By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
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How can you tell when a jam session is working the way it's supposed to?
Reasonable people might have different opinions about it, but I've got a theory. Based on watching the Phoenix Jazz Workshop cast a spell over the Lucky Dragon on a recent Sunday night, I think the proof comes when no members of the original band are onstage, but the music's flowing with such force, no one even notices.
That phenomenon occasionally happens with PJW, an expert new jazz quintet formed by tenor-sax man Bryon Ruth and bassist Ted Sistrunk. Ruth and Sistrunk had played together previously in Lookout for Hope, a bold free-jazz trio that danced along the accepted fringes of tonality and song structure. Although that group built a fiercely loyal Sunday night following at Higher Ground Cafe, they were a challenge to anyone scared off by the mere mention of Ornette Coleman's name. Coming off that experience, the two jazz vets not only wanted to do something more straightforward, they wanted to create a haven where local players could congregate -- the kind of haven that Dave Cook's Monday night jam sessions provided for years at the Melody Lounge, until that club changed ownership in 1998.
"We wanted to do a jam session, because we felt that since the demise of the Melody Lounge, there was no real good spot for musicians to come and hang," Sistrunk says. "There are a few other jam sessions around town, but nothing that quite had that funky atmosphere. Especially for the younger players, who have a hard time leaving Tempe often, to go and play with some older players.
"So we wanted to form a band, have charts that we've put together, and then have people sit in. We wanted it to be a good band that people would enjoy listening to, that the older players could have some respect for and maybe want to play with, but also allow younger players to sit in."
The Sunday night jams at the Lucky Dragon began last September and have slowly, but steadily, built a word-of-mouth buzz among local musicians. The lineup on the bandstand subtly shifts with each song, as Ruth or Sistrunk calls one of his friends to the stage. Working from a selection of classics by such titans as Wayne Shorter, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and a host of Latin composers, the band provides a framework that allows for some sizzling improvisation. Conscious of wanting to open up room for as many musicians as possible, PJW also leans heavily on arrangements that feature extra horn parts.
At times, you sense there are more musicians than civilians in the crowd, creating an intriguing revolving-door effect, where the various players take turns setting down their horns and cheering each other on.
Even when the entire PJW lineup -- which also includes drummer Andy Ziker, saxophonist Scott Zimmer and pianist Rachel Eckroft -- has surrendered the stage to their friends, an uncanny continuity holds up. Sistrunk says he and Ruth are conscious of the need to maintain a sense of direction, to keep anarchic self-indulgence from breaking out.
"We keep control of that, 'cause I've seen stuff happen in the past with jam sessions where people just get up and it's not too good," he says. "We don't turn people away, but if you come two weeks in a row and suck, we might say, 'Look, why don't you go back to the woodshed before you try again.' We try to keep control of who's sitting in and make sure to get good combinations of guys. And we're usually making sure that people know what they're going to do onstage, so they're not just looking at each other."
One of their favorite guests is trumpeter "Little" Joe Herrera, a 24-year-old wunderkind from Yuma who fronts his own ensemble and played with Ruth three years ago in the ambitious 17-piece big band, the Phoenix Jazz Orchestra. On March 3, Herrera provided several of the Lucky Dragon jam session's highlights, joining PJW for a Miles-inspired post-bop workout and staying onstage as his rhythm section morphed into the stellar combination of bassist Justin Brockman and drummer Rob Moore.
March 3 was also a special night because it was a going-away party for Eckroft, who's leaving for New York before heading to Cal Arts to study music in the fall. Early in the night, the group played music that Eckroft had composed and arranged for a nine-piece band, which included two saxes, a trumpet, a French horn, and a bass clarinet.
This unusual configuration stimulated Sistrunk's interest in putting together theme nights, such as a jam session built around Latin jazz. For now, he's just thankful he's been able to find a spot in Tempe -- where many of the area's younger jazz players tend to be based -- that allows for the kind of lively-but-loose spirit of the old Melody Lounge jam nights.
"Lucky Dragon [is] a good location," Sistrunk says. "And they're also open to trying to do things, and promote -- not to be too bashful about saying it -- art. It's pretty amazing, really."