If ever we applied points to the use of unexpected onomatopoeia in band names, Elephant Wrecking Ball — Boston-born and Brooklyn-bred -- would certainly score high. Just take a quick moment to envision and, in particular, hear an elephant wrecking ball. Got it? There it is, right?
Not too long ago in the history of New England jazz, trombonist Scott Flynn was in his early twenties and seeking some sort of trio at Berklee. A couple years prior, he had seen some horn players use effects pedals on their instruments. The image and the sounds stuck with him, which led to the formation of Mother Vibration. Berklee graduation soon prompted divergent paths, but the idea stuck with Flynn. He met kindred spirits in drummer Neal “Fro” Evans (from, among other bands, Dopapod) and bassist Dan Africano (from, likewise among plenty others, Zongo Junction). Stitching together musical interests and ideas, Elephant Wrecking Ball was born. You can hear what they’re getting at there, yeah?
“I just like trios a lot,” Flynn says. “And I feel like with the idea of these pedals, which can really expand the sound pallette in a lot of different ways, I just like how much room there is to play and create.”
With an eight-song debut under their belts and a steady commitment to the road, these guys are developing a stripped-down and fairly danceable approach to the loose and generally defined world of jazz. From tunes like “Stomp Stomp Stomp” to “Shiny Irony," there’s something very airy about the band’s ideas.
The musicians here clearly like to explore terra incognita as a band. All of that movement — the improv onstage, the compositional zigging and zagging in-studio — then turns that airiness into something immediate and magnetic. Flynn likes to use the word “gravity” when describing what’s going on here.
“A lot of my appreciation of heavy music — like heavy grooves or just strong bass and drums — a lot of my love of that music came to me through reggae and dub,” Flynn says, referencing his education as a member of centripetal Boston reggae band John Brown’s Body. “I knew when I was making this new trio that I wanted it to have that gravity, that idea that this music has got some weight to it, some volume — in terms of physics, you know?”
When he first began hanging out with Evans and Africano, he recognized a certain mutual simpatico and a shared interest in dub music. In short, they clicked. Flynn plays the role of lead, kicking around melody on his trombone — the elephant, if you will — and Evans and Africano steadily and simultaneously build and deconstruct whatever foundation lies below. They’re the wrecking ball.
To elaborate on that, Africano calls in to the Scene offices from the streets of Brooklyn in early December. He’s helping a buddy move, and navigating weekday traffic is a pain in the ass. “I’m currently inside of a U-Haul van,” he says, laughing.
Early on, in Boston, he and Evans had been playing together and cultivating rapport. They had Flynn sit in with them in another band and, soon enough, they all started fleshing out ideas and recording — then writing and recording some more. The basic idea — Flynn’s focus on gravity within sound palettes — got everyone excited and looking forward.
“You know, there are no chordal instruments, so that leaves a lot of room for improvisation. We’re not a jazz band, per se, but there is a lot of room for us to fill in gaps,” Africano says. “We saw it as a great opportunity to present something new. All of the sounds are really familiar to us, but there’s an element of freshness with the trombone as the lead instrument and with all these unique sounds and tones that come out of it.”
“This is How We Slow Dance,” one of the hallmark tunes on the band’s debut, Barren Serenade, showcases the same. With Flynn at the head of a musical parade, the song morphs from a mournful dirge into something altogether different. There are bubbles of air in between each note and textures that build off of other unrelated textural wanderings. Halfway through the song, everything explodes, in a sense, and the band charges into more freeform, experimental moods. It’s a real trip and it’s indicative of what the trio is trying to accomplish.
And even expanding on the simple trio concept, the guys in Elephant Wrecking Ball brought in some friends to fill out guest spots and remixes on the album. Closing track “Chippy the Elephant,” an 8-bit remix of an earlier tune called “Strutty the Elephant” shows how far out the musicians are willing to stretch their ideas (this tune was assembled by friend Scott Hannay).
Pairing “Chippy” with another remix, “Erin’s Sword,” to close the album expands on everything that came before and invites the listener further into the ethos of EWB.
“The remixes were another chance for us to showcase the song in a new light and allow someone who is also familiar with the music to give their own take on it,” Africano says. “For us, that’s just as exciting as playing the tune ourselves.”
Looking ahead, toward this weekend’s Winter Warm Up at the Agora and beyond, Flynn and Co. are beyond psyched about this band. “We have a backlog of music to rehearse and finish and write. We have a lot of musical ideas either recorded or written down or in our heads,” Flynn says. “We’ve got a lot of stuff we want to unleash in the next couple years.”
Here are a few highlights from the band’s debut, Barren Serenade.
“Stomp, Stomp, Stomp”
The album opener introduces the tight-knit rhythms of drummer Neal “Fro” Evans and bassist Dan Africano. They lay down a smooth foundation, while trombonist Scott Flynn arches cool melodies over the top. Around 2:21, the trio kicks everything up a notch — doubling down on the song’s sense of “gravity,” as Flynn would say — and shifts the mood onto trippier planes. “Stomp Stomp Stomp” sets the vibe for the rest of the album: enticing desert landscapes with multi-pronged features storming from the ground at odd intervals. Imagine an Yves Tanguy painting that made noise.
This tune features the most enticing bass line on the album. Africano works up and down the neck, ebbing and flowing and bouncing against Flynn’s late-night lounge trombone. About a minute into the song, he starts tossing on effects and generally taking everyone’s sounds deeper into orbit. This is a good “starter” song, as it were, for the uninitiated, proving that Elephant Wrecking Ball is both dabbling in some complex, jazzy compositional structures and tossing around fairly accessible, danceable music.
“This is How We Slow Dance”
Among the more experimental tracks we’re dealing with here, “This is How We Slow Dance” begins as a mournful trombone dirge plugging along stripped-down bass and drums. Before long, though, Flynn leads the trio into frenetic territory by hitting some wild, high notes about two minutes in. Evans and Africano follow, descending into a sonic wormhole. The last minute of the song, where all previous premises return, is a great moment on the album.
“Chippy the Elephant”
The album’s closing track is a remix of an earlier tune, “Strutty the Elephant.” Featuring 8-bit Nintendo-throwback sounds, this tune is an interesting choice for contrast against the rest of the album. Still oddly danceable, “Chippy” shows the band’s welcome capacity to bring in friends (here, Scott Hannay) and have some fun in the studio. Imagine if Link ate some mushroom caps before ducking into the Lost Woods and you’ve got a general sense of where we end up. A happy place! “We have a deep and collective love of video game music,” Flynn says. “Some of the stuff that [Hannay] had done was really cool, so we gave him a song that has some moments of free improvisation there.” The result is a wholly unique nightcap for a wholly unique album.
ELEPHANT WRECKING BALL at 5th ANNUAL WINTER WARM UP 9 p.m., Friday, Dec. 12, Agora Theater, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $23, clevelandagora.com.