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"Annie, are you OK?"
The sudden appearance of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" over the formerly silent speakers of the Rittenhouse Square coffee shop where the four members of Shot x Shot had spent 45 minutes discussing their avant-jazz influences initially provoked a burst of laughter.
But almost immediately bassist Matt Engle embraced the anomaly, touting S x S' sense of groove and his own desire to incorporate more hip-hop and R&B influences into their music in the future.
That may not seem the most obvious direction for the Philly quartet, who've refined a collective identity over the course of two CDs of sprawling compositions and deeply attuned interaction. But less than foretelling a drastic change in approach, Engle's comments actually suggest an ears-open appetite for new sounds and a confidence in the group's ability to imbibe those influences without shedding its own distinct personality.
Over the past five years, the members of Shot x Shot have become that rarest of entities in the jazz world, an actual band. The foursome have dedicated themselves to forging a collective sound, with a forward-looking interest in evolving their group dynamic and a genuine excitement at the disparate influences being imported thanks to each member's side projects.
The group coalesced at UArts in 2002 when saxophonists Dan Scofield and Bryan Rogers decided they needed a less school-sanctioned outlet for some of their more left-field influences and eventually enlisted Engle to play "Ornette swing stuff." The three gelled, but it became increasingly clear that their then-drummer, while technically proficient, had different ideas and was tethering their increasingly free-form excursions to a decidedly straight-ahead beat. It was then that they chanced upon drummer Dan Capecchi, a grad student recently transplanted from Minnesota.
It was Capecchi's admiration for the skills of his predecessor that led him to realize the importance of finding the right mix of personalities, not just a gathering of virtuosi. "Right after we finished playing for the first time, I realized that making good music wasn't necessarily about being a technical straight-ahead badass, but about, if you're lucky, finding like-minded people who want to make similar music."
Capecchi "was the missing piece of the puzzle," Scofield says, "and once he joined we coalesced and all moved together in our ideas."
An intensive period of listening ensued, not only to one another but to music passed between them and digested. The main influences combined that original spark from Ornette, the more spacious European approach of ECM Records, Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson in particular, and the seamless integration of composition and improvisation found in Tim Berne's Bloodcount, the discovery of which seemed to provide the approach the band had been looking for.
"It's easier for improvisation to sound really vibrant and immediate and alive," Capecchi says. "I'm interested in making the written material sound just as organic, spontaneous, real and meaningful as the improvisation that's happening around it."
"Aside from the instrumentation," Scofield continues, "the one thing that Ornette really held onto from the jazz tradition was melody. To me, the next revolution is taking the melody and extending it so far out that we're not still in that tradition."
S x S' 2006 self-titled debut emerged from an informal residency at St. Mary's Church at Penn, the cavernous environment becoming inseparable from their sound on that initial recording. For their follow-up, they decided to emphasize the feel of their regular live shows rather than adapt their playing again to the demands of a particular space. The Rotunda concert is, in part, a release celebration for Let Nature Square (High Two). It follows several aborted attempts at a second album and captures a truly collective unit, much matured and obviously at ease with following one another's ideas to the furthest.
Though S x S is home base for all four members, each plays in a variety of other contexts, including Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, Kevin Diehl's Sonic Liberation Front and other ongoing and one-off collaborations. As Rogers points out, those projects are integral to their development as instrumentalists and composers, but also highlight what a special situation S x S offers.
"Playing in different groups makes me realize how unique the way that we play together is," he says. "It's revealing as far as what my identity is, musically speaking: what changes or what's constant from group to group."
"Shot x Shot is a very human group," offers Engle. "Our identity and our ego is collective, so I look forward to identifying a little bit less with the 'Shot x Shot sound' and moving towards convincingly playing different types of music totally naturally."
Shot x Shot plays Wed., May 14, 8 p.m., free, with Eli Litwin, Lionshead and Alex Tyson's film Charles Cohen at the Buchla Music Easel, Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St., bowerbird.org.