Like horse racing and boxing, jazz is one of those quintessentially American pastimes, the demise of which is constantly predicted and then subsequently proven wrong. Other flashier, easier modes of entertainment come along. But these art forms survive, as young people devote themselves to the craft. Connecticut jazz devotees, then, should keep an eye on Mike Casey. This month, Casey and his trio are releasing their debut album, The Sounds of Surprise: Live at The Side Door. The disc is a cause for celebration, as the trio of Mike Casey on sax, Matt Dwonszyk on bass and Corey Garcia on drums bring us a sound that is traditionalist in its orientation, adventurous in its efforts, and proud in its local flavor.
To be a true jazz fan — especially away from a big city like New York — is to feel like one is entering some sort of hidden fraternity, with a glorious past, a hidden present and an uncertain future. Star Wars fans might find that characterization instructive. Casey, an unabashed partisan of the Hartford jazz scene, has named one of the tunes on the new album “Dagobah,” after the swampy hideout where Luke Skywalker hones his craft as a Jedi. “In a sense, Hartford is the Dagobah of the jazz world. It’s halfway between New York and Boston. It’s got a long history of really excellent jazz, and in the current jazz scene … there’s a staggering amount of jazz for the size of the city,” Casey says. Casey and his band mates are all connected in some way to the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music, named for the late dean of the Hartford jazz world. (Casey and Dwonszyk are graduates, Garcia is in his senior year.)
Mike Casey Trio album release
March 2 | 7:30 p.m.
Black-Eyed Sally’s | 350 Asylum St., Hartford
Casey’s group is what’s known as a chordless trio, a less-than-common format that breaks from the chord-based structure of bands that have either a piano or guitar. Casey says that, in addition to McLean and other late Hartford stalwart bassist Paul Brown, sax player Sonny Rollins is another of his biggest influences, since he heard Rollins’ Freedom Suite record during his freshmen year at Hartt. “I saw the possibilities that Sonny was using on that album to write original music in that format, without harmony specifically. There’s harmony there, but it’s implied. … I just thought that was the coolest thing,” Casey says. The format is lean and mean, and for it to be successful, the various players have to have a particular confidence in their style.
Casey’s new album was recorded at The Side Door, the critically acclaimed Old Lyme club that has made a splash in the local jazz scene. The album was recorded in February 2016, and last month Casey and his trio made a triumphant return to a sold-out show in the purpose-built jazz club. Across a performance that runs well into the night, Casey, Dwonszyk and Garcia are ripping. They open with a medley of Charlie Parker standards, a nod to the traditionalist grounding of the trio, before lashing into several originals. Casey’s “Dagobah” — his Hartford love song — contains a concealed energy like a compressed coil. Garcia and Dwonszyk are fine players in their own right, and Casey is not afraid to let them take control in stretches of the song.
During a particularly creative and exciting arrangement of the Queen anthem “We Are the Champions,” it is clear the trio uses energy to great effect. The smile across Casey’s face is a good indicator he is pleased with how the tune went.
After the break, the pace quickens, with Casey switching from tenor to alto saxophone, the horn on which he feels more at home. It’s also free-flowing; the shots of Patrón tequila for Dwonszyk and Garcia at the bar during the intermission may have had an effect.
Those interested in hearing exciting, young jazz can check out the live trio March 2 at Black-Eyed Sally’s in Hartford, the official release show for the album. Perhaps as a testament to his love for the capital city, the show is a benefit for Hartford-based social entrepreneurship incubator RiseUp, hosted by up-and-coming Hartford rapper Tang Sauce. RiseUp Executive Director Matt Conway says the organization is geared toward working with youth in Hartford to start and operate their own businesses, focusing on those marginalized by poverty and past involvement in the criminal justice system. (Get tickets to the show here)
Conway and RiseUp couldn’t have found a music that fits better: a proud, scrappy local jazz trio, steeped in Hartford’s creative tradition.