The Motion Carries

All that jazz: The Motion Poets bring bop to the Front
Daniel Corrigan

The disheveled post-hippie on the upright bass looks like the spawn of Charles Mingus and Squeaky Fromme. The big sax player's stocking hat suggests a Boston B-boy who kicked his House of Pain homies to the curb en route to finding his inner Dolphy. And the scruffy drummer in the corner could barely get his band's name out of his mouth before succumbing to giggles.

"Thanks. We're B.A. Barachman--I can't even say it--B.A. Barachmaninov," he finally musters. "And that was supposed to be a tune by Sam Rivers. But it ended up being "Race Face" by Ornette Coleman, which worked out fine, because it's in the same key as the Mingus tune we just played." More giggles from the band and excited applause from a crowd of 50 that probably wouldn't know Sam Rivers from Sam I Am.

Welcome to the weird new world of indie jazz, or as the guy manning the downstairs bar that night at the Turf Club tells me upon entrance, "Welcome to the Clown Lounge!" Every Monday since last August, J.T. Bates, drummer in the fine, more traditional post-bop septet Motion Poets, has performed with a varying cast of pals (this time out bassist Adam Linz and Happy Apple sax player Michael Lewis) at his no-admission, free-form jam session in a bar basement usually reserved for cabaret acts--and worse. Indeed the room last Monday looked like a VFW hall as redecorated by indie-rock's Merry Pranksters, the Elephant Six Collective. Christmas lights traversed the ceiling and coiled around the whimsically doctored photo portraits on the walls, illuminating a crowd that was younger and (I swear on Stan Getz's soul) whiter than your average crowd at the Dakota or Artists' Quarter.

On any other night most of these eager youngsters might be shuffling their boots to the Glenrustles' roots rock, but tonight they do their best to feel at home in a tradition that might be as distant and daunting as Europe's classics. "You know 'Parker's Mood'?" one would-be aficionado asks after the trio finishes off their loose-limbed go at "Race Face." It's a bit like asking Monster Magnet if they'd mind doing "Satisfaction." And the discrepancy between the audience member's expectation and the band's intentions speaks to a crisis in purpose that the 24-year-old Bates has been mulling over since he inherited the tips-only crossover gig from Jimmy Kennedy of the Hotheads six months ago.

"I'll go do a pop gig, and people will be eating that shit up," Bates says later that night. "Then you go to these shows at the Dakota and the guys up there are like 46 years old, and they're computer programmers by day, and they can't connect."

Connection as such is a big issue for Bates, who lost his baby fat playing in his dad's big band, the Don Bates Great Big Band, before joining his bassist brother Chris in Motion Poets four years ago. Today the Poets (whose members reside in New York and Minneapolis) claim to be the only regularly touring jazz group that Minneapolis has produced in two decades. Novelty events like the Clown Lounge or the occasional gig backing crooner Nichola Miller may help bring this self-proclaimed high school jazz snob into the pop world. But Bates's goal, and the goal of the other five members of the constantly playing, teaching, and, if need arises, moonlighting Motion Poets, is to make a living with the music they grew up on.

Which, as any graying bop drummer who's ever resorted to doing a Dairy Queen commercial will tell you, is no easy undertaking. Even if the concept of "jazz" is more popular today than it has been in decades, the swing set that champions its return has shown little interest in exploring that period beginning with "Salt Peanuts" and ending with In a Silent Way: that is, the genre's bop years.

The band, captured on a recent press-only, live-on-the-road CD, Cruisin' USA, invokes the Jazz Messengers' testimonial zeal as invigorated by James Carter's pomo eclecticism. From the hard-bop blurt of "Little Willie John" to the rangy blues of "Shumma Shumma," or the minor-key illuminations of the restive "Phases," the band's compositions are skillful and elastic, even when the playing seems a bit bookish. Cynics might argue that "Phases" could soundtrack a Lifetime Channel cooking show, but few could deny the dark, angular "Possibilities," which seems touched by both John Barry spy-flick noir (Bates is a big "Goldfinger" fan) and Gillespie Russell-styled Afro-Cuban accents.

"Some people freak out and say, 'Oh, you guys are so young, why aren't you playing pop?' But that's mainly Minneapolis talking," says the oldest Poet, 29-year-old alto sax player Doug Little, as he and Bates enjoy a late-afternoon drink at the Hennepin Avenue Green Mill. "If you go to New York, there are guys much younger than us playing compositions just as twisted as ours. But the thing is, maybe they've only been doing it as a band for a little bit, or maybe they don't even do it as a band at all."

The Poets have been such a band since 1993 when they formed as a quartet with Little on sax, Mark Miller on trombone, pianist Nate Shaw, and a drummer, Aaron Woods; the group soon expanded to include Matt Shulman on trumpet, and the Bates rhythm section. With the exception of Shaw, who played rock drums in his teens, each budding musician grew up fairly oblivious to the pop world around him. Little has only just been listening to Bob Dylan ("that song, 'Annie's Farm'--'Maggie's Farm'...that's great!"); Miller spent his rural Wisconsin youth playing in polka bands; and Bates remembers well the day his seventh-grade homeroom maligned him for wearing a "CHICK COREA ELECTRIC BAND" T-shirt to school.

Yet, with two well-received albums on the local Igmod label (including their 1995 debut under the moniker Little Big Band) and a substantial local following, the group has assailed the jazz world at large by adopting a very indie-rock approach to getting the word out. "What we're doing is so incredibly similar to so many rock bands," Little says. "We get in a van, and we play our shows, and we put out our own records. And if no one wants to sign us, well..." he pauses. "Whereas a typical jazz band plays the Dakota or Artists' Quarter once or twice a month and then plays jobbing dates and that sort of thing."

If Happy Apple (whose "energy" Bates admires) has won its avid local following by augmenting prog-rock-tinged jazz fusion with ingratiating onstage high jinks, the Motion Poets have gone in another direction, deploying the quiet, yet self-reliant practices of '80s garage bands, whose sound Bates admits he can't tolerate. But unlike bands that share their promotional proclivities--jazz-funkers Medeski, Martin, and Wood or post-Tortoise musicians Isotope 217--the Motion Poets plainly do not cross over.

At their best they don't so much reinvent or even recast, as rediscover. What comes across is the joy of hearing someone else's conversion experiences. As any garage-rocker will tell you, that feeling isn't specific to jazz. It's what has inspired anyone who ever tried to reproduce a hero's magic--who ever tried to make it new. And it speaks volumes to anyone who can identify with the evangelical anger of jazz writer Garry Giddin's plea for fin de siècle common sense: "Old guys, yes! Retro, never!" And young old guys--that's probably OK, too.


Motion Poets play February 5 and 6 at the Dakota Bar & Grill; (651) 642-1442.

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