Music of Chance

Keepin' It In Da Family: St. Paul-based free-jazz collective the Mafia prepares for a hit.

"AT THE TURF Club a couple of weeks ago, we set up a lamp, and Ethan got this huge atlas from the library and set it by a chair on the stage." So explains Sharon Baker, bassist for local free-jazz outfit the Mafia. "That was the 'time out' chair," she continues. "Everyone agreed to take turns sitting in the chair and not playing their instrument, because when you're working with a group of people this large, not playing is just as important as playing."

With all this talk about time-out chairs, you'd think you were trapped at a Kinderplatz rather than a band practice space. Yet while the concept may sound unorthodox on paper, it's really a sophisticated undoing of more conservative conceptions of music making, a paradigm shift for this St. Paul-based group. Comprised of some 30 people--most from local avant-punk acts such as Strumpet, Command Module, and Mickey Finn--the Mafia is part of a new out-jazz scene that straddles the crooked line between arty swingers Happy Apple and noise makers Cock E.S.P. It's more '50s Beat than '70s punk; more free than jazz. And its live shows are Happenings as much as they are performances.

As the brainchild of drummer Andrew Beccone and Baker (who Beccone affectionately calls "The Don"), the Mafia has been together for two years. From its original inception, the band has expanded to include people from around the country who file through the Mafia's ever-revolving door like so many part-time thugs. "Every time we play, it's been with a different group of people," Beccone says. "And the only other requirement that the Mafia has is that people listen to each other."

This philosophy becomes apparent as the Mafia digs into its practice space. Drummer Beccone, oboist/flutist Seraphine Abraham, and bassist Mario Costello (a.k.a. the Dominatrix) warm up their instruments. Abraham, running her oboe sound through a reverb pedal, plays a quiet tune, prompting Costello to do an about-face: "Every time you start playing that thing, I think I hear a small animal." Abraham smiles. Silence settles; Costello fingers out a simple bass line and Beccone joins in. Baker, her eyes intently focused on something, touches the higher frets on her bass while Abraham once again breaks into animal noises.

After several minutes of mellifluous free jamming, three men enter the room: drummer Ethan Lebovics, trumpeter Ezra Hale, and a newbie sax-man. We'll call him Dude. Baker good-naturedly welcomes him into the family ("Hey Dude") and the music begins again. Lebovics faces Beccone and taps his cymbals with mallets. Soon, the two drummers switch to snares and high hats, while Abraham trades her oboe for a flute. Sadly, the noise level of the room increases to the point of distraction, and Dude's loud sax screeches earn him a sidelong glare from Baker. Abraham, her cheeks red from trying to compete with the cacophonous crescendo, drops her flute to her chest, and levels a death stare in Dude's direction. The vibe has shifted: Someone obviously needs a "time out." The halt in the music is only one of many possible scenarios that can develop out of what Baker calls the "element of chance" in the Mafia's creative process. "There's always a risk involved when you play with new people," Baker says. "It all depends on the phase of the moon, who you're playing with, what kind of day they had, and what you had for breakfast."

The Mafia plays a free performance on Wednesday, October 22 at No Name Noise @ the Soap Factory, 110 Fifth Ave. S.E., Mpls.; 623-9176.

 
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