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Blumenthal jazz series aims to fan improv flames 

Chad Lawson Trio kicks things off with Bill Evans tribute

At the height of my trad-jazz fever in the late '90s, I made a pilgrimage to the historic Village Vanguard in New York City to catch one of the last living members of the old guard, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. Between songs in a searing set which suggested Griffin was still worthy of his The Little Giant sobriquet, the septuagenarian said, "Man, if these walls could talk, they could tell some stories."

Charlotte's never had a jazz venue that storied, but you've got to start somewhere. And perhaps the newly minted monthly series sponsored by Charlotte's Jazz Arts Initiative — The Jazz Room @ The Stage Door Theater — will provide the right setting to promote traditional jazz improvisation in a laid-back atmosphere reminiscent of clubs like the Village Vanguard.

"This will be a marvellous way to unwind after work and enjoy classic jazz with friends and co-workers," says Lonnie Davis, executive director of Charlotte's Jazz Arts Initiative. "We encourage everyone to drop in for a drink and hear some of the best jazz the local and regional scene has to offer."

Local pianist Chad Lawson will open the third-Tuesday-of-each-month series on April 16 by reinterpreting impressionistic jazz-piano genius Bill Evans' music; on May 21, trumpeter Mark Rapp plays the music of Miles Davis. Lawson's 2002 trio versions of the Harold Arlen/E.Y. "Yip" Harburg songs for The Wizard of Oz — Dear Dorothy: The Oz Sessions — announced the classically trained pianist as an up-and-coming talent, and his subsequent solo and trio recordings of standards and originals have put him at the forefront of what's been dubbed the Neoclassical pianist/composer's movement.

For Lawson, though, Evans represents some interesting challenges — not the least of which is culling a 50-plus LP catalog into a single set (which doesn't even include his sideman work for, oh, say, Davis' Kind of Blue). Evans' classically influenced style — Ravel, Debussy and Chopin were touchstones — was initially criticized, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, for not swinging hard enough. But once Davis acknowledged Evans and his "Dorian minor moods" (as Miles put it) as integral to the new modal style Kind of Blue explored, the pianist's impressionism became a fundamental piano strain in the '60s and beyond. You could argue only McCoy Tyner's more percussive, if equally complex, approach and Cecil Taylor's free-form attack rival Evans for influence.

Still, in jazz's long tradition of song reinterpretation, Lawson will team with local bass maestro Ron Brendle and drummer Ocie Davis to put the trio's own spin on Evans' work.

"What I find so absolutely fascinating about Bill's compositions is that some of the tunes can be very challenging in terms of melodic structure," Lawson says. "Yet, when you hear the songs played by Bill Evans, it sounds as if it could be such a simple song. He is such a master at taking chord changes that would seem so uncommon or that would generally not work and make them so memorable."

Evans' catalog includes the seminal Sunday at the Village Vanguard trio recordings he made with bassist Scott LaFaro (right before he was killed in a car crash) and drummer Paul Motian, a veritable primer in trio interplay. Lawson knows it's a fool's errand to try to recreate that magic, but will use it to springboard into his own trio's playing.

"It strikes me as if [Motian] is saying, 'nah, man, do your thing — I'm just gonna sit here and stir soup and let it swing,'" Lawson says of the drummer's subtle brush-work. "His playing is so understated that Bill and Scott have absolute freedom and latitude to simply create. That trio is magical, so tasteful."

They were also one of a kind, the aesthetic that lies at the intersection of covers act and re-interpreter — it's not that John Coltrane covered "My Favorite Things," after all, it's the far-out places he took the old standard. And for Lawson, who's been working with the Jazz Arts Alliance since last summer teaching youngsters the fundamentals of jazz and performance, this series will hopefully reach further than the listeners at the candlelit tables enjoying cocktails and live music.

"Jazz is such a communicable element where it's best to converse in the moment rather than trying to plan it ahead of time; certain arrangements will be in place but trying to manipulate or shape chemistry isn't what we're trying to achieve," he says. "What we as practitioners of this art form do is learn what they learned from those before them, a passing down of the heritage, and then apply that syntax to our own expressions of song."

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