San Diego’s Montalban Quintet is not a quintet. And no, it’s not named after the late actor Ricardo.
The band’s story is actually much cooler: according to lore, the name came after founder Chris Prescott encountered a man using a piece of sheet metal to create music from the handrails in a UCSD stairwell. The man, Hermelindo Montalban, “had discovered the resonant frequencies of the stairwell and how they could be accentuated and activated.” Montalban “called that part of the stairwell his ‘quintet’ because he knew how manipulate each of the five handrails to evoke unique pitches.” After befriending Hermelindo (who now plays percussion in the band), the two “appropriated and simplified” this idea into the Montalban Quintet.
The band itself is as interesting as its backstory. Led by Prescott (Pinback, No Knife), and comprised of members of other local outfits including Boilermaker, Sleeping People, and The Mattson 2, Montalban Quintet has created a sound that incorporates post-punk, surf, jazz, loops, and more. With a diverse array of instrumental possibilities — including drums, guitar and electronics (Prescott), trumpet, flugelhorn, and valve trombone (Carl Prescott), tenor and baritone sax (Jim Weiss), cello (Marjorie Prescott), vibes (Nathan Hubbard), bass (Kenseth Thibideau), vocals (Terrin Durfey), and a man whose percussive portfolio includes handrails (Hermelindo Montalban) — the musical options are endless.
On Montalban Quintet’s self-titled debut, released last year, the band embraces the idea of possibility. The opening track, “Lonnie’s Lament,” kicks off like a funeral march before morphing into a post-punk dirge. Another highlight, “Abajo del Mar,” features Carl Prescott’s Miles-inspired trumpet, as well as other horns, Chris’s drums, and guitar layered over a field-recorded loop. “Besa Sorta,” the lead single from the album, explores Spaghetti Western themes and combines them with surf sublimity. You can stream the entire album at the band’s Bandcamp page (see above).
In anticipation of the show, the Chris Prescott sent us his Poetic Memory list of influences. Check it out:
10 things that help explain the origins of Montalban Quintet’s sound
“Bacchanal” by Gabor Szabo: Gabor Szabo is a remarkable Hungarian guitar player from the late 60’s who infused a wide range of influences into his music. Everything from Hungarian folk melodies, to west coast cool jazz to popular rock music, to experimental feedback noise. I love his guitar sound, which to me sounds like flat-wound strings on a hollow body guitar. It’s a weird cross between a mellow jazz tone and a dead rock tone. A note of interest: although Gabor is not a well-known jazz figure, we wrote several tunes that later became massive hits for Santana and George Benson.
“Man With the Movie Camera” by Cinematic Orchestra: A friend of mine at my teaching job kept playing this CD over and over and I never remembered what they were called. Each time it was played, I asked “what’s this called?” It really struck a chord with me as it blended so many different elements into a really hip sound. There are jazz elements but the overall feeling is really dark, like a soundtrack to a film as the band name implies. The songs develop over time and sometimes they end up sounding pretty different from where they begin. I really like the use of strings on their CD. And the drummer is excellent, which always is an easy way to perk up my ears. When I was on tour with Pinback in Belgium, we were slated to play with the Cinematic Orchestra and they cancelled at the last minute. Although I was bummed, Tinariwen was put in their time slot instead. What a cool surprise!
“Cler Achel” by Tinariwen: As I mentioned, we played with Tinariwen on tour. I had no idea what was going on. The singer kept leaving the stage during the performance and was arguing with people. Definitely an intense guy. Their whole band was dressed in robes and turbans with their faces covered. Some female band members kept shrieking in this high yell while they kept a groove with their repetitive clapping patterns. The whole band was so skilled and built up a hypnotic groove that was unbelievable. From that day on, I cite Tinariwen as one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. Incredible.
“Nothing But Heart” by Low: Another tour, coincidentally in Belgium again, we played with Low. I had friends over the years rave about them but had never heard them. I am not usually too eager to seek out new bands, and Low was not on my radar. I was mildly interested to meet them and check their set. Wow. My mind was blown. These guys played an amazing set and this song in particular stuck with all of us. They played an 11 minute version and it basically repeats the title of the song over and over, building with intensity the whole time. Live, it was a gripping experience that the video can’t capture. Their latest album “C’Mon” has been played in my house far too many times. It’s REAL good.
“Love is Love” by Lungfish: This is another band that wasn’t in my world too much in the 90’s but I was turned on to them by our road manager in 1998. They have since been one of my favorite bands. I love the weird mystery surrounding their band and Daniel Higgs in particular. The repetition and slow pace of their music is really powerful. It has an eastern quality in the scales and melodies but the drums are pounding away and of course the singing and lyrics are unique. I love these guys.
“Magic Sun” by Sun Ra: Sun Ra is really interesting on a lot of levels. He’s a jazz pianist who figured a way to sidestep the racism in America: claim to be an alien from Saturn, duh! He formed a commune of musicians around his space vision called the Arkestra. They put out a ton of albums, some better than others. When you find a gem, it’s a fat diamond of good, freaky stuff. Montalban Quintet has adapted a couple of Sun Ra’s compositions into our set.
“Knives Out” by Brad Mehldau: I have had the pleasure of seeing these guys a bunch of times having worked for a San Diego jazz promoter for many years. Brad Mehldau is ALWAYS an amazing concert to catch. His relevance to MQ is the way he fuses a wide range of things all together without it turning into Muzac. This clip is a re-working of Radiohead’s “Knives Out.” Jeff Ballard on drums kills it. He is so fast and doesn’t even move. Bizarre. Mehldau’s music is a blend of jazz tradition, classical and popular music. His technique is amazingly inventive and is often playing 2 loosely connected melodic lines simultaneously. His coordination between his hands is a sight to be seen (heard).
“Six Marimbas” by Steve Reich: I got really into Steve Reich when I was at UCSD. He’s a big hero around there and rightfully so. I love the way he phases parts and the songs move in a way that takes patience but also hypnotizes you. The repetition is so simple but so powerful. I think this concept of making people wait for the next development in a composition is intriguing. It’s also, of course, a process of weeding out. People either dig it or are distracted and bored. When you do get sucked in, it’s deep.
“Mishra Blues” by Joe Harriott & John Mayer: This is another example of an interesting take on fusion. It’s a combination of an Indian classical group and a traditional jazz quartet. It’s not the wanky funk fusion that drifts into masturbatory territory, but more of an “I appreciate that so I want to bring in some elements into my music.” Musical fusion is really interesting to me but the term “fusion” more often than not is something that I don’t really want to listen to. Weird the way that works. I stole this record out of my mom’s record collection and thankfully she hasn’t asked for it back, ‘cuz we play it all the time.
Sorpio’s Theme by Lalo Schifrin: This one’s kind of an oddball. He uses all sorts of different instrumental combinations that are surprising. I first heard of Lalo Schiffrin for playing with Dizzy Gillespie but turns out he’s a big time, heavyweight film score guy. News to me. Now I notice that he’s done tons of famous scores. This is from his work on the Dirty Harry series. He also did Cool Hand Luke, Mission: Impossible, Bullitt, Amityville Horror, Enter the Dragon, Planet of the Apes, and tons more. His work is strong!