Night of five saxes

“New York’s all right if you like saxophones,” an old lyric by 1980s Los Angeles punk band Fear opined. And Sacramento’s all right, too.

Real jazz isn’t everybody’s cup of tea—and we’re not talking about that R&B instrumental form called “smooth jazz,” with a soprano sax bleating over a canned funk groove or karaoke ballad track. The real thing, with its invisible network of mutual trust between musicians and the soaring feats of improvisation they can achieve together as a result of that trust, is a marvel to behold when it all comes together. It’s like watching an old film of the Wright brothers getting their plane airborne for that first time at Kitty Hawk.

Now, I knew Tony Passarell and his friends were top-notch players, but I really didn’t expect to be thoroughly trepanned when I walked into Old Ironsides on Sunday night for the weekly Prescott Showcase with the Race!!! Quintet. Passarell had marshaled a large band for a live recording date: alto saxophonist/theremin player John Vaughn and drummer Dax Compise, who play together in a Stockton combo called Coma; Edgetone Records proprietor and saxophonist Rent Romus; tenor saxophonist Scott Anderson; alto saxophonist Adam Jenkins; guitarist Ross Hammond; and sousaphonist Erik Kleven, along with Tommy Van Wormer, a.k.a. DJ Tommy V, who played music between the evening’s two sets.

The ensemble’s first song lasted 40 minutes, the entire first set. It began with a line of five saxes playing a long mournful cadence before moving through a number of very different landscapes: an animated conversation between Vaughn, Jenkins and Romus; a lunar layout of sonic shards from Hammond’s guitar; a rainforest featuring Passarell on flute, with Hammond’s guitar, Vaughn’s theremin and Compise’s percussion; and more sax conversing.

The Jackson Pollock-like squirts of sax noise may have sounded like mayhem to some, but the characters of the various players did shine through if you listened. For example, one of Jenkins’ squalling solos was an aural vision of what it might look like if you tossed an agitated kitten into a bowl of cold spaghetti. Anderson, on the other hand, played a hauntingly beautiful cascade of blue notes that painted an urban landscape of shifting cloud-modified light on concrete. Romus tended to play bluesy, like a turbocharged bar-walking player in a cutting contest, even when working two saxes, Rahsaan Roland Kirk-style. Vaughn was harder to discern; he hovered stage right, near the bathrooms, and often played through an electronic device that scrambled his sound. And Passarell was earthy, anchoring the show by playing baritone and soprano saxes, harmonica, pocket trumpet, hand percussion and what looked like a sax mouthpiece jammed into a bicycle horn.

Underneath the squabble was Kleven’s sousaphone, one of those wraparound marching tubas, syncing with Hammond’s post-Hendrix-isms and Compise’s near-perfect drumming. It was another Sunday night at Old Ironsides, but it was sheer magic. And it will surface, sometime later this year, as a recording on Romus’ Edgetone Records label.

Jazz night takes a hiatus for two weeks and will return April 30. On Sunday, April 23, at 7 p.m. the amazing Billy Childish will play Old Ironsides.