Beneath the glassy gaze of Rasputin, saxophonist Peter Fraize leads another Monday night jam session at State of the Union. With a painting of the Russian mystic as a backdrop, Fraize begins the evening as leader of a sax-drum-bass group whose interplay is closer to the Joe Henderson Trio’s cerebral celebrations than Sonny Rollins’ sprawling Vanguard sessions. After an hour of foreplay, the threesome expands into an all-out blowing session, welcoming another sax, a guitarist, and even a new drummer, players shifting in and out, with Fraize as the only constant.
Consistency is also a characteristic of Fraize’s playing. As the State’s chipped ceiling threatens to flake off onto his kufi-clad head, Fraize plays supremely lyrical lines, never boarding the showboat and never giving in to full-bellied dissonance. Like the huge chandelier that presides over the club’s front room, reflecting U Street’s musically historic past and illuminating its revitalization, Fraize’s burry sound calls up the history of the tenor while welcoming its present.
A week later, over beer and a reuben, Fraize is holding court at another jam session. But instead of his worknight slot at State, it’s One Step Down’s weekend afternoon jazz workshop. And while he’s merely a spectator, he is still wearing the skull cap and the ’70s-era brown leather jacket he sported at his own gig. With his slight build, hint of a goatee, and playfully low-key demeanor, he resembles not so much a jazz artist as a Steve Buscemi character.
“I’ve never played at this club before,” Fraize says, surveying One Step’s cozy corridors. “But that’s because I never really had a group that I wanted to present myself as a leader of that would suit this place. I think the quintet would do that.”
State of the Union is where he started his Monday-night sessions two and a half years ago, and he’s extremely loyal to the U Street clubas he should be. Union Records recently released the Peter Fraize Quintet’s debut, You St.
As he relates in his breezy liner notes, the Monday happening began when Fraize talked to the club’s owner, Stuart Woodroffe, having already spent many a Sunday brunch at the club “slipping into crossword-puzzle-and-bottomless-bloody-mary oblivion.” Despite State’s success with acid jazz and hiphop DJs, the club hadn’t started to book live acts. Besides merely seeing an opportunity, Fraize felt that a sense of continuity could be maintained by playing on U Street, which again hosts the Lincoln Theatre, and once could boast the Bohemian Caverns (at 9th Street), the site of many appearances by John Coltrane and of Ramsey Lewis’ The In Crowd session.
“It’s an area that has the most significant history of [jazz], which is all but gone now. I think we were the first group to really consistently bring back jazz to that neighborhood,” Fraize says.
In addition to contributing to a scene’s resurrection, the jam sessions are special to Fraize because he initially entered the local jazz world through jams. And they have allowed Fraize to play with a variety of musicians in different lineups, causing him to think about expanding his trio when it was time to record.
“I had played with them all individually in various ways, but the night we did [You St.] was the first public performance of that group.”
With two tenors, trombone, bass, and drums, the You St. band emphasizes the low-end, with Fraize arranging and writing for the entire group. It’s a unique lineup that references such chording-instrument-free groups as the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker band, but which has little precedent in its choice of voicingsthough Fraize admits to one particular inspiration.
“Some of my favorite records from the last 10 to 15 years are the Dave Holland Quintet stuff, which is Holland, the bass player, a drummer, and three hornstrumpet, alto, and tromboneso that’s a more high-end thing. That was really eye-opening to me,” Fraize recalls.
Holland is one of the few distinct fealties that can be pinned on Fraize because “I feel a lot of allegiances,” he says. “I listen to a lot of stuff. I’m sure that’s what everyone says. But it all filters through.”
That filter allows everything from the quiet lyricism of altoist Paul Desmond to the structural ingenuity of fellow tenor and soprano saxist Wayne Shorter to seep in.
“I’m a huge Wayne Shorter fan. I can’t say enough about, compositionally speaking, what he does. We play a lot of his tunes when we do the sessions on Monday,” Fraize reveals; he also confirms the comparison to longtime Dave Brubeck sideman Desmond: “When I was trying out an alto mouthpiece when I was still in high school, the guy said that to me [about him].”
“I think lyricism is important, because at the very least that’s what you have to try and be after you’ve played all your cool notes….Melody, that’s the thing that’s really going to communicate. [And] for all the jazzheads who want to hear all the real crunchy stuff, that’s great because I love that stuff. I really love to play around with different harmonic textures, whether in soloing or writing.”
But despite its surefire, crowd-pleasing effect, Fraize doesn’t indulge in the technique-crazy exhibitionism of James Carter or Joshua Redman.
“I don’t do that. I don’t know why. Some of it can be just technique speaking for itself. Because you can do all that sort of stuff it can kind of take on a life of its own. The saxophone is such a user-friendly instrument in that regard; it can be very easy to let technique dictate what you do. I think everybody does to some extent, but you have to try and keep it subservientyou have to have it serve what you’re trying to do,” Fraize explains. “So your ears are telling you to play something and then your technique should just be the means by which you can realize that on the instrument. A saxophone is no better than a typewriter as far as that’s concerned: It’s a machine that you know how to work.”
Fraize grew up in Reston, where he played in school bands, and after high school he attended the New England Conservatory for two years. But the college’s concentration on classical rather than jazz studies led him to pen a letter to a fellow classicist with a hipster bentin the Netherlands.
Fraize first heard Leo Van Oostrom on a chamber-group recording whose liner notes mentioned he was the jazz studies director at the Rotterdam Conservatory. Attracted to his sound and style, Fraize made an impromptu query about Van Oostrom’s program.
“He wrote back and said [he now teaches] at the Royal Conservatory at the Hague and send him a tape. I didn’t hear back from him except, ‘When you’re in Holland, look me up,’” Fraize says. “I was planning on just going on your typical college-hiatus European vacation. When I got to Holland, I called him and he finagled an entrance for me into the conservatory as a part-time guest. After I was there for a year, I did a formal audition and went into their jazz studies program.”
Fraize started studying in the Netherlands during his vacation, never having returned home.
“No, I never came back,” he laughs. “I had my parents ship me all my records, all my horns, and a bunch of other crap, and I just stayed.”
For four years he studied in the Netherlands before returning to the metro area, where he gradually built his reputation. When the 31-year-old is not leading his band or playing in the jazz-rock group Stickman or the rock-rock group the Emptys, Fraize coordinates the jazz studies program at George Washington University, and co-runs Union Records with Woodroffe and State’s PR man, Dave Kasdan.
Fraize is completely unselfish in his praise for the label’s co-owners, as well as the players who appear on its first release. It’s also an attitude that carries over in his willingness to let others solo before him, even though he’s the arranger, composer, and leader of You St. Though, in fact, there may be a selfish motive behind Fraize’s generosity: “I don’t always want to take the first solo because I don’t want to always be the first one to come out and have two other guys kick my ass!”CP