The Improv Doom of CARL Braids Free Jazz With Metal Noise

Andrew Durham and Danny Kamins, also known as CARL, release their debut album, Moon Pools and Petroleum Play, on Saturday.
Andrew Durham and Danny Kamins, also known as CARL, release their debut album, Moon Pools and Petroleum Play, on Saturday. Photo courtesy of CARL
Andrew Durham and Danny Kamins grew up together in Houston, meeting toward the end of grade school at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in the Montrose. While attending different high schools, they still managed to go to shows and compete in an occasional fencing match.

And then they pretty much went in opposite directions.

Durham, a St. Pius X High School graduate, worked in Mississippi on a barge for the summer before landing at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Kamins, the son of Benjamin Kamins, principal bassoonist of the Houston Symphony from 1981 to 2003 and current professor of bassoon at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, headed to Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory of Music after completing his education at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts's jazz department.

Durham bounced back and forth between Texas and the West Coast, going to Evergreen and the University of Texas at Austin. He was introduced to metal, noise, grindcore and power violence. He bought an electric bass. He worked hard labor gigs.

“The sounds from these jobs definitely have a lot to do with my playing. I remember the constant throbbing drone from the diesel generator that ran the cannery in Alaska where I worked,” says Durham. “Also, the chugging and screeching of a chainsaw, the fall of timber and the silence on either end. I would also go shooting in Capitol Forest, a heavily logged state forest. I really fell in love with huge sounds that dominate the space for a moment, but are framed by silence.”

Meanwhile, at Oberlin, Kamins, who plays almost all of the saxes (baritone, tenor, alto, soprano) as well as flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, studied with the greats such as Gary Bartz, Wendell Logan, Billy Hart and classical saxophonist Paul Cohen. After college, Kamins played and taught in the Cleveland area, moved to Chicago for about four years and then made his way back to Houston in 2015.

When Durham returned to Houston in 2013, he first sought out a similar noise and punk scene he had become involved with in Olympia. Then he attended a They, Who Sound event, the weekly Monday-night Houston improv series at AvantGarden curated by David Dove of Nameless Sound. At first, he wasn’t really feeling the music, but then he started working with mainstays Rebecca Novak, Sandy Ewen and Damon Smith.

“I had already been doing that a little but that technique grew a lot from my exposure to the Houston improv scene,” says Durham. “I use a whippet cracker as a slide [and] a screwdriver to lift the strings so I have an angle for bowing them. I copied Sandy's technique of using steel wool over the pickups.”

Eventually, he linked up with his good bud Kamins and the drummer/percussionist Ryan Westin. Three dudes from disparate places – one with a jazz and classical background, the others into heavy and dark – started CARL.

“The collaboration between Andrew and I took a while to actually happen. He always wanted to play music with me, but I always put it off,” remembers Kamins, who’s also a member of improv trio Etched in the Eye with Ewen and Robert Pearson. “For the longest time, I didn't even know how to approach playing with him, because it was quite different from people I was used to making music with. However when I moved back to Houston two years ago, he approached me about it again and I decided to give it a shot.”

The end product works amazingly well.

Take the opening 15-minute abstraction, “2 Ethylhexl Acrylate,” from the group’s debut, Moon Pools and Petroleum Play, recorded at Sugar Hill Studios by Johnathan Chan. Westin’s minimal drum and cymbal thwacks shoot out of the bleak. Kamins’ long-tone baritone sax musings move into upper register, last-day-on-Earth note clusters. And Durham’s just-totally-wrecked electric bass and effects land somewhere beneath lo-fi and maybe, just maybe, barely above no-fi. (Westin is no longer a member of CARL.)

On the quicker hitting improvisation called “Responses to Stress,” Kamins plays sax trills, Westin attempts to beat the kit through the floor and Durham’s bass is tuned to the key of the nine circles of hell. The number ends with a Darkthrone-esque black metal vibe.

“For me, there was definitely inherent tension because even though I liked the concrete rhythms/beats at times, I didn’t want too much of that. I didn't want it to get into too much one-chord jam territory. The abstraction had to be there as well,” adds Kamins. “That’s my favorite thing about CARL. There really is an inherent tension in contrast between the abstraction and the rhythms/beats that produces something much more original and better than us just trying to do a more traditional jazz-metal band with a sax in it.”

The responsibilities of both band members – Kamins teaches jazz at Rice; Durham was swamped in nursing school and started another project with Hayden Wright and Megan Easely called Value Merchants – has kept them from touring outside of Texas. However, there’s another hoped-for CARL release in the works featuring a different trio configuration with bassist Smith, who recorded with the group before relocating to Boston in August.

“I guess since me and Danny grew up together, we have a connection or comfortably with each other,” says Durham. “I don't really feel a tension playing with him. Rather, I feel really comfortable and supported. That is a big part of what makes CARL work…for me it happens on a very subconscious level with Danny.”

CARL plays a CD-release show at 7 p.m. Saturday, January 28, at Vinal Edge Records, 239 West 19th Street. KA shares the bill. For more information, call 832-618-1129 or go to the Facebook event page. Admission is free, and 8th Wonder Brewery will provided beverages.
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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen