Taking a stand against standards

North Carolina is famous for barbecue and Piedmont-style blues, not the birth of bebop. But without its contributions, jazz would be a horse of an entirely different color.

The supernatural Thelonius Monk was born in Rocky Mount, N.C. John Coltrane — considered by many jazz historians the most influential jazz musician of the 20th century — came from Hamlet, N.C. Thirty miles away, just across the South Carolina line, Dizzy Gillespie was born.

Acclaimed bebop drummer Max Roach began playing in his mother’s gospel group in New Land, N.C., and went on to perform with such greats as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Many renowned jazz players, in fact, got their musical start in African-American churches in the South. Spontaneous, raw, ecstatic emotional expression was encouraged and inspired during call-and-response interplay with an animated gospel preacher.

“When I studied music in Africa, there would be an elder, a master drummer, who would play and the other drummers would take turns responding,” explains Taylor Davis, percussionist with the Take ‘N Back Quartet.

“The back-and-forth playing is a language of drumbeats,” he continues. “That’s the ancient system upon which call-and-response structures are based. It was a form of communication and it was a form of emotional expression. You see the same kind of structure in old-timey mountain music, in bluegrass, in blues, and of course in the old field hollers and gospel singing of the deep South. Someone who is an elder will play or sing or preach and then others will respond to them, either as a group or as individual soloists.”

Philip Whack, Take ‘N Back’s fiercely innovative sax player, performs regularly in a mountain gospel church not far from Asheville. He and the other band members aspire to celebrate North Carolina’s jazz-roots heritage — but they prefer to do it without playing music that sounds like a mere relic of the past. So they’ve applied for a government arts grant to fund their efforts to bring talented jazz composers to this area. They’re hoping to create a jazz forum, where artists can feel free to perform avant-garde, original music in a supportive and inspiring environment.

“With proper funding, we could bring an experienced composer like Chick Corea here, for example, to collaborate with other musicians in a composer’s forum,” says Davis. “That kind of opportunity is sorely lacking in this area, and we want to create it to attract jazz artists who are looking for places to experiment with new compositions.”

Take ‘N Back’s first CD, which will be released this week, was recorded live to capture the essential feel of the music. It’s an exquisite, energetic listen combining original tunes with fresh emotional improv.

The group likes to play off a central theme; Davis explains that “freedom doesn’t mean no structure, but real freedom comes from having a structure and playing whatever you want to over the top of it, while adhering to it. We might take a theme and play with it while individually adjusting our viewpoints to the melody structure. But we aren’t all doing solos at the same time. It’s like you open up your ears and play your own interpretation of the tune, but you are listening to the other players and you’re influencing each other the whole time, while challenging yourselves to adhere to an underlying theme.” The themes are often based upon immediate physical surroundings, not just musical scores, according to Davis.

“Jazz is a musical representation of the environment, and of the times,” he offers. “A composer might take inspiration from the sound of a bird singing in a tree, the rhythm of a train passing by, or the noise of people hanging out on the street corner. Nowadays much of what we hear as jazz is the old standards from the ’30s and ’40s, which were based upon the soundscapes of that particular time and place.

“But we also need to play our own soundscapes, our own compositions from today, instead of just playing covers of old pop tunes or jazz standards,” Davis stresses.

One problem for contemporary jazz composers is that pop music today is generally mediocre, says Take ‘N Back bassist Mike Holstein, who composed some of the tracks on the new CD along with Sam Macy, the group’s guitarist. “You have these songs based on just a couple of basic chords, and it leaves no room for a jazz player to do anything with it,” he explains. “There aren’t any interesting chord progressions or melodies. You can’t play over it or blow against it because there’s nothing there to work with. Lots of the old standards were at least built upon pop music that had some musical sophistication. These days most of the pop music you hear is so bland that there is no room to jazz it up.

“I think some people see jazz as just another job,” Holstein continues. “And I have no problem with someone playing music for a job, but when you play watered-down, recycled pop tunes without any feeling, that’s not jazz. You see it all the time. Someone opens a restaurant to serve seafood and they think jazz would complement the decor, the way a stuffed blue marlin on the wall might. It’s lifeless.”

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