A new vibe
Bass and vibraphone lead the way for ‘punkrockjazz’ quartet
“The sun just set,” Justin Sorensen said by phone. “It feels a little weird to be in this kind of weather at this time of year.”
It was 5:45 p.m. in Hawaii, where the 27-year-old vibraphonist for Seattle avant-garde jazz quartet Das Vibenbass was visiting with family members who’d flown over from northern Idaho for a weeklong holiday get-together.
Sorensen, used to the ongoing gray and drizzle of Seattle winters, was definitely enjoying the warm Hawaiian sun.
“We’ve been going to the beach,” he added, with the tiniest of a guilty chuckle.
Sorensen and the rest of Das Vibenbass—Geoff Larsen on upright bass ( Das Vibe-and-bass: Get it?), sax player Josh Clifford, and JC Bockman on drums—are eager to get back to Chico on their January West Coast tour, which includes San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room and The (haunted!) Brookdale Lodge deep in the Santa Cruz mountains. Chico is listed on the band’s Web site, along with San Francisco and Portland, as one of the band’s favorite spots to play. Last time Das VB was here, in early November, it was standing room only at Café Coda.
“We weren’t expecting that at all,” Sorensen said of the great turnout. “Generally, it’s cities that like the avant-garde, edgy stuff. College towns can be hit or miss.”
Das Vibenbass’ sound is original, decidedly fresh and innovative, ranging from atmospheric and moody to downright funky and strange—but it’s always interesting and—if not just plain fun—sonically satisfying. Sorensen described it as “fucking loud, improvised instrumental music” and “punkrockjazz.”
A clue to their sound: Uncon-ventional Midwest indie jazz trio The Bad Plus (who have been called “the loudest piano trio ever") are “definitely a big influence,” says Sorensen.
Das Vibenbass’ bold motto is “Crushing the borders of jazz.” It’s printed right there on the back of their latest CD, Fodakis, on Hop Records.
Sorensen explained: “We’re not trying to step on jazz really, but there are all sorts of people with different definitions of what jazz is. Since 1920, that definition has changed every decade. Every decade has a new style. We’re trying to broaden the audience of jazz to resemble our age group and the ideas of our time.”
While all four members have studied music formally in college (Sorensen has a B.A. in music from the University of Washington and Clifford graduated from Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts), they have all walked away from what Sorensen described as “the intimidation of all those instructors” who “don’t want you to have your own voice.” All four take part in songwriting for Das Vibenbass.
“Our sax player [Clifford] was absolutely beat down by the bebop instructors at Cornish,” said Sorensen. “In the last two years [since the freedom of being out of school and playing with Das Vibenbass], his playing has completely changed.”
Sorensen, for his part, is a Justin-come-lately to the vibes. A drummer through college, Sorensen taught himself how to play the vibraphone, creating his own style in the process.
“The main thing is that the vibraphone is so cheesy,” Sorensen laughed. “The sound really is so whole, so pure. I like pretty, but I also like tension. Most vibes players play the traditional way. My approach is to create sounds that aren’t pretty. I intentionally try to play so it’s not pretty.”
Sorensen adds to his edgy sound by using acoustic mics only on the top of his instrument (and no pick-up) in order to pick up instrument sounds, like the bars clanging, that wouldn’t normally come across with customary vibraphone amplification ("My instrument has a different timbre than most other vibes players’ “).
“We’re doing something different,” Sorensen said happily. “We’re struggling to create a new sound. The chemistry of the band is terrific. You’ve got to trust each other, especially when you’re playing stuff that’s not normal. Trust is the key. When you really throw yourself out there on a solo, it’s really important who you’re playing with. … It’s very communal—all four of us have to be on board for it to work.”