by William Stephenson
“Kamikaze Ground Crew”. Let me guess, Some John Zorn-ish enterprise with wailing horns and screaming voices and frenetic drumming. Ninety second barrages of improvisation, where the moment is everything, and each is crazed, anarchic, and unrepeatable. Serious hard core free jazz, right?
Nope. Despite its evocative name, Kamikaze Ground Crew is more about attention to the landscape than scorched earth policy, more about structure than free improvisation, more inviting than in-your-face… even if the ensemble did start out eleven years ago playing in a circus.
“The name and the music that we play these days have gotten very far apart,” admits composer and Kamikaze co-leader Gina Leishman. “The name belongs to where we started.” Here’s the story. As Leishman was travelling across country, heading towards Broadway for a stint with the Flying Karamazov Brothers in a then nameless stage band, she recalled with amusement the title of a radio play by an Irish friend. Perhaps the Flying Karamazovs would need a little support for an unexpected landing, she thought. She liked the humour and the alliterative K’s. Kamikaze, Karamazov. It seemed right. “We were all a little crazy,” she explains. So she called ahead, suggested the moniker, and continued on her way, never realising how long it would follow her.
That Leishman’s group might outdistance a label, even a very clever one, should come as no surprise to anyone who listens to her music or knows her background. Born in England, and shaped by studies at the Vienna Conservatory of Music and Edinburgh University, Leishman continued, after settling in the U.S. in 1977, to cultivate cosmopolitan musical interests. In fact, listening to a recent Kamikaze Ground Crew release is a bit like sitting through a witty and unpredictable travelogue.
Their 1990 release on New World Records “wasn’t called The Scenic Route for nothing”, Leishman insists. Kamikaze Ground Crew recordings are “put together in such a way that if you listen to one from one end to the other then it will take you on a very wild journey, and bring you back.” The trips are individual ones, however. “Everyone has their own ideas of what the pictures are.”
The potential views are limited almost solely by the imagination of the listener, bec .…ause the perspectives offered in the compositions are wide and various.
While the American improvising tradition is an important aspect of what Leishman and her fellow musicians write and perform, jazz is only one of the influences that shapes the music, along with European street music, klezmer, circus, rock and roll, classical chamber music, and various other world cultures, whether it be Italian… Fellini movies…African, Bulgarian, Balkan, or whatever.
Which is not to suggst that the music they make is simply a hodge-podge or crazy quilt. From the brief excursions that make up The Scenic Route to the lengthier voyages which mark their latest release, Madam Marie’s Temple of Knowlege (also on New World Records), each composition provides a more or less stable environment, each cultural hybrid creates its own peculiar locale. According to co-leader Doug Wieselman, who plays variou .s woodwind instruments and composed three pieces on Madam Marie’s, “I look at parts of the pieces as places. They’re actually sort of physical or imaginary places that I am drawing from or going to”. The ensemble’s variety, he continues, comes from “trying to be true to what we hear and like and love.” Adds Leishman, “It’s who we are, and what we bring.”
What they bring together is not only a global vision and singular skills in composition and arranging, but a highly talented group of performers. Trumpeter Steven Bernstein has played with Carla Bley, the Lounge Lizards, and Digable Planets; trombonist Jeff Cressman plays with Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphic Ensemble, and Apfelbaum himself put in a stint form 1987 to 1990. He was replaced by saxophonist Ralph Carney (best known for his work with Tom Waits) after The Scenic Route, Bob Lipton, tuba, and Danny Frankel, percussion, round .out the ensemble.
Wieselman himself has performed with musicians like Wayne Horvitz, Guy Klucevsek, Bill Frisell, and Anthony Coleman. Leishman has a productive career as a composer, with premiers of at least a dozen works – primarily scores for the theater – since 1988, and she is a multi-instrumentalist who, on Madam Marie’s, performs on bass clarinet, alto sax, piccolo, accordion, and piano. She also sings.
Though the group began as a wind and percussion band for theatrical reasons (volume and portability), the strengths of the particular players have kept it that way, long after they left the circus to enter the studio and concert hall. Both Leishman and Wieselman emphasize the importance of the ensemble’s individuals to its evolving sound. To Wieselman, performance is “another level, beyond composition.” Leishman says that reliance on individual talents and personalities are fu .Êndamental to the way she writes. “I have this very strong feeling that if you’re going to use live musicians, then they should be part of what’s going on,” she insists. “Otherwise, you can put on a tape deck and go home.”
Given the full musical plates of each of its principals – in January, for instance, Leishman was preparing for performance of her first opera, The Dream Project – and limited venues for performance, it can be tough keeping even valuable enterprise like the Kamikaze Ground Crew going. “It’s pretty much once a year that we get together,” says Leishman, “with recording time and from one to four concerts.”
Have no fear that the Kamikaze Ground Crew grand tour won’t continue, however, even if the logistics are difficult and revenues small. Some time ago, Leishman explains, “We decided that we would keep the band together as an affair of the heart rather than of the pocketbook.” Some trips are worth any price.