Until fairly recently, Jorge Arana played guitar and hit keys in Pixel Panda; a precocious, musically omnivorous bunch of Kansas City skronk-punkers. Local heroes, hotly-tipped for the best part of a decade, they quietly called it a day in 2011 but wasted little time in moving on. Jorge’s bass-playing brother Luis stepped up a commercial notch via rising alt.rockers Beautiful Bodies, while other former Pandas can be found mingling psychedelia and hip-hop in Spidermums. As for Jorge, he’s pulled in the final Pandas drummer, Josh Enyart, added bass guitarist Jason Nash to make up a brotherhood of “J”s and stepped over into jazz. Someone in the band had to do it. This is Kansas City, after all – they’ve been shipping jazzmen out and up the river for nearly a century.
Punk roots or not, the Jorge Arana Trio’s serious jazz intent stretches beyond leaving behind quirky band names. Not that this apparent sobriety is absolute. Their debut album title, ‘Mapache’, is Spanish for raccoon, suggesting that the Trio see themselves as determined and adaptable omnivores, thriving on trash where necessary, and prepared to spread mischief around the suburbs if they have to. Some of the immigrant-son, take-no-prisoners fierceness of Pixel Panda has made its way into the new band. The glam racket might have disappeared, but not the stop-start emphasis or the punky crunch. Lester Bangs would have been proud of them.
That said, despite the band’s fierce electric energy there’s less outright skronk here than you might have expected. In fact, there’s less than there was in the Pandas. Instead, the Trio lead a lean, strutting pirouette along a jagged line between lean discipline and a scrawl of energised chaos. If there’s any self-indulgence here, it’s the kind you’d find in freerunning; a rebellious athletic liveliness, bodies pitted against the push-back from concrete mass and city obstacles.
There’s also something of the static, wound-up aura of the very early jazz-fusion bands, huddling among the fragments of busted rules as the ’70s arrived. Free like knife-fighters, trying to save their energies and moments for the right move at the right time but seething with excitement over the open field of opportunities. This latter is mainly in terms of musical tension. Skilled as the Trio are, they retain (for the most part) a clipped-back tyro technique closer to bullish avant-rock playing than to the broader subtler dynamic of jazz. However, their taste for driving syncopations and their bodily hunger for explosions of rhythm make it plain where their musical hearts lie now. Occasional bursts of wordless vocalising – combative, gladiatorial, almost like gang chants – break up or complement the instrumentals. Most of their pieces are short, interrupted, to the point – a quick flare of ideas followed by a watchful silence.
The places which the Trio explore are generally shaped by Jorge’s choice of instrument. Working with Jason’s cement-mixer bass churn and Joshua’s vigorous, spattering drumming, he alternates between electric guitar and electric piano (occasionally swapping mid-tune). Those pieces driven by his hardened, stony chimes of electric piano are more staccato, more turreted. On Bitter Era, Jason devises a ferocious distracted wrap of bass around Jorge – in broken unisons, the Trio thrash out a harsh and excited tattoo around the keyboard clunk. In contrast, I’m An Omnivore could almost be lounge jazz, tootling along happily even as all three musicians wrong-foot us. Each follows a slightly different rhythm, de-synchronising with each other and buckling the sidewalk under the strut.
When the compositions are driven by Jorge’s snaggled-up guitar, the trio work in a looser style: more elasticity, more smudging. Ether gradually whittles a brain-damaged marching riff out of Jorge’s demented squiggles. Peanut Butter works around a tight loop-and-discharge impetus, finally tottering into a wounded wind-down, bleeding off its abandoned velocity as if it were dumping fuel. Thieves Among Us sounds like the aftermath of a car chase. Stuttering away, the band could be clambering out of a canyon, away from the burning wreck of a car, to the accompaniment of headache pulses, dissonant auto-spring sounds and abrupt scrabbles as dazed opponents grab at their feet.
Some of the best moments come when Jorge is juggling instruments. Short & Evil, for example, in which he begins by spotting out ringing, sullen shapes on piano while the bass prowls: later, he’ll rub in crashing cascades of guitar like dislocated banjo-frails. Similarly, Baptize Your Dinner (by some distance the softest song on the record) begins as a passing, minimal sketch on piano, a pail of air and autumnal chordings. Purring like a forest, the drums work around this and transform it to a tolling crescendo, as Jorge steps back in with dabbing slides of tongue-like guitar.
Josh Enyart’s contribution to the Trio shouldn’t be undervalued. While his bandmates’ repertoire of rumble, scramble and tone-slur provide plenty of vocabulary, it’s his drums that give the Trio the fullness of its jazz spirit. He paces the brushes around his snare; adds brief powerful steam-hisses of concerted cymbal; hides polyrhythms in air-pockets for when they’ll be needed, and keeps one hand on the clutch for those quick surges of collective intensity. On Death Mask, he even leads the band: while the bass circles in locked math-rock arpeggios, and the guitar wanders off to dab at colouring chords, Josh’s drums talk in an insistent, assertive jazz language, eventually pulling the other instruments along with them.
Echoes of earlier bands flit distractedly through the music. There are hints of Prime Time and Naked City (in the blaring spirit, at least) while on Nightly Stroll, it’s the junior John McLaughlin of ‘Extrapolation’ (thanks to the dense fierceness of Jorge’s splinter-rough guitar chording and the rock-tattoo drumming, while Jason’s bass slithers after the guitar in search of unisons to stamp down on). Confrontation! briefly offers something of the discomfiting volcanic grooves of the electric Miles Davis band, when Chick Corea ring-modulated his Rhodes piano into dissonant smudges. For Snake In The Grass or Catching Bullets With Your Teeth, it’s the Teutonic jazz-rock of Magma as the trio roar out harsh choral parts over the swinging shifts and over the stuck, angry riffs of the instruments.
In the end, though, the Jorge Arana Trio are very much themselves: tightly wound but loose enough to splatter, viewing their hometown’s jazz through punkish eyes and casting a cartoon mottling across it.
Jorge Arana Trio: ‘Mapache’
Jorge Arana Trio (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 26th October 2012
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