Never the same song twice
Alex Jenkins embraces total Immersion
It’s another Sunday night at Shady Lady Saloon. While the young and attractive crowd goes about its business of making grown-up cocktail chatter midway through Independence Day weekend, the trio manning the corner stage finishes up a show tune, Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner’s “On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever.” Saxophonist Adam Jenkins puts his alto horn down and picks up the larger tenor sax next to it. Then, acoustic bassist Gerry Pineda and drummer Alex Jenkins, no relation to Adam, begin setting up a gentle launching pad for the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart classic, “My Funny Valentine.” Adam finesses the song’s melody, and then launches into squiggles of improvised-sax notes before falling away to let Pineda fill the space. The bassist adroitly fingers his way around the melody, and then it’s time for Alex Jenkins to play with the beat.
This he does. It doesn’t take long for an attentive listener to discern that what Jenkins is doing inside the song’s rhythmic scaffold makes for something that isn’t quite your grandmother’s “Funny Valentine.”
While the Alex Jenkins Trio has been a Sunday-night mainstay at Shady Lady for the past two years, the drummer’s other activities, outside the bailiwick of Sacramento’s more casual clubgoers, are worth investigating.
It is a weekday night, and Jenkins is showing off the tiny practice studio behind his tidy home in Tahoe Park. A set of drums takes up half the space, which is draped in Indian fabrics and Persian-style rugs, to deaden sound. Other instruments rest neatly in their appointed places, and a framed photo of North Indian classical music guru Ali Akbar Khan sits on a desk. Jenkins studied under Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael for several years, and the more complex rhythmic constructs of Indian music can be sensed in his playing.
But his roots are far less exotic. Born in Los Angeles 36 years ago, Jenkins moved with his parents north from Venice Beach two years later, settling around 45th and J streets in East Sacramento. They were cool enough to let him set up a practice space in the house’s basement, which became a hangout for a bunch of musicians. Soon, some of them formed a band.
“Remember Pao?” he asks, referencing his early ’90s rock band that played local haunts alongside other up-and-comers from the time: Deftones, Far, and less-well-known acts as Phibes Infernal Machine and Funky Blue Velvet—many of whose members were veterans of Jenkins’ basement jam sessions. “I played my first rock show at the Cattle Club when I was 16,” Jenkins recalls. “And the first local band show I went to was a Daisy Spot show, at Café Montreal [now The Golden Bear]. I remember walking in, and it was just Tatiana [now LaTour] and Mike [Farrell], and thinking, ‘That’s the kind of music I want to play.’”
When Daisy Spot later turned into a full band, Jenkins played drums.
But already he’d begun moving away from narrative pop music toward more purely improvisational forms—namely jazz. After graduating from Sacramento High School and availing himself of the band programs there, he’d segued to Sacramento State, which had an intensive music program with such teachers as world-class percussion master Dan Kennedy. “We started playing tabla and djembe and doumbek, and got into all these different styles,” Jenkins says. “And I think it was around then that I started realizing the connection between music in a particular rhythm and percussion from different parts of the world—and how that style influenced early jazz in New Orleans. I’m, like, a big history person.”
Jenkins, who now teaches at home and at various schools, is also no neophyte to the genre. “Before I was ever playing in rock bands, I’d been playing jazz,” he says. “And then I was getting tired of being in this context, playing the same thing over and over. Nothing against pop music; I still play the occasional gig. But for me, it was more about the creative outlet of being able to get into a room with other musicians, listen to each other, play off each other and not play the same song the same way twice.”
Local jazz musician Tony Passarell met Jenkins around the time the latter was playing with Daisy Spot. Passarell, a saxophonist and bandleader who was blasting punk-funk noise with the band Hunting Game 30 years ago, has been a primary figure driving the evolution of Sacramento’s improvised, or “out,” jazz scene since then; the Bub jazz nights and Bub Orchestra gigs he put together were a precursor to what Ross Hammond now does with the In the Flow festival and Nebraska Mondays at Luna’s Café & Juice Bar.
Passarell has played saxes in both incarnations of Alex Jenkins’ Sound Immersion, a quartet whose first record, Generosity, from 2009, also featured Randy McKean on alto sax, clarinet and banjo, and Mike Turgeon on bass. The just-released Perseverance features Jenkins and Passarell with Michael Dale on alto sax and clarinet and Alex Reiff on bass. On the new disc, Jenkins and Passarell each composed three tunes, Dale contributed two and Reiff wrote one. The music is all improvised but all over the spectrum, from Jenkins’ Eastern-sounding “Ali Baba” to Passarell’s “Byobu,” which races like chase-scene music from some imaginary Eastern European James Bond movie.
But the unifying factor is behind the drum kit. “Sound Immersion is Alex’s band, in the way that his drumming directs the music,” Passarell says. “So even if it’s our tunes, he’s really the center of it all.” He pauses, and then says, laughing, “Sometimes the drumming gets a little … loud.”
“What we play is sometimes surprising to us,” Passarell adds. “The last time we played was In the Flow. … We got up there and played, and all these people came up to us—this one cat Duane, who’s really knowledgeable—he came up and said, ‘Man, you guys sound like Ken Vandermark.’ Jesus Christ, that’s like the nicest compliment I’ve heard in years. Ken Vandermark’s like the poster boy for out jazz.”
For Jenkins, whose other East-West credentials include stints drumming for Kairos Quartet and the Nada Brahma Music Ensemble (see his website, www.alexdrums.net), his latest project is a true group effort, even if his name is on the marquee. “I easily have enough material to fill an entire record myself,” Jenkins says. “The reason why I don’t do that is because I really want to bring out the strengths of the other players in the band. And I want them to bring just as much to the table as I’m bringing.”