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Techno goes Gigantic in Avon

Stewart Oksenhorn
newsroom@vaildaily.com
VAIL CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily Saxophonist Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken make up the techno duo
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When saxophonist Dominic Lalli got an invite to join the Colorado band the Motet, it was like a dream gig. The Motet, led by drummer Dave Watts, played an adventurous mix of jazz, funk and Afro-Cuban grooves. Better still, they were established as a road act, and Lalli, who had studied jazz as a post-grad at the Manhattan School of Music and was finding his place in the New York jazz scene, was antsy to hit the road and connect with audiences.

“I wanted to be touring,” the 33-year-old Lalli said. “In New York, on the jazz scene, there’s a lot of jam sessions, great players, something you can’t get anywhere else. But I wanted to get out and play.” He added, of the Motet, “They played funk, jazz, Afrobeat – that was all stuff I was super into. And they were super musicians.”

Lalli moved to Colorado, and has spent the last six years playing in the Motet. But lately, to his surprise, he hasn’t had much time for that band. He still loves the Motet’s groove-jazz, but he has found himself tugged in another artistic direction: techno.

In his nights off from the Motet, Lalli had been doing some experimental gigs with his then-roommate, drummer Jeremy Salken. The two would throw together small-scale jazz-funk shows, and occasionally partner with DJs. Leaning further and further into the techno realm, Lalli and Salken formed, in 2008, the duo Big Gigantic. Riding a wave that has strong appeal in Colorado, Big Gigantic has caught on in a way that has genuinely startled Lalli.

“We started a little side thing. And the side thing has just taken off,” he said from his home in Boulder. “It’s something I never expected.”

Big Gigantic has been an opening act at Red Rocks, appearing on a bill with STS9 (the band which owns the label, 1320 Records, for which Big Gigantic recorded its latest album, “A Place Behind the Moon,” released in September). They have also played the Rothbury and Wakarusa festivals; they are currently on a national tour that winds up with a handful of dates opening for Umphrey’s McGee, in venues like the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. They’re in town this weekend for the Snow Ball Music Festival, where they’ll perform Saturday.

In his early days as a musician, Lalli gave essentially no thought to techno music. He was a jazz saxophonist beginning in 12th grade, and studied at Northern Arizona University before heading to New York. Even after moving to Colorado, techno – which generally includes sampled loops of sounds and heavy, electronic beats – didn’t catch his attention. The style just wasn’t the big thing in his sphere. “The music wasn’t as prevalent, especially in the Colorado scene. Back then, people liked DJs, but techno wasn’t prevalent,” he said.

That has changed drastically; techno is now gigantic.

“The last two, three years in Colorado, the electronic scene has just been killing it,” Lalli said. “The interesting thing is, it’s coming out of right here, Denver, Fort Collins. We got to New York and people say, ‘Oh, you’re from Colorado? That’s the mecca.’ We’re getting such good support, good musicians, bigger festivals.”

Lalli began to familiarize himself with techno during his Motet years. The band, which had an open mind toward jazz and Afro-Cuban, dipped its toe into computer-aided sounds. Lalli himself, though schooled in straight-ahead acoustic jazz, gravitated toward players like Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman and John Coltrane, who pushed the jazz boundaries.

“I’ve always been inviting to whatever,” he said, “in hopes that whatever music I’m playing will be more original. I never thought, ‘Ooh, I’m a jazz saxophone player.’ It’s, What can I do to make my sound different than everyone else’s? Whether it’s jazz or whatever, I’ve always been a fan of all kinds of good music. The more you invite in, the more it’s going to help you. It’s not going to hurt you.”

Actually, what has helped Lalli enormously in his quest for originality, is the fact that he is a jazz saxophonist – or at least, a saxophonist. He can’t name another sax player who is prominent in the techno scene.

“The sax just happens to be my voice,” he said. “It helps set us apart, which is good in music. It’s important.”

Translating his instrument into the techno setting has been the next stage of his education. On-stage, Lalli plays his sax to create double melodies with the sampled sounds. He also solos over electronic beats, plays some keyboards.

“It’s like sound engineering ,” he said of the electronic end of his art. “I read up on things like making great bass tones, sound design. Then I use that stuff in my songwriting. And I’m learning production, which is like a whole other instrument.”

Lalli acknowledges that on melodic and harmonic levels, jazz is “much more advanced” than techno. But he says that the challenge lies in finding ways to use the complexities of jazz inside the rhythm-oriented techno realm. The recent album “A Place in the Moon” (which is available for free online) is a step towards that goal; an EP, planned for release this spring or summer, will nudge Big Gigantic even forward another notch.

“We’re really getting closer and closer to finding a sound that mixes a lot of electronic sounds, but is a solid thing that is really us,” he said. “It’ll be nice to get something in these kids’ ears that is new, but is really us.”

Ah, yes, those kids. Lalli’s got no problem with the fact that it is, in part, the current craze for techno that has dictated his artistic path.

“Kids are just loving dance music right now, loving the electronic sound,” he said. “It’s like any movement – when funk came into Colorado, it was the hot thing for 10 years. You can’t explain it, but there it is, and you can go with it or not go with it.

“I’m young. I have a long musical road ahead of me. I’m not fighting anything. Life happens, things happen, scenes change. I’m going with what makes sense to me.”


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