Jazz with Attitude

Anyone in Houston who is thinking about producing and releasing his own CD probably could take a lesson or two from Mark Towns, who has avoided many freshman mistakes with his debut CD, Flamenco Jazz Latino. The guitarist set up his own label, Salongo Records. He's arranged for national distribution and hired an established radio-and-print promoter to work the CD. Towns also scored a coup when he convinced two Houston-bred jazz stars -- flutist Hubert Laws and saxophonist Kirk Whalum -- to make guest appearances on the CD. "I just asked them, and they said yeah," Towns says nonchalantly.

It didn't hurt that Laws and Whalum knew Towns from various Houston gigs and knew that Towns could play. Indeed, when asked about Towns's CD, Whalum decided to give a publicity-perfect quote: "In heaven my mansion will play exclusively the kind of music that Mark Towns plays," said Whalum. "Passionate, Latin, rhythmic real music."

Towns always wanted to play the guitar. As soon as he could talk, he hounded his parents for one. "Even though I would ask for guitars, I was so small they would give me a ukulele," Towns says. "That would piss me off. I would tell them, "This is not a guitar.' "

He finally got that guitar when he was ten. Having studied piano, Towns could read music and took to the guitar like a natural. The first night he sat down with the instrument, he taught himself a few chords. The next day he was playing in front of his class at school. While growing up in Fort Worth, Towns started writing songs, mostly of the surf/comedy variety. He moved to Houston in the late '60s and played in some cover bands; his biggest influences were the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.

In the early '70s, while living in Atlanta, Towns was introduced to the music of Dave Brubeck, Les McCann, Eddie Harris and Paul Desmond. But Miles Davis and guitarist John McLaughlin turned Towns inside out. The former's sense of freedom, the latter's technical expertise and both men's ability to go out on a limb and seemingly never crash and burn inspired Towns to play in free-form jazz groups and jam bands. Aside from playing guitar, Towns was making percussion instruments and bamboo flutes and playing upright bass and keyboards. "I used to have big jams at my house," Towns says. "It was just spacey type of jammin' stuff.We never called tunes or anything. We would just get together and play."

When Towns moved back to Houston, he was playing percussion, bass and keyboards as much as he was the guitar. He stayed in the jam-band mode until he met some Houston jazz musicians who were a bit more disciplined. "We would get together and they would actually want to play tunes," Towns says. "I was kind of like, "Wow.' I had been used to just jammin' so much that the concept of playing tunes was kind of weird."

So Towns started learning jazz standards and how to play over chord changes. At the same time, he was playing bass in some salsa bands and being seduced by Latin jazz. As a freelance musician, he dabbled in other genres and found himself learning classic jazz songs while also learning salsa, funk and rock tunes. The experience provided a perfect training ground upon which to develop his composition skills. While Towns wrote and played several different styles of music, Latin jazz became his forte. "The rhythms far as I am concerned, they are the most sophisticated rhythms in the world," Towns says. "They have been tested over time and they work. They sound just so good."

While playing in Latin bands, Towns showed off his ingenuity. After playing numerous salsa gigs without a pianist, he created tumbao patterns for the guitar to replace what were usually piano parts. "I spent a lot of time sitting around making and working out things like that because I like that sound," Towns says. "Those are the things I ended up showing the other guitar players that wanted to learn Latin stuff. I was in a situation where I had to do it. So that is how I did that."

Soon Towns became recognized as a local expert on Latin guitar playing. Other guitarists including Ed Cherry and the late Tod Vullo sought out his instruction.

Like many a Houston musician, Towns has taught his share of private lessons and done a lot of jobbing. For a while he was writing up to three songs a day. He has dozens of original compositions that he plays in concert. He still takes the odd job here and there, but for the most part Towns is concentrating on his own band and music. Based on the quality of Flamenco Jazz Latino, that focus is paying off. Few independent debut efforts are of such a high caliber.

A European tour is in the works, and Towns already is planning his next CD. Laws may make a return appearance. "I have been a big fan of [Laws's] for a long time," Towns says. "I think he is the best flute player in the world. I want to use Hubert a lot more on the next CD."

Unfortunately the European tour and Towns's local dates will have to wait a little while. The guitarist's ankles were crushed recently when he was hit by a car. It will likely be at least a month before he is performing in public again. His recording sessions in December are up in the air.

But that hasn't stopped Towns from trying to get his new CD in as many hands as possible. "I won't be happy until [my CD] goes No. 1 on Gavin," Towns says, referring to the radio industry trade magazine, "and wins a Latin Jazz Grammy next year and we get invited to all the major jazz festivals." For more CD and performance updates on Mark Towns, go to www.marktowns.com.

Flamenco Jazz Latino (Salongo)

A regular on the Houston jazz scene for years -- and, we should note, a former Houston Press music writer -- guitarist Mark Towns has developed a sound that he says is best described as flamenco jazz. That's as good a call as any, but don't accuse him of jumping on the Latin jazz bandwagon. Towns has been incorporating Latin influences into his playing for decades.

Flamenco Jazz Latino is a solid debut album from Towns that likely will garner national attention because of the presence of two Houston-bred stars: saxophonist Kirk Whalum and flutist Hubert Laws, who each appear on one cut. Whalum plays on an instrumental version of Fastball's hit "The Way." As Towns notes, the first eight bars of the verse are hauntingly similar to "Besame Mucho." On first listen, most jazz and Latin buffs would probably think this is a version of "Mucho" until the bridge kicks in. Then it goes from sounding like a Latin-jazz guitar number into a cover of a rock song, which is quite an unusual effect that works in a unique way. Towns inserts his own Latin section into "The Way." In that section, Whalum takes a very smooth solo that he effortlessly slips into the setting as if the song were written for him.

Laws takes his turn on Towns's "Wind on the Mountain," a relaxed, atmospheric song built for extended improvisations. After Towns states the airy melody, pianist Rainel Pino plays a somewhat understated solo. Towns delivers his solo nice and slow -- almost deliberately so -- taking the time to make melodic points. But both Towns and Pino, who are solid here, take a backseat to Laws, whose gorgeous tone adds another dimension to the song. Laws's bouncy solo is simply masterful. He creates tension and release several times, and takes the listener on a journey that's filled with interesting turns.

If Whalum and Laws get Towns noticed by radio stations and national publications, Towns is more than ready for it. His guitar playing, on both electric and acoustic, is excellent throughout. On "Sabrosa," one of Towns's 11 original compositions and one that has a fantastic melody, Towns takes a textbook solo. It's logical and filled with little runs between melodic statements that enhance the solo's development. He never reduces the solo to a display of chops, though he clearly has them.

Flamenco lovers will get off on "Salamanca," which opens with some classic Spanish riffs, some at high velocity, and would make any flamenco fan proud, as would Towns's fast-paced solo. "Corriente" is a more atmospheric and dramatic song, with some of the traditional flamenco power chords. While there's a strong Spanish feel to it, "Corriente" clearly derives some other world influences. That's part and parcel of Towns's habit of mixing genres in his songs. "Chuchu," for instance, is a mambo, yet the melody is eerily similar to Miles Davis's "Freddie Freeloader." "After the Rain" has Latin rhythm, but also Midwestern passages à la Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays. On "Like the Wind," which is a bolero, Towns creates sonic atmospheres with his guitar tones, and his solo style owes much more to jazz than anything Latin. At the same time, other songs, like "Merengue Gitano," are Latin from the get-go.

With the glut of Latin jazz releases out there, it would be easy to overlook Flamenco Jazz Latino. That would be a mistake. Towns isn't just playing Latin jazz, he's making sure it continues to evolve.

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Paul J. MacArthur