Interview: Jaime Paul Lamb of Northern Cargo


If avant-garde jazz done the way it’s supposed to be is your thing, you will have a hard time getting enough of Northern Cargo. They’ll take you straight back to the days of Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, and such.

Busting down musical boundaries to do this kind of free-form improvisation is by no means a matter of simply deciding, “Well, I think I’ll just do my own thing.” You have to know the rules of composition so well that you can, with impunity, break them over your knee. If it’s done wrong, all you get is a bunch of noise. When you do it right, you get something on the order of exquisite, controlled chaos.

Inarguably, Northern Cargo does it right. The group’s personnel include head honcho Jaime Paul Lamb on organ, Christopher Cox (who does double duty as founder and leader of Junkyard Empire) on trombone, Michael Bennett on bass, Neil Wadhawan on drums, and new arrival Paul Peterson on sax. The group members’ backgrounds range from soul music and R&B to Indian classical fusion and even psychedelia to, of course, jazz. It all comes together just fine. They’re playing next on tax day, April 15, at Lee’s Liquor Lounge just outside downtown Minneapolis. (For details on gigs in May at The Terminal and in June at Club Underground check their Web site.) So, after you’re done with the headache of getting your forms in the mail to pickpocket Uncle Sam, you can treat yourself to a break with the fine, improvisational fare of Northern Cargo.

Dwight Hobbes: I’ve listened to your demo. It’s solid. So, of course, the question is, when will we see an album?
Jaime Paul Lamb: We’re just working in the new saxophonist, Paul Peterson. Seeing as how so much of the music is contingent on the telepathy that develops over time playing with a certain group of musicians, we figured we’d do a couple more gigs with Paul before we book studio time. That way we’ll get to learn each other’s languages, so to speak, and really get more conversational within an improvisation. I would expect a release within two months.

The be-bop that’s sprinkled in…is that just the trumpet player, or do any of the rest of you go in for it?
I think we all enjoy listening to be-bop and hard bop. And certainly, at some point or another, some mutant ghost of our influences will surface, perhaps even within one piece of music. I would have to say, however, that the trumpeter did bring a more traditional sensibility in terms of his musical vocabulary and what he decided to communicate through his instrument. I think he fancied himself as the “voice of reason” in some strange way. In fact, I think those were his exact words.

Who was that on trumpet, and why the personnel change?
His name is Oren Knight. He’s an extremely talented player and a real technician, but not quite the best fit for us. As I said, he has a more traditional approach and would probably be more comfortable soloing over changes, doing standards, that sort of thing. Since we are 100% free improvisation with no predetermined tonality, harmonic framework, or arrangements, we needed someone who was comfortable enough to let an improvisation develop gradually—someone with a more conversational style.

“I equate playing standards and other conventional forms to having a burlap sack full of dead meat slung over your shoulder.”

Why do you guys have to play all this weird stuff with wild melody lines and odd time signatures? Why can’t you just play nice conventional jazz? It would probably be easier to dig up work.
It’s funny because, every day that goes by, conventional music sounds weirder and weirder to me. I equate playing standards and other conventional forms to having a burlap sack full of dead meat slung over your shoulder, pulling a piece out, throwing it on the stage, and attempting to bring it back to life somehow. I’ve tried to recreate the magic of a composition that was once exciting, and it is extremely difficult. There have been few musicians in the history of recorded music who can breathe new life into the tired old catalog, and they are the people we think of as icons. The adjectives “wild” and “odd” may be subjective. The melodic and rhythmic ideas seem perfectly natural to us—so much so that we didn’t even invite them. They just found their way into our collective improvisations. As corny as it may sound to some of the more jaded jobber-types, we are making music purely for artistic expression.

What were you looking for in the other musicians when you decided to put Northern Cargo together?
I was looking for people who could communicate freely on their instrument and, perhaps more importantly, contribute something to the collective dialogue. It is so important to be a good listener—and doubly important when there are no charts.

What in the world attracted you to a musical maniac like Christopher Cox?
Chris is [an] adventurous player. He plays, above all, for the improvisation at hand.

With Junkyard Empire doing dynamite avant-garde jazz and hip-hop and you guys doing what you’re doing, it’d be a serious double bill for the bands to do a night together. Have you and Cox thought about that?
We have been discussing putting together some bills and shopping them around to various clubs. Our drummer, Neil Wadhawan, also has a great Indian fusion band called Samosa, and we’ve thought about the three bands playing together at some point. Northern Cargo has been playing a lot of the venues normally associated with indie rockers and punkers, and they’ve been really receptive—so I know that we could bring it out almost anywhere. The only people I’d see getting uptight about it would most likely be the more traditional jazzers. But we haven’t really gone there yet. We’ll see.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.