They Groove, Therefore They Are

The Om Trio finds the balance between energy and audience.

Almost a year ago, the groove-oriented jazz group Om Trio, from San Francisco, arrived in Tucson to play a gig at Downtown's 7 Black Cats.

In fact, it was Monday, April 2, 2001--the same night the University of Arizona Wildcats played Duke University for the NCAA men's basketball championship on national TV. As has been reported countless times since, the Cats lost that night, and subsequently all hell broke out as drunken and unhappy fans spilled from the bars on North Fourth Avenue to engage in what turned out to be a riot.

And a few blocks away, the Om Trio went on with its gig, but the energy in the nightclub was weird all night, said keyboardist Brian Felix.

"We watched the game and they (the UA) lost. So then because of the riot on Fourth Avenue, the roads were blocked off and the streets were a mess. It was really, really difficult to get to our gig. There were cars on fire, and that bar called The Hut, it was on fire, too, I think," he said.

Felix recalled that night over the telephone last week from his home in San Francisco, where he and his band mates--bassist Pete Novembre and drummer Ilya Stemkovsky--were preparing for a spring concert tour that will include a gig this Saturday at Plush.

"So we finally got to the gig," Felix continued. "And we said to each other 'Let's take this whole night and just improvise.' We do that sometimes. We had the recorder, so we taped it all. And later we listened to it, and some of it sounded really good. So we put it on the album and called it 'Tucson is Burning.'"

Felix was referring to Live, the group's fourth album, a double-CD set the members released independently last September. On it are nine excerpts from the all-night jam session at 7 Black Cats that would come to be known as "Tucson Is Burning."

"The great thing about that gig was that the audience was really attentive. There was this underlying energy the whole night, partly because of the strange stuff going on that night down the street," Felix said.

And for the 24-year-old Felix, the "heavy electric jazz" music of Om Trio is all about the balance of energy--between band and audience, among band members and between spirit and body.

"I don't think music is totally physical or totally metaphysical. It's somewhere in the middle. You want to find the balance. You have to find the balance between creating original from yourself and allowing yourself to get inspiration from somewhere else. The important thing is how a music moves you and how it makes you feel. The way music makes us feel is why we end up doing it."

The members of the Om Trio began doing it as a unit almost three years, when the three New Jersey transplants began came together to develop their chops in the small Oregon town of Ashland.

Because the group's name refers to the Sanskrit word for a well-known Hindu mantra, some observers might assume the Om Trio has a spiritual agenda. Not so. Believe it or not, these guys simply knew "Om" as the title of a late-period composition by legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, Felix said.

"We do not have a spiritual concept behind the band as a whole. There's no spiritual or political message behind our music. We just named the group after the Coltrane tune; it had the reputation among us for being a really, really crazy piece of music. We had a gig on a Friday and that Monday we had to come up with a name. So ... " Only later did the band discover that "Om" had spiritual connotations.

By August of 2000, the Om Trio had left Oregon for the big city, San Francisco. The group since then has carved out a cozy place in the Bay Area scene, even receiving the endorsement of the readers of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, who voted the Om Trio the best jazz band of 2001.

Although Felix and Novembre studied music in college (drummer Stemkovsky is self-taught), the three members came relatively late to playing jazz, Felix said.

"We all grew up listening to rock and heavier music. Even though it doesn't have to have an influence on our music's sound, it does. We're definitely more on the heavy end of the jazz music spectrum. You can hear it in our sound aesthetically, I guess. I make my keyboards sound like a distorted guitar sometimes, and sometimes the bass player tends to sound like Led Zeppelin."

As one might guess, old-school jazz purists occasionally have looked with derision on the contemporary, heavy-groove sounds of the Om Trio, but these players aren't sweating it, Felix said.

"It's nice to get some recognition among the jazz crowd, when it happens, but that's not why we're doing it. And we're not world-class, straight-ahead acoustic jazz musicians. To become that, you have to focus on playing standards, and playing them every night."

You won't catch the Om Trio rehearsing for hours trying to master the subtleties of "My Funny Valentine" or "Body and Soul," but it has been known to play jazz-funk cover versions of everything from "Caravan" and "Autumn Leaves" to Guns 'N Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" and several tunes by John Zorn's avant-garde jazz quartet Masada.

All under 30 years old (Novembre is 26, and Stemkovski's 29), the band members also aren't too young to remember that "fusion" once was a dirty word to traditional jazz fans. But they're not afraid of using it either. Felix is just as comfortable admitting that he digs Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and Miles Davis' Bitch's Brew (both acknowledged landmarks of fusion) as much as he does effusing about the CD Go Plastic by contemporary electronic-music maestro Squarepusher.

Besides, bridging musical genres has inspired a new surge of interest in jazz by young people. Crossover helps attract new fans to the fold, he said, citing the work of such veteran artists as guitarist John Scofield, who recorded an album with the popular young band Medeski, Martin and Wood, and keyboardist Herbie Hancock, whose experiments in hip-hop and electronic music are well-known.

"What they do is still jazz, definitely, but it's grooving and it appeals to younger listeners who like to dance," Felix said, referring to veteran crossover artists.

One wonders: Is the Om Trio's magnetic groove a vehicle to attract younger listeners to the band's sound and jazz in general? Yes, to a degree, Felix said. But he won't cop to such a calculated agenda as that.

"The reason we groove is because we like to groove, we like people to listen to us and dance if they want to. ... We are a jazz group because the basis of what we do is improvised. It's definitely music for your head and your feet."