Basement Jazz 

For all your ghostly, impressionistic jazz needs, call Ether Orchestra.

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Bands like Ether Orchestra support the notion that Utah’s music scene is rather like the Galapagos Islands. In this landlocked, relatively isolated mountainous region, strange and wonderful cycles of musical evolution and mutation take place. Raw talent collides with a vast assortment of unique cultural components, and the end result is a collection of dazzling, unclassifiable soundscapes that inspire shock and awe in listeners in and beyond the State of Deseret.


Some five years ago, a thrashy-yet-melodic experimental music project called Ether, notorious for their raucous live performances replete with fire breathers and black-and-white moving images projected onto the musicians as they played, experienced a sonic mutation. After 2000’s aptly titled Music for Air Raids (which was released by aptly titled Australian label Extreme Records) the band decided to switch atmospheric gears from an airport runway (a gorgeously hypnotic airport runway, mind you) to the remnants of a melancholy, haunted jazz club.


“Ether Orchestra is basically a slightly more melodic, downtempo version of Ether,” says Ether mastermind and pianist Ryley Fogg. “Sort of a retirement home for ex-Ether members … without the fire breather.”


Drummer David Payne classifies the band as a relatively rare subspecies of an existing genre: a basement jazz quartet. “Basement jazz is to jazz what garage rock is to rock & roll. We’re not a bunch of technically proficient jazz musicians. [‘Although each of us knows how to count at least to four!’ interjects bassist Paul Butterfield.] We simply try to create the impression of jazz. The feeling of the sound.”


Payne believes that since Utah is generally below the mainstream music industry’s radar, musicians feel freer to experiment and perfect their own sound. Shows are readily available and easy to book and the conservative status quo creates a cultural polarization that is conducive to original music. A genuine insensitivity to convention produces genuinely interesting avant-garde acts like Ether Orchestra.


Ether Orchestra’s first release All Your Brave Junkies Tomorrow ('recorded and mastered by local sound magicians Andy Patterson and Terrence DH'is an elegantly moody surrealist dream of a record that’s irritatingly difficult to describe, simply because it’s so drenched in feeling. Tracks such as “A Trembling Surface,” with its ghostly distortion and muted stand-up bass, dredge up a whole host of curious hot and cold feelings that are impossible to articulate.


Although Ether Orchestra certainly aren’t your average bar band, the quartet often finds themselves playing in clubs, wedged between or proceeding acts that are completely different from them musically. “Nobody knows quite what to do with us,” Payne says. “We’re not really fit for traditional jazz clubs, and in bars, people tend to talk over our music.”


However, the quartet agrees they generally receive a positive response, even if people are somewhat puzzled. “The audience generally doesn’t know how to react when they see us live,” explains Butterfield, also a member of local hard-rockers Blackhole. “People always know how to respond to music that gets their adrenaline pumping.”


Fogg believes that smaller events like art openings and parties might be the ideal place for Ether Orchestra’s intimate performances. “We’ve received a really good response online, probably because of the space-pop element of our music. We’re thinking of doing more Internet-related stuff in the future.”


Guitarist Jesse Beacom says sometimes the band receives some rather bizarre feedback. “With us, they say things like ‘You guys are like The Doors, man, without Jim Morrison.’”


Fogg agrees that Ether Orchestra’s music is so translucent that it tends to leave people tongue-tied. “I always feel like I receive a gentle pat on the back after we perform. People generally like what they hear, but they don’t know how to tell us they liked what they heard.”

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About The Author

Jenny Poplar

Jenny Poplar is both a dancer and a frequent City Weekly contributor.

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