Music News & Reviews

Saxophonist Skerik prefers a group dynamic

Skerik's Bandalabra — Dvonne Lewis, left, on drums, Evan Flory-Barnes on bass, Skerik on saxophone and Andy Coe on guitar — plays Tuesday at Cosmic Charlie's.
Skerik's Bandalabra — Dvonne Lewis, left, on drums, Evan Flory-Barnes on bass, Skerik on saxophone and Andy Coe on guitar — plays Tuesday at Cosmic Charlie's.

It doesn't require masterful detective work to uncover the fondness saxophonist Skerik has for collaborations.

Take a look at the list of musical projects he has been a part of — or, more to the point, scan his upcoming touring schedule for the different ensembles with which he will be performing within a few months. In both instances, you will discover a musical spirit that thrives on teamwork.

The sound at hand could be the punk-flavored funk of The Dead Kenny Gs; jazzier collaborations with progressively minded instrumentalists such as drummer Bobby Previte, guitarist Charlie Hunter or organist Wayne Horvitz; or full rock-funk band situations with Garage-a-Trois and Critters Buggin. Regardless of the situation or musical environment, the Seattle saxophonist feels most at home when a band is about.

"I've never been into the whole solo career thing," Skerik said. "I like collaborating with people. Groups just have this wholeness that is more powerful than any individual. Sometimes a group will use my name just so it will help people recognize something about the music. Sometimes record labels or tours will use my name. But it doesn't mean the project or the music I'm working on is mine in any sort of possessive sense. Everyone involved is usually writing the music together."

Born Eric Walton, the artist now known as Skerik grew up in Seattle but spent much of the 1980s globetrotting. While living in London, he was introduced to a variety of African music, including the sounds of Zaire and South Africa, and Congolese music. In ensuing years, he would collaborate with composers from rock, jazz and funk fields. His many cohorts have included Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, New Orleans percussionist Mike Dillon, R.E.M. guitarists Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, and bass pioneer Les Claypool.

"Everything within a group is about different needs and different wants," Skerik said. "It's like they all have a different diet."

But some of the African inspirations that came the saxophonist's way decades ago are resurfacing on one of his current band projects, Skerik's Bandalabra. The quartet, comprised exclusively of Seattle musicians, isn't a world music ensemble. But fascination with American and African grooves is at the heart of its indie-released debut album, Live at the Royal Room.

Tunes like Freeborn and especially Simulacrum possess a bright, boppish tone that wouldn't sound out of place on the '70s and '80s records of jazz giant Sonny Rollins. But on Beat Crusher and Charlie Don't Like It, the sax locks into looplike punctuation behind bass, drums and chattering guitar for a freer, funkier vibe that recalls vintage Afrobeat music from the '70s.

"That influence is there, for sure" Skerik said. "It's always there. But I didn't really study Afrobeat, in particular. There are a lot of other things in there that I've had more experience with like Congolese music. They are a lot more complex and a lot more difficult to learn. Not that I've learned to play it as well as I would like to, but I've spent more time with this stuff than specifically with Afrobeat."

But given that much of Skerik's recent Lexington exposure has come through appearances with The Dead Kenny Gs, where the music was fueled by a more brutal intensity as well as an arsenal of effects that affixed layers of distortion to his playing, the more organic grooves of Bandalabra might seem like the product of a different stylistic universe. Such genre jumping was one of the key reasons for starting the band.

"It got to where I was playing more in bands with a bunch of concepts and songs where everything was being arranged," Skerik said. "These were more rock kinds of things, so I wanted to do something that was more funky and danceable. I loved (Afro Beat legend) Fela and different kinds of African music. But I also loved (veteran American soul stylists and James Brown alumni) Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis. So it's fun to have something where you can do all of that music, too.

"All these projects can't help but influence each other. It's like 'Necessity is the mother of invention,' right? So if you have some amount of one thing, it might be wanting a degree of another thing to create balance. For me, it's always good to have a little bit of everything."