Operation ID
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Operation ID

Seattle, Washington, United States | INDIE

Seattle, Washington, United States | INDIE
Band Rock Avant-garde


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THE atmosphere at Cafe Racer, a coffeehouse and bar in the University District here, skews distinctly postgrunge, with its scuffed floor and mismatched furniture, its thrift-store paintings on boldly colored walls. One Sunday evening this spring the place was packed mainly with teenagers and 20-somethings in T-shirts and sneakers, all listening intently to a band. Everything seemed of a piece except the music: sleek, dynamic large-group jazz, a whirl of dark-hued harmony and billowing rhythm.

“Split Stream” was the name of the composition, by Andy Clausen, an industrious young trombonist. Most of the players in his 10-piece band, crowding one end of the room, were his classmates at Roosevelt High School. A few others hailed from Garfield High School, which like Roosevelt is a reliable favorite in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s prestigious Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition. The intelligent sheen of Mr. Clausen’s writing was as striking as the composure of his peers, notably the trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, then a Garfield senior. It was impressive, and not just by the yardstick of their age.

Seattle, a city synonymous with alternative rock, has long sustained a provincial jazz culture, without much fuss or a signature sound. To outside jazz partisans the city is known as an incubator for high school talent that usually flies the coop, heading East for conservatory training and professional careers. Mr. Clausen and Mr. Mulherkar are both arriving in New York this week to begin their first semester at the Juilliard Institute for Jazz Studies, which highlights both the lofty promise and a lingering problem of their hometown.

But the landscape has been shifting because of recent events at the university level and at joints like Cafe Racer, home to a musician-run series called the Racer Sessions. A growing number of young musicians have been focused on building an autonomous scene, something distinctive and homegrown. The acclaimed trumpeter Cuong Vu, who left Seattle in the late 1980s and recently made his way back, said he was reminded of the energy of New York’s 1990s downtown scene, the tail end of which he experienced firsthand. “Seattle could be a model for all the other places in the U.S. that need a scene like this,” he said.

Mr. Vu is by no means an objective observer. A few years ago he joined the faculty of the University of Washington’s School of Music, where he has worked closely with a number of players, bringing an ultramodern ethos to a fairly traditional program. He might be overstating the case, but he could also be on to something.

“I was very, very close to staying here,” Mr. Clausen said after his group had yielded the floor to a series of improvised responses, according to Racer Sessions protocol. “It was a tough decision, because I’m excited about what’s happening. There’s all this momentum here now. It’s a really exciting place to be.”

The history of jazz in most American cities is a tale of ebb and flow, and Seattle fits the bill. In his 1993 book, “Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle,” Paul de Barros recounts a nightclub boom that ran from the late ’30s into the ’50s, cultivating regional heroes like the trumpeter and saxophonist Floyd Standifer.

The low ebb, according to the jazz radio host Jim Wilke, came in the ’60s, with the rise of rock ’n’ roll. Musicians were still playing jazz, but mainly along the margins. That ended up suiting people like the guitarist Bill Frisell and the keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, two of the most prominent jazz artists to call Seattle home.

“When I moved here from New York in 1989, I wasn’t looking to be in any kind of a scene,” Mr. Frisell said. “I was kind of looking for a place to hide out.” (Still, his album “Beautiful Dreamers,” due out on Savoy on Tuesday, features another adopted Seattleite, the violist Eyvind Kang.)

Since the 1990s, which saw an underground jazz boomlet parallel to the rise of grunge (Mr. Horvitz was a fixture of the OK Hotel, which had also been a home to Nirvana), the city has developed a civic pride about jazz that few others can rival. “Seattle has a value system around jazz,” said John Gilbreath, executive director of Earshot Jazz, which will present the 22nd Earshot Jazz Festival this fall. “It’s part of the cultural expectation. There’s an independent-jazz ecology here, it’s factionalized, but all the factions are in harmony. And it’s self-renewing in this really wonderful way.”

That self-renewal comes from boomerang musicians like the trumpeter Thomas Marriott and the drummer Matt Jorgensen, who headed East but eventually returned. Along with peers like the saxophonist Mark Taylor, they are now stalwarts of the jazz mainstream here, working at places like the New Orleans Creole Restaurant and Tula’s Jazz Club. And their music has a strong outlet in Origin Records, a Seattle label with worldwide distribution, and an impressive track record on national jazz radio. Mr. Jorgensen runs Origin with its founder, the drummer John Bishop; together they also started the Ballard Jazz Festival, featuring area artists almost exclusively.

Jazz also has a presence at Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony. The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra performs there, to a loyal patronage. “They’re folks who would otherwise have subscribed to the chamber orchestra or the symphony,” said the saxophonist Michael Brockman, one of the orchestra’s artistic directors and a longtime University of Washington faculty member. “That’s 80 percent of our audience, and they rarely if ever go to a jazz club.”

What galvanizes Seattle jazz audiences more than anything is the diligent effort of its teenage musicians. “The big-band programs here are kind of like high school football in Texas,” Mr. Jorgensen said.

The chief catalyst is the Essentially Ellington contest, which began in 1995. Over the last decade Garfield and Roosevelt have won first place a combined seven times. “The bands have different philosophies,” said Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director and the avuncular soul of the competition. “In general Garfield’s band has strong soloists, and Roosevelt has really good ensembles.”

A glimpse into rehearsals by both bands in April, a month before the contest, illuminated the difference. Clarence Acox, who came to Garfield from New Orleans in 1971, led the Garfield band with an offhand but booming authority. “Stay right there,” he growled at his drummer, indicating a rhythmic pocket, during “Launching Pad,” a 12-bar blues.

At Roosevelt, Scott Brown exuded a warmer and more technical air, often tinkering with the mechanics of a phrase. (Interschool rivalry aside, Mr. Brown, a trombonist, plays alongside Mr. Acox in the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.) Between takes his students were a fount of wisecracks, but at each downbeat they snapped into gear. For “After All” Mr. Clausen took the lead against a purr of saxophones.

The band directors aren’t the only reason for the schools’ track record. “Both Garfield and Roosevelt are public schools, but the support is akin to a private institution, in terms of what the parents do,” said the trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt, a graduate of Garfield and Juilliard, who lives in New York. Parent groups raise money to send the bands to competitions and on tour in Europe; the first Garfield jazz fund-raiser, in 1990, organized by Mr. Marriott’s parents, earned about $80,000.

The other secret weapon has been the jazz program at Washington Middle School that until two years ago was led by Robert Knatt, who is now retired. “People would come into ninth grade already knowing how to read music and play in a section and improvise,” Mr. Greenblatt said.

Ask young Seattle jazz musicians what’s new about the scene, and they are likely to point to Mr. Vu. By all accounts he has galvanized his students, charging them with a radical sense of purpose and advocating on their behalf. He invited some — like the bassist Luke Bergman and the drummer Chris Icasiano, both now alumni and key figures in the Racer Sessions — to be in his new band, Speak, which recently released its self-titled debut on Origin. Mr. Vu also advises the Improvised Music Project, a coalition of students and alumni, which held its second annual festival this spring.

“This really is a marker of a new phase,” Richard Karpen, the new director of the University of Washington’s School of Music, said in April at a 20th-anniversary celebration for its Jazz Studies program. Mr. Karpen, a composer, said jazz is now a greater priority for the program.

As part of the festivities Mr. Vu played three concerts with his Vu Tet. On the first night the crowd was full of students, including Carmen Rothwell, a bassist in the Garfield band. “A few days ago I decided that I’m coming to U.W. to major in Jazz Studies,” she said. “I really, really like the direction that it’s going in.”

The University of Washington isn’t the only Seattle educational institution in the process of rejuvenation. The Cornish College of the Arts, which has a history of avant-gardism stretching to John Cage in the ’30s, recently hired a new department chairman, Kent Devereaux. He said his decision to take the job had been influenced by the five teaching positions that will be turning over in the next five years, enabling him to put his stamp on the faculty.

Cornish has also stepped up its recruiting, begun a capital campaign for a larger new building and, for the first time, acquired dormitory space. As a result, Mr. Devereaux said, “I went from a program where last year it was 83 percent Washingtonians to one where my incoming class is only 46 percent.”

Applications have risen by roughly a third in each of the last two years, and the college has started a high school summer jazz program. “We weren’t connecting to the community,” he said.

These changes at the college level should benefit Seatle’s jazz scene at large. But such abstractions were far from anyone’s mind in May, as the Garfield and Roosevelt bands, and 13 others from across the country, descended on Frederick P. Rose Hall in Manhattan for Essentially Ellington. Each band performed and then waited for the announcement of the three finalists.

Mr. Mulherkar almost missed that moment, because he had to slip away for his Juilliard audition. But he returned in time, with news that he had been accepted. Then came word that Garfield was one of the final three and would perform that night with Mr. Marsalis. Roosevelt just missed the cut, earning an honorable mention nod.

A few hours later Mr. Mulherkar went toe to toe with Mr. Marsalis at Avery Fisher Hall, trading soulful barbs and plunger-muted whinnies on “The Shepherd.” In essence he was sparring with the world’s most celebrated jazz trumpeter, and he held his own, earning stagy glares from Mr. Marsalis, vicarious hollers from the hall and ultimately a standing ovation.

There were more cheers for the results: Garfield had won the Essentially Ellington competition, for the second year in a row. And Mr. Mulherkar received the Ella Fitzgerald Outstanding Soloist Award, its highest individual honor. “We even heard some things we’d never heard done before on our instrument,” Mr. Marsalis said of Mr. Mulherkar. (Mr. Clausen won the award for outstanding trombone.)

Speaking by phone recently, Mr. Mulherkar focused squarely on the transition ahead. But he did say he’d miss Seattle and its nascent scene. “I was actually just talking to my brother, who’s at the New England Conservatory now,” he said. “He was saying how lucky my peer group was because he didn’t have anything like that when he was in high school.”

As for Mr. Clausen, he played a farewell show at Cafe Racer last weekend, with Speak and four of his other bands. “Summer has been really productive,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Completed a two-week European tour with the Roosevelt Jazz Band, finished recording two new bands of my own, and a group of us from the Racer Sessions are forming a new record label/music foundation to present, share and promote our music. Leaving is bittersweet.” - New York Times

Every once in a while, we here at SSG get a request for show coverage that is so hot, we can’t resist doing something special for them. This is one of those cases. Operation ID is a five-piece band from Seattle with a propensity to combine enormous pop energy with experimental concepts such as free improvisation. Their unique blend of dissonance and dance has prompted the description of their current phase as avant-garde dance-rock. As a first look for many, SSG has gone the distance to introduce Operation ID’s music accompanied with a first class interview. They have a new album coming out July 1st entitled Legs, and a show on June 18 at Josephine. Hear from the men in Operation ID in the podcast below, get a feel for the music, and then get to the show! See you there. - Seattle Show Gal

Jazz lovers, tomorrow night is your chance to get out and support some very talented, local musicians. Operation I.D. will be opening the Bad Luck CD release show over at the Chapel Performance Space, and it’s sure to leave you feeling like the beatnik you were born to be.

Slapping the genre label “free-jazz” upon their body of work is the easy way out of describing what these boys do, but it’s also the most clever way. Free-jazz (to me anyway) implies you are free to incorporate whatever other elements to the jazz foundation you’re building upon. Operation I.D. does just this. Rock, electronica, improvisation; they cover them all and do it well. Watch the video below of the boys performing Think Accessories for a taste of what they do. A little bit funky, and a whole lot of jazzy.

The night will be an exciting, interesting adventure for those you dig the avant-garde. - Seattle Show Gal


Legs (to-be-released March 2011) on Table and Chairs



Seattle’s only minimalistic, avant-garde, electro-pop, noise-cluster, synth-rock, free-jazz, experimental, dance-prog band.

“Operation ID is a five-piece band from Seattle with a propensity to combine enormous pop energy with experimental concepts such as free improvisation.” Originally interested in the spontaneity of free-jazz, Operation ID’s open mindedness has guided them to embrace a position of willingness when experimenting with new sounds and musical approaches. They have grown from being exclusively instrumental to frequently incorporating group vocals. Some well known influences include Steve Reich, Talk Talk, Hella, XTC, Richie Hawtin, and Deerhoof.

A first set of recorded material, entitled LEGS, is scheduled to be released in March 2011 on Table and Chairs Music. The release will feature nine songs divided into three sets of three, each set having been recorded and produced by a different engineer.

Operation ID has performed extensively, playing over twenty-five shows within the last year (2009/2010), filling up underground and DIY venues in Seattle. They toured the west coast in the Summer of 2010 and are planning another tour with local band, Heatwarmer, for summer 2011.

Individual Members:
Each band member is formally trained and demonstrates a high level of musicianship and creativity:
• Ivan Arteaga (woodwinds) is a protégé of ethereal trumpet master, Cuong Vu, and Free-Jazz great, Andrew D-Angelo. He is a time nazi and an accomplished artist of facial expressions.
• David Balatero (electric bass) has played cello since he was two years old… yeah.
• Jared Borkowski (electric guitar) grew up writing rock and pop songs, experiencing some local success with his band, The Spit-Licks, and has studied classical guitar extensively.
• Rob Hanlon (keyboards and laptop) is an award winning Jazz saxophone player who fell in love with Prince and ran away from home to join Operation ID.
• Evan Woodle (drums) is in fifteen bands.

Jared and Ivan met as jazz studies majors at the University of Washington and spent the entire summer of 2008 freely improvising together and creating compositions based on those improvisations. David joined in the fall, fallowed by Evan in 2009. Their debut quartet performance was at the Improvised Music Project Festival in April, 2009. Rob Hanlon joined in November 2009, just in time to play at the University Jazz Walk… this was the turning point, when Operation ID realized that they don’t play jazz. Then the real fun began.

The Scene:
Operation ID is now fully engaged in an exciting and rapidly growing movement of cutting-edge jazz and experimental noise music in Seattle that has recently gotten attention from the New York Times. Their brand of high energy, progressive rock music is heavily influence by the radical concepts of this strong community. All five members of Operation ID are always present at the weekly free-improvisation jam session called The Racer Sessions, which was featured in the New York Times article. Table & Chairs is a record label that has recently emerged from this new music community - the community that has been packing DIY and underground venues in Seattle — venues like the Josephine, Black Lodge, and Cafe Racer — with passionate and devoted fans for the past year.


Fake Bio:
Primarily influenced by the Seattle based, European style grime band, Crunkaloo, Operation ID strives to combine Funk and Soul to create a polished sheen of quality, in-the-pocket resonance while still remaining loyal to Jazz greats of the twentieth century. There is something for everyone in Op ID’s detailed, euphonious approach to making music. They are extremely well known for causing all connoisseurs of The Temporal Art to move their bodies during irresistible live performances, which feature a high level of seriousness and professional stage presence. The key to Operation ID’s success is an intimately personal and emotionally positive support system that properly bonds the listeners directly to the musicians. This band does it all, leaving every music lover wanting more!