Learning to Love Bad Luck

The video starts with sheets of notes from an overblown saxophone and pounding drums—a grating river of sound, vaporous streams disappearing back into cacophony almost as soon as they arise. The band, Bad Luck, is Neil Welch on sax and drummer Chris Icasiano. They play free jazz. The viewer—whether the audience at the live performance of “R.B.G.” from last July or you, now, watching the video—can dip in and out of the sonic torrent at will.

For this piece, the band incorporated dancer Lorraine Lau. She writhes between the band members, who play on the floor of the Chapel Performance Space, breaking the invisible plane between band and audience, defacing the altar of the stage. The performance goes on for about 30 minutes. Like a lot of Bad Luck’s compositions (they’ve released three albums and an EP in the last seven years) it includes phases of overpowering noise punctuated by haunting silence and looped remnants of saxophone breaths.

Welch is a high school jazz instructor and jazz educator in Seattle Jazz Reperetory Orchestra’s Jazz Scholars program, giving free lessons to underserved youth. Icasiano is a drummer passionate about improvisation who co-founded the record label and experimental performance promoter Table & Chairs, as well as Racer Sessions, a composition and improvisation workshop, with Welch. Icaisiano and Welch’s Bad Luck was born out of sessions as a duo in which they explored the works of John Coltrane and the drummer who pushed him into free jazz, Rashied Ali.

Free jazz began as avant-garde jazz in the 1960s, a way of changing the parameters of musical performance in order to look at it from a different angle. It was the progenitor of the best music of the last 50 years: the Stooges’ deconstruction of rock dogma, Radiohead’s ability to set a mood across an entire record with anarchic framework. Kendick Lamar’s last album, a bouillabaisse of hip-hop featuring Kamasi Washington and Thundercat’s avant-garde bop and George Clinton’s funk colliding with Lamar’s story raps in a nearly atonal explosion, owes a credit to free-jazz pioneers like Ornette Coleman, Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. 

Free-jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock said it was his goal to make everyone in the first three rows’ ears bleed, and though some players are a bit pretentious, the goal of free jazz was to shrug off the structure of early and bop jazz that purists declared the “correct” way to play. Bad Luck steps back to the deeper cuts of those pioneers. They use compositions by Sharrock or Roscoe Mitchell for inspiration, adding effects pedals and groovier drums, choosing here and there to abandon time signature, chord structure or the pedagogy of complex musical structure in the hunt for a truly improvised sound.  

On Aug. 16, Bad Luck will share a bill with DoNormaal at Chop Suey. DoNormaal, aka Christy Karefa-Johnson, is one of the most talked-about young acts in Seattle, a post-hip-hop rapper who can write a hook and conflagrate convention with sedate flows over asymmetrical beats. The pairing speaks to the general greatness of the Seattle music community as it exists today. Presenting jazz in its freest form and then following it by its musical descendant, hip-hop, in an anti-commercial stream of consciousness, a scrolling portal, a Tumblr mood board of inner voices and black girl self-determination, Seattle seems to grasp the messages of Coltrane and Ali: Outside of music’s commonly accepted beat exists an emancipated, implied meter, an empowered and truly free human expression.

Bad Luck and DoNormaal play Chop Suey Tuesday, August 16. Tickets are $8.