If you had to label the duo of Colter Frazier and Rob Wallace, you might call them "jazz musicians." But, then again, if you’re the type of person who feels compelled to slap a simplistic categorization on all the music you listen to, you are probably not going to appreciate the kind the Santa Barbara pairing create anyway. Because while their sound – a fully improvised combination of Frazier’s saxophone and Wallace’s drums, making its Ventura debut at Grady’s Record Refuge on Jan. 18 – is based in the jazz tradition, this is music that, at its core, has no definitive starting point.
"It’s not straight-ahead jazz at all. We definitely hesitate to call it jazz in the first place," Frazier says. "There are no limits sonically to what it can be, but we don’t like to call it jazz. It’s just music, you know."
"Even when you say ‘jazz tradition,’ that is such a big grouping of all kinds of disparate musical styles and personalities," Wallace adds. "It’s like saying we’re playing American music – that can mean anything. Or world music – that can be pretty much anything. The improvisational aspect of what we do is rooted in jazz, but we’re influenced by a lot of other things. We want to respect the tradition we come from and give credit to it, but we don’t want to claim we’re playing jazz by any means."
Wallace grew up around a variety of music, from his parent’s big band records to the rock’n’roll blaring from his siblings’ bedrooms in their Flagstaff, Ariz., home. "My family’s TV broke when I was 4 or 5," he says, "so I listened to the radio a lot." At age 10, inspired by older friends – and by the desire to make some noise of his own – Wallace picked up the drums. Since then, he has studied everything from Indonesian gamelan to Trinidadian steel drumming and is currently practicing with a Nepalese tabla player, all of which he says make their way, in one form or another, into his jams with Frazier – something that, given the experimental, no-holds-barred nature of the project, isn’t immediately obvious. "But if you under the surface of that, you see a lot of diversity, a lot of interesting connections being made."
As for Frazier, he spent his younger years in the small Northern California town of Sonora listening mainly to classic rock and heavy metal – "typical high school angry teenager music," he says – and playing guitar in a variety of bands. It wasn’t until he went to college at UC Santa Cruz that he discovered the late pianist Oscar Peterson and traded the clarinet he spent 10 years learning for a saxophone. "Once you get the bug of jazz, you can’t get rid of it," Frazier says. "It’s this really deep world. You can keep studying it and never get to the point where you know everything."
Frazier and Wallace eventually came into contact after both relocated to Santa Barbara – Frazier for a job in the UC Santa Barbara library, Wallace to earn a Ph.D. Not long after getting together, the two performed in a variety of settings, from restaurants to the UCSB Middle East Ensemble. A year and a half ago, they began hosting a bi-weekly experimental music night at a coffee shop in Santa Barbara, which doubled as a rehearsal spot for their free-form explorations of sound, which sometimes breaks down into nothing but sax squeaks and Wallace hitting random objects in a room.
"It’s completely improvised," Frazier says. "We never talk about what we’re going to do until we start."
After Frazier took three months off in 2006 to record an album in Egypt, the duo put out an album on local avant-garde maven Jeff Kaiser’s pfMENTUM label. Like their live shows, the album is totally improvised. Both artists admit the places they go to can alienate certain audiences. But Wallace argues that, beneath the occasional dissonance and abstract ideas, is something people can hold on to, regardless of their musical pedigree.
"I’m making it sound very lofty, but the other side is very humorous, and intentionally so," Wallace says. "That’s why people can get into it who may not quote-unquote ‘understand’ it. Our live shows are not intentionally theatrical, but there is a certain amount of goofiness that goes on when watching people trying to make music, especially when I’m on the floor hanging a piece of metal against the wall. It’s going to be funny, and it’s fun to watch in a lot of cases if not to listen to."