Talk about jazz towns and people think New Orleans, Chicago, New York. But Asheville? According to local musician Shane Perlowin (of math-rock outfit Ahleuchatistas and punk-jazz trio Mind vs. Target), Asheville is making a name for itself among touring jazz musicians. “They go to Columbia, Lexington and New York,” he says. “They tour overseas,” because there's a supportive audience.
“We've established that support here,” Perlowin continues. “I've been to shows in New York and Chicago — the same number of people come out to a show in Asheville. Asheville is becoming a place to play on tour. I think it's because we care about it; we try to make this work.”
Because there is that interest in jazz music — especially in the avant-garde vein — Perlowin has been working behind the scenes for a couple years to book up-and-coming artists into local venues. This year, with three not-to-be missed acts in the works, Perlowin is branding the Open Letter music series (which shares its name with his indie label, Open Letter Records, due to release Perlowin's solo album The Vacancy In Every Verse this summer).
The series evolved organically enough: In 2006, Chicago-based cornet virtuoso Josh Berman played a duet at Static Age Records with saxophonist Keefe Jackson. Jackson's sister had attended college with Perlowin and put the two musicians in touch.
“A lot of artists used to come through Vincent's Ear,” Perlowin explains. When the former Lexington Avenue coffee shop/music venue closed, “there was a vacuum. People didn't know who to contact to book a show.” After Jackson and Perlowin teamed up, other musicians — many from the Chicago jazz community — began calling the Ahleuchatistas guitarist.
Jackson returns as part of Berman's band for a BoBo Gallery performance this Sunday. And, though BoBo has a completely different feel from Vincent's Ear, Perlowin points out that BoBo's cozy visual and performance arts space is just right for jazz shows. To begin with, the venue lends itself to attentive listening. “I think jazz is a living art form and people are participating in that art form,” Perlowin says. These musicians are “doing new things or are expressive within that style of music and it speaks to you.”
But that doesn't mean the Open Letter music series offerings are impossibly heady. Take Berman: The cornetist (who shrinks from the designation “cornet master”) does steer his compositions off the map — spikes of brassy trumpet flex above the warm, rounded tones of vibraphone and muted, buzzing percussion on his newly-released disc Old Idea. But Berman's experimental musings are tempered with such sleek style and mastery that even a listener not armed with a jazz theory playbook can enjoy the cornetist's meanderings.
“This is not Kenny G, this is the opposite of that,” Perlowin posits. “There's some vigor and attitude that would appeal to people who like rock or punk.” That's what sets the Open Letter events apart from other local jazz series. Perlowin is booking performers in their mid-30s who are likely, in turn, to attract a younger crowd than that of, say, the WNC Jazz Society or the Jazz Composer's Forum.
“It's college students, people who love avant-garde music, connoisseurs and people who love experimental music,” he says of the audience. Even “people who don't like jazz or feel they don't know jazz. I don't think it's true that you need special knowledge to enjoy the music.”
Berman and other Open Letter performers, like drummer Tim Daisy (who comes to BoBo on July 25) and saxophonist Dave Rempis (Dec. 10), differ from more commonly known jazz sounds, what Perlowin calls “the Wynton Marsalis neo-conservative camp.” Still, “they're not just banging on their instruments randomly. It can be dynamic, but also blissful and serene. It's earnest art music.”
Perlowin — whose own bands have played with and will open for the Open Letter-featured acts — is quick to note that avant-garde jazz is a far cry from pop music, and “no one is kidding themselves that this will really break through someday.” Still, jazz does influence mainstream forms of music. And as more notable Chicago and New York performers make the trip to Asheville venues like BoBo Gallery, the experimental sounds are likely to influence the local music scene.
Inspiration aside, at the end of the day it all comes down to a solid performance. “This is good times,” Perlowin promises. “This music may not be dance music, but it blows your hair back.”
who: Open Letter music series presents Josh Berman
what: Chicago jazz cornetist
where: BoBo Gallery
when: Sunday, June 28 (8 p.m. www.bobogallery.com. www.openletterrecords.com)