Sonic Scramble

Can't decide if you want to hear jazz, metal, bluegrass or space music? Estradasphere does it all--and more.

The jazz-metal-bluegrass-Klezmer-space-music band Estradasphere, from the non-conformist enclave of Santa Cruz, Calif., will return to Tucson to celebrate the release of its fourth album, Quadropus, with a gig Sunday, Nov. 2, at Club Congress.

When describing Estradasphere, fans and admiring critics (often the same thing) toss around adjectives as if juggling bowling pins or medicine balls. Such words as magical, alchemy, shockingly talented, voracious eclecticism, transcendent and "boiling, prismatic cauldron" have been employed in reference to this band.

And for once, such designations are not simply hyperbolic.

Although unrelated to the mas-macho actor Erik Estrada, Estradasphere is a magna-cum-laude member of a post-modern, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink tradition of madcap musical collage/collision.

Graduates of this elite program include such pioneers as avant-garde composer-saxophonist John Zorn, the ironic rock band Mr. Bungle, the mutant chamber jazz of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and the brilliant Middle Eastern-meets-surf-jazz-noise of Secret Chiefs 3.

In fact, one of Estradasphere's first Tucson gigs was opening up for the mighty Secret Chiefs 3 at a, um, transcendent gig at Solar Culture back in 2000. On that tour, bassist Tim Smolens also played with Secret Chiefs 3.

Lots of groups can execute stop-on-a-dime tempo changes, but Estradapshere navigates stylistic hairpin curves, and sometimes even a gravel-spitting fishtail.

For instance, "Meteorite Showers" lurches along like a klezmer tune under the influence of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson's love of '50s doo-wop before evolving into a cosmic bluegrass-carnivale breakdown. Or take an aural gander at "The Dapper Bandits," which is not unlike a Nino Rota score melded with funhouse music and witchy grindcore.

No elitists these, the members of Estradasphere are equally comfortable assaying such classic pop material as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian," Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69," The Offspring's "Keep 'Em Separated," and themes from TV shows such as The Gummi Bears and Beverly Hills 90210, as well as "Turtle Power" from the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Tuvan throat singing? These guys do it, not to mention Turkish techno and gypsy drum 'n' bass. How about a death-metal version of "Livin' La Vida Loca"? Estradasphere can provide. Early in their career, the band was known to appear on stage with circus performers and death-metal cheerleaders.

The growing Estradasphere fan base--apparently known as Goonies--has been bolstered by increased interest in all things "jam band." Estradasphere shares many things in common with jam bands, including a willingness to allow concertgoers to make tapes of live shows for personal, non-commercial use.

The seeds of Estradasphere were planted in 1998, when bassist Tim Smolens and guitarist Jason Schimmel--friends since the seventh grade--moved to Santa Cruz to attend college, and started playing coffeehouses and street corners with a rotating band of musicians. The bulk of the band are products of the music department at the famously eccentric University of California at Santa Cruz.

Eventually, they evolved into Estradasphere and settled on a line-up that still includes violinist-trumpeter-guitarist Timb Harris and saxophonist John Whooley. The band's debut CD, It's Understood, was released in March 2000, followed by the part-live disc The Silent Elk of Yesterday in 2001 and the album Buck Fever in 2002.

Estradasphere also is known for gigging with a variety of other artists as a way of expanding on its already-catholic collection of influences and styles. Collaborations with the aforementioned Mr. Bungle and Secret Chiefs were inevitable.

But this group also has performed regularly with the avant-garde ensemble New Music Works and indulged in lots of recent woodshedding with the Norwegian band Farmers Market, new fast friends of the group.

The band's new recording, Quadropus, was set to hit stores earlier this week, although in-the-know fans have been able to buy it for weeks online at the official Estradasphere Website ( Ambitious in scope and modest in attitude, Quadropus displays newfound maturity and sophistication.

Whispers have been in the wind that Estradasphere is attempting to better focus its kaleidoscope of eclecticism. Multi-instrumentalist Harris this summer told the Santa Cruz Sentinel that the band is mellowing. "The pace of everything has calmed down a little, making it possible for us to focus better on what we're trying to accomplish," Harris said. "What we've been doing lately is more easily digestible.... Where we used to change musical styles 20 times in one song, on this new album we try to keep the style in one song, like one folk song, one death metal song, one drum and bass song."

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