Music News

The Secret, Fort Lauderdale

An ordinary Wednesday at Alligator Alley, 9 p.m.: Felix Pastorius is warming up on his bass, nimble-fingered, notes flying all over the place. His twin brother, Julius, finishes lashing his drum kit together and sits, working rapidly into a soft groove. The twins' rhythms work against each other at first, then settle into an easy improvisation, fast but quiet, all tinkling 16th notes on splash cymbals and tiny blitzkrieg triplets low on the bass. Felix moves up the fretboard, building in volume as Julius begins torturing his bass drum, the sound careening toward arrhythmic white noise and snapping back with pinpoint precision. They're locked in to the nanosecond, and if you didn't know these men were brothers, listening to this rave-up, you'd assume they were. When it stops, there is no warning — it's not even the end of a measure. The sudden silence is shocking, and the people at Alligator Alley pause, beers in midair, po-boys halfway to mouths, wondering what the hell they just heard and how they should respond to it. Then they applaud, long and loud. There is hooting. The rest of the band hasn't even arrived.

They do soon enough. Guitarist Adam Lucas and sax/keysman Colin James wander to the stage and are soon locked in to the night's first real song, "Jazz Crimes," all staccato grunts ticking against one another before melting phrases of deep legato and then crashing back into the song's angular rhythms. It's all standard jazz-fusion stuff, Village Vanguardesque, until Lucas stomps twice on his effects pedal midsolo and the Alley is suddenly invaded by a swarm of hostile alien insects. There is no classy musicological term to describe the sound Lucas makes — it's simply a sustained explosion of extraterrestrial noise. Somewhere in the cosmos, Sun Ra gets a hard-on. Thurston Moore turns green. Then the song pulls itself together and the concert continues.

For four years, Way of the Groove has resolutely mounted the stage at Alligator Alley every Wednesday night, sometimes as a trio, usually as a quartet, turning the dark little room into one of the world's premier jazz venues. Not that people have taken to referring to the Alley in this way. They haven't. Just a few people with sharp ears, who showed up to hear what the progeny of legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius might sound like on stage and stuck around when they realized that, in this weird little corner of Fort Lauderdale, something powerful was happening.

Way of the Groove began life as an informal power trio eight years ago. "I was in Coral Springs, maybe 15 minutes, 20 minutes west of Felix and Julius, when we first met," Lucas says. "I had made a website dedicated to their dad, and through whatever means, I got to meet their mom and started talking to her. So they came out to one of my gigs, and that's how we first met."

At the time, Lucas was a 14-year-old bassist, just beginning his high school career at Taravella. Over the next four years, his relationship with the Pastorius twins consisted of constant hanging out and occasional bedroom jammings. Sax-and-keys player James didn't join the group until the end of 2002, after meeting Felix at a gig at the Hollywood Playhouse. "I didn't even really know who Jaco was," James adds, "but I saw Felix play, and I was blown away. I'd never seen anybody play bass that way that young."

The band does not practice. "[Adam and I] get together all the time," James says, "but we usually play tennis." Without the safety and seclusion of a garage or a warehouse, the band can do nothing onstage but play — loosely, at their whim, feeling out the contours of a repertoire that expands with glacial slowness and infinite sensitivity; a reverent mix of Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, some Miles and Trane. Carl "Kilmo" Pacillo, the Alley's proprietor, says: "Obviously, they've always had talent. But the way they've grown in the past four years — they're like serious, world-class contenders now."

Kilmo should know. He's been in the business forever. A friend and semi-protégée of the elder Pastorius from the mid-'70s until his death, he's played with musicians as wildly successful as Blood, Sweat & Tears and as regrettably overlooked as Raiford Starke. He's got a record coming out — soon, we're told — with funk-guitar luminary Brian Stoltz.

And with all that experience, he stands there, manning the soundboard week after week as Way of the Groove blasts through its catalog. He grins, veritably bouncing whenever they do anything spectacular. Attempting to explain why groups like Way of the Groove have difficulty breaking into the mainstream, Kilmo, who tends toward the philosophical, says things like: "This music requires attention — attention span, thinking. It takes a certain level of consciousness, I believe. Art needs critical analysis, critical thinking, and we've been, as a society, conditioned not to be critical." And though that's probably true, critical thinking doesn't seem necessary as the quiet, doomy lines opening Wayne Shorter's "Elegant People" rumble from the amps. It's too evocative to analyze critically. This is the sound of anxiety and of people trying to distract themselves from it; dark, spacy guitar chords and then James' saxophone, the sound searching for some trace of hope in all of it, trying to smash through the nervousness on the offbeat and then trying to outrun it with dizzying triplets running in circles — and then Felix's bass solo mocking the whole thing, like a superego laughs at a paranoid id.

Nobody's ever seen any further into this music than Way of the Groove, a quartet whose average age is 23, and it's shocking how little they've moved around. In the four years they've gigged at Alligator Alley, they've never moved their show farther than North Palm Beach or farther south than Tobacco Road in Miami. This will soon change.

On Saturday, the band will host its fourth anniversary bash at the Alley. It'll charge admission for once, a whopping $5, a decision the guys came to only painfully. There will be a few more Wednesdays, a gig at South Shores in Lake Worth, and then they're off, headlining a jazz festival in Tippecanoe and hitting a string of dates — Indianapolis, Philly, maybe Washington, D.C., the Hamptons, a "pirate party" on Greene's Island off the coast of Maine — and then holing up for a month on a neighboring island to reflect, rehearse, and record.

No one has ever called Way of the Groove Fort Lauderdale's best-kept secret, but let's go out on a limb: For the past four years, Way of the Groove has been Fort Lauderdale's best-kept secret. The group will be back in the fall, but by then, it won't be a secret anymore.

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Brandon K. Thorp