It's a jam space.
In the back of the house, at a small, rickety kitchen table, Andy Wolf and Kevin O'Day sit sipping Schlitz and talking. Their speech is calm and their manner lighthearted. Inside jokes send them into fits of laughter at the mention of a single key word, while grins and knowing glances indicate an interpersonal understanding that goes without saying -- the kind you see in tight rhythm sections. Eventually, the subject veers toward their music, and the discussion centers around gigs, rehearsals and bands.
On this topic, they could talk for hours. The two of them have played in so many bands over the years, together and separately, that the average nightclub patron loses track. Funk-jazz-hip-hop supergroup Iris May Tango is their common tour-de-force and current focus, but this is just one band that has boasted Wolf on bass and/or O'Day on drums at one point or another. They have, to their aggregated credit, performed with such bands as All That, Michael Ray & the Cosmic Krewe, and the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars. On this particular evening, O'Day and Wolf are rehashing their afternoon rehearsal with the Naked Orchestra, a 17-piece culmination of myriad styles from the contemporary set, led by avant-jazz guitarist Jonathan Freilich.
Their involvement in the Orchestra confirms their place in a peculiar class of brilliant musicians who spawned a miniature local music revolution in the past decade.
"There was some major migration in the late '80s and early '90s," says O'Day of the movement. "A lot of it had to do with Wynton [Marsalis] taking off." Whether due to heightened worldwide attention to New Orleans music brought on by the modern jazz innovations of the Marsalises or not, about 10 years ago, the scene saw a great influx of young musicians. Most of them moved to New Orleans to soak up the indigenous culture and musical tradition of the region. Those who didn't move for that reason made it their focus once they arrived. This wave of musicians became a collective catalyst for new incarnations of musical creativity. Among these were such key groups as Royal Fingerbowl, Galactic, and the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars. Though none of these groups is much like any of the others in style, concept and format, they share players in a familiar, recombinant cycle that kicks up the odds that something formidable will result.
Bassist Andy Wolf and drummer Kevin O'Day are a permanent, recurring element in this ongoing avant-funk/jazz/rock/ethnic movement, its most sought-after rhythm section. Hailing from East Lansing, Mich., and Lafayette, respectively, Wolf and O'Day both arrived in the early '90s and slowly carved out a niche for themselves. A now-legendary jam scene centered around Kaldi's (the defunct Decatur Street coffeehouse), introduced them to a number of players who would eventually become their bandmates and colleagues. After a few years of tooth-cutting jam sessions and constant gig-grubbing, the pair found themselves two-thirds of the original Royal Fingerbowl lineup and groove masters for Iris May Tango. Though their respective stints with the Fingerbowl eventually fizzled out, so goes the cycle that constantly frees up players to inject their magic into that many more projects.
Now, Wolf and O'Day are band stand-ins, band members, and band leaders, the rhythm section Every Men. Bassists and drummers are traditionally thought of as withdrawn sidemen, but in this case, the music created here is too distinct to be marginalized. Historically, when a bassist and drummer develop a special chemistry, the outcome is even more remarkable. The individual musician must be outstanding on his own, but there is no denying the collaborative enchantment of bassist/drummer combinations like Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, Charles Mingus and Dannie Richmond, or the local syncopated grooves of the Meters' George Porter Jr. and Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste. While the individual talents of Wolf and O'Day are apparent in their respective separate endeavors, the music they make as a joint effort is a consistently sought-after unit on the local scene. These two players are on a fast path to securing for themselves the veteran esteem enjoyed by their idolized Astral Project counterparts, James Singleton and Johnny Vidacovich.
Kevin O'Day doesn't have enough fingers to count the bands he plays with at present, let alone past projects. Anders Osborne, the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, All That, Mutiny, the Naked Orchestra, and the Cosmic Krewe have all laid claim to O'Day and his drums at one time or another. His popularity among local musicians is not only for his impeccable beat keeping, but also for his utter confidence and bare-bones style, a characteristic that explains his preference to play with a minimal drum set.
"That's a traditional New Orleans thing," he says. "That's all the brass bands use, and they keep the party rolling, don't they? I've got to live up to that. If I can swing a band with just a high-hat, snare, and bass drum, the other things are just extra colors. It's about that swing, you know, that rhythm. That's the main thing." O'Day's approach is so fierce that he ties a rope around the bottom of his bass drum to secure it in anticipation of his forceful kick. When the show heats up, his wide grin and intense beam peer out over his drum set, scanning the other players and the crowd with elated eyes, exhibiting the sort of spunk that hallmarks an exceptional player. Not only does he play the right thing at the right time with the perfect nuance, but he makes that whole business look simple and fun.
After arriving in New Orleans in 1992 to attend Loyola University, O'Day soon began playing at Kaldi's with Wolf and an array of other characters. "I was also playing with Clarence Johnson III at the time in a little trio called Black Nile," O'Day recalls of the modern jazz group. "We played a gig at Snug Harbor, so that was like the pinnacle, to have a gig at Snug. I was so excited!"
Wolf's professional musicianship was more inadvertent. "I didn't really intend to become a musician," he says, "I came here to go to UNO for a master's in art administration, but I guess my love is music, so I ended up getting completely wrapped up in that. ... But, I did graduate, thank you very much." Wolf was fortunate to have been neighbors with jazz vocalist John Boutte when he first moved to town. "We were bike-riding friends at first," he recalls, "but then I weaseled my way in on his gig."
Wolf's childhood friend and bandmate Robert Wagner (Iris May Tango, New Orleans Klezmer All Stars) attests that Wolf was musically idle upon his arrival in New Orleans. It was actually Wolf who coaxed Wagner to relocate from Michigan, "but when I got here," says Wagner, "he wasn't playing at all. So I said, 'Well, we have to play. Let's go play in the street or something.'"
It's a good thing he did. Andy Wolf's fervent bass lines have laid the groundwork for a range of bands so wide you'll do a double take to make sure it's the same guy you saw last night again onstage tonight. His earliest gigs were mostly free jam sessions at Kaldi's and Café Brasil and usually involved O'Day and Wagner. Wolf and Wagner had their own gig at Café Brasil since they lived right around the corner, but they met O'Day at Kaldi's. While Wolf played jazz with John Boutte, the Rob Wagner Jazz Combo, and the UNO Jazz Workshop Band, he began playing rock with Royal Fingerbowl, funk and hip-hop with Iris May Tango, klezmer with the Klezmers (when he subbed for bassist Arthur Kastler), and Latin music with Mas Mamones.
Latin music is Wolf's favorite style. While Mas Mamones no longer exists as a group, his pet project, Los Vecinos, satiates his need for the clave. Growing out of a series of jam sessions at his house, Los Vecinos is a Cuban music combo consisting of friends from his Bywater neighborhood (Los Vecinos means "the neighbors"). The group's debut album, last year's Guajira en Cyberspace, met with delightful reviews. "Los Vecinos is my ego trip," says Wolf. "It's something I've done that I'm proud of. So, when I play with Iris May Tango, I don't need any spotlight or ego trip ... because I've already satisfied that on the side."
Does Andy Wolf find it difficult to jump from style to style? "Nope," he answers without hesitation, "I'm ready. I can do it on a dime. It really helps, because if you play in any thrown-together jazz thing, they'll play a million styles in one set. It never stops. Music is like the universe." Analogies like this are the direct result of psychedelic space funkster Michael Ray's influence. As members of his Cosmic Krewe, O'Day and Wolf have both learned a thing or two about what it takes to be a visionary bandleader.
"He's definitely rubbed off on us," says O'Day, whose new band, Live Animals, is a musical universe in its own right. With a solid lineup of nine players in all, Live Animals is the ultimate free-groove jazz band. Grounded by O'Day's commanding beats and anchored by the bass work of both Wolf and Kirk Joseph, the band includes a range of musical implements. Hammond B-3 organ, a full horn section, and makeshift instruments round out the possibilities. The material is limitless; every phrase, every note is completely impromptu, so each performance is a unique musical happening. Wolf admits that this complete lack of plan is nerve wracking, but that doesn't seem to worry O'Day. "The people on that gig are great musicians," he affirms. "I hand-picked them. I wanted to make sure I had Kirk Joseph and Andy [Wolf], and two guitar players, Rene [Dufforc, of Iris May Tango] and Bert [Cotton]. Not just two guitar players, but those two guys." It's clear O'Day is happy with his chosen few. "They're so on it, I always know it's going to go well ... I get excited when things go wrong, because, then, I get to improvise, do something different."
O'Day and Wolf seem to have resisted the common temptation to fall into complacency following the initial thrill of being a working musician in New Orleans. "It's worth it because [being a full-time musician] makes me happy," Wolf explains. "It keeps me young. And personally, I'm getting better and better. I can't believe I've done it. It's crazy." O'Day agrees: "Yeah, to survive just by playing music is such a bizarre concept."
Measurable success doesn't seem to concern these two. They enjoy what they are doing far too much to worry about it. To them, it's mostly fun and games. That's why Iris May Tango is, without a doubt, their favorite band to play in.
"Playing with that band is unlike anything else," says Wolf. "The party is in the van. The party is backstage. The party is on stage. We don't really care what anyone else is doing. We're just having so much fun." It's easy for the audience to see. The six-piece funk-jazz-hip-hop group consistently puts on shows that are musically awesome and downright wacky. Antics run from throwing a pajama party at Tipitina's, to jumping up on the bar at the Mermaid Lounge, to wearing matching vintage gas masks on stage while Mystikal's hit "Shake Ya Ass" pumps loud on the house stereo. O'Day has even been known to stand up on his drum stool and spin around until the crowd reacts with fear of an accident, jumping down behind the set at the last split second to resume the groove.
For Wolf and O'Day, playing music is much more about amusement and enjoyment than occupation and livelihood. This twosome pays little mind to pop potential or commercial success. Rock stardom doesn't seem to interest them in the least. "It's more about playing good music and keeping up good relations with our friends," O'Day claims.
"Because it is a scene," adds Wolf, "We're all just friends. It kind of happened randomly, but I think it is a big deal. It's real quality music, and everyone is real serious about it."
And with musicians like Wolf and O'Day constantly seeking to push the envelope, the outlook stays fresh. "Now, it's all about these new projects," O'Day muses, "It's like a garden. We'll just keep watering them all, make sure there's enough sunlight on them, oxygen, you know, and let 'em grow. It's a beautiful thing."
Kevin O'Day will perform with Anders Osborne on Saturday at House of Blues, while Andy Wolf will perform with Los Vecinos on Sunday at The Dragon's Den Social Aid and Pleasure Club.