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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."
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."