It seemed like a good theory at the time. After all, synchronicity was surely responsible for having Sony's new, brilliantly remastered version of Miles Davis's Jack Johnson show up at my door on the same day as an advance copy of the Inhabitants' self-titled debut, issued on violinist Jesse Zubot's fledgling Drip Audio label. More than 35 years might separate the two releases, but played back-to-back both discs are equally captivating, and they share a similar formula: expansive grooves driven by relentless bass lines and expressive yet detailed drumming, topped by sharp-edged electric guitars, liquid trumpet lines, and a tasteful veneer of electronic processing. Could it be that Davis's jazz/funk/rock fusion masterpiece was a primal influence on the similarly eclectic Inhabitants?
Not a chance, according to the local quartet's trumpet player and de facto founder, J.?P. Carter. "Jack Johnson?" he says quizzically, calling from his Vancouver home. "I've never heard that, actually."
It's not that Davis comparisons are entirely unfamiliar to the group, which shares a double bill with Zubot, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Jean Martin at the VCC Auditorium on Friday (April 1). Carter allows that a few listeners have likened the Inhabitants' sound to that of Bitches Brew, the disc that pre?ceded Davis's tribute to boxing legend Johnson. "But I can't really figure that out," he adds, "because it doesn't seem anything like that to me."
Carter is a little more amenable to the notion that the Inhabitants, like Davis's early electric bands, play a kind of psychedelic jazz.
"I wrote a little group bio for the jazz-fest program this year, and I sort of put in art rock and experimental jazz, and then I thought about it a little later and realized that whatever you say about it is never going to be enough," he contends. "One tune might tip its hat to some art-rock bands that whoever wrote the tune might be influenced by or thought about at the time, but then the next tune might be totally off in some other land. But psychedelic jazz? Why not? Sounds good to me."
The term psychedelic certainly applies to tunes like the Carter-composed "Main Drag", which opens with a hiccupping, circular motif from guitarist Dave Sikula before drummer Skye Brooks and bassist Pete Schmitt enter with splashing cymbals and a clomping two-note riff. Carter's echo-enhanced horn lines play off the claustrophobic atmosphere, briefly suggesting a babbling multiple-personality-syndrome sufferer, before the whole tune opens up into a cavernous landscape dominated by sustained, rubbery guitar lines and cloud-scraping trumpet. It's a darkly entrancing piece and, more than any Miles Davis comparisons ever could, it demonstrates the central fact of the Inhabitants' music: this band may be a quartet, but it's also a pair of duos.
Throughout the disc, no matter whose tune it is-and all four Inhabitants write-Carter and Sikula play with one mind, as do Brooks and Schmitt.
"Pete and Skye have been playing together forever," the trumpeter explains. "They sort of grew up together in Mission, and they were roommates for years, jamming in the basement, so they've got a real connection there.
"And I've been playing with Dave for a long time, too," he adds. "Back when we were with the Millennium Project a few years ago, that's when we first got together and played. Then he went to Toronto for a number of years to study jazz, and then when he came back we started playing together again in a duo called Carsick; we're putting a record out on Jesse's label as well. So that's actually how the Inhabitants came to be: it started with our little duo, and Skye's actually our biggest fan."
For a disc recorded live in the studio, and on a minuscule budget, Inhabitants sounds spectacular, which is in part a tribute to the mutual trust and respect the four players share. But the lush minimalism that is the quartet's signature is also the product of hard work. Carter says this band requires the most rehearsal time of any of the several projects he's involved in, with the possible exception of master arranger Tony Wilson's sextet.
"We don't usually work on overall structure until we've got the feel of each section and the sounds that we're planning on using," he explains, referring to the Inhabitants' modular approach. "Putting together an arrangement is the last thing that we do-and the classic scenario, for me, is when we've got all the little sections working and then we need to put them together. I'll sit there with my head in my hands, trying to figure it out, and then finally we decide on something and it begins to take shape."
Making the music, then, might involve the occasional migraine. But listening to it won't: seamless, smooth, and spacious, Inhabitants is a beautifully mature debut for a band we hope will be around for years to come.