"There's never been more than 7 1/2 people at the end of a Splatter Trio show," quipped an incredulous Myles Boisen shortly after midnight last Tuesday at the Hotel Utah. Dumfounded by the ovations of the standing-room-only crowd, who demanded an encore, Boisen demurred. He said the group hadn't prepared any other material. A knowing audience member yelled, "Improvise!" Everybody laughed, and the band played on.
Over nine years of gigging and five remarkable albums (six if you count Recombinance Live, a recent project limited to a pressing of 25 CDs), percussionist Gino Robair, saxophonist Dave Barrett, and guitarist/bassist Boisen have developed the Splatter Trio into one of the longest-running and most consistently creative improv units in the Bay Area. Slaves to no genre and butchers of most, Splatter's spiky improvisations have more often cleared clubs than packed the house for two sets and a 20-minute encore. But this night was exceptional.
The concert celebrated the third anniversary (and unfortunate closure) of the "Dark Circle Lounge Series," the Utah's weekly improv show curated by Robair. It also marked Barrett's imminent two-year hiatus to the sandy shores of Mexico, a move that understandably stirs not a little sadness in bandmates Boisen and Robair, who regard the horn player as a brother. "We love ya, man," stressed Boisen between songs. A red-faced Barrett retorted, "I'll be back before you know it."
The emotionally charged performance treated those hundred or so in attendance to some rarely heard renditions of the Splatter Trio's earliest notated works (which they read from charts). Though the group had recently begun to revisit the art of the well-written composition, most of their live shows over the past few years focused on free improv. They had become "too lazy to rehearse," cracked Barrett. "And it shows," he added after a loosely executed, particularly intricate number. But the audience didn't seem to mind, or even notice.
The common perception of tightness is not exactly a Splatter Trio hallmark. As the band name suggests, the threesome tends to smash riffs, beats, and atmospheres and spray the fragments into constantly changing sound shapes. When in peak performance, these scattered collisions give the music an extraordinary edge. Picture Robair's falling-down-the-stairs rhythms bounding off of Barrett's herky-jerky squeals and Boisen's bestial gnarl on double-neck (one's a bass, the other a guitar).
Not content with uniformity in their music-making, no matter how offbeat the concept, the trio also diverges from splatter approach with tunes centered around solid grooves. It was surprising when Robair dropped near-straight backbeats at the Utah; for more than four years and maybe a dozen shows I've mostly seen him in attention-deficit mode, frantically racing every few measures from one percussive pattern to the next. Funny, too: His furrowed brow and intense facial expressions implied that repetitive phrasing goes against his nature. And it showed in a slight stiltedness that weighed down a couple of pieces.
Occasional grooviness notwithstanding, there was little else standard on the evening's agenda: Barrett concurrently blew soprano and tenor saxes; Boisen strummed the bass half of his monster axe with flamencolike celerity and applied metallic files and assorted timbre-extending doodads to his guitar; Robair made his cymbals sing with a well-rosined cello bow and accessed a gang of cheery noisemakers heisted from the toy chest at home.
But that's typical Splatter behavior. To honor this bon voyage engagement, the group brought some special technological extras to the bandstand -- prerecorded CDs and a couple of preprogrammed disc players.
As a recording engineer and a label chief, respectively, both Boisen and Robair are significant players behind the scenes of the local experimental/improv/jazz community. The CD burner, a reasonably priced machine that manufactures compact discs on the spot, is the latest invention presently making rounds among technophiles. Always on the lookout for ways to stretch their improvisational possibilities, the band has been using this mechanism like a digital turntable to investigate musical forms previously out of reach.
Recombinance Live, taped last August at Lorrie Murray's final showcase as Stork Club booker, documents a one-time performance of the band playing multiple CDs recorded beforehand by the individual members. So rather than freely improvising as a collective in the traditional avant-garde sense, Robair, Barrett, and Boisen took it a step further: Each musician improvised in the studio as a soloist, and then in concert, the group improvised a live mix of the various recordings.
For the grand finale of the "Dark Circle Lounge" night -- a showcase for a broad range of musical terrorists (noisy industrialists, jazz avant-gardists, electronic noodlers, theatrical and spoken-word experimentalists, demented rockers) -- the Splatter Trio decided to play their instruments to prerecorded CDs, one of which included an excerpt from "Bead the Feast/Processed Haiku Spool," a percussive track from their album Hi-Fi Junk Note. One of the highlights of this venture involved Barrett in a lively duet with himself looped on disc. Ask any exhibitionist and he'll tell you, there's nothing like playing with yourself in public. For us voyeurs in the audience, this was something to behold.
Guest artists Thomas Scandura (drummer for the Molecules) and Carla Kihlstedt (violinist/singer for Charming Hostess and newcomer to the Club Foot Orchestra) pumped up the energy level considerably when they joined the trio for the second set. The dual pounding of Robair and Scandura on traps created massive, tumbling rhythms that slapped up against the melodies and textures of violin, sax, and guitar, causing them to ricochet off of each other in a giant pinball jam.
The quintet's closing statement, a broken and splayed variation on a Mexican folk ditty arranged by the saxophonist, provided the knockout punch of the evening (and the one that instigated cries for an encore). This was the Splatter 3 (+2) at their best: nutty, forward-pitched, unapologetically bent.
Who knows what kind of tuneful treasures Dave Barrett will return with from his sojourn across the border? One thing's guaranteed: The improv fans at this "Dark Circle Lounge" finale will eagerly anticipate the reunion a couple of years down the road.