Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Dave and Daver

In what must surely be one of the most bizarre recent developments in the political economy of Clubland, it seems that straightahead jazz has become an underground music.

Dave Karnes is talking: "I played a gig with this piano player who also books the bands for five Sambucca's all over Texas. I figured it'd be an opportunity to book the band." (That'd be Dave and Daver -- the sterling outfit, co-led by drummer's drummer Karnes and tenorman Dave Williams, that recently relinquished the Wednesday night slot at The Moon on West Berry in favor of the more jazz-friendly environs of the Black Dog Tavern.) "When I suggested that, he asked what kind of music we played. I told him it sounded like '60s stuff. He went 'Oh -- so you're traditional. We aren't really booking anything like that right now."

Dave Williams chimes in: "A trumpet player I know had a gig at Sambucca's in Dallas. When they started setting up, the manager came up to him and said, 'I'm sorry, but this isn't a trumpet room.' " One wonders what instruments might be deemed acceptable by the Sambucca management. (No doubt those operated by the members of the Yellowjackets. Or, uh, Spyrogyra.)

Still, on a Wednesday in October, the small house at the Black Dog included a disproportionately high number of drummers, on hand to check out Karnes' impressive chops and swing. On a break, Goodwin/Pablo and the Hemphill 7 stickman Damien Stewart was schooling Karnes on some of his crowd-pleasing stick-twirling techniques in exchange for a demonstration of a particularly tricky hi-hat flourish. Justin Pate (who plays drums for Sleepy Atlantis, although he's better known for the keyboards he contributes to Pablo, Confusatron, and Horses) hovered nearby, taking it all in, while teenage firebrand Cooper Heffley sat at a table talking to Williams. When Heffley took over the drum throne during the next set, an audience member snidely commented, "A lot of drummers can groove, but only a few can swing."

"He'll get it by the time he's my age," said Karnes, who just turned 30. "As long as he keeps listening."

At the Jazz By the Boulevard festival back in September, which managed to redress last year's oversight by booking pianist Johnny Case with a quintet but was unable to offer a payday sufficient to lure the legendary and elusive drummer and composer Ronald Shannon Jackson out of his Northside abode, Dave and Daver were just about the only straightahead item (besides Case) on a bill headlined by the Yellowjackets and a Latin jazz orchestra. In the event, their set was called because of rain -- the only 15 minutes of inclement weather in the whole two days -- and although the festival organizers at least had the decency to pay the band, it was still a disappointment.

It was nothing new to Karnes, who used to receive thunderous applause everytime he'd ask the crowd at the Moon, "Who likes rock'n'roll?" -- at least in comparison with the lukewarm response he'd get to his follow-up question: "Who likes the jazz?" That has to be a tough pill to swallow for Karnes, who still plays rock for the bucks and fast times, but whose innermost heart really belongs to the jazz that he studied at Boston's prestigious Berklee School of Music. Some guys are just gluttons for punishment.

Since taking over Wednesday nights at the Black Dog, Dave and Daver, whose engagement there is billed as a "jam," have started a new policy: their first set consists entirely of original material which evokes the dark, cerebral mystery of classic early '60s artists like Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson. They have a full-length CD in the can, tentatively titled More Daver Than Dave, since Williams picked the tunes. (A Williams-penned feature for Karnes goes by the handle "More Dave Than Daver." Myself, I'm holding out for Davest.)

Besides the new emphasis on originals, the shift from the Moon to the Black Dog has brought some other changes to Dave and Daver. Longtime bassist Brandon Nelson has been replaced by Jonathan Fisher, a fiery improviser who seems to dance behind the bass. Also, guitarist Keith Wingate is also gone from the lineup. Without a harmonic instrument, the spaciousness of the sound makes it easier to hear the contours of the compositions and the extended improvisations by Williams and trumpeter-flutist Chris White. With no disrespect to Johnny Case or Joey Carter (who's been holding forth on Thursday nights at Ron's Cafe on Pennsylvania), it's the freshest jazz show in town. If anybody cares.


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