Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Uncle Dan & Sophie Jam: Talk about the 'big break' for writers and musicians — with musical accompaniment

Students of evolution often focus on apparent "big leaps" in species or generic development. For
Sophie Faught, David Linard, and Dan Wakefield discussed "big breaks.'
individual human beings, such giant steps forward also attract peculiar focus.

Over the course of a career or lifespan, the hugeness of such leaps may turn out to be more apparent than real. Nonetheless, assessments of where and when My Big Break occurred can yield insights as to what constitutes a milestone for each of us. For writers and musicians, identifying the "big break" can prove to be definitive to shaping their public identity.

An exercise in this process took place in a comfortable format Tuesday night at the Jazz Kitchen, when the "Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam" program concentrated on the "big break" theme. Contributing to the discussion were the title personalities — saxophonist Sophie Faught and writer Dan Wakefield — as well as a former colleague of the saxophonist's, pianist David Linard, special guest for the second show in this series.

Linard used to play in Faught's group at the Chatterbox Jazz Club downtown. He has gone on to a New York career, traveling often with Sammy Miller and the Congregation. The individualistic drummer heads a band that revives a theatrical kind of good-time jazz long ago represented by the likes of Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, and Cab Calloway. The deceptively raucous ensemble has twice appeared to receptive Indianapolis crowds since Linard joined the group.
David Linard at the piano, with bassist Nick Tucker, drummer Kenny Phelps, and saxophonist Sophie Faught.

Wakefield, an Indianapolis native venerated as a returning celebrity author-journalist, told the most riveting story. He has a long career to draw upon, but what he believes got him his big break was wangling a position as the Nation magazine's correspondent  to cover the Emmett Till murder trial in 1955. The lighthearted mood shifted to a somber hush as Wakefield recounted his experience at a trial that freed the accused killers, made the 14-year-old Till a martyr of the burgeoning civil-rights movement, and attracted international attention.

Moving from their playing positions to a table at one side of the stage where Wakefield sat, the young musicians shared their stories. Faught posed questions to both men in an informal but well-designed program that also included relevant musical interludes.

Linard recounted that several years ago his plans to do graduate study near his Indiana home shifted suddenly after he visited relatives in New York City and was persuaded to see if he could get admission to jazz studies at the Juilliard School. Though he was past the application deadline, his audition impressed program director Carl Allen — despite Allen's withering comment after Linard offered a solo blues ("This is grown man's music") — enough to ease Linard's way into Juilliard and the Big Apple scene.

Faught got her break as a new student at Indiana University, when trumpeter Nicholas Payton came to the school, heard her play and asked her class status. "Freshman," she said. "Not for long," he replied, and soon after hired her to join his band, which toured the country and appeared in much-anticipated celebration of the second great Miles Davis Quintet that Payton staged at Lincoln Center.

Recalling on Tuesday the nervousness she felt before entering the hall, she proved ready to take on the Wayne Shorter role, and the quartet played "Nefertiti," a slow version with lots of melody, in tribute to that association, and later Shorter's "Footprints." In contrast to Linard, she eventually determined that the New York life wasn't for her ("it didn't feel like home"), and she has returned to her Hoosier roots.

To start off the first set, the band played "Royal Garden Blues," indicating Linard's successful study of stride piano. It was among the styles he mastered as a graduate student while forging his own approach to jazz piano as a professional. A winsome rendition of "Voyage," a piece by Linard's Juilliard teacher Kenny Barron, was also part of the first set. To show how well he's steeped in pre-jazz roots of the music, Linard took a reflective trip through Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More."

Along with "God Bless the Child," a song associated with Billie Holiday that the band played after Wakefield's searing narrative, "Hard Times" emphasized the sobering process of using all sorts of experience to make possible those "big breaks," as well as all the times in between.

[Photos by Norbert Krapf]