You might be surprised at how territorial musicians can be when it comes to defining what jazz “is” or “is not.” For some, combining jazz with rock, funk and/or hip-hop elements amounts to pure sacrilege, while for others, standard ballads of the 1930s and '40s are unbearably corny and irrelevant. But jazz has always been defined by its plasticity—even the most traditional of traditionalists have always been hip to the non-traditional, you dig?
This Sunday at Ovations Night Club, pianist and singer Henry Darragh and bassist Glen Ackerman give all of this jazz policing the finger with their concert “Henry vs. Glen,” a show Ackerman describes as “an unholy alliance of two dichotomies of the jazz experience.”
For the first time, audiences will get to hear Darragh’s sublime take on so-called straight-ahead jazz, with original songs that harken back to Sinatra-era swing. This is programmed opposite Ackerman’s “space-age fusion,” where the ghosts of bebop ride the dinosaurs of prog-rock.
The backing band combines musicians drawn from Darragh and Ackerman’s working groups: The “Henry Horns,” featuring Dennis Dotson on trumpet, Andre Hayward on trombone, Woody Witt on alto saxophone and Seth Paynter on tenor saxophone, and the “Glenious Rhythm Section,” with Paul Chester on guitar, Ackerman on bass and Joel Fulgham on drums. Darragh will sing and commandeer the piano for his set before switching to keyboards to tackle Ackerman’s knuckle-busting fusion. Born out of a long friendship and the deep respect each has for the other's music, this collaborative concert is a first for Darragh and Ackerman. “It’s not my gig, and it’s not Glen’s gig,” says Darragh, “it’s our gig.”
Born in Pasadena, Darragh arranged music for the high school marching band, composed his first songs and studied the smooth, sentimental sounds of Glen Miller Orchestra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. He started gigging in Houston at 17 and quickly earned a reputation for sophisticated, sometimes humorous compositions, and gentle, yet swinging style of singing, similar to Bob Dorough, Michael Franks and Mose Allison.
“If I have an advantage,” says Darragh, “it’s that I sing, and that is more relatable to people who aren’t heavy jazz-heads.” He’s even had listeners tell him with no trace of irony, “I don’t like jazz, but I like your music.”
“I think Henry captures the traditional jazz element more than I do,” says Ackerman. “He has a non-traditional vein, but you can really hear the history (of jazz) in his playing.”
Ackerman grew up in Rio Grande Valley, another musically arid area of Texas. In his teens, he picked up the electric guitar, listened to FM radio, and fortuitously, stumbled across a copy of Return to Forever’s 1976 album Romantic Warrior, a majestic jazz-fusion masterpiece featuring keyboardist Chick Corea and shred-meister guitarist Al Di Meola.
“From the very first note, it blew my mind,” says Ackerman. “It was like all the things I loved about Yes or King Crimson, but there was no singer! Nobody warbling on about birds or mountains or whatever.” Hearing fusion led Ackerman “back in time” to Corea’s more straight-ahead acoustic recordings, which in turn got him listening to bebop and earlier styles of jazz. He and Darragh would eventually meet as students at the University of Houston playing in the Moores School of Music Jazz Orchestra.
While Muhammad Ali went to great lengths to belittle and freak out his opponent before a big match, Darragh and Ackerman are a little more chill. Not only are they best friends, they also share a deep respect for the others’ music.
“Playing Glen’s music makes me a better player,” says Darragh matter-of-factly. “All of the odd time signatures—that’s what he hears, and it makes sense. Glen also writes good, strong melodies. If his music was just hard and fast, it wouldn’t be interesting to me.”
When asked to describe Darragh’s music, Ackerman turns serious.
“You can hear the impression of a person in the music they play,” explains Ackerman. “Henry has some dark patches in his past, and some heartfelt emotions that are uniquely his. There’s a kind of soft, muted intensity about him, and I can hear that in his music.”
No matter who is left standing at the end of Sunday night’s bout one thing’s for sure: Darragh and Ackerman are gonna keep on swinging.
Henry vs. Glen: An epic jazz battle. Sunday, July 23, at 6 p.m. Tickets from $8. Ovations Night Club. 2536 Times Blvd. 713-522-9801. More info at ovationsnightclub.com.