Today it's spiritual, tomorrow it's funereal

By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff, 11/13/2003

Ken Field, a Cambridge-based saxophonist and longtime member of the Boston music scene, grew up as a nice Jewish kid in New Jersey. Now, with one of his groups, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, he plays Christian-based spirituals. With the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, another of his groups, he plays a New Orleans-based funeral procession song, "Just A Closer Walk With Thee."

"There is an attraction for me to music that's not just music," says Field.

"I have a feeling for how [spiritual music] functions in people's lives and how meaningful it is to sing those words [in `Just A Closer Walk With Thee'] while you're walking a casket to the cemetery. Even though I'm not a religious person, there's a social context. I'm thinking about the solemn aspect of it and the celebration of life. Those concepts transcend the particulars I may not subscribe to."

Field plays with the eight-piece Revolutionary Snake Ensemble at the Lizard Lounge Saturday night at 9. On Sunday at 4 p.m., he and the Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, pianist Erik Lindgren, keyboardist Rick Scott, and guitarist/programmer Michael Bierylo, will play at the Forest Hills Cemetery's Forsyth Chapel. The Mesozoic has played for 20 years as an all-instrumental, avant-garde group; at this gig they'll make their debut with Southern gospel singer Oral Moses.

"In a way, this is Oral's gig," says Field. "They will hear him singing with his amazing voice and presence in a really incredibly acoustically warm space and a very appropriate space for spiritual music. That being said, it's going to be very different treatments of the material than otherwise when he performs. Other than piano [accompaniment] or solo, there will be synthesizer, sax, guitar, piano, and sequencing."

The Mesozoic got to know Moses after he recorded at Lindgren's studio. When the band members performed in Atlanta, where Moses lives, they stayed at his house, struck up a friendship and found he was supportive of what they were doing. "While what we do is somewhat experimental, it's not real experimental, not hugely dissonant," Field says.

"Our music has components that different people can relate to. I would guess Oral heard some of those components and liked them, and he has an adventuresome spirit."

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic just released its eleventh disc, "The Iridium Controversy," with a cover painted by Roger Dean, who created the phantasmagoric Yes album covers in the 1970s. The Mesozoic met Dean at a festival in Pennsylvania in 2001, and joked about having him do a cover for them. Dean painted the cover and unveiled it at an art show in New York this past April; the band played at the opening. Price tag for the picture: $150,000. For Field, the whole experience was "a total trip, we were floored. And it looks like his work, but doesn't look like a Yes cover."

The music on this album that falls somewhere amidst the realms of progressive rock and jazz, Field says. "There's a lushness that maybe wasn't prominent in the early years, when it was a lean group. Technology has changed through the years, and people expect a little more refinement out of some types of music. I don't think any of us have any grand scheme for Birdsongs. We're happy we're still around and being provided the opportunity to create, perform, and record music. It's a very sweet situation from our perspective. We're not famous or rich and have no aspirations in those directions, but we have the venue to create and reach people."

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic's music is structured but conveys the illusion of improvisation. "If it does," says Field, "it's a tremendous success."

Finally, there's the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, formed by Field and trumpeter Scott Getchell to play a party a decade back. It has grown into a group that can be as few as six and as many as 10; it has played Boston's First Night (and will play Fall River's this year), and just released its first album, "Year of the Snake." What this band does, all dressed up in Mardi Gras garb, is take New Orleans marching music and avant-garde jazz by the likes of Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman and funk it up. (Field played in the Boston psychedelic/funk band Skin during the early '80s.)

"We can do all this obscure material and people get into it because there's a beat they can relate to, that kind of groove," he says. "We're extremely fond of the fine line division between marching music and funk."

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