Golden age

Songs to sink your teeth into: The Hard Bop Explosion, on stage at Isis, performs music for casual listeners as much as for jazz aficionados. Photo by Frank Zipperer

It's not easy to please everyone, but when it comes to music, the Sunday Jazz Showcase at Isis is making a valiant attempt. “We do stuff that's fairly accessible and it's also stuff that jazz lovers can sink their teeth into,” says bandleader (and music professor) William Bares. “We had a Sonny Rollins night, we had a John Coltrane night. That's stuff that beginners who may not know much about jazz can enjoy, but at the same time we also cater to those people who are really into jazz.”

The showcase is not the first jazz event in Asheville — far from it. Shane Perlowin's Open Letter series brought experimental acts from Chicago and New York. The weekly Soul Jazz Jam at One Stop offers opportunities for local musicians to collaborate. The Altamont Theatre hosted the series Spork, featuring musicians like trumpet player Justin Ray, saxophonist Jacob Rodriguez, clarinetist Steve Alford and percussionist Ben Bjorlie. Tressa's has long scheduled jazz shows, and big band Asheville Jazz Orchestra has been performing since 2006.

But there are “very few places where you can go and listen to it while having a fine dining and drinking experience along the lines of what you'd expect in New York or other major cities around the country,” says Bares. The series started, appropriately, on New Year’s Day. Its first shows used the upstairs lounge at Isis, a small but elegant space with a bar, a piano and an understated suave. But Bares was thinking bigger: By early February a piano was procured for the main stage. The Feb. 10 show highlighted a jazz quartet and nearly all of the dining tables were full.

“The venue itself is spectacular in terms of the sound quality and lighting display, and the way it presents on stage is really beautiful,” says Bares, who came to Asheville (where he teaches at UNCA) by way of New York. The pianist holds a doctorate in ethnomusicology from Harvard, spent a decade performing and researching jazz in Europe, and penned the book Eternal Triangle: American Jazz in European Postmodern.

“I heard a number of things said about Asheville before I ever showed up, about it being a musical town,” says Bares. “It's definitely lived up to its billing. Someone told me the other day that we're living through the golden age of jazz in Asheville right now — I think that's a cool way of putting it.” While Bares, a relative newcomer to the scene, says he doesn't have a point of reference as far as the golden age is concerned, he believes that the musical bar is being raised every day.

“We have a lot of people with a lot of experience who may have grown up in the area, coupled with people who are coming in from outside,” says Bares. The musicians in his band, The Hard Bop Explosion (Ray, Rodriguez, Alford, bassist Zack Page and drummer Michael Davis), are all ex-New Yorkers and “so bring all of the experience that we got in New York to the table.”

Bares says that the showcase draws a base of dedicated, hardcore jazz fans who come out every week, along with “a neat mix of other people who may not come out every time, but like to go out.” To cater to both groups, Bares plans to spotlight nationally known performers like saxophonist Greg Tardy (who happens to have ties to WNC), vocal showcases on the last Sunday of the month, and a possible earlier set in the upstairs lounge so that “we can rotate more local acts in and celebrate jazz even more than we already are.”

Of course, as Bares' band's name implies, there will be hard bop jazz. He describes the musical style, which grew out of '60s-era bebop as “more like soul-jazz and feel-good music. This is more about groove. It has a little bit more connection to blues and gospel and soul.”

And the Hard Bop Explosion adds its own spin to the blue-note era sound: “Each of us will listen to the records and find those rare tracks that aren't played so often,” says Bares. “We transcribe them off records, rehearse them and present them in an authentic way.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

what: The Sunday Jazz Showcase
where: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall
when: Sundays (8 p.m., currently no cover, but reservations recommended for tables.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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