I knew that the Spring Heeled Jacks Original Swinging Jass Band’s debut album, The Dicky Comstock Show, was going to be good. The band’s bassist/arranger (and a very good friend of mine), Josh Morrow, had been sending me rough mixes as he and singer/guitarist/primary songwriter Nate Dunton worked on the tracks. What I didn’t know was that the album would be so good, so engaging — magical, even — that it would be one of the most-played albums in my collection during 2007. But as much as I enjoyed the record, it was maddening to know that so few ears had a chance to hear it.
On the one hand, it’s very easy to admire the steadfast ideals of the Jacks. For one, the music comes first. Whatever works best for the song is what Josh and Nate will do, regardless of who came up with what idea. And then there’s the time and care they spend on the tracks themselves. The first rough track Josh sent to me was back in July of 2006. The final Dicky Comstock Show album was revealed in 2007, and at least one track dating back to those sessions is still being tinkered with. No, this is no Smile/Chinese Democracy kind of saga. Facebook followers of the band know this, as they routinely leak tracks in almost-finished form and in experimental remixes.
And then there was Josh’s admission when I finally made it to Port Aransas, Texas, after not having seen him in five years. “We’ve given away more copies of the CD than we’ve sold.” Shocking, considering that, when the Dicky Comstock CD was still available for sale, it was priced at a measly FIVE DOLLARS. I mean, think about it — for five dollars, you got 11 different rock-solid songs, strung together in the spirit of old time radio variety shows with an amiable host keeping things light, and even some playful theme music and a fictitious sponsor’s commercial jingle. Even if only two or three of those songs were awesome, I’d call it a bargain.
The only excuse I can come up with is that these guys are just too damned nice. Even when a commenter on their MySpace profile tried to take them to task for using the old-time “jass” in their name, as opposed to “jazz,” implying that they had made some sort of heinous spelling error, they took it so well, it would be hard to imagine said commenter not being won over. There’s a little bit of swing here, and a little bit of Brian Wilson-like arranging and nods to modern influences like Beck and Nine Inch Nails, and even some tried-and-true, simple voice/guitar arrangements. And like Steely Dan, they find willing and able compadres to join them in the studio (in the Jacks’ case, Third Coast Studio in Port Aransas, Texas) to flesh out their ideas and turn them into full-blown productions.
Even for friends, Josh and Nate bent over backwards to give me as full of a Jacks experience as I could get in the course of three days. Not long after they picked me up at the Corpus Christi airport, we were in Nate’s bedroom listening to some works in progress, as well as some old Duke Ellington 78s that Nate had digitized (he played them at 33 RPM on his turntable and sped them up on his computer, tweaking the results until they sounded — I kid you not — fuller and livelier than their officially released CD transfers, and with much beefier bass). All this had to be done before we even thought about eating, and we all were in silent agreement on that point.
And eat we finally did, over at San Juan Taqueria. It wasn’t about to make me forget about all the top-notch Mexican food at my fingertips on a daily basis in San Francisco, but you’d be hard-pressed to find better service. The staff treat their patrons like buddies, and the owner walks the joint like a proud papa, making sure his customers are satisfied. And this was a fine prelude to a walk on the beach, where we took in the wildlife scene and felt the clay-like sand beneath our toes.
Tastes, sights, smells, sand… and of course, sounds were all part and parcel of this particular Parlour to Parlour journey, which culminated in a trip up to Austin to see the UT Austin Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven’s 9th. Not that Josh and Nate are trying to ascend to some godly classic status, no. They simply love the music, and felt it was important to tie it all together with something that they truly revered. It was heavy. So heavy that it became tiring to follow the melodies, the harmonies, the constant changes, the complexity of this grand, exalted composition. But like any piece of great music, it will demand re-listening till you get it, and after you get it.
Josh, the Buddhist composer/arranger/producer/bassist who lives to be in a good, harmonious musical-and-life groove… and Nate, the part-time fisherman who writes beautifully inspired songs through the lens of his good friends, many travels (New Zealand, Thailand, Alaska, etc.), and pure imagination… and a common bond that manifests itself for us in a music they have dubbed “world Americana,” exemplifying the 21st century paradox of increasingly localized communities who are informed by a global viewpoint… I know this sounds all airy-fairy and like I’m probably smoking a bunch of weed, but it’s true – these guys are music. And the music is them. And it is us. And it’s worth a heck of a lot more than what they’re charging for it.
The Spring Heeled Jacks Original Swinging Jass Band – “No Friends Like Old Friends”