The five sax players of the 17-piece Alan Baylock Jazz Orchestra can’t fit onstage, so they perch on fold-up chairs in front of it. As Baylock introduces them, he says that one, Saul Miller, is a stand-in for a saxophonist who “blew his ankle” the day before.
Can a broken ankle really keep a sax player from performing?
Apparently so: The hobbling effect the injury would have had on the group’s spectacle becomes clear as its members begin to solo—and each musician takes a turn jumping to his feet and animatedly belting out a cascade of notes. As one trombonist blows through his portion, his rapidly moving slide passes perilously close to a sax player’s head.
Baylock’s orchestra is competing this Sunday afternoon in the sixth annual Jazz Band Brawl, a fundraiser for the Takoma Park JazzFest. The prize for this year’s winner (which will turn out to be the James Cotton Quartet) is a slot in the lineup of the JazzFest, to be held in Takoma Park’s Jequie Park this May.
Bruce Krohmer, a member of JazzFest’s board of directors, came up with the idea for the Brawl after the first JazzFest, seven years ago, when the costs turned out to be more than anticipated.
“We decided to do a musical festival instead of a bake sale or something,” he says.
The Brawl’s organizers have gone with a Mardi Gras theme for this year’s competition, which is being held at Northwest’s Takoma Station Tavern. Although chains of beads and a few plastic crawdads do fly around the packed house, the show is more Vegas than N’awlins.
Jesse Garland, chanteuse for the Greg Jenkins Quintet, gets the show started with some dusky crooning, giving a far more sultry performance than her stage name’s wholesome inspiration. (Her real name is Jesse Davenport, but she claims a distant relationship to Judy Garland.) When the group launches into a few bouncy swing tunes, several couples hit the floor—the squeaking shoes of twirling dancers punctuating the melody set by Jenkins’ piano.
Baylock’s vast orchestra is the highlight of the afternoon. The sax players give a good showing (including Miller, who is reading the music for the first time), but the eight trombones and trumpets are the crowd favorites. During one original song, the horns duel with a finger-picking guitarist—a sound that suggests Eddie Van Halen joining a performance of the James Bond theme song.
Krohmer, one of the judges and a reedist himself, says that the Brawl’s organizers limit the show to only three groups to give jazz aficionados a real chance to get a sense of the bands’ sounds. A rock-music contest and a jazz-music contest differ, he says, because the two musical genres are like “fast-food vs. gourmet.”
“Jazz has more surprises,” Krohmer says. “You pretty much know whether a rock band is any good after the first minute of a song.” —Paul Fain