NOMO brings global groove to Aspen

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Weekly
Doug CoombeMichigan groove band NOMO performs a free show Tuesday, May 26 at Belly Up Aspen.

ASPEN When NOMO made its first Aspen appearances as a participant in Jazz Aspen Snowmass JAS Academy, and the following year as a mainstage act at the June Festival, opening for Earth, Wind & Fire it would have been fair to categorize them as an Afrobeat band. (A full description would have included that they were an Afrobeat group from a fairly unusual location: Ann Arbor, Mich.) Elliot Bergman, a founder of NOMO and the bands saxophonist at the time, would have categorized them that way.The Afrobeat sound was a nice blueprint to follow at the beginning that rhythmic, percussive element, said the 27-year-old Bergman, as he and his mates were crossing Washington state toward a gig in Seattle.But from the perspective of a young, open-eared band living in the age of digital downloads, those Jazz Aspen gig were eons ago: The first one was nearly three years back. Since then, NOMO has not only been touring steadily, and recording plenty they have made three albums in three years, including Invisible Cities, released earlier this month but absorbing influences from across the globe. So the bands early days, when Bergman and perhaps a dozen fellow University of Michigan students would gather to jam in the basement of a house simply known as 121, can seem a long time ago.As the band has played together longer, weve gotten more comfortable incorporating new influences, said Bergman, who leads a 7-piece version of NOMO to a free show at Belly Up Aspen on Tuesday, May 26. Now our interests are free to expand and wander.Roam they have. The band has adopted influences including the 60s free jazz of John and Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders; 70s Kraut rock bands like Can and Harmonia, who were doing minimalist synthesizer textures and hypnotic drum beats, according to Bergman; the highly percussive Indonesian gamelan style; and carnatic music from southern India. But NOMO which includes fellow founding members Erik Hall on guitar and drums and Justin Walter on trumpet, plus Bergmans little sister, 20-year-old Natalie, on vocals doesnt aim to be Kraut-rockers, or a gamelan band. The idea is to intertwine those influences with the Afrobeat foundation, inspired largely by the late Nigerian star, Fela Kuti, to create something that is exotic, natural and accessible.Without getting too multi-culti, we do try to synthesize these ideas to make music that will be recognizable to listeners, said Bergman. Its fun to connect the musical paths between James Brown, Fela Kuti, Talking Heads. Were trying to straddle a lot of different territories.So Invisible Cities opens with the title track, grounded in African rhythms and dense with upbeat horns. But Elijah is more like a New Orleans funeral parade; it was, in fact, written as a lament for a childhood friend of Bergmans. The album concludes with Nocturne, which hints at Indonesian sounds. There are two cover tunes: Ma, by Brazilian composer Tom Z; and Bumbo, by the late New York street musician known as Moondog.A lot of this music you can think of as a continuum, said Bergman. Tom Z and Moondog its fun for us to create a context where these can mingle.A native of the Chicago suburbs, Bergman had his ear tuned early to experimental sounds. His mother, a pianist, encouraged him to play piano, guitar and clarinet; he listened to the Coltranes and Sanders that spiritual, free jazz. I liked that free-spirited improvisation that was going on at the time, he said. In high school, he had found an exceptional teacher who happened to be a saxophonist, and he switched instruments.Bergman remains in the expansion stage. In NOMO, he plays keyboard and saxophone, as well as a more recent interest, the electric kalimba. He says there was a kalimba a version of the African thumb piano that also has roots in Mexico in the house when he was growing up. In 2000, he met someone who made electric kalimbas, and he started making his own instruments and playing them through effects pedals. Bergman estimates that hes made some 200 electric kalimbas, which he sells to friends.Looking toward the horizon, he can see new sounds coming into the NOMO mix. Most significant is the addition of vocals into what has been an all-instrumental band. Natalie Bergman, a student at Bostons Berklee College of Music, is singing Rocket No. 9, by American jazz icon Sun Ra, and the Afrobeat song La La La La on the current tour. Weve been listening to music with that in mind, anything from Talking Heads to Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone if that makes sense, said Bergman, who has toured in other bands, including Saturday Looks Great to Me, which had a retro-Motown feel, and the experimental rock band His Name Is Alive. Were trying to do more vocal-oriented stuff on the next album.Bergman doesnt see NOMO as doing anything especially groundbreaking with its global approach. Theres a lot of bands opening up their ears to different influences from around the world, he said. He mentions the New York Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas; Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles group led by Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol that mixes Cambodian and 60s psychedelic sounds. He points to former Talking Heads leader David Byrne as something of a high priest of these polyglot experiments: He was one of the forebears of getting people opened up to music from all over the world.Byrne is a model not only of what can be done with different styles of music, but also of a never-ending openness to new ideas. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his album with Brian Eno, was one of the artistic high points of 2008. In a Jazz Aspen performance that had him backed by a string quartet, Byrne earned this newspapers award for 2005s best show.Were still learning so much, and the scope of interest is still growing, Bergman said. Were eternally students. If youre curious, you cant be bored or satisfied with what you know about