Leading up to our November 10 showcase, we'll be getting you familiar with some of our Dallas Observer Music Awards nominees, either via past features we've done on them, or new ones. You can vote for your favorite acts, venues and more right here.
It's been 45 years since trumpeter Lester Bowie, in the introduction to his track "Jazz Death?" (on Roscoe Mitchell's album, Congliptious), answered the rhetorical question, "Isn't jazz, as we know it, dead yet?" with the knowing rejoinder, "Well, that all depends on what you know."
Bowie might well have been speaking of the current Dallas jazz scene, which is diverse enough to include Dennis Gonzalez's Yells At Eels, in which the trumpeter's sons play bass and drums with the same intensity they do in their other heavy metal and experimental noise endeavors; Chris Curiel's Swirve, which blends electric jazz with spoken word and hip-hop; and Tidbits, another band featuring Swirve's Gerard Bendiks on drums, which plays a European-influenced style of free improvisation.
It's curious, then, that the Dallas band Mora Collective - bassist Chris Isaacs, saxophonist Zach Puchkors and drummer Eric Yacula - have yet to find an audience in their hometown. Cowtown listeners remember the heydays of ace fusionists Bertha Coolidge and dub juggernaut Sub Oslo, and the trajectory of Confusatron, which started as a trio, busking downtown in front of the Houston Street Coffee Haus, and wound up a groove-oriented septet that regularly blew the ceiling off the old Black Dog Tavern. Mora Collective's sound, which combines jazz, dub, hip-hop, and space-rock, fits easily into this matrix.
"Part of the problem," says Yacula, "is that in Dallas, people think we're too loud for coffee houses, but not heavy enough for rock shows. But because we have really diverse influences, if you stick around to hear our whole set, you're going to hear all the different things about music that you like."
On their recordings, Puchkors comes across like Ethiopian jazz godfather Mulatu Astatke paying a visit to dub shaman Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark Studio, his horn's burnished tone awash in a sea of reverb and delay or sheathed in a thick envelope of distortion and wah. The rhythm section locks it in the pocket, building tension that occasionally explodes into a groove. Drummer Yacula once kicked the traps for Fort Worth ska outfit The Brokers. Here, he adds textural density to the group's hallucinatory dreamscapes with his Theremin, which he plays while drumming. Isaacs is comfortable in a supporting role, and Yacula credits him with getting the rest of the band into using effects.
Yacula, 37, took a circuitous route to Dallas and Mora Collective, moving to Big D from Chicago for his straight job (he's a director of logistics by day), after growing up in St. Louis (also Lester Bowie's original stomping grounds) and serving his musical apprenticeship in Columbia, Missouri. One of his early gigs was with a Latin band, where he played a rig consisting of "timbales, a hi-hat, wood blocks, a cowbell and a cymbal with a drum machine."
Yacula teethed on progressive rock and fusion jazz, and lists Buddy Rich and Neil Peart as his favorite drummers, but he's also played in punk bands, as has 40-year-old bassist and hip-hop fan Isaacs. "We're both the same way," says Yacula. "It doesn't matter what kind of band it is, we're going to be playing with somebody."
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Fort Worth native Isaacs met Yacula while playing together with guitarist Gerardo Garcia in a trio Yacula says was "a mashup of Santana, Sublime, and 311, all in Spanish. We'd play to [Hispanic] audiences where Chris and I were the only white guys in the club. They'd stare us down, arms crossed, and kind of look at us like, 'What are you going to bring?' Every gig was like a fight. We had to prove ourselves every time we went up on stage, which wasn't something I was necessarily used to."
Following that experience, the two jammed together as a bass-and-drums duo before Yacula had the idea of adding Puchkors to the mix. The Chicago-born saxophonist, a decade younger than his brother-in-law Yacula, digs Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman as well as DJ Spooky and Radiohead. "I met Zach when he was 13, and he was just starting to listen to music," says Yacula, "so I'd drop stuff on him like [Miles Davis'] Kind of Blue and Herbie Hancock's Thrust, which is like porn bebop. The last three years, he's been studying with Karl Lampman at Eastfield College. Zach was originally studying musical engineering, but now he's changed his major to performance."
Guitarist Brian Bridger was briefly part of the lineup. Before departing, he named the band after a linguistic term that Yacula says "identifies the weight of a syllable in language. That's kind of what we are: a collection of sounds that have specific weight in the music." The band made a conscious decision to eschew vocals and lyrics. "If you're writing lyrics, it's much easier to communicate your idea. The beauty of instrumental music or even music in a language you don't know is that the listener has to form her own idea around it. It can have a broader meaning than what the artist chose to represent."
Mora Collective regularly transforms its material in performance, as the musicians grow more accustomed to playing together and the interaction with a live audience, which Yacula sees a crucial to their concept. "Music is a lifetime of learning, if you want it to be," he says.