Aces of vintage jazz and '50s rock 'n' roll

I've come to see live music as an activity that owes its continued existence to the support of relatively small groups of dedicated enthusiasts who decide to make it a priority in their lives.

It just seems like the law of supply and demand doesn't fully account for the existence of bar bands and clawhammer banjo acts. On some level, both performers and audience members view music as labor of love. Paying small cover charges and buying self-produced CDs is almost like making a charitable contribution to the arts.

As a thought experiment, imagine the role of music throughout human history. It stands to reason that the vast majority of all music that has ever been performed or consumed on the face of the Earth was created in real time — for audiences by definition no larger than the audible radius of unamplified acoustic instruments. Music has been, for performers and listeners alike, not a product to be consumed so much as a group activity to be experienced.

That said, it's hard for a lot of us to get out and see live music. We have work in the morning. We have kids. We don't drink and drive. The obstacles are plenty. In the past I've been through long phases of hardly ever going out to hear music. Lately I just force the issue and make the time. Sometimes I am only able to stay long enough to hear a few songs, but it's almost always worth the effort.

Over the past six months or so I've spent occasional Sunday and Monday evenings listening to jazz at The Playwright in Ashland. The Sunday shows start at 5 p.m. and alternate each week between guitarist Ed Dunsavage's band and a duo called Hartsmith — a collaboration between guitarists Bil Leonhart and Cyd Smith. The Monday night shows start at 7 p.m. and alternate each week between the Paul Turnipseed Trio and Stellar By Starlight, a band featuring Cyd Smith, saxophonist Dennis Friese and drummer Mike Whipple.

One of my favorite things about these early-evening shows at The Playwright is that the place is a restaurant where I can bring my kids. I understand that young children aren't always appropriate audience members, but I always love the opportunity to bring them to kid-friendly venues. If they become loud or disruptive, we can always leave.

The last few times I've been to The Playwright happened to be on Monday nights that found the Paul Turnipseed Trio onstage. I've really gotten a lot out of listening to them play. The last time I saw him, Turnipseed played a hollow-bodied Ibanez guitar through a Fender Twin-Reverb amplifier. He didn't use any digital effects. He just plugged a cool guitar into a cool amp.

The amplifier is the best of mid-1960s electric guitar technology. In its day, it made possible everything from the surf guitar sound of players like Dick Dale to the country pedal-steel playing on old Merle Haggard records and the smooth tones of a Fender Rhodes electric piano as heard on recordings by bands such as Steely Dan. Turnipseed uses it to play those cool jazz chord progressions with their embedded runs of melody and harmony lines. It sounds great.

Every time I've seen the band, Mike Fitch has been on the drums. Most times I've seen them, Jeff Addicott has played bass, although this last time Bruce McKern was in his stead. When the early show ends at 9 p.m., Turnipseed sometimes carries his guitar down the street to Alex's to sit in with the Robbie DaCosta Trio at their regular Monday night gig.

I recently witnessed a great show in that venue when DaCosta and drummer Tom Stamper were playing without a bass player (something they have long been willing to do when necessary). DaCosta's guitar playing lends itself to this bassless arrangement more than that of most guitarists. He plays elaborate (and seemingly effortless) guitar parts that often have bass lines incorporated into them. Stamper completes the illusion of a phantom bass player, using (I think) the kick drum to accentuate and deepen the bass lines DaCosta plays on his guitar.

The Monday night in question, Turnipseed showed up midway through the second set and joined in. He went straight from playing jazz chords to playing along with DaCosta's staggeringly large repertoire of '50s rock 'n' roll. I loved it as an impromptu demonstration of how the exact same guitar tone — made by the same instrument played through the same amplifier — can be used to play entirely different sounding music. In both cases it sounded appropriately vintage to the songs.

Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at

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