All songs conceived by St. Theresa’s Diesel.
Recorded 1995 by Randy Platt in Prescott, Arizona.
Edited & Remastered 2007 by J Roth.
Chris Hout: fretless electric bass
Kevin Keith: sax & vox
Randy Platt: drums
J Roth: electric guitar
‘Liner Notes’ written by J Roth (with addition by Chris Hout at the end)
It’s the thirteenth anniversary of the recording contained on this CD. I realize usually a ten or twenty-five year milestones are more appropriate markers for re-celebrating some event of the past and that such events, in regards to commemorating a music recording, are usually reserved only for musical performers who had successful careers. The musical combo dubbed, St. Theresa’s Diesel, had a very short-lived life. Together less than a year, they never played to large crowds of adoring fans, never took their act on tour, never sold a single CD. Yet, biased as I may be, I believe the music contained on this recording is extraordinary for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it is almost in its entirety improvised. I don’t just mean improvised like traditional jazz numbers in which a soloist plays over a progression of chords – the structure and direction of most of the songs on this recording were never discussed. And yet there are so many moments, so many transitions that seem like they would have to have been rehearsed. In fact, to my memory, this was only the second time we’d ever played together as a combo. A couple of the songs we had played around with once before, but even these had no clear direction and no clear ending. We never discussed who would solo when, or if there was a bridge or chorus or how many times we’d play each part through. Yes, at times, some of these songs meander a bit aimlessly, but often they seem to have a definite direction, without having a definite driver.
Which leads me to the second reason these songs still amaze me: of the four players, there is absolutely no leader. We were meeting as genuine equals – none of the band members were interchangeable, not for the music that is presented here on this recording. Everyone is listening and reacting, co-creating and encouraging. Such musical communication is sadly rare. There is almost a purity to it – perhaps this is where the “Saint” part of the band’s name is justified. There are dozens of moments in which one of the four introduces some element that the other three latch onto instantly, almost intuitively. We are never specifically following someone’s lead for much more than a minute. The songs’ changes were never verbally dictated by anyone before or during the playing of them. If there are Muses as the ancient Greeks believed, perhaps the alchemy of our mixed spirits conjured a portal for one of them to visit us that night.
I say “that night”, because this recording is from one night in drummer, Randy Platt’s warehouse studio in Prescott, Arizona. He recorded it to tape using two microphones. It wasn’t run through a mixer, no one was there to check levels, the instruments were not separated to different tracks. The purpose of the recording, as I recall, was just to be able to listen to some of our musical ideas that we might develop them later. The recording this album was made from is actually from a dubbed copy of that original session tape. This dubbing was done over music already on the tape (a monumental no-no to any music meant to survive). The tape itself was of poor quality. I had no idea the tape would be pure magic to me or I would have given it a much more worthy vessel. Sadly the tape is disintegrating, but I am thankful it held out long enough to be digitalized.
As far as the editing: several songs are unedited; several I felt compelled to copy and repeat certain musical lines or themes that had been introduced only once in the midst of the jam; there were occasional moments snipped out, usually when the soloist was momentarily trying to find the key and playing some off-notes (truthfully, these moments are surprisingly rare considering there was minimal discussion and nothing written down). The “tightness” of the rhythm section really helped with the editing – Randy and Chris, despite their constant fluctuating movements, are wonderfully solid in their rhythm.
The original, unaltered versions of all these songs are preserved should any of my old cohorts want to hear them or disagree with my doctoring.
So much of the power of this music is the ebbing and flowing. I tried to preserve that but feel in a few instances I have failed. If I could have separately mixed the instruments I certainly would have turned down my guitar. (Don’t accuse me of playing too loud, I think that was partially the mic placement; I think Kev also stood well back from his closest mic for fear of overpowering the mix with his sax.)
In some ways, I view this as a valuable historical document. I want to preserve it for posterity. There are thousands upon thousands of musical recordings out there, I see no reason why this shouldn’t join the ranks. Certainly for me it is a moment in history captured; four musical scientists in their laboratory, conjuring magic. There have been a few other nights like this for me (around campfires or what not) but none that were captured on tape.
It should be noted that no guitar or bass riffs or cymbal crashes were added by me during the editing process. Every beat and note heard is from 1995. Having said that, there was some tinkering I did with a few of the songs. Why not just leave the recordings unaltered? Firstly, as mentioned, the tape was decaying in a few places. Secondly, at times an occasional off note threatened to ruin an otherwise wonderful passage of music. Thirdly, I wanted the songs to have a little more sense of structure. Fourthly, I wanted some of them to be shorter. I don’t think I’ve taken the soul out of any of them (or I wouldn’t bother with the project.)
I find it ironic that this CD represents our best work. Essentially we were a live band. We didn’t rehearse, we performed. Often the audience was essential to what we were doing, giving us titles and genres for the kind of music they wanted to hear. Yet, this studio recording doesn’t include this “fifth Beatle” (the audience).
A little history of the band, which hopefully can be further fleshed in the future by my former band mates:
Somehow Kevin and I developed a musical friendship. I’m sure it was his idea to play “on the street” down at Prescott’s famous block of bars called Whiskey Row. I remember that first night, I had my acoustic guitar and he his sax. We had a blast and made decent money and over the next few months there were many nights to follow. We found we had an unique chemistry that allowed us to improvise and interact with the people around us. Our “shtick” was: “Give us a title and we’ll make up the song for you.” The Night is Moon and Catfish in My Shoe are two songs I recorded (see Under a Blue Sun) that were originally created with Kevin from titles given to us on the row. (There were many others: Peace for Heath, U.P.S. Yes!, She’s Got a Problem among them that I wish someone had recorded.) One night Kevin suggested we take our act over to a bar called Lyzzard’s Lounge for their open mic. I remember a couple different nights we absolutely mesmerized them. Once Kevin pulled out a broom and began a shuffle beat in the middle of the bar and I swear to you the entire bar ended up around us dancing and singing to the song we were creating. Soon we were invited to play a full set every Wednesday night. Our first solo show there was another musical night I wish I had a recording of. I remember holding many of the audience rapt for the couple hours we were up there on stage and the whole time we were just making up songs on the spot.
Why we decided to expand from a duo to a quartet, I don’t remember. Teaming up with Chris Hout was a natural choice. Kevin and Chris had played together in a fairly successful band called Soul Picnic. Chris had moved away to Portland and joined another band but had returned again (after some kind of falling out with them). All three of us had graduated from Prescott College.
The mysterious added partner was drummer Randy Platt. He didn’t go to the college and I honestly can’t remember how we teamed up with him. I remember about seven or eight musicians jamming (in my opinion, unsuccessfully) in his studio one night. Perhaps it was then that we found him. Soon though we had bonded together. I don’t know what became of Randy, he just kind of disappeared, but in some ways, as I listen back, it seems like he was, if not the heart, at least the spinal column that held us up and shook us about. His playing is extraordinary. Always steady, but always moving the music.
Regarding my own playing on the guitar, I will say this: I had only just gotten my first electric guitar. (A cheap pawn shop Fender imitation. I think I just had a homemade strap made from an Ace bandage I was using. I was quite poor at this time.) Part of the creativity coming from me is my excitement in exploring this new instrument. But also I was just undergoing a potent flowering of understanding of how to improvise on the instrument (this was my sixth year playing guitar). Over the past year I had made discoveries that opened the instrument wide open and it was a joy to get to use those with such a fantastic rhythm section. That past year I also had really discovered jazz. In particular I can sight piano virtuoso McCoy Tyner’s playing on A Love Supreme as a major inspiration in comping chords around the sax. Then there was also Roland Kirk’s Bright Moments in which piano player Ron Burton limited himself to very short solos between Kirk’s mighty outbursts. I viewed my role in Diesel as being similar to Burton’s. My biggest influence though would have to be local, legend saxophonist Milt Cannon and his sidekick drummer Dave Cook. They brought amazing jazz music every week right into the heart of little Prescott. I used to stand five feet away from them in tiny Nolaz bar and just soak in their playing. Kevin, who was taking sax lessons from Milt at the time we made this recording, would surely sight Milt as a major influence as well. Of course the rock guitar influence of Pete Townsend, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page was still strong in me and can be heard throughout this recording, but jazz was my new mistress.
I could be wrong, but I think this recording captures Kevin at the peak of his sax playing. I think in the ensuing years he became more enamored with the guitar. All the more reason these recordings are precious.
Another influence on myself and Kevin was a Prescott College course taught by a woman named Mary Grace Lentz. It was a course devoted to improvisational expression for theater, but the lessons she taught definitely carried out into music and other areas of my life. It was about an awareness and openness to co-creating with other artists in the moment. Improvisational expression became almost a religion to me; certainly I began to consider it the highest art form (which led to some conflicts with some of my other, more traditionally-minded instructors). Perhaps Mary Grace’s most valuable lesson was that of stillness – don’t fake “It”, just stop if you aren’t feeling “It”, until you do start feeling “It” again. Listening back to this recording, thank goodness I did take stillness at times.
Of the band’s name, I remember Kevin and I were discussing names; we’d been trying to find a good one. He threw out St. Theresa’s Diesel accompanied by that infectious laugh of his and I was hooked. As far as I know, none of us were or are practicing Christians, thus the name must have been and could still be misleading to some. Yet, it fits somehow – perhaps it’s the saintly matched with the grimy, or maybe just the humorous juxtaposition wordplay that was such an important element to our live shows. Sadly, there are no recordings of that wordplay Kevin and I used to do together. On this recording it is Kevin who sings alone. I’m not sure why I never tried to join him on this night, often in our live shows I would. I’m glad I didn’t though for these recordings – my voice is only that of the guitar’s (and occasional banter I decided to leave in).
Due to the constraints on the band members’ lives, St. Theresa’s Diesel on Wednesday nights became somewhat of a jazz workshop, with several different musicians filling in at times. We never rehearsed, we only performed. There were always great moments of spontaneous creations, but truthfully I think this recording represents the peak of this short-lived band. Ironically, it was me, the one who is undoubtedly the band’s biggest fan, who caused its break-up. Desperate to get out and see the world, I joined the Peace Corps and left Prescott in the Fall of ’95. Kevin and Chris took it in stride, but I remember Randy being a little bitter – he believed in the power of our connection. Still, I think somehow the band had no long term future. I now think it was perhaps for the best that it died young.
I’ve included commentary on each of the songs below. Only our last song of the night isn’t included here. We were obviously tired (the Muse had perhaps left) and that last song had none of the dynamic quality or lyricism that is in the others.
Slowpening it Up
I remember no discussion about this song other than what key to play in. We wanted to just get warmed up. This is the one and only time we ever played this song. It is completely unedited, and I think brilliant in its structure.
This is a simple guitar riff I came up with. For this song I did have to edit a fair bit out as there were a few misadventures along the way. The ebb and flow of the piece is thus somewhat compromised, still there are some real quality moments. My guitar solo I think is one of the finest I’ve ever done, but after listening to it repeatedly, I came to realize that Chris and Randy are soloing right along with me – reacting beautifully to everything I’m doing. I remember Kevin was vocally encouraging me as well. You will hear us doing this for each other and the ensemble in numerous songs. The ending of this song came a little sudden and I debated editing it out, but I think it’s satisfactory enough and does demonstrate how we did at times take diverging paths in the midst of a jam (though I found amazingly few of these moments on the recording). This also is the only moment that features all of us talking. We performed this song several times live.
Chris or Kevin may remember the title for this one, as I recall the opening melody was one they had come up with together and we had tried together once before. This received a bit of editing, mostly in the form of copying and repeating various riffs.
One of Chris’s bass lines. Sadly a middle portion was lost to decaying tape. Kevin is improvising the lyrics, which I looped and rearranged a bit. There was a B section we tried to incorporate, but I edited it out as it really didn’t work (though it could have with more discussion and practice). This perhaps could have been our “hit” song.
This is the most edited piece (and I realize it shows). I had no choice as this recording picked up in the middle of the song (when we flipped the tape?) I had to perform reconstructive surgery for a beginning melody from the couple scant moments when we touched upon it later in the jam. This also was our longest jam on one progression and moments of it seemed to be a bit muddled, so I cut them out. Still, again, I think there are enough nice moments to justify keeping the song. As I recall this is another melody that Chris and Kevin came up with together.
Island of Bees
Another of Chris’s bass lines which we had practiced once before. I didn’t edit this one much, we didn’t delve into it as deeply as the others. This song definitely demonstrates how Randy had “blastoff” and “coast” buttons on his control panel and he was willing to use them to firmly take over the navigation of the Diesel at times.
Your Love is Heroin
Chris brought us this one. He originally called it A Tribute to Freddie Mercury. This was the first time we played it and it is largely unedited. Unfortunately this song was plagued by decaying tape and I had to edit out a couple wonderful moments . I think it was perhaps the first time I had used a drop D tuning for the high E string. I’m quite pleased with the creativity it inspired. We tried to perform this live but never came close to matching this performance. I think this would have been our other best chance at a “hit”. Again, it just blows me away how the song seems so structured when actually we never discussed how it would proceed.
Bust My Chops
That’s what Randy called it. As I recall, this was the kind of music he most wanted to play and the idea was that we’d all play in a different time signature (but common key). Randy plays in seven, Chris in four, Kevin in three, and I try to play in five. Unlike all the other songs, this is the one where the goal was not to listen and react to each other (at least rhythmically – you can hear how that breaks down). The transition from the cacophony to the more sedate, set piece is perhaps my favorite moment on the whole recording. We performed different renditions of Bust My Chops to live audiences (with, as you can guess, very mixed levels of appreciation) but I don’t think we ever came close to replicating the transition out of it that we found here. In fact the last song recorded that night, which is not included here, was another rendition of Bust My Chops which to me, doesn’t really have the same spirit as this one at all. The sweet jazzy piece the song transitions into was never recreated by us.
In the Cage
This tune is a continuation of the previous. I named it In the Cage because it kind of feels like we get into the cage one-at-a-time to try and tame the dervish, Randy Platt. Again, there was no discussion, we just decided to play along with Randy (who seemed to be in a kind of trance) one at-a-time. Unfortunately, this is the one song I had to fade out, for as we came back together, it was into a muddled song. This is the only song on this CD that has a fade out, otherwise we found a way to end every song. (The inability to find a satisfactory ending I have often found to be the bane of improvisational situations.)
Closing it Down
After stumbling around for about a minute in the aforementioned muddled song, Randy had decided he’d had enough and instantly changed our direction by bursting into the drum beat that opens this track. Really this is two different songs that are joined at the hip (not edited together by me in the least.) Neither of them we had played before or since. The first is not the best example of ensemble play (as Kevin is largely absent) but thankfully we do all come together nicely for the kind of lullaby that ends this recording. This final recording is virtually unedited.
Additional notes by Chris Hout:
Regarding Randy The inside of Randy Platt’s warehouse was a cavernous space devoted to whatever whims an artist(s) might follow. Screening, painting, developing, sculpting, any medium you wanted to work with could be found in there. Randy had a mad scientist streak in him that showed up when he mounted electronic drum triggers on his acoustic drums. He had programmed each trigger to cycle through three or four percussive sounds on each hit so that he could play a simple pattern that would sound different consistently. He had a girlfriend for a brief amount of time and there was the requisite nude shots leading in to more explicit images that made playing interesting. Holding a groove down while sexual images on wet photography paper hung at eye level on kite string to dry was a challenge. Fortunately this was a dream gig for me since Randy was a rhythmically tight ultra-creative drummer who I instantly found a musical pocket with. We would begin a groove and develop it with unlimited options of mutating it or just riding it out. We were proud that Kevin and J could do whatever they pleased over the foundation we laid down.
The Fretless Bass A roommate of mine at the Blue Velvet house had a no-name Asian electric bass that he had decided to take apart. He gave me a box of parts and I decided to embark on a long project. Kevin had recently given me a tape of some songs from the Joni Mitchell album “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’ and I was of course enthralled by Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass accompaniments. The long project would entail building a fretless bass over a two year period in the states of Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Oregon. I sanded the paint and lacquer off of a tobacco sunburst jazz bass body to discover two nice wood laminates sandwiching small strips of wood glued together. I decided to burn designs into the wood to cover over the unattractive laminated areas. I then finished the body in Tung oil. The fretless neck was a custom order from Warmouth guitar products in Washington State. It has a rosewood finger board with mother of pearl position dots and maple laminated fret lines.
When the Diesel formed I had just begun to play my new creation. I figured that if this was to be a experimental band I should push myself to play the fretless bass as much as I possible could. These recordings represent my steep learning curve on a new instrument. The fellas in the band encouraged me all the way and I knew I was on the right path when Kev asked if I would like to sing or speak on a song. Randy spoke up and said “Chris doesn’t need to use his mouth; his voice comes through his bass”.