Twin Cities band Courageous Endeavors maps out new path for jazz

Courageous Endeavors
Twin Cities jazz band Courageous Endeavors is playing Friday at the Icehouse restaurant in Minneapolis.
Photo courtesy Max Devereaux

If you pick up a "Real Book," the published collection of standards that make up the traditional jazz repertoire, you'll see that many of the songs are short melodies.

For decades, improvisers have embellished them with imagination, often trading solos before returning to the opening phrase.

Anyone who listens to a lot of jazz knows that it is built on a strong tradition of improvisation that often builds on melodies. As the music enters the 21st Century, some jazz artists increasingly are modifying their approach with composed pieces that spell out a great deal of what will be played on stage.

The new Twin Cities group Courageous Endeavors aims to do just that with "Prototypes," its first recording. The musicians, who will debut the recording tonight at the Icehouse restaurant in Minneapolis, aim to show how that such compositions still leave plenty of room for spontaneous creativity.

"I think the things that we strive for in these compositions are to break away from particularly formal constraints of a lot of older jazz recordings where you play the melody and you play solos and you play the melody again," bass player Brian Courage said. "We're really interested in doing different things with the forms so that there are solos coming in and out in places where you might not expect them."

Courage, a New Yorker, made his way to Minnesota after studying with Twin Cities musicians at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. He is joined by Nelson Devereaux on saxophone, Joe Strachan on fender Rhodes and Miguel Hurtado on drums - three musicians who had already been playing a fusion of jazz and hip-hop in Alicia Steele and the Endeavors.

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When the quartet formed a couple of years ago, it started with a mix of jazz standards and covers. But these days, the musicians -- influenced by rock, punk and hip-hop -- focus on making original music.

"If we have our way, people that listen to our music will enjoy the songs like they would any other band that they would hear on the radio," Devereaux said. "In the compositions, we are taking what we like about 'jazz,' improvisational music, rock, punk and hip-hop and blending it into our own special brand of music."

One of the tunes by Courage is "The Cliffs," a somber number that reflects his time listening to death metal, which often includes down-tuned guitars and heavy distortion.

"It wasn't a conscious effort to replicate that but it kind of. That language has influenced my compositions in ways that maybe I don't realize," he said.

Some of the band's tunes have little or no improvisation. That's the case on "Legends," a Stachan composition that allows the players to largely follow his roadmap.

In that sense, Courageous Endeavors departs from the jazz tradition. For Devereaux, that's a good thing, given that the music heard on classic recordings may not resonate well with today's average listener or make for viable careers in the modern era.

"What our music does share with jazz is the innovation factor," Devereaux said. "But where jazz is generally based on theme and variations, we are writing our own themes and they are made up of what we like to play."

As much as the musicians draw on the diversity of the Twin Cities music community, they also are inspired by the music they hear from young musicians in New York.

"That gives us some kind of context for what else is happening now," Courage said. "But we don't want to sound like a carbon copy of that because that's its own thing and we're in a different place and have different experiences and are trying to do something different here."