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"If I hear a jazz group," confesses Peter Apfelbaum, "I get the impulse to run up to the stage and say, 'Listen, you don't have to do that anymore. There's been all these other discoveries. Haven't you heard?' "
The vehement 35-year-old composer and multi-instrumentalist is railing on the formulas jazz cats have been wearing thin since the days before bebop. The typical scenario involves introducing a melody line, fleshing it out with standard chord changes, soloing over the changes, then bringing the tune to a close with a recapitulation of the head. In a word: boring. Seeking to push beyond the tired homogeneity of the neo-cons, whose heavy-handed reliance on traditional form has acutely stunted the forward momentum of the music in popular circles, Apfelbaum focuses on fresh compositional strategies influenced by all types of jazz, Latin, African, and funk musics.
His exuberant Gramavision debut, Luminous Charms, marks the leader's re-emergence from a four-year recording hiatus, and presents a scaled-down offshoot of his acclaimed, but economically impractical, 16-piece Hieroglyphics Ensemble. The new sextet features longtime collaborators (guitarist Will Bernard, trombonist and electric bassist Jeff Cressman, acoustic bassist John Shifflett, and drummers Deszon X. Claiborne and Josh Jones) in sync with Apfelbaum's sax-driven, groove-based extrapolations. Describing his tune-making process, the composer says, "Everything starts with one idea -- a drum pattern, bass pattern, harmonic progression -- usually a rhythmic pattern of some sort," relayed "by ear" to each bandmate. Compositions are then crafted into multiple layers with ample "twists and turns." Each instrumentalist finds his way into the tunes by adding to, ricocheting off of, or dissecting the original rhythmic motif. Although "improvs are fairly confined to certain parameters," explains Apfelbaum, "once the players really learn the material, then the object is for them to play it as if they'd just thought of it, to have the same urgency that a good improvisation does."
Infusing the energy of improv into pre-planned, riff-centered structures echoes the wide-ranging, deep groove explorations of M-BASE pioneer Steve Coleman. Citing Anthony Braxton, Apfelbaum calls his compositional approach "restructuralist." He explains, "For me, music got really blown apart in the '60s, in the best possible way. It literally exploded with possibilities. And the way I see it is that the possibilities came raining down in different fragments. And what we're all doing since then is picking up the fragments and putting them together in our own way."
By the age of 12, the Berkeley Wunderkind had already begun culling choice fragments from exploded postmodern music. With nine years logged on the traps, and three on sax and piano, he and neighborhood pals like trumpeter Steven Bernstein would passionately follow groups like Art Ensemble of Chicago. Apfelbaum reflects, "We were young and completely dedicated, hanging on every note." Sans the usual teen-age self-consciousness, an adolescent Apfelbaum would boldly approach the jazz titans at live gigs. This close contact with the music's greatest practitioners no doubt fueled the young artist's determination. By 17, Apfelbaum had formed the Hieroglyphics with fellow Berkeley High classmates and was gigging professionally. Two years later, the group self-released a debut album.
The band didn't record again until nearly a decade later after hooking up with veteran trumpeter Don Cherry. Their world-groove collaboration, MultiKulti, and subsequent European tours brought international attention (and big-time contracts) to Apfelbaum and the Hieroglyphics. Two CDs, Signs of Life and Jodoji Brightness, soon followed on Polygram subsidiary Antilles Records. Despite critical accolades, there was not enough popular support in this country for the big band. When the label declined a third release, Apfelbaum decided to put the group on hold for a while, and busied himself with a number of other creative projects.
Some of his recent efforts include an East Coast tour with former Sun Ra trumpeter Michael Ray and his Cosmic Crew, a tour of Poland with Jai Uttal, a solo performance at Maybeck, a teaching stint at Dartmouth, and large ensemble work with Cecil Taylor in the Bay Area and New York. Notably, Apfelbaum was one of the prominent soloists at Taylor's monumental San Francisco Jazz Fest appearance last year. The sextet, however, is his chief passion. "I am excited about the things we're getting into with the new group," raves Apfelbaum. "And I think, to me, it just sounds better than what I hear other groups do."
Tempering this criticism, he adds, "I don't want to make a blanket statement, [because] there are certainly musicians I would give credit to, who are doing a great job, but I wouldn't necessarily buy their CDs. ... I really don't like listening to other music. It's just not interesting."
Keeping the music interesting, for the players as well as for the listeners, is vital to Apfelbaum. He concludes, "If you're in a good and productive situation, there's always discoveries to be made. And every time we play, we're reminded that there's always some people out there who are getting something out of it."
The Peter Apfelbaum Sextet plays with Jai Uttal and Hueman Flavor Tuesday, June 18, at Slim's, 333 11th St., S.F.; call 522-0333.
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