Saturday, March 15 - The late-dinner crowd was packed to the ductwork at Clifton's Pizza Company, as always on any Saturday night shortly after nine-thirty. In a corner, a drummer was making small adjustments to his set. One at a time, the other musicians trudged in, weary from other gigs earlier that night, lugging cases and amps, pausing every a few minutes to shrug off another layer of winter clothing, plug in a cord or greet a friend in the audience. Once together, they tuned and - after an introduction - broke into the first set of a night of ratchet-tight fusion 'n funk.
It was the release party for In the Spirit, the latest recording from the Ron Hayden Group, an impressive bit of knitting from the pool of Louisville's best jazz talent: Ron on guitar, Bennett Higgins on sax, the ubiquitous Tyrone Wheeler on electric bass, and Ted "Give the Drummer Some" Richardson on drums. It was the pinnacle of what has been an exciting March for Ron and his group. (see the CD review elsewhere in this issue)
On Sunday they had performed to a sell-out crowd at the Kentucky Center for the Arts as part of the Bank One Jazz Cabaret Series. The Courier-Journal had run a feature article on him two days earlier. Combined with the release party at Clifton's almost a week later, was this all some great promotional plan for the group?
No. "It all kind of came together at once," Hayden said. "For some reason, the media just chose to pick up on this."
That, plus a big boost of publicity help from Mary Jefferson of the African American Women's Literary Series.
Ron and company opened the release show with "The Basis of Color" from In the Spirit and pulled the audience right into their magic, which included a rumbling bass from Ty Wheeler and a long, masterful solo from Bennett Higgins.
The spell continued during the second number, "Sunday School," a tune Ron said is rooted in gospel and blues. He held the audience captivated and nearly silent by a solo toward the end of the piece, with no backing from his band.
They continued with a few more selections from the new release, then broke for the first intermission. Ron, obviously tired, graciously autographed copies of the new CD and chatted with folks from the audience, while the other players wandered off to recuperate from an intense first set.
With a sound that tight, phrasing so soulful, and a groove that just flat-out works from a quartet rolled together from some of this city's busiest jazzmen, do these guys get time to rehearse? "We hardly ever rehearse," Ron said. "Since we do the Clifton's thing every other Sunday, that's our rehearsal." But to make sure every performance is a great one, he said, you want musicians who know their instruments. "The better they are, the better they sound. So they can't be anything else but good."
Clifton's Pizza has been the regular every-other-Sunday evening gig for Ron and the group for a few years, so for a band used to club and restaurant crowds, Ron says he was surprised at their sold-out Jazz Cabaret show at the Kentucky Center for the Arts earlier in the week. That show gave the group what all performers need: exposure with obvious rewards.
"I've been getting calls from different agencies from out of town, like Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York," Hayden noted.
The turn-and-burn show side of being a jazz musician is only a portion of Ron's life. The man is passionate about his art. In a brief chat with him several days after the Clifton's show, he described the influences and images behind a few of the selections from In the Spirit. For example, "This Business," the opening track, begins with fast, locked rhythm of bass and drums, much like the formal, business side of music, over which Ron places a guitar solo that represents, in his words, "something trying to break through." The tone of the word "color" was the seed for "The Basis of Colour." And tonality is a large part of what Ron uses - and hears - to create his music.
"You need, as a musician, to do what you hear. There's no point in playing if you're not hearing anything." When he discussed certain musicians and what they hear, the subject of Kenny G came into the conversation. Ron chuckled.
"It always comes down to Kenny G, doesn't it? He also plays what he hears," Ron explained. Kenny G is a performer who hears simple tones. "He doesn't hear be-bop, so he doesn't play it."
The fusion-funk blend the Ron Hayden Group hears as they perform is winning them more and more fans. "People are getting to the point where they know how to listen to this music. I feel that's very, very important."
With a schedule of Derby gigs and private parties coming their way, a return to Clifton's on April 6, and a performance on April 26 at his alma mater, Morehead State University, Ron and the group can count on one thing for sure: "I'm staying busy," he told me that Saturday night before returning to start the second set, "but it's good. That's how it works."
Thanks go to the Clifton's Pizza Company and Mary Jefferson of the African American Women's Literary Series for making the show possible.
This city is lucky to have some fabulous jazz performers. Some gigs in April are: The Ron Jones Trio, with its regular brunch gig Sundays from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at Garrett's on Shelbyville Road, just east of Hurstbourne Lane. They will also be at the Hawley-Cooke store on Shelbyville Road on Saturday, April 5, from 7 to 9 PM.
The Café at Barnes & Noble will have Denny Inzer on Friday, April 5, and Reid Jahn on Friday, April 25. Both shows run from 8 to 10 PM.
Hawley-Cooke will have the Pat Lentz Trio on Friday, April 11 from 7 to 9 p.m. at its new Glenview Pointe store (US 42 at Lime Kiln Lane). The Java Men will be at the Shelbyville Road store on Saturday, April 12, from 7 to 9 p.m.
Twice-Told Coffee House presents the Sonny Stevens Trio on April 24, Splatch on April 25 (both starting at 9:00 p.m.). The Jeff Sherman Jazz Lab shows up on April 28 at 8:00 p.m.