Everyone Orchestra & Dirtwire 1.15.16
Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom
Words & Photos By Coleman Schwartz
Improvisation is one of the best parts of music. When musicians communicate with each other onstage and adapt to each other’s playing, styles and genres fuse together into a beautiful, spontaneous creation. Especially in the jam scene, it is not uncommon to see bands spend a large chunk of their performance on improvisation. Everyone Orchestra takes this concept to the next level by playing an entire two-set show, made up of only improvised music. Conductor, Matt Butler, directs a rotating cast of musicians, helping them to make up a cohesive show on-the-fly.
Their lineup is tailored to the location, always featuring plenty of local talent, along with a few out-of-towners. This two-night-run at Denver’s Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom featured a host of talent from Colorado’s vibrant music scene, including Michael Kang and Michael Travis (electric mandolin and drums, String Cheese Incident), Oteil Burbridge (bass guitar, Allman Brothers/Dead and Company), CR Gruver (keyboards, New Orleans Suspects), Jay Starling (slide guitar, Love Cannon), Rob Compa (guitar, Dopapod), Steve Berlin (baritone saxophone, Los Lobos), and Natalie Cressman (trombone/vocals, Trey Anastasio Band).
Satori spent the set playing a mixture of banjo, guitar, electric violin (he called it a “space fiddle”) and drums. I was particularly impressed with his slide-banjo playing, which conjured a feeling of expressive, soaring psychedelia. Fraser spent time singing, playing harmonica, kamale n’goni, jaw harp, melodica, and some type of sampler. His jaw harp work was extremely distinctive, and reminded me of a mini-didgeridoo. The kamale n’goni is a West-African harp that is similar to the cora and the bolon. Together, the duo of musicians made me imagine a late-night desert dance party at a place such as Burning Man. Their use of bass volume is exceptionally tasteful, just enough to get toes tapping but not overpowering or outrageous.
As Everyone Orchestra took the stage for their first set, they encountered a limber crowd that was ready to participate in the action. To begin each jam, Butler would introduce a member of the group and allow them to start things off. He led them through creating basic A and B sections to repeat throughout the song, and then directed song structure with a whiteboard and an iPad. The other musicians quickly adapted to the playing of the first, fleshing out the rhythm parts and harmonies to complement the existing sonic landscape. These roles rotated throughout the evening, so we got a chance to see each player take on a featured role at some point.
My favorite part of having a leader for each jam was basically getting a chance to hear the whole orchestra interpret the music of that leader’s regular band. The Kang-led jam was an instant ticket to the blissed-out peak of a String Cheese Incident show, anchored by Travis’s steady drumming. When Compa got the chance to lead, jaws hung on the floor as the group mimicked Dopapod’s intensity while he plucked away with his distinctly voiced chords.
Gruver’s soulful, heartfelt contributions on keyboards were definitely one of the first things to grab my attention. Not having heard of him before, I was taken aback by not only his playing, but his instantaneous connection with Compa, who got to spend a lot of time playing lead guitar especially during the first set. The two players seemed to duplicate each other’s licks and harmonize effortlessly, seeming like they had spent years jamming together. Impressive musical communication skills are indeed a prerequisite to perform in this orchestra.
Vocal duties were principally handled by Cressman, who wasted no time in showing off her booming, soulful voice. When she wasn’t singing, she used her trombone skills to play the perfect foil to Berlin’s baritone sax work. The harmonies between the two were outstandingly dark and smooth, and Berlin’s facial hair left me thinking of him as an evil wizard more and more as the evening continued.
Throughout the performance, the rhythm section demonstrated a level of skill that was frankly petrifying. While Travis kept time and effortlessly syncopated against the other players, Burbridge dazzled us every chance he got. This was one of my first chances to watch him play, and I was amazed at his expressiveness. He is one of those musicians who can bring you to tears by playing a single note. His most impressive moment involved him taking a lengthy jazz solo, which he scatted over. Every musician onstage visibly recoiled, as they looked on in awe.
Midway through the second set, Satori and Fraser from Dirtwire joined the group, requiring Compa to sit-out for a bit to make room onstage. Their jams took on a unique middle-eastern flavor as Fraser switched around instruments and Satori stuck mostly to rhythm guitar. Kang and Travis have both proven their mastery with respect to integrating electronic music into their jams with String Cheese, and on this occasion the band deferred to them to help peak the segments correctly. Something about listening to Kang shred just plasters smiles on audience members’ faces, and the room was collectively in ecstasy.
After Fraser and Satori left the stage, Compa returned and took back over lead duties for an extended final jam. As he began to play, you could sense his relief at being back onstage. He seemed highly motivated to win back the crowd’s affection, and was immediately successful in this pursuit. The jam featured improvised lyrics around the theme of “The River Flows,” which featured an outstandingly soulful duet between him and Cressman. This poignant tune had the house raging until its epic conclusion, following several slow refrains.
This was truly a special Everyone Orchestra performance. It was wonderful to see up-and-comers, such as Compa, sharing the stage with established legends, like Burbridge, Kang and Travis. The lineup was tastefully selected and each player should be commended for living up to the lofty expectations laid out. Denver provided an extremely supportive audience, and Cervantes was an excellent choice of venue that allowed for a high-energy show. I cannot wait to see another of these performances, mostly because I will again have zero idea of what to expect. For improvised music fans everywhere, Everyone Orchestra will always continue to push the limits of what can be done with an exclusively improvising supergroup.