Whenever the improv-heavy trio -- Rojas, Steven Bernstein (trumpet), and David Tronzo (slide guitar) -- plays live, post-performance superlatives are usually accompanied by adjectives like "weird," perhaps a predictable reaction to the group's unusual, drummerless configuration. But Rojas doesn't see what's all that strange about it.
"We're sure that in the old days in the South," he deadpans, "before TV, Uncle Jed had a tuba, Fred had a banjo, and Tony had a trumpet. And they played tunes. It wasn't that weird. It was just the family getting together to play. But today that would be called an 'avant-garde' group."
He adds that he can see audiences come around, as they realize that the music is more accessible than it appears on a surface level. Though Spanish Fly sometimes throws in a few good ol' American folk tunes -- say, "I've Been Working on the Railroad" -- for familiarity's sake, the trio warps the melodies to fit the inimitable Spanish Fly groove: a cross-referential boiling pot which relies more on implication than direct statement of any particular theme or tradition.
"That's part of the Fly," Rojas explains. "We've developed our own thing. We say, 'OK, we're gonna bring this tune in and we'll do it and then let's Fly it out.' " That can translate to Tronzo sliding cups, bottles, or even a chair ("As a goof," Rojas stresses) on his six-string, Rojas uttering animal noises through his mouthpiece, or the trio diving into "totally spontaneous composition" for an entire set. Songs that have been given the Fly treatment range from Duke Ellington's "Black & Tan Fantasy" to Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box." The trio's well-schooled musicianship ensures thoughtful structural development throughout, not to mention genuine reverence toward jazz traditions, despite the bastardized riffing. And Spanish Fly's improvs, rife with wide-ranging free association, suspense, and surprise, are never less than engaging.
"These are probably the most musical people I've ever played with," Rojas says. "They aren't gonna let the fact that they don't know the tune stop them from playing." Consequently, there's never a dull moment on the bandstand, each player scrambling to propel the others forward. Frontman Bernstein is the self-described pioneer of "improvaudevillization," which usually involves audience participation. A Bay Area native, Bernstein's affinity for the dramatic dates from junior high when he and boyhood chum Peter Apfelbaum would don African body paint and go to Art Ensemble of Chicago shows. A more recent influence includes his and Rojas' gig with the Flying Karamazovs on Broadway.
Rojas stresses that such behavior is only one aspect of the group's schizoid soul, a statement supported by Spanish Fly's most recent recording, Fly by Night. Commissioned by choreographer Christopher d'Amboise for the San Francisco Ballet (and actually paid for from the scenery and costume budgets), Fly by Night is an evocative soundscape ranging from peppy grooves to wryly humorous blues. Renowned producer Hal Willner collaborated with the trio on their mesmeric Knitting Factory Works debut, Rags to Britches, an effort Rojas describes as reflecting Willner's bias for that "real dope-fiend vibe." Spanish Fly has also played double-bills with rock/alternative bands like Shudder to Think and They Might Be Giants (the latter issued Fly's EP, Insert Tongue Here, on their CD of the month club).
Suffice to say, this fun-loving trio is a far cry from the stereotypically staid jazz cat. "We goof on those people because we're like, 'More people would like your music if you just said hello,' " Rojas cracks. True, and what other tuba/trumpet/guitar unit has been approached by teen-age groupies declaring, "You rule!"?
Spanish Fly plays Thurs, Feb. 29, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750. Also Tues, March 5, at Yoshi's Nitespot in Oakland; call (510) 652-9200.