A century of jazz

Which cultural phenomenon, in the end, will serve to symbolize this rapidly closing century? Will it be air travel? Elvis? The Internet? Beanie babies?

All have their place — but if an interstellar space traveler were to crack open a time capsule some thousand years hence, the furrowed-brow brooding of an improvisational jazz piece might well be a strong contender in the hierarchy of indispensable 20th-century inventions.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact birthdate of jazz, of course. But “[It’s] loosely defined as [emerging at] the turn of the century,” says JazzBrevard producer Leigh Trapp, adding, “This, being the last year of this century, seems an appropriate time to celebrate this milestone — a century of jazz.”

To that end, Trapp has assembled a truly illustrious agenda for JazzBrevard 12: This year’s program features in its talented lineup Dizzy Gillespie’s daughter, Jeanie Bryson (a lauded jazz vocalist); dazzling saxophonist Donald Harrison; sizzling salsa sylists Bio Ritmo; esteemed pianist Patricia Barber (whom Esquire magazine recently dubbed “the best jazz performer currently walking the planet”); Asheville’s own guitar-driven Triad; the boogie-down ReBirth Brass Band; and the ultra-cool Jazz Mandolin Project, among a host of others. Leading the fray will be two performers at the opposite ends of their careers who are nevertheless linked by their respective — and distinctive — musical mastery: Joshua Redman and Dr. John.

Joshua Redman

Surprisingly, Redman (the son of legendary saxophonist Dewey Redman) didn’t start tooting his own horn — at least professionally — until 1991. Fresh out of Harvard and intent on pursuing a law degree, the young Redman had the chance to study with a group of eminent jazz musicians that included his father, Charlie Haden and Elvin Jones.

“I took a year off to play a little music, have a good time and just hang out,” he recalled in a recent interview.

Soon enough, brass replaced the bar exam in the graduate’s dreams: “I came to my senses,” is how he remembers it. Redman admits that his plans for law school were bred mostly from self-doubt: “Like a lot of people just out of college, I was considering [studying] law because I wasn’t really sure what else to do,” he says. “But [when I started seriously] playing music, I was sure.”

And besides, “There are about 100,000 lawyers out there already — too many,” he asserts with a laugh.

When it comes to the moving, deeply confident and sometimes-playful whims issuing from his instrument, fans and critics alike accord Redman a niche all his own. He took top honors in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz saxophone competition the year he began performing; since 1993, the musician — who plays tenor, alto and soprano saxophones — has released no less than six recordings. By the time his second album hit record stores, Redman was touring with such famous faces as Pat Metheny; the next year saw the release of Moodswing, his first collection of original tunes.

Conversely, Redman’s latest effort Timeless Tales (For Changing Times) (Warner Brothers, 1998) features an intriguing set of covers that combines staples like “Summertime” with assorted surprises — such as The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Joni Mitchell’s “I Had a King” and Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call me Anymore.”

Redman once noted, “[Though] jazz tradition is hugely important, and … has formed much of what I do … more important is saying something that’s coming from me honestly. If you’re open to what’s around you, then your music will be relevant and coming from a true, immediate place.” In Timeless Tales, Redman uses this approach to melt the elitist viewpoint that sometimes threatens to rigidify the genre.

“These songs were not necessarily my favorite songs, but they were all songs that I loved and that I felt I could bring something to and [interpret] in a meaningful way,” he explains thoughtfully. “Basically, all the music that I love eventually becomes part of me. Jazz is my music of choice, but it’s not an exclusive [endeavor] for me. I include [in my repertoire] all the music I love and that has influenced me. A jazz musician has to create musical meaning in an inspiration, and I always keep my ears open to what’s around me.”

Far from stifling his urge to pen originals, Redman found making the all-covers album stimulating: “It has helped my creativity,” he claims. The real muse, though, lies in a deeper realm.

“All inspiration is nonmusical,” he feels. “Music is just a vehicle, albeit a very complex one, for communicating a[n intangible] sensual quality. A song of mine might not be directly autobiographical, but all my experiences are [possible] inspirations for songs. That’s what any music is — emotion expressed through sound.”

Dr. John

The fame of the New Orleans-bred, mold-shattering, swamp-funk-voodoo rhythm magician Dr. John was wrought at an impossibly tender age: The Crescent City legend, born Mac Rebennack, began his career as a poster baby for Ivory Snow. After a pre-teen lull, his career picked up again at age 14, when he began playing piano professionally while holding down a job at Ace Records — where his responsibilities included finding artists, writing songs for them, hiring musicians to play on the records and cutting the records themselves. His stint at Ace allowed the burgeoning musician to form alliances with greats of the day like Shirley and Lee, Joe Tex, Sea Cruise’s Frankie Ford and his own future mentor, Professor Longhair.

The ’60s found Dr. John working with Sonny & Cher and Frank Zappa, among others, while the next decade brought renewed limelight in the form of the R&B classic “Right Place, Wrong Time” — the Doctor’s most famous tune to date. His list of collaborators in that era was unparalleled: The keyboard king’s musical efforts were gilded by the powers of Allan Toussaint, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan.

But through it all, the inimitable Night Tripper remained thoroughly and overwhelmingly himself. His bawdy, tell-all autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), details years of triumph and trouble (add ex-con and ex-pimp to his more attractive roles as crowd-pleaser and chart-topper), even as it pays homage to the soulful climes from whence he rose: “This is a testament to New Orleans funk — to funksterators, tricknologists, mu-jicians, who got music burning in their brains and no holes in their souls. Like the tail of a comet blowing through galaxies, these tales are my tribute to them,” he growls in the introduction.

In Anutha Zone (Virgin, 1998), Dr. John reveals yet another bevy of tricks lurking up his voluminous sleeves: The album’s songs are dark, ruminatively funk-laced and charmingly self-absorbed — the works of a glowering wizard with a mischievous heart.

Even before entering Anutha Zone, the listener is treated to this cryptic composition, printed on the CD’s back cover: “In the resin beneath the damp foundations, sinking deeper into the coffeegrounds of Mississippi River mud through to Seven Sisters Bayou, floats the soulful warrior’s blood. … Extra-terrestrial music of the sphere fills every crawfish carnival, as church hellfire funeral processions ease down past darkened, laid-back lookouts … I don’t wanna know about evil. Only the delicate balance of anutha zone.”

The piece is signed, quite unnecessarily, “Dr. John” — as if that darkly tangled poetry could have issued from anyone else.

JazzBrevard 12 opens on Friday, Aug. 13, at Brevard College’s Paul Porter Center for Performing Arts with an 8 p.m. performance by the Brevard College Jazz Workshop Big Band, featuring premier New York City bebop and Latin jazz trombonist Conrad Herwig as guest artist. The festival continues on Saturday, Aug. 14, at the Brevard Music Center. Gates open at noon and performances will be divided among three stages: The Main Stage will feature headliners Joshua Redman (3:15-4:30 p.m.) and Dr. John (8:30-10 p.m.), as well as Triad (12:15-1 p.m.), Jeanie Bryson (2:15-3 p.m.), Donald Harrison (7-8 p.m.), Patricia Barber (5:45-6:45 p.m.), and other jazz traditionalists (more or less). The Rhythm Barn will be home to “alternative jazz” explorers like the New World Funk Ensemble (12:30-1:15 p.m.), Sector Nine (1:30-2:30 p.m.), the ReBirth Brass Band (3-4 p.m.), Bio Ritmo (4:30-5:30 p.m.) and the Jazz Mandolin Project (6-7:15 p.m.). The Pecknel Pavilion will host artist clinics and Brevard College’s own JazzCamp Ensemble, along with 45-minute performances by various festival musicians. Tickets are $15 for Friday and $25 for Saturday, and can be purchased at the Paul Porter Center for Performing Arts, Brevard College, Transylvania/Brevard Chamber of Commerce, Brevard’s Rockin’ Robin Records, Asheville’s Almost Blue, Hendersonville’s Touchstone Gallery and Greenville, S.C.’s Horizon Records and Pecknel Music. For more info, a detailed schedule or to order tickets by phone, call (888) 283-4878.

Jazz with a Triad twist

“It ranges from Bach to Brubeck to B.B. King, all within a jazz context.” That’s jazz-guitar virtuoso Tim Haden, describing the sound of Asheville’s Triad — a guitar trio that also includes fellow virtuosos Marc Yaxley and Mike Barnes. Oddly enough, Haden could also add the early-’70s vintage Allman Brothers Band to that formidable list.

On their recent self-produced CD, Inversions — which includes prodigiously innovative versions of such esteemed jazz standards as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and Chick Corea’s “Spain” — the trio meanders stunningly through a mean hybrid version of the wild Southern rockers’ “Whippin’ Post” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” titled (somewhat dubiously) “Whippin’ Elizabeth.”

But then again, Triad is nothing if not a study in the unexpected.

Consider, for example, the fact that this band has no front person, no rhythm section, no vocals … and no qualms about professing that it’s better that way. “Everybody loves guitar players,” notes Haden, as if it were as simple as that.

This trio, though, is anything but simple.

Perusing a list of their individual academic and professional accomplishments is like strolling through a modern who’s who of the sonically elite. Haden — the director of jazz studies and artist-in-residence at UNCA — graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music and has played with such jazz greats as Keith Jarrett, Stanley Clark and Maynard Ferguson, plus pop artists Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. Yaxley — an adjunct guitar instructor at UNCA — attended the University of Miami (also renowned for its music program) and has studied with classical and flamenco guitar wizards Michael Lorimer, Juan Mercadal and Eric Lesco, and jazz masters Joe Diorio, Mike Elliot and Ted Connor. He was the featured solo guitarist in the critically acclaimed Universal Studios film Ghost Story. And Barnes — also an adjunct guitar instructor at UNCA — attended the University of Miami and is a graduate of Los Angeles’ Musicians Institute. He’s a highly sought-after studio musician for both Geffen and Polygram records, and has studied with such blues and jazz legends as Joe Pass, Pat Martino, Steve Morse and Pat Metheny.

Technically a jazz outfit, Triad nonetheless borrows liberally from its members’ eclectic backgrounds. The result is a seamless, dazzling, inventively layered hodgepodge of straight-on bop, classical, Spanish/flamenco, blues and — as evidenced by “Whippin’ Elizabeth” — a bit of rock.

In the short time the trio has been together (not quite two years), they’ve managed to work steadily throughout the region — not an easy accomplishment in WNC’s fickle music market. Their upcoming performance on the Main Stage at JazzBrevard 12 (Triad is the only local band to enjoy that honor this year) is just one of some 20 performances the group is slated to give in the next couple of months, “and we’re not even trying that hard,” notes Haden. A particular coup is Triad’s upcoming Feb. 25 concert at Brevard’s Paul Porter Center for Performing Arts, as part of the Center’s prestigious annual musical series (no less an eminence than Harry Belafonte is also slated to perform in the series).

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