Dennis Gonzalez Yells At Eels’ Geografia

By Ken Shimamoto

Yells At Eels is a Dallas-based free jazz trio consisting of redoubtable Renaissance man (musician-visual artist-poet-educator) Dennis Gonzalez on trumpets along with his sons Aaron Gonzalez on bass and Stefan Gonzalez on drums. Performing together since 1999, they’ve graced stages around the world and even here in the Fort (Wreck Room, 1919 Hemphill, Metrognome Collective, Arts Fifth Avenue). Dennis is an improviser with eclectic tastes that encompass everything from folkloric musics to modern electronics, so his music can evoke anything from the ‘60s avant-garde to ‘70s electric Miles Davis to Don Cherry’s “world music” explorations to the work of like-minded Eno collaborator Jon Hassell. He’s also got big enough ears to host shows by his sons’ punk bands (significant YAE song title: “Free Jazz Is Thrash, Asshole”) at his family’s Oak Cliff home. Together, Stefan and Aaron have been playing thrash-punk as Akkolyte since 1998. Aaron’s current focus is on the as-yet-unrecorded combo Life-Death Continuum; he recently paid a visit to 6th Street Live as part of ex-Ghostcar drummer Clay Stinnett’s new improv outfit Kamandi.

This disc, released in 2006 on Aaron’s new label, Inner Realms Outer Realms, was their first in four years and tells a story of musical growth. The brothers produced and had more compositional input than on either of YAE’s previous efforts (Home from 2001 and the double disc Pictogram/Home Away from Home from 2002). The set leads off with Stefan’s “Eternal Carpet Ride,” wherein the crystalline textures of the composer’s vibraphone (Dennis kicks the traps here) and the flutes of his father and guest performer Devon Wells lend the piece an unexpected delicacy. On standup bass, Aaron has a big, dark sound like Charlie Haden’s, and he attacks the instrument in the same way Haden does, leaning into it hard. At the end of the piece, you can hear the musicians cracking each other up with the joy of creation.

The title track is a collective improvisation with Austin-based tenor saxophonist Carl Smith (whose band ECFA has performed tribute concerts to Monk, Coltrane, Dolphy, Ornette, and Steve Lacy). Aaron Gonzalez has said that Geografia is the rawest recorded representation yet of YAE’s sound, and this track supports his claim, capturing every nuance of the band’s performance, as well as its physicality. Smith’s occasional use of a wide, Ben Webster-ish vibrato is a particular treat. The saxophonist remains on board for the next track, “Elegy for a Slaughtered Democracy,” which conveys the somber mood implied by its title without relying on a text (as did Jhon Kahsen’s Love’s Bitter Rage) or familiar musical signifiers (as did Charlie Haden’s Not In Our Name with the Liberation Music Orchestra). Here and elsewhere, Stefan moves fluidly from solid pulse to sprung rhythm. His brushwork on this track is especially noteworthy.

The set’s two “big” pieces follow: Stefan’s “Crow Soul” and the brothers’ “Mutation Station,” which clock in at upwards of 17 and 14 minutes, respectively. Fort Worth progfather Bill Pohl, whose quicksilver guitar has been showing up, with little fanfare, in lots of unlikely places of late (sitting in with rock horn band Little Brian at the Moon near TCU, gigging with acoustic bluesman Kavin Allenson at Billy Miner’s downtown), delivers some of his finest recorded work on these tracks. On “Crow Soul,” Pohl creates a bed of ethereal chords to support Dennis’ restlessly probing trumpet and Kim Corbet’s trombone, before embarking on an uncharacteristically pensive solo exploration at about nine minutes into the track. Sure, the burbling flurries of notes are still there, as are the wide intervallic leaps, but the interaction with YAE’s darting and dancing rhythm section lends these devices more emotive heft than the relentless forward motion of Pohl’s regular band, Underground Railroad, sometimes does. “Mutation Station” highlights the near-telepathic interplay between the brothers, with Aaron on electric bass. As the improvisational dialogue unfolds, the obliquely riffing horns set up a launching pad for Aaron’s monstrous fuzztone and Pohl’s lightning-fast nut-to-bridge arpeggios. A relatively concise reading of a dedication to titanic free jazz bassist William Parker closes the program on a note that’s both forward-looking and “in the tradition.”

Geografia is a snapshot of a seven-year-old band whose junior members have matured tremendously as players, writers, and conceptualists since their last outing. They’ve managed to incorporate influences from their other musical interests into the context of YAE, while retaining the music’s adventurous and exploratory character. This bodes well for the future of both YAE and their own endeavors. Aside from his considerable input as a player, Dennis Gonzalez’s contribution to this record includes creating an environment in which Stefan and Aaron could thrive and grow musically. Like Flipside Trio, another Dallas-centric outfit that only occasionally docks in the Panther City, Yells At Eels makes challenging sounds with an organic approach that emphasizes the music’s visceral and spiritual qualities; you don’t need to be a free jazz aficionado to “get it.” "Cop via"