LOOK OUT, IT’S OM TRIO — Jazz up your night out with OM Trio, who will play Murphy’s Tin Palace in Durham on Saturday at 10 p.m. Doors open at 8 p.m. Admission is $4. Pictured here are, from left, bassist Pete Novembre, drummer Ilya Stemkovsky and keyboardist Brian Felix. (Courtesy photo)

Just say OM: California-based trio is ready to get funky at Murphy’s Tin Palace

By DEREK GRANDMAISON

Showcase Correspondent

The San Francisco-based OM Trio plays the jazz/funk theme music to the ’70s TV shows of your imagination. Their imaginations (and chops) take them beyond their jazz/funk foundation into the realms of metal, reggae and trippy electronica. They call this heady mix "elevator music for headbangers."

OM Trio makes their New Hampshire debut headlining at Murphy’s Tin Palace in Durham on Saturday, Sept. 6. If the buzz from recent performances at the High Sierra Music Festival and The Great American Music Hall are any indication, this may shape up to be one of those "remember when" shows. I had the good fortune to attend Phish shows when they played to 200 people and there is a similar grass roots excitement among OM Trio fans.

The band’s name is a reference to the ironically titled John Coltrane piece "OM," a crazy free-jazz workout that is far from meditative. Though the band subscribes to the improvisational ethic of Coltrane, their jazz roots can be found simmering in the electric cauldron of Miles Davis’ "Bitches Brew," particularly the eerie space-age keyboards of Chick Corea and the genre-crossing propulsion of drummer Jack DeJohnette.

The rock-jazz jamming of Phish, the funky electric jazz of "Headhunters"-era Herbie Hancock, and bands fusing these two genres —like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Steely Dan and Tower Of Power — all inform OM Trio’s music. The band is most often compared to the keyboards, drums and bass combo Medeski, Martin and Wood. In a recent telephone interview, I asked OM keyboardist Brian Felix if they were tired of the comparisons.

"We think MMW is a great band. They’re an extremely talented and accomplished group and we welcome the comparison. In reality, we don’t really sound much like them; we just have the same instrumentation. Someone described us as a heavier version of MMW, at least there’s a reference point there."

OM Trio is heavier, having absorbed heavy metal, industrial, rap metal and hip-hop.

Though now based in California’s Bay Area, all three members have New Jersey roots. Drummer Ilya Stemkovsky (his family moved from Moscow, Russia, to the United States when he was 5,) keyboardist Brian Felix and bassist Pete Novembre recently released their fifth album, "GLOBALPOSITIONINGRECORD." Their newest release has more studio polish than its "live in concert" and "live feeling" predecessors.

OM Trio played 150 shows in 2002, and they’re on a similar pace this year. All that gigging has forged a tight yet limber band showcasing its harmonic complexity while remaining free flowing. The trio has developed a live telepathy that allows them to quickly shift from funk to acid jazz to reggae to metal, while retaining a cohesiveness that makes sense of it all.

Of course it helps keyboardist Felix on his space flights and funky solos to have a kickin’ rhythm section: Novembre (biggest influence — Parliament/Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins — ’nuff said) and especially Stemkovsky. If you’ve ever perused Modern Drummer Magazine or can name all the drummers ever employed by Frank Zappa, or if you have ever pondered the tonal qualities of maple versus birch shells, you owe it to yourself (if not the neighbors) to get to Durham and check this guy out. Stemkovsky combines the qualities of jazz great Tony Williams with rock legend John Bonham. He hits hard and heavy without being bombastic. At times he will lay so far back on the beat he widens the groove to Hummer-like dimensions. Other times he is out front driving the train, lending the more electronica feeling pieces a metronomic precision you’d swear was a drum machine if not for the warmth of tone.

"He fairly well slams," said Christopher Fortier, former guitarist for Portsmouth garage rock legends Gandhi’s Lunchbox. Fortier now lives in San Francisco and has sound engineered a number of OM Trio’s shows.

I asked Felix if OM Trio believed in a principle championed by another San Francisco band, The Grateful Dead: allowing taping of their live shows.

"Tapers are encouraged at our shows and the bootlegs are starting to spread. It’s a great way to build word of mouth," Felix replied.

University of New Hampshire students unpack your bags, cue up the DAT recorder and get downtown. All you noncollegiate fans of "music for the head and the feet," the show is Saturday, Sept. 6 at Murphy’s Tin Palace, 2 Ballard St, Durham, 868-7456. Tickets are $4, and doors open at 8 p.m., OM Trio plays at 10 p.m. for two sets. The show is for ages 21 and older