Ross Hammond is to the local jazz scene what alternative rock was to the late 1980s and early 1990s. When Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Pixies, and a slew of rock bands hit the radio waves under the banner of “alternative rock,” it was a breath of fresh FCC bandwidth. The obvious question—alternative to what?—could be answered with ease in the first few years of the trend: alternative to classic rock and alternative to schmaltzy pop. (Remember Christopher Cross? Debbie Gibson? Paul McCartney’s duet with Stevie Wonder? Need I go on?)Hammond’s projects are alternative to the somewhat more traditional shows booked by and around jazz singer Vivian Lee. This is not to suggest that Lee’s shows are anything less than entertaining and professional, but one person booking shows does not really make a “scene” per se (and I’m sure she’d agree). Ross Hammond’s projects are different in any case: Where Lee’s jazz series tends toward upscale lounges and comfortable house concerts, Hammond always has brought jazz into rock bars like Old Ironsides and the Fox & Goose, where his RACE!!! Quartet performed last week.It’s an interesting position and one that is only moderately successful in terms of audience. It is to Hammond’s credit that he marshals forward regardless of sporadic attendance. Last weekend’s show at the Fox & Goose was performed in front of an audience that numbered (at times) less than 10 people, but Hammond and the RACE!!! Quartet played a blistering, intricate set that was exploratory and fascinating. The fact that the room was not packed only can be attributed to young bar hoppers’ relatively lackluster interest in jazz music. (Perhaps the Sunday series Hammond helms at Old Ironsides is more successful?)
Hammond’s guitar work in RACE!!! is frenetic, yet melodic. The easiest comparison that comes to mind is Nels Cline’s work with Nels Cline Singers. While Hammond’s guitar doesn’t travel quite as far out as Cline’s, the idea of fusion jazz as a concept somehow seems fulfilled in his approach. Take Hammond’s use of chords: During a saxophone solo, most guitar players would start playing a foundation of chords to support the tonal structure of the solo. Hammond, on the other hand, tends to play screechy, insect-like sounds in the background. There’s an occasional chord mixed in, but it’s far from a traditional approach. (My companion for the evening, Nice Monster’s Matthew Gerken, called it “anti-comping.”)
RACE!!!’s entire membership at this gig—Erik Kleven (bass), Tony Passarell (saxophone), and Tom Monson (drums)—seemed perfectly in tune with this fundamental idea. Kleven never walked a bassline. Monson nodded toward the possibility of swing, but never actually played a swing beat. And Passarell’s sax cut like a wood chipper through the musical underbrush (a metaphor far less effective then his actual playing).
RACE!!! is one of the most interesting musical projects currently working in Sacramento, and I suppose jazz fans can rejoice in seeing such a group in the super-intimate settings it tends to play. Check out www.rosshammond.com for information on where you can catch them next. You certainly won’t be disappointed.