Honed alone

A free-jazz disciple gets the last laugh

Not all of Gonzalez's collaborators have been jazzers, however. He's done shows with art-rockers Keith Tippett, Richard Sinclair, and Elton Dean, and with the Crescent City Brass Band (led by saxist Tim Green, who's worked with Peter Gabriel and U2 and was just in town with bluesman Mem Shannon).

On a recent London show with Greene's septet, Gonzalez was playing away when, in the sea of faces around him, he discerned one that was staring at him with unsettling intensity.

"It spooked me!" admits Gonzalez. "Next day we're playing in a totally different part of town, and there he is again. Third day, he's at that gig! He comes up afterward and in flawless Spanish says, 'We need to talk,' and he started listing some of the very things I'd been thinking about! He said, 'Your music's changing, your artwork's changing, you don't know what to do,' all this. I learned he'd not only studied voodoo and mystical magic, but he's also learned a lot of deep dark secrets, like how to read minds, how to read auras--things I'd never delved into."

The man turned out to be anthropologist Geo Ripley, who would eventually set up Gonzalez's shows in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. (In the latter country, he's minister of housing, and it was he who hipped Gonzalez to the conch cadre). Partially on Ripley's suggestion, Gonzalez split for India to scope out some deep dark secrets of his own.

He went to India, Nepal, and Tibet. In Varanasi, a holy city where peddlers tried so relentlessly to sell him unholy things that he couldn't get any searching done, he met a wise man who owned a loin cloth and a boat; he offered Gonzalez use of the latter. Removed from the madding crowd, Gonzalez could sketch, write, meditate--whatever--bobbing about on a boat in the Ganges.

"It overwhelmed me!" he says. "Just listening to the sound of the Ganges at flood stage, thunder over the skies during monsoon, crowds of people--just the sheer culture shock of it all. I knew it would take a while for me to learn what I had learned!"

When he got back to Dallas, he declared a moratorium on music. He didn't play it or even listen to it, leaving his mind clear in order to process what he'd seen abroad. His creativity continued in a series of xerograph-montages that are dark and mysterious with an Asian spin.

"Eventually all the visual things I'd brought back with me ended up in my artwork," says Gonzalez. "Then it was time to bring my instruments back out and instead of accepting the avant garde gigs I'd been doing--I dunno, I just decided to do something else."

Enter Trio Brujos, with Gonzalez on guitar, bassist Drew Phelps, and accordionist Jesus Vasquez. Though ostensibly a mariachi unit, traditional mariachi has violins and trumpets, not accordions, and features no spacey jazz bass solos, nor spoken word segments concerning enlightenment on the Ganges.

But Gonzalez knows where he ventures; for years he taught mariachi courses at North Dallas High, and it was there that he met his accordionist.

"Jesus was a student of mine. Now I'm a student of his," Gonzalez says. "He's been playing accordion--a button accordion, which is a difficult instrument to play--since he was 7, and plays with his father's band, Los Vaqueritos. Lots of people have asked him to record or go on the road, but he won't play with anyone but his dad's band--except for me, which is an honor, because that sort of family thing you don't break. But we've played at Richland College, and we did an Arts & Letters Live at Club Dada for the DMA, and we play on Channel 13 (KERA) a lot. We were invited to play New Orleans in September, but that's when I had my accident.

"When Jesus started playing with us, he wasn't sure how he'd fit in. Drew and I had been playing together off and on for 20 years, and we'd kind of mess with (Vasquez) onstage, so soon he started doing his own little things, and it was amazing. He'd never played jazz and didn't come up in an improvisational style, but when it came time to improvise, he started kicking our asses all over the stage."

Too bad ass-whipping of more literal sort couldn't be given the goon who ran Gonzalez off the road. But his wounds healed, and it's likely he'll do xerographs that'll depict the experience.

Some years back Gonzalez noted that the mavens of free jazz seemed to have run out of steam: They had virtuosity, but no daring or mystery. "Instead of jazz, I'm listening to Tejano, and rare and mystical music I pick up on because of my travels," he says. "My music is actually less influenced by music than it is by my reaction to writing, to different cultures, and to my experiences. I used to think Keith Jarrett was really uppity when he said he didn't listen to anybody, he listened to himself. But I understand now what he was saying. There's a certain point where you're your own best inspiration."

Dennis Gonzales and Trio Brujos will play Sunday, December 21, at the First Unitarian Church at 4015 Normandy. For more information call 528-3900.

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