For their first performance back in the Bay Area in 13 years, the Kamikaze Ground Crew got a warm welcome at the Great American Music Hall at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. After all, it's really a hometown crowd for the seven-member band, most of whom still have local ties, even though the crew is largely based now in New York.
It's a loose knit group of talent -- all of them involved in lots of other projects. Co-founders Doug Wieselman and Gina Leishman both write music for dance and theater -- the latter most recently composing scores for Berkeley Rep's Mother Courage and Cal Shakes' As You Like It -- and trumpet-player Steven Bernstein and Kenny Wolleson head their own rollicking band Sex Mob. In fact, a majority of the compositions that the KGC unveiled on Wednesday night, came courtesy of Leishman and Bernstein, but those looking for the exuberance of Sex Mob, or the witty, light touch of Leishman's Shakespearean songs like "It was a lover and his lass" would have been confused at the start.
What seems clear is that in the years since KGC's start as the pit band for the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a lot of experimenting has been going on. So it was that some of what we got that night was esoteric, some of it impenetrable, while other pieces were lively and even antic. All put together, though, it made for a program that suffered from uneven pacing.
When they first sat down, the band -- which also includes Peter Apfelbaum on tenor sax, as well as Marcus Rojas on tuba and Noah Bless on trombone -- started to make the usual rustling noises of getting settled. Or so I thought, until Bernstein raised his slide trumpet at a particular angle, and I realized that the seemingly random scribs and scratches were in fact the start of the composition. An interesting opening, which coalesced with impressive fluidity into a powerhouse of sound, rather like a faroff steamship powering closer and closer and perhaps crashing through the dusty Baroque walls of the Great American. There was a creaky majesty to it that I found myself wishing had been part of Leishman's Mother Courage score, instead of those Kurt Weill style songs.
There was something intriguing about the way the slightly wounded lumbering fell into step as a cacophonous tribute to Jimi Hendrix in the next number, and Leishman's latest "Portraits" had a wistful almost Aaron Copland-esque account of Americana tucked between sardonic trumpet and trombone lines and fractured Cubist sketches. But mainly the ideas failed to cohere in the longer works: It started to look a lot like "fun with noisemakers."
As it happens, I live with a noisemaker. When my husband and I first met, he had a collection of items specifically kept for the express purpose of noisemaking, including horns, keyboard, bass, plus hand drum, rain stick, and a thing made out of sticks and rubber bands.
"What is that?" I asked.
"It's a... a... whirly thing."
I was reminded of that assortment as I watched Wollesen flit delightedly from whirling tube to kazoo to gongs to ratchet to heaven-knows-what-that-thing-was. Wieselman added spice with pings of a "Service, please" bell, and former band member Ralph Carney contributed to the general fray when the irrepressible improviser came up onstage to jam a bit on what I can only describe as an overgrown duck call fashioned out of two "bills" lashed together to make a characteristic irritated waterfowl noise.
Still, by the conclusion of the first set, I sat, a little dumbfounded, trying to decide how I really felt about all that larky, and yet somehow opaque music.
The second set was a bit more penetrable. A piece by Apfelbaum left me marveling at the way the musicians found their way around the form, but Leishman's "Fred and Rick Have Tea" was all mellowed atmosphere and her ukelele-accompanied song from Twelfth Night had a sweetly '40s drawl to it.
Jeff Cressman -- another KGC alum -- joined in an amusing round of "You Are My Sunshine" as a kind of sardonic dirge, and then, a la Farewell Symphony, the eight of them proceded off the stage still playing as they faded into the distance.
The SF Jazz Festival runs through November 12. For tickets and information visit sfjazz.org.