Originally published by The Scene
- The Fox Valley, WI
The Spanish Inquisition
Orgy five days a week
By George Halas
2012.01.30 -- Driven by an almost fanatical devotion to quintessential public service, The Inquisition once again reveals treasure hidden in plain sight in the Fox Valley.
In a given week, there is a minimum of five opportunities in an area ranging from Green Bay to Oshkosh to see one of the best live bands you’ve ever laid ears on. Unbelievably, there is no cover.
Celebrating their 12th year together, that band is The Jazz Orgy, winner of the 2010 Wisconsin Area Music Industry (WAMI) Award in the Best Jazz Artist category. The core trio is comprised of keyboardist Mark Martin, bass player/vocalist Andy Mertens and drummer Mike Underwood. For three of the five weekly gigs, the trio adds saxophonist/vocalist Steve Cooper, co-winner of the 2010 WAMI in the Best Reed/Brass Player category.
A Jazz Orgy week begins Sunday nights at Peabody’s in Oshkosh and includes The Paper City Pub in Neenah on Mondays, Mill Creek in Appleton on Tuesdays, Becket’s in Oshkosh Wednesdays and Heat in Green Bay on Thursday nights.
“A lot of rock bands would consider eight gigs a heavy month,” Mertens said. “We do 20 a month with occasional weekends and some double-headers.”
“You’d think there’d be over-saturation,” Underwood added, “but each city has its own spot to see The Jazz Orgy.”
The band’s 1,000+ song library includes classical and modern jazz compositions combined with member-written originals and jazz-accented R&B/blues, but it’s the band’s versatility and creativity that expands the list exponentially.
“The nice thing,” Underwood said, “is that the creativity level of the band is so high. We don’t have to play a song the same way twice. We can play any song as creatively as we want.”
“Having a ‘house’ gig is tough for a rock band because of the limitations of the song lists,” he added. “We do each song infinitely different, so when you go to see The Jazz Orgy, it’s always a different show.”
“The ultimate in jazz is what the ensemble produces collectively,” Martin said. “After 12 years, certain things get to be like mind-reading. There is a great openness that lacks ego, a lot of listening and contributing to the tertiary thing that is the music, where the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.
“Does it coalesce? Is it cohesive?” he continued. “Is it an entity or is it just three guys playing together?
“We don’t overpower volume,” he added. “We realize that, in this era of amplification, that it is so easy to ‘make’ people listen,” he added. “We create an environment where people have the ability to have a conversation rather than just putting on a show.”
“We appeal to people who love to have fun, and that’s just about everybody,” Martin said. “Not drunken, hedonistic fun, necessarily. We’re a little more cerebral.”
The Jazz Orgy was the brainchild of Martin and Mertens.
“Mark and I had a church gig at St. Rafe’s (St. Raphael’s in Oshkosh) and we’d go hang out at Peabody’s afterwards,” Mertens said. “We hatched this plan to become better jazz players by having a gig where we’d invite guests who were better musicians than us and, by playing with them, it would make us better. And it worked.”
That plan gave birth to “The Formula.”
“When we got the Peabody’s thing going, we’d open up the second set to other musicians and we’d always have a special guest,” Mertens said. “That went well right away. That’s how PCP and other gigs came about. Places saw the success we were having and wanted it for themselves.”
Martin and Mertens were joined by drummer Pete Buxman , who was later replaced by Mark Powers before Underwood became a permanent member eight years ago.
The seminal Peabody’s performances on Sunday nights include a special guest who joins The Jazz Orgy for the first and third sets. The second set is open to anyone who wants to jam with the band.
“What keeps the crowd coming back is the formula for the shows,” Martin said. “The first and third sets create a set of bookends. The second set can be just pure chaos.
“Entire bands have come out of the second set,” Martin noted. “They met playing with us in the second set and just kept playing together.”
The event also gave the band its name.
“Peabody’s started calling the event ‘The Jazz Orgy’,” Mertens said. “I don’t remember what we decided to call ourselves, but after a while people knew us as The Jazz Orgy.”
“We knew we were taking a risk calling ourselves The Jazz Orgy,” Martin added. “But it paid off. The name is difficult to forget.”
The combination of creativity, consistent musicianship, special guests and chaos keeps the music and the band fresh.
“We never get tired of the gigs and we get to play with so many great players,” Underwood said. “One of the great aspects is that everybody around wants to come out and play with The Jazz Orgy. It’s fair to say that the endless combinations of music and players keep it interesting.”
The list of special guests who have played with The Jazz Orgy comprises a virtual Who’s Who of Wisconsin jazz. Mertens and Underwood were hard-pressed to single out favorites, but did mention guitarists Jack Grassel and Tom Theabo, drummer Steve Smith, Danny and Michelle Jerabek of Copper Box, Janet Planet and Tom Washatka as well as sax players Steve Johnson, Ross Catterton and Erik Bertaud.
“And lately, (vocalist) Erin Krebs and (guitarist) Jeff Johnston,” Underwood added, and Mertens agreed. “We’d love to play with them all the time.”
Johnston for many years fronted a band called The Swingin’ Johnsons; when combined, Martin, Mertens, Underwood, Cooper, Krebs and Johnston perform as The Swingin’ Orgy. If you see them booked anywhere, drop everything and go – they’re that good.
Martin has a different take on the guests.
“I like anybody new,” he said. “I do all the booking for the special guests, so it’s someone picked by me. It’s always fun to see how the guys react to someone new.”
“We’ve got a guy coming up, Evan Christian, a flamenco guitarist from Milwaukee who studies half the year in Spain,” he added, “but he also has modern sensibilities when it comes to the music.”
Martin, Mertens and Underwood were unanimous in their praise for Cooper and what he adds to The Jazz Orgy.
“He’s a fantastic singer, a fantastic sax player and adds another voice,” Mertens said. “We don’t have to work as hard as we do as a trio. Mark doesn’t have to take all the heads and I don’t have to sing as much so I can just lay back and play bass.”
“When he is with us, he is the clear leader,” Martin said. “The trio should pride itself as leaderless as we all lead simultaneously, but, when he is with us, he takes the helm and leads.”
Although the band has been together for 12 years, they see themselves as “closer to the beginning than the end.” They all agree that touring, playing festivals and constant improvement as musicians are mutual goals.
“We realize that there is no end in sight as far as improvement is concerned,” Martin said. “The music is in a constant state of improvement. When does music ever get perfect?”
The group is building its online presence and is putting together a live video, although “it’s a challenge to bring what we do, the live energy, and translate it to video,” Underwood said.
The Internet is going to be a major factor in achieving their goals. “You can’t just mail out a press kit anymore,” Mertens said.
The band also just finished a studio album with trumpeter and composer Bob Levy that will be released soon. Martin and Mertens contributed originals.
“It’s all about right now,” Martin said. “The band is the best it’s ever been and it’s a tribute to our commitment to getting better.”
If you’ve seen them, it’s hard to believe they can get any better, but it will be fun to watch and listen.
For more on the band, visit jazzorgy.com.