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Sponteneity and structure

Dean Demerritt Jazz Tribe improvises in TTV’s courtyard

Sean Al-Jibouri, Dean Demerrit, Sarah Maud, and Isaac Eicher

For Dean Demerritt, it all comes back to jazz. Throughout his diverse career that including several years in the early ‘80s playing with Bob Wills-disciples Asleep at the Wheel and a spot in the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra—jazz remains at the center of Demerritt’s musical world.

In July, Dean Demerritt Jazz Tribe—a collective of some of Tulsa’s finest jazz players—released Red Dirt Improvisations, an homage to the city’s jazz lineage and a testament to it’s vibrant present. Tribe staples Sean Al-Jibouri on guitar and singer Sarah Maud joined Demerritt in TTV’s courtyard, as well as mandolin player Isaac Eicher, who recently returned to Tulsa after taking first place in the Walnut Valley National Mandolin Championship.

John Langdon: What was the first song you ever learned to play?

Dean Demerritt: “Satin Doll.” My dad was a jazz piano player. He told me if I learned to play the song I could play in his band. So I asked how much money could I make, and he said, “You might make $25.”

Langdon: You learned your first song specifically to play a gig?

Demerritt: Well, to be on the road to play a gig, yeah. I wanted to learn it so I could play in his band and you know, stay out past ten o’clock at night. I was thirteen or so.

Langdon: What’s the best show you’ve ever seen here in Tulsa?

Demerritt: Most recently, Thundercat at The Vanguard [at the inaugural Higher Plains Jazz and Hip Hop Festival] was really freaking good. He’s a beast.

Langdon: What’s one of your own most memorable shows?

Demerritt: I did an interesting gig with a trio for the great songwriter Jimmy Webb, who’s from Oklahoma. We rearranged a bunch of his songs in a jazz style. I got to go up to him at the end and say, “Hey man, what did you think of what we did with your tunes?” He was very polite and said he liked it.

Langdon: What’s a non-musical influence on your music?

Demerritt: There’s a book by the pianist Kenny Werner called “Effortless Mastery.” I read it every three or four months to remember the reason why I want to play music. We can get stuck in technique and hip chord changes and fascinating rhythms and stuff like that. You don’t want to get too tied down in that when what you really want to do is communicate with the audience.

You’re not on the planet to impress other hip jazz nerds. Hopefully you’re on the planet to spread the word of music to the masses. At least I try to think that. That’s why I keep having to re-read that book.

Langdon: For an album like Red Dirt Improvisations, where so much comes spontaneously from the moment, what kind of structure do you take into recording sessions?

Demerritt: I tell everybody, “This is a collaboration. If you have a suggestion, I want to hear what it is because together we’ll make it better than just me telling you what to do.” I try to pick musicians who aren’t just great players, but are collaborative and will say, “Why don’t you try doing a fusion thing here?” or “Let’s make this more hip-hop.” So we go into the studio at nighttime—‘cause jazz players like to play when it’s dark outside—and we just see what happens.

Langdon: In just the last few years, it feels like jazz has become more and more accessible and available.

Demerritt: And it’s accepted. People are more amenable to listening to it in Tulsa than they used to be.

Langdon: Do you have any idea what’s going on with people’s perception?

Demerritt: I’ll talk to sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who have all [grown up with YouTube and] been able to pick out their own music and weren’t force-fed musical dog food. They’re not stuck listening to bad, Keith Urban shit on FM radio all the time. Young people are more hip and open-minded to different kinds of music than they were ten or fifteen years ago. To kids in the ‘90s, jazz was Kenny G—a dork with long hair playing as a snake charmer.

Langdon: And now you’ve got things like To Pimp a Butterfly, which was recorded with that powerhouse group of musicians and exposes so many people to that world.

Demerritt: Now people that dig Kendrick Lamar also dig Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and Snarky Puppy. It’s freaking fantastic to see.

Langdon: That’s one of the great things about the Internet: when you find something you like, it’s easy to follow the path backwards to see where it comes from.

Demerritt: People who go to see the DJ Flying Lotus know that he’s John Coltrane’s second cousin or something like that. [Editor’s note: Coltrane’s wife Alice was FlyLo’s great-aunt.] For some reason they know that. I went to one of his shows—and was by far the oldest person there—and they all knew who he was and what his background was. It’s great.

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