The Chad Eby Quintet to Play the Crown
Music and memory can get intertwined in powerful ways. Greensboro-based saxophonist, composer, bandleader and educator Chad Eby booked the upcoming gig for his quintet at the Crown at Carolina Theatre and realized that the date, Jan. 26, was pretty close to the day that his father passed away from cancer, 25 years ago. Like most of us who’ve lost loved ones, Eby thinks about the date pretty much each year when it passes. “It still resonated,” he said. But Eby got a creative spark this time, marking 25 years since his father’s passing.
“That just got me thinking about how much my parents supported me when I was young,” Eby said. “I tend to do projects for my gigs because it forces me outside of what’s easy. It forces me to think outside of the box a little bit.”
The Crown has become a regular spot for Eby and his groups of varying sizes. For this gig, partly because of the date, Eby settled on a project that related to his parents and how they fostered his interest in music.
“My parents were avid jazz listeners,” said the 44-year-old, who grew up in Iowa, where jazz and African-American culture weren’t necessarily pervasive. “You’re literally surrounded by 99.999 percent white people. That’s no joke.”
Eby thought back on long car trips with his parents, listening to music of the era that his father had dubbed onto cassettes, everything from light folk to bebop.
His father was a musician, having played horn in the military in the 1960s, which might explain how the elder Eby came to be a jazz fan. Pulling songs from those parts of his parents’ record collection — Eby has most of the old albums at his home now — wasn’t too much of a stretch for his band; much-loved tunes by Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck were natural fits. (Members of Eby’s quintet took to the project, some of them having experienced similar losses recently.) Eby’s band features Brandon Lee (trumpet), Ariel Pocock (piano and vocals), Steve Haines (bass), and Daniel Faust (drums). Some of the other non-jazz material may have required a little more mental flexibility. Eby isn’t keen to tip his hand about all of the non-standard songs that he and his band have worked up into the jazz-quintet setting for this event, but he’s confident that some of the songs will show up on future setlists.
“I do think that some of these surprise-type tunes are gonna stick in my repertoire,” he said.
In exploring the reaches of his parents’ record collection and seeing what worked with horns, there were some experiments that didn’t quite pan out. A jazz version of a country-pop hit by the Statler Brothers didn’t prove manageable for instance, Eby said. In his role as an educator, Eby is a frequent and energetic proponent of the doomed attempt, falling on your face, as a way of pushing artistic growth. So even those dead ends were part of the process.
“We have to fail many many times in order to find success,” he said.
Eby, who is also the artistic director of the Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra, in addition to teaching at University North Carolina Greensboro’s Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program, has demonstrated wide-ranging sensibility as a bandleader and composer. He’s recorded tunes by avant-garde-defining composers like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, and bold pieces by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and Thelonious Monk. He’s also arranged songs by Tom Waits. Eby did an album that was inspired in part by the poetry of Shel Silverstein, the artist, author and songwriter who wrote songs made famous by Johnny Cash, Dr. Hook and Medicine Show, and Bobby Bare. Eby used the phrasing and rhythmic twists of Silverstein’s poetry for children as a springboard for compositional ideas.
The test, for Eby, is ultimately about whether something feels right.
“I’m willing to play anything that makes sense coming out of my instrument,” Eby said.
One thing that made a lot of sense coming out of Eby’s tenor sax was a lovely expressive and velvety solo interpretation of Duke Ellington’s majestic “The Single Petal of a Rose,” from The Queen’s Suite, a long-form composition that Ellington wrote for Queen Elizabeth II. Eby’s version, featured on his 2010 album Broken Shadows, is full of dynamic, breathy color, elegant vertical climbs and graceful slides. Balancing the traditional and the forward-pushing is something Eby does particularly well with his groups. His 2010 album New Business opens with the Miles Davis composition “Frelon Brun,” a piece of destabilizing grooviness from the era of Davis’s career that straddled acoustic foundations and hinted at the groundbreaking electric jazz that was just ahead.
Eby is busy, mapping out connections to the past and paths of the future, expounding on the continuum of the music in his jazz history class. He’s also preparing for a Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra concert in March that will celebrate the music of Wayne Shorter. And one of Eby’s percolating compositional projects involves music inspired by Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos. The cosmic perspective presented by the astronomer, which Eby was exposed to as a teenager, changed his outlook.
“It sort of blew my mind,” Eby said.
Teaching young musicians have related mind-expanding qualities for Eby, who’s been on the faculty at UNCG since 2006.
“My students regularly give me a new perspective,” Eby said.
See the Chad Eby Quintet at The Crown at Carolina Theatre, 310 South Greene St., Greensboro, Friday, Jan. 26 at 8 p.m. $15.