Modern bands make big statements at Twin Cities Jazz Festival

Red Planet
Red Planet includes guitarist Dean Magraw, bassist Chris Bates and drummer Jay Epstein. The group is performing Friday at the Hat Trick lounge.
Photo courtesy Howard Gittleman

Jazz drummer Jay Epstein has heard people say that the music hailed as America's art form is dead — or that many think jazz is stuck in the past.

But he's not buying it.

At 65, Epstein is still going strong, just like the varied music he plays — from the kind of guitar-led music that guitarist John Scofield has called "loud jazz" to elegant post-bebop.

He's booked to play four shows at the Twin Cities Jazz festival, which kicks into high gear tonight, including one tonight with pianist Chris Lomheim and bassist Gordy Johnson at the Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul. After that, he'll race to the Minnesota Music Cafe for a show with Framework, featuring guitarist Chris Olson and bassist Chris Bates.

On Friday, Epstein will perform with Red Planet at the Hat Trick lounge, along with guitarist Dean Magraw and Bates on bass. On Saturday, he sits in with Chicago pianist Jon Weber and Twin Cities bassist Billy Peterson at the Artists' Quarter.

Anyone headed to the jazz festival, which ends Saturday night, can expect to hear a variety of styles, from bebop and swing to Latin jazz. But the biggest musical statements could come from modern jazz groups that fuse a swinging beat with electricity — uniting styles and generations.

A must-see pick for many Twin Cities jazz musicians and fans will be the Red Planet show, as the group that plays an electrifying blend of original music and classic compositions by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Jimi Hendrix.

Epstein said Red Planet is the sound of surprise — and it is, as anyone who has heard the band's rendition of the Coltrane tune "Africa" will surely testify.

Purists may not consider such music jazz at all, given guitarist Dean Magraw's hard-hitting style and rock sonics. But Epstein thinks the band's sense of swing captures the bluesy feeling of the original.

"It was drawing from different, you know, different parts of this big blanket word of jazz," Epstein said of the tune.

That's important in the Twin Cities, where musicians might play jazz standards one night, and blast their way into the 21st century the next.

Epstein especially likes performing with younger players who help provide a bridge to new music.

"The variety intrigues me constantly," he said. "And obviously it's musically and artistically stimulating to be in a different head space at different times in making music with a lot of different players."

One of the young players Epstein collaborates with is guitarist Todd Clouser, a 30-year-old Minnesotan influenced by rock and hip-hop. Clouser has spent a lot of time in Mexico in recent years. But a year and a half ago, he returned to the Twin Cities, eager to play with versatile musicians playing innovative and original music.

Clouser's band, A Love Electric, delivers his own modern vision, especially on tunes like "Mob Walk," based on a trumpeter's riff. The tune evokes a group of dreamers having a defiant moment, determined to be heard.

Like jazz greats of old, today's musicians are trying to make new individual and improvised statements. But Clouser said the myths and misconceptions about jazz persist.

"It's become a scary word for bookers, for marketing — 'we don't want to call it jazz because it's not going to sell' — and these sorts of things," he said. "It's really destructive towards not only jazz music but just creative music in general and the evolution of music and art."

Clouser's band also performs Friday, at Studio Z. A good jazz festival, he said, can help dispel such myths by letting audiences know that the music lives.

Sometimes the tunes sound like rock, but often a soulfulness comes through, as it does on Clouser's "Houses for the Empty," a swing tune with a backbeat behind the groove.

The guitarist is thrilled to be back in the Twin Cities for the festival, where musicians who have influenced him — particularly Magraw — will have a chance to shine.

"There's some amazing players inside jazz music that are creating really profound and progressive music that should be heard and celebrated," Clouser said. "And I hope that somehow that comes across in the festival and that people can come out to jazz shows more often."

Epstein and Clouser are working on a new CD of Monk Tunes with Magraw that should come out in the fall.

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