The secret language of jazz

It’s a tough gig, you’d think, playing jazz in a small Southern city known for its devotion to folk and bluegrass. But that’s not the way Luci Anne Evans and Tom Coppola see it.

“Are you kidding?” Evans says, rolling her eyes. “Musicians in Manhattan wish they could live here. When they sleep at night, they dream about living in the mountains.”

That might explain, in part, the love affair these two accomplished musicians have with our fair city: Southern hospitality, it seems, is good for jazz.

“In Boston and New York, there’s a terrible competition for space,” Coppola explains, leaning casually against the Steinway that dominates his living room. “We didn’t want to have to fight, to resort to business tricks just to get a place to play.”

Evans and Coppola certainly didn’t have to resort to any mercenary stunts to get attention around here. Encouraged by a regular Thursday gig at McGuffey’s in Hendersonville — and by the restaurant’s jazz-friendly manager, Henry Simmons — the two found our town to be hungry for music a little more … well, sophisticated than the usual fare. “People are so happy,” Evans says, referring to the duo’s audiences. “They come up exclaiming that they haven’t heard some particular song in sooo long. Other people come up and ask if we know the lost fifth verse of ‘Let’s Do It’ or something.”

Evans and Coppola are only two of a small but serious cadre of musicians that has created a sort of insurgent jazz scene in Asheville. Lured here initially for a teaching job, keyboardist Coppola was playing with a combo at Barley’s when he caught Evans’ ear. A few months later, she sat in. “And it swung like crazy,” Coppola recalls, in true jazzman style.

Evans — whose soaring, gutsy vocals reflect both her formal training and a seat-of-the-pants spontaneity — cut her teeth as an intern in the Windham Hill outfit Oregon. For a time, she drifted away from the more intellectual rigors of jazz, but she never lost sight of her first love. “Every time I tried to write pop or folk,” she says, “I just kept coming back to jazz.” In Canada, where she was something of a sensation, Evans was featured for four years running at the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival — an achievement she seeks to duplicate with Coppola. Of course, making the rest of the triumvirate of great “M” festivals — Montreux and Monterey — wouldn’t be too shabby, either.

As for Coppola, well, don’t expect him to spend too much time reminiscing about his past. Though his bosses have included such stellar talents as Paul Simon and Marvin Gaye — and his resume boasts, among other gigs, a six-year stint producing and arranging for “Saturday Night Live” — he waves all of that away. “My pop stuff,” he murmurs. He also reluctantly admits to producing a Puerto Rican salsa band, Los Jovenes del Barrio, now quietly ascending the international charts.

While Evans and Coppola’s set includes mostly their own originals and jazz classics, the world-beat connection is more than a lark. Their repertoire contains a number of Latin numbers — which focus, in particular, on the smooth but complex rhythms of Brazilian artists such as Djavan and Antonio Carlos Jobim. “Tom’s put me to work learning congas and bongos,” Evans says with a laugh. “It makes things a little more authentic. I get to keep rhythm and sing at the same time.”

In Portuguese? I ask.

“Yeah, in Portuguese. And sometimes French.”

“What’s good about all of this,” interjects Coppola, “is that we’re both serious and accessible at the same time. Our style — what I call basically modern jazz — is true to the mainstream form. That way, you get the support of the commercial organizations, but you also get a shot at mainstream success.” Success seems almost inevitable: Plans are in place for a locally recorded live album, to be released in March (if you want your cheers on the CD, you’d better catch ’em soon). The duo will then take their act on the road, to scout out agents and managers and shop around for an album deal.

For now, however, they’re content to play for the good citizens of Asheville. On Jan. 30, Evans and Coppola will perform at the Broadway Swing Dance, and the next night, they’ll host a cyber-jazz workshop at Connections CyberCafe in downtown Asheville. The duo also just landed another coveted gig, playing every other Wednesday at Occasionally Blues in Greenville. As if all that were not enough, Coppola recently released a book of his arrangements, The Jazz Pianist’s Professional Harmonies for Standards (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1997).

But even with so much in the works, I still have to wonder: What is it about this cerebral, decidedly urbane art form that rouses people to shake their wild things on the dance floor?

Evans laughs. “It’s cerebral, sure, but it’s also very physical, too. If you listen, the songs are usually quite risque. There’s a wild, rich history behind most of the standards. Romance, for instance, means much more than just romance. As soon as people discover that, suddenly it’s not cerebral at all. It becomes very provocative and physical.

“You see,” she confides, her glass of wine glinting in the afternoon sun, “there’s a secret language to jazz.”

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