My first encounter with saxophonist Rahsaan Barber and his trombonist brother Roland came in a most unlikely place: a long since defunct coffeehouse called Bean Central in 1998. My girlfriend and I were leaving when we saw two high school guys setting up music stands and taking out instruments. Identical twins setting up to perform in a tiny place where most questions were about the blend of the night.
Twenty minutes later, we were astonished to hear the young Barbers playing compositions from Thelonious Monk to John Coltrane. They weren't just running through notes or barely handling the melodies, either — they were embellishing phrases, providing original ideas and demonstrating a harmonic sophistication that would be expected from players far older. Perhaps it was premature, but my first thought was these guys could one day be Nashville's equivalent of the Marsalis brothers.
While they both still shy away from that comparison — though they recently played with the Marsalis brothers — Rahsaan in particular has emerged as much more than a superb soloist. He embodies the 21st century jazz player unwilling to let others decide his fate. Barber is also a label executive, promoter, producer and broadcaster. He started Jazz Music City Records a year ago, because he felt "it doesn't make a lot of sense to complain about there not being labels in town willing to record jazz musicians if you're not going to do something about it." Barber wrote much of the music and produced the eponymous debut from his own group, Everyday Magic, featuring pianist Jody Nardone, bassist Jerry Navarro and drummer Nioshi Jackson, with Barber on alto, tenor and soprano saxophones and flute. The album is an adventurous blend of hard bop, swing, free-form, fusion, blues and funk-inflected originals. Roland is a guest on two tracks along with percussionist Giovanni Rodriguez, co-leader with Barber and trumpeter Imer Santiago of the Latin-jazz ensemble El Movimiento — whose next release will also be out via Jazz Music City. Others on the roster include pianist Bruce Dudley, vocalist Stephanie Adlington (whom Barber will produce) and the hip-hop brass band The Megaphones.
This weekend, Rahsaan's throwing what he's calling a "Music City Triple Play." It's a two-day, three-act enterprise that serves as a showcase for much of the Jazz Music City lineup. Everyday Magic will perform Friday at the Nashville Jazz Workshop. Saturday night Dudley, highly respected throughout the city as a soloist, arranger and composer, will hold the official release party for his new Jazz Music City release The Solo Sessions at Steinway Recital Hall. He'll play solo, displaying the form and verve that was evident on his 2010 release Double Monk. While that one had a string quartet playing his arrangements alongside a jazz quartet, The Solo Sessions spotlights Dudley's inventive interpretations of such songs as "Darn That Dream," John Lennon's "Julia" and "You and the Night and the Music" alongside originals.
Meanwhile at The Rutledge, The Megaphones will open for Joseph Wooten. Jazz/hip-hop collaborations are certainly nothing new, but The Megaphones' New Orleans-influenced approach is a unique one.
"The idea for [The Megaphones] was to blend the type of driving arrangements The Dirty Dozen Brass Band have always specialized in with the verbal improvisation and energy of hip-hop," says Barber. "We're converging a lot of rhythmic things here. I've found that people who say they don't like jazz or they don't like hip-hop often haven't really been exposed to either in their most creative setting. It's challenging to get everything to come together, but when it does, it's really exciting."
Indeed, the Jazz Music City Triple Play represents a big part of the vision Barber has for Nashville. He sees jazz not as a historic or static idiom to be admired and respected. Instead, he feels not only can jazz be a bigger presence in Music City, but that sometimes the problem is as much the attitudes of performers as any resistance to the music.
"I understand when people say we don't have something here like the Village Vanguard or Small's," says Barber. "But we've got the Nashville Jazz Workshop, and people really don't understand how few places anywhere in the country have that type of resource for players, students and fans. There's more great jazz players coming to Nashville all the time. But what we have to do is take the music to the people, let them know it's out there, and really give them a show when they come out. I'm convinced if we do that, we're going to see a bigger and brighter future for jazz.
"There's an amazing musical community in Nashville, players every bit as great as what you can hear in New York. I've played and worked in New York, so I can say that. What we need more than anything else is recognition, places to play and more ways to engage the audience. Those are my goals, both for this weekend and in the future."