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On a quiet stretch of Old Litchfield Road in Litchfield Park, a jazz group called the Energy Trio is warming up at Park Wines, an unassuming wine bar that usually features straight-ahead, traditional jazz.
But these band members look about as much like a typical jazz band as they sound young and fit, with lots of hair falling down around tee shirts and flannels. With such an image, you'd probably peg the Energy Trio as an indie band, rather than jazz buffs.
Guitarist Bob "Animal" Powers, 29, is all mop-topped shuffle, smiles and electricity, giving "oh you did not!" looks to his two compatriots with every nabbed tempo change and sudden modulation. Shea "LCD" Marshall, the youngest member at 21, dual-wields a MicroKORG synthesizer with a Roland VK-7 organ, smashing out a wild-metered bass chug with his left hand and parsing melodic chords with his right. Meanwhile, drummer Adam "AC Biggs" Clark, 28, looks like he's channeling the second chakra; with eyes pinned shut in concentration, his hands batter his kit with the intensity of an eight-armed Benihana chef.
The Energy Trio is all about making jazz present in the present. Marrying Mingus with Metallica and Parker with Primus, the three neo-beats gut popular jazz standards and imbibe them with the raw power and energy of modern music. Where guitars usually vamp and noodle, Powers' rips through high-gain solos that scream from a Krank amp a rig more popular among hardcore metal bands and the rhythm section is anything but subdued. Marshall and Clark swing from Latin to dub to metal, all in one tune.
The band members actually met the way most local jazzsters hook up at ASU's Herberger College of Fine Arts. The trifecta has played in various jazz and Latin ensembles at ASU, and constantly ran into each other at the same gigs. In December of last year, weary of simply playing background music for an older demographic, Powers, Marshall and Clark decided to team up and start playing the kind of jazz they wanted to hear.
The Energy Trio says it's on a mission to bring jazz into the here and now and rescue it from stagnating permanently into a dated genre that today's 25-and-unders generally write off as their grandparents' music. In fact, the Energy Trio members have a standing challenge they will outplay, out-tweak and out-energy any trio in town and they dare anyone to prove them wrong. Sounds like fighting words, but whenever the Energy Trio takes the stage, they come out swinging, because to these guys, every show is like a fight to prove to the older generation that jazz can be infused with current influences and still appeal to both old and new listeners.
"We're really going out on a limb, but that's what jazz is," Marshall says during a break between sets at Park Wines. "The thing that made jazz great in its heyday is that players respected what had come before them, but they didn't just sit around doing the same thing. They screwed with it and mixed it up. There are a lot of players in town now that are just living in the past and trying to re-create something that's already happened."
"There's a lot of good players, but the scene has been locked up for years by the wrong people," Clark adds, clutching a 16-ounce Beamish Stout in his hand.
"They'll die!" Marshall says, inciting laughter from the whole table.
The band's off-the-cuff banter touches on what the group feels is a larger phenomenon that affects the bulk of the Phoenix jazz community: a schism between old and young jazz audiences, where the old crowd gets the gigs and the support. But it goes deeper than just a generation gap. According to the band, there's a reluctance by jazz players and fans to embrace the cross-breeding of more traditional or standard jazz with modern influences, especially if it's as contemporary as something like Snoop Dogg or Pantera.
"There are so many people around town that frown upon mixing in metal with jazz, or hip-hop, or whatever," Marshall says. "Do you think the guys in the '40s and '50s and '60s just sat around playing what their parents listened to? Why do you think jazz thrived? Because people took big band and standards and tore them to pieces and injected soul, and funk, and blues. On a different level, that's where we are today, but ask some of these old-timers like the Jazz in AZ crowd to consider alternative music or hip-hop, and they think you're crazy."
Jazz in AZ, one of the longest-standing jazz booking organizations in town, is viewed by younger bands like the Energy Trio as a big part of the problem, and the gatekeepers of both the gigs and the audience. According to Powers, the JiA crowd holds the keys to bridging the younger and older camps.
"We want to book gigs with [Jazz in AZ]," Powers says. "We know that they have a tremendous amount of influence, and we believe it's time for the scene to start backing the younger up-and-coming acts that are playing out."