JFJO & PONGA | 03.01 | OREGON

American war strategists have been known to employ the tactic of pumping loud, obnoxious music toward enemy quarters in hopes of driving them out, screaming, with hands over their ears, begging to surrender. Starting off the night with improvisations called, "George Bush Is A Huge Liar," and "Dick Cheney Is Also A Huge Liar," Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey made it known that this time, the enemy is a little closer to home. If JFJO and Ponga were to set up on the White House lawn and pump their unique blends of complex, improv driven, and occasionally grating, music inside, I can only imagine that the results would be outstanding. Dick Cheney glued to a window, look of utter horror on his face as he watches Brian Haas pump his entire body rhythmical up and down, hands flying furiously over the keys of his Fender Rhodes, Reed Mathis making sounds that have no right coming from a bass guitar, come from a bass guitar, and Jason Smart hitting the drums with swift precision and constantly changing rhythms. George Bush running up, "What the hell's going on out there, Dick?" before dropping to his knees as the electronic infused, seemingly random sounds of Ponga hit him, drilling straight into his brain and disrupting normal synaptic functions.

Both Ponga and JFJO push the boundaries of music, harnessing full power of instruments and electronics to create a true, mind-bending sonic experience. Seeing these two bands together, at the Fez Ballroom in Portland, was an opportunity I couldn't miss. I wasn't disappointed as they pushed music in directions Kenny G could only dream of (though it would more likely be a nightmare for him).

Jacob Fred took to the Fez's intimate stage first, playing an equal mix of straight improvisation and original compositions in their hour and a half set. It was clear they were excited to be there when Brian jokingly called for security backstage, where Skerik was clowning around. The first three songs were straight improv; calm and smooth like drifting clouds on a clear summer's day, fast and sharp like impulses of electricity that would make arms and legs twitch involuntarily, and scary unearthly sounds, like maniacal clown laughter through calliope music.

The energy in the room was thoroughly charged up and they went into a couple actual songs, including Jason Smart's composition, "Calm Before The Storm." Though he's only been with the band a little over a year, he seems to tap into the same wavelength as the two madmen he shares the stage with and they often head into uncharted musical waters, always to find their way back, together. After a very uplifting rendition of this song, it was time to give the room a shot of crazy, and Brian asked the audience for a title for the next song.

"Donkey Babies" was called out, and it was time for Skerik to come up and lend his blend of saxophonic madness to the mix. The air was electric. Placating the vibe a bit, Skerik played some wonderful melodic tones on his sax before taking things up a level, letting loose with the squonking and scatting he's know for. While colored lights swirled and reflected off the disco ball, giving the room the feel of a psychedelic carnival ride gone horribly, horribly wrong, Brian and Skerik traded rifts, keeping us all firmly grounded in this reality they had created; a reality Bush and Cheney hope never to experience.

Skerik left the stage and Jacob Fred played a few more original compositions, finishing off with a beautiful version of "Vernal Equinox," by request of multiple audience members, that transported us from the dark confines of the Fez to a spring day in Oklahoma. After the energy of JFJO, we had a chance to rest and fuel up as Ponga spent nearly an hour setting up, hauling out keyboards, electric drums and effects processors, plugging in cables, setting dials and tweaking knobs.

Ponga plays a style of music that is hard to describe, purely improvised, it can sound completely different each time; but if you were to crank it up at a Republican fundraiser I'm sure there wouldn't be many donations, and a few people may run out screaming of conspiracies and alleged aural weapons, though at other times it can be gentle, soothing and flowing. Sometimes it didn't even seem like they were playing together, they were just three guys on stage all doing their own thing, but then the tempo would increase and they'd play off one another, filling in holes and creating space for new sounds.

Sonic waves floated over the crowd as they slowly delved into their instruments and effects before the first push over the edge; assaulting our ears with their blend of madness and mayhem, electronic and organic sounds. Bobby Previte pounded his "drumheads" with a consistent energy that would be hard to match, and a giant grin on his face, all night long. He coaxed traditional drum sounds from the electric skins, while triggering spacey ambient sounds and spooky voice-overs with the touch of a stick. Wayne Horvitz manned his keyboards like a mad surgeon, popping out from the darkness whenever the intensity picked up and Skerik did a little bit of everything, squealing through his sax and manipulating keyboards.

At times I was scared, at times I forgot who or where I was, at times I thought my ears were going to explode and at times I was on the verge of leaving my skin, so thoroughly was I moving, shaking, and convulsing to the music. They would slow the pace, and each member would add his own beat or rhythm to the mix, setting it off again, building to a painful crescendo, climax, before brining us down into a pit of low end sonic destruction, only to do it all over again. After playing for almost two hours straight, they finished at a feverish pace, Skerik violently pushing air through his sax, Wayne forcing all sorts of unreal sounds through his keys and Bobby pounding intensely on his electronic drums. Those of us who made it through the entire ride were left emotionally and physically drained--and begging for more.

Words and Images by:Zach Ehlert
JamBase | Oregon
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[Published on: 3/7/03]

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