The Story of Church on Monday: Coming full circle with Alejandro Escovedo

AlejandroEscovedo.com

This is kind of going to where I started listening to music … my brothers and older siblings were into this music, and the way you guys play, I’m comfortable around it. So it makes me feel good to be able to go there because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

Alejandro Escovedo is one of Church on Monday‘s biggest fans. At first read you might think I got those two subjects out of order. But it’s true, Alejandro has been one of the most passionate supporters of our band, and being who he is to all of us makes his interest in and support of Church on Monday something I wanted to write about. For those not familiar with him, or who need a refresher, Alejandro Escovedo is a singer/songwriter/storyteller who has amassed a catalog of impressive breadth and depth and who is revered by colleagues across musical genres. He hails from a remarkable family of accomplished professional musicians, including brothers (and percussionists) Coke Escovedo and Pete Escovedo, and Sheila E (Alejandro’s niece). Brother Mario fronted the hard rock band The Dragons, and another brother, Javier, was in the punk rock band The Zeros.

“I had to find my own way to grab attention,” says Alejandro. “I was very good at baseball. I was a surfer. But ultimately I wanted to be a poet. And I wanted to write screenplays and be a film director. So, as we were making this movie about the worst band in the world – me and my friends – we became this band. Punk rock somehow embraced us, and it was at the right time and the right moment.” That band was The Nuns, one of the founding acts of the early San Francisco punk scene. Alejandro remembers it with a smile and a shake of his head. “You know we were hustlers. We hustled our way on to the stage. And it was funny because my brothers would always be saying, ‘When are you playing man?’ and I wouldn’t tell them. But they’d find out and show up … they were very supportive, and when I finally got to play with my brothers it was really wonderful to be able to share that thing … come back as a family and play.” Alejandro’s brothers had worked with giants of the Latin Jazz scene — Chico Hamilton, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, and Willie Bobo — as well as the great Marvin Gaye. Soul, jazz, R&B, Latin and Cuban influences, all blending together in a rich soup of rhythmic and melodic inspiration.

A move to Austin, Texas in the 1980s led Alejandro into roots rock collaborations with Chip and Tony Kinman (as Rank and File) and with his brother Javier, Jon Dee Graham and bass player Denny DeGorio (as The True Believers). Then came the open format explorations across genres that were the genesis for the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra. Alejandro drew on an eclectic group of Austin musicians for the Hole-in-The-Wall sessions, his simple melodies and songs serving as launching pads for extended explorations that gave rise to new ideas and elements for his compositions. That utilization of a broader musical pallet, and further collaboration with members of the Austin jazz community, set the groundwork for what would eventually lead Alejandro to the idea of collaborating with Church on Monday.

With Church on Monday just beginning to germinate, Elias Haslanger was already performing and recording with Alejandro, contributing saxophone on his 2012 release, Big Station. Church on Monday began its ongoing Monday residency at Austin’s Continental Gallery in October of the same year. Alejandro and Nancy Rankin were there early on. Alejandro elaborates — “What drew me to Church on Monday, outside of the sheer brilliance of the music, my wife (Nancy) and I kind of courted to the Church on Monday Gallery gigs. It became such an integral part of our relationship. Even when we weren’t there, we’d listen to the CD or talk about it. Somehow it became this real important kind of sound track to our relationship. And so as I became closer to you guys … got to know you … and listen to you … when I did my United Sounds of Austin, there was one part of it that was sorely missing. Especially with the history of Austin jazz and the players that came out of here — Kenny Dorham and all those guys — that I had to have a jazz segment. So, of course, I came to Elias and I wanted him to write a piece, which became … ‘For Being There.’ And that became, really, our song as a result of that.”

Church on Monday performed Elias’ original ballad, “For Being There,” and Kenny Dorham’s, “Buffalo,” during a brief slot in the three-plus-hour United Sounds of Austin show on January 12, 2014. The sold-out show before 2700+ at the Austin City Limits Moody Theatre offered a sweeping taste of Austin’s rich music history. And Church on Monday, in the words of RollingStone’s Jason Cohen, “brought down the house.” The fact that this soul jazz group so thoroughly captivated the crowd, at a rock show, was not lost on Alejandro, who soon approached Elias with the idea of doing an entire show in collaboration with Church on Monday. That, my friends, is happening in a little over a week from now, on January 10th, again at the ACL Live Moody Theatre. Alejandro Escovedo’s voice and music, the soul jazz sound of Church on Monday, along with auxiliary strings and backing vocals. It’s a bold move, and as Alejandro said to me, that, along with all that’s been discussed here, makes it a right move.

Alejandro is doing what he’s always done — exploring new vistas, this time collaborating around a soul jazz/R&B sound that inspired he and his brothers all those years ago in San Francisco. In many ways, Elias Haslanger has been on the same journey, culminating with his establishment of Church on Monday. We’ll explore that in coming posts. In the meantime, Dr. James Polk, former musical director for Ray Charles and the beating heart at the center (and behind the B3) of Church on Monday, likes to say, “Never forsake the groove.” This band, and the relationships it continues to foster, are all about that.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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