A few years ago, the Flat Five String Band played a wedding at Mount Ashland. The four-piece, gypsy jazz ensemble arrived to find the reception venue was at the top of one of the ski runs — and that a chairlift would haul the band's instruments to the stage.
Halfway up the side of the mountain, violin player Linda Powers heard music. In the chair behind her, guitarist Bryan Miller and the band's former bass player, Brian Harris, had their instruments out and were playing their way to the top.
Flat Five was founded seven years ago, when Miller got together with guitarist Michael Hodgin and a mandolin player named Rob Sweeney and began learning to play Django Reinhardt songs. Reinhardt was a French, jazz guitarist and composer who pioneered European jazz in the '30s and '40s. Though there have been a few personnel changes, Miller and Hodgin have held weekly rehearsals since.
The latest lineup came together four years ago, when Powers joined the group. Bass player John Zalabak is the newest member with just under a year of service. Though the Reinhardt style is still a foundation of their sound, the group has broadened the spectrum of music from which it draws, playing tunes from the likes of Fats Waller and Cab Calloway along with obscure, old curiosities and, increasingly, original compositions.
Early on, no one wanted to sing. Rather than bring in a dedicated vocalist, Miller and Hodgin decided to develop their own singing voices. Through dedicated practice, they have taken something that once seemed a chore and turned it into a great strength. The two share vocal duties with Powers — and the combination of three distinct voices lends depth to an already rich and complex sound.
Hodgin is so entranced with learning vocal technique and singing harmony that he recently joined Rogue World Ensemble, a 30-member choir based in Ashland. He jokes that a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder may be essential for a musician developing his craft. This may be particularly true of the type of music that Flat Five plays.
Its music is upbeat, fast-tempo and danceable, characterized by complex, jazz chords and an infectious, swing rhythm. They play without a drummer, in the style of classic gypsy jazz combos. The steady, percussive strumming of the rhythm guitar takes on the role that a drummer would fill in a different kind of band. It is similar to the way that mandolin chord strumming keeps the beat in a bluegrass band.
Miller is the only member of the group who did not start out as a rock- and folk-guitar player. He credits Ashland's public schools with his start in music. He played tuba and saxophone in the schools' marching, concert and jazz bands. His father listened to jazz, so he grew up hearing it.
When a family friend introduced Miller to the music of Reinhardt, his academic music training already had provided enough of a foundation in music theory to understand how the songs worked. The hard part for Miller was translating his knowledge from saxophone to guitar. Hodgin, on the other hand, was a self-described "three-chord guitar player" before he began learning to play swing tunes. This is fairly common among guitarists: They tend to come from more of a self-taught, folk tradition than do players of concert-band and orchestra instruments.
Without the foundation in music theory from a conventional, institutional music education, many guitar players are too intimidated to start down the road of learning to play jazz chords. Like lots of guitar players before and after him, Hodgin became frustrated trying to learn from the chord diagrams in jazz instructional books. The chords just sound weird and wrong to the untrained ear.
For Hodgin, the trick was to get out of the house and find people to play with who knew more than he did. He learned by immersion — with help from the aforementioned inclination toward obsessive-compulsive practice.
Powers took up the guitar as a teenager and moved steadily from rock and folk styles toward jazz. Along the way, she learned both banjo and fiddle — and spent a lot of time playing in bluegrass bands and old-time string bands. Eventually, she landed in Ashland, playing with Back Porch Swing Jazz — also influenced by Reinhardt — at Avalon Bar & Grill in Talent.
The Flat Five String Band plays at 8 p.m. Friday, March 29, at The Playwright Public House, 258 A St., Ashland.
Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.