Local jazz offerings more varied than they seem

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2008

Greetings, Hooligan readers. I'm Rob Cohen, and I'll be writing a regular jazz column. I'm a 20-year resident of Juneau, a jazz musician, an educator and above all a jazz fan. In this column I hope to shed some light and rally some enthusiasm for our unique American art form.

Those of you familiar with the local jazz scene know that there is enjoyment to be had here in Juneau. Tom Locher and Wayne Norlund have been playing regularly this year at Juneau restaurants and I'm always on the lookout for a gig by guitarist John Unzicker. A third example of our local talent is Jim Nowell's ensemble Off Minor, always a treat to hear at a Juneau club.

Larger groups such as Fleet Street and the Thunder Mountain Big Band grace the calendar frequently for dances, parties and concerts, and of course First Fridays would not be complete without many of these artists performing at downtown galleries and restaurants.

Let's not forget Juneau's premiere rock-blues-funk-soul ensemble, Brave Monkey. Guitarist Jay Caputo and his wife, vocalist Kari Groven, were both educated at Berklee School of Music in Boston, and a jazz sensibility permeates much of their work. This influence shows in their forward-thinking repertoire and their commitment to creative arrangement, improvisation, and mixing of musical styles, all while never forgetting the groove as elemental.

Perhaps you were unaware that so much of this music was being offered in Juneau on a regular basis. Well, we needn't stop there. In addition to local talent, Juneau has over the years been host to some of the world's top jazz artists. Both Diana Krall and Wynton Marsalis have performed in Juneau. Other performers that have graced local stages include Carmen McRae, Marian McPartland, Bob Sheppard, Virginia Mayhew, Lonnie Smith and Richie Cole. Juneau Jazz and Classics has been bringing world-class performers to the capital city for 22 years and counting, and the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council can also be relied upon to bring a number of fine artists to town as part of their annual concert series.

A less obvious venue is the Alaska Folk Festival. Improvisation is the cornerstone of bluegrass music, and I have heard many an expert solo spun out at folk festival performances. Just about any style of music you hear at the folk festival has crossed paths with jazz in some way.

Fortunately, a student interested in learning jazz can find numerous resources in Juneau. There are a number of private instructors who offer lessons in jazz theory, technique and performance, and Juneau-Douglas High School offers a selection of ensembles for the jazz-inclined. Various jazz-oriented courses can also be found on the syllabus at the University of Alaska Southeast.

For a young student with musical inclination, the experience of a live jazz performance can be transforming. In jazz, on-the-spot improvisation is the primary means of communication and development of the language. The opportunity for a fan or student to experience, in the moment, the creation of musical reality by a brilliant performer is something Juneau has offered time and again.

In future columns I would like to focus on specific local players and their stories, and also explore Juneau as part of a larger, regional jazz environment. Other ideas will come as I continue to write for you; I hope that they keep you interested, and that they encourage you to continue to support jazz in Juneau.

• Robert Cohen is a musician, writer and owner of Captial Records in downtown Juneau. He can be reached at robco@gci.net.

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