A disembodied voice comes out of the smoky darkness of the Emerald Lounge as Soul Trax winds down the last number of its first set. Someone is heckling the band. At first, it seems the heckler is counting off a beat or commenting on one of the musicians' timing. But the boisterous audience member turns out to be bandleader Adaupto "Tato" Caraveo's friend, who's counting down the minutes until midnight, when Caraveo turns 30.
Soul Trax is just finishing a smokin' hot original -- they are all originals -- in the style that it's become known for: a kind of loose, improv-based experimental jazz.
The musicians orbit around Caraveo's upright bass, taking turns expressing themselves in riffs, licks, beats and runs. The tones and rhythm of the bass provide a warm tether that gives them slack when needed, just as it often reels them in.
Onstage, the guys look and sound cool, evoking a casual bohemian air. The group boasts a neo-traditional jazz lineup, with electric guitar featured prominently. Caraveo is the leader, the only constant in Soul Trax, and most of the songs are written around his bass lines.
The project has seen many different players and styles in the year that Soul Trax has been the Tuesday night house band at Emerald, but the current lineup and style seems to have jelled. The group's brand of post-bop R&B-based electric jazz, with Latin and funk accents, is rarely featured in local music venues.
Experimental enough to rankle old-schoolers and too gritty and soulful for Dave Koz fans, Soul Trax's small-but-growing fan base seems to be made up of open-minded R&B and alternative-rock fans. If the project hadn't been born in the Emerald Lounge, one wonders if the group would have the same following.
Caraveo has been a fixture in the club for several years as part of the very popular but now defunct garage-meets-exotica collective the Hypno-Twists. (He's also proven his talent as a muralist on the Emerald's walls.) The Hypno-Twists were known for live shows that featured a psychedelic light show and a musical style that asked the forbidden question, "What would happen if Ennio Morricone jammed with the Cramps?" After an ill-fated jaunt to London in 2003, the band imploded, and its members scattered across the country. Caraveo landed back in the Valley. After his musical wounds healed, he decided to revisit a style he and fellow Twister Joel McCune had dabbled with in a side project called the Jazz Core Trio.
Returning to jazz is clearly a choice based on love for Caraveo and his crew. Onstage, their pleasure manifests itself as inward expression. As Caraveo plays, usually looking down or to the side, head bobbing subtly on his tall thin frame, his restrained demeanor contrasts with the intensity of what's going on with his hands.
Musical and physical cues merge to tell the players what's next. Complementing everything that goes on, John De La Cruz fills out the rhythm section, often playing his minimal kit with his eyes closed, like Buddha playing in the pocket. Looking old school (often donning a porkpie hat, bow tie and dark-rimmed glasses), newest member Matt Yazzie plays keys with reverence. Mike Cerio plays electric guitar, something new for the musician whose recent endeavors involved classical and Latin-styled music played acoustically. The inclusion of Cerio's guitar and the Latin flavors, as well as the group's absence of jazz standards, give Soul Trax its experimental edge.
To the right of Caraveo's mammoth bass, slightly upstage from the other players, is German-born saxophonist Yon Sphullerus, the longest permanent member after Caraveo. Tall and thin with a wild mane of black hair, he seems in serious contemplation until he gets the ball and then lets fly. His colorful parts often come at the beginning and the end of a song, a kind of commentary on what's gone on in the composition.
As the last number of the first set ends, it is very close to midnight. The players put down their instruments, step off the stage and merge with the crowd. Hair in a loose high ponytail, black stray locks obscuring his eyes, Caraveo ambles through the audience, heading toward his vociferous friend with a pitcher of beer in his hand and a smile on his face.
Caraveo's smile -- kind of sly, shy, a little devious -- often substitutes for words when we visit his and De La Cruz's downtown duplex digs on First Friday in February. With its wood floors, high ceilings, shelves of vinyl records and self-made art, it's a perfect musician's pad, almost a clich. The band members are meeting up here before they have to play a sidewalk gig outside the Brickhouse for the art-walk crowd.
Cerio is crashed out on the couch, tired from a day of work. Caraveo razzes his guitarist. "He's lazy," he says. Cerio chimes back, "Lazy, shit." Keyboardist Yazzie fidgets with his cell phone as the musicians pile onto a couch for the interview. As sometimes happens with creative people who choose their modes of expression outside of language, the communication is watery. There's a lot of musician speak. These guys come off a little shy, or a little stoned, or both. But they would definitely rather explain their music through action than words.
Example: When asked if people are getting into their take on live jazz, Caraveo says, "Every time we do play and there's people there, they usually like it. Or it seems like they are into it. I don't know, maybe they're pretending."
Cerio and Caraveo first met each other in the late '80s. "Me and Tato used to be in metal bands together. That's how we kind of started. Screams of Aggression, Wicked Fester -- we used to do little tours and little house parties together," explains Cerio. "We would play the Mason Jar and the Silver Dollar. Mike's hair was like this long," he says, making a hand gesture suggesting nipple length. "He was always wearing a black Slayer shirt!"
Hessian hair and Slayer shirt aside, Cerio later developed a taste for classical guitar, eventually specializing in flamenco and Latin styles. How does classical and Latin training mesh in an electric jazz setting? "It doesn't fit," says Cerio, with humorous self-deprecation. "I've been trying to make it sound right -- I've got to figure out a way to make it fit. Electric guitar is new for me, so I'm trying to get that down." It would be hard to tell if he didn't provide this information. "With Mike, we bring in the Latin stuff," says Caraveo. "Some rock 'n' roll and some funk, and some really out there sort of spacy, groovy stuff."
Anchoring some of that spacy, groovy stuff are Yazzie and Sphullerus, tasteful colorists who understand understatement when playing. "I've played several different styles of music, but I always come back to jazz, blues and soul. That's where my heart is," says Yazzie. Sphullerus' stoic finesse gives him the playing style of a jazz natural. "I never learned any standards or anything. I listen to it, but I wouldn't claim to be a jazz cat or traditional, [although] it might sound like that," he says.
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Drummer De La Cruz helps give Soul Trax some musical backbone. He and Caraveo are intuitive as a rhythm section; maybe this has something to do with the fact that they live together. They often jammed before De La Cruz was recruited for the project. The two work so well together, in fact, that De La Cruz recently asked Caraveo to join his longtime musical project, Fatigo, on bass.
Following the pattern of humility and brevity that each member displays in the interview situation, De La Cruz explains both his involvement in Soul Trax and Caraveo's recent recruitment in Fatigo in short strokes. "They needed a drummer and Tato's my friend, we needed a bass player and he said he would do it. It was perfect," he says. "It worked out for all of us."