MATT BUTLER CREATED the concept for the Everyone Orchestra in Marin a decade ago. But Saturday night will be the first time he’s conducted it in the county where he first conceived of the radical idea of an interactive, improvisational jazz-rock jam band.
I’ve never seen the Everyone Orchestra (EO) live, but some concert videos I watched this week had me chair dancing in my cubicle. Steve Berlin of Los Lobos likens the EO experience to getting your spiritual passport stamped.
There aren’t a lot of conductors in rock to emulate, if any, but Butler’s violinist mother was a founding member of the Eugene Symphony, and he got to see some classical conductors close up when they stayed with his family while he was growing up.
“I’ve been inspired by John Zorn and a lot of the avant-garde improv conductors,” he told me from Portland, Ore., his hometown, where he moved after years in West Marin’s San Geronimo Valley.
Maestro Butler first impressed me when he was the drummer for Jambay, one of the best of the Bay Area jam bands in the ’90s, in my opinion. In hindsight, I can see the roots of EO in Butler’s 1999 solo album “The Redwood Project,” with its living room jam session feel and layers of percussion.
The 42-year-old Butler picked up some psychedelic showmanship when Jambay was the pit band for Ken Kesey’s play “Twister,” and he likes to conduct wearing a custom-made top hat and tails, looking like the ringmaster in a sonic circus.
Leading the orchestra, he dances around, signals for solos and uses dry erase boards to convey key changes and ideas for a groove. The board might say “funk in A,” “gentle beauty,” “hard edge rock,” “down in the dumps” or “chain gang.” The rest is up to the musicians.
“There are no preparations for it,” says guitarist Steve Kimock, best known for his improvisational work with the progressive Marin fusion band Zero. “You get your instrument, he holds up the white board and everyone just goes.”
The audience has its own part to play. Butler encourages them to clap in time, dance, sing along. He’s been known to turn to the crowd with a sign that says “Wow!”
“It’s all about exploring together and embracing the musical moment,” he explains.
He got the idea for the Everyone Orchestra from a multinational open mic night he saw while traveling in India. The players didn’t speak the same language, but they were able to communicate through music and improvisation.
Butler was living in Woodacre at the time, and when he got home, he started hosting open mics at the San Geronimo Valley Cultural Center. It gave him and multi-instrumentalist Zack Gill of Animal Liberation Orchestra and Jack Johnson (yes, THE Jack Johnson), a neighbor of Butler’s, the opportunity to experiment with different forms of improvisation.
“The idea of a facilitated jam session, not completely free form, but with some kind of structure, became my focus,” he explains. “I’ve been molding it ever since.”
He and Gill came up with the all-inclusive name Everyone Orchestra, and the ensemble made its debut at the Fillmore on New Year’s Eve 2001. Over time, Butler moved from behind his drum kit to the front of the stage, becoming the fiery conductor of an evolving, interactive, improv orchestra.
Over the past decade, he and EO have performed for up to 150,000 people, primarily at large festivals where there are lots of bands to pick players from and big crowds to play for. He’s enlisted an ever shifting cast of musicians from the Grateful Dead, Phish, moe., String Cheese Incident, the Flecktones, Club d’Elf, ALO, King Crimson and Tea Leaf Green, among other outfits from the jam band circuit.
To make his shows even more out there, he’s thrown Tuvan throat singers, live painters, dancers, chanters, choirs, hula hoopers, firespinners, jugglers, stiltwalkers, storytellers and a U.S. senator (super liberal Dennis Kucinich) into the mix.
“It’s been kind of a wild ride,” he laughs.
Butler recently took EO into the studio in New York, and on May 15, “Brooklyn Sessions,” the debut EO album, will be released. It features Butler and guitarist Kimock, drummer John Fishman from Phish, keyboardist Marco Benevento, guitarist Al Schnier from moe., singer and trumpet player Jen Hartswick from the Trey Anastasio Band, Dave Mathews Band saxophonist Jeff Coffin and bassist Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green.
On Saturday, Butler brings EO to Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley with a lineup consisting of multi-instrumentalist Michael Kang (String Cheese Incident), guitarist/singer Mark Karan (Ratdog), hammered dulcimer player Jamie Janover, multi-instrumentalist Mike Sugar, drummer Julian Fritz (Gamelan X, Shimshai) and singer Sasha “Butterfly” Rose.
“I feel very at home in Marin,” he says. “It’s great to be coming back and playing some music.”