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Rock supergroups almost always fail because of one simple reason: They usually suck. Throwing a bunch of talented individual players together doesn't guarantee hit records or quality music, unless someone in that group can write a song (or steal one, in the case of Led Zeppelin). Even then, these prefab wannabes are mostly viewed as more of a novelty than a legitimate creative entity. Which is what makes Banyan so interesting.
The quartet-plus-one features Jane's Addiction/Porno for Pyros drummer Stephen Perkins, Minutemen/fIREHOSE/Stooges bassist Mike Watt, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, trumpet player Willie Waldman (who's recorded with Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur) and a painter named Norton Wisdom performing an avant-garde blend of jazz and rock that somehow doesn't sound like Miles Davis' coked-out fusion period. While the jazz world continues to look for the next Charlie Parker or powerhouse band reminiscent of Davis' first quintet, Banyan keep flying under the radar as perhaps the best unknown live band in the hemisphere. What makes the group so refreshing is the merging of steady rock rhythms with jazz's loose-fitting structures. The band begins each song with a repetitive melody (known as "the head" to jazz nerds) and soon dives off the deep end into improvised solos. "We're fusion in that we're fusing things together," Perkins says. "But as far as what people think fusion music sounds like, absolutely not. It's very jazz, but as far as the sound, no. We're not trying to replicate the old jazz sound, but take the theory and use a different type of energy."
The group members' combined résumés and the opportunity to see bona-fide rock stars in an intimate setting are enough to get people through the door of any Banyan concert, but fans looking for a half-assed congratulatory band playing covers (they do John Coltrane's epic "Acknowledgement" from A Love Supreme and the Stooges' "Fun House," but nothing from their personal catalogs) will surely be disappointed by the intense onslaught of Watt's busy playing or Perkins' use of every drum in his massive kit. For Perkins, Banyan is like a mistress who lets him act out all the nasty shit his wife won't let him do. "There is an element that I can't get in any other band," Perkins says. "When there's not a singer, musicians can have the chance to overplay. There are moments when everybody can send out their personality and not try to support a vocal melody. Banyan gives me the chance to be an explorer."
The high-caliber musicianship of each member helps create an aural mindfuck that is complemented by Wisdom's on-the-spot paintings. Banyan sets up in a straight line (with Perkins in the middle) to allow the artist access to the drum riser, on which he hoists large plastic material to paint what he feels based on what the band is playing. Like his musical cohorts, Wisdom has recurring themes in his work but takes his creativity in different directions each gig. The painter's role in Banyan is twofold, as Perkins feels Wisdom is like a singer without words. "Norton has the responsibility to set people into a certain mood," Perkins says. "All of a sudden, the music goes hand-in-hand with the visual, and you're not sure why."
Similar to jazz groups, Banyan is centered on core players (Perkins and Waldman) but can include other bassists and guitarists if Watt and/or Cline are unavailable. Friday's show marks the first time in six months this version of Banyan has played due to the members' busy touring schedules. Other versions go for more of a groovy metallic vibe, Perkins says, while the Watt/Cline incarnation leans more toward a punk element. Regardless of who is onstage, the drummer believes Banyan is a viable commodity for those searching for abstract sounds.
"It's fun to have different musicians come aboard and stimulate the music in new directions so we don't get stale and fall back on ideas we know are safe," Perkins says. "I'm really forced to think more. I know I'm safe if I get high-quality players up there. Which direction it's going to go, I don't know."