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A Group of ASU Students Are Bringing New Orleans Jazz to the Desert

The Lava Hot Jass Band brings its own flavor to New-Orleans-style jazz music.
The Lava Hot Jass Band brings its own flavor to New-Orleans-style jazz music.
Courtesy of Lava Hot Jass Band

Traditional jazz music isn’t exclusive to the streets of New Orleans. In fact, jazz aficionados don’t have to venture outside of the Valley to get a taste of the improvisational style of jazz music.

A newer group to the Valley, the Lava Hot Jass Band brings their own unique twist to traditional jazz, swing, funk and big band music. They perform at the Nash during First Friday on August 3.

Since they started in October, the band have played in different types of venues, including the Phoenix Shag and Drag Festival. The group also performed in Mexico in March as part of a celebration of International Jazz Day. During its upcoming performance, the band will play upbeat standards and original music written by members. Bossa Brazil, a Brazilian jazz group specializing in the 1950s and '60s bossa nova style, will also give perform on First Friday.

Mostly graduate and doctoral students from ASU’s School of Music, as well as alumni, make up the Lava Hot Jass Band. A few younger students, such as trumpet player Liam Connor, are the exception.

Wen Wu, a clarinet player from China, is the brainchild of the group. A trip to New Orleans three years ago led to an appreciation for the style, inspiring her to start her own group last year.

“I just fell in love with the music," says Wen, who is an orchestral clarinet major. "It never really clicked with me until I went to New Orleans. It feels like I finally understand jazz.”

Listening to recordings and playing the same tunes note for note helped Wu to better understand the style before starting to make her own music in the NOLA style. She got to know the personal styles of her band-mates by jamming with them before starting the band. It was challenging at first, but the group adapted, and now they occasionally invite guest musicians to play with them during performances.

“When I brought the band together, there were a couple of moments where other band members, if they didn’t know each other, it was harder for them to communicate," she says, "but we’re professional musicians, and they have amazing ears."

The musical style was new to the band, who had jazz backgrounds but hadn’t played the more traditional style popular in New Orleans. They had to learn how to improvise collaboratively. They also had to substitute some of the traditional instruments used in New Orleans jazz, such as the banjo and washboard, for more conventional instruments like the clarinet and tenor saxophone.

“We try to mix new elements with traditional jazz," says Wen. "The big picture is we’re trying to play with the New Orleans style."

For Connor, who grew up listening to musicians such as Louis Armstrong, it took some time to adapt to the improvisational style.

“There was a process of learning to get rid of my inhibitions playing with this group, just because it all moved very fast," Connor says. "You have to be awake and alert for the whole thing because it’s all collectively improvised."

The group's members come from several different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. Growing up in China, Wen listened to smooth jazz at a mall near her home, and her father exposed her to jazz musicians such as Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, and Lester Young.

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“I feel like our music is almost always going to have an accent, but I think that’s what’s unique about us," she says. "All the different cultures, personalities, and religions mixed together, I don’t think it’s possible to be super-authentic …Right now, my idea is as long as the music makes sense and the audience likes us, that’s our direction."

Connor says playing with the group has helped him to gain a better understanding of jazz as a whole.

“There’s an organic sense to traditional jazz," Connor says. "It has very simple harmonies, a very simple setup. You don’t need a complicated rhythm section to play it. In that way, it feels closer to the roots, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like it’s too far away from the other jazz that I’m studying in school. There’s a definite connection, and the more I get to play it, the more I get a sense of the foundations of jazz."

The Lava Hot Jass Band. 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 3, at The Nash, 110 East Roosevelt Street; 602-798-0464; thenash.org. Admission is free.

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