Dan Nettles answers the door to his Buena Vista Heights home and a warm, seasick drone fills the hallway; a loop pedal is yawning a single note. It is tempting to imagine it has been playing forever. A sustaining presence in the local and wider jazz communities for years—as a guitar instructor and with his longtime project Kenosha Kid—Nettles has remained mostly under the radar, a quiet but persuasive force.
A few minutes later, he stands in his living room sifting through a pile of handmade charts ("I don't do well on computers," he says), notations of songs newly imagined or newly revised. They are tunes he plans to flesh out with a newly assembled group of old friends, a group Nettles has lovingly termed the Horns from Hell.
The Horns—trumpeter Jacob Wick, alto saxophonist Peter Van Huffel and tenor/baritone saxophonist Greg Sinibaldi—will join Kenosha Kid, whose current lineup also includes bassist Robby Handley and drummer Marlon Patton, for a series of recording sessions and an accompanying week of live performances at Hendershot's starting Monday, Mar. 18. It's the realization of a dream that has been in the works for several years.
"I met Dan at the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada in 2006," Sinibaldi recalls. "We each had our own room there but shared a bathroom. As you can imagine, thats a quick way to get to know someone."
The two bonded over music and life, and Sinibaldi wound up playing on a couple Kenosha Kid records, including the 2008 album Fahrenheit, a sleeper cell of an album that cloaked wild jazz experimentation in avant-pop clothing. In fact, though Nettles is an adept musical theorist, his compositions often toe the line between brains and accessibility, a result of his various associations.
"If you had to pick your jazz career path," he says, "you would graduate from whatever music school, and then move to New York and start trying to play with as many name brand musicians as you can. I just never did that. I ended up just enjoying playing with my friends."
Nettles' Horns from Hell collaborators are similarly unbound by genre expectations—in addition to his work with experimental Seattle group Goat, Sinibaldi also performs with a heavy rock band called Uncle Pooch; the Oakland-based Wick is also a visual and performance artist. Berliner Van Huffel is perhaps the most strictly jazz-minded of the group, an improv wizard and free jazz devotee whose soulful, skronked-out playing calls to mind free-sax titans Peter Brötzmann and Albert Ayler.
In concept, Nettles places this upcoming project in a decidedly un-jazz perspective. "I keep thinking of the wild ecstasy of a record like Band of Gypsies and a beautiful, arranged record like Pet Sounds and how they could somehow meet in the middle," he wrote in a recent email.
Over a cup of coffee, he elaborates. "Pet Sounds is lush, melodically. The way the recording was done is very fascinating. And [Brian Wilson's] sense of harmony there is intense. I've gone through and learned seven or eight songs on there as solo pieces on the guitar. He has these voicings that I would get into and be like, 'How is this working?'"
To demonstrate, Nettles picks up a nearby guitar and fingers some chords. "This inversion is an A7, but A7 over a G. Into D, over F-sharp," he says, strumming. "Little things like that. I'm like, 'Wow, this is intense.'"
Of the reference to Hendrix, he explains: "If you're gonna play guitar, you have to decide if you live in a world before Jimi Hendrix or after Jimi Hendrix. I think a lot of jazz guitarists end up with a hard choice there."
The end result of Nettles' collaboration with the Horns from Hell will almost certainly feature an explicit jazz framework. Still, he expresses a desire to distill the "live, stretchy stuff" that is Kenosha Kid's unabashed forte (for proof, see the dozens of live recordings uploaded to the group's Bandcamp page) into four- or five-minute bursts of sonic immediacy.
"It's an imaginary sound, right now," says Nettles. "I have a feeling we're either going to record 10-minute versions and get in there and choose [our] own adventure, or we're gonna decide on an arrangement and everyone will have their moments: 'OK, you're getting eight bars, so say something important.'"
Nettles describes himself as a musical conservative, hard to believe given some of his past work. Still, he possesses a tectonic grasp of structure, and his collaborators attest to his leadership skills. Says Sinibaldi, "He has a vision for what he wants his music to be, and goes out to find the parts necessary to make it happen."
And Nettles seems to be approaching this current concern with a startlingly clear focus, even for him. His mother passed away recently, he says, and though he doesn't state it, exactly, it's clear the project is meant as a tribute to her. He also says he's looking into hiring a publicist to spread the word about the as-yet-untitled album (or play the "Chutes and Ladders game" of PR, as he describes it) for the first time ever.
Adjacent to that is the ever-pressing issue of where, exactly, Kenosha Kid fits in the musical spectrum, a question Nettles seems to wrestle with. "Are we a jam band? Are we a townie noise-rock band?" he asks rhetorically, before pausing and adding, wryly, "I'd much rather be a jam band now, honestly. The audiences are nicer, and people actually pay and give a shit."
But more imperative than figuring out where one fits creatively is staking out a position in one's personal universe. The rest, Nettles expects, will follow. "[I've felt] really energized the past couple years," he says. "I think I've finally been happy with where I fit in in my life, with my family… Every time I trust my gut instinct, it pays off."
WHO: Kenosha Kid + Horns from Hell
WHERE: Hendershot's Coffee Bar
WHEN: Monday, March 18–Saturday, March 23
HOW MUCH: $5–$20