The makeup of Miami's jam-fusion band Outdance is a microcosm of South Florida itself: Tom Korba, who plays the Chapman Stick, is a transplanted New Yorker. Drummer Raul Ramirez was born in Puerto Rico. Guitarist Josh Sonntag grew up in Cancún. Percussionist Sean Dibble is a Miami-Dade County native. But nothing else in these parts resembles the jazzy, polyrhythmic earthenware of Outdance.
"I don't understand it," begins Korba, "but we get compared to the Dead and to Phish a lot. I think it's the jam part. We don't write songs; we do compositions."
Fully half of Outdance's complex material -- which Korba characterizes as "world fusion" -- is improvisational. "There's sections that are very structured," adds Dibble. "But almost all the tunes have open-ended sections where anything can happen."
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In late September Outdance played Fort Lauderdale's Culture Room, sprawling its well-traveled groove across two lengthy but taut all-instrumental sets. Korba, slight and balding, became a fast-drop articulator on the Stick, simultaneously plunking down low tones and nimble high-end melodies. Mountainous, sweat-drenched Dibble battered his djembe into an Afro-Brazilian stupor, his intricate rhythms meshing with those emanating from Korba's tapped Stick strings, which in turn dovetailed into Ramirez's strong, sinewy backbeat. Sonntag effortlessly channeled a phantom-powered, bi-oscillating series of melodic pulses from his guitar.
Capturing and preserving these live dramatics, notes Korba, has proved impossible. Outdance attempted to do so with last year's Restless Spirits, but other than recording and releasing live shows, Korba isn't planning more albums.
"It was okay, but it didn't have the energy," he says of Restless Spirits. "You need the audience to play off of for improv. My plan is never to do a studio album. We're a live band, without a doubt. That's where we look best."
Of course the album shows the band's basic rhythmic foundation to be inherently healthy, a symmetrical tension and release dancing between hand percussion and drum kit. Sonntag's jazzy glissandos and chord progressions seem at once classic and unrecognizably obtuse. Adding to this density is Korba's Stick-work, which allows him to play melodies and counter-rhythms all by himself.
"And I bang it a lot," he adds. "I'll just hit the open strings with my fingers to give it a drone. Because you tap it, you can get a lot of percussion out of it, mixing it with melodies."
Even more academic -- though slyly hidden within wickedly direct African and Caribbean beats -- are unique and ever-shifting meters. For instance "Mosquito Dance" skips from 6/8 to 9/8, while the title track flips through four time signatures: 15/8, 7/8, 4/4, and 19/8.
"The whole reason it's called Outdance is because we have such a high percentage of odd time signatures," Korba explains. "But we don't want to make them feel odd, like a fusion band might do. We want to keep them rolling so people can dance. They don't know they're dancing to an odd time signature, because we're making them very groove-oriented."
At times the polyrhythmic fever pitch reaches the melting-pot ethno-jazz fusion Korba describes.
"We mix all our influences," he says. "The elements we put in are really world-oriented. Everybody from the band has such diverse backgrounds, it's hard not to use 'em all."
Korba lived through the mid-Seventies in New York's downtown incubator -- running in the same circles as the Ramones and Talking Heads at CBGB and Max's Kansas City -- as part of Just Water, who enjoyed a minor hit with a Stiff Records version of "Singin' in the Rain." Ten years ago he moved to South Florida.
Dibble began drumming at age ten, studying percussion through high school and marimba in college. Amassing an assortment of hand drums, congas, chimes, wood blocks, and bells, he assimilated various Latin, Cuban, South American, and African rhythms. In addition to Outdance, he also plays with local Haitian roots band Ayabonmbe.
Sonntag and Ramirez were schooled at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, where they formed Sofia, a Latin-rock group that later relocated to South Florida. When Sonntag met up with Korba and Dibble, Outdance also included three percussionists, two lead singers, a violinist, and a harmonica player. Ramirez didn't join until last summer. Formal training is held in high regard in the Outdance camp, Dibble even lamenting that he doesn't have as much as his comrades. But his résumé is strong, he underscores, proudly noting his work on the most recent Julio Iglesias album.
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Outdance still operates in much the same way it did at the beginning, explains Korba. "Me and Sean would get together, he'd play me rhythms, and I'd find melodies for them. Then we'd improv from there."
The band's East Coast connections still come in handy: Outdance is now managed by ex-CBGB lighting director Cosmo Ohms; hence the September 27 show with Tom Tom Club. Since the jam-band crowd recently welcomed the Club into the fold, it's not surprising that Outdance would fit snugly there as well.
"That's one of the audiences we love to play for," Dibble says simply. "But we'll play whenever, whatever. Anywhere there's an audience who likes to listen to improvisational music."