Juneau Jazz & Classics gets legendary

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Juneau Jazz & Classics music festival may need to add "legends" to its name after this year's lineup.

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Courtesy Of Bad Plus Trio
Courtesy Of Bad Plus Trio

Legendary harmonica bluesman Charlie Musselwhite kicked off the 22nd annual event on Friday, May 16, to a highly receptive crowd at the ANB Hall, and other heavy-hitting acts have performed throughout the week.

And it's not over yet: More legends are scheduled to take to the stages across Juneau during the final weekend of the 10-day festival. Here's a look at three acts playing at various locations around town.

A jazzy companion: May 24

Well-known for its time in the 1970s as the house band for Garrison Keillor's popular public radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," The Butch Thompson Trio remains a formidable force in the world of jazz more than three decades later.

While the lineup of the trio has changed over the years, Thompson's prolific piano playing of ragtime and traditional jazz has remained the backbone of its sound over the years. He said the trio performs a little bit of ragtime in the style of Scott Joplin, but prefers the traditional New Orleans jazz sound pioneered by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton.

"For me music doesn't really get obsolete, it's just how you present it," Thompson said. "I prefer not to think of it as old or anything, it's just a style - a continuing tradition really."

The Butch Thompson Trio performs at 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 24, at the University of Alaska Southeast in the Egan Lecture Hall. The trio will also perform at the same location at 8 p.m. alongside some classical musicians.

The trio - with Jeff Hamilton on drums and Marty Eggers playing bass - also takes inspiration from the likes of Fats Waller and Eubie Blake.

"We're not really engaged in trying to be nostalgic," Thompson said. "What we're trying to do is play good music that will entertain and make sense to people. And it does if you present it properly. ... I think it's keeping this tradition alive."

Thompson said many of his friends are jazz specialists, researchers and record collectors, but it's not necessarily the jazz super-enthusiasts that he tries to reach.

"I love playing for those people but to tell you the truth my preference is to just play for audiences that come to the concert without really knowing what's happening," he said. "If I can put the music across for those kind of people, which we're usually pretty successful in doing, I feel it's really worthwhile. Not that I'm a missionary or anything, but I'm just trying to put the stuff over."

Reeling in some Hot music: May 25

Hot Tuna has performed across the globe in its nearly 40 years of playing together, but the blues-rock band has never been on stage together in Alaska's capital city.

"This will be a new one for us," bass player Jack Casady said.

The band plays at 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 25, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.

Hot Tuna took shape as a two-piece band in the late 1960s when both Casady and guitar player Jorma Kaukonen were both still members of the psychadelic rock band Jefferson Airplane.

"There was a fair amount of free time so we found another outlet for the kind of music that didn't fit in the Airplane world too much," Casady said. "We often worked the material out in hotel rooms with an acoustic guitar and an electric bass. Later on we did different versions as our taste changed and as we tried different combinations of instrumentations out."

The band has had a number of incarnations over the years and has released roughly two-dozen albums since its debut record in 1970. Multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhoff joined the band roughly five years ago and Hot Tuna continues to perform about 100 shows annually while never ceasing to hone its musical prowess. Drummer Eric Diaz performs with the band for it's "electric" shows.

"It's a continuing development," Casady said. "As we each explore various musical endeavors we bring all this in together when we form on stage. It's a lot of fun and it's always musically challenging and interchanging."

Although Casady and Kaukonen have joined the musical elite as inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as members of Jefferson Airplane, Casady said they never stop learning as musicians.

"You're always trying to improve your music and improve your craft work in the music and broaden your musical style, so we're always trying to bring something a little different in each time we go out on tour," Casady said.

Hot Tuna concerts have a little bit of something for everyone, with music ranging from traditional blues to more contemporary acoustic songs with a rock and roll feel, Mitterhoff said.

"One of the things that happens at a Hot Tuna concert is we play a great breadth of music," he said. "It's not just the same thing for two hours, we play a lot of different kinds of stuff."

The band has traveled on a long musical odyssey since it came up with the name Hot Tuna.

"It's an old story now, but there's a line in one of our songs that goes 'What's that smell like fish, oh babe,' and somebody in the crowd at the time many years ago yelled out 'Hot Tuna!'" Casady said. "It's sort of a nonsensical reply, but at the time we had just finished doing our first album and we had to come up with a name for the band and we had a deadline so we said, 'OK, Hot Tuna.' Not a huge amount of great thought went into it."

Casady said the band is considering heading back into the studio in the near future to continue its musical mission.

"We all have love and respect for the music we play and we like to share that with the audience," he said.

Bad music that sounds good: May 23

The members of the Bad Plus jazz trio like to think of themselves as "avant-garde populists" that strive to be innovative while not being isolated by a certain demographic.

"It sort of sums it up in a way," bassist Reid Anderson said. "We believe in the avant-garde and modern music and modern art and so forth, but we believe it can reach people too. We also believe in pop sensibility and things that have a direct and sort of welcoming outreach to them."

The Bad Plus is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 23, at the high school auditorium.

The trio has become well-known for its jazz interpretations of work by artists like Black Sabbath, Nirvana, Queen, Neil Young and the Bee Gees.

"In the jazz tradition there is sort of a thing where you play pop music of the day and improvise on it," pianist Ethan Iverson said. "You take songs that have a singer and everything and you make an instrumental version of it with improvisation and that's what we do."

The Bad Plus worked with engineer and mixer Tony Platt - known for his work with Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and others - on its 2007 album titled "Prog" that features interpretations of Rush's "Tom Sawyer," David Bowie's "Life On Mars" and Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

"We take things from very different places and try to bring them in and just have a commonality between that music and our own original music," Anderson said. "It's kind of like trying to take all these different languages and form a unified language out of it."

The arrangements of both the original and cover songs can vary from being tight and structured to being pretty loose with lots of room for improvisation, Iverson said.

"I think it just depends on the piece of music, it's not one size fits all for either the covers or the originals," he said.

Drummer David King said people who come to a Bad Plus show can expect to see a modern jazz group with a common admiration of improvised music.

"There is some sort of being in a rock type of energy at our show, although we play very soft and very loud and hopefully everywhere in between," Anderson said.

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