I spot my pals at a table, but they're packed into the small-ish front bar and dining area tighter than cattle in a train car. I feel like a jackass, standing there for all to see while the band is jamming.
I quickly find the host, who escorts me to the one empty bar stool in the place. An older gentleman, who seems to be there alone, sits just to the right of the unoccupied seat. I notice him swilling a piss-quality domestic.
The host asks the man, "Excuse me, sir. Anybody sitting next to you?"
He responds, "Why, you got a hot blond for me?" The guy turns around and looks at me. I think I hear his heart break as he sees that I'm not a banging blond Barbie doll native to this part of Scottsdale.
But minutes later, the glassy-eyed geezer must be over his disappointment, because once I settle into my seat and attempt to focus on the group — which features drummer Dowell Davis, bassist Justin Brotman, and Eckroth on the piano — the old dude won't leave me alone. In between 12-ounce curls, he insists on small talk about his new iPhone while the band plays. He must be desperate if he wants to flirt with me. I want the bastard to either zip it or buy me a drink.
Frankly, I hate this setting for jazz, and it's not just because of this dinosaur. I've seen a buttload of jazz shows all over the place, but never at a pizza parlor that serves wine with snooty-sounding names. I notice that other audience members clap in the middle of a solo or yammer so loudly during the quieter tunes that I can't hear the music. I've never enjoyed the marriage of jazz with food and drink, because it perpetuates that highbrow music stereotype. Tonight's audience is a perfect example. Somebody should put a tent on this circus.
In past situations like these, I would get the eff out of here. But on this particular night, I'm able to work through the Scottsdale socialite minutiae because the band is totally burning. One moment, they run through hip arrangements of Joe Henderson and Thelonious Monk. Then, they switch gears into delectable originals penned by Eckroth, whose swinging élan rests somewhere in between mature and swinging. It's honestly some of the best jazz I've heard in town in some time.
While watching the 31-year-old working musician perform, I realize there's another played-out stereotype attached to jazz that should be kicked to the curb. It's that women can't share the stage in the male-dominated genre unless they happen to be a singer who's hot (i.e., the second-rate Diana Krall and the totally underwhelming Jane Monheit).
Eckroth, an in-demand pianist/keyboardist/vocalist who can play her ass off and is damn good looking to boot, debunks the myth. It's pretty freaking clear as she leads and directs this group that she's not a gimmick. It's also evident that the ugly stick has never once struck her. I must not be the only one who thinks so, because several dudes vie for her attention during the evening. My favorite (and the one with the least chance of scoring) is a burly biker in an American flag bandanna who exchanges an original Prince print for an Eckroth CD as she warms up for the second set.
I first heard about Eckroth, a Thunderbird High School graduate, when a friend told me that she moved back to town from New York City. It's no secret that NYC is the place to be for jazz cats, so I was curious to find out why Eckroth decided to come back to what's been called a cultural wasteland for jazz players.
Eckroth's long road back to town began as an undergraduate student in Las Vegas, where, at age 19, she performed pop and R&B covers on the Strip six nights a week. In 2001, she moved to the jazz epicenter of the world, where she constantly taught and performed. She earned a graduate degree in music performance from Rutgers, receiving world-class tutelage from Stanley Cowell ("The best thing I could've done," she tells me). Then, in 2005, she released Mind, a kickass trio album recorded under her leadership that showcases bassist Kevin Thomas and drummer Chris Benham.
After years of struggle in the cutthroat environment, she was finally able to make a living as a musician, but with no money or time to spare. So she came to Phoenix in the summer of 2006 for a recording session. The temporary hiatus turned permanent when she was offered a steady, well-paying gig with Khani Cole and her soul-infused ensemble, a band Eckroth still plays with today.
Asked about her decision to leave New York, she says, "I wanted to get past the starving artist thing. I remember being there and spending eight hours in my office trying to find a way to make a living, then playing gigs at night. It was like that every day. I kind of feel guilty for not being like that here, but I don't have to now. Plus, people have come out of the woodwork in Phoenix to help me. That didn't happen in New York."
The soft-spoken musician knows what she wants in her career. She's constantly writing music for solo piano, trio, big band, and voice in her north Phoenix work space. Albums in the works include several full-length trio efforts, a duo project with NYC saxophonist Arun Luthra, and a pop record that will feature ridiculously amazing drummer Steve Gadd. She's also set on educating the jazz connoisseurs of Phoenix to original, cutting-edge material, rather than barfing out tired standards.
Eckroth says, "I've had requests from people who book gigs and musicians who curate shows that say, 'Oh, can you play more standards and more inside?' I conveyed that I play what I play and that's what I am going to do. It's not really fair to be an artist and have people tell you what to do."
And what about the less-than-desirable scene at Nello's? "I don't mind the extra energy. As long as we can hear ourselves, that's okay. I like it because there's usually a good crowd. We can play what we want, we can play loud, and the gig has been going on for at least a year."
Well, then. I'm convinced that Eckroth is a consummate professional who can do just about anything. That includes holding her own with the longstanding Phoenix jazz kings, staying true to her artistic goals, and creating and performing original, hip music that can't be pigeonholed into any one category.