When Khris Royal plays Jazz Fest with his band Dark Matter on Saturday, it will be the first time the saxophonist has performed at the fest as a band leader. But he’s already a veteran of the Fair Grounds: His first fest gig was at age 7, with his McDonogh 15 elementary school band.
“I’ve played at, let’s see: one, two, three … 17 Jazz Fests, ” Royal tallied up.
Looking up from counting, he shook his head and grinned.
“I’ve been playing for 18 years, ” he said. “I should be better than I am, doing something that long!”
Royal grew up honing his talents in the hothouses that refine young New Orleans musicians, starting out at the Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s Don Jamison Heritage School of Music and moving on to the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, studying in the same class as Jonathan Batiste and Sasha Masakowski, and a year ahead of Troy Andrews. He worked hard, he said, to keep up with his pedigreed classmates.
“For me, it was like a game of catch-up, ” he said good-naturedly. “Because those guys were all killing from birth, it seemed like. And I was the one sitting in the practice room at NOCCA till 8 o’clock every night, practicing. I’m definitely not a prodigy. I sat down and worked hard.”
Work or talent or both, his efforts paid off. Royal was accepted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music with a full scholarship at age 16, but he didn’t graduate. A semester off that was meant to help him figure out his major instead led to a series of session gigs in Los Angeles with a former classmate. In L.A., he went straight into the pros, playing sessions for Ashanti, Nelly, The Game and Mary J. Blige.
Back in New Orleans, he joined George Porter’s touring Runnin’ Pardners. A 10-day Pardners tour of Brazil offered enough downtime to write a lot of new music, and after returning, he formed Dark Matter to play it. Their weekly residency at Blue Nile, playing high-octane, progressive funk and jazz, is now over a year old.
Royal still tours regularly with the Runnin’ Pardners. He’s also played with a laundry list of local greats that includes Dr. John, Corey Henry, Big Sam’s Funky Nation and the Wild Magnolias. He also performs with Break Science and Lettuce, two Berklee-marinated projects with drummer Adam Deitch that wander danceably through fusion jazz, funk and laptop dub and hip-hop.
Offstage, Royal is full of matter-of-fact self-effacement and good-kid positive energy. Onstage, the band is equally open and awash in good vibrations, but minus the self-deprecation; they’re clearly having too much fun for that.
And the members of Dark Matter, who are all in their early 20s, have fun the way recent college graduates do — to all hours and at top speed. The first hour of a recent Wednesday-night set at Blue Nile was relentless and explosive: aerobic, heavy-handed drumming, whomping basslines, Royal’s quick fingers on the alto sax and powerhouse guitar that slid from slick funk to grinding rock riffs. Dark Matter plays with conservatory chops, but with the energy cranked up.
Royal has a heavy schedule this Jazz Fest, playing with Porter as well as Dark Matter on the Fair Grounds and with Break Science at the Scottish Rite Temple, plus a half-dozen other night gigs. Watching him play, it would appear that finding the energy to power through won’t be a problem.
After almost 90 minutes of breathless sound at that Wednesday Blue Nile gig, Dark Matter’s set finally relaxed into a funk slow-burner, and then a choice that seemed to unite all of the band’s disparate elements: scholarship and skill mixed with youthful energy, a sense of humor and a will to mess with things. A lot of bands have played Tears for Fears’ shimmery New Wave pop tune “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” Dark Matter’s version was ethereal, spare and full of careful tension and restraint — with Royal blooping and burbling through a Vocoder on an electronic saxophone/synthesizer as if he were charming robot snakes from outer space.
It was a cover, but it was definitely the sound of somebody doing their own thing. That has become an increasingly familiar sound on local bandstands emanating from those early-2000s NOCCA alums, many of whom have been on the radar for years as the student band member, the prodigy, the new sideman or the son, daughter or nephew of the big-name New Orleans musician.
“And now, ” Royal said, “we’re all just regular cats.”