Missoula isn't on the map for many touring jazz acts. Fans of small-group jazz, particularly hard bop from the 1960s onward, should take note of Thursday's concert by the Black Art Jazz Collective.
The members, mostly based in New York City, released their second album last year, "Armor of Pride," which earned a four-star review from Downbeat jazz magazine.
Trumpet player Jeremy Pelt said the record continues the same philosophy of their debut, a celebration of African-American figures and culture.
"The concept of the group was to celebrate the richness of black history and black art in general, which is all-encompassing but just so happens to be in the medium of jazz as we're playing it, but it was there to celebrate the black figures that were very instrumental in the field, whether it be writing, whether it be music, whether it film, whether it be anything," he said in a phone interview. "It was really there to celebrate black culture and our triumphs, and to really — from a visual standpoint — just stand as six black musicians paying tribute to the art that was created by black people."
Their first album, "Presented by the Side Door Jazz Club," made those tributes explicit. Compositions, written by group members, were dedicated to individuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Barack Obama and Joe Henderson.
The tunes on "Armor of Pride," don't include those dedications, but some were written for specific people. For instance, Pelt wrote "Awuraa Amma" for his daughter. It's one of three gorgeous, slow-motion ballads that show off his rich tone and ear for melody. (The others are "And There She Was, Lovely As Ever" and "Pretty.") The title track and "Black Art," meanwhile, display the group's tight, whirlwind arrangements and soloing skills.
The New York Times wrote that "[t]his sextet of straight-ahead adepts builds upon the postbop language of the 1960s — what you might recognize from Miles Davis’s second great quintet or Joe Henderson’s first few Milestone albums. There is a sense of shared pursuit here; the group often rearranges its component parts, cycling through grooves and trading lead roles."
The group will play here through the Downtown Dance Collective, which has partnered with the University of Montana Jazz Program to present acts, whether local or guests, at the venue.
"This is probably the strongest, most cohesive jazz group that's been to this town in a long time," said Rob Tapper, the UM jazz director and a trombone professor. He added that the city has recently seen other bands of that caliber, like Trombone Shorty, Lake Street Dive or Snarky Puppy that work in very different styles. The Jazz Program itself brings guest unrelated artists to its annual Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival, where they perform together for the public. This collective, though, is a working group, which makes it a rarer occasion.
Pelt formed the group about five years ago with saxophonist Wayne Escoffery. The two have known each other since college days — Pelt studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, after picking up the instrument at age 8. He said he was serious about the horn from the first instant, and began playing professionally in college. "No more intense than any other conservatory that one would go to," he said.
Both Blake, Escoffery, Pelt and drummer Johnathan Blake played with the Mingus Big Band, a group that pays tribute to the legacy of the inimitable composer-bassist.
"It was really, truth be told, kind of a concept that Wayne had been thinking about for some time. So he enlisted Johnathan and myself in a little private meeting that we had to really flesh out what needs to be done, and we all agreed, and that's how the band got started," Pelt said.
The group is rounded out by Xavier Davis on piano and bassist Vicente Archer. (For this tour, he had a scheduling conflict, he's working with guitarist John Scofield, and Corcoran Holt is subbing for him.
As mid-career working musicians, the list of people the band members have played with is really too long to fit here, but for jazz fans, it includes Betty Carter, Gerald Cleaver, Tom Harrell, Christian McBride, Chris Potter, Mark Turner, and pages worth more.
Pelt said he has too many musical influences to cite. If one keeps "listening to the music long enough to really soak it in … you'll find that everybody is an influence."
"I can't just say Miles was the chief influence and that was it. It's a village. You know you hear the term, it takes a village to raise a child? It's the same kind of concept for the music. It takes a village to raise a jazz musician, in a sense. The person that's more well-rounded, really gets the spoils. It definitely takes more than just listening to one person," he said.
While here, the group will hold a master class at UM.
"We look forward to hearing the youngsters and imparting whatever advice we can impart," he said.
One of the main things he tells them is, "you gotta listen to it. That's the main part. To listen. It may seem kind of silly to say, but listening is something that is very much needed," he said.
He compared lifelong listening and education to life as a whole.
"Since music mirrors life, there's always something new for you to learn. I might have listened to one thing — it might have been the same thing — that you listened to a long time ago. You might listen to a piece of music and you come at it with 16-year-old ears, and then you listen to it again with 25-year-old ears, and then you listen to it again with 40-year-old ears, and it doesn't sound the same. You've learned, so you've gotten deeper into the experience," he said.