December 9, 2021, 14:24

The Spaced-Out Jazz of Sam Gendel and Sam Wilkes

The Spaced-Out Jazz of Sam Gendel and Sam Wilkes

Halfway through “Malcolm & Marie,” a black-and-white Netflix drama that was shot during the pandemic, the dialogue pauses—the film consists of almost nothing but dialogue—so that viewers can listen to some music. The interlude lasts for nearly two uninterrupted minutes while Marie, played by Zendaya, sinks sorrowfully into a bathtub, and Malcolm, played by John David Washington, refills his glass of Scotch and prepares for their nightlong argument to resume. Most of the “Malcolm & Marie” soundtrack was a familiar combination of soulful older songs, by singers like Roberta Flack and James Brown, and soulful newer ones. But the music in this interlude was harder to place. An electric bass sketched out a couple of chords, and a breathy saxophone added a few restrained lines of melody—the horn sounded like a curious animal in an unfamiliar place, carefully exploring its surroundings. Perhaps this was jazz, but it was quiet and elusive. And it was haunted by a hip-hop rhythm, in the form of a ghostly click that could have been a finger snapping somewhere far away.

Most viewers surely didn’t think too hard about this moment, but a few of them probably experienced a pleasant jolt of recognition. The track, “BOA,” was taken from an odd little album by Sam Gendel and Sam Wilkes, which has been steadily finding listeners since its release, in 2018. The album is called “Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar,” and it has a cover that looks, accurately, like the result of a quick session on Microsoft Word. The sound is echoey, sometimes chattery, reflecting the circumstances of the album’s production: the seven tracks are excerpts from a series of ad-hoc performances at two Los Angeles restaurants, one in Laurel Canyon and one on Sunset Boulevard, in Silver Lake. There is a long and proud history of fake live albums, like James Brown’s volcanic “Sex Machine,” from 1970, which was partly recorded in a studio, with applause dubbed in later. “Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar” is in some ways the inverse of “Sex Machine”: it sounds like a breezy studio album but was actually recorded live, with all the applause edited out. What remains is a bit like the “beat tapes” that hip-hop producers sometimes make—a carefully compiled collection of excellent grooves. One track begins with the hum of conversation and someone saying, shruggingly, “We could do that.” The musicians are playing “Greetings to Idris,” by Pharoah Sanders, who loved to start with a warm melody and push outward, overblowing his saxophone to create an openhearted sort of chaos. Gendel and Wilkes’s version is softer and more unassuming than the original, because the duo’s music tends to be spacey, in both senses: emptied out, and slightly dazed. Instead of building toward a climax, they use pedals to loop their favorite sounds, and to supply moving clouds of reverb, which accompany them on their journeys.

One of the few people to attend those L.A. performances was Matthew McQueen, the proprietor of a free-form local label called Leaving Records (its slogan is “All genre”), who encouraged the duo to put together an album. When McQueen first heard “Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar,” he didn’t know it would become one of his label’s most popular releases, but he had a feeling it could draw in a wide range of listeners. “I mean, it’s a jazz record,” he said. “But it’s got this other quality to it that makes it more accessible. It’s not a pop-jazz record, but there’s other stuff going on.” He said that “BOA,” with its relaxed pace and leisurely playing, reminded him of “easy listening” music. A hip-hop-producer friend of his was enthusiastic, and McQueen posted the album on streaming services and issued a limited edition of three hundred cassette tapes, a format he likes because it encourages continuous listening. (Older people may remember, fondly or not, how difficult it is to skip around on a cassette tape.) The tapes sold out, followed by a second pressing, then a third, and then a vinyl edition. The two musicians pursued other projects. Sam Wilkes released a pair of similar albums on the same label, both featuring Gendel, and he also recorded with a range of other performers, including Chaka Khan. Meanwhile, Sam Gendel was developing a reputation as a saxophonist with broad appeal: he signed a solo deal with Nonesuch Records, and Vampire Weekend, the indie band, asked him to reimagine one of its singles as a long-form improvisation. And yet Gendel and Wilkes avoided doing the obvious things that a pair of musicians might do after recording a surprisingly popular début album: playing high-profile concerts, going on tour, getting together to make more music.

“I’m someone who can very easily not do things,” Gendel told me, with part of a smile, on a recent afternoon. He is tall and lean and shaggy, and he was dressed in a baggy black T-shirt and shorts, sitting in a space that has been his music studio for the past few months, a sparse white room in South Central Los Angeles stocked with a collection of unusual instruments and music gear. (The room occupies a corner of a building that is mainly a warehouse, leased by Gendel’s girlfriend’s father.) Wilkes was there, too—for the first time, it turned out. He was also wearing all black, with close-cropped hair and glasses, looking a bit like an eager student. Where Gendel can be laconic and somewhat mysterious, even to his collaborators, Wilkes is voluble and enthusiastic about music in general, and about the Gendel and Wilkes partnership—a duo that, beyond those restaurant gigs, has never really functioned as a duo. “He’s been super encouraging,” Gendel said, nodding at Wilkes. “Always. Even in times when I’ve been more passive about it.”

The “Malcolm & Marie” placement earned Gendel and Wilkes an unexpected influx of new listeners: “BOA” is now their most popular track on Spotify, having been streamed nearly two million times. One person who noticed this was McQueen, of Leaving Records. He knew that the two had more recordings of their restaurant performances, and suggested that their growing fan base might enjoy them. And so the two musicians put together a follow-up. “Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar More Songs,” which arrived last month, comprises nine grooves and meditations performed for unsuspecting diners. As an album, it is a bit less cohesive than its predecessor, and a bit less predictable. “More Songs” includes a shorter, more scrambled version of “Greetings to Idris,” and an interpretation of the Beach Boys’ song “Caroline, No,” which starts with Gendel playing the plaintive vocal melody and ends, after nearly five hypnotic minutes, with a rubbery, unexpectedly vigorous bass solo. The album hints at all the other things these two could do together—if they felt like it.

Wilkes, who is thirty-one, grew up in Connecticut, and Gendel, who is thirty-five, grew up in central California. Both were drawn to Los Angeles by way of the jazz program at the University of Southern California. They turned out to have mixed feelings about studying jazz in a university setting. And maybe they had mixed feelings, too, about being tied to a tradition that arouses as much strong feeling—and, worse, as much weak feeling—as jazz does. As a boy, Wilkes was obsessed with the Grateful Dead and Phish, which gave him a love of improvisation. By the time he applied to U.S.C., he was a proficient electric-bass player, and, although he knew that the jazz program typically accepted only upright-bass players, he figured that the jazz bureaucracy might make an exception for him. It did not, and so he studied R. & B. and funk instead, working with a string of legendary musicians, including Patrice Rushen, an esteemed composer and keyboardist, and Leon (Ndugu) Chancler, a drum virtuoso. This was not a sad story: it turned out that Wilkes loved session playing, which demands precision and adaptability, and he had no complaints about his college experience. But, as Wilkes talked in the studio, Gendel grew outraged on his behalf—he couldn’t abide the idea that a jazz department would reject an eager student just because he played the wrong instrument. “It’s the most anti-jazz, anti-open-minded mentality I can imagine,” he said, becoming more animated than he’d been all afternoon. “This is why I’m against it all. It’s just stupid!”

“Sure, it raises your body temperature, keeping you alive. But at what cost to your skin?”

Cartoon by Chelsea Carr

Gendel dedicated himself to jazz as a teen-ager, and he is intensely conscious of the great saxophone players who came before him. (Once, after a fellow-musician detected in his style traces of Kenny Garrett, one of the most acclaimed saxophone players of recent decades, Gendel went home and deleted all the Garrett recordings on his hard drive.) While at U.S.C., where he earned an all-purpose degree in “arts and humanities,” he started to make connections in Los Angeles, which was emerging as perhaps the most fertile city for jazz in the country. Terrace Martin, Thundercat, and, above all, Kamasi Washington were starting to draw crowds by forging links to the local hip-hop scene. After graduating, both Sams fell in with another cohort, a group of playful, skilled musicians which included Louis Cole, a drummer and singer from an exuberant funk band called KNOWER. Wilkes and Gendel began playing with Knower, including in a string of European gigs, in 2017, when the band opened for a better-known funk-inspired act: the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Cole was discovering that one way to go viral online was to be ostentatiously virtuosic—you needn’t be a music nerd to enjoy watching someone shred on YouTube. The best Knower videos combine proudly humble production values with adroit musicianship. In a video for a track called “Overtime,” which was filmed live in what looks like a cramped apartment hallway, Gendel and Wilkes help the group burn through a breakneck funk groove, with annotations; when Wilkes contributes a particularly tasty bass fill, the word “sick” flashes onscreen. The video has been viewed more than five million times. All available evidence suggests, too, that it is Gendel who honks and squeaks alongside Cole in a furious and ridiculous masked duo called Clown Core, which puts out absurd, short tracks, with accompanying deadpan videos, that alternate between brutal spasms of noise and sweet, swinging jazz respites. But Clown Core prizes its anonymity. When a reporter from the Los Angeles Times asked Gendel about the project, he claimed he’d never heard of it.

One of the strange things about being a jazz musician in Los Angeles is that it usually means forswearing all sorts of other, more reliable ways of building a music career. For a while, early on, Wilkes thought he might be happy to find a position as the musical director for a mainstream singer—he even spent a little while on the road with an aspiring pop star named Rozzi Crane, who was opening for Maroon 5. One day in 2015, feeling exhausted and directionless on tour, he wrote to Gendel, saying that he felt a bit lost. Gendel’s response was compassionate and characteristically koan-like: “Just breathe and go light.”

At the time, Gendel and Wilkes were figuring out their approach, which included a conscious refusal to do anything that felt showoffy. Gendel, in particular, sometimes seems as if he wants to disappear entirely, and take his instrument with him. “If all the saxophones in the world evaporated one day, I would be sad for a moment,” he once told a reporter, during what was supposed to be a promotional interview. “And then life would go on.” Starting in high school, he began experimenting with the electronic saxophones known as wind controllers, which are essentially synthesizers that you blow into, and he often runs his acoustic saxophone through effects pedals, giving himself a chorus of bandmates even when he’s playing alone. The first album Gendel made for Nonesuch was “Satin Doll,” which came out early last year, a sly collection of jazz standards remade into hazy daydreams. The second, which followed six months later, was “DRM,” a series of eerie, woozy electronic tracks, including a version of “Old Town Road,” the Lil Nas X hit, that staggered along as if it were about to pass out. Gendel’s self-effacing approach has earned him a growing reputation: Jazz Times hailed him for creating “a distinctive sax sound,” and a review in the Guardian said he had found “an entirely new language for his saxophone.”

Generations of musicians have devoted their lives to mastering jazz, and many of them have noticed that this devotion is not always richly rewarded by the wider world. It was more than thirty years ago that Wynton Marsalis lodged his famous complaint, in the New York Times: “Too often, what is represented as jazz isn’t jazz at all.” In the case of Gendel and Wilkes, listeners expecting head-spinning solos or other obvious signs of mastery might be surprised, perhaps unhappily, by the duo’s seeming simplicity, and by its emphasis on ambience and texture and placid groove. “I don’t deal too much in jazz these days,” Gendel said, and some of the more exacting jazz fans would agree. You could argue, if you wanted to, that Gendel and Wilkes are not primarily a jazz duo but an electronic-production team, providing listeners with not many notes but a great deal of ambience. One of my favorite Gendel videos, from two years ago, captures a half-hour-long set he played at Union Station, in Los Angeles. He sits alone with his saxophone, armed with a bank of pedals and accompanied by occasional train announcements, and by a steady stream of people walking past.

Gendel and Wilkes know that there is something perverse about the way they work, and about “More Songs,” which is lovingly compiled from the archives. It’s as if they were a pair of dead rappers, as opposed to a pair of jazz musicians who are very much alive. In conversation, it seems clear that Wilkes would be happy to record more, to play some proper concerts, and to generally treat this partnership as a working duo, especially because of the consensus that he and Gendel play so well together. But he knows, too, that the casual sensibility of these recordings is what makes them so entrancing. Probably one of the things that people—especially non-jazz people—like about Gendel and Wilkes is that the music they make together sounds slightly unfinished, and rather unobtrusive. If you weren’t paying attention, you could walk right past it. ♦

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