Pence, better known throughout the Triangle these days as Crowmeat Bob, has spent most of the past decade playing gigs much like that one. Though he's one of the most active musicians in the Triangle, his music--free jazz heavily influenced by John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and several tenets of 20th-century composition--isn't stuff that commands a large local fan base. Sometimes, the irregular improvisational bands he forms--from cello/guitar/electronics trios to larger, more noise-based free-form outfits--play only for themselves and a bartender. But they play.
The viscera of his music is the central reason he'll never find a large local audience. He smiles when he mentions "uneasy listening," his new term for his own music. The words "jagged" and "violent" come up more than once when he mentions his long-standing interest in deconstructing rhythmic meter. When he talks about how modern composition has affected his jazz playing, he replies as a discordant utilitarian: "Because it's fucked up."
"That's what it's about for me, just keeping things on edge and keeping tension there," he says. "A lot of time that can be gotten through breaking apart the rhythm."
When Pence mentions keeping a tension in his music, he's not just talking about its effect on the audience. Following Coltrane's model of continuous improvement, Pence purposefully puts himself in uncomfortable contexts as a player. He works with a highly arranged rock band, Kolyma, and an open-to-improv blues-based band, Dexter Romweber & the New Roman Times.
Most regularly, though, he invites people who have never improvised to join one of his free jazz projects. He never knows what to expect, and he's full of contrarian notions for classical musicians who don't know how to begin improvising.
"I don't want to say 'Play what you feel' because that's almost too much of a mystifying vagary," says Pence. "I almost want to say the opposite: Play something that makes you feel differently, you know. Try to interact with what is going on around you."
That interaction is the crux of what Pence has accomplished in the past eight years as a Triangle musician: He's worked with nearly every musical clique that would have him, and he's recruited an eclectic group--from electronic iconoclasts to classically trained horn players--to join. He's been at the center of work that, otherwise, may never have happened. His method is to listen, to hear the way the world of sounds is working around him and to join it and build it.
"I've learned how to do it by listening to records and going through phases of understanding with jazz," he says while sitting in the living room of his apartment, crowded with stacks of vinyl and CDs, sheet music and obscure films. "You can see a progression, not necessarily a linear or forward one, but a series of changes in the way the instruments relate to one another. You can understand how they're relating if you listen."
Though he plays often, finding a consistent venue can be a challenge. Pence's Tuesday night Death Jazz episodes took to Bickett Gallery every week for nearly two years, but he hoped to up exposure and attendance with improved promotion through a Wednesday night slot at Kings under the more inviting name of Health Jazz. Still, they don't even use the house speakers at Kings because they'd have to pay a sound engineer. "We have to play towards the front," he says, "and we can't do everything we'd like to do. Things tend to be more jazz-based because of that." On a good night, he doesn't really make money.
But Pence is more than thankful for places like Kings, venues that invite his music in even though they know the shows won't be profitable. Pence recognizes that very few places would accept his music at all--it isn't the type of music that could work at an unsuspecting local jazz jam. In fact, he rightly asserts jazz isn't precisely what he does. It just happens to be the most approximate, generic term. "Jazz is a good, all-encompassing word for improvised music like this," he says. "But in both listeners' and musicians' minds, it's not what I do."
Pence knows he's not done progressing. Practice isn't only about becoming a better listener or mastering more extended techniques for his instruments.
"One of the things I like about music is the idea that I will never be a master of what I do," he says, referencing technically skilled but highly experimental musicians like Marc Ribot or Mats Gustafson as influences in that direction. "There's always an infinite amount of progress to make."
Given that goal, he embraces his obscurity with a wry wit. "Five years' time, I'm going to be plastered all over MTV," he jokes. "It's all part of my master plan. You'll all see."