Portland’s Cory Gray, the keyboardist, trumpeter, producer and frontperson of the experimental quartet Old Unconscious, is careful not to use the word “jazz” to describe his band’s music. That’s not due to lack of love for the genre, though. Actually, all his bandmates love jazz: One, drummer Matt Berger, loves it so much that he hosts a show on KMHD (Wednesday evening’s The Latin Tinge).
“I mean, all my heroes are jazz artists,” Gray said, “but I’m not on the same playing field as those guys, and I don’t want to compare myself to the things I grew up liking and continue to be stricken by the most.”
Of course, genre breaks down in the fact that most artists are at least accidentally piecing together nonlinear influences. What’s worth arguing against, more so than whether Old Unconscious play jazz, is Gray’s modest claim that his band isn’t every bit as good, and every bit as imaginative, as any capital-J Jazz band. Because they are, and then some.
All multi-talented scene vets who’ve performed and recorded professionally for around a decade, Gray and his bandmates play with a tactfulness and attention to atmosphere that keeps the music, though unafraid of atonality, from ever veering too far outside the Almighty Groove. This beautifully honed balance comes more from an interest in what Old Unconscious isn’t than any kind of preoccupation with what it is; “I don’t want to get into what I call ‘jet ski music,’” said Gray, “where it’s only fun for the person doing it.”
The band’s LP Sunfort, out since late 2018 via Portland’s Jealous Butcher Records, reverberates with downtempo spaciousness. Each track takes its time to build into extended solos, most notably from saxophonist Noah Bernstein (GRAMMIES, Shy Girls), with Perry Pfister’s bass lines and Berger’s drumming chugging the whole thing along like a heartbeat.
Taking the descriptor “experimental” literally, it’s energizing to hear the range of musical structures Old Unconscious experiments with: the minor modes of Ethio-jazz, some slow-motion takes on Afrobeat rhythms and always a healthy dose of post-rock-reminiscent electronic manipulation (reverb is in no short supply here). Conceived as a branch out of the members’ usual musical zones, a place to express themselves without pressure, it continues to be mostly an open-ended collaboration between friends.
“A lot of our practices are just us hanging out and playing songs for each other and talking about them,” Gray said. “Nobody has any expectations for what it’s supposed to be or what to get out of it, besides the enjoyment of doing it.” That seems to be, ironically, a large part of the reason it’s so well-done.
Jazz or not, it’s rich and inventive music with improvisation at its core.
Credits: Produced by Banana Stand Media. Performed by Old Unconscious on Oct. 12, 2019, in Portland, Oregon. Video shot and edited by Guy Wagner. Audio recorded and mixed by Cory Gray.
Thank you to Unpeeled sponsors Ear Trumpet Labs, Benson Amps, Jackpot! Recording Studio, Revival Drum Shop and the Jupiter Hotel.