When Stanton Moore talks about playing with Garage a Trois, his eyes dance behind his black-rimmed glasses. "We're a group of guys who have played in a lot of different bands that play a lot of different types of music," he says. "There's no discernable style."
While he's best known as the drummer for Galactic, Moore has made Garage a Trois his second-call artistic outlet, and the stylistic possibilities are endless. Featuring freewheeling improvisation with Seattle-based saxophonist Skerik, Bay Area seven-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, and Austin-based percussionist Mike Dillon, Garage a Trois shows have been a Jazz Fest-season club staple for several years. Now the band's first full-length album, Emphasizer (Tone-Cool Records), hits shelves this week.
Garage a Trois began in 1998 around the recording of Moore's first solo album, All Kooked Out. Skerik and Hunter had both sat in with Galactic on tour, so Moore called them in to play on the album and complement a host of New Orleans players. When Skerik, Hunter and Moore improvised as a trio during the session, the chemistry was undeniable. "We had a great time in the studio," says Skerik, "so we just kept playing together." While some of Moore's New Orleans compadres became members of his local side project, Moore and More, he also formed Garage a Trois with Skerik and Hunter. The trio's outtake material from the All Kooked Out sessions was released as the Mystery Funk EP, a limited-edition 7-inch. Not surprisingly, the material from the Mystery Funk EP, with its studio tricks and space-age effects, is much more experimental than the jazzy, organic sound of All Kooked Out.
While Moore's second-line beats laid the basic foundation for the next four years of live Garage a Trois gigs, Skerik and Hunter added textures that sounded completely different from any of Moore's other bands. Skerik's saxophone playing ventured far beyond the patterns and formats of jazz and funk, favoring free-jazz squawk and punk-rock urgency. Guitarist Hunter, with his signature Novak -- a custom-made instrument featuring two bass strings and four guitar strings -- brought bass lines and guitar riffs in a variety of styles. Add a full spread of effects pedals, and the two players could produce an astonishing range of sounds. Even Moore caught on to the advantages of electronics, playing on top of his own pre-recorded drum loops. The trio often sounded like a quintet or a sextet, with two drummers, a subdued bass player, and a Hammond B-3 organ player.
Despite the band's moniker and misleading sound, there are now four musicians in the band. Percussionist Mike Dillon became the official fourth member after only two sit-ins. The Austin-based vibraphone wizard also utilizes a sampler/drum machine, and a full range of percussion tools. Dillon and Skerik are fellow members of West Coast jazz-funk band Critters Buggin', and they share a twisted sense of humor that comes out on stage. Dillon made his first appearance with the trio when they opened for the inaugural Oysterhead show at the Saenger Theater during Jazz Fest 2000. "Right before we went on," recalls Moore, "Skerik and Mike came out of the dressing room with wrestling masks on."
Not surprisingly, the new Garage a Trois album pays no mind to formality. Recorded at Piety Street Recording studio in Bywater, Emphasizer is as fickle as it is forthright. The 10-track collection jumps from style to style with audible deliberation. The fast funk of "A-frame" segues abruptly into the Thelonious Monk standard "We See," and weirder tracks such as "Interpretive Ape Dance" venture unabashedly into twisted exoticism. The album's opening track was composed on the spot from a simple theme. It emerged as the mysterious and dissonant "Hardheaded Rio a.k.a. Rio Cuca Dura." The band named the track after Rio Hackford, owner of El Matador at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Decatur Street, because, according to Skerik, "he always hogs the jukebox."
Emphasizer retains the unorthodox spirit of the live Garage a Trois experience, but the result could not have been produced live. Almost all of the album's tracks are remixed into superhuman arrangements. "I get really tired of jazz records where musicians just go into the studio, record, and leave," says Skerik. "To me, recording is an opportunity to do something different, to change the sonic context of the material." Departing from his New Orleans street-beat rearing, Moore agreed to let go of the organic ideal. "Why try to make a record that sounds like us playing live?" he asks. "People can come and hear that when we tour."
Garage a Trois' sporadic live shows are a hit on the national club circuit for their unpredictability. In a fraction of a set, the band might jump from a laid-back funk groove to a punk-rock scorcher with electronic effects to a straight-ahead Mingus standard.
"To us, there's no interruption in the line between Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix," says Skerik. "It's all the same music."
- "I get really tired of jazz records where musicians just go into the studio, record, and leave." -- Garage a Trois saxophonist Skerik (second from left), pictured with bandmates Mike Dillon (left), Charlie Hunter and Stanton Moore (right).