E.Normus Trio’s small format, big sound

Though the dynamics of improv jazz—when things go from quietly intense to loud and calculated in a matter of well-orchestrated measures—might call for a velvet couch in a hash bar,  Asheville’s laws prevent that sort of musical experience. Reassuringly, local outfit E.Normus Trio can still send minds into such dimensions.

The point of this group has always been fun before money. Individually, members of the E.Normus Trio are successful, working musicians and, although somewhat below the radar, the ensemble has been playing together for two years. In the beginning they could be seen on Sundays upstairs at the now-closed Joli Rouge. Lately, their forays are at the Rocket Club on Tuesdays, for no cover. 

On a recent cold November evening, an audience populated that bar, though it wasn’t packed. A couple of dogs ran around, sometimes on stage, tails wagging. The audience drifted from being wrapped up in conversations to completely engrossed in the music. Everyone, it seemed, enjoyed jazz, without any stereotypical pretensions—like the high-class snobbery many expect to encounter at a professional jazz performance. 

The jazz that the E.Normus Trio plays is heavy with an audible Miles Davis inspiration. This music is the kind that breaks down chords and uses a variety of timings, formulated to leave a listener’s brain smarter. Each instrument is played with precision and with an occasional freak-out.

On an amplified upright bass (alternating with electric bass guitar), Jay Sanders (Acoustic Syndicate, Donna the Buffalo) can elicit many levels of sound from his instrument. He can hold out deep low notes and, with a seamless transition, pick out a repetitive scale of melody.

Steve Alfred, leader of the Mars Hill College jazz program, makes the alto clarinet (a wind instrument that appears similar in size and shape to the saxophone, but produces an earthier sound) sing in ways that convince the ear it’s hearing lyrics. Listening to a music professor creatively express his talent and emotions in a comfortable atmosphere is an experience in itself. 

Finally, Billy Seawall (Snake Oil Medicine Show) makes playing a full drum kit look easy. He skillfully employs jazz rhythms and lighter drum sticks to create a solid beat, at times reserved, but always clearly audible.

Not to say the percussion ever drowns out the other instruments or vice versa. No one instrument ever takes precedence over the others, yet they are all played loudly. Solos are taken in rotation by each of the three instruments.  The musicians pay attention to each other and the direction of the music as a whole. The end result? Each song is well balanced and the E.Normus Trio’s musicians—here for creative journey rather than the cash it generates—truly collaborate.

The E.Normus Trio plays Tuesday nights at the Rocket Club. Shows start around 10 p.m. and last until midnight or later. Free. 505-2494.

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