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SPARRING PARTNERS

Jazz musicians Dave Stone and Eric Markowitz are cookin' at their weekly Cafe Mangia gigs

"There are differences between our approaches," Stone, who played speed- metal guitar in his youth, explains. "I tend to play against the changes a lot harder, but that's mostly because I can. Unlike Eric, I have zero responsibility to delineate what's going on harmonically. Not everything I'm trying is to everyone's taste, and I'm not even sure the people I'm playing with are always into it. We used to play more tunes that were less standardlike. But now we keep defaulting to basic song structures. It's easier to hear the stuff that you want to pile up on that, as opposed to playing Wayne Shorter tunes, where the changes are less traditional. It's much harder if you try to go out on that stuff without a chord player. The tunes we play are very specific to the trio instrumentation. The complexity really doesn't go much beyond what Coltrane did in '63. We never break the tune; the tune remains there the whole time."

"What we're doing is very abstract to a lot of people's ears," Markowitz says. "There's no clearly defined harmony, especially when there's no regular chord player. I'm playing one note at a time, a bass note, and I'm trying to imply the harmony and the movement of one chord to the next. Dave is just playing melodically over those things. What he does implies the harmony as well. There's just two lines going on. I can hear the tune going by in my head, and it's still abstract to me. If you can't hear the tune going by in your head, there's no way you can understand what's going on."

Depending on the night, the trio is completed by one of two drummers: Kyle Honeycutt on Saturday, Jim Orso on Friday. "Kyle is a more mellow player, quieter," Stone says. "He has a real nice, relaxed Billy Higgins style. Jim's more driving, almost an older style, more bebop, with a little more Elvin Jones." "He has so much energy," Rickard adds, "and he's learning stuff so fast that he's always growing. He's gotten more energetic, more polyrhythmic over the last year." At age 22, Orso has also gone from playing in a high-school heavy-metal band called Vendetta to becoming a regular with some of the most adventurous musicians on the scene, including Rob Block, Paul DeMarinis and Dave Eubanks.

Part of what's so remarkable about the improvisational art of this sometime trio, sometime quartet, sometime jam session, is the way it directs some pretty abstract sounds -- harmonies are suggested, melodies smeared -- into an experience that's no more abstract than the deepest feelings, those emotions we know are true because we couldn't begin to plan or define them. But rather than torch design altogether -- though Stone does just that on his free-jazz gigs every other Wednesday at Mangia -- these weekend outings test the way freedom and form complement, even need, each other. "I don't have a problem keeping the form, as they say," Stone explains. "The form doesn't have to get elongated or crunched. Sometimes it gets pretty crazy, but maybe in our minds there's a certain distaste for groups that play jazz and on every solo the sax player has an aneurysm while the group's playing "Bye Bye Blackbird,' and so it's like they're playing to the audience in a way that's lower than they're capable."

For Markowitz, the music is, finally, a way of listening: "Jazz only makes sense when people are listening closely to each other. The best jazz is when the members of the group seem to be telepathic, listening so close, knowing each other so well. The longer I play with this group, and the more I get to know them as people, the better it gets."

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