“If I could go back in time, I might go back and change the name of the band,” said Andrew Durkin, composer and bandleader extraordinaire, in his hotel room in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Durkin and his band, the Industrial Jazz Group, had just finished the first night of a 10-night, 10-city East Coast tour that will take them more 2,000 miles through six states and the District of Columbia. (The tour runs through 10/24. Visit the IJG site for details.)
Durkin said the Los-Angeles-based Industrial Jazz Group started life as a trio and slowly grew from there as people subbed into the band and never left. The current incarnation is a 16-piece band that can — and does — play anything. Really anything. At the Pittsfield show on Oct. 15, the band tore through complex arrangements, stopped on a dime, brought the funk, made everyone laugh, and demonstrated tons of chops without showing off.
“It’s not really industrial, and it’s not really jazz,” writes Durkin on the band’s Web site. He said he chose the name years ago mostly because it sounded good, but he also mentioned that the name might serve as a barrier for some people. (See last week’s Jazz Don’t Hurt column for a discussion of this concept.)
It shouldn’t, though, because the IJG has something for everyone. And while it’s sometimes unfair to say “X sounds like Y,” the Industrial Jazz Group is definitely channeling the mustachioed ghost of Frank Zappa.
“On our way up here [to Pittsfield],” Durkin said, “some Zappa came on, and I said I think he’s the best musician who has ever lived in the whole history of the world. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but I really love Zappa. He’s my biggest influence.”
What Durkin has taken from Zappa, though, is not a slavish derivation, but rather an inspired desire to push boundaries, test the limits, and have a great time doing it. His arrangements combine hilarious lyrics with adventurous harmonies, finding room for both improvised and densely composed sections. Melody seems to pour off Durkin’s pen, and you find yourself singing along as if you’d known these tunes forever.
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You really have to see the IJG to get the full experience. In Pittsfield, vocalist Jill Knapp was clad in a white jump-suit with black piping that looked like it had been hand-sewn on Michael Jackson’s spaceship, while vocalist Tany Ling wore a frilly red dress with a bow in her hair. Both Knapp and Lang were incredible performers, completely unafraid to give over their highly trained voices to the greater good of the music while also using their physicality and facial expressions to lend a narrative element to many of the songs. They spent all of one non-vocal tune sitting on the stage and updating their Twitter feeds, and another singing “why I oughta” while looking threateningly at one another and shaking their fists. (In a very classy move, Knapp also took a lot of time after the show to talk engagingly with some young teens and pre-teens who were in the audience.)
The brass section was as fun to watch as they were impressive to hear. The lead trumpeter was dressed in a leather jacket, fake dreads, jazz hat … and a full skeleton mask with a space cut out for the lips so he could play. One of the trombonists played both sets in a Speedo, a fact noted and commented upon at length by two young kids and their mom as they watched. (Child: “He took off his clothes!” Mom: “He’s silly, isn’t he?”)
The thing is, none of the theatrics were to cover for a lack of musicianship. If anything, the blend of visual and auditory performance made each element stronger, and the humor brought the audience in and helped make the farther-out sections of the music more easily digestible.
The Industrial Jazz Group is yet another example of creative and ferociously talented musicians deciding to ignore convention and follow their bliss. If they’re coming to a city near you, run, don’t walk, to see them.
To hear samples from the Industrial Jazz Group and an interview with composer Andrew Durkin, listen to The Jazz Session #98: Industrial Jazz Group.
Bonus video: Watch IJG trombonist and Speedo devotee Mike Richardson shave:
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Jason Crane is the host of the online interview show The Jazz Session.