Ameranouche is Nice
These gypsy jazz virtuosos feels blessed every time they play
Two Ton Boa's Sherry Frasier is back on the road
by Lisa Slade
Attitude can be tiring, especially when it comes to self-righteous musicians who are convinced that, in their own special way, they're saving the world by playing music.
Gypsy Jazz trio Ameranouche is, thankfully, nothing like that. There's no pretension, and zero vanity. "I'm very blessed, period." says lead singer and guitarist Richard Sheppard. "Getting to play with Ryan [Flaherty, rhythm guitarist] and Xar [Adelberg, standup bassist] is an amazing thing. They're both highly dedicated, creative and really nice people."
Ameranouche plays what is commonly called gypsy jazz, or swing jazz, a style that has its origins with Django Reinhardt in the 1930s. It's a looser and less structured version of the style of jazz most of us are familiar with. It's most often performed strictly from memory, no music reading necessary, and Reinhardt didn't know how to read music at all. But that's not to say it's any less complex than traditional jazz. Sheppard says, "I would say that gypsy jazz is acoustic jazz. It's very energetic and highly athletic in its nature, but it's not so dense that it makes you want to take a break from it. It's very accessible music, and it seems to appeal to a large demographic."
Sheppard also appreciates the group's varied fan base. "I'm so grateful to the people who are coming out to support this music. I feel like it's bigger than us, and we're just trying to be ambassadors to this music we love very much, and that we have a very deep connection to," Sheppard says. And all kinds of people seem to like it, with Sheppard citing metal, folk, bluegrass, and classical music fans as examples of people who enjoy this kind of thing. "It's about bringing people together who wouldn't otherwise be brought together," he says, "We like it to be a sort of family event, in the sense that we're reconnecting with people at the shows."
The music from Ameranouche's debut album, Homage à Manouche- --with the Manouche referring to the French sect of gypsy jazz, only one of the varieties that Ameranouche draws inspiration from--pays homage to the gypsy tradition, but it also showcases this band's skills nicely. Sheppard's guitarwork is lightning fast, sounding almost like virtuosic bluegrass playing, reminiscent of Reinhardt himself. It is energetic music, but never overpowering. It's upbeat, and friendly sounding, the kind of music you might expect to hear from a group of talented friends playing at someone's house. There's no ego involved, only a frenetic lead guitar and a little steadiness coming from the rhythm guitarist, who's always bringing the music back from whatever depths it wanders into. Most of the songs are Ameranouche originals, but there are also three traditional gypsy songs on the album.
Though Ameranouche has been together for over three years, some of the members have come and gone. Standup bassist Xar Adelberg has only been with the group for a few months. "Xar has brought a positive thing. She's a woman and she's paying standup bass, which is a very strong thing for a woman to be doing, especial with this very boisterous, testosterone-based music. I think it's a really healthy thing, and it shows you don't have to be a big muscular guy to do this music," Sheppard says.
Ameranouche's music may be a reflection of the past, but it's also clearly looking towards the future. The band is now working on putting together its own record label, called Red Squirrel Records. "We want high-quality acoustic music," says Sheppard. It's planning on one band that plays bluegrass, a violinist, and maybe another acoustic jazz band, as well as others down the road. It is also in the process of recording another album, and filming a series of music videos for its website, one of which will be shot by Christian Lange at the World Grotto during its upcoming show. The band plans to put the videos up for its fans to enjoy the energy of a live Ameranouche show, even if they can't attend.
Even with all Ameranouche is tackling, Sheppard is still clear that this is what he loves doing, and he'll continue as long as someone's there to listen. "We're just regular working stiffs. This is what we do, like carpenters or anyone else. I call it skilled labor, but I can't call it work," says Sheppard.
What: Ameranouche w/ the Johnson Swing Quartet
Dark Arts of Bass Worship
by Kevin Crowe
"The potential I feel is the unexplored territories in music just waiting to be discovered," says Two Ton Boa frontwoman, Sherry Frasier. "I feel like there's endless creative possibilities for Two Ton Boa in the future if I don't let the negatives of being in the music business get me down, and lull me into quitting again."
Frasier, who hails from Olympia, Wash., released her first EP in 2000, and didn't write another song for nearly four years. "I was actually trying to be normal and have a real job," she explains. "I never meant to go on such a long hiatus. I got burned out.... the feeling of being objectified as a walking 'rock' cartoon, being a target for cheers and jeers."
There was no productivity, nothing that Frasier doesn't consider a miserable failure. Then, in 2003, Frasier was diagnosed with Bipolar Type II, a disorder that is difficult to diagnose, because the "highs" often do not go to the far out extremes of mania. "I was put on this medicine epileptics take," she continues. "Don't ask me how or why it works, I don't know. It just does. I knew within a week that I'd be able to go back to writing music."
I can't afford your paradise , Frasier sings on "Cash Machine." You cast a spell / Steal my hope... Sell it back to me.
Her voice drives the songs, because it carries just enough weight to keep the lyrics from being lost in the background, where bass worship is supreme. It's a thumping, bass-heavy sound, for the most part, an aggressive, dark and wholly beautiful aesthetic, hauntingly similar to Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C Sharp" with its fractured melodies, like taking dodgy steps through an apocalyptic wasteland. Yet Frasier never goes too far with her dark imagery, never sacrificing the sound, which constantly grinds her words, chews them into pulp, and spits them out in thundering crescendo. And the bass worship continues, plopping down beats that only seem to get progressively thicker.
The sound can be meditative, at times, as Frasier's lyrics explore hypocrisy, phony feminism, avarice and unmitigated anger. It can be primal, too, when the heavy thud of the bass lines conjure images of dystopia, of a manic dreamscape populated with deadbeats and petty assholes.
You can't smell poison in a perfumed well , she sings on "Have Mercy." So I fell / Into a softly padded empty shell / Forged in Hell.
Two Ton Boa's most recent release, a dire orchestral project dubbed Parasiticide , blends the forceful vocals with the slimy basswork. Frasier's hiatus didn't hurt the music at all. If anything, the sound is even more powerful, even heavier, and each note carries a sheer, perhaps disorienting, sense of immediacy.
" Parasiticide is more immediately accessible than the debut EP," she says. "I work in metaphors, through audio and in words.... I spent a lot of time on lyrics, perhaps more than I will in future releases, so I hope people actually take some time to find their own meaning.
"I basically just let the songs be what they wanted to be instead of fighting to make them into something they were not. Although it's a continuation of the old sound, Parasiticide was an opportunity for me to break out of any stereotypes old fans had placed on my writing."
Admittedly her songwriting is intense and, as a result, obsessive, because Frasier is exploring the mind, those dirty parts of the psyche that many will try to turn into music. But where most fail, Two Ton Boa has succeeded in pulling out the good stuff, the heady anger that's frighteningly universal. But Frasier's words take that anger, and help it find focus amid a pulsing, breathtakingly powerful tour of the human condition. It's the beautiful and the sordid, all of it coming out of Frasier's mind at the same time.
Frasier is currently touring with Nate Carson, Christopher Schiel and Scott Seckington. Only Seckington was in the studio when Parasiticide was recorded. "Recording is a fleeting moment that gets set in cement for a very long time," Frasier says. "I've got a vocal sound and energy in my lungs that has yet to be captured in the studio. People that come to one of our better live shows might get a taste of that."
My heart is floating in a seasick bag of meat , she sings on "Two Ton Boa," a song from the original EP. A black tornado sucking me into the sky / I wear these blinders as I await my favorite mass / Your holy ghost trapped inside the TV glass .
Who: Two Ton Boa w/ 31 Knots