Stone Free

Lookout for Hope gleefully rips apart the conventions of jazz

Lookout for Hope has its very own heckler. He shows up from time to time at various places where the Tempe jazz trio is gigging, and stands right in front of the band. The jazz dissident, described by tenor sax player Bryon Ruth as a "crazy-looking motherfucker," generally stands in front of the band and mumbles underneath his breath, occasionally augmenting his act by extending the trio an angry middle-finger salute.

Drummer John Neish still hasn't seen the notorious boo-bird, partly because he's shielded from such resistance by his bandmates, but also because he tends to get so lost in the music that he often closes his eyes when he's playing. But if Neish hasn't yet seen the enemy, he's not particularly surprised to learn that the band's minimalistic, occasionally anarchistic approach to improvisation has unsettled a few ears.

When asked about the possibility of Lookout for Hope ever augmenting its harmonically stripped-down sound with additional musicians, Neish says with typical, good-natured sarcasm, "There are people who could do it beautifully, but a lot of people wouldn't do it for the huge amount of money that we make."

Truth be told, Neish and the band prefer their skeletal configuration to the more traditional quartet or quintet lineup. Neish, Ruth and bassist Ted Sistrunk all played together in the jazz quartet Odd Man Out, which focused largely on the tuneful compositions of guitarist Chris Champion. Neish says that Odd Man Out "never really got off the ground," and notes that Lookout for Hope--ostensibly a side project--always got more gigs. The members of Lookout for Hope shared a passion for Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and some of the freakier, avant-garde bands on the scene in New York, where Neish lived from 1990 to 1996. They all felt that the trio format, which is not restricted by a chordal instrument, would allow all of them to stretch their improvisational skills to the breaking point.

The Lookout for Hope project may be their aesthetic home, but it doesn't pay much, so each of the band members spreads himself thin with musical endeavors, including music lessons, bar mitzvahs, weddings and, in Sistrunk's case, a Smitty's grand opening a few months ago. He was more than a little red-faced after that gig, when a fellow musician who'd caught him amongst the lawn furniture at the store opening quipped, "I hear you're part of the new Smitty's Jazz Series."

Partly because of their many outside commitments, and partly because of their commitment to spontaneity, these guys never rehearse together. When Ruth or Sistrunk composes a new tune, he springs it on the band at the gigs, with no one knowing how long the song will last or what twists and turns it may take.

Catching the band at Higher Ground Cafe, where it plays every Sunday night, one is struck by how "in the moment" these guys are. In the dimly lighted barroom, with an eerie purple wall for a backdrop, and art exhibits draped around them, these guys look like the picture of collective concentration. You can actually see the gifted Sistrunk furrow his brow as he strains to focus on each unexpected epiphany that bleeds from Ruth's sax.

The band's commitment to improvisation is such that when it came time to record a CD, the members decided to set up a couple of mikes at Higher Ground, record three straight Sunday-night gigs and see what came of it. The result is their new, self-titled CD, whose release they celebrated on February 22 with a characteristically lively set at Higher Ground. Neish says a studio recording was never even a consideration.

"All my favorite recordings are live, all the Coltrane stuff, the free stuff that's going on in New York now, it's all pretty much live. All of the big-band albums I listened to as a kid, the Buddy Rich stuff, a lot of those were live. And the reason I liked them so much was the guys really got to stretch, and it was just a different energy. I don't think this group could ever really go into a studio and say, 'This tune is six minutes, or this tune is seven minutes.' We knew right away we're not gonna get radio airplay, so why bother with it?"

The live-recording approach inevitably creates imperfections, in this case a slightly thin bass presence. But it's more than compensated for by the unrepeatable freakouts that drive such tunes as "My Dog Earll" and the 13-minute, bowed-bass showcase "Big Job." And you don't get distracted on the CD by excessive applause, because it usually takes a few seconds for audiences to figure out whether a Lookout for Hope tune has ended or is merely passing through a brief lull, which made it easy to edit crowd response out of the tapes.

Sistrunk says that the band didn't concern itself with the possibility of flubbed notes while the tapes were rolling.

"Jazz groups, if they're any good, don't have to worry about whether mistakes are gonna happen," he says. "I'd like to think we've reached a level where even if we make a mistake, we can make it sound good." Neish adds that in free jazz, "If you're not making mistakes, you're not even trying to do anything, 'cause you're resting on shit you already know."

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