So What Do You Call It?

I've never come up with a name for the kind of music I do, although I can tell you how it came into being.

My vocabulary reflects the fact that I started life as a drummer, was trained in jazz theory, blues and gospel music as a pre-teenager, became absorbed in African and Latin music as a teenager, listened to a lot of contemporary classical music, worked in R&B, reggae, blues, Latin, African, jazz, funk, Middle Eastern and Indian bands and, for as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by how sounds can be fitted together. I usually compose from the piano, but occasionally I do it from the drums. I avoid playing the saxophone, however, unless it's absolutely necessary, since it drowns out all the other music in my head. I like to think of what we do as homemade music - music made from scratch. Cecil Taylor taught me the value of coming up with one's own chords, chord sequences and rhythms.

In the aftermath of the explosion of musical structures in the mid-1960s, there were plenty of chords, rhythms and other musical fragments lying around, just waiting to be used. For those of us who had undertaken a lifelong commitment to music-making, by the early 1970s, this was a very fruitful time. New structures needed to be built, so jazz saw a re-assertion of the role of the composer, thanks to people like Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Muhal Richard Abrams, Carla Bley, Karl Berger and others. These are people who showed me the way, and I think Braxton's use of the term restructuralist is a good one for describing their contributions.

Yusef Lateef, Don Cherry, and others introduced non-Western instruments to jazz, so when I started the Hieroglyphics Ensemble in 1977, it seemed perfectly natural to have a big band that included harmonium, ney, zurna, and Afro-Cuban percussion, along with violin, bassoon, brass, reeds, guitar and bass. For two years or so prior to the birth of the Hieroglyphics, I had been rehearsing and performing pretty regular - Iy with three other classmates in a quartet called the Berkeley Arts Company. We were following in the footsteps of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and our performances were largely improvised. We discovered some amazing sounds and instrumental combinations along the way. For a while, I even thought that composed music was becoming obsolete. But since improvised performances have a tendency to be hit-or- miss, I eventually decided to try making compositions that would convey the kind of organic flow of a successful improvisation. So, my task had begun. But I was not alone; I think it's been a common goal for the restrncturalists of the last twenty years to create expanded compositions that can incorporate group improvisation. After all, improvising is what jazz musicians are good at, so why limit them to the printed page? Additionally, something I think I share with others in my generation - like Sex Mob, Josh Roseman, Graham Haynes, Michael Blake, Will Bernard, Charlie Hunter, Medeski Martin & Wood, Jai Uttal, and Bill Laswell - is that we see the dance music of our time as having potential for creative development.

The Story of the Kamikaze Ground Crew: A Little Historical Perspective

Kamikaze Ground Crew began life circa 1983 as the pit band for the juggling troupe The Flying Karamazov Brothers.

The band originally included Karamazovs Paul Magid on woodwinds and Howard Patterson on mid-range brass, along with non-juggling multi-instrumentalists Gina Leishman, Doug Weiselman, Steven Bernstein and Danny Frankel. This proved to be such a successful collaboration that within a few years the FKB became inundated with offers to perform various acts without the band - some in the nude - including a cameo appearance in the Disney film "Family Jewels On The Nile" ...thus abandoning the hapless KGC to fend for themselves in the confusing and violently competitive contemporary music scene without any juggling at all anymore to distract them or their audiences. However, trombonist Jeff Cressman and yours truly were hastily recruited to fill the empty chairs, and with the unflappability of a flightless bird, the KGC continued to add many accomplishments to their resume, including clearing unwanted cannonballs from the stage, marching to their own drummer, and (figuratively) rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. After a while this became a bit too much for yours truly, and I was replaced for a time by Ralph Carney, who introduced sounds to the group which were previously thought unimaginable.

In the years which have passed, the KGC have ridden on camels, motorcycles, jitneys, trojan horses and donkey carts in order to get out of town quickly following objections to their controversial outreach program


some of the members have even spawned children of their own. In spite of all this, we have reconvened once again for your listening and dancing pleasure. And while once upon a time our music was designed to enlighten the minds of our friends and darken the minds of our enemies, we now enter our 21st year with straight love for music lovers and music haters alike, along with forgiveness for all of our attempted assasins... some of whom shall remain anonymous forever.

Peter Apfelbaum, October 2006

About Signs of Life

Peter comments on selected cuts: 


A cycle of chords over a 7/8 rhythm pattern. Initially, I sang the melody to trombonist James Harvey, who loosely interpreted it. After the melody is stated, each soloist improvises over one revolution of the chord sequence.The rhythm section "dubs out" part of their pattern periodically to create a "breakdown" effect. During the vocal solo by Jai Uttal, the command "Take the last door to get out" is spoken by yours truly through a police-style electric bullhorn (aka megaphone).


This mini-suite in four sections is a good example of how we put material together for a live performance: several contrasting segments are stuck together and performed without a break, in order to create the kind of organic "flow" one finds in a successful improvisation. 

Three of the sections show the African influence: the opening "call", played by twin soprano saxophones, is in the style of Yoruba praise-singing, which is typically begun with an a capella fanfare before the rhythm instruments join in.

In the next section, the guitars and bass play a repeated phrase using a scale found in Gnawa music of Morocco and Bambara music of Mali (the Moroccan sintir and the Malian doussou n'gouni are tuned accordingly) and a horn riff which occurs near the end of the section is a literal adaptation of the rhythm rumba Obatala, which is of Afro-Cuban origin and is traditionally played on the Bata drums. The horn writing here utilizes the "rhythm block" method, a technique I've developed wherein each of the wind instruments plays a separate melodic line in "rhythmic unison" with the others, within a rhythmic pattern usually lasting eight or sixteen bars.

The third section, in 6/8 time, revolves around a "central phrase" produced by the sound of the three guitars and bass each accenting a different place within a two-bar pattern. The three percussionists have their own patterns and may also accent or "highlight" one of the guitar parts. 

The "bridge" sections (or "fourth" section)  are in quick 5/8 and are packed with cycles of changing chords, in contrast to the relatively static harmonic base of the preceding sections. This section indirectly reflects Cecil Taylor's influence. I learned from listening to him the value (and logic) of finding your own chords and chord progressions.

WALK TO THE MOUNTAIN (And Tell The Story Of Love's Thunderclapping Eyes), like "Candles and Stones," typical of the African "rhythm tapestry" approach, although less developed in the Western sense. Like "Theater Piece" on the Luminous Charms CD, it's a cycle which repeats over and over without variation, except for the substitution of improvised solos for composed horn parts. "Walk" later became one of the Multikulti group's signature pieces. The form is: rhythm vamp with horn parts, harmonium solo by Jai, tenor saxophone solo by Peter (misprinted on CD booklet as "soprano saxophone"), followed by a reprise of the horn parts. The clapping during the solo sections is by members of the horn section. 

FORWARDING, Parts 1 & 2

This was originally parts 4 and 5, respectively, of a suite entitled "Notes From The Rosetta Stone" which was commissioned by the San Francisco Jazz Festival and performed by the Hieroglyphics Ensemble featuring Don Cherry in 1988. 

"Forwarding Part 1," with its reggae-style bass line and guitar "skank," was one to which audience members would frequently dance in live performances. The title comes from the Rastafarian concept that one always goes "forward" in an "upfull" and enlightened existence - never "backward." 

Part 2 is the only piece I've recorded to date that uses a "walking" bass line, which gives it that "jazz" sound. Since our regular bassist, Bo Freeman, is not a "jazz" player, we brought in David Belove, a stalwart on the local Latin jazz scene, to play the dominant bass part. Tony Jones, the first soloist, has been a colleague of mine since 1974, and is, in my view, oneof the most original saxophonists playing today. The spirit in his playing is so strong that frequently other band members are moved to spontaneously join in during his solos, pushing the intensity level up a few notches! This is what happens here. Following Tony's solo are more horn parts in the "rhythm block" style of "Candles and Stones." Other examples of the "rhythm-block" technique can be found in "Chant #9" (Jodoji Brightness, Antilles) and in "Divinity Tree" (Multikulti, A&M).

After solos and a reprise of the horn parts, the bulk of the band falls silent, leaving only the percussionists. Here the African rhythmic foundation is exposed—the ancient West African Comparsa rhythm emerges and is given an unusually (for us) traditional rendering.