Salt Lake City Weekly Review of SLAJO--4/24/03

’Trane in Blood

The Salt Lake Alternative Jazz Orchestra debunks the myth of scary music.

by Randy Harward

Jazz is scary. Not big-band jazz, that Harry Connick Jr. crap—the hard stuff. The complex, adventurous stuff. The stuff that seems to have no rhyme or reason, except to those who play it, much like the haphazard way a masked maniac kills and eats people (it only makes sense to him). Or how the big, scary world appears to your Alzheimer’s-stricken grandma. Yeah, jazz is scary.
But it doesn’t have to be. Praise Miles, jazz doesn’t have to frighten young children and fathers of young children. No, it can heal broken bones and fill cavities. It can pop your back for you. It can change your oil. It can even save you from Godzilla when the Hand of God is busy doing other things. And it can broaden horizons. The trick is getting people to listen.
“It’s an unfair stigma,” says Dave Chisholm, leader and trumpet player of the Salt Lake Alternative Jazz Orchestra. Call it, uh, jazzmaphobia? The 12-member group, which plays originals peppered with new arrangements of tunes by John Coltrane and—of all bands—Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, exists to dispel this stigma, as well as give some of Salt Lake’s many talented horn players an outlet.
The idea came while Chisholm was riding home from school with University of Utah music professor Tully Cathey. Says Chisholm of the epiphany: “There were many horn players up at school who all could really play, but didn’t have many opportunities to let loose in front of a crowd.”
When Chisholm approached a few fellow horn players, several expressed interest. He then assembled a rhythm section of guitarist Willis Clow, bassist Will Lovell and drummer Steve Lyman and soon, the project was tootling along. Chisholm set a goal to have a night’s worth of material by the end of January so SLAJO could begin gigging by the following month. SLAJO played its first gig at the Urban Lounge in February and the reaction was such that the band has been invited back each month since.
“We have had great crowds at all of our shows,” Chisholm enthuses. “I mean, really awesome. Word-of-mouth is strong in this town; the community is tight. If a new band is good, word gets out quickly. I think the band puts off a certain energy that makes the crowd want more, and we completely feed off that, not to mention that we play good music that isn’t pretentious or snobby.”
The cover tunes factor into SLAJO’s appeal, in that the complexity of jazz is often overwrought. Hearing popular music in a jazz context helps neophytes realize this. As Chisholm puts it, if you look at the original versions of the songs most “jazzers” play, such as show tunes, they are much more straightforward than even the standard 4/4 rock tune. SLAJO just takes the core material and adds elements they like, “with respect to the original material.”
“I think covering a tune people know and love forces them to listen to our original music with a different ear. Many people think jazz music and jazz musicians enjoy confusing the crowd and, by playing tunes that they know, we are reaching out, so to speak, and telling them that we listen to the same music that they do.”
To play jazz snob’s advocate, isn’t that slumming?
“It’s funny, a lot of jazzers probably think we’re lowering the standard of this beloved music by playing modern pop tunes, but I think jazz has always been a sponge. Miles [Davis] covered ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ in 1961. It was then a pop tune, and now a jazz standard. Who’s to say that a tune like [Radiohead’s] ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ is any different?”
So now that SLAJO is opening new ears to jazz, frightening away the bogeyman and reaping the reward of satisfaction (and a little extra scratch from the gigs), what’s next?
“We’re thinking about making T-shirts that say ‘SLAJO: Big, Scary Music for Big, Scary People’ or ‘Take No Prisoners,’” says Chisholm. And he’s serious. “We’ll have it written in blood.”