Beep! Transcends Jazz Roots Through Vivid Musical Eclecticism

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Beep! doesn't quite know what kind of music they're playing anymore. Musing about genre classifications in an East Oakland cafe, the trio's bassist, Nate Brenner, says, "With Beep! now, and this album, and the way we play, it's just as likely that we're not jazz anymore."

He says this hesitantly, slowly measuring each word, making sure his phrasing is suitably delicate. And it's easy to see why he feels the need to approach the subject so cautiously. Beep! used to be about as straight-ahead as a jazz piano trio could get. On their first album, 2006's Short Stories, they were working squarely within a traditional idiom. The instrumentation was strictly acoustic, the improvisation was straightforward, and the arrangements stuck to predictable formats. Though it was an undoubtedly adept and fresh-sounding album-during its best moments it evoked a certain cerebral cool reminiscent of Brad Mehldau's early work-it didn't really separate Beep! from the countless numbers of other skilled, creative piano trios floating through the jazz world. The group made tentative attempts to break away from the herd on their playful sophomore effort You Are Special, You Are a Special Friend. But even with that album's free-jazz-leaning and chance-taking, the trio still kept one leg firmly planted on the traditional side of the line dividing jazz from other forms of music.

Keeping Beep!'s history as a traditional jazz group in mind, Brenner's assertion that the group may no longer play jazz is rather bold. Jazz fans often glorify their favored genre all out of proportion, and for them, when a musician leaves the hallowed halls of jazzdom, the act is tantamount to betrayal-backstabbing, even. Preservation-minded purists expect jazz artists to step away from jazz just about as much as they expect the Pope to step away from Catholicism.

Beep!'s upcoming album City of the Future (scheduled to release January 18th on Third Culture Records, and currently streaming in full on their website), chafes against the limiting constraints of fossilized "jazz." They discard the 32-bar forms favored by conservatives, instead embracing repetition as a legitimate framework for improvisation. "We grew up listening to hip-hop," Brenner says. "We'd almost be fooling ourselves if we tried to just play standards that were written in the '40s instead of incorporating the music that we listened to when we were 12 years old, growing up." Certain parts of standout track "Wolf Pantalones" sound strikingly similar to the kinds of loops employed by DJs. Second-long phrases are repeated to the point of hypnosis, and only by listening closely can you tell that these trance-inducing snippets are actually being played in real time. Beep! take a similarly modern approach to things like over-dubbing and post-production manipulation, all processes jazz purists often consider sacrilegious.

So if Beep! isn't strictly a jazz outfit anymore, where are they heading on City of the Future? One realm they make significant gestures toward is modern indie rock. Brenner, reminiscing about his experience opening up for the Dirty Projectors with Oakland artist tUnE-yArDs, asserts that the moment is ripe for bridging indie and jazz: "(The Dirty Projectors) play some really great music that's not that accessible, but they're playing in front of 800 people every night. We can make music that keeps our musical integrity-that's really weird and whatnot-that people will like. I just feel like things are changing. Even Animal Collective, where it's pretty out, but they're playing in front of thousands of people...There's no longer a right way or a wrong way."

While indie elements are strongly visible on City of the Future, Beep! isn't simply pandering to the Pitchfork set. Rather, their newfound style sounds like what would might coalesce from the act of putting an 80-gigabyte iPod owned by a savvy, unpredictable listener on shuffle. Whatever the ingredients may be, City of the Future is undoubtedly Beep!'s great leap forward. They've abandoned any responsibility for playing jazz as the old guard understands the term, fearlessly incorporating everything from experimental art music to African pop, from electronic dance music to free jazz.

Keyboardist Michael Coleman says that the primary influences behind the jaunty, shape-shifting track "Mbira" were "Thomas Mapfumo, who's a Zimbabwean pop star and Andrew Hill, a jazz piano player and composer."

"I've always loved both of them," says Coleman, "and I was listening to a lot of them simultaneously. And I was like, I'm going to write something as sort of like a tribute to both of them."

Brenner cites some more contemporary artists. "On 'Wolf Pantalones,' I was thinking of Micachu and the Shapes," he says, referring to the experimental London-based pop noisemakers. Avant-garde jazz bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy's penchant for structured freedom informs tracks like "Labyrinth Snacks." Brian Eno-style ambient drones texture the introduction to "Crab Cakes," the liberal use of effects pedals recalls electric-era Miles Davis and the digital deconstruction that ends "Slugs" is reminiscent of Radiohead circa Kid A. This bold risk-taking and exploration of far-fetched possibilities pays off in spades.

Yet these influences don't eclipse or overwhelm the album. Listening to it is a truly unique experience, like being submerged in a pastel-infused dream that veers dangerously close to becoming a dark-toned nightmare. The production by Eli Crews (an Oakland-based producer best known for his work with local indie artists such as WHY? and Deerhoof) gives the album a cinematic, hallucinogenic vibrancy missing from many jazz recordings. It mimics the excitement and over-stimulation of urban environments. "The title came from when Ron Dellums was running for Mayor," says Coleman. "His slogan was, 'Oakland, City of the Future.' Which is pretty hilarious."

This sense of humor runs throughout City of the Future. The title of "telephone/telephone/demon/telephone" refers to the sharp ringing sound produced by drummer Sam Ospovat's frantic gamelan hammering, which approximates the shrillness of an old rotary telephone. "Robo Pup" features a twinkly, ascending piano riff that sounds like something straight off the Lawrence Welk show, but the distorted keyboard tone, coupled with the rhythm section's jagged playing underneath, lends the song a disquieting, acid-trip quality.

Given all the studio trickery and meticulous recording techniques, Beep! haven't neglected their live show. Playing at Berkeley's Subterranean Arthouse on December 3rd, each musician displayed their multi-instrumentalist tendencies. Coleman had his fingers on mixer knobs and effects pedals almost as often as he had them on keys. When not plucking or bowing his upright bass, Brenner hammered away at empty beer bottles and other found percussive odds and ends. In addition to playing glockenspiel and gamelan, Ospovat mic'ed his cymbals, running them through an effects processor in order to create an unholy thunderous racket. Each occasionally lent vocals to the arrangements.

There are many possible reasons for why Beep! is moving away from jazz. Perhaps the term itself has become too fixed in meaning for Beep!. Perhaps it's too loaded. Or maybe once Beep! turned on their music's shuffle setting, they couldn't figure out how to turn it off. If that's the case, let's hope they don't find out.


Forge straight-ahead with David at [email protected]

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