Picture Perfect

One of two things usually happens when jazz musicians gather together and play only for themselves: They either spiral into an extended jam session filled with wankerish, drawn-out solos that can clear out a room; or they embrace the freedom and elevate their musicianship to new levels, communicating as if by telepathy and achieving a high degree of expression that goes beyond a few burning solos. The quartet Q falls into the latter category. The leaderless ensemble plays a form of highly improvised music that -- dare we say it -- borders on "free jazz," while remaining rooted in basic music communication.

When it comes to talent, Q is quite simply loaded. Joe LoCascio is one of the area's finest pianists and one of the few Houston jazz musicians to garner national attention without leaving town. His albums have ranged from electric fusion to introspective solo piano efforts. Saxophonist Warren Sneed, one of the best soloists on the scene, is known for his warm, full-bodied tone; in August he became the director of jazz studies at his alma mater, the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Bill Miller, a transplanted New Yorker, is a highly proficient bass player with outstanding melodic sensibilities. Rounding out the quartet is one of the most versatile drummers in town, Tim Solook, probably best known for leading the Houston Jazz Trio.

In the summer of '97, while all four men were on the faculty at Houston Community College, LoCascio suggested they get together with no preconceived concepts and just play. They already had been playing with each other for years in various combinations, so why not just see what could happen? Every Thursday morning for the next three years, they did just that. They played for themselves and let the improvisational chips fall where they might. "We would just create sounds and would see what developed," says Sneed. "There's a lot of chance in our music. You never know what is going to happen."

Adds Miller: "Creative musicians often have a problem of conflict of interest between money and art. The music you might play for fun in someone's garage is often not the same as the music played in the club or in concert. The music in the garage has but one objective: the satisfaction of the players.We decided to get together in a room at HCC -- our "garage' -- for our self-satisfaction, and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly."

Such disregard for audience expectations was liberating for Q. The quartet ignored all previously posted rules and focused on improvising -- often all at once. The sound sometimes borders on the avant-garde or even free jazz, though LoCascio prefers to call it "collective improvisation" or "spontaneous composition." Call it what you want, the sound is unconventional. "We're not just exploring alternative chord changes," says Sneed. "We're sometimes more into sounds and timbres. It's kind of wacky."

Sneed isn't afraid to experiment with Q. Sometimes he'll imitate a quail. Other times he'll squeak and squawk and make sounds that are out of bounds at a regular jazz gig. The group demands risk-taking while exploring the unknown territory. Like a snowboarder on a backwoods run, Q doesn't know exactly where it's going once it gets started. Sometimes the end of the run isn't visible. It may sound chaotic, it may be chaotic at times, but that's often the point.

Yet Q is hardly a bunch of musicians spewing out random notes in an attempt to sound dissonant -- a classic knock on avant-garde players. The level of communication is beyond reproach. "It's not just four people playing at the same time," says Sneed. "I think one thing that separates this group from other groups is that there is a lot of interaction. I think Joe and Bill work really well together, as well as Tim. There's just a certain communication level that they have. Sometimes my job as the horn player is" Sneed laughs. "Well, sometimes I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do."

Sneed isn't alone. Sometimes no one is sure what's going to happen. For instance, Miller may start a vamp on bass, and LoCascio may jump in; Solook and Sneed will join the fray as they see fit -- or not. The group plays in various configurations -- solo, duo, trio, quartet -- depending on what the music and the moment demand. If the bass player takes the melody, that's cool. If someone decides to get a drink while the other three play, that's okay, too. "In our group, it's a magical moment when two people start to solo at the same time," says Miller. "It's great when someone ends their solo two-thirds of the way through the tune, then stops. It's a magnificent surprise if we all walk off the stage during a sax solo."

An evening with Q is not merely a night of avant-garde jazz. The players occasionally will run through a standard, and if that tune happens to remain in a conventional vein, the musicians won't fight it. As far as Q is concerned, it's all good. "We might work our way into a tune," Sneed says, "or when we get to the end of a tune, like a standard, instead of just ending it, we may just go into something entirely different."

Like most Houston jazz bands, Q doesn't have a regular schedule. Unlike most Houston jazz bands, Q's rehearsals outnumber its gigs five to one, which certainly accounts for the musicians' high degree of interaction. They have a CD in the can but are not sure when it will be released. Since Q isn't going to play a wedding anytime soon, the best place to watch the guys do their voodoo thing is at Cezanne. There, the appreciative audiences not only accept Q's tendency to play outside the lines, they encourage it and apparently dig it.

"It's kind of funny," says Sneed, "because in all honesty, I'll be thinking to myself, "God, I wonder if the people are digging this.' But usually the more out we take it, that's when we get the most response."

Is there anything that's out of bounds for Q?

"Apathy," says Miller. "Although maybe that could be pretty cool, too."

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Paul J. MacArthur