Photo of
Photo By Paul Moffett
Bobby Falk

Bobby Falk Jazzes it up His Own Way

Kevin Gibson

Former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman once said that boxing is like jazz. Why? "The better it is, the less people appreciate it."

While that's an interesting take, Louisville jazz drummer Bobby Falk appreciates both, almost equally. One can elicit the same rise in his voice or sparkle in his eye by talking about either boxing or jazz. But Falk isn't exactly a heavyweight, with his thin frame and boyish looks, so it's jazz that he does for a living.

The Bobby Falk Group

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Bobby Falk Group The Bobby Falk Group

The Bobby Falk Group

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Bobby Falk Group The Bobby Falk Group

The Bobby Falk Group

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Bobby Falk Group The Bobby Falk Group

The Bobby Falk Group

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Bobby Falk Group The Bobby Falk Group

The Bobby Falk Group

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Bobby Falk Group The Bobby Falk Group

The Bobby Falk Group

Photo By Paul Moffett

The Bobby Falk Group The Bobby Falk Group

His band, the Bobby Falk Group, recently began a year-long stint of regular gigs at Merlot's at Fourth Street Live downtown, and it is the culmination of a number of years of study and work, sweat and tears. It's also the signal of more to come.

Falk, 30, is also a family man who teaches music in between his myriad other projects and commitments. And his plan is to record a live album of originals later this year as a follow-up to his 2006 debut, Turning the Tables. You know, when he's not talking about boxing.

In the meantime, though, he hopes people appreciate good jazz more than Foreman believed when he made that statement.

"I really love" the Merlot's gig, he said. "It's a steady gig, every Friday and Saturday the rest of the year. That's pretty insane that's like the best jazz gig in town. It might be the best jazz gig we've ever had in Louisville, for anything steady."

His goal? To simply bring some good music jazz and more to downtown. And it's friendly jazz, at that; Duke Ellington described jazz as "like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with." Falk's brand isn't quite so threatening.

"We're a very versatile band; we can notch it up a it or notch it down," he said. "It's not just jazz it's everything, rock and pop stuff. You have to do that for the patron, and we love doing that. It's pop covers with a jazz edge to it."

Asked about the repertoire, Falk drops quite a wide range of names: Billy Joel, Elton John, Ray Charles, Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, the Beatles yes, a jazz version of "Eleanor Rigby" is a set staple. The combo is even working up a Michael Jackson cover.

"All the stuff that you like," Falk said with a grin.

But there are also plenty of jazz standards and a handful of original tunes thrown in each night so as not to put off the purists. Still, Falk gets that it's about the audience. It's entertainment, after all, and rotating the set list is just part of what keeps things feeling fresh he also rotates not only the players, but the types of instruments being played. If you show up to a Bobby Falk Group gig, you'll see a quartet, but there may be an electric bass or a standup bass, and you never quite know what horn or player might be standing in that night.

"One night I will have electric bass, one night I will have upright bass for a more classic jazz sound," he said. "Sometimes we switch out guitar with keyboard. We're also doing a rotation of saxophone and trumpet.

"If you have just that one band all the time it might get stale for the management and the patrons and for us too. It works out with our schedules too. We're all family people, you know? I know a network of people, working musicians that I like to use, and that's what I draw from."

And there are plenty of them, all of whom Falk regards highly.

On saxophone, Ryan Sanders and Luke Barker take turns. Both are Louisvillians and currently enrolled in jazz studies at the University of Louisville. On trumpet and flugelhorn are Kevin Sparks and Kris Eans. Eans lived in Massachusetts for a time and performed on cruise ships; he now performs with V-Groove and Caribou (of whom Barker is also a member).

Sparks, meanwhile, travels between Lexington, Louisville and Chicago, using the River City as a kind of middle point. "He's a wonderful musician," Falk said of Sparks, "and he gets a really good sound. He's very good with the pop stuff."

Guitarist John Arstingstall who Falk calls "great" and "amazing" is in the U of L School of Music masters program, while Wade Honey is the main keyboard player in Falk's combo. Honey, a converted trumpeter, and Falk have known each other for years, having been U of L's jazz program together.

Jenna Mattingly and Stacey Nash rotate on bass. Falk and Mattingly attended U of L together, while Nash is currently in the master's program there. "They're great," Falk said.

JAZZ FAMILY

Falk's father is Gary Falk, who owns and operates Falk Audio in Louisville. He's a long-time jazz sax player, having played around town for 45 years in various bands, and currently performing with Gayle King, Steve Crew and others. Bobby's mother is a musician as well.

The younger Falk full admits that his love for jazz stems from growing up "in a musical household with the Falks especially with the studio; I was always in that environment. It was a jazzy environment. There were jazz records everywhere and drums everywhere."

"Bobby has been part of it his whole life," Gary Falk said. "He started out wanting to do rock 'n' roll, listening to Van Halen and stuff. I came home one day, and he was playing a Maynard Ferguson album, and I thought, ‘Oh golly, he's seen the light.'"

Bobby Falk got started with the school band at Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

"I was on snare drum and percussion and stuff," he said. "I really did well with that, made all-county and all-state bands through middle and high school."

He then got into the jazz band through YPAS (Youth Performing Arts School) while attending high school at Manual. He graduated in 1999, he said, and, "that's where my own jazz thing starts.."

Falk noted that, like so many jazz musicians, he has always been influenced by Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, among many others. "That's where my jazz roots are," he said. "I'm a purist at heart, even though what I do with the music varies and changes."

He took his purist heart to U of L on a scholarship, where he perfected his skills, graduating in 2005 with a bachelor of arts in jazz studies, with an emphasis in percussion. "U of L has an amazing jazz program, so I was there almost six years," he said. "I played in all the jazz bands and combos, all the great stuff they have there. I really learned a lot and that's where I honed the craft of it more seriously. I studied the music and worked on my drum chops."

He spoke of that time being a "studious" time in his life, in which he voraciously studied drums and learned everything he could, gathering knowledge that went deeper than simply setting a beat or playing a song. Perhaps that gave Falk an "intensified feeling of nonchalance" which is how French writer Francoise Sagan described jazz because he started playing professionally after that.

His father Gary noted that Bobby also spent a lot of time jamming. "He was always putting together these jam sessions," the elder Falk said, noting that it was almost a mirror of his own process of growing as a musician. "I was just like him. I was doing all the stuff he does."

THE NEXT STEP

"I started working around as a drummer or I started gigging, maybe that's the word," Falk said. "After a while I started to write more tunes. It was a lot of good stuff I was writing, if I may say so myself. I started to know the sound I wanted, and who I wanted to use, so I got lot of gigs around town. It's just built and built."

For five years, he was a regular at the Jazz Factory, which closed in 2008. He also played regularly at River Bend Winery, as well as everywhere from the Hideaway Saloon to outdoor shows at QDoba on Bardstown Road. Falk and his group have also played their share of weddings and events along the way as well.

Along the way, Falk found a love for teaching as well as playing. In addition to family duties and spending quality time with his young sons, Samuel and Oscar, and his wife Anne, he finds time to teach drum lessons at Music Go Round on Hurstbourne Lane, and also teaches music to children at Kentucky School for the Blind. Sometimes it seems he barely has time to eat or sleep, let alone play music.

"It's hard," he said. "(But) family is a good balance for all these gigs and stuff. It can be a hard line of work; it gets you down a lot. It can be taxing and frustrating the highs are very high and the lows are very low. But I am very lucky, I would say. I have a great family."

As for his job with School for the Blind where he currently works with fifteen drummers and through which he also volunteers as a Scoutmaster Falk said, "I really love it. It's the best job I've ever had. It's a great program, and I love what we're doing there."

Certainly, he's instilling his forms of jazz in up-and-coming players, but he has more in the offing.

"The last year or so, I've had my best gigs ever, and it's been nice," Falk said. "I might have reached the peak here, as far as bringing my brand of jazz to the patrons (of Louisville)."

So what's next?

"If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know." That's how Louis Armstrong summed it up. It's a bit ironic that Armstrong, the legendary jazz trumpeter and singer, was just as vague as George Foreman when talking about the great American art form. But then, that's jazz. It's interpretive and subjective, which is a big part of why it is individual and enduring.

And thus, following Turning the Tables in 2006, Falk wants to record more original music. The first album was, of course, recorded at Falk Studios "I got the family discount," he said with a laugh and four or five songs from it are still in the band's live rotation. But he envisions the next album as a live project.

"It's time for another one, because the band has changed, obviously, and there's more tunes," he said. "It's better now, more honest, and I'm a better player now. I would like to do a live album I think that's where it's at, especially in jazz, where the art form kind of thrives in the moment."

"He pounds the pavement like crazy," Gary Falk said. "I'm amazed at the jobs he gets. Bobby's doing great He doesn't need his old man. He s so resourceful, he's going to make it no mater what. I'm proud of him."

Look for the live album to start taking shape in late summer or early fall 2011. Meanwhile, though, he's going to enjoy the ride, with a full slate of summer gigs, plenty of students to teach, and a family to tend to. The good news is, he feels right at home doing it all.

"It's a reflection of Louisville," he said of his current good fortune. "That's why I love Louisville. The music scene comes and goes, but it's great right now. But it is what you make it, and I love it here."