On jazz, fear and shifting sands

Alex Coke and Creative Opportunity Orchestra perform 'Iraqnophobia'

By Brad Buchholz
Sunday, June 12, 2005

Alex Coke's jazz suite "Iraqnophobia" begins with the imagery of shifting desert sands -- a solitary flute and a muted trumpet, dancing together in the Middle Eastern wind. Nature blows the music into different shapes and evokes different moods.

What do we feel in these foreign winds? Fear? Fate? Foreboding? Laughter? The sense of something savage? The presence of something divine? The composer encourages us to let go, to get caught up in these breezes, and allow them to carry us where they will.

Coke, long regarded as one of the most innovative voices in Austin jazz, has been thinking a lot lately about "Iraqnophobia" -- about the condition and the composition, as well as the debut of his new CD of the same name. He'll also be performing the 34-minute piece this evening, as part of the Tina Marsh/Creative Opportunity Orchestra's annual spring concert at Austin Museum of Art-Laguna Gloria.

As its title suggests, "Iraqnophobia" plays off the ideas of irrational fear and the Middle East, in the context of jazz. Coke's creative aims in the piece are both humanitarian and musical, but there is no overt political statement. In fact, the music is frequently playful. Coke intentionally wrote the piece in eight movements -- playing off the pun of arachnophobia. You know: Spiders. Eight legs. . . .

"I wasn't anxious to make a big political statement one way or another," says Coke, who intends to present "Iraqnophobia" with projected photographs from the Middle East by Austin photographer Alan Pogue. "Although it may seem politically charged because of the name, I really think it would mean 20 different things to 20 different people who hear it. I don't intend to beat anyone over the head. One thing I like about Alan's work is that it's really humane -- and that's something I was hoping to do with this music."

In many respects, "Iraqnophobia" feels like an Arabian daydream, scored in the style of Gil Evans -- the pianist and arranger who collaborated with Miles Davis on "Sketches of Spain" in the 1950s. Like "Sketches," "Iraqnophobia" is orchestral in scope, a musical statement that blends the soul and instruments of two different cultures to evoke mood. Coke's music conjures visions of caravans and the sounds of the call to prayer. One movement depicts a wobbly camel ride, played as a blues on trombone, as might be envisioned by Thelonious Monk.

Coke showcases the soprano sax of Steve Vague and the soprano voice of Tina Marsh, pairs flute with trumpet, western drums with eastern hand percussion. He flavors the mix with guitar and violin and piano and guitar, but never groups them all together to form "big" sounds in any one movement. As a musical editor, Coke aspired to "erase sounds more sounds than I kept, to make the music more transparent, as if you were seeing it through a veil."

"Iraqnophobia" began for Coke on Sept. 11, 2001. He was on tour, in Iowa, with the John Jordan trio -- and the band went on with its show in Cedar Rapids. Coke recalls the audience lit candles and placed them on stage that night. Generous townspeople drove the band's van to a gas station during the show and filled the tank, responding to rumors that there would be price gouging the next day.

"As an artist, I often feel pretty powerless, that I can't actually do anything," says Coke, who had recently moved back to his native Texas after living several years in Europe. "But we played every night that week -- in Kansas City and Lincoln and North Platte -- and it was just amazing and positive. I was thankful to be playing music at a time when so many of my friends felt helpless. And when I got back to Austin, and started feeling that outpouring of (American) fear -- that phobia -- I began working on this piece."

Coke completed "Iraqnophobia" in 2002. Last year, it was "discovered" nationally by Steven Feld, renowned for his popular "Voices of the Rain Forest" recording from New Guinea. Feld was so enthused upon hearing "Iraqnophobia" that he asked to release it on a CD with Coke's prison suite, "Wake Up Dead Man," on his new VoxLox label, which is devoted to humanitarian and ecological causes. Coke and the Creative Opportunity Orchestra recorded "Iraqnophobia" on Sept. 11, 2004.

"I guess you could say that these pieces are socially conscious," says Coke, a master reed player who performs all the flute parts on "Iraqnophobia." "But when you start with those sentiments and then turn them into a piece of music, it needs to work as music on its own terms. It should stand up on its own."

bbuchholz@statesman.com 912-2967.