The jazz world is roomy, with many corners to explore.
There's the academic scene, always looking to progress the game a step or two, wary of retracing steps and just fine with alienating a few listeners, thanks. There's also smooth jazz, hugely popular with mainstream listeners and best enjoyed during trips to the dentist.
Somewhere in between lurk the jam-band jazzers — purveyors of accessible, groove-oriented funk for ass-shaking and stretched-out, rock-influenced improvisations. They approach jazz with brains and libido. It will entertain the Cabernet-sipping night club set, but mostly it succeeds at animating throngs of stoned noodle-dancers.
The Isaac Young Quartet, who'll open for pianist Marco Benevento at Arch Street Tavern on Thursday, wear the patchouli proudly. But it wasn't necessarily a conscious decision to seek out the jam-band scene.
"I think it was more about the process of bridging the gap," Young told the Advocate by phone. "To me, I will in a heartbeat go to the [Village] Vanguard [in NYC], which you would probably consider a straight-ahead jazz show, something that's very much in the realm of what we consider 'jazz.' Then I'll go to a rock show, I'll go to a Phish show or a Rolling Stones show, or something like that. I'll still get off the same way with that same excitement, that same thrill."
Young, a 25-year-old New Britain resident, is currently riding a wave of local momentum. His Quartet — Young on saxophone and EWI (electronic wind instrument), guitarist Jesse Combs, bassist Jon Dostou and drummer Stephen Cusano — won for Best Jazz in the Advocate's Grand Band Slam competition earlier this year. They play all over New England. And they're in the process of recording a new studio album, to be released in late January, around the time they'll begin a regular Thursday-night residency at Arch Street Tavern.
"I wanted to find a happy medium to bridge the gap between the academic side of things," Young said, "where I could appeal to someone who grew up listening to Charlie Parker or Dexter Gordon, who really likes the tradition, the swing, and then appeal to a crowd that doesn't necessarily connect with jazz." Young sneaks it in, in other words, like a parent slipping broccoli into Mac and Cheese. "I'm taking this whole new perspective where you can accept it and understand it without ever having to say, 'That's bebop, this lick is this, that or whatever.'"
A Framingham, Mass. native and a classically trained pianist, Young was playing jazz by the time he was 14. He later attended the University of Hartford's Jackie McLean Institute, although he never studied with McLean. Seeing Phish changed things: "The influence of listening to Phish since I was a little kid and listening to the Dead, all those guys, watching that happen, watching that process of 20,000 people all there for the common purpose of sharing in the groove," he said.
Jam-band jazz runs the risk of slipping into Yellowjackets/Spyro Gyra territory, of crossing the border from smooth into Smooth. In the band, it's a running joke. "Is [smooth jazz] a style of music that I vibe with? No, but you have to respect it as a musician," Young said. "Clearly they're doing something that's personal to their aesthetic, their musical direction. But it is a fine line you have to toe. You don't want to be stretching into elevator music, this Kenny G-style thing where's there's a groove that's way too smooth. But you also don't want to go in the opposite direction where you're doing this very ethereal jazz where one in 20 people will really get it, or even less so."
They have frequent, open discussions about smoothness. "It's being very honest and open with each other, saying, 'Hey man, we're toeing that line a little much,'" Young said. Still, it's a mode they can shift into — for irony, perhaps. "But we wouldn't do it consciously. It's not the vibe we're going for. I can't stand that [smooth jazz] crap. I really can't."
The IYQ re-entered the studio at Middletown's Proscan Media last weekend for a second round of recording with engineer Rob Treloar, Young's collaborator for the last four years. They'd already completed a full day of tracking and planned to do another full eight-hour-plus push. The tunes are on the new album are road-tested, to make sure they work. But Young also believes the studio should never supplant the bandstand.
"The studio is a snapshot, a Polaroid of a certain moment," Young said. "In order to get the full picture, you need that series of pictures in order to string it all together... When we did our 2011 tour, every show was taped and we circulated them in small bits to people. But we always highly encourage people to bring a video camera, bring a small recorder, and then just post it on the Internet."
The slow pace in the studio, Young said, will pay off; he'd much rather have a polished product to present, one they're all proud of, than rush it along and end up with a recording they aren't 100 percent behind.
"Everyone is taking a really active role in the production and writing different parts or trying different things," Young said. "It's been such a remarkable process in the studio with these guys, even more so than in the past."
Follow @MikeHamad on Twitter