Old and new hold court

by Jordan Green

Turner Battle, an imposing physical presence with a gentle and humorous demeanor is playing these spooky keyboard trills behind his rack next to the doorway at the Press Wine Café, Mike Hamuka’s contribution to upscale hipster culture at the gateway to Greensboro’s Southside neighborhood. There’s a steady trickle of traffic, and when the band breaks the crowd will spill onto the sidewalk under a curved Spanish wrought-iron balcony, the underside of which resembles a giant, gaudy merry-go-round.

For now, appreciative audience members recline in overstuffed vinyl couches and stand coolly in doorways and transit points regarding the players, as members of staff rush bottles of wine to tables.

The keyboard trills give the music a noir-ish quality that is enhanced by the trumpet playing of Mondre Moffett, director of the NC A&T University jazz band, who blows some pensive and foreboding runs. Then the song gradually plays out.

Just then, percussionist Michael Roberto, also a history teacher at A&T, begins to pat out a tentative construction on the congas, as if trying the music for his own ear before offering it to the audience.

Roberto’s intricate rhythmic pattern builds to an insistent samba beat, and Battle joins with some skittery-bop, weird-key Latin jazz. The drummer, Mike Pitts, lightly taps the beat. By now, two couples are sashaying in front of the band, filling the room with earthy, sensuous physicality.

Turner turbo charges the melodic line, tracing out modernistic, dissonant flourishes, and Roberto rises, switching to cowbell. Then he sits back down and signals an acceleration of the beat with the congas. Moffett is getting down, blowing squawks from his instrument. Pitts’ drumming pops with dynamism, and the trumpet player turns to pay his respects. One of the dancers starts shouting, and Battle begins to peck out several little plaintive queries on the keyboards. Then it’s over.

The bandleader, a Long Island transplant who’s been in Greensboro since 1980, displays a kind of underdog’s pride. He says he’s always played music since he picked up the bongos at age 9, gigging around and finding collaborators in the midst of academic studies, journalism, history studies and opinion writing.

“I’m almost sixty years old, and I’m coming up for tenure,” he says. “I’m the oldest adjunct right now. I’ve been out of academia for twenty years.”

His first job in Greensboro was reporting for the Carolina Peacemaker, and he later moved over to the copy desk at the News & Record, writing some opinion pieces on the side. He went back to Boston College, his alma mater, to pursue his doctorate in the mid-1990s, then later returned to Greensboro to be close to his two children. He finally finished his doctorate in 2001.

Music has been an abiding passion for Roberto.

“The decisive thing was when I was in my teens all my friends were listening to the Beatles,” he says. “I liked the Beatles, sure, but I was really into James Brown. R&B and funk were defining for me. Later, Santana and Gato Barbieri.”

Roberto’s parallel music career included a run with Charles Greene, a Winston-Salem guitar player who died in 2006. For more than a year, with a hiatus in late 2007, he’s had a monthly gig at the Press with the players he assembled. In addition to Battle and Pitts, there’s Leroy Roberson, who plays bass, and who is another Greene alumnus. Moffett, who followed his wife down to Greensboro after she was appointed senior pastor at St. James Presbyterian Church, has been in town almost three years.

“I came kicking and screaming, to be honest with you,” says Moffett, who comes from a prominent jazz family (his father, Charles, is known for his work with Ornette Coleman). “I did not want to come here. Why would I? I could play with all the best musicians in New York. I could fly to Europe.”

He’s warmed to North Carolina, and has taken it upon himself to nourish a more vibrant jam scene.

“When all is said and done, I could say all the great New York musicians are from here: Monk, Coltrane, Max Roach, Nina Simone,” Moffett says. “It’s a long list of great musicians.”

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