Sunday, November 7, 2010

Music feature: Guitarist Rodgers pays homage to the masters of jazz

Guitarist Bobby Lee Rodgers.

By Bill Meredith

Atlanta-born guitarist and vocalist Bobby Lee Rodgers‭ (‬‭) ‬spent much of the past decade fronting The Codetalkers,‭ ‬a group he founded with former Aquarium Rescue‭ ‬Unit leader Col.‭ ‬Bruce Hampton.‭ ‬The band was a pop-rock vehicle for Rodgers‭’‬ quirky songwriting,‭ ‬playing and vocals,‭ ‬all of which showed only glimpses of his deep jazz background.

But his recent Green Room Jazz Sessions series has him wading into the deep end of the jazz pool.

The‭ ‬42-year-old Rodgers started the monthly jazz tribute shows in September at the Green Room in Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬tackling the music of Miles Davis.‭ ‬The one-Thursday-a-month series continued on Oct.‭ ‬28‭ ‬with material by Wes Montgomery.‭

This month,‭ ‬he‭’‬ll take on John Coltrane with his trio partners,‭ ‬Don Coffman‭ (‬bass‭) ‬and Pete Lavezzoli‭ (‬drums‭)‬.‭ ‬December will feature Rodgers‭’‬ original jazz compositions‭; ‬January is Thelonious Monk month,‭ ‬and the six-month series concludes in February with songs by a variety of jazz legends.

‭“‬I‭’‬m playing music by my heroes,‭”‬ Rodgers says,‭ “‬digging up some tunes that I haven‭’‬t played in a‭ ‬while,‭ ‬and have hardly‭ ‬ever played in public before.‭ ‬I‭’‬m trying to stay within the traditional and artistic styles‭ ‬of these guys while still being myself.‭ ‬It‭’‬s really pushing me,‭ ‬but I hope it helps people realize that you can have an original voice while playing these great compositions.‭ ‬These guys are where I get my inspiration from,‭ ‬so it‭’‬s a blessing to be able to‭ ‬play this music.‭”

Considering that he taught jazz improvisation at Berklee,‭ ‬Rodgers certainly knows the language.‭ ‬But he creates his own dialect,‭ ‬in part,‭ ‬by playing a vintage‭ ‬1949‭ ‬Gibson‭ ‬125‭ ‬guitar through a‭ ‬1966‭ ‬Fender Super Reverb amplifier.‭ ‬The fact that he also plays through an Echoplex and a Leslie‭ ‬145‭ ‬cabinet‭ ‬– with its whirling speaker,‭ ‬and usually associated with a Hammond organ‭ ‬– practically qualifies as speaking in tongues.

‭ “‬By listening to people like Wes,‭ ‬James Brown and‭ [‬organist‭] ‬Jimmy‭ ‬Smith,‭ ‬I‭’‬ve been able to develop a different sound,‭”‬ Rodgers says.‭ “‬It's up to me to project my own voice while playing the great jazz material in this series,‭ ‬because that‭’‬s what the composers and interpreters in the series did.‭ ‬Wes,‭ ‬to me,‭ ‬was the greatest,‭ ‬and I think he‭’‬d agree that you have to be yourself.‭ ‬But if he had gone to music school,‭ ‬they would‭’‬ve told‭ ‬him not to play with his thumb.‭”

The‭ ‬jazz tribute series was Rodgers‭’‬ idea,‭ ‬and if he has his way,‭ ‬it‭’‬ll be the first of several at different venues.‭ ‬The Green Room,‭ ‬located next-door to the popular Revolution Live concert venue in Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬was happy to accept his initial offer.

‭“‬When Bobby approached us about the idea,‭ ‬we thought it was a perfect concept for the ambiance and intimacy of‭ ‬our space,‭”‬ says Green Room owner Jeff John.‭ “‬The jazz audiences in South Florida are underserved,‭ ‬and to have a program like this,‭ ‬with a performer the caliber of Bobby Lee Rodgers,‭ ‬is just awesome.‭”

Rodgers‭’‬ initial jazz inspiration came courtesy of his high school band teacher,‭ ‬Melvin Hodges.‭ ‬He then studied jazz and classical music at the University of Georgia before becoming one of the youngest jazz professors ever,‭ ‬at age‭ ‬23,‭ ‬at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.‭ ‬He taught there for five years‭ ‬before he returned to Atlanta,‭ ‬met Hampton,‭ ‬and formed The Codetalkers.

‭“‬In‭ ‬my heart,‭ ‬I felt that jazz wasn‭’‬t what I wanted to do at that time,‭”‬ Rodgers says.‭ “‬Plus,‭ ‬I wanted to get some work,‭ ‬and there didn't seem to be much of that playing jazz.‭ ‬I wanted to write songs for a rock band that could open up live the way a jazz soloist does.‭”

With The Codetalkers,‭ ‬he succeeded,‭ ‬which is part of the reason the group became such a success on the fusion-friendly jam band circuit.‭ ‬Transferring that energy into the studio proved more of a challenge on the group's three CDs,‭ ‬but it succeeded on the stellar‭ ‬2006‭ ‬Collard Green Records release‭ ‬Now.‭ ‬Rodgers also self-released his‭ ‬2004‭ ‬one-man solo debut‭ ‬Mercury Retrograde,‭ ‬a mix of pop,‭ ‬folk and bluegrass.‭ ‬His new solo self-release,‭ ‬Overdrive,‭ ‬is more of a team effort,‭ ‬featuring guitarist Jimmy Herring‭ (‬formerly of Aquarium Rescue Unit‭; ‬now with Widespread Panic‭)‬,‭ ‬keyboardist Ike Stubblefield and drummer Marcus Williams.

‭“‬ ‘Overdrive‭’‬ is a rock record,‭”‬ Rodgers says,‭ “‬but it‭’‬s also kind of a transition into jazz.‭ ‬I‭’‬m recording lots of different stuff now,‭ ‬with the idea of just having fun with it.‭ ‬There‭’‬s jazz stuff‭; ‬rock,‭ ‬and other instrumentals,‭ ‬so there might be more records out relatively soon.‭ ‬I just want it all to‭ ‬sound really live,‭ ‬since I feel like the whole business of recording has gotten too much into the art of it.‭ ‬That‭’‬s part of what inspired me to just go back to a trio,‭ ‬and to be responsible for the music.‭ ‬Playing jazz is kind of cleansing.‭ ‬It's cleaning me out.‭”

The fact that that process has brought him south from Georgia is clearly South Florida‭’‬s gain.

‭“‬I'm splitting time between Atlanta,‭ ‬Savannah and South Florida,‭ ‬because I have so many gigs down here now,‭”‬ Rodgers says.‭ “‬This series if both fun and‭ ‬challenging for me,‭ ‬since it‭’‬s not something you just pull off.‭ ‬I'm having to woodshed all this Coltrane stuff now,‭ ‬like‭ ‬‘Giant Steps,‭’‬ because you really have to figure out who you are before you can play through it.‭ ‬Otherwise,‭ ‬you'll sound like a chump.

‭“‬When you listen to Miles or‭ ‬‘Trane,‭ ‬Wes or Monk,‭ ‬you realize that those guys were in the zone.‭ ‬That's where I want to be,‭ ‬no matter what style I‭’‬m playing.‭ ‬This is music to learn from,‭ ‬listen to,‭ ‬and pay homage to.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a deep experience to play through‭ ‬it.‭"

The‭ ‬Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio‬plays the music of John Coltrane on Nov.‭ ‬18‭; ‬Rodgers‭’‬ own jazz compositions on Dec.‭ ‬16‭;‬ Thelonious Monk tunes on Jan.‭ ‬20‭;‬ and a variety of jazz classics Feb.‭ ‬24.‭ ‬All shows begin at‭ ‬7:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬at the Green Room,‭ ‬100‭ ‬S.W.‭ ‬Third Ave.,‭ ‬Fort Lauderdale‭ (‬$15,‭ ‬954-449-1030,‭ ‬‭)‬.‭ ‬A wine tasting and hors d'oeuvres precede each show at‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.

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