In theory, Ombak's CD release party starts at 9:30 p.m. In practice, the dining tables are just starting to be shifted from the central section at Cous Cous, and amps and drums are being lugged in. The audience, chockablock with local musicians, is still arriving.
The drift shuts down the moment Ombak opens up. Brian Jones' drums explode into headlong complexities, Cameron Ralston's upright bass pushes and probes, Trey Pollard's guitar and leader Bryan Hooten's trombone zigzag in unison through the modernistic maze. The playing is all snap, swing and sinew, a shotgun wedding of rock's visceral rush with the cerebral vocabulary of jazz, with some avant-garde speaking in tongues thrown in for good measure. The effect is bracing and immediate.
“Those guys are so good they are able to pull anything off convincingly,” Hooten says. “A long time ago I realized that, ultimately, conviction is the most important thing in music, and that the players that are the most fascinating to listen to are the ones in whom you can hear adventure, the desperation to get out an idea that hasn't been played before. It's a beautiful thing to play music with people like that, and you should plumb the depths every time.”
Deep concepts are central to Hooten's approach. The title of Ombak's new CD, “Framing the Void,” comes from treating silence, conventionally seen as background, as the foreground element in music: Tones, textures and rhythms become the means of dividing, defining and complementing it. It's a venerable Taoist idea — the essence of a vessel, whether a cup or a house, is its emptiness. Like all organizing creative concepts, however cool or clever, the ultimate test is whether the result is effective, engaging art.
It took Hooten a while to realize just how far you could take an audience. A native of Birmingham Ala., whose playing experience was limited to school, Hooten didn't get serious about the trombone until he was a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University. A weeklong tour with the trio he'd formed with guitarist Matt White and drummer Pinson Chanselle was a revelation.
“We did a gig in Lexington, Kentucky,” Hooten recalls. “It was really cool music, some of it weird, with lots of distortion and multiphonics. And there was a room full of 30 people, all just silent and listening and into it. That was a powerful experience, realizing you could do music like this and people would like it.”
That trio, Fight the Bull, has grown into Fight the Big Bull, the breakout Richmond band that's played from Chicago to New York, made Best of 2008 critics' lists and been featured on NPR's “Fresh Air.” Hooten is a FTBB member, as are Ombak bassist Ralston and, frequently, percussionist Jones. The two bands are a model of the egalitarian interconnections of the current scene, their overlapping lineups alternating the Wednesday night Cous Cous gig.
If the future is uncertain, Hooten's present is working out remarkably well: plenty of chances to play and an adjunct position teaching music theory and coaching small jazz ensembles at VCU. “The hardest thing to get students to do is to take chances,” Hooten says. “It doesn't matter where you land as long as you jumped off something.”
For Hooten, the surest way forward is a leap into the void. S
Ombak plays every other Wednesday at Cous Cous. Its next gig is May 13 at 9:30 p.m. On the weeks Ombak doesn't play Hooten is still at Cous Cous with Fight the Big Bull. 358-0868.