Dead Kenny Gs: It’s about music, not money |

Dead Kenny Gs: It’s about music, not money

Stewart Oksenhorn
Avant-jazz trio the Dead Kenny Gs make their Aspen debut this week at the Belly Up. (Courtesy Royal Artist Group)

In the game of making up band names for bands that don’t actually exist, someone had a winner. This someone wasn’t a musician; he was an artist. Fortunately, however, he had in mind just the person to make up a band to fit the name. So through a mutual friend, he relayed the name – the Dead Kenny Gs – to the avant-garde musician, Skerik.”I heard it and said, ‘Good Lord!'” said Skerik. “We started a band the next day. I knew exactly who to call.”The name is funny in itself, intertwining two musical acts – the hard-core, vitriolic punk band the Dead Kennedys, and the instrumental pop king Kenny “G” Gorelick – that could not be further removed from each other. But what makes the name so rich is another level of meaning. Skerik – like Kenny G, a saxophonist – has practically made it his life’s work to squash the limp, commercially driven smooth jazz sound that Kenny G plays.On a live recording provided by the band’s management, Brian Haas, pianist for the Dead Kenny Gs, introduces the band, a trio rounded out by drummer Mike Dillon. Haas then claims the Dead Kenny Gs are “destroying bad music with our music, which is perfect and good.” Skerik himself goes much further; in a press release he is quoted as saying that “smooth jazz is the equivalent of someone trying to sell children in a Mosque in Saudi Arabia. It uses a spiritual medium for the sole purpose of making money… .”

In a recent phone interview, conducted while he was shopping in a Durango health-food store, Skerik shied away from such vitriol. His music – whether he’s playing in the quartet Garage a Trois, his most successful group, or Critters Buggin’, his longest-running outfit, or one of his other numerous ensembles – is not meant to be against anything, but to promote art and life.”Maybe we’re not anti-Kenny G,” said Skerik, a thoughtful 41-year-old who splits his time between Brooklyn and his native Seattle. “Maybe we’re pro-honesty, pro-honest music. I think it’s a waste of time to be anti-anything.”We’re playing the music that has roots in deep spirituality, John Coltrane. You’re walking on a stage and allowing anything to affect you, anything to happen. You have to be honest with yourself, honest with the musicians you’re playing with. So any negative energy is going to interfere with the expression.”What seems to rankle Skerik so about smooth jazz is how the music is calculated for commercial appeal, and how that effort distracts from making music. Smooth jazz, in his view, has came about from an unholy alliance of radio programmers and musicians.”The musicians asked them, ‘How should we make this music?’ They’re asking radio programmers how to make their music?” said Skerik. “It’s a reflection of this world we live in, where everything revolves around money, driving everything.”Skerik says that, for himself, questions of commercial appeal don’t exist. They either don’t arise, or when they do, they are obliterated by artistic issues. When Garage a Trois – a quartet with guitarist Charlie Hunter, drummer Stanton Moore of Galactic and the Dead Kenny Gs’ Dillon – found themselves playing 1,000-seat venues on the strength of their exquisite 2003 CD “Emphasizer,” they intentionally scaled back and played smaller places.Skerik puzzles over how a musician supposedly dedicated to his art even has time to ponder the selling of the end product.

“I don’t ever think about it, because it’s so far from the goal of what I’m trying to do with the music,” he said. “Music has always been the thing, and I’ve tried to make myself better and earn the respect of my peers. That’s such a monumental task in itself, there’s no time to do anything else. I could be doing a lot better businesswise, but if I have extra time in my day, I have to use it practicing or writing. I let the music decide those questions and answers.”There is a lighter side of Skerik. Far from being solely about technical perfection, the music, stemming as it does from free jazz and improvisation, is loose and playful.”I always saw music as a combination of something you studied and tried to get better at, and something to have fun with,” said Skerik, who has also played in Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet, Crack Sabbath and Ponga. “And that’s where I’ve had a falling out with a lot of musicians. To me, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You have to play the room and have a good feeling about it. And that’s why I can play 300 gigs a year – that balance.”Skerik makes his Aspen debut Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Belly Up, with the Dead Kenny Gs opening for Hairy Apes BMX. The Texas-based Hairy Apes BMX is a quartet featuring Mike Dillon, keyboardist E Clarke, drummer John Speice and bassist/vocalist JJ Richards.

Other new shows to add to the calendar: Sacred steel monsters Robert Randolph & the Family Band (Sunday, Feb. 12); a double bill of Hot Buttered Rum String band and the James McMurtry Electric Trio (Feb. 13); West Coast boogaloo group Greyboy Allstars (March 5); and rapper Lyrics Born (March 19), all at the Belly Up.California contemporary rock band P.O.D. plays a free show Saturday night, Feb. 11, in the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Hi-Fi Concert series in downtown Aspen.Colorado neo-grass group Yonder Mountain String Band plays a season-closing two-night stand, April 14-15, at the Wheeler Opera House. Packages with discounted rooms at the Limelite Lodge and discounted lift tickets will go on sale Friday, Feb. 10.Wondering how to fit all this in? It just got a little easier. Jazz piano wunderkind Eldar has canceled his March 3 Wheeler date. Not to worry; something else will likely take his place.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is