When musicologists of the future look back to find the missing link between the avant-jazz and synth rock of the early 21st century and the hybrid sounds that have yet to reach our contemporary ears, the formation of the futurist jazz trio CACAW may well represent a key point on that evolutionary timeline. With music inspired by the love between robots, the swallowing of one star by another, and elements in a state of change, the band’s 2013 debut CD, Stellar Power, is an album driven by transition, whether in the music or in the cosmos.
CACAW’s sound runs the gamut of contemporary music, from steamrolling sludge rock to the glassy synth washes of a 1980s Michael Mann movie soundtrack, and from the angular complexity of modern jazz to shimmering, ethereal soundscapes and corrosive noise. It’s a band that continues to evolve and absorb ideas and influences from across the contemporary musical spectrum while maintaining the spontaneity and invention of jazz and the edge and attitude of experimental rock.
Formed in 2010 by keyboardist Landon Knoblock, CACAW itself evolved from an acoustic improvising trio into a vehicle for Knoblock’s forward-looking compositions and experimentation with electric sounds. Saxophonist Oscar Noriega and drummer Jeff Davis were both members of a larger ensemble formed by Knoblock to perform the music of Andrew Hill. When only the three of them were able to make a rehearsal one day, Knoblock immediately recognized the intense chemistry they shared and determined to explore it further.
This informal foundation allowed the band to undertake a slow development process, coalescing gradually from a variety of experiences and influences like a nebula gathering interstellar materials into itself to take on a more and more expansive form. The trio’s sound is constructed upon the foundation of Knoblock’s multi-hued electronic atmospheres, created via synthesizers and Wurlitzer electric piano transformed via a variety of effects pedals. The result is as indebted to indie rock artists like Boards of Canada and Thom Yorke as to jazz influences such as Tim Berne and Andrew Hill.
As the band’s onomatopoeic name implies, sound is the operative word. CACAW is a nonsense word representing a sound, a guiding philosophy that has led Knoblock to craft music based on the sonic interactions between himself and his bandmates rather than notes on paper or rules learned in a classroom.
He couldn’t have chosen two better collaborators with whom to embark on such a musical expedition. Clarinetist and saxophonist Oscar Noriega is a twenty-year veteran of the boundary-breaking New York jazz scene, best known as a member of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil and the collective quartet Endangered Blood with Chris Speed, Jim Black and Trevor Dunn. He’s also worked with Tom Rainey, Cuong Vu, Brad Shepik, and Slavic Soul Party, among others.
Colorado-born drummer Jeff Davis is a member of Eivind Opsvik’s Overseas, the trio Tone Collector with Opsvik and saxophonist Tony Malaby, and Michael Bates’ Outside Sources. He recently released Leaf House, his acclaimed second album as a leader, with Opsvik and pianist Russ Lossing. The in-demand drummer has played or recorded with a number of jazz greats, including the Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra, Jon Irabagon, Kris Davis, Ryan Keberle, Gebhard Ullmann, and Ralph Alessi.
Knoblock himself is originally from Miami and has lived in Brooklyn since 2007. A graduate of the University of Miami, he grew up listening to progressive rock like Pink Floyd and Phish before discovering jazz, a youth not entirely misspent given the genre-defying bent of his musical interests.
Knoblock has played with a wide range of artists including Andrew D'Angelo, Ron Horton, Ben Allison, Michael Blake, and Jeff Lederer. His last album, Gasoline Rainbow, was a duo recording with prog rock/metal drummer Jason Furman, while his own music ranges from pointillist solo piano to multi-hued synthesizer constructions. Bruce Lindsay of All About Jazz has described his music as “unpredictable, energetic, beautiful, loud, soft, subtle, and surprising.”
Each of Knoblock’s compositions for CACAW has a story behind it. Many of them reflect the composer’s lifelong interest in science and science fiction, as do the cosmic textures of his synths and electronics. As with the best sci-fi, however, Knoblock’s compositions use galactic-sized ideas to relate to human-scale issues. The theme of transition is present in his adventurous music and the whimsical tales of giant robots and ravenous stars, but it stems from a difficult but ultimately rewarding period of traumatic change in his own life.
Personal catharsis thus becomes as much a part of CACAW’s sound as does star-gazing or watching Blade Runner, the end result being a deeply personal core running through the music’s astrophysical ambitions. Every speculative tale of biology battling or fusing with technology has at its heart the same impulse of very human interpersonal connection that is the root of all meaningful music.