If you can find a spot to stand, you'll hear why Monday night at Bogart's Back Room is becoming a local legend. 

Happy Monday

At 10:45 p.m. Bogart's Back Room is crowded. The small bar is packed, the booths and tables are full, and people are still pouring down the steps to pool in the standing area near the entrance. It would be a good turnout on a Saturday night, but for a Monday it's phenomenal.

The draw is The Devil's Workshop, a 17-piece improvisational band dedicated to blurring the boundaries between jazz, rock, hip-hop and all the other territories of today's Balkanized music scene. Formed just before Christmas 2000 by saxophonist Steve Norfleet, the group started the regular Monday gigs last fall and has been building a loyal following ever since.

It's a mixed crowd. Heavy representation from the twenty-something Fan dwellers is to be expected: Who else has the energy for a weekly weeknight party? Well, plenty, it seems. There are also teachers, business suits and others with the gray hairs of experience. Most of the band is still mingling with the audience when drummer Robbie Sinclair starts the show with a slow march beat. One by one they take their seats and join in.

"For the first tune of every night we make something up on the spot," Norfleet says. "It may be five minutes long, or it may last 25 minutes." Tonight's piece has a decided New Orleans flavor, building complexity as new instruments enter. "There are three kinds of playing in the band," Norfleet says: "the rhythm, the solo and what I think of as the 'simmer.'" The intensity builds as simultaneous improvisations take off but never get far from the gathering melodic momentum. When the tension is finally released in a blistering solo from saxophonist Colin Kililea, the band is fully assembled and the audience is completely engaged.

It's easy to see the appeal of massed brass. The huge sound of unison horns in a small space has the visceral impact of a rock band. For decades big bands were the dominant force in popular music; their decline was due as much to changing economics as to changing tastes. Even after all but the largest names were gone, players got together to get the sound that only a large ensemble could produce.

In the 1950s, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis assembled one of the greatest big bands ever. They played at the Village Vanguard on Monday nights — the slow time of the week when they could get the pick of New York musicians.

The tradition continues today. "Things have changed a lot over the years," says Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon. "After the two leaders died, one after the other, we decided to keep the band together as the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. A lot of players, like Joe Lovano, have become stars and moved on. But we still have lots of [arrangements] from Thad Jones, and the band has remained popular. Now it seems like every New York club has a Monday night big band," Gordon says. "Playing follow the leader."

They certainly influenced Norfleet. "I listened to a recent recording of the Vanguard band," he says," and they were as vital as a bar band. That they are still doing it right 40 years later is amazing."

But inspiration isn't imitation. "We are trying for the next level of music," says Norfleet. "The stuff that doesn't exist yet but everyone is waiting to hear." While the Devil's Workshop started out playing set arrangements, the preplanned portions of each song became shorter as the band developed confidence. They increasingly play originals; mostly pieces are built on head arrangements, flexible collections of solos and riffs that form both a basis and a home base for improvisation.

Their flexible approach is exemplified by "Mushroom Tattoos," a song constructed in sections that the band switches between in response to hand gestures from Norfleet. The dynamic interaction is flawless, executing the changes and adapting immediately to accommodating rapper Martin Reamy when he is recognized in the audience and called to the microphone to improvise rapid-fire lyrics. By the end of the piece, when the band is leading the audience in an unaccompanied chant-along, while drummer Sinclair and pianist Dan Clark perform synchronized soul band moves in the back, it's hard to say exactly how the song got to this unpredictable conclusion. Every incremental step along the way seemed logical.

Norfleet insists the Devil's Workshop music is not jazz, and he may be right. But like the best jazz it is unpredictable, a bit subversive, and, of course, entertaining.

If you want to sit down, get to the Back Room early. It may be hard to get in at all if you get there too late. Standing- room crowds are a measure of success, but not the only one. "When we saw girls dancing in the booths," says Sinclair, "we knew we had arrived."

The Devils Workshop performs every Monday at Bogart's Back Room, 203 N. Lombardy St. $5. 10 p.m. 353-9280.

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