TROKER LEFT HOME TO TRULY MAKE IT IN MEXICO
After a rough start at home in 2
Guadalajara, where audiences had zero idea what to make of the band, Troker has gradually established itself as one of Mexico’s most lauded musical exports. Four adventurous albums into a career that started in 2004, the six-piece has won raves around the world, wowing Glastonbury, sharing stages with indie icons like Beirut, and performing in prestigious showcases like NPR’S excellent Tiny Desk concert series.
Not bad for a group that, in the early years, fielded confused questions after live performances.
“The hard part, in the beginning, was that we failed in Mexico,” says Troker bassist Samo Gonzalez, speaking through a translator when reached in Guadalajara. “Everyone kept asking us, ‘Where is your vocalist?’ They come up questioning why there was no singer in the band. Festivals would tell us, ‘Sorry, we don’t book instrumental bands.’”
“Instrumental jazz” is a label that today doesn’t begin to do Troker justice. (Evidently aware of that, the band has its own considerably more evocative summation: “If Salvador Dali ever made a heist movie, then Mexico’s Troker would have been the soundtrack.”)
The group was founded when Frankie Mares and Gonzalez decided getting out and playing music was preferable to studying it at the classical-oriented Conservatorio de Las Rosas in Mexico.
“When I was 13 I was in a traditional Mexican band in my hometown,” Gonzalez says. “That convinced me that I wanted to dedicate my life to music. So I knew that I needed to study, and the closest place to do that was the conservatory of music in Morelia. So I went there, but found out that it was completely specialized in classical music, which was not my goal as a musician.”
So Gonzalez dropped out and did time in a rock ’n’ roll band for a while. His world changed when he discovered New York improv underdogs Sex Mob, and then Combustication—medeski Martin & Wood’s groove-heavy collaboration with DJ Logic. Grunge-era oddballs Morphine and jazz giant Charles Mingus would also reshape how he and Mares thought about music.
Recordings eventually followed. Troker’s 2007 debut, Jazz Vinil, played out like a late-’90s Ninja Tune offering, Mares and Gonzalez— along with DJ Sonicko—serving up a downtempo strain of urbane-cool jazz made for chill-out rooms. Things have got progressively more adventurous and thrillingly chaotic since then. Crimen Sonoro (2014) delivered a dizzying rush of woozy mariachi, depth-charge house, pimptastic soul, and frenetic free jazz.
After years of providing live accompaniment at screenings of the 1919 Mexican silent movie El Automóvil Gris, Troker captured its work in the studio for the 2016 soundtrack 1919 Música Para Cine. From the opening drum roll and snake-charmer horns of “1919” to the sepia-toned sax and tidal washes that finish things off in “Fusilados a Su Natural Horror”, Troker creates the kind of journey perfect for making vintage black-andwhite movies in your mind.
The early challenge for Troker was finding a place that would book the band. That’s no longer a problem for the band, which has discovered that sometimes the best way to make it in your home country is to build your career abroad.
“When we started out, there were no venues, but there was a jazz scene,” Gonzalez says. “That started in the ’60s, mostly in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Troker had to find ways to play live. We started convincing owners of restaurants and bars to open up space for live music. Those places are still doing live music. There’s a live scene for jazz again like in the ’60s—the bands have venues and an audience. Because of that, festivals are booking the bands. All we had to do was prove our music had value outside of Mexico.” > MIKE USINGER
The Chutzpah Festival presents Troker at the Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday (February 17).
Fast-working Jay Som adds polish to indie pop
At eight years old, Jay Som— 2
or Melina Duterte, to her family—had better taste in music than most adults.
“I started seriously listening to songs when I was really young,” she tells the Straight on the line from her Los Angeles home. “I liked a lot of tracks by Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Donnas. I expressed a lot of interest in playing guitar to my mom, and eventually she got me an acoustic for my birthday.”
The guitar would be the first instrument Duterte mastered. Next came the trumpet, bass, keyboards, drums, and vocals—and a penchant for songwriting. Penning her first tracks at the tender age of 12, the youngster made music throughout her teens as a way to deal with the angst of high school. Soon after graduation, she created Turn Into, a nine-track collection recorded in her bedroom that would put her on the radar of cult indie label Polyvinyl Records.
“Before I made that mix tape, I would write just for myself,” she says. “Instead of putting it out into the world on Bandcamp or Soundcloud, I was just sending the songs to friends—it was a very personal thing between a small circle. I uploaded what would be Turn Into on a whim— it was just meant to be a set of demos. Now I’ve had to become much more aware of my audience.”
Inking a deal with Polyvinyl in 2016, the artist set off on a coast-tocoast tour for seven months before settling down to create her first official album, Everybody Works. It took her just three weeks to complete.
“I’ve always written all the parts myself,” she says. “I think that’s my safe place—being on my own and being able to call the shots and make decisions, and ultimately trusting my gut. I need an outlet to express myself. I definitely find it hard sometimes to use my words to explain my emotions, whether they’re very sad or happy.
“I’m really proud of how fast I worked,” she continues. “Not in an ‘Oh, I did it so quickly’ kind of way. But last week I had the chance to listen through the full album, and I thought, ‘Damn—i can’t believe I did all of that
in just a few weeks.’ I didn’t have any human interaction during that time. I was only drinking coffee. My schedule was all over the place. I was writing songs and feeling like a mad scientist. It’s exciting to me that I was able to create, record, produce, mix, and track all of it in that span of time.”
She’s not the only person impressed with the record. Charting in multiple Top 50 year-end lists for 2017, Duterte gained nods from the likes of Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Pitchfork with her sleek indie pop. It’s easy to see why. Gone are the rough edges of Turn Into, with the artist trading in her lofi aesthetic for bouncy, Yo La Tengo– inspired tracks like “One More Time, Please” and “Baybee”. Heavier numbers like grunge-fuelled “Take It” and “1 Billion Dogs” sport high-quality production without losing their endearing DIY feel.
“There was a pretty big buffer between Turn Into and Everybody Works,” she says. “On the first record, I was a 19-year-old kid who wrote about being angry and sad. That one was my emo album. Everybody Works is a more realized effort. I took a more traditional approach, and my playing is much sharper. Most of my ideas and tracks now are getting more cohesive, and they sound a little bit different. It’s natural for things to change, and I feel like I’m progressing.”
> KATE WILSON
Jay Som plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (February 16). Like all the best drummers, Dave King seems animated by an inner spark—but while a lot of his peers save their inspiration for the sticks and skids, his finds expression in many curious ways. Not only does he play with jazz innovators the Bad Plus, he’s part of five other bands, including two of his own, the extroverted, sax-heavy Dave King Trucking Company and the somewhat more traditional, pianobased Dave King Trio. On top of that, he’s a radio host, with a weekly show on Minnesota Public Radio, and a Youtube star, primarily for the wildly funny “instructional videos” he issues under the Rational Funk banner. (Should you ever find yourself auditioning for Lady Gaga, make sure to check out Episode 21 first.)
Just where, your slothful scribe wants to know, does he find the energy?
For once, King seems momentarily fazed. On the line from the Bad Plus bus, somewhere on the snowy roads between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, there’s an audible pause as he contemplates his essence.
“I think it’s just more the pursuit of a life of creativity. How about that?” he says, finally. “That’s really all I can do!”
Vancouverites—some of whom might have been lucky enough to catch the Trucking Company at an ill-advertised gig last fall—will have two more opportunities to enjoy King’s take on music and the world this weekend, with the drummer presenting his trio as well as hosting an admission-free Rational Funk Live workshop the afternoon of his Frankie’s Jazz Club show.
The latter, he says, will be relatively straightforward compared with the high jinks and sight gags of the video version. “I do a lot of workshops, and they typically are a lot more reasonable than Rational Funk was,” King explains. “I mean, I typically will just play a bit and talk about improvising and take questions. They’re much more framed in that sort of educational background. But I do like talking about the music, and I prefer talking about things in a way that demystifies them. That’s what I always liked when I went to master classes as a young musician: when it was less about somebody soloing, and more about what they were thinking about—how we all can discuss mindsets and different conceptual spaces and how to unlock yourself from different things you’re locked into. So when I do a master class, I try to get a dialogue going about ways you can enhance your way of hearing—and, from there, your way of playing.”
The conceptual framework behind the Dave King Trio is not only simple, but classic: take three brilliant musicians and set them loose on ageless tunes by jazz composers like Thelonious Monk and songwriting greats like Cole Porter. “A lot of it is the idea of reimagining and reconstructing jazz standards, some more obscure than others—and having people that can play with the kind of elasticity and spontaneity that reimagining the standard material fits,” King says. “You need a certain skill set to do that—and with my trio, all of us come from this background of learning the music through sort of traditional means.”
> ALEXANDER VARTY
The Dave King Trio plays Frankie’s Jazz Club on Sunday (February 18). King presents his Rational Funk Live workshop at the same venue at 3 p.m.
The last time yours truly interviewed 2 American blues-rocker Tinsley Ellis was 10 years ago, when he called the Georgia Straight in advance of a gig at the Yale Hotel, Vancouver’s top blues venue for decades. Sadly, the Granville Street joint hasn’t been a real home of the blues for years now, a fact not lost on Ellis.
“Aw, we miss the Yale,” he says, on the line from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. “I actually played [Vancouver] a few times since then in different places, and whenever we play it’s almost a reunion of people that used to come and see me at the Yale. We have been fortunate to have moved up to where we’re playing more theatres, but the shows become somewhat of a reunion for places that are no longer there.”
Ellis—who released his debut album, Georgia Blue, 30 years ago—is touring behind a new disc called Winning Hand that showcases his smokin’ hot guitarwork and impressive songcraft. The only tune he didn’t write on the 10-track disc is “Dixie Lullaby”, a song from Leon Russell’s self-titled debut of 1970.
“I wanted to do a Leon Russell song ’cause we lost him a year or two ago,” explains Ellis, “and he was my biggest songwriting influence. He had produced albums by people like Freddie King and Jimmy Rogers, so we did it in the tradition of the Freddie King albums that he produced.”
Since turning pro in 1977, Ellis has wowed blues fans far and wide with his intense six-string skills, leading Rolling Stone magazine to proclaim that “he achieves pyrotechnics that rival early Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.” And speaking of Clapton, that’s the name that immediately pops up when Ellis is asked which guitarist he’d most like to jam with, if he could choose anyone in the world.
“He’s an old favourite of mine,” says the 60-year-old picker. “I got onboard with him—and I’m sure you did too— when Cream came out. They were just so great. And through that I got into Derek and the Dominos, and his solo stuff. So I was such a big Eric Clapton and such a big Allman Brothers fan, I figured that if I wanted to get that sound, I better get their producer. So we were able to have Tom Dowd produce one of my albums.”
Legendary knob-twiddler Dowd— a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee noted for his work with everyone from the Allman Brothers to Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin—produced Ellis’s 1997 Fire It Up album, one of the bluesman’s top sellers.
“He would talk about Derek and the Dominos,” recalls Ellis, “and he’d talk about the Allman Brothers, and he’d talk about Cream, and he’d talk about Aretha Franklin. I’d listen to him tell so many stories we had a hard time getting to the album ’cause he was so full of stories.”
> STEVE NEWTON
Tinsley Ellis plays the Rio Theatre on Sunday (February 18).