Where the Wild Jazz Things Are

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I walked into the rehearsal space next to Tougo Coffee and there were four musicians setting up, which was not quite the ensemble size I was expecting. “It looks like we’re gonna start at jazz two o’clock,” said Andrew Boscardin, checking his watch and grinning. In a few minutes, eight more musicians filtered in and sat down, and there it was: a big band. I thought these things were extinct.

Actually, there’s a coast-and-coast flowering of big jazz bands that prize innovation, excitement, and new compositional voices. A recent New Yorker listing mentions three exemplars: the steampunk jazz of Secret Society, not-industrial “avant-garde party music” of Industrial Jazz Group, and Bjork- inspired concoctions of Bjorkestra. Secret Society is led by Darcy James Argue, who lives in New York. Portland’s Andrew Durkin composes for the Industrial Jazz Orchestra. Another New Yorker, Travis Sullivan, leads Bjorkestra, with arrangements also from Kevin Schmidt, and Kelly Pratt.

Seattle is not lagging. WACO (Washington Composers Orchestra) has plenty of New York in its musical DNA. The Jim Knapp Orchestra features Knapp’s new compositions. And now there’s the Zubatto Syndicate, which has its own avant-garde party music aspirations.

So if the standard connotations of the “jazz” label chafe composer Boscardin like a too-tight suit, he’s not alone. A Capitol Hill resident who goes to packed shows at Neumo’s and Chop Suey for entertainment, he’s wary of the institutional jazz alleys that always lead to dinner clubs. (He told me after the rehearsal that he was thinking about hip-hop and Radiohead, not Glen Miller and Guy Lombardo, while writing Zubatto music. A motto he scrawled and taped up for inspiration was “Zubatto Syndicate takes its pants off!”)

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Zubatto Syndicate is a 12-member band, Boscardin’s brainchild, and very much a roll of the dice, artistically and commercially. Outside of the movies, jazz is not often a big draw unless it involves a celebrity singing standards. And swing dancers are going to be happier with Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra set lists. If you feel like dancing to Zubatto Syndicate, it’ll be because you can’t resist a snaky bass riff. In fact, if all goes well, you’ll want to drop your pants.

Zubatto is more like local avant-pop group “Awesome,” the way it’s born in a genre, but goes exploring. You won’t confuse it with hip-hop or Radiohead–there are no undigested bits of beat or melody–and it zigs when you think it will zag. Boscardin’s arrangements unfold in surprising ways–even the heavy woodwinds emphasis, with guitar and stand-up bass for strings, is unconventional. And because his band mates are improvisationally inclined, the solos are uncharted territory.

It all adds up to “a glorious racket,” says Andrew proudly. At the rehearsal I heard dense thickets of sounds, with abrupt clearings for a solo or duet. Waves of brass swelled and crashed while a clarinet tiptoed off by itself in a field–the aural equivalent of a split-screen in a movie. Instruments found unison, then moved apart, and regrouped in different combinations. Here’s two 3-minute samples I recorded at the rehearsal (not on pro equipment, sorry) to give you some idea. Songs, yes. Predictable, no.

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