For the past several years, drummer Dave King has performed for the adventurous ears of Lawrence University, almost always with a different group. On Sunday, May 10, he performed with the PBR Street Gang — Brandon Wozniak on saxophone, Anthony Cox on bass and cello, and Dean Granros on guitar. They played electro-acoustic, somewhat free jazz that got people gasping, reacting with uncontrolled excitement and even laughing at points.
To the casual listener, what the group played may have seemed like unorganized noise with the individual members doing their own thing. With a closer listen, it was apparent that each musician was intently listening to the others, well aware of what to play to complement the music being played.
Due to the free nature of the group, each member was able to play things that may be considered unorthodox for each specific instrument. For example, the bass was featured in solos and played melodically, instead of keeping time and providing a harmonic structure. Even during saxophone or guitar solos, Cox would be shredding either in the background or above everyone else.
During a large portion of the concert, King did not even keep time consistently, creating an out-of-time soundscape with intermittent blast beats and other erratic drum fills. His approach to drumming was unusual and kept most of the audience at the edges of our seats. Some people were even jumping up and down, moved by the unbridled nature of the music.
Similar to the bass, Granros noodled quickly and played crunchy, dissonant chords, blurring the feel of rhythm and key. He also messed around with different sounds and tones, often in the same solos. In one solo, he went back and forth between a distorted chordal riff and high, screech-like twangs, creating various tensions that pushed the piece as a whole forward.
Wozniak completed the PBR Street Gang with his wild and breathy scalar soloing. Rhythmically, he played similarly to a bebop saxophonist, but harmonically, he was out there. His playing was often disorienting and spiraled in and out of control, but at some points it was much more lyrical and subdued, providing an unexpected but alluring contrast.
The quartet’s approach to an electro-acoustic sound also provided great contrast and intrigue. While the drums and saxophone were acoustic — save for some natural-sounding reverb from the saxophone — the bass and guitar experimented with various tones and timbres, giving the music variety. Most notable was Granros’ use of a MIDI guitar with which he could play keyboard noises and many other synthesized instruments, even soloing for a bit with a saxophone synth. Due to its ridiculous sound, he showed that humor can and should belong in music.
Each musician’s unique style and way of playing came together to create a bombarding but fascinating wall of sound, showing how important it was for each of them to listen to the others. At many points, it could have easily dissolved into out-of-control noise, but all four members’ focus and open ears kept the music going.
The quartet worked well as an ensemble, and rose and fell in intensity successfully, a difficult task for ensembles to accomplish. They are not only talented players, but also listen to each other. Usually, it is simple for talented musicians to play a tune together, but playing with the same feeling and intent is a whole other thing entirely.
While this was one of the most inaccessible concerts I’ve heard at Lawrence thus far, I definitely enjoyed it, and it was apparent the rest of the audience did too. I look forward to welcoming back Dave King and whatever group he brings next year.