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1 club, 2 Mikes and 8 feet

Hiatus ends for Fourth Avenue as swinging sounds return

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There’s an old joke that proprietors of jazz clubs secretly share with each other but only reluctantly enjoy with the public. During an interview with a veteran tenor sax player, the question was asked, “What made you go into jazz?” His reply: “Well, man, I hate big crowds.”

Whether that tenorist is fictional or real, he’d better not seek any gigs at Ben Moore’s Restaurant in Olympia. Owner Michael Murphy has apparently hit upon a formula that proved successful many years ago and now guarantees huge crowds of jazz lovers on Saturday nights. Perhaps we should say music lovers, to be semantically correct. Re-launched in October, not every group, singer or instrumentalist in Murphy’s weekly showcase may be considered jazz by purists. But that seems to be of little concern to Murphy and his expanding fan base, and particularly to another Mike, Michael Olson, who books the talent well in advance.

Olson is living proof of the confusion that exists with the mere definition of jazz. He “sort of” fronts a quartet called Ocho Pies (PEE-ess) which means Eight Feet — the regulation number for any quartet — but what Ocho Pies plays is quite a “feat:” emblematic of the subtle nuances among labels that divide and confuse the jazz community. He claims his quartet plays Caribbean jazz. Caribbean may form the rhythmic core of its repertoire, with most of the flavor decidedly Cuban, but the geographical designation is too limiting. They reach out to Africa and South America.

The word “jazz” is a poor fit, yet they improvise once the melody has been established. But there is no commitment to swinging, and that’s the most essential ingredient in jazz. With the accent on exotica, their overall sound is closer to the more recent phenomenon, world music.

Whatever they create with various percussive combinations, the results are always pleasing, often sensuous, at times capable of conjuring up moments of Zen, thanks to the hypnotic power of repetition.

The reason I said Olson “sort of” leads the quartet is because from his seated position in front of three conga drums, he introduces virtually all of the tunes. However, one of the two guitarists, Steve Luceno (an excellent stand-up jazz bassist), told me that technically, “the group is leaderless.” The other guitarist is Paul Hjelm (think Yelm; the “h” is silent.) And the final member is the vocal/focal point, Connie Bunyer. She’s good-looking, shapely and versatile. She simply cannot stand still; her responses to the infectious music are balletic and sensual. Bunyer plays clavés with a laid-back syncopation that might throw a less-experienced vocalist: a tribute to her powers of concentration. She even manages to negotiate the tricky lines while strapped into an accordion. Musicians do the strangest things while “squeezing” out a living.

Clubs also try anything to stay alive — even jazz. When you think of Olympia, the two that conform to that picture are both on Fourth Avenue, just one block apart: Ben Moore’s and The Spar, about an eighth-note to the west. Linking the two is Mike Olson, who was booking weekly jazz into The Spar for five years until it reached its coda about a year ago. To be historically accurate, Ben Moore’s was swinging way back in the 1980s. Murphy, who’s been on the Oly scene for 23 years, has been a jazz booster since the previous millennium!

Now if only his venue was more condusive to the presentation of the art form. There’s nothing wrong with the food, drinks or service. And certainly no problem with the prices. Unlike Tacoma or Seattle clubs, there’s never a cover charge at Ben Moore’s. The most important negative is the lack of a stage for the musicians. Even though it’s heartening to see staff bringing in extra chairs for the overflow, it’s difficult for jazz lovers in back to see over and around each other.

Performers are confined to a corner of one of the restaurant rooms. Four spotlights are clustered above them, but only one has a bulb in it. No complaints about the sound system, but then, if you had to choose between sight and sound, it’s more important that the music be heard.


There’ll be plenty of good sounds scheduled for coming Saturdays:

  • Nov. 24: The New Smithfield Trio, with Dan Blunck, straight jazz

  • Dec. 1: Jim Pribbenow, jazz sax

  • Dec. 8: Tune Stranglers, old time swing

  • Dec. 15: Bert Wilson, sax master                                                   

  • Dec. 22: Bevy, women’s jazz septet

[Ben Moore’s, 9 p.m. to midnight Saturdays, 112 Fourth Ave. Olympia, 360.357. 7527]

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