It's Thursday night and we're hanging out with some of Houston's finest musicians in Erin Wright's living room.
Okay, technically it's not her living room. It just feels like it, since it's snug and comfortable and because Wright is making us all feel at home.
We're actually at Costa's Elixir Lounge, a cozy wine bar at the lower end of Westheimer. Wright is co-host of the Thursday Jam Session here. Since January, she and saxophonist Alisha Pattillo have been inviting musicians out to their place to share war stories and vibe off one another.
The best part is anyone can stop by to hear them. The weekly meet strongly encourages musicians to come join in, but is open to anyone who loves music and the creative process.
"There's probably four or five tables tonight that aren't players that just came to hear music. That kind of shocks me because it's not a polished show," said Wright, who's been a working musician in Houston more than 25 years. "It's just people getting together and figuring out common ground and being creative together."
"We could do it in a living room. We don't have as large a beer selection that way," joked Pattillo.
The talent rotates around Wright and Pattillo weekly. Recent sessions have seen Houston jazz dignitaries like Carl Lott, Sr. and Tex Allen sitting in. This night, Derrick James is on drums, Ralph Stivison's brought his trumpet and jazzhouston.com founder Andrew Lienhard is on keys.
We're sitting a few feet from Lienhard, Chimay Red all up in our cups, as he deftly brushes the keys. His face leans into the keyboard, as if he's spilling every thought right from his head onto the instrument. It sounds fantastic. The song ends and there's no extended applause from the gathered. None at all, really. But, there's satisfaction and huzzahs from the jam mates.
"I had a bass player from New York play with us last week and he said, 'This is what I don't get in New York,' which is weird because I think of New York as jazz central," Wright said.
She's been doing her part to support Houston jazz for some time now. She's hosted similar events at The Daily Grind and Dharma Café. She's funny and gracious between songs, and she soars when she's playing. Anyone who doesn't understand what the term "feeling the music" means needs only to watch her do her thing for a song or two to get it.
"It's a really good thing for the community, having a jam that is very open," said Pattillo, who has to be one of the busiest musicians in Houston. "Erin is a very warm host, everyone feels very welcomed. There are some other jams where that vibe is not as obvious. It's a nurturing environment."
While we watched, Houston drummer Phunky Boodah, sat in on some songs, bringing a different style to the drum set. He said he's apprenticed with his friend Sebastian Whittaker, and it shows, the way he draws the crowd in. A bit later, a trippy-colored van pulls up and poet John Gurney emerges. He steps to the mike for some spoken word, with a little light improv jazz behind him.
We order an excellent pinot grigio and wait to see what might happen next. That not knowing is half the fun, according to Wright. In the past, she's seen Cirque du Soleil tap dancers show en masse to provide unique percussion to the evening's songs. Lots of career professionals, doctors and lawyers and such, are attracted to the sessions, just to be around creative, artistic types, she said.
It's great for the artists, too, of course. Wright, Pattillo and Lienhard are using the next few weeks of sessions to brush up for a shared June 13 date at Cezanne. Judging by the audience reaction this night, that'll be a killer show. We're all a few drinks in now and the applause comes easily after hearing the group run through "Well You Needn't" and "Stella by Starlight."
The wall behind the band is a backdrop of well-known wisdoms like "Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product" (Eleanor Roosevelt) and "If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library." (Frank Zappa).
But the real truth is in the music and the moment we're all sharing. Pattillo counts it down and the band eases into "It Could Happen to You." We're here drinking and meeting new friends, but also watching the music come to life.
"What happens here on Thursdays is part of why I love Houston. I've thought about running away with the circus. There's a temptation to go to New York or Paris or L.A. They all have reputations for being great arts communities," Wright confides. "But, there is a very intense sense of community in our jazz scene a great love among all the players and that gets expressed here."
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