New Standards: My Houston Must-See Jazz Acts

The first jazz band I ever heard live was Robert "Doc" Morgan's small jazz ensemble at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. I was a sophomore at HSPVA and a friend invited me to a show at the old Holman campus.

We had some jazz records at home - John Klemmer's Touch and The Crusaders' Those Southern Knights come to mind - but I'd never sat in an audience and witnessed the music unfold before me. It was a revelation.

Houston had a healthy jazz scene so I became a habitual show-goer. I followed Kirk Whalum, Everette Harp, Sebastian Whittaker, Herman Matthews, the late Dave Catney. I learned about Joe Sample - one of our town's greatest jazz musicians, who was almost literally under my nose all along, every time I dropped the needle onto "Keep That Same Old Feeling."

I found other music and strayed from live jazz, only venturing out to catch a national touring act here or there. In an effort to get that old feeling back --and, to keep on keeping it, as The Crusaders instructed all those years ago - I've surveyed some of Houston's current jazz artists to see what's exciting and fresh out there. I found two hard-working women bent on keeping some traditions alive and a pair of trios working to advance the notions of Houston jazz.

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THE VICTOR

The first jazz artist I asked assured me "jazz is alive and well here in Houston."

That person was Victor Bernard, bassist and bandleader of The Victor. The group released "Live at The Compound," last summer, a three-song EP one fan referred to as "Blue Note meets hip-hop."

"We love to groove, man, to let it all hang out, but in an organic kind of way. All of our influences from hip-hop, funk to soul and jazz find their way to the music," Bernard said.

He and band mates Jarrell Campbell (drums) and Clayton Farris (keys) had a clear vision for what their music should sound like.

"Houston is becoming more diverse with the influx of the younger workforce that's coming from all over the globe to see what life is like in a big American city," Bernard explained. "Jarrell, Clay and I thought it was the perfect climate to introduce Houston to the very type of jazz we thought was missing from the equation, the type that would hopefully speak to all ages. Enter The Victor."

"Our compositions are more like templates. We know the changes and the basic structures, but we leave the number of bars open so we really have to listen and pay attention to each other, which is a lot of fun because you never know who or what will take the music in what direction," he said.

The band has performed at Jet Lounge, Bohemeo's, Athens Lounge and Super Happy Fun Land and looks to build on its foundation with future recordings and shows.

"The coolest thing is to see how the diversity in Houston is paying dividends on the once lukewarm music scene," Bernard said. "The diversity along with the influx of great people rooting here, coupled with the massive commercial and residential development inside the loop and downtown really has opened the mind of this great city. Houstonians are more adventurous and have come out to support our movement and in return have walked away refreshed and excited."

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ALISHA PATTILLO

Pattillo is the namesake of Alisha's Quartet, which celebrated its first anniversary by releasing its debut CD, Along for the Ride, in September. The group held an official release event at Cezanne earlier this month.

She describes the band as "a vibrant, fresh, high-energy jazz quartet playing a variety of standards, fusion and modern compositions."

Houston is known for Texas tenors like Wilton Felder, the afore-noted Whalum and his beloved predecessor, Arnett Cobb; so, it's nice to see someone stepping up to keep the tenor vibe alive here. Pattillo is Australian by way of Singapore and a Houston resident since 2007.

Her globetrotting must have helped her learn to make fast friends. In 2011, she joined the Ezra Charles Band. She's a member of Soul Swagger, an R&B/funk outfit and Pig on the Wall, which features a virtual all-star band of local musicians delivering their take on the Pink Floyd catalog.

That's four bands and counting, folks.

Pattillo is diverse enough to bounce from Charles' jump-blues to R&B and then Roger Waters - but watch her take on Joshua Redman in a few of the quartet's Youtube videos and you'll see where her heart lies. Paul Chester, David Craig and Richard Cholakian round out the quartet.

"Houston has a healthy supply of established and talented jazz musicians. The biggest problem is a lack of venues that support jazz, and small audience attendance. Most venues that host jazz bands use the music as an ambiance tool rather than as entertainment," she said "I'd love to see more establishments hosting jazz nights and for jazz to move away from that background stereotype."

TIANNA HALL

Vying for title of hardest working woman in Houston jazz show business (perhaps against Pattillo), Hall is now performing nightly - as in seven per week - at Vic & Anthony's downtown. She croons to the backbeat of The Houston Jazz Band. Downtown diners would recognize Hall's familiar face and unforgettable voice from 10 years worth of gigs at Sambuca.

"We are what you call a 'traditional' jazz band," she said. "I feature music of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, of the cool jazz era and the Sinatra era, with a smattering of Brazilian jazz of the '60's by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Portuguese and all."

Hall's technical expertise was honed at the University of Houston, where she majored in vocal performance. Her work ethic is, at least in part, owed to the prolific Paul English. The longtime Houston jazz pianist, composer and producer has mentored her since she began a professional singing career in 2004.

Over the years, she's also performed at Rainbow Lodge and Kirby's in The Woodlands. I've never seen Hall live, which must say something about my dining budget; but, after hearing her handle Louis Jordan and Nat King Cole selections on her Youtube page, I'm eager to catch the act in concert.

The band's lineup is broad and alternating, but Hall is regularly anchored by guitarist Mike Wheeler. She said she's heavily influenced by Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. While those legends give her a compass to navigate by, local musicians have helped steer her career in a direction that now allows Houstonians to hear her sing any given night.

"We have an incredibly supportive network of jazz musicians and fans in our community," she said. "JazzHouston.com has had a big hand in that, but I think the sense of community amongst us will only continue to grow in this age of digital networking." Story continues on the next page.

 

THE CORE TRIO

Imagine The Bad Plus performing when suddenly Ornette Coleman bursts in, chastises them out of the cover songs they favor and thus emerges all the wonder of original, free improvisational jazz.

That's what The Core Trio sounds like to me - the shape of Houston jazz to come. Thomas Helton, who founded the trio and plays doublebass modestly calls it "music without boundaries."

However you describe it, what Helton, drummer Joe Hertenstein and saxophonist Seth Paynter do is creative and thrilling. Locally, they've performed at Cezanne, Cactus Music, DiverseWorks and MKT Bar. Last summer, they traveled to New York City, where they played ABC No Rio with pianist, composer and former Houstonian Robert Boston and recorded with Matthew Shipp, one of jazz's leading avant-garde pianists.

The band's Facebook page says its influences run from John Coltrane (expected) to Metallica (okay, I get it) to Protest the Hero and Kenny Rogers (huh?). It also playfully suggests all the band members are currently working to undo all the proper music training they respectively have.

"Houston is an interesting town. I don't know anywhere else that you can make a living as a musician. I'm really proud of being a part of the jazz community," said Helton. "That being said, it is difficult to be surrounded by some the world's finest musicians but with very little interest in expanding on America's one true art form. It is almost like it's being preserved here, like in a museum. It's a real shame too 'cause with a little courage and vision this would be a real happening scene."

"The history of jazz here is amazing but I sure would like for us to move forward," Helton reiterated. "In the meantime, it is great to get to play with such fine musicians. And it's The Core Trio that will try to change people, artists and musicians."


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