Submitted by Craig Havighurst on May 4, 2013 – 16:58

Saxophonist and show-closer Jeff Coffin offered a very cool insight about jazz in our interview at Roots Wednesday night. The word improvisation, he said, comes from the Latin improvisio, which means the unexpected, or to put it another way – surprise. That certainly at the core of my fascination with jazz. Where other genres get their mojo by fulfilling hopes and expectations and being familiar, jazz is an ongoing flood of surprises, era to era, artist to artist and moment to moment.

And indeed Wednesday was a night full of surprises – like Aaron Till scatting in sync with his own violin – like a banjo/keyboard duet – like a Nashville homegirl with dreadlocks singing traditional swing. I drove home from our first ever Nashville Jazz Night truly elated, as if we’d really achieved something. I rarely see audiences as big as we had for jazz in Music City, and we were all thrilled by the performances and by being part of the camaraderie among the musicians, a few of whom had been part of our show before, many of whom were new to the Loveless Barn.

We got right into the music with Rahsaan Barber & Everyday Magic, a quintet with keys, drums, bass and guitar, expertly manned by Karlton Taylor, Nioshi Jackson, Jon Estes and young James DaSilva respectively. “Jubilee,” the tune that also opens Barber’s solo debut albums, popped like a firework or a fanfare. It’s a pristine example of contemporary straight-ahead jazz with exciting low notes growling out of the bass end of the piano. The tune’s theme is stated in short blasts and then it floats, making space to contemplate what was just said. The tune blurred seamlessly into “Lost And Found” where Barber truly showed his intensity, with flurries of notes and a suggestion of what they used to call John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” approach. But the real treat for me was the tender solo work in their take on “She’s Out Of My Life.” The hushed room could really hear Rahsaan’s breath control and velvet tone. The tenor saxophone looks like such a complex machine, but in the hands of a gifted and original player, it speaks like a living thing, and Barber truly showed his range and tenderness here.

When David Jacobs-Strain is noodling on his guitar for fun, he makes chords and dreamy original harmonic voicings that could have you suspecting he’s a jazz cat. He’d be the first to admit that’s not so. But this folk singer and songwriter is more sophisticated than most, and he showed it in a set with his harmonica partner Bob Beech and keyboardist Blake Padilla. David’s new song “Broken Hearts Lost and Found” is pure poetry in every respect, and besides the seductive rising chromatic riff that establishes the tune, the keys and harmonica together were swoon-inducing. “Josephine” was a slow-cooking blues. David closed with Stephen Stills’s “Treetop Flyer” showing remarkable phrasing and technique. A freewheeling harp solo built against rolling guitar thunder and made for a remarkable finish.

Had it not been for a precedent shattering album/tour by Bela Fleck and Chick Corea, the banjo/keyboard pairing of Ryan Cavanaugh and Tyson Rogers would have been precedent shattering. Still, this was some innovative and visionary stuff, pairing unlikely instruments with extremely complimentary timbres. They opened with “My Favorite Things,” whose cool and drifty feel was nothing like John Coltrane’s famous version. A medley of “Giant Steps” into “Donna Lee” started in what even Ryan described on stage as “chaos” (mere suggestions of the changes and free, wild improv by both guys) and evolved into an ever–tighter arrangement, until the last chorus, when keys and banjo played the melody of bebop’s most difficult tune in perfect unison. I truly appreciated their nod to bluegrass with a post-modern “Blackberry Blossom,” and then the pair ended with a tune central to Cavanaugh’s journey in jazz banjo, John McLaughlin’s exotic “Meeting Of The Spirits.” Its eastern harmonies are simple, but the time-slicing and daring improvisations made by both musicians were anything but. Tyson found a clenched and trippy organ tone for his dazzling fingerwork. Cavanaugh made a psychedelic swirl on his five string. I’d say if you were looking to drive a stake through the heart of “Deliverance” age perception of the banjo, this was it.

The stringed instrument influence continued as the Hot Club of Nashville took the stage with delightful Annie Sellick out front at the microphone. They came out swinging with the fast and scatty “Buzzed,” which showed Annie’s vocal dexterity and the hot-welded union of the rhythm section, with drummer Josh Hunt and bassist Charlie Chadwick setting the tone. “Sugar” was more easy, with a Western swing lilt, and Aaron Till’s fiddle paired beautifully with Pat Bergeson’s electric guitar on the melodic figures. “Wish I” was a bossa nova tune written locally by Tom Sturdevant. And the finale offered a chance to see the Hot Club prove why they’re so very Nashville. Richard Smith led the first chorus of Cole Porter’s “You Do Something To Me” with Chet Atkins-influenced fingerstyle acoustic guitar, against a snappy swing from the pre-War era. Then Aaron Till and Annie took turns on the vocal. I knew Aaron to be a gifted jazz violinist (and country fiddler) but I was astonished at his subtle gifts as a singer.

Finally, we cycled back to the modern and the horn-driven as Jeff Coffin & The Mu’Tet took the stage, for a set that truly proved you can’t guess what’s next when listening to jazz. Opener “Peace Now” had its own structure and language. It felt like an extended intro, as pianist Chris Walters made billowing curtains of sound and Futureman made cascades of percussion. Against this, Coffin and trumpeter Bill Fanning played slow tones and coursing lines. Any thoughts that this would transition into a groove were undermined. The song meandered beautifully in the air and ended with solemnity. Groove did sneak in on “Lucky 13,” established with amazing subtlety by star bass player Felix Pastorius. Fanning and Coffin stated composed themes over an insistent one-beat but once again didn’t really take off into traditional solos. That came on the closer “Move Your Rug,” a New Orleans kind of jam that let the horns and keys solo with playfulness, bluesy passion and sacred joy.

I was honored that the bands found consensus on my suggestion of “Rainy Day Blues” by Willie Nelson as a Loveless Jam. Despite its lyrical contrast to our perfect sundown Spring sundown evening, it let us end the night on a simple blues, where jazz players always shine. And it paid homage to the great Willie a day after his 80th birthday. Jim Lauderdale’s passionate and amazing vocal intro set an easy tempo and an emotional pitch. The tune swung slowly and let everyone really stretch out as the night wound down. Aaron Till’s fiddle/scat solo and Bob Beech’s harmonica were true highlights.

Thanks to everyone for supporting Nashville Jazz Night, including the Nashville Jazz Workshop, where you need to go sign up for the mailing list to get news about shows and classes. This jazz thing ain’t as intimidatin’ as many people think. And I hope we proved it on a night of surprise and wonder at the Loveless Barn.

Craig H.

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