Four years ago I began a project that I hoped would allow me to synthesize much of the musical experiences and insights I have accumulated over 40 years of playing music. My first musical love has always been jazz, but I don’t consider myself a jazz musician in any rigorous, academic definition. I think of jazz as an approach to playing music, more than a particular style of music. In that sense I would say I’m a jazz musician. I have led jazz groups since the 1980s. I called my first Austin band Timeline. In the 1990s I started using the name PK Sax for the group, mainly for pragmatic reasons: It was my email address, it had my initials, and was clearly (for most people) about saxophone music.
But as I continued to grow musically, writing a lot of diverse material, playing with musicians from many different genres, I realized that while my idea of jazz made sense to me, it wasn’t very clear to a lot of other people. When I told people I played jazz, I had much historical and cultural weight behind that simple word. Jazz is improvisational music, jazz is part of the oral tradition of a musical cultural, jazz is a way to comment on life through music, to “signify” like the Signifying Monkey of African American folklore. Jazz is a reflection of a democratic society – it’s a collective conversation that allows everyone to have their say. Jazz is not static, it reactes to and incorporates the sounds, ideas and energies going on in people’s lives. Jazz is about vitality, about living fully in the moment.
That all sounds good over a glass of wine, but if someone wants to know what your music actually sounds like, using the j-word can be confusing or less than comprehensive. If I say I play jazz, the response is often “What kind of jazz?” Trad jazz, swing jazz, bebop jazz, modern jazz, smooth jazz, Latin jazz… The list gets long, because the jazz tradition contains many historical styles.
So I realized I needed to be clear in my mind what I was trying to do with my music. I love playing all kinds of music and in Austin at any given time I may be playing with 10 different bands. But my music, the music I hear in my dreams, that comes out almost by itself when I sit down to write, won’t be pinned down, won’t rest comfortably in one genre. The sounds coming through me are inspired by musics from around the world, so World Music is the best label for it, if one needs a label. It was a logical step to see the project I was building as a world music project.
The next issue I had to tackle was finding a name that evoked what my world music project was about. This was not an easy task. The best band names are simple but resilient. They can be arbitrary, nonsensical, philosophical, mundane, or just have a good sound, but most of the time, the band name reflects the style of music. There are rock names, pop names, folk names, country names, hip hop names, jazz names. And there are world music names.
Of course you can say in the words of the Bard, “What’s in a name?” But picking a band name is an agonizing process; just ask any band. I sifted through tens, hundreds of ideas having to do with world music, names with iconic imagery, cultural cache, quasi-political overtones. Some of them weren’t bad, many of them veered into the fog of New Age mysticism. “Heart Tones,” “Spirit Fire,” “Global Journey,” “Ethos,” “Earth Rhythms”…. You get the idea.
I try to be open, uncynical, full of heart and free of mind. But there’s always a little voice in the back of my head ready with a wisecrack, a mental pin to prick the balloons of hype, commercialism, pat answers and uncritical beliefs. This tends to make me an observer rather than a joiner. I’m always ready to share ideas, but I’m reticent to drink the kool-aid, as they say. I often feel that my family coat of arms (if we had one) would contain the Grouch Marx quote: “I’d never join a club that would have me as a member.”
My natural reticence to pin my music to one image, finally led to a realization. I wanted a name that would reflect the fluidity of the music. The sounds of my project have cultural resonance, they borrow from and mix with traditional world music styles, but they don’t sit still. I don’t want to recreate an “authentic” existing style, I want to comment on existing styles and use them for inspiration to explore new directions. That’s the jazz in me. So the project name needed to reflect this.
Accepting this, I started to think of “meta” names. Names that evoked the need to name, names that pointed to the human practice of taxonomic organization. We learn by dividing our experiences into the known and the unknown. We create dualities, sometimes where they do exist, often where they don’t. It just makes reality manageable, because our brains find it comfortable, and the universe can be so big and scary if you don’t filter it somehow.
The “meta” quality in music has always fascinated me. Why do some people prefer music that is familiar and predictable, while other people are attracted to music that is surprising and unpredictable? Why do we want the comfort of songs we know, songs we grew up with, but we also want songs that are strange, foreign, exotic? What meanings are we dredging up from out subconscious and attaching to the music we hear?
When I started thinking on this level, the band name came to me almost immediately. In the social sciences there is a pet term to describe the process of cultural objectification that humans habitually engage in: The exotic other. It’s a term usually associated with the social and psychological fallout of colonialism. As the West invaded other countries, the invaders objectified the various conquered peoples, investing racial and cultural differences with imagined attributes, making them exotic, locking in the Us vs. Them mentality. In that sense the term “exotic other” is often used by practitioners of the social sciences in a negative sense. The cultural and psychological practice of creating an “exotic other” is a vestige of colonialism, a form of mental illness, a bad thing, just plain wrong.
But that analysis has always seemed too pat, a little one-size-fits-all. In music, we have the freedom to create fantasies, to explore the exotic, to celebrate it. Why shouldn’t that freedom flow into all aspects of our lives? Why shouldn’t we explore the exotic in others and ourselves, be it real or imagined? Conversely, why should we accept definitions that break reality into dualities, either/or? Reality/fantasy, that is a duality that confounds people, because it’s just a taxonomic construction, I would venture to argue. In music, fantasy is reality. If you can imagine it, you can play it. That’s what I want to explore in my music. That’s why I created My Exotic Other.