Autumn leaves warn that winter comes this way soon. But for Anchorage fans of freeform music, the recent release of four CDs of original pieces by local performers and a flurry of gigs may signal that something like a jazz spring has arrived.
Dan McElrath, whose "Ajazzka," released on Sept. 17, is part of the flurry, credits "a nice influx of young talent" with spurring "some great energy in the jazz scene here."
He also credits the impact of the Spenard Jazz Festivals, inaugurated three years ago by Yngvil vatn Guttu, a Norwegian trumpeter with an interest in world music and a flair for jazz.
"One of her requirements was that all music played there be original compositions," McElrath said. "It helped get a lot of people thinking beyond just playing covers and doing their own music."
Guttu departed Alaska earlier this month, telling friends at a farewell party that she would return to Norway, then go to Brazil, then to New York -- and voicing only vague plans to return to Anchorage.
But before she left, she released her own CD, "Akutaq."
There's no obvious connection between the music on the recording and the mixture of oil, sugar, berries and fish known as "Eskimo ice cream" -- until you read the liner notes. At that point one realizes that she chose the title because every batch of akutaq is different from every other batch, which is the way she apparently prefers her music.
"Akutak," she writes, "is dedicated to everyone who is making their own!"
From World War II through the pipeline boom, Anchorage clubs and bars regularly featured both jazz and R&B performers from Outside, and many were outstanding -- T-Bone Walker and Eddie Harris come to mind.
Starting in the 1980s, a small but determined group of talented Alaska musicians -- Melissa Bledsoe Fischer, Tom Bargelski, Ray Booker, Kevin Barnett, Kerry Maule and John Damburg, among others -- produced a stream of locally originated jazz. But with the post-pipeline bust and changing tastes, it hasn't always been easy to draw a crowd.
But that may be changing.
Respecting the art
Earlier this month, the parking lot at the Tap Root Cafe in Spenard was full on a Thursday evening. Front man Rick Zelinsky on sax led an ensemble that included McElrath (keyboards), Pat Owens (trumpet), Nick Petumenos (guitar), Erroll Bressler (bass) and Cameron Cartland (drums) in a tribute to Cannonball Adderley.
All wore ties. "That's Rick's doing," said McElrath, a bit derisively. But the neckwear made a statement about respect and tradition. Back in the glory days, suits and ties were the rule for jazz players.
That respect for the art was also reflected in the playing. It was an energetic and straight-up tribute, with each man impressively attentive to his breaks -- especially Zelinsky.
Within seconds I was recalling Adderley songs whose names I had long forgotten, but whose tunes remain standards of American musical literature -- "Unit Seven," "The Work Song" and "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy."
In 1975, also in Spenard, I interviewed Adderley. He was cheerful and pleasant, yet intimidating in a way. In speech, as well as music, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to express it. Colloquy required moving into his groove. But once there, the conversation was wide open.
Zelinsky et al. had found that groove and, while staying true to it, managed to take the manifestations of the key themes in a series of directions that built on each other and produced cogent and satisfying results. They were not Adderley's exact extrapolations -- it wouldn't be jazz if they were -- but I think Cannonball would have approved.
The crowd, key to any live music, becomes nearly a full partner -- or adversary -- in jazz. When Guttu had her CD release party at Tap Root, the chatter largely drowned out the music.
At the Adderley tribute, however, though some parties seemed driven to over-the-table conversation, the majority made the music a priority, following the breaks with applause and then muting themselves to hear the next performer. In my opinion, they were weighting their response to how well each given musician had handled each particular solo, reflecting the players' respect for the music back on the players themselves.
One heard a regular succession of waves of close listening followed by bursts of enthusiasm. It was a near-perfect combination of the casual experience of a club and the high-level musicianship of a concert.
Cruising the cuts
Zelinsky does these "tributes" regularly -- a John Coltrane night is coming up in November. But he too has just released a CD of his originals, "Rick Zelinsky, Live."
"He's more on the be-bop side," said McElrath. "My CD is more mellow."
Each of the cuts on "Ajazzka" carries some sort of Alaska implication. Gentle "Emerald Isle," with its beautiful second theme, is a reference to Kodiak. "The Great One (Denali)" is a majestic big band piece; in fact McElrath's arranged it for band and hopes to have it played by the high school band in Kodiak later this year. "A Tribute to the Horses of Summers Bay," originally a dance score, was written after he encountered the wild horses ranging near Dutch Harbor.
One cut, at least, is less location-specific. "Furry Bached Lisa" riffs on Beethoven's "Fur Elise" and a Bach fugue.
McElrath's core group, the Dan Mac Quintet, includes several of the same performers who took part in the Adderley tribute. But his CD also features some of Anchorage's old guard, like Maule, Booker and Scott Weller. The latter two are also featured on "Alpenglow," yet another recent Alaska jazz CD -- this one by pianist Kevin Barnett, who also did the sound work on "The Horses of Summers Bay" at his Lazy Dog recording studio in Eagle River. Alaska jazz folks are a pretty tight crew.
"One of the many reasons my wife Regina and I love Alaska and Anchorage is the amount of community arts that still goes on," said Barnett. "Other cities this size and bigger have much less. Tom Bargelski and I were roommates in the Air Force about 25 years ago. Dan McElrath and I knew each other over the phone for years before someone introduced us."
He said that he and McElrath were unaware that each was working on a CD with Alaska resonances until production was under way. "When we (found out), we started sharing what we were doing. I think that is pretty cool that they are two totally different projects."
In "Alpenglow" Barnett takes a step beyond McElrath's Alaskana, creating an entire album of Alaska "tone poems" using the jazz idiom. There's a kind of icy tinkling introduced right at the start of the title cut that continues throughout the CD. Latin rhythms permeate the melodic pieces with a few exceptions. "Permafrost" is frigidly moody, a waltz depicts "Snowy Owl" and Booker's bluesy bass underscores "Cabin Fever."
Barnett's tone poems follow a timeline -- like Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" -- from the first termination dust to winter solstice to spring. It makes for appealing and smooth listening.
On the other hand, Guttu's "Akutaq" is aggressive and challenging, with an intellectual angle, unpredictable key changes, meter shifts and instrumentation. (She includes a wood flute and didgeridoo in the mix, and even does some nice vocal work on the ballad-like "Dueo.") The first cut, "Stubo," features doubled-up brass racing through repeated flourishes then hurling themselves into dissonances. "Lydian Interception" refers to that song's use of the (now) unfamiliar medieval mode (F major with the B natural). The big finale, "Q-lock," is an exuberant romp with one of Edvard Greig's "Norwegian Dances." But there's also a funk feel to "Just Like That."
But even this somewhat abrasive CD makes an Alaska reference with "Kachemak City Lights." (McElrath has a cut titled "Kachemak Moondancer," another Latin-flavored number.)
"Maybe we're a product of our environment," Barnett observed.
Sound of freedom
Zelinski's "Live" CD wasn't available before press time. But on Wednesday, at one of his ongoing gigs at SubZero downtown, one could get a taste of his ideas as a composer.
Zelinski's originals sound more urban than the others mentioned in this article, unafraid of swapping complex rhythms into a generally firm funk dance beat. They push the edges of harmony, with even the slow and songful lines drifting off the tonic center for long stretches before resolving. And they're conscientiously constructed in the classical jazz theme-and-variation patter without becoming redundant, as if he were trekking back and forth along a stream while never stepping on the same stone twice.
One exception was the Euro-flavored "Good Fortune" with something of a bolero rhythm and an icy opening that called to mind McElrath and Barnett's Alaska-inspired tone painting.
McElrath sat in along with Cartland and Petumenos, the latter switching from guitar to stand-up bass -- bowing it at one point.
"That's a first for me," Petumenos said. "And I'm loving it."
He will probably be back on guitar when the Anchorage Festival of Music presents the first concert in its "Discovery Jazz" series Oct. 24. The wide-ranging program in the Discovery Theatre will include Zelinsky's quartet, McElrath's quintet and Melissa Fischer.
"I think what we are seeing is that there is some high-level talent in the Anchorage area," said Zelinsky. "And since there are not a lot of playing opportunities available, musicians are taking it upon themselves to create their own opportunities by recording/producing their own CDs. The days are long gone where musicians can sit around and get calls to play."
In fact, most of these people have day jobs. Zelinsky is a teacher. McElrath tunes pianos all across the state.
"If you have the desire to make jazz and continue in its tradition, you have to do it on your own and create your own recordings and concert opportunities," Zelinsky continued. "You've got talented musicians with different styles and personalities looking for adventure -- not material success.
"Jazz is freedom, always changing, and imparts the goal of being able to play and improvise spontaneously whatever we, the musician, conceive.
"Alaska is the last frontier -- but jazz will always have endless possibilities."
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.
WHERE TO CATCH JAZZ
Among upcoming jazz concerts in the Anchorage area:
UAA JAZZ SERIES With McElrath and Zelinsky performing cuts from their new CDs. A fundraiser for UAA's jazz department. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, UAA Fine Arts Building Recital Hall.
JAZZ NIGHT: HARLEM RENT PARTY With Kevin Barnett, Scott Weller, Mike van Arsdale and others. This fundraiser includes a silent auction, beer, wine and food. 7 p.m. Saturday at the Alaska Fine Arts Academy, 12340 Old Glenn Highway, Suite 200, in Eagle River. Tickets are $12 in advance at www.akfineart.org, 694-8909, and $15 at the door.
RICK ZELINSKY et al. Play at 7 p.m. on Oct. 6 and 13 at SubZero, 624 F St.
DISCOVERY JAZZ SERIES With Melissa Fischer's band joining Zelinsky and McElrath, sponsored by the Anchorage Festival of Music. 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 in the Discovery Theatre. Tickets at centertix.net, 263-2787. For more information, go to www.discoveryjazzseries.com. T
RIBUTE TO JOHN COLTRANE With Rick Zelinsky et al. 8 p.m. Nov. 18 at the Tap Root, 3300 Spenard Road. Jazz in Anchorage Local artists with new CDs: Dan McElrath "Ajazzka" -- danmacjazz.net Rick Zelinsky "Live" -- icygrooves.com Yngvil vatn Guttu "Akutaq" -- yvgmusic.com Kevin Barnett "Alpenglow" -- lovindogmusic.com