There's nothing standard about the way the Northside Jazz Ensemble plays standards. From Funk, Reggae and Soul to Rock, Free Jazz, Blues and straight-ahead Jazz and back again, this tight four-piece puts familiar tunes in a brand new bag.
I don't usually find myself out on Monday nights, but hearing them was a nice change — and the atmosphere at the Northside Tavern was laid-back and relatively quiet. As soon as the band started up, it was clear that they'd been playing together for a while. It's a good sign when all the members of a band look like they hang out together. It's even better when they sound like it. Their group is well-named; the Northside Jazz Ensemble exhibited some of the best ensemble playing I've found locally.
The quartet, completely made up of rhythm section instruments, grooved hard. They had an honest, organic sound, experimental in the sense of trying new things rather than shooting in the dark, hoping a tune appears (a method that is regrettably popular with many young players). The eclectic style is deliberate — the drummer and bandleader Joe Jahnigen, 25, describes their approach.
"There's no limit to terms in this group. We're not a Bop band or a Post-Bop band. We just want to be entertaining and play cool feels."
Keyboardist Mike Darrah, 25, says their repertoire consists of standards "peppered with originals ... because we play every week, we get to play Jazz tunes that are often neglected."
Guitarist Brad Myers, 30, adds, "I think we're collectively trying to play straight-ahead Jazz with funky influences and a younger attitude than other musicians."
In many cases younger equals immature, but this group plays with surprising sophistication. The feel is driving yet relaxed. The drumming is strong yet melodic. And the solos are confident yet understated. Within the first set, they did a smoking rendition of "Cherokee," kicked off by a Native American war dance beat, and a spacious version of "Alone Together," with the melody layered over a funky bass riff. The music remained chill, and the chord changes, no matter how complex, stayed secondary to the groove. While listening, I got the image of a large, living, breathing animal; when one member shifted in any way musically, the other three immediately responded.
Bassist Aaron Jacobs, 24, says this is one of the luxuries of having a steady gig. "Because we get to play so often, we develop a tight feel."
Myers, who hails from Virginia, adds, "I think that Cincinnati has such a great Jazz tradition and such astounding players, it's a shame more people don't go out to see live Jazz — I feel privileged to play weekly."
Jahnigen expresses appreciation tinged with disbelief about their luck in finding steady work in town. "We actually have regulars. It's cool in (the Northside Tavern), too — people have an open mind about what they're going to hear, and that's a testament to this bar, actually."
The band, together for a year, plays every other Monday at the Northside Tavern, and alternating Tuesdays at Coopers on Main. They looking to put together a live CD within the next month, before their drummer heads off to New York. They have not yet found a replacement.
When asked how they would best describe what they do musically, Jacobs speaks up. "I think the wonderful thing about this band is we all bring our influences to the table — this band is like an amalgamation of everything we listen to."
These CCM-trained musicians have an original approach to popular melodies that is both refreshing and inspiring. If you're the type that likes to hear old standards played the way they've always been played, I recommend staying at home and listening to a record. If you're interested in sampling talent that experiments not just with Jazz, but with music — period — in a unique and playful fashion, head over to the Tavern some Monday night, especially while Jahnigen is still in town.
THE NORTHSIDE JAZZ ENSEMBLE performs this Monday at the Northside Tavern.