Dennis Gonzalez Finally Gets His Due
The world is just now getting to know Ariel Pink. The totally out-there Los Angeles freak-folker has been stuck in the underground, making some of the world's weirdest music for over a decade. But since his critically acclaimed indie-pop album, Before Today, earned its release back in April, people have started paying more attention to his unusual pop sensibilities.
And, now, they're paying attention to this fun fact: In February, earlier this year, Ariel Pink was right here in the metroplex—Mesquite to be exact—working on his next record, Ariel Pink with Added Pizzazz.
Because of a mutual friendship that had grown after several years of trading music on an underground share-blog called Mutant Sounds, Ariel Pink enlisted Matt Castille and Eric Lumbleau of the former Dallas psych-rock outfit Vas Deferens Organization to handle the record's production. Ariel Pink and Vas Deferens Organization had been discussing the idea of making a pop record with a basis in jazz-rock for some time. But, to do so, Pink's backing band, Haunted Graffiti, would need to be upgraded to a group of musicians fluent in both rock and free jazz.
That's when local jazz legend Dennis Gonzalez and his two sons, Aaron and Stefan, were called in. For the last decade, they've been performing as the improvisational, experimental jazz band called Yells At Eels.
Most jazz guys have a hard time crossing over to the world of rock, but Eric Lumbleau of the Vas Deferens Organization knew from his decade-long friendship with Aaron that the Gonzalez family fit that bill.
"It's pretty complicated, but we keep it together up here," says Dennis with his index finger pressed to his temple. "We're kind of dipping our fingers in everything."
That's a statement that goes without saying, judging by the wide variety of instruments that adorn the front room of Dennis Gonzalez's Kessler Park home. Massive gongs hang on a stand that sits where two bright green walls meet. Conga drums are used as tables for a few cool glasses of water and a bowl of green grapes. A quick look up at the ceiling reveals a canopy of chimes, and the worn wooden floor tells stories of shuffling feet and of overzealous kicks forcing bass drums across the surface.
There's a history here that Dennis is proud of, but he's not quick to pat himself on the back. He's generally more self-deprecating. But his statements always end with booming laughter. You can tell that this is his favorite room in the house. And for good reason.
For over three decades, this front room has served as a studio for Dennis and his international cohorts. Jazz musicians would come from all around the world to work with Dennis. As those collaborations took place, Aaron and Stefan were learning to walk, and were often seen running around during rehearsals and recordings. Little did Dennis know at that time that his two sons would one day bring him back to his roots after he'd become something of a jazz outlaw in the North Texas music community.
In 1978, Dennis launched a rich career in jazz with the release of his first record, Air Light, Sleep Sailor. But, with no formal jazz training, he struggled to find his place in the local scene. His self-taught style of jazz had a unique sound that people either loved or hated.
His regular gigs at Fort Worth's Caravan Of Dreams were where he started his first collaborations. Dennis would invite the traveling musicians he'd meet at that venue over to his home studio, and thus began countless friendships, all of which enriched his own music with new influences. Before long, he was being invited all over the country, and even overseas, to perform, experiment and record with his new collaborators. Amidst his rigorous travel schedule, he landed a gig hosting a jazz show called "Miles Out" on KERA-90.1 FM, which aired for a total of 21 years.
He was living his dream, but not everything was going according to plan. By the mid-'90s, his open-minded outlook on jazz, and on music in general, had cast him as an outsider in the local jazz community.
"There were these guys who had been playing in Dallas for years saying, 'How the hell did this guy Gonzalez get to go to Europe? Why is he on these record labels? He's crazy, he's weird, he's playing strange! And we're playing what jazz is supposed to sound like,'" he recalls, before explaining his own counter-argument to those concerns: "Who the hell can dictate what jazz is supposed to sound like?"
This point of contention between him and traditional jazz musicians has continued since the beginning of his career. Those old-school guys were fighting a losing battle—though not with Dennis. There was a new smooth-jazz movement sweeping the jazz scene, and the politically driven music that Dennis had grown up with was acquiescing to commercialized easy-listening stuff.
"The music I was involved with, with social issues behind it, was kind of outlaw music," Dennis explains, recalling his glory days. "People who understood it supported it wholly. But the industry as a whole decided to start simplifying."
At that point, he wasn't sure how his odd brand of jazz would exist in such a commercial climate.
But while Dennis was struggling to find his identity, Aaron and Stefan were starting to find theirs. After years of listening to their father's music, and playing at the Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School in Dallas and in various other music programs, the boys formed an unlikely duo called Akkolyte.
Akkolyte is an experimental grind-core band with an emphasis on improvisational thrash-rock. Though their music was vastly different from what they grew up with, they still had great love and respect for the music of their father, who was at his breaking point.
The last shove that forced Dennis into a rut was when KERA decided to cut music from its programming. The direction of "Miles Out" had become a battle between Dennis and the higher-ups at KERA. They wanted Dennis to simplify the format of his show, but he wasn't interested in changing.
"I didn't believe that my audience was that dense," he says. "I thought they were more intelligent."
KERA, however, didn't. So Dennis backed off and put himself in a time-out that lasted for five years. During that time, while he contemplated whether or not to return to jazz, he worked as a school teacher and led a mariachi band. It was clear, though: He was just coasting through.
But his sons, who were thriving in the local music community in both jazz and other genres, missed the old days and the music their father made.
They approached him about starting a family trio. At first, because of Aaron and Stefan's tendency for hard rock, Dennis was hesitant.
He laughs when recalling their request: "I thought, 'Well, I'm a trumpet player. How am I gonna do this?' But I got real brave and I said, 'Yeah, man, let's do that!'"
Since forming Yells At Eels nearly a decade ago, the trio has traveled the world, introducing Dennis' loyal international set of fans to the new family band. The three-piece's two releases, The Great Bydgoszcz Concert and the more-recent Cape Of Storms, feature performances from Portugese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado and South African Drummer Louis Moholo, respectively.
That's probably why their new collaboration with Pink under the one-time-only stage name of Added Pizzazz has become such a success, earning applause from the fickle blogosphere well in advance of the album's release.
The Gonzalez family, after all, has been at this for years—even in the face of the mainstream local jazz set's disinterest. Good thing, then, that Yells At Eels' members have grown to prefer it this way.
Says Dennis: "We're fuckin' outlaws, man!"
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