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Friday, August 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jazz Etc.

Seattle saxophonist's funky, artful septet

Seattle Times jazz critic

When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie led jazz out of the ballroom and into the concert hall in the 1940s, two schools of thought emerged.

One is that jazz, like European classical music, is a high art meant for sophisticated, reverent listening.

The other — espoused vehemently by Miles Davis — is that jazz should maintain its connection to "the street" — vernacular dancing and contemporary pop.

The funky, note-popping Seattle saxophonist known as Skerik, who prefers to keep his given name to himself, comes down squarely on the "street" side of that argument.

But there's no denying the artfulness of his music, happily and irreverently — demonstrated on the new album, "Husky," by Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet.

The band celebrates the CD's release at 9 p.m. Thursday at the Tractor Tavern ($12; 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W.; www.tractortavern.citysearch.com or 206-789-3599). It should be an exhilarating night.

"It was totally spontaneous," said Skerik of the group's first studio recording. "We were on a West Coast tour and were driving in Oregon and our front-of-house engineer, Randall Dunn, said 'Why don't you guys record?' We were like, 'Cool.' So I called Husky [a Los Angeles recording engineer], who was a friend from Critters Buggin'. He had a day off. I'm just glad I had a Visa card."

Skerik, 41, grew up on Mercer Island, kicked around the South Pacific and Europe, studied briefly at Cornish College, then formed the jazz/rock group Critters Buggin' in the mid-'90s. Some of his other projects include Garage A Trois (with guitarist Charlie Hunter and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore) and Tuatara, with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. Skerik's rasping, gritty sound and crisp licks have been much in demand in New Orleans as well, where hand drummer Bill Summers recently commandeered the sax man for a Headhunters tour.

For the past few years, Skerik has lived primarily in Brooklyn, though the peripatetic musician still maintains a "basement and a van and a trailer" in Seattle. The Syncopated Taint Septet came together here in 2002, during one of his frequent visits.

The band features some of the area's coolest players/composer/arrangers: Hans Teuber and Craig Flory (reeds), Dave Carter (trumpet), Steve Moore (trombone and Wurlitzer electric piano), Joe Doria (organ) and John Wicks (drums).

The CD's lush, five-horn arrangements, mostly by Teuber and Moore, offer an astonishing variety of grooves, from double-clutch funk and irritant punk-jazz to cat's-paw cool and droll, "Pink Panther" noir.

"They hear the personality of the band, so it's easy for them to just write really nice voicings for that instrumentation," Skerik said. "Hans wrote one of the charts, 'Don't Wanna,' in the van, on a clipboard. He's like a little Mozart."

Flory's croaking baritone sax occasionally evokes the wonky soulfulness of the World Saxophone Quartet; Wurlitzer electronics sometimes suggest Medeski Martin and Wood.

The septet's name comes from a phrase once used by U.S. Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, who notoriously associated the "syncopated taint" of jazz with drugs and moral decay.

Though Skerik rushes to defend jazz against this kind of caricature, he has little patience for traditionalists who would box in the music by other means, like revering the past.

"It's not 1963 anymore," he said. "I mean, come on. That music is a peak, we love it, we all listen to it, but the message of that music is to keep going, not stop there. It's like someone trying to pay rent and live at a rest stop."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published August 18, 2006, was corrected August 24, 2006. Saxophonist Skerik has never been married. A previous version of this story erroneously reported that he lives in Brooklyn with his wife.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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