Trumpeter James Barela has not lacked for motivation. In his early days, he used to drive 120 miles from his home in lonely Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Estes Park, Colorado, to sit in with jazz groups passing through town. Playing the changes was easy, but Barela, who’s been in Vegas for 10 years, was looking for something different, something modern. He was looking for material that he could “play a thousand times, a million times, and it still feels as fresh as the first time I played it.”
So, starting last year, he assembled Blu7, a jazz group diverse in ages—the youngest player is 30, the oldest 52—and background, with players coming from the Philippines, North Carolina, New Jersey and Detroit. The band includes drummer Mitch Anthony, guitarist EJ Delgado, keyboardist Rachel Delgado and bassist Fred Watstein, who joined because he lived in the home studio where Cultural Instigator, the band’s first album, was recorded.
“This setting, the music we play, pushes you to your limits, to think outside the box,” says Rachel Delgado.
Still, in a town where The Phantom of the Opera is presented as a 90-minute, get-’em-in-get-’em-out “spectacular,” jazz players must always guard against the cool elitism that seems to unfairly dog the music wherever it goes. So, despite the band’s confidence in its own chops, the first album is loaded with accessible melodies and in-the-pocket soloing. Just don’t call it smooth jazz. Go too accessible, and all your hard-won serious jazz cred is lost (and you find yourself opening for Kenny G).
Anchored by Barela’s steady, full trumpet, and borrowing bits and beats from world music and hip-hop, the album tries to navigate the space between too avant-garde and too commercial. The stew includes straight-ahead, radio-friendly jazz-funk (“Matador”), some laid-back neo bossa (“Caipirinha”) and sleek cuts for a rainy day (“Pooja”).
The band still sounds like it’s finding itself, finding a niche that provides an identity without robbing the musicians of their flexibility. Sometimes the band seems to shift gears only because it can—midway through tracks “Aimee” and “Leather,” a sitar drops in as if from another planet and completely takes over what had been mid-tempo grooves. But the CD’s closer, “If She Only Knew,” creates an unabashed sonic dreamscape of piercing solos, haunting guitar and shifting drum work. It recalls the angular, cool brand of funk of Steve Coleman, and points in an interesting direction.
Now if Blu7 can just find a home in Las Vegas, a town notoriously tough for jazz players. Venues are tough to find—the much-hyped Just Jazz club on Sahara is now called Square Apple and focuses on blues and R&B. The group had previously played Sonny’s Tavern and Vox; but the former closed and the band had a falling-out with the latter. Now, Blu7 is looking to hit the international jazz-festival circuit next year and is planning to release a new album next spring. In the meanwhile, the group hangs on, hoping to find a home in Vegas for their modern jazz crew. The group, Barela says, doesn’t want “to make jazz a novelty, nostalgia. It’s a living, breathing art form. It always was.”