So, it’s not a new thing. And hip-hop always has jazz in it so those things can never be separated. So, it wasn’t like I brought jazz into [my sound.] It was more that Earshot noticed that I was [jazz.]”
Along those lines, KNKX host Abe Beeson started his show “The New Cool” in fall of 2016, which celebrates this ilk of band as 21st-century jazz that’s informed by the popular music of today. It runs on KNKX on Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
“It’s one part kind of access to every music that’s been recorded in the last 100 years, and on the other side it’s only this generation that can make this fusion sound like it does,” Beeson said. “I mean, it’s got such a modern hip-hop feel and energy to it that I don’t think it could’ve been done by Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters.”
Beeson has met the genre-bending with much enthusiasm, despite the complications it introduces for a jazz radio station.
“I’m seeing more people in the audience and I look at them and I think, they probably don’t see themselves as a jazz fan; they just know this is cool music. And that’s kind of a weird place to be as part of a jazz radio station because you want people to be able to say, ‘hey, I’m looking for jazz and that’s over here.’ Instead they’re just looking for cool music,” Beeson said.
He touches on the most exciting part for the die-hard jazz lover: In the process of their style crossover, these young artists have reminded mainstream listeners that jazz isn’t necessarily elevator music or the Sexy Sax Man. It’s a quality that pushes music to the cutting edge, and through an open-minded audience, can reveal music in evolution.
Industrial Revelation, Saturday, July 14; Timber! Outdoor Music Festival, Tolt-Macdonald Park, 31020 N.E. 40th St., Carnation; $40-$110; timbermusicfest.com.
Bad Luck, 8 p.m. Thursday, July 19; Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., Seattle; $8; chopsuey.com.
This story has been updated with the correct time for “The New Cool” show on KNKX.