Point of Departure: James Buckley Trio at the Red Stag

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As I'm writing this, I am, no joke, drinking an Old Fashioned, listening to jazz, and reading poetry. The James Buckley Trio (James Buckley [bass], Bryan Nichols [keys], and J.T. Bates [drums]) aren't currently working in their accustomed vein of loose-limbed, sonically adventurous, melodically solid music.

They are playing, of all things, a standard: "Round Midnight" by Thelonious Monk. While chatting with Buckley not ten minutes before they began their set, he said they were going to play a little "in" tonight, and I mentioned the tune. It's Nichols' 30th birthday, and Bates and Buckley are both coming out of a long summer day of grilling and chilling. Something traditional--an Old Fashioned, some Thelonious Monk--just feels right.

The Red Stag tonight is not so much red as a thick raw umber and orange. It's a wide open space that lets the music seep into the corners. Couples talk at two-tops, people at the bar either lean in towards each other or turn their stools out towards the room and the band, the three musicians cut like cameos against a black curtain that covers half the kitchen.

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Photo by Sasha Z. Bates
The James Buckley Trio (l-r) - Bryan Nichols, James Buckley, and J.T. Bates
Buckley's navigating the waters of a meandering solo between Bates' gentle encouragement and Nichols' cushy, understanding electric piano chords. As a solo statement, bass solos are of a class unto themselves, a moment when the foundation of the music shifts to the foreground. Each movement of the bassist's fingers seems to push the song in a new direction, rather than sailing across the top of it like a saxophone, a trumpet, or pretty much anything else. A bass solo is the great big rotors of the ship steering the boat in a new direction.

It is and will always remain something of a wonder that a musician as far out on the edge as Monk was could write a melody as beautiful and straight ahead as "Round Midnight." Miles Davis always called it "Round About Midnight," even named an album after it in 1957, although Davis is only one of hundreds to make the tune his own. I'm partial to Grant Green's version from 1961's Green Street. I don't think I've truly listened to it in years, its fragility the source of its durability.

It's not all in, though. Following the Monk tune, they move on to territory further west of the standards, with Bates banging his floor tom into his snare and rattling the sticks across their frames, pushing his hands into their skins, sometimes rising up from his stool to get a better angle on his cymbals. Despite all this, the three players pull back and pause together as the head of the tune returns. For all the music's complexity, they treat it simply, and look the part; any of these guys walking down the street dressed like they are would not be mistaken for a jazz musician. Bates wears a white T-shirt, jeans, and beat-up little black canvas hat; Buckley sports a secondhand flannel shirt; Nichols is the most dressed up, but that only means a short-sleeved Oxford.

But then again, that's the real beauty of jazz--you don't need a beret to enjoy it. An Old Fashioned is just a tasty drink; poetry is just poetry; jazz is just music, a means of expression, an excellent way to spend a Wednesday night.

The James Buckley Trio plays the Red Stag again on Wednesday, September 2 and Sunday, September 13.

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