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The best kept secret in music


"On Guitar, Dennis Rea"

(By Peter Monaghan)

Several of Dennis Rea’s projects
(and there are many) are as good as anything you’ll hear in progressive and avant jazz.

That’s about the size of it.

Rea is, simply put, a jewel in Seattle’s music crown, albeit one that glitters less than it should, due to his eclecticism (is he jazzer, or rocker – why mince categories?) and also to the incuriousness of too many ears.

It is also due, though, to Rea’s complete lack of bluster and swagger, at sharp odds with guitarists with a fraction of his talent who play to stadiums of gobsmacked fans. His skills and imagination are as large as the venues he plays tend to be small. So it goes.

Rea, who is in full musical bloom as he approaches 50, has honed his enormous skills over many years of ever-shifting playing, whether here in Seattle or on unlikely but fertile ground for jazz and rock extensions: China and Taiwan.

His key current project, Moraine, is a towering quintet that harks back to the three years he profitably spent in the two Chinas. He has arranged for it a small number of choice Chinese tunes, old and recent, traditional and not, which become gorgeous jazz- and rock-inflected pieces in his and his colleagues’ hands.

But the group covers a lot of terrain, drawing on “fractured bebop,” as Rea puts it, as well as math-rock – cranked-up, rhythmically complex rock – and much more. Rea writes most of the material, or arranges it, in the case of the Chinese tunes, and plays guitar.

Moraines, as just about everyone in this outdoors-obsessed town should know, are those masses of rocks and sediment that glaciers deposit along their borders. Moraine, the band, creates formidable edifices of sound constructed from styles and elements that coursing musical culture has scoured up and heaped at the margins for the curious to deploy or enjoy.

Listening to the electric-string-quartet-plus-drums, you may find yourself swept over icefields or other little-considered terrain. The project is the latest of many assured, convincing Rea projects. With his mastery of styles and mood, and his ability to shred in glorious guitar-rock style as readily as to slip into lyrical streams, he has amassed credits all over the map. He spent time in the band of Chinese rock megastar Cui Jian (for that fascinating story, read Rea’s book; see below); he has also taken part in a long list of innovative Seattle jazz-ish bands; and rockers from big-name bands – King Crimson, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Ministry – have been happy to collaborate with him.

Among local honors, he won a Golden Ear Award for Best Northwest Outside Jazz Group in 2000 with the juggernaut free-jazz quartet Stackpole, a furious, riveting improvising affair with Gregg Keplinger on drums, Wally Shoup on alto sax, and Geoff Harper on bass. Despite such acclaim, “after a lot of visibility and activity in the 1990s, I slipped largely out of sight for a time,” Rea says.

Stackpole, and his other two major bands, Jeff Greinke’s LAND and his own Axolotl, “went belly up,” much to his disappointment. Still, he says, “that presented an opportunity to conduct a thorough reassessment of my musical goals.” He let go several of his many, varied activities in presenting, publicizing, and organizing creative music, particularly in the free-improv scene. He had, for instance, put in a stint as co-organizer of the long-running Seattle Improvised Music Festival.

That left him time to complete his book about the emergence of a rock scene in China, which he witnessed and took part in. “After having worked on it in fits and starts for 10 years, I decided to get serious about it,” he says. With his book out, he can concentrate on “what’s important to me, in music,” without distraction by “whatever the passing musical trends happen to be. I’ve honed in on what it is that speaks to me in music, and am unapologetically dishing it out for people.” In Moraine, “I don’t feel bound by genre in any way. We move from jazz to art rock to monkeyed-up Chinese music.”

In addition to adapting Chinese pieces, Rea has written several new pieces or revived earlier works. Just as the repertoire crosses eras of Rea’s writing, the band combines generations of players.

Bassist Mike Davidson, long a fixture of Seattle rock and punk, has known Rea since their groundbreaking 1991 concert tour of China with Rea’s band, the Vagaries.

Alicia Allen, Moraine’s violinist, has for several years been Rea’s colleague in the band of the seriously undersung local songster of the bleak, Eric Apoe.

Drummer Jay Jaskot is an old Rea friend, master of many styles, and ultimately a proficient in his own.

Cellist Ruth Davidson is the band’s X-factor. “Ferociously talented,” as Rea puts it, she comes with an impressive classical pedigree and a voracious appetite for instruments – cello, guitar, bass... – and musical styles. She makes, as she puts it, “free improv, speed metal, noise rock, pretty melodies, and comb - Earshot Jazz


The recording of Moraine's first CD is currently underway.


Feeling a bit camera shy


Moraine is an electric-string-quartet-plus-drums that traverses highly irregular musical terrain. Moraine's original compositions draw on influences ranging from adventurous rock to avant-jazz to deconstructed Chinese traditional music and more.

Dennis Rea's adventurous guitar playing blends modern jazz, creative rock, experimental music, and world musical traditions into an approach that is uniquely his own, encompassing haunting lyricism, enigmatic textures, agile improvisation, and the raw dynamism of rock. Over the years Dennis has led or been a key contributor to numerous innovative groups, including Land, Stackpole, Axolotl, Savant, Eric Apoe & They, Identity Crisis, and the Gang of Formosa. He has performed or recorded with such prominent creative musicians as Han Bennink, Hector Zazou, Klaus Schulze, Stuart Dempster, and Chinese rock megastar Cui Jian, as well as members of King Crimson, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Ministry, and the Sun Ra Arkestra. He was a finalist for Best Guitarist in the 2005 Seattle Weekly Music Awards, and won a Golden Ear Award for Best Northwest Outside Jazz Group in 2000 as leader of the improvising quartet Stackpole. He is also an accomplished author whose most recent work is the book Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan. For more information, see and

Born in Nashville, East Coast native Alicia Allen came to Seattle in 1994 and soon began playing electric guitar and violin in local bands Big Sister and X-tra Virgin. She has recorded and toured the country with Jeremy Enigk, performing works from his solo album, Return of the Frog Queen, at the Knitting Factory in New York, the First Avenue Club in Minneapolis, and the 40-Watt Club in Athens, GA. She is often seen playing violin in Seattle with Eric Apoe and They and making cameo appearances with the james dejoie quartet. Playing violin in Daniel Barry’s Walk All Ways has given her a taste of playing latin jazz, and her experience singing with Jim DeJoie’s Safe Behind Glass and Dr. Fleek and his Army of Experimental Children has cemented her love of vocal work.

Ruth Davidson enjoys using her cello, guitar, and bass to make free improv, speed metal, noise rock, pretty melodies, and combinations thereof. In addition to her cello duties in Moraine, she currently serves as bass player for Scary Bear and guitarist for Malak. She formerly served as bassist for Gods Among Men.

In addition to filling the drum chair for Moraine, Jay Jaskot also plays with James Whiton and the Downtown Apostles and the occasional post-lucid martial arts band Iron Kim Style. He previously played a kaleidoscopic range of instrumental rock and jazz with the Brothers of Max Catharsis, Highrize, and State.