The Spirit of Improvisation

Ephraim Owens
photograph by John Carrico

Ambient energy still pulsed in the smoke-filled air as scores of dazed fans shuffled
through the door and back out onto Sixth Street. Not yet midnight on a Friday evening, and already the place looked like a bomb had gone off inside. Employees darted around the room, arm-sweeping tabletops of empty bottles, pulling furniture away from the walls, and generally making the joint presentable as a local jazz quartet, Blue Construct, began the business (or labor) of following two early sets by jazz organist/living legend Jimmy Smith.

Smith had done no less than tear the roof off the Mercury this night. Though the sets were separated by a long break, and despite the fact that Smith left at the midpoint of each performance for a rest, the time he spent grinding the keys of his Hammond B3 organ, an instrument into which he first breathed the life of jazz during the late Fifties, amounted to a show that no one in the audience will soon forget. The 70-year-old organist played with passion and with style, a thick crowd in his face all night, standing not six feet away from him, watching every move, cheering every solo, loving how his music made them feel and dance. And Smith played to them, sensing the youthful vibe coming from down in front, getting as nasty in his jokes and banter as into the deep and sweaty blues that were laying under every tune.

Given the show's apparent impact on the ears, hearts, and feet of the mixed-age crowd, it was surprising that the room cleared as fast as it did; another jazz band was coming up -- one led by a keyboard player no less -- the night was still young, and Smith was still in the building, as was his band, drummer Frank Wilson and legend in his own right, guitarist Philip Upchurch, both of whom were out in the main room watching the show. They weren't going anywhere, as they were booked to play the Sixth Street club the next night as well, so it didn't seem too unlikely that Smith, who just minutes before had the roomful of people in a near-ecstatic state, would come back for a little more. After the place cleared out, he did just that.

Alone at the front of the stage for the half-hour of uninterrupted Blue Construct, watched by the dozen or so who still remained, two young women of the long-haired, sinewy neo-hippie sort danced and lunged and swayed to the slow and syncopated beat of pianist Carl Settles & company. And when Smith returned and commandeered the keyboard for well over an hour, soon accompanied by his drummer Wilson, the scattered remnants of the early-evening crowd resurfaced from every hidden corner of the Mercury to join the two, filling in the empty space by dancing with that same bubble-popping free-form posture and groove that screamed, "Yes! I love the Grateful Dead!"

Not exactly the crowd one would expect for a late-night jazz jam involving local pros, newcomers on the scene, and a musical legend the magnitude of Jimmy Smith. Besides signaling an obvious injustice (why is Smith playing this tiny joint in the first place?), there were questions that begged for answers. Like for instance, where were the rest of the people? And, more importantly, where were the rest of the musicians? If ever there was a situation with the potential of a major-league jam session, this was it.

the Gypsies

photograph by John Carrico

One young local player who did show up was Mike Malone. The tenor saxophonist, who has been making increasing appearances around town -- though not in any regular format or forum -- watched on Friday and sat in with Smith Saturday night, putting on a stellar performance. Malone's style is usually busy, using lots of notes in clean lines, but playing with Smith, his approach needed to be different in order to match the organist's lead status and surging, explosive style. Whatever modifications he employed must have worked, because shortly after the set, Malone was asked if he wanted to go on the road with Smith and his group. (Reportedly, he accepted, and starts with the band this weekend in Denver.)

Another valid question, standing there on the site that formerly housed the White Rabbit, a downtown haven for Deadheads and aspiring young hippies, might have been, "Where the hell am I?" But the Mercury is not the White Rabbit. The venue, under the guidance of booking agent and club manager Mark Collins, has evolved into something entirely different -- different not only from the previous tenants, but from anything else being offered on the Austin club circuit. Acid jazz, jam bands, world music, DJs, drum and bass, funk, rock, soul, blues, and any combination thereof can now call this bar home. And of late, and in response to there being nowhere else to go in Austin, the Mercury has become the capital's de facto home of jazz.

"Mark has a vision for where he wants the music to develop," says Blue Construct keyboardist Carl Settles. "They've invested in a quality sound system, which none of the other jazz-oriented clubs have, and are willing to bring in world-class talent to the club. They're serving a younger market that's open to new things and there's an opportunity to develop a younger audience for jazz in Austin. Jazz, at its best, can be one of the most exhilarating experiences to listen to. Most of the owners of 'Jazz Clubs' in Austin don't really know much about the music itself. It seems to be more of a marketing ploy than about music. Consequently, a lot of the booking practices in the town are stale or lack real substance."

Austin is not starved for jazz. We are really really hungry, but the wolves are kept at bay by a small number of local acts that perform regularly and by intermittent touring shows. Just last month, Randy Weston and Geri Allen graced the grand piano on stage at UT's Hogg Auditorium on the same night. The tones of genre heavyweights David Murray, Joshua Redman, Nicholas Payton, Steve Lacey, Roy Hargrove, Sonny Murray, and a fair number of others still ring in the memories of this past year. But there's always room for more, especially when a venue offers what others don't, namely a club setting where you can stand up, get close, move around, and get your feet as well as your mind into the show.

Flights of inspiration in music, extended improvisations that lead songs into unexplored territory, can and should sweep a listener along. Jazz refines this, and the Grateful Dead, the spiritual force that defined the White Rabbit, depended on it. If there's one thread that runs through the broad spectrum of bands that play the Mercury, it's the spirit of improvisation. And the crossover between the Dead and jazz isn't a new phenomenon; in the Chronicle two weeks ago, Jay Trachtenberg, host of the KUT program Jazz, Etc. and one of the preeminent jazz-heads in the city, described the Dead as a stepping-off point for him into the world of jazz, and surely he is not the only one. There are many points of connection between them, perhaps the most glaring and abstract being the free-spiritedness and technical mastery of both the best jazz musicians and the Grateful Dead.

It's in between these two extremes, then, straight ahead jazz and Deadish hippie jam bands, that the Mercury has been able to carve out its own niche of late. The most effective of these has been the burgeoning market for the growing field of acid jazz.

"I don't know what the difference between fusion and acid jazz is," laughs Collins. "There's acid jazz like the Coltrane, Jimmy Smith, Miles Davis stuff from the Sixties, and there's Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd of the Seventies, going from jazz to poppy disco rhythms and stuff like that."

There was nothing called "acid jazz," however, until the Eighties, when club DJs broadened the "acid house" dance music they were playing by using rare grooves (hard to find and largely unknown Seventies funk records). The term was made more concrete by a record label of the same name that brought out sounds like the Brand New Heavies and Jamiroquai. From there, the sound developed, musicians laying down backline rhythms that take from jazz, soul, and funk, adding DJs, horns, and guitars to the mix. It can be all live, it can be all sampled, and it can fall anywhere in between.

Perhaps, though, the start of acid jazz can be found in Roy Ayers, who played the Mercury in October of last year. One thing that separates acid jazz from the be-bop jazz that inspired it is the listener's posture: Be-bop was so new and so cerebral that you sat and you listened to it; acid jazz is meant to get you on your feet.

"Roy Ayers, he was the king of acid jazz," enthuses Collins. "I've seen old posters that call him 'King of the Vibes.' They called him that because he made it a lot more marketable on a big scale. He was putting out dance tracks, stuff you could play in a club with 800 people, listen to, and dance to. Before, with acid jazz of the Sixties, it was like, 'Oh that's hot, that's hot.'"

Collins, in mock hipster mode, snaps his fingers. "But with Roy Ayers, you could dance to the shit."

For those who have been to the club, it may seem unreal that folks like Smith, Ayers, Jimmy McGriff and Fred Wesley -- names associated with the history of jazz music and the forming of acid jazz, and some of the heaviest hitters in the business -- have all played at the Mercury, a bar that has been on Sixth Street for just over a year and a half in its current incarnation and has a legal capacity of 170 people. But they have. Better yet, the freewheeling approach Collins takes to booking the club has earned the Mercury a respectable history in its brief life. Groove Collective and the Greyboy Allstars, arguably two of the frontrunners in the modern acid jazz movement, have both played the club, while DJ Greyboy has also appeared in a head-to-head show with DJ Logic, who is now with Medeski, Martin & Wood. This weekend, perhaps the club's biggest booking coup up to this point, Chicago's Liquid Soul -- definite heavies on the acid jazz scene -- play the Mercury.

D Madness

photograph by John Carrico

The challenge of the Mercury, which opened last February with a sold-out show by the Derek Trucks Band, was to dig itself out from under the baggage-laden moniker of "The Old White Rabbit." Many will remember the former tenants of 503 E. Sixth Street, the black-walled dive sporting Alice in Wonderland mural work in the main room, and a blacklit back area that looked like the setting for the Jungle Book. On the stage, it was hippie jam bands. Period. The same names every week -- Flounders Without Eyes being the staple among others like the Buddy Simmons Band and Larry. Grateful Dead songs done over and over again, some of the more ambitious of the artists reaching into the repertoires of Phish and Widespread Panic, possibly Colonel Bruce or the Allman Brothers in addition to their original material (by and large, Southern-flavored blues rock). The exclusive booking practices and the atmosphere and clientele the music brought in dubbed the place hippie haven, and they did not waver.

It would prove especially difficult to dissociate the new club from the old since Collins undertook the venture with the intention of a quick and smooth transition, retaining most of the employees and making major changes slowly and over time. There were some shaky dealings with an initial business partner who backed out of a partnership at the last minute, but Collins managed to get a lease for the space on his own. He presented a business proposal to his mother and stepfather and they accepted. Two brothers -- Brandt and Chris -- were hired on, and the Mercury was suddenly a family business. Though the White Rabbit was a living stereotype, they had a regular clientele that Collins wanted to hang onto.

"I contemplated dropping all jam bands," admits Collins. "At least for a while, to get away from that whole White Rabbit vibe. It was gonna be hard enough for people to change their perspective after three or four years of the White Rabbit being open. I wanted to change that whole thing. But, I like Larry. They're a great band. Those people, a lot of those fans that just used to go see jam bands, now their eyes are totally opened to all different kinds of things. They don't just listen to the Grateful Dead and Traffic anymore, they'll show up for Hot Buttered Rhythm or for Tunji."

If the Mercury has become the home of acid jazz in Austin, considering the wide range of music that falls under that heading, it's only natural that the club's roster has spread out as well; funk, acid jazz, rock, jam bands, world music, and all points in between are on the weekly schedules. It's under this umbrella that jam bands seem to be making a comeback, resurrecting the form from the godawful rock bands that for so long were symptomatic of a lack of originality and the Grateful Dead hangover. Collins is receptive to this. He still books Larry often, and has even had the Flounders back a couple of times. Newer bands appearing regularly at the club, like Love Supreme, Galapagos, and Speer, share the affinity for extended improvisation in a rock-jazz fusion type atmosphere. It's not too far a leap from these groups, alongside DJs and straight ahead jazz, to world music like the Gypsies, an ensemble that includes the vocal and percussion work of Oliver Rajmani and Mohammed Firoozi with cello, trumpet, and various other instruments. It's traditional, often ancient, music, but it shares an improvisatory spirit with the rest of it. You never know where a certain song or chant is going, and any one of them could last well beyond the 10-20 minute mark.

Besides nurturing the spirit of live improvisatory music, the Mercury often becomes a forum for its physical realization -- not surprising considering that a musician with solid skills can get up and play with almost anyone. People "sit in" at the Mercury. It's a pretty rare sight to see anyone climb up onstage for a quick guest spot or two on most stages in Austin, but for a club that makes jazz one of its mainstays, it's a necessity. That's where new ideas come from -- the merging of different old ideas. It's where combos are formed and genres are born.

"Ephraim Owens, he's a machine," says Collins of the local trumpet player. "That guy has played with every band that plays with any consistency at the Mercury. He'll show up with his horn and step to the front of the stage and whoever's up there will be like, 'Come on up.' Rock, bluegrass, whatever -- he'll play it. That whole attitude is lacking in this town. You don't have the old-school jazz-heads with that mentality. Like if you go out and you're a horn player, you bring your horn, 'cause you never know. And then there's that ego thing, that 'You don't step on my show' thing. Step on it? Don't enhance it? Don't add a new perspective for a couple minutes? That attitude sucks."

How often does Owens sit in?

"I'm almost embarrassed to say," Owens laughs. "When I'm not working, three or four times a week. A lot of clubs are scared to suffer for something new, but [Mark] is doing it. He has all kinds of different stuff up in there. As a player, it means a lot to get respect from the club owners like that. They dig what you're trying to do, and they give you the chance."

D Madness

photograph by John Carrico

Owens' group, the Ephraim Owens Quartet, did a string of regular dates at the club in September just after they got together, a benefit that came to Owens precisely because he makes his presence known around town as someone who can step up and play, regardless of the room or the musical style. And after so much time spent there, he's finding that there's plenty of crossover in any audience he plays for.

"To be in the Mercury, I thought we had to play funky to make people understand it," he explains. "Lately, I keep the funk, which I like, and it seems like the younger people can relate to it better than straight ahead jazz, but they dig the jazz too."

The reputation Owens has built for himself makes a band onstage feel comfortable, even excited, about asking him up for a solo. And understandably, it's not quite so easy for an unknown player to do the same thing. But, the only way to show it is to show it, and the more this happens, the more the ones who can play are identified and noted, the more interactive and cohesive and progressive the scene becomes.

Carl Settles found this out first-hand.

"When Jimmy Smith walked up to me on the bandstand and began playing my keyboard, I felt as though I was in some surreal place," says Settles. "After the gig, he called back into the dressing room and started giving me advice on how to practice and harmonic tips. Then he took me, James Simpson, and Fred Sanders [keyboard players formerly of Hot Buttered Rhythm] out front for a demonstration on the keys; the piano was his first instrument, he's taught McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. It was the best musical experience of my life."

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