If it’s not jazz, then what?

A three-day multilocation festival seeks to at least provide a reasonable explanation to this musical riddle

Who are Ross Hammond (left) and Tony Passarell, and what is this jazz music they speak of?

Who are Ross Hammond (left) and Tony Passarell, and what is this jazz music they speak of?

Photo By Mike Iredale

Ross Hammond realizes it’s a big word: jazz.

The four letters, he says, hardly begin to encompass the music’s range or what he’s trying to do with the second annual In the Flow jazz festival that takes place this weekend at various Broadway-area locations.

“Go to the jazz section in any record store and you’ll find anything from the Chicago Underground Duo to something completely atonal or ragtime,” he says. “It’s almost unfair that there’s not another word for soul-searching improvisation.”

There’s not a new word, but with In the Flow, there’s a place for all kinds of jazz, as well as poetry and art.

Hammond, along with his friend and fellow musician Byron Blackburn, founded In the Flow in 2008 with the idea of giving Sacramento a consistent, cohesive current of sound—if only for a weekend—covering sounds as varied as big band, funk fusion and noisy, experimental loops.

“There’s not really one club to play in Sacramento, not one set venue,” says Hammond, who over the years has hosted jazz nights at places such as Old Ironsides, CoolCat Gallery and Javalounge.

“Byron and I just wanted to create something that would have a little bit of something for everybody, from straight-ahead jazz to noise. Something where if you don’t like what hear, you can just walk over to the next venue and wait for the next band to start.”

The festival’s origins were modest, with 20 acts playing over two days at Midtown’s True Love Coffeehouse.

“We picked the True Love because it had this great back-area patio that provided a bunch of places to go,” he says. “That was the idea; while one band is playing in one spot, another band is setting up in another part of the patio.”

Pleased with the outcome (“It was very grassroots; we had no press but we got some people out and the musicians were happy”), Hammond and Blackburn brainstormed ideas to make this year’s outing, well, smaller.

“The first thing we thought was that we shouldn’t have as many bands. Why have 20 when you can have 10, [because] it’d be cool to let people play longer.”

Somewhere between intention and execution, however, In the Flow nearly doubled in size, booking some 40 acts, including poets and artists.

“We’re trying to make it more than just a jazz festival by celebrating local businesses and artists and poets—all kinds of messed-up people.”

Messed-up people?

“You know, artsy folk. People who don’t necessarily fit into any one group,” he explains. “It’s just all stuff that we like, stuff that doesn’t really fit into a bar where if you’re trying to do something sensitive or dynamic, it just gets lost, competing with all the [background] noises.”

The festival’s new locale spread out over five venues near the hub of Broadway and 16th Street. This setting, Hammond says, fits in with the festival’s aesthetic. “Broadway is such a cool part of Sacramento, with mostly mom-and-pop shops and restaurants,” he says. “It’s not glamorous, it’s very real.”

The Greater Broadway Partnership is returning the love with sponsorship and promotional help. The Partnership is a property- and business-improvement district that receives funds from district property owners who pay property-based special-assessment fees used for promoting the business corridor.

The Partnership’s executive director, Teresa Rocha, says pairing with In the Flow makes for “an ideal partnership, because it’s grassroots, very organic.”

“It’s also good that it happens over several days,” she adds.

Hammond hopes the festival will attract people of all musical inclinations—even, and perhaps especially, those who feel intimidated or, worse, turned off by the concept of jazz music.

Stuffing the genre’s myriad sounds under that ripped-up, stretched-out umbrella of a word, jazz, Hammond admits, makes for a bit of an image problem.

“Although there’s been a lot of developments in jazz and technology and music since the bebop days, it seems as though the perception of jazz hasn’t really evolved.

“Honestly, when they think of jazz, they think of something loungy. I’m not saying that stuff is bad, but the funk-rock fusion Miles Davis was making in the early ’70s is still more modern than almost anything else anyone has done. If he can evolve, then we should evolve, too.”

For Tony Passarell, whose Thin Air Symphony headlines the weekend’s closing show, In the Flow is a chance to “acclimatize people” to jazz, be it old, modern or ahead of its time.

“There are a lot of people who don’t bother to take the time to [discover] different types of music, but then there are people who always want to hear something new.”

The festival’s music, he adds, may be a little more underground than people expect.

“It’s music that’s more challenging than a regular rock band; it’s darker and weirder.”

Hammond’s explanation echoes Passarell’s interpretation, but sounds a slightly broader note.

Jazz, he says, covers the musical spectrum with sweeping scope, allowing for varied tastes, influences and sounds.

“I try not to be on my jazz high horse, that if it’s not jazz it sucks,” he says. “I like a lot of different types of music, and I try to combine all of that when I’m playing. I think Louis Armstrong is important, but I also think that the Ramones are really important.”

OK, well, there is one exception.

“If it has an ‘S’ in front of it, we won’t play it,” Hammond says quickly, at the mention of the type of jazz that evokes images of Kenny G and hotel lounges.

“I’m inclusive, but I won’t play that shit.”

Alex Jenkins, who’ll play several slots over the weekend with various groups, thinks the festival will ultimately help Sacramento’s music scene.

“If you go to the East Coast or San Francisco, there are more people into it; Sacramento is finally starting to get hip, too, [but] Sacramento [still] has a lot of maturing to do when it comes to appreciating improvisational music.”

Hammond thinks it will benefit the musicians, too—and not just in terms of attracting new fans.

“You always need inspiration from people around you.”

Ultimately, he adds, the goal is to incite a visceral, emotional reaction.

“I want [people] to say, ‘Shit, that was cool, I want to hear more,’ or ‘Where can I get a refund?’

“Obviously, I don’t think everyone is going to love it,” Hammond says.

“I’m not trying to get everyone’s admiration. I just want people to know that we’re here.”

Don’t have the entire weekend to devote to getting In the Flow?
Here’s a guide to some must-see, must-hear, must-be-there events. All events require an event wristband (available at R5 Records) unless otherwise noted.

Byron Blackburn CD release

9 p.m., Friday, Javalounge, 2416 16th Street

In February 2007, festival co-founder Byron Blackburn was diagnosed with cancer. Blackburn’s new CD, Things Turn Black When They Burn, was written and recorded as from-the-gut response to Blackburn’s illness and ensuing radiation treatment. Blackburn is now in recuperation, and Hammond sees the album as a witness to his survival.

“Byron said he wanted to make a record, so we went into the studio last December,” says Hammond, who, along with Tom Monson and Alex Jenkins, performed on the disc. “Byron wrote all the songs and it’s this very cool, intense thing.”

Scary Art Collective

noon-5 p.m., Saturday,Javalounge, 2416 16th Street

Ten artists—including Kathy Blackburn, Evie Turner, Mark Fox, Nicole Fox and Sophia Linares—will show their work throughout the festival. On Saturday, you also get free music from the likes of Jaroba and the Saxophone Quartet.

Alex Jenkins’ Sound Immersion

1:30 p.m., Saturday,Beatnik Studios, 2421 17th Street

It’s not just sound, it’s a sea of noise in which you’ll want to swim.

Music, poetry and spoken word

1-3 p.m., Sunday,Sacramento Comedy Spot, 1716 Broadway

Former SN&R associate arts editor Josh Fernandez curated a lineup that includes Frank Andrick, Mike Farrell and erstwhile SN&R editor/current contributor Jackson Griffith.

Lovely Builders

5:30 p.m. Sunday, Beatnik Studios, 2421 17th Street

Ross Hammond and Scott Amendola play sprawling, free-form jazz.

Tony Passarell and the Thin Air Symphony

8 p.m., Sunday, Beatnik Studios, 2421 17th Street

Passarell’s Thin Air Symphony assembles a who’s who of local(ish) greats, including Keith Cary, Harley White Jr., Dutch Falconi, John Mahoney and Jaime Robin Smith.