Mazer, Skursky to bring instrumental trio home to River Street Jazz Cafe
What started as a fun, improvisational side project for two native Northeastern Pennsylvania artists and their frequent musical collaborator has become a vehicle for creating original, instrumental music that they are excited to bring home.
Starbird, a trio featuring guitarist Justin Mazer, bassist Dylan Skursky and drummer Al Smith, will perform on Friday at the River Street Jazz Cafe in Plains Township during an evening of music that also features headliner Flux Capacitor, a popular neo-psychedelic jam band from the Reading region.
Mazer hails from Shavertown and built his reputation locally and regionally playing with NEPA-rooted songwriter and guitarist Mike “MiZ” Mizwinski and roots rock band Leroy Justice before beginning a tenure in Philadelphia-based outfit American Babies, which is where he and Smith first connected. More recently, Mazer has toured with songwriter Ryan Montbleau.
Skursky is a founding member and longtime bass player for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton-based bluegrass ensemble Cabinet, which began an indefinite hiatus in January following a New Year’s Eve performance.
Together, Mazer, Skursky and Smith have also performed with Cabinet banjo player and songwriter Patrick “Pappy” Biondo and Mike Gordon Band drummer John Kimock in a group called Gatos Blancos.
“For many years, when we were busy with other projects, we always had the discussion of booking shows as a trio,” Mazer said.
More than two years ago, the three-piece booked their first gig at Turkey Hill Brewing Company in Bloomsburg under the name Lithium Angels.
“The project was founded on minimalism and simplicity,” Mazer said. “No guitar pedals, just two guys plugged in to an amp, no PA, just sitting in a corner improvising and seeing where it goes.”
Since that first performance, Starbird, as the band quickly came to be called, has played nearly 60 shows on both coasts and a few cities in between and has been joined on stage by such notable musicians as Erik Deutsch of Leftover Salmon, Chris Bullock of Grammy-winning jazz fusion ensemble Snarky Puppy, classically trained pianist Holly Bowling and acclaimed flatpicking guitarist John Stickley.
“We’ve played big shows outside of Wilkes-Barre, up and down the East Coast, and in two years’ time, we’ve never played a proper show in Wilkes-Barre, our home territory,” Mazer said.
As performances began to accumulate, the trio’s excuse to improvise became rooted in writing original music.
“I like to joke that at some point we accidentally became a real band,” Mazer said. “The writing process has become more refined with all three of us experimenting with different sounds and layers and instruments and textures.”
The group’s minimalist beginnings have given way to a desire to delve into various effects and tunings.
“It’s fun to see how much sonic and musical ground we can cover with the three of us,” Mazer said. “Al and Dylan are incredibly talented and diverse guys who can play different instruments. It’s fun to come in with an idea and see what happens through presenting that idea.”
On tour, the band has opened shows as Starbird and also served as the backing band for headliners like songwriter Brad Parsons.
“It ends up being a musically satisfying evening,” Mazer said of the double shift. “We do our thing as Starbird, and then, at set break, I change modes into a country rock guitar thing, which I love doing, for Brad Parsons’ music. … He has a great platform for me and the band itself to do that.”
Although improvisation initially brought the trio together, Mazer said Starbird pieces are structured, albeit arranged in unconventional ways that satisfy the group’s penchant for exploration.
“In a given Starbird set, there is a lot of intent to everything,” he said. “It’s not the kind of band where we are trying to be too self-indulgent and flexing our athletic musical muscles. It’s about using all these different sounds and tone colors to create a vibe and trying to stay away from the noodly aspect of what you might hear and see in the jam band circuit from time to time.”
Describing some of the pieces as resembling “movements,” Mazer said the trio can go in “a thousand different directions” and he likens building a Starbird set to adding different colors to a painting.
“There’s a trust there because of all the mileage we have under our belts,” he said. “Because it’s the three of us playing, it’s going to be oddly cohesive no matter what.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.
IF YOU GO
What: Flux Capacitor & Starbird (Mazer, Skursky and Smith)
When: Music begins at 10 p.m. April 20
Where: River Street Jazz Cafe, 667 N. River St., Plains Township
Additional information: Tickets cost $10 in advance and $15 the day of the show and are available online at bit.ly/2H7pkOS.