As the title of their debut suggests, the Blue Noise Band is a "multi-purpose" unit in every sense of the term. Though the local instrumental quartet has its structural foundation in jazz, their goof-laden, quick-change musical character lands them squarely in the avant-weird camp. In other words, the Blue Noise Band's raison d'être has everything to do with being unabashed "music nerds" who aren't afraid of rolling in the mud in the name of ha-ha funny entertainment. Isn't that what being multi-purpose is all about? Saxophonist David Lobel, guitarist Adrian Quesada, bassist Tom Benton, and drummer Jeremy Bruch are part of a loose-knit contingent of eclectic Austin acts like the Golden Arm Trio and Brown Whörnet who artfully hover between genres in a manner that taunts any sort of concrete classification.
"In New York, there's a scene for something like this," says Benton. "There are clubs set up to cater to this type of music only. The closest thing to that here is the Mercury, and we're at the far left end of the Mercury. Periodically, you'll see some butt-shaking during our set, but it's mostly other musicians who are shaking it."
If Austin had a club like New York's Knitting Factory, the Blue Noise Band might have a place to call home base. In the absence of such a venue, the band winds up plying its noise on everyone from traditional jazz mavens sipping Pinot Noir to punk rockers quaffing Pabst to unclassifiable others whose choice elixir isn't sold in bars.
"We were playing last night in San Antonio, and this freedom rocker guy came up to us after the show and said, 'Y'all are like the last 100 years of music rolled up and smoked well!'" relates Quesada. "Now that's a compliment. We wrote it down as soon as we got in the car."
Taking their name from a Digable Planets song, UT dorm buddies Lobel and Quesada formed the Blue Noise Band in 1997 with original bassist Ricardo Valdez and drummer Jared Barron. Four days after forming, they played their first gig at the Manor Road Coffeehouse, a short-lived but musically rich venue that showcased a diverse range of artists from Tunji to Girl Robots to the Meat Purveyors. Benton and Bruch came aboard in early 1999.
Lobel and Quesada credit growing up in musical households as a catalyst for their involvement in music. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Lobel took up saxophone in the fourth grade, and Quesada began classical guitar lessons in sixth grade.
"My dad really wanted me to play piano, but that didn't seem cool in sixth grade, so I took up guitar instead," explains Quesada. "I played Spanish classical guitar for about two or three years. Then I found tablature in ninth grade and started to rock."
Conversely, Benton describes himself as having backed into jazz. He began as a rock & roll bassist in high school, but after reading Faith No More's Mike Patton sending out props to John Zorn's Naked City in a Rolling Stone interview, Benton decided to see what all the fuss was about. From there, it wasn't long before he moved from electric to stand-up bass.
Drummer Bruch, then, is the Blue Noise Band's sole music-school veteran.
"I had a full ride to the North Texas jazz program," he says proudly. "I came straight from Iowa overnight the day of school on a recommendation. I hung out there for two years and ended up learning more outside of school than in class. I played with a bunch of old One O'Clock guys and an old blues vocalist named Pops Carter. He was about 80 and his wife was Lightnin' Hopkins' cousin. We played this very, very rootsy 'Caldonia'-style shuffle stuff.
"After a while, I realized that 90% of what they teach you at North Texas is reading. I was self-taught, so they tried to break me down and reshape everything I'd learned. I didn't go for it. But I would say my days there were successful."
A cursory glance at each member's "recommended albums" list on the band's Web site (http://www.bluenoiseband.com) reveals a wide range in musical tastes; Björk, Fela Kuti, Wayne Shorter, Maurice Ravel, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins (R.I.P.) are just a few of the artists submitted for your approval.
"We've all listened to so much stuff," says Lobel. "If you look at our four collections, you couldn't get more eclectic."
Listening to the nine tracks on Multi-Purpose, released last fall on Aerosol, reinforces this sense of stylistic gumbo. "DBD" finds Lobel's sax darting in and out of a funky, polyphonic groove being laid down by Benton and Bruch, while "Ricky Ricardo's Balkan Dance Party" combines Latin and European musical traditions in the precise manner its title indicates. Then there's "Metro Section," a six-and-a-half-minute burst of free-form cacophony bookended on either side by a speeding, high-kick movement that evokes a despondent Boots Randolph working the bar-mitzvah circuit.
Among the shorter songs on Multi-Purpose, "Soibois" (pronounced soy-boy) is a memorable standout. Titled in honor of Golden Arm Trio resident vegan Graham Reynolds, who plays organ on the track, "Soibois" creates a sense of breathless excitement reminiscent of old-school game-show music. The Naked City reference piece "Cookies" is partially comprised of 30-second "punk snippets" the band once played live as separate pieces.
"We'd get up there and say, 'This song's about the environment,' and play a snippet," laughs Benton. "Then we'd say, 'This song's about people with no faces,' and play another. They had a different meaning every night."
Despite the Blue Noise Band's reluctance to fully embrace a sound, it all keeps coming back to jazz. Most of the music they perform onstage is improvised, and even if it doesn't sound like jazz at any given moment, the forms and themes are always there.
"'Jazz' is as good a word as any to describe us," Benton says. "If you look at the younger jazz audience, there are more and more folks who have grown up on rock & roll and MTV who have gotten into this. I think their appetites are a lot broader."
Given their musical bent, it's not surprising to hear the Blue Noise Band question the jazz traditionalists who dismiss fusion and avant-garde as conciliatory, innovation-for-innovation's-sake gestures. Nevertheless, they acknowledge the value of a traditional jazz vocabulary.
"In order to play some of the weirdly structured music that we play, you kind of have to have that background," says Quesada. "If not necessarily playing it, at least understanding it as a point of reference."
Having a point of reference is especially important when your gigs include everything from nude rugby beer bashes to corporate soirées. The Blue Noise Band even showed up on a bill at Bob Popular one night.
"The sound guy liked us," offers Quesada. "He was the only one. That's the difference between us and straight-ahead jazz players. If the crowd wants to get rowdy, we'll get fuckin' rowdy, too. If people want to get stupid, we'll get even stupider. That's when jazz gets thrown out the door."
In a more sophisticated nod toward the unexpected, the Blue Noise Band is scheduled for a showdown with the Golden Arm Trio in a battle-of-the-bands-style gig March 10 at the Empanada Parlour. Each band will be playing a set consisting solely of the other band's music.
Meanwhile, Quesada's The Blue Noise Remix Project, an instrumental hip-hop EP featuring samples of the Blue Noise Band and other local avant-jazz players, is set for release on the Canadian TarMedia label. In April, the band will convene the Blue Noise Saxophone Quartet with four saxophones and a rhythm section.
"It should be really exciting, because we're not going to do much of our stuff," says Benton. "We're going to have a program and we're going to do some gypsy Balkan brass-band tunes, stuff like that."
The band is particularly looking forward to their South by Southwest showcase at the Elephant Room, where they'll be sharing the stage with their compatriots in Golden Arm Trio as well as Knitting Factory regulars like New York's Sex Mob. Regardless of whether the audience wants avant-garde or straight-ahead jazz, the multi-purposed quartet appears to be battle-tested and ready to go.
"We know our audience pretty well and we can always twist the music," assures Benton.
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