December 10. 2006
Don't know's on third: Jazz trio reserves spot for a guest
Tribune Staff Writer -- Howard Dukes
The occupant of the third spot in the jazz group The Merriman Trio is usually a mystery. For their gigs, drummer Stephen Merriman and his wife and upright bass player, Mary Merriman, reserve the group's third slot for a guest, usually a keyboard player or a saxophonist. Stephen Merriman says, however, that it doesn't matter what instrument the person in the third spot plays. He's more concerned with his or her philosophy."The guest artists that I bring in are people who play from the heart," Merriman says.
Pedal steel guitar player Dave Easley will occupy the third spot on Thursday, when The Merriman Trio kicks off the Merriman Playhouse Jazz Performance Series at Century Center. Easley had been based in New Orleans until last year's hurricanes forced him to flee. Since then, he has performed in New York City with another New Orleans evacuee, CoCo Robicheaux, and also has hooked up with musicians in South Carolina, Florida and back in New Orleans. Easley plays with many New Orleans bands and is a member of at least two, The Heartifacts and 3 Now 4. Easley is the leader of The Heartifacts. "Musical chairs," as he calls the practice of musicians playing several gigs with different bands, has long been a fact of life, especially in New Orleans. "We have a lot of musicians, and if you've been down there for a while, you get to know all of them and everybody plays with everybody," Easley says.
A musician might land a gig because somebody in his family happens to mention the musician's name to an acquaintance who also happens to be a band leader. That's how Easley landed the gig with The Merriman Trio.
Robert Easley, a University of Notre Dame professor and Dave Easley's brother, saw The Merriman Trio perform at Hip!Pocket. Stephen Merriman tunes pianos when he's not performing, and Robert Easley called the drummer when his piano needed tuning. "We talked, and that's when Rob mentioned that Dave played the pedal steel guitar and that Dave would be coming to the area," Merriman says.
The Merrimans thought that Easley would be a good guest musician to kick off the Merrimans' Playhouse Jazz Performance Series. Easley's stature as an artist with some national appeal made him attractive, but Merriman also sees the Playhouse series as a way to showcase music and artists area audiences might not hear. "The music I've done has always had more of an art appreciation aspect to it," Merriman says.
One thing Merriman does is differentiate between art and entertainment. Art, Merriman says, is about breaking new ground, where the artist strives to change the way audiences see music, visual art and literature. "The artist should lead the people and not the other way around," he says.
Merriman says Easley fulfills the role of artist-as-innovator on at least two levels. The drummer believes Easley opens eyes by using the pedal steel guitar as a jazz instrument. Even though Sol Hoopi, the man regarded as the greatest pedal steel guitar player, mixed jazz and blues with the music of his native Hawaii, the instrument is usually associated with country music and western swing music, Easley says. Using the pedal steel guitar in jazz makes audiences hear the music in a new way, Merriman says. "It's been traditionally used as a background instrument that provides atmospherics," he says. "Almost kind of a textural instrument." The instrument's twangy ethereal sound makes the pedal steel guitar an ideal instrument for an accompanist, Merriman says. Easley, however, uses pedal steel guitar as a lead instrument. Merriman says Easley has the skills to pull it off. "He's also brilliant. He reminds me of John Coltrane on the pedal steel," he says. That's high praise, but Merriman says it's warranted because Easley -- like Trane -- transformed the way his instrument's used.
At The Merriman Trio's Dec. 2 gig at Club LaSalle, Easley proved to be adept at improvising, and his solos brought to mind those of Stanley Jordan, a jazz fusion guitarist who became popular in the late 1980s through his use of the "touch" technique of guitar playing. The technique requires the guitarist to tap the strings instead of plucking or picking them. The so-called "touch" technique gives the guitar a keyboard sound, and Easley was able to create the same sound both as a soloist and accompanist. Easley's playing complemented the subtle style of the Merrimans, but the club atmosphere of the gig wasn't the best for showcasing the trio. Conversations often made it difficult to hear the music, but Thursday's performance at Century Center should benefit from the venue's concert setting being more appropriate for the group.
Staff writer Howard Dukes: