Make no mistake: Guitarist Ava Mendoza is undoubtedly a shredder. But if she’s prone to any melodic gymnastics at all, the Brooklyn-based musician focuses her undeniable virtuosity on the sheer deconstruction of her Fender Jaguar. While Mendoza is standing in the eye of the sonic hurricane she summons during live performances, sharp staccato runs and slippery legato grooves evolve into bolts of distortion and droning electronic lurch, only to fold back into arpeggios. When Mendoza and her band Unnatural Ways, with a current lineup of bassist Tim Dahl and drummer Max Jaffe, bring their singular blend of improvisation and penned tunes to rain dogs. next Monday night, we’ll have the chance to experience some radical, collective playing firsthand. “This band always requires players who can nail difficult songs, who are good improvisers, and who have a deeply ingrained desire to give their all at every show,” says Mendoza. “Tim and Max are both awesome musicians and performers, and I’d as soon play with them as anyone I know of.”
That criterion that Mendoza seeks in her collaborators surely applies to her own skills and disciplines. Mendoza grew up in Orange County, California, and was trained in very traditional classical music. In high school, she focused on deciphering traditional straight-ahead jazz. “But I was also well aware already that most of the music and art of any kind I could relate to were made by people who existed outside the mainstream,” says the 31-year-old. She acknowledges that part and parcel to her open mind and receptivity toward all aspects of music and life were her parents, both the “black sheep” of their respective families, and the company of fellow teenaged “nut job” peers. “I grew up reading lefty political theory and listening to Charles Ives, the Germs and Outkast with equal pleasure,” she says. “At some point, I felt like, in order to be a sincere musician, I had to make music that was more personalized, more authentic to who I actually was.”
Mendoza’s innate ability to play purely improvised music, composing spontaneously on-the-spot, has led to her being embraced by the improv-experimental community. In the past decade-plus, as a solo artist she has collaborated with the likes of Fred Frith, Butch Morris, Henry Kaiser, Mike Watt, Carla Bozulich, William Winant, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Nels Cline, been featured on more than 20 releases, and praised by media outlets like The Village Voice, All About Jazz and Guitar World. Last year, Unnatural Ways performed at both Canada’s Victoriaville International Music Festival and the legendary Moers Festival in Germany.
The “chance” aspect of improvised music allows players to create not only momentary compositions that rise and fall throughout the performance, but to generate musical dialects, where tonalities and even silence can replace more readily identifiable melodies, chords and rhythms. With Unnatural Ways, Mendoza moves more into an area that fuses freeform playing with composed songs, many featuring her strong vocals atop the music. “I’m not a purist about improvisation, by which I mean that I’m not a British, Dutch or German man in the early-to-mid-1970s. Improvising isn’t a religion for me. It is just one way of getting to cool music,” says Mendoza. “I don’t care if the improv is completely ‘new’ with each performance. I am fine with people bringing in the same motifs night after night and developing them.”
Unnatural Ways’ music seems a culmination of the groundwork she’s laid over the years, codifying both her influences and track record as a now-seasoned veteran of the improv music scene. And her current lineup is equally equipped to meet Mendoza eye-to-eye. Bassist Dahl has played with Child Abuse and No Wave high priestess Lydia Lunch, while drummer Jaffe has provided the rhythmic backbone for Brooklyn’s experimental supergroup Normal Love and the band Killer BOB.
Their tune “Shapeshifter” kicks in with a doomy My War-era Black Flag vibe, as the trio gradually locks in on a churning groove. Around the two-minute mark, Mendoza opens up her playing with a scratchy funk riff that erupts into some Sonny Sharrock-style riffing. Throughout the performance, Dahl’s bass riff remains static as Jaffe’s drumming becomes increasingly aggressive. By song’s end, a vibrato-laden organ sound emerges, as the whole band then dissolves the song into an electronic drone.
Even though the music of Unnatural Ways is unpredictable, there is an overall quality that makes the band members sound comfortable with one another, not only predicting the music being made at the moment, but encouraging each other to push even further into the unfamiliar.
“Personally, I am veering more and more toward the same band-lineup methodology. First of all, because I like writing songs, and I want to have a band that plays them well; but also I just like broken-in lineups more as an audience member — for improv or rock bands,” says Mendoza. “I like seeing people who understand each other’s playing play together. I like hearing bands with a sound.”
Unnatural Ways has a new self-titled release on New Atlantis records and, later this year, John Zorn’s Tzadik Records will issue another album. Their Jacksonville gig is the third show in a two-month tour that takes them to spots up the Eastern Seaboard, then on to Scandinavia and Western Europe.
Due to the intensity of the band’s sound and their devotion to high-energy music, it’s doubtful that Mendoza and company will be tearing up the charts, which is surely fine with the guitarist, who’s undoubtedly content to be a part of a musical realm where imagination, skill, cooperation and vision are more valued than a predictable melodic hook or deftly packaged surface appeal. When it comes to open-ended music, Mendoza hasn’t cooled her jets, but rather redirected her flight path.
“At this point, I’m not that into improvising with everybody. A lot of that is because I just don’t think I’m the kind of player that plays their best when they do a duo with someone for the first time. Peter Kowald is maybe that kind of player, or Derek Bailey. I am like a rosebud or a faulty download, and I open slowly.”