Human Feel in Santa Cruz

Human Feel at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa CruzHuman Feel got a predictably enthusiastic response at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, thanks to the turnout of fanboys (and girls) like me. But they also won over the Santa Cruz regulars and Kuumbwa members who’d come not knowing what to expect. I heard at least a couple of them walking away happy, in a chattering and giddy mood.

The band’s music, full of sharp-angled melodies and spans of loud improv abandon — certainly doesn’t fit the normal jazz arc, which is what attracted me to the band in the first place. But their tunes often have pleasant and traceable themes, and the band performed with convincing punch and verve. I’m sure they made a few new fans that night, and they didn’t disappoint the old ones.

The set was good, of course, and packed with energy and sweat, but Andrew D’Angelo‘s stage banter won the crowd over, too. He’s got good stage presence, but he was also gifted with some material in the form of a three-hour flight delay out of Seattle and a couple of lost bags. Airline troubles are nothing new to veteran musicians, but they still provide good stories to tell on stage.

Live soundcheck.
Live soundcheck.

The upshot was that the band, minus Kurt Rosenwinkel‘s guitar pedals and Jim Black‘s drumsticks, got into Santa Cruz just after the designated 7:00 p.m. start time. They rushed through a “live” sound check, testing out borrowed gear while we in the crowd finished our dinners and desserts.

As reward for our patience, we got D’Angelo’s spasmodic sax energy, the heavier guitar-hero side of Rosenwinkel (who spends most of the time in the background with this band, but it’s a hard-working, space-filling background) and of course Jim Black’s drumming, which quite a few people came for, judging by the crowd response. I chose to sit on Black’s side of the stage, so he drowned out the others sometimes (which is why I don’t have much to say about how Chris Speed sounded) but that was a conscious tradeoff, and I wasn’t the only one making it. We got to savor Black’s shapeshifting grooves, full of explosions, torrents, and subtle clinks and clanks.

They tried something really different on “Numer Ology,” a piece D’Angelo said was inspired by cosmic questions about the meaning of existence and the arbitrary nature of fate. Most people took it as a joke, but D’Angelo was diagnosed with brain cancer seven years ago and defeated it without chemo or radiation therapy, so these questions mean a lot to him.

The song consisted of short phrases and short improvisations, all separated by long, weighty pauses. It was at one highbrown and good-humored — and then at one point, D’Angelo picked up the mic and cued us to shout out our meaning-of-the-universe theories after the next phrase. Apparently most crowds just blurt it all out at once; we kind of did it one at a time, classroom-style. It wouldn’t have sounded great on a record, but people got into it.

If Human Feel has anything like a hit single, it’s “Sich Reped,” D’Angelo’s poking, sharp-angled 7/8 tune, and that was their closer. Most of the tune went by at a slightly slower pace than on the album Welcome to Malpesta, making for a sound that was still fun but not as jabbing as it could have been — until the end, when D’Angelo and the others opened up the throttle and poured it on. It was a great crowd-pleaser, and of course it got them an encore — a piece that D’Angelo dedicated to the airline they’d flown and that opened with a roaring, screaming improvisation.

Despite having four successful careers to juggle, Human Feel has now gotten together for two post-’90s albums — Galore, and the soon-to-be-released new album. I treated this show as my only chance to see the band, but now I’ve got my fingers crossed for the future.