The Sardonics call their music “angry jazz”
Guitarist Ross Hammond caught my attention a couple of years ago while playing with the Chill E. Palmer Project, a jazz ensemble that was selling out local venues such as Luna’s Café or Capitol Garage on a regular basis. That particular combo even won a Sammie for best jazz band. Then it suddenly disappeared—or so it would seem. Watching Chill E. Palmer win over audiences at rock venues with music that was oriented much more closely to jazz had been an exciting, if ephemeral, experience.
Chill E. Palmer was not to return. However, Hammond and a fellow Palmer alumni, sax player Aaron Thurman, did form a new group, the Sardonics, with drummer Todd Temby and bassist Aaron Weiss. A recent booking at Café Milazzo on Folsom Boulevard, provided enough motivation to go check the band out.
Inside the café, the Sardonics were already in full swing, the audience small but attentive. Feet were tapping, and occasionally a jaw or two dropped. The tempo sped up, it slowed down, and the crowd held its collective breath at the starts and stops that punctuated several of the jams. The band seemed relaxed in front of an audience and relaxed with one another.
While at least one perm-haired poseur has given the saxophone a bad name in recent years, in Thurman’s hands it sounds moody, manic, almost tough—a far cry from the lite-jazz sax that irritates shoppers via supermarket speakers. In fact, nothing in the Sardonics sound can be described as “lite.” Their music seems to celebrate the very tension that lite jazz seeks to relieve.
Webster’s defines “sardonic” as “disdainful or bitterly sneering, ironic or sarcastic.” The word describes the sense of humor of this quartet well, as is evidenced by a name they almost chose instead: “Oreo Funk and Doublestuff.”
“With a name like that, we could’ve been on Jenny Jones a lot quicker,” Weiss quips.
Sonically, the band is harder to pin down. “A fusion of jazz and punk,” Thurman offers, grappling for a definition, which leaves Temby to wonder aloud. “Junk?” he asks. “Is that what that’d be called?”
Thurman tries again. “Angry jazz.”
Everyone agrees, however that Weiss is on to something when he says, “Every time I say ‘jazz,’ I feel kind of guilty.”
As for influences, the four name jazz players such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker and Michael Brecker to rock acts such as Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Rush to the often unclassifiable Frank Zappa. One does get a sense from listening to the Sardonics—and from watching the way crowds not usually geared to jazz react to them—that their influences are all over the map. “I feel like I kinda listen to everything under the sun,” is how Weiss puts it.
As for anything resembling a jazz scene in Sacramento, the Sardonics are a bit less than enthusiastic. Hammond says that many of the local jazz musicians who gig regularly mostly play either out of town or at private parties. “The club owners don’t pay very much,” he explains, “and a lot of people don’t really appreciate it, so [jazz musicians] go where they’re appreciated.”
Later, Hammond expands on his impressions on jazz and Sacramento. “When Thurman and I were putting the band together,” he says, “I wanted to do something different than what I saw happening here. Most people, when they think of jazz, are thinking of easy listening or Kenny G-type stuff, even on the jazz radio stations here, or they think of the rock fusion stuff. I wanted to get back to the straight-shooting stuff like Coltrane.”
Jazz wasteland or not, our beloved town appears to be appreciating the Sardonics plenty these days. The band is getting booked for gigs well in advance all over the area, as well as at venues outside of Sacramento. They continue to bravely play where no jazz act has played before.
Who says you can’t teach an old rocker new licks?