|Sam Skelton, Justin Varnes, Delbert Felix and Brian Hogans|
Last night, at a local restaurant in the shadows of Emory University called the Mason Tavern on Clairmont Road in North Decatur, I was fortunate to be able to experience some of the best live jazz that I have seen since arriving to the Atlanta area from the New York metro area two and one-half years ago. Four extraordinary, locally based, musicians came together and did an impromptu, two-set show at proprietor Sam Yi’s latest bastion of jazz, The Mason Tavern.
You may remember Sam from his nearly twenty-year run as the proprietor of the now closed Churchill Grounds jazz club in downtown next to the Fox theater. Churchill Grounds was a beacon of light, hope and support for the jazz community here in Atlanta and Yi expects to open a new club in Grant Park sometime early next year under the same banner. The original club closed in July of last year and for the last six months or so Yi set up a pop-up jazz night in conjunction with local musician Terrence Harper at this new location in North Decatur. I have been going frequently to the club on Thursday nights where Harper and Yi usually provides a core band of local professionals that are then augmented by other local musicians, who are encouraged to sit in with the band. It has been especially rewarding to see young musicians, some from great distances, come to sit in and get an opportunity to hone their skills in a real-life session with other professionals and in front of an audience.
This past Friday night, however, was something special. Brian Hogans, Sam Skelton, Delbert Felix and Justin Varnes put on one of the most rewarding sets of music that I have seen in a long time. A little background on these musicians can give you an idea of just how special this event was.
Brian Hogans is a thirty-five-year old alto saxophonist/pianist, who hails from Morrow, GA and has been playing jazz since he was fifteen years old. His superlative technique and inventive harmonic sensibility has attracted a great deal of attention beyond the local Atlanta scene, where he is considered among the finest saxophonists in the South. Brian’s fiery work, particularly on alto, has been featured in his own groups as well as groups led by drummer E.J. Strickland, trumpeters Russell Gunn, Etienne Charles and Sean Jones and Hogans can often be seen in the saxophone section of Joe Gransden’s Big Band.
Saxophonist Sam Skelton is a phenomenally gifted player as well as an influential educator and current Director of Jazz Studies at Kennesaw State University. As a multi-reed player of exceptional talent, Skelton’s work can be heard on everything from the music of Elton John to the London Symphony Orchestra. He has credits on over two hundred and fifty recordings.
Delbert Felix’s is one of those bass players that just makes you smile when you see him play. Originally inspired by the electric funk bass work of Bootsie Collins and Larry Graham, Felix is an in-demand upright player in his own right. His style is ebullient and his fingers are fleet, but it is his joyous love of what he does that makes his playing so special. Felix’s pedigree include work with Wynton, Brandford and Ellis Marsalis, iconic tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, fusion drummer Billy Cobham and local crooner legend Freddie Cole amongst others.
Drummer Justin Varnes did his formal musical education at the University of North Florida with saxophone legend Bunky Green and later continued his education in New York at the New School. He is a working drummer who has an abundance of technique, but more importantly a boatload of taste. He has toured with singer Phoebe Snow and has played with everyone from trombonist Wycliffe Gordon to piano icon Kenny Baron. Justin has on online teaching website called Jazz Drummer’s Resource where he shares some of his techniques with students. Locally he is often the go to drummer in groups led by trumpeter Joe Gransden and the pianists Kevin Bales and Gary Motley among others.
With such a formidable group of talent on hand, I expected the music to be both challenging and entertaining. The group ran through the opening song, Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys” and we were off to the races. Hogans and Skelton both playing synchronously and traded licks, never sounding alike or for that matter like anyone else but themselves. They spurred each other and the rhythm section on to new heights. Varnes and Felix set the pace perfectly for these two to go off on the quirky melody. The songs were excellent selections from the jazz canon.
The group just morphed from one into the other: “All Blues,” with Hogans sounding like Cannonball, I’ll Remember April,” “Body and Soul” with Skelton sounding very Webster-esque, a Coltrane inspired tune that sounded like it was based on “Giant Steps” and a Freddie Hubbard classic “First Light.” The group continued with the Ellington/Tizol classic “Caravan” and then a hard bop tune from Horace Silver “Doodlin’.”
As drummer Varnes explained to me at the break, the group decided to choose a set of songs that were familiar to all, but then to let their creative abilities to improvise propel where the group would take the music. The result was electric, daring and totally enjoyable. The audience was engrossed with the unexpected twists and turns that each musician brought to the party. Unexpected gems around every corner. The music was surprisingly elastic, allowing for stretching ideas into new territory, spurring new paths of invention from each member.
The group took no break between songs, preferring to allow the last idea to unfold into the next tune organically. Bassist Felix was a joy to behold as he often danced with his upright in a display of oneness with his instrument. Varnes utilized all the sticks, mallets and brushes at his disposal, made his snare, toms and cymbals sing with purpose, while never missing a beat. Hogans and Skelton were like two lions trading roars, brandishing their claws at times or laying back on their regal haunches taking in the scene that they just instigated. It was creativity at its best, spontaneous, unrehearsed and magical.
After a short intermission, the group returned and finished the second set with “Invitation,” Joe Henderson's "Recorda Mi" Mal Waldorn's "Alone Together" and “There Will Never Be Another You.” They ended as they began with a Monk tune.
These guys will return to the Mason Tavern again tonight for a repeat performance starting at 9pm. If you love jazz or just great music the way I do, you owe it to yourself to get down there and catch these artist and be part of this magic. Chemistry like this doesn’t occur that often, so don’t miss this chance to support live music at its best. The Mason Tavern is at 1371 Clairmont Road, Decatur, GA 30033.