THROUGHOUT THE '90s, rock musicians in New York and Chicago regularly crossed over into their cities' avant-garde jazz scenes, as if their given genres had grown too stifling. At the Knitting Factory, you'd find Lee Ranaldo breaking from Sonic Youth to evict unruly sounds from his guitar alongside wildly improvisational drummer William Hooker; in Chicago, the Sea and Cake and Tortoise set about rewriting the rules of identification.
Baltic Room, Saturday, December 2
Meanwhile in Seattle, the boundaries remained. Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard funded a label, Loosegroove, that veered from the rock paradigm to support jazz-flecked acts such as Critters Buggin', but even with open-minded players like Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz around, few rock-scene denizens proved willing or able to take a leap into this parallel universe. Then in 1998, bassist Josh Warren and keyboardist Chad States of the new wave-inspired Satisfact began jamming with rock drummer Andy Sells, and the trio became FCS (pronounced "focus") North, Seattle's first real rock-to-jazz crossover.
The three—all now in their mid-20s— instantly eschewed such rockcentric accouterments as guitars and vocals. Settled in a booth at Linda's on a recent Sunday evening, Warren describes their motives: "It wasn't like we were one of those bands that say, 'We didn't get a vocalist, so let's just play anyway.' It was almost our intention to not have a vocalist. We try to do other things to fill it up, like ambient [noise] and samples."
The approach allowed the musicians to incorporate wide-ranging influences, even to exercise their taste for electronic music. At Linda's, Warren and States fling names across the table, waxing philosophical about Orbital and Boards of Canada, Coltrane and Weather Report.
All of these touchstones come through in FCS North's music, a percolating fusion of syncopated drums, free-spirited keys, bass grooves, and the occasional hint of strings (courtesy of Warren's brother Seth, a violinist from the band Red Stars Theory). It's a sound sculpted from traditional jazz elements, such as rhythmic motif, and of-the-moment adornments such as samplers. On FCS North's first full-length, just released on respected local rock label Pacifico, a soothing wash of waves lapping on the shore starts the proceedings; the next sounds you hear are chirping birds and a mournful organ. Then, finally, a beat develops on high hat and a plucked bass emerges in the distance. On the tracks "Auburn, N.Y." and "FCSN (Concrete/Field)," a more conventional jazz structure takes over, recalling surging '70s outfits such as Return to Forever and Weather Report.
THEIR YOUTH and relative inexperience never seem to hobble FCS North, and Sells gives a breakout performance on drums. His bandmates strive to give him credit. "We all influence each other," says Warren, pausing to reflect. "To be honest, he is our vocalist sometimes. He's not afraid to leave the confines of a beat. In the middle of a break, he'll slip in a Latin samba thing."
States joins in, "Josh will come up with a bass line. Andy can take that and make it feel however he wants. He can throw a jungle beat on it. He'll take the music wherever he wants it to go. We're at his whim sometimes."
Judging by the direction on record, Sells chooses wisely, and his ambitious efforts have made FCS North an exciting live band with a growing following that includes many of their rock-minded peers, even if the trio remain stylistically isolated.
"We don't really have any bands we lock in with, but we have support," notes Warren.
They like it that way, too; an attempt to link FCS North with Chicago's already hybridized rock and jazz sphere earns a rebuke from States.
"I relate to the Chicago scene, but they're all old," says the keyboardist. "No offense, but [bands like] the Sea and Cake are adult-contemporary. I can see how people could put us together with them, but we're young and we have an edge."