“I personally don’t feel bound by terms or categories for jazz. You understand what I’m saying? We’re kind of in the tradition of Weather Report where there’s a certain amount of freedom in our music. There’s elements of funk, gospel, rock and R&B,” explains trumpeter John Douglas, cofounder of the band Jazzhead, which stormed onto the local jazz scene in 1997, evoking comparisons to fusion outfits such as Weather Report and Buckshot La Fonque. But Jazzhead has transcended the experimental stage.
Douglas and bass player Trent Mitchell started Jazzhead, building it around musicians from diverse musical backgrounds. On stage, the ensemble renovates classics by altering their harmonic and rhythmic landscape. For example, when they recently opened a performance with the standard “Night in Tunisia,” Douglas ran the melody through new terrain while Mitchell set the rhythm section loose. They stacked new chords on top of old chords, then juiced up the tempo. The bandstand became so heated that it sounded as if two different bands were dueling. By the end, Douglas’ trumpet gasped for air and Mitchell had worn out a pair of hands. Fans left the club satisfied and raved about the ensemble’s unique approach.
“John and I were talking about three months ago, and I was telling him that the people were coming to hear us because we were playing untraditional music in an untraditional way, in untraditional venues for untraditional audiences. What I mean is people that would not normally go see a jazz concert or buy anything with jazz on it were coming to see us,” says Mitchell.
Douglas and Mitchell met while students at the University of Michigan, and both shared a hunger for music. At first, they played free jazz, but eventually gravitated to bebop. They formed the Trent Mitchell Ritual, a band that only performed bebop tunes. But as their understanding of the form grew, their free jazz personality resurfaced. And instead of allowing one to dominate the other, they fused the two. The Trent Mitchell Ritual expanded into Jazzhead.
“The whole point of playing music is to take it in a different direction than your predecessors. There wasn’t any specific event that caused us to start adding other forms of music to our band. It was probably already happening. The tunes that I was writing at the time were leaning toward a more funkier thing,” Douglas recalls.
“I felt that in order to become more complete players we both needed to address the bop thing. We had to because we went the free jazz route first. The free jazz thing opened up possibilities, so I never felt limited or had a purist attitude. I always looked at playing bebop as a sacred opportunity.”
Making good music was easy. Keeping the band together posed the biggest challenge. A few years ago, because of a series of misfortunes, they almost broke up.
“In 1998, we released our first album. We had modest success with it. We were primed for the next level. We went to our record label and found out that we didn’t have any loot. That happened in July of 1999,” Mitchell recalls.
“In September, our drummer had a brain aneurysm on stage during a performance. That shook us up. The other three guys that were there after the drummer got ill left the band. They didn’t want to start over. It was just me and John left standing.”
Misfortune stacked the odds against them. Rumor spread that they were finished and, for a moment, self-doubt surfaced. Was the band worth saving? Could they find a record company that understood their musical vision? Could they recapture their audience?
“I’m not going to lie — I was pissed. The madder I got, the more determined I became. The project was worth having. John and I were at a Ziggy Marley concert at the Royal Oak Theatre, and we looked at each other and asked ‘Do you want to keep going?’ He said yeah, and I said yeah,” Mitchell recalls.
They hired new musicians. At performances, they continued to play the music that had made the band popular, but while they retooled their fans became restless. The fans wanted something new.
“It was kind of rough on our audience. People that had been coming to hear us for two or three years were hearing the same tunes. The audience didn’t know that we were running scrimmages, or the same plays, so that the new guys could learn the repertoire,” Mitchell explains.
“And our audience was like, ‘They are not moving.’ They were disappointed that we didn’t have a new product out. I felt that we had let our fans down, because people would come out in the snow to hear us. They would buy new clothes to come hear us. The analogy to us is that you believe in a fighter and support him, and he goes into a fight and takes a dive. You know what I mean? I didn’t want the audience to feel that way because it was a betrayal of their trust.”
Douglas and Mitchell concealed their problems, wrote new tunes and continued to recruit new musicians. Jonata Records signed them. Soon their second recording, Ancestor, will hit the record stores.
“A large part of my determination and I think John’s determination was because of our supporters,” says Mitchell.
Though regrouping tested their conviction, the hurdles they cleared made them a stronger unit — they never lost their passion to swing — despite the fact that most bands never learn how to grow when faced with adversity.
“Now the audience is coming back. We have a product. We always had a product — we just had to work it. We just had to play. We had to get the new cats oiled up and teach them the process. Now everybody knows how the operation works. When we step up to the plate, we’re going to be hitting,” Mitchell says.Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org