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The Energy Trio isn't alone in its take on the local jazz conundrum. Ironically, Joel Goldenthal, the executive director of JiA (and a talented, professional pianist in his own right), is all too aware of the perceived schism. "Everyone has their own idea of what jazz is," Goldenthal says.
"On one hand, many [JiA] members want to hear the same established artists with a familiar repertoire over and over again. On the other hand, we draw criticism if we don't book different artists. However, when we do present something new and different, we run the risk of alienating or failing to even attract the core constituency."
Inevitably, it's the young players who feel the rub the most. Talk to guys like 23-year-old jazz drummer Ben Tyler, who plays in the Tempe-based ethereal jazz and groove-based band M-31, and he'll tell you he knows the difficulty of breaking into the established scene all too well. "There's an old guard in town; you can see it in the players and in the audience," Tyler says. "These old cats get gigs because they're established, but I think people are getting tired of seeing the same old thing. Age is a big determination. I think it's easier for bands with a more stereotypical sound to get gigs, and they have a greater appeal because they don't care about playing the same songs to the same crowd every night. Younger cats like the Energy Trio want to see jazz go to the next level, and we know that for it to survive, you've got to get kids into it."
Not everyone buys into the Energy Trio's take on the local scene, though. Nineteen-year-old tenor sax phenom Lucas Pino disagrees that there's any division between audiences, and doesn't believe that there are camps with lines drawn in the sand. "Jazz is specific to its audience," Pino says. "It might seem like it's age-specific, but c'mon, if someone wants to see Margo Reed or that kind of music, they go see that. If they want to hear something new, they go where they can find that. Usually, the two don't mix that's just how it is."
But perhaps this notion of a schism is just a bunch of complaining about something that comes with the job of being a professional musician. At least that's what local jazz DJ Blaise Lantana, the overseer of Valley jazz programming at station KJZZ-FM 91.5, has to say about it. "I don't believe there's a rift between the old and new scenes," Lantana says. "I think people are good at playing the victim, and it's just hard to do something new. But you have to do it and make it work. I get so many CDs every week and I can't play them all, just like clubs can't book every band, but you find a way to do your thing. I'm always excited to hear about bands like the Energy Trio, but the young players shouldn't whine about how hard it is to break through. I mean, nobody played flute in a rock 'n' roll band, but Jethro Tull made it work. People need to just get over it and get out and play. If their musicianship is high enough, they'll get heard."
So far, despite the best intentions of the JiA peeps, the Energy Trio has been left to play in the cornfields of Litchfield Park, far removed from the downtown jazz scene you might expect them to frequent. But after a few conversations and some productive negotiations, an enthusiastic Goldenthal is ready to put his money where his mouth is.
On an early Tuesday morning, after a long night of jamming, Goldenthal is groggy but happy to spread the news that Jazz in AZ has booked the Energy Trio to play a big JiA event on August 20 at Johnny's Uptown. Goldenthal even put the Energy Trio on the cover of Jazz in AZ's biweekly newsletter. "Honestly, I see the Energy Trio as a huge part of the solution," Goldenthal says. "There's no denying the scene needs help, but the real key is to expose young people to jazz, and bands like the Energy Trio can do that."
The Energy Trio couldn't be happier about the JiA gig, and feels a new sense of hope about really crossing over and creating music that will engage old and new listeners. "It feels good to know that someone like Joel is taking notice of what you're doing and agrees that it's a good thing and can help the scene," Powers says.
"You want to get kids into jazz, you got to bring it to them, but we can play what older audiences and supporters like as well," Powers continues. "It's the future of jazz, and it's fucking awesome to be a part of it."