It was in a weekly modern jazz/avant improv session at The Blue Moon run by guitarist Simon Henneman where I first became friendly with Neil Welch, Chris Icasiano, and Luke Bergman. At the time, all three were in the UW jazz program that had been revamped since naming Cuong Vu as the director of Jazz Studies. Cuong’s modern, experimental, genre smashing approach inspired many students and frightened many a small animal. In my meager anecdotal observations, Neil, Luke, and Chris represented the first wave of graduates that have built an incredible underground jazz/improvised music scene in Seattle matching any other of the creative hotbeds in the nation. I’d incidentally happened upon Neil Welch’s junior recital as a requirement for a history of jazz course (luckily, I’d already built a taste for abrasive modern jazz and avant-garde). Neil and Chris killed it then, and have since evolved far beyond their college days. I talked to them after the recital and they invited me to the Blue Moon sessions. It was a strange scene, there. However, the template set at the Blue Moon inspired the likes of Chris, Neil, Luke, and others to start their own curated improv sessions at Cafe Racer and, as the new wave of Cuong Vu’s charges came through the university, the scene became a crackling live wire of invention and virtuosity.
As I’ve circled a number of scenes in Seattle, the scene at Cafe Racer, while homey and comforting, can seem a bit isolated. So HALLEFUCKINGLUJEAH they finally expanded out of the U-District with a monthly show at Vermillion. Said Chris of the new series, “I want this to be an opportunity for the straight-ahead jazzers, the free jazzers, the noise-makers, and everyone in between to perform on a level playing field.” Since the closures or massive overhauls of smaller Capitol Hill venues over the past couple of years (Happy Times Fun Club, The Comet) new acts and fringe artists have funneled into Vermillion, making it about the last cool spot for underground and left-of-center art on the hill. The big pro and con is that all shows are free (pro for the public, con for the artist). The inaugural set featured three groups, highlighted by the Jen Gilleran-led duo that played live electronic/percussion scores to two short Buster Keaton films. The first eponymous trio featured Chris on drums as well as Ivan Arteaga on sax and Jeff Johnson on bass and delved into the more dissonant, avant-garde sensibilities. The final group, Fluke, led by keyboardist/composer Brian Kinsella, also featuring Chris on drums, Gregg Belisle-Chi on guitar, and Chris Symer on bass, played it a bit more straight-ahead in a modern sense – fans of Brian Blade and Brad Meldhau would appreciate this project. If you need to be reminded to have hope in your city and its culture in the face of widespread anti-culture gentrification, hang out at Vermillion and check out the folks working with Tables & Chairs.