Thanks to the Jazz Composers Forum, local jazz may have finally escaped the repressive lethargy of martini-lounge commercialism.
“The impetus to organize such a forum stems from the need to create and take a few risks,” says killer percussionist Taylor Davis of Asheville’s improv-jazz force Taken Back Quartet, who hosts the monthly program with the help of Sharon LaMotte and other local jazz defenders.
Rebellion against complacency — the lifeblood of the genre — brands regional jazz in particular. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie were all Carolina men — and someday we may add Davis’ name to their ranks.
Though he won’t take credit for it, Davis, a South Carolina native, has acted as a timely catalyst for needed change, forming the quartet — including Phillip Whack on sax, guitarist Sam Macy and bassist Mike Holstein — soon after his arrival in Asheville several years ago.
“There is feeling among jazz artists that in such a highly profit-driven and competitive industry as the music business, much of the artistic integrity of contemporary composers and musicians gets sidelined by the demand for ‘sellable’ material,” offers Davis.
In too many cases, what was once avant-garde artistry has become background music that might as well be piped in through the elevator shaft.
A volunteer organization modeled after such programs as The New York Jazz Composers Collective, the local Forum hopes to become less and less reliant on the industry in order to achieve its goal. But Davis acknowledges the daunting task at hand.
“Because what we are attempting is intentionally not made for widespread commercial appeal, funding is tough,” he admits.
Put plainly, showcasing today’s best jazz composers in a small market doesn’t come cheap. And the Forum’s founders paid for the group’s premiere performance, 18 months ago, mostly out of their own pockets. Thirteen concerts later, though, the organization is dynamic, strong — and still financially solvent.
As Miles Davis once said, “First I’ll play it, then I’ll tell you what it is.” In that spirit, the Forum began as an improvised idea, then became a major composition. In their first year, the group presented four concerts, featuring eight composers, to a total audience of 325 people. Last year, they produced 10 concerts involving 16 composers, plus two public-radio shows.
Their audience topped 15,000.
“Each concert,” explains Davis, “is organized in a two-set performance, one presenting works from a composer in residence and the other presenting works from a guest composer.
“Upon the conclusion of each performance, the composers become available for an informal discussion that aims to explain their works, educate the listeners, and build a mutually beneficial dialogue between musicians and audience members,” he goes on.
“We want to have enough funds to be able to bring someone like Chick Corea or Wynton Marsalis to town, which is certainly possible. And there are other musicians who are of that caliber of talent but are not as well known, and we especially want to bring those musicians here and give them an audience and present their music.”
The Forum strives to offer an environment where participating artists can take as many musical liberties as they wish. This is a rare chance for most composers, who may spend the majority of their working hours playing behind a vocalist or performing old jazz standards to easily pleased audiences.
In fact, grooming harder-to-satisfy fans seems an integral part of Taken Back’s mission. Via the Forum organization, quartet members have taught jazz classes and workshops at UNCA, Brevard College and Western Carolina University.
“The schools all encourage music students to attend our performances,” says Davis. “And members of those faculties often come and perform along with us. We want to create a network and involve as many musicians as possible.
“Right now,” he reveals, “our saxophone player, Phillip Whack, is traveling and playing with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.”
And despite missing the sax player’s musical input, Davis hopes Whack’s break will also benefit jazz fans back home.
“As he travels, he has an opportunity to meet new composers and invite them to come play in Asheville. Even if the founding members of the Forum travel out of the area, they will use it as a means to strengthen participation in the Forum by bringing musicians back here to perform.
“This region,” Davis notes, “has an important jazz history and tradition, and we want to emphasize that and honor it by creating an innovative environment for progressive jazz right here.”
The Jazz Composers Forum hosts NYC pianist Bill Gerhardt and his band in a weekend of concerts starting Saturday, June 21 at the Emerald Lounge (112 N. Lexington Ave.); the 11 p.m. show will feature the Taken Back Trio (Phillip Whack is on tour) with Bill Gerhardt and sax player Marc Mommass. Call 232-4372 for cover and more info.
On Sunday, June 22, Taken Back bassist Mike Holstein will join Gerhardt, sax player Marc Mommass and drummer Tim Horner for two sets starting at 7 p.m. at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium. Suggested donation is $10 (UNCA students get in free with ID). On Monday, June 23, Gerhardt’s band Cotangent will play a free show as part of the school’s Concerts on the Quad series, at 7 p.m. For more information on the UNCA events, call 232-5000 or check out www.takenbackquartet.com.