Featured Music: Wednesday, October 29, 2003
We Want the Funk

Are rock kids ready for Fort Worth’s burgeoning number of fusion outfits?


Since we last reviewed the state of jazz in the Fort, there have been a few new developments. For one, the organizers of the first annual Jazz by the Boulevard festival say the two-night event drew 25,000 people — which means organizers will get a chance to do it again next year and maybe even quiet the cognoscenti who were steamed at the exclusion from this year’s bill of major Cowtown jazzbos like Ronald Shannon Jackson and Johnny Case. Strolling around the grounds in front of Will Rogers Memorial Center on the night when Dewey Redman played, I was equally dumbstruck by the mass of humanity and the fact that, amid the throngs, I saw exactly 11 people I knew — musicians and regular gig-goers. What would it take, I wondered, to get, say, a tenth of these people to a jazz gig more than once a year?

One idea: presenting jazz at an hour that’ll allow working stiffs to get home in time to watch Seinfeld reruns, in a venue that won’t scare off old people and little kids. That’s the strategy drummer Eddie Dunlap’s adopted for his once-a-month jazz nights at Arts Fifth Avenue. Ditto Rio Mambo restaurant downtown, which in an 8 p.m. time slot recently featured the TCC South big band — led by Rick Stitzel, father of Bertha Coolidge’s Rich, with ringers Dave Williams (Dave and Daver) on tenor sax and Cooper Heffley (Green River Ordinance, Horses, Jerry) on drums — and promised to bring the band back on a monthly basis. In a similar vein, Tad Gaither’s Black Dog Tavern has a big band, the JazzMonsters, in a 5 p.m. time slot the first Sunday of every month, starting this weekend.

Another approach: taking the music to folks who go to shows anyway, but might not be well acquainted with jazz. For those of you keeping score at home, that’d be the rock kids. But how to sell the subtleties of jazz to crowds who teethed on “modern rock” and are unaccustomed to hearing extended improvisation, let alone unsaturated guitar tones? Some local jazzbos are taking the same tack used back in the ’70s by a bunch of bands led by ex-Miles Davis sidemen when they were looking to “reach out to the rock audience.” Their strategy: funk and fusion.

Back then, fusion raised the bar for rock and pop musos, at least for a minute, and inspired many rock listeners to dip deeper into the jazz well. Rhythm sections started grooving more and playing odd meters. Instrumental solos, which had been straining audience attention spans since the daze of San Fran love ’n’ flowers and blues-based power trios like Cream, became more than endless pentatonic scales over drones. Fort Worthians Master Cylinder and the Ham Brothers carried the fusion flag before the style went out of fashion during the Reagan era. But once the band Bertha Coolidge started packing ’em in for its intermittent appearances at the Black Dog (where some fans talk about Bertha performances as life-changing experiences), musos began to realize that there was a new audience for fusion in the Fort.

I was still surprised recently when I heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “The Dance of Maya” twice in a single month, played by different bands. The first time, it was Underground Railroad guitarist Bill Pohl with his side project Mad Jack McMadd at the Ridglea Theater’s first progressive rock Sunday. The second time, it was Keith Wingate’s trio, during what’s become a twice-monthly stand at 7th Haven. Those who’ve heard Wingate’s guitar with Johnny Case, Michael Pellecchia, and Dave and Daver know that in a straight-ahead setting, he has the warmest tone and most fecund flow of ideas of any axe-slinger in town. It might be a surprise, then, to hear him crank up the voltage and play ripping, distorted solos on material by Mahavishnu and John Scofield, as well as his own originals. Wingate sweetens the deal for rock-bred audiences by including material by the Beatles and Steely Dan in his sets. He can relate: Growing up in the ’70s, he caught the fusion bug as a pre-teen but played rock and blues for years before diving into the deep waters of jazz a decade ago.

Wingate’s bandmate from Pellecchia’s Black Dog jams and Dave and Daver, bassist Brandon Nelson, just unveiled his own funk-fusion unit at the Dog. Originally called The Nelson Project, after Brandon and his unrelated namesake drummer Tracy Nelson, a.k.a. Rum, the band now goes by the moniker Old School New School. Their repertoire is a mix of originals and classics by ’60s jazz icons like Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis, but done up in a more modern style. The real story here is Philly-born Rum, a propulsive drummer with the chops and drive of Dennis Chambers and the biggest kit in Fort Worth this side of Shannon Jackson’s. He uses ’em all, too, laying down a groove so solid that at the band’s debut, his barefooted bandleader was actually dancing onstage. The groundwork for the outfit was laid when Rum showed up to jam at the Black Dog on a Sunday night after learning of the gig from Latin Express bassist Leo Saenz III, who met Rum while moonlighting with a funk-R&B outfit at Manhattan’s in Arlington. Rum, who gets his name from his favorite liquor, sat in and tore the place up. A series of jams with Nelson, Wingate, and keyboardist Matt Lawlis ensued, and, within a month, the band was ready to take the stage. They return to the Black Dog this Saturday night.

Groove is also in the heart of the band Confus-a-tron, first heard playing on the sidewalk in front of the Coffee Haus in Sundance Square. The three-piece did a smattering of audience-requested jazz standards, but their real forte was open-ended, free-flowing funk jams. On a recent Thursday night at the Black Dog, where Confus-a-tron now has a residency in between the poets, the band did double duty, backing freestyle rappers and embarking on voyages of invention with near-telepathic dynamic shifts that belie the musicians’ claim that they never rehearse. Saxophonist Brian Batson, a student in the jazz program at Weatherford College, veers between punctuating the music rhythmically à la Maceo Parker and taking flights of free-blowing Ornettitude. Behind him, Matt Skates anchors the sound with nothing but taut, tough funk bass lines, locking it in the pocket with new drummer Scott Ivey to produce undeniably sturdy beats. (Skates’ side project is a hip-hop band called the Goodfellas.) Another new addition, Pablo and the Hemphill 7’s keyboardist Justin Pate, adds a veneer of color and vibe to the proceedings.

Can these new bands capture the ears of groove-obsessed Spoonfed Tribe, Sub Oslo, and Pablo and the Hemphill 7 fans? Can they create a mass-ass audience for jazz in the Fort? Film, as they say, at 11. In the meantime, they at least add another flavor to the musical stew that is the local jazz scene.

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