For some musicians, the heart of music lies in improvisation. Bees?, a five-piece student band from Shenandoah University in Virginia, takes that credo to heart, and, as a result, you will rarely see the group perform the same show twice. The band, which consists of guitarist/bassist/singer Bronsen Euard; keyboardist and singer Natalie Ahearn; saxophonist Andrew Herring; trumpeter Nick Serbu and drummer Chace Washington, routinely improvise during live performances, and when their passion for ad hoc jazz is combined with their distinctly punk rock ethos, the result is an energetic, complex musical experience.
Though their core roster already features a dizzying array of instruments, the group’s first album, “Buzzkill,” shows the extent of their musical repertoire, with aural appearances from clarinets, flutes and even a flugelhorn. Through this heterogeneity, Bees? makes it apparent that their influences extend beyond jazz, nearing, in some aspects, a kind of classically inflected funk. T
he pairing is a natural one, as both genres are rooted in a predilection for musical virtuosity, though the key difference is in their adherence to a script: Classical music revels in codified structure, whereas jazz thrives in spontaneity. To hear a sound such as Bees? then, which seems to have reconciled the two, has all the charm of an sonic ying yang. Much of this accomplishment is the work of Herring, the saxophonist and, alongside Ahearn and Euard, one of the band’s three songwriters. The Shenadoah student is majoring in Composition, where he primarily studies classical music, an interest that clearly bleeds into his songwriting.
Take the first two songs from “Buzzkill,” for example. The opening track, “Seven Seas,” starts immediately with a guitar groove that meets thick jazz chords from the winds. It builds powerfully, before pulling back suddenly to make room for Euard to croon. Not thirty seconds later though, Euard’s singing crescendos into belting, and the music returns to its original, high-level energy. Most of the instrumentation, from the drums to the singing to the guitar, occurs on the off-beats for the first two-thirds of the song; then, at the bridge, everything shifts: The music feels more on the beat itself, the sound becomes ambient and the chords lose their shape. From this dreamy soundscape, the band builds slowly again, creating tension, a keyboard solo raising the intensity until the exuberance explodes back into the chorus, an upswell more energetic than any before in the song.
Before you even have time to process that the first song has ended, the second track on the album, “Awry,” has begun. This one is perhaps the most influenced by jazz on the project. It has no vocals, but a musical theme that divides the different solo sections from each other. In one solo, you hear Herring on the sax, tiptoeing through a minimalist progression before cutting loose. Then Serbu jumps in on the trumpet, scaling between his highest and lowest registers with ease, and finally Euard takes over on the guitar, dancing through a dissonant and technically impressive solo while maintaining the prototypical rhythms of the genre.
This stunning variety of sound is what makes Bees? such an interesting band. Their collaboration is not just on stage, but in the writing process as well. While Herring knows the most about classical music, Euard, Ahearn, and Serbu are all Jazz Studies majors. Euard explains that in the time before Bees? formed, he was a singer-songwriter with influences that ranged from metal to pop punk to hip-hop and R&B. Most notably, Eaurd’s interest in the band Hiatus Kaiyote seems to have influenced his approach to music-making in the last year. Ahearn, on the other hand, brings an understanding of EDM into her jazz training. She identifies artists like Porter Robinson as heavily influential on her sense of structure and sound design, and the effects of this affinity are hard to miss in several of their songs, including the beginning of “Awry” and all throughout “No Eyes Meet.”
The group has gone through some pretty significant personnel changes over the years, and the only two members of the band who were a part of what they refer to as the “OG Bees?” are Euard and Ahearn, who split off from the original group due to difference in influence. The duo had already met Herring and were looking to jam together in a more jazz fusion, improvisational setting. OG Bees? seemed to be dissolving anyway, so the other members agreed to let Euard and Ahearn keep the band name as they moved forward.
Shortly after their first few jam sessions, the members of the new Bees? knew they had found something special and set out to record. In winter 2015, they recorded “Buzzkill” at Cellar Recording Studios. However, because Bees? is much more of a performance band than a recording band, “Buzzkill” is the only project they have released thus far. Euard and Herring say that they’ve written a bunch of new music that they regularly perform, but that they haven’t gotten back into the studio until recently. “The thing is that the magic for us is in the moment, when we are actually playing music,” says Herring. Hopefully, there is more of that to come.