Drummer/bandleader Jae Sinnett is refocusing on the sophisticated simplicity of what he calls the American Groove. “It's that good, soulful swing, the soulful R&B,” he says. “It's what most of us grew up on; it's what made the music feel good.”
His new approach to jazz is hinted at on a new performance DVD (“An Evening With the Jae Sinnett Trio: Live at WHRO.”) Recorded last September, it captures a relaxed and conversational interplay through a set of mostly originals -- with a 5/4 “Old Devil Moon” as the opener and Monk's “Well You Needn't” as a centerpiece. Throughout, Sinnett is poised and attentive, snapping out rhythms with maximized taste and minimized wasted energy. Appealing as it is, Sinnett says, it captures only the early stages of his group's musical trajectory; it's come a long way since.
Sinnett, who performs at Capital Ale House on Nov. 10, has come a long way too. There's a photo of him waving around drumsticks the night of the first Beatles appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He came of age in a musical era delimited by Motown and Frank Zappa, James Brown and Weather Report, Led Zeppelin and Earth Wind and Fire. But by the mid-'70s he was playing in ubiquitous but rhythmically limited dance oriented bands. (“I was a timekeeper for people with terrible time,” Sinnett says.)
If disco was an artistic dead-end, his discovery of bebop was a revelation -- the great bebop drummer Max Roach in particular. “I was really impressed with his ideas about drummers and composition, how they could play a much larger role in a leading capacity,” Sinnett says. Jazz opened vast new possibilities, but it also meant a permanent commitment to learning and change. Everything is a work in progress: Sinnett says that 1999's “The Better Half” (Heart Music) CD was a turning point in his sound and that 2007's “it's telling … A Drummer's Perspective” (J-Nett) is the first time he built his compositions from a purely rhythmic foundation.
Artistic exploration is always a challenge in a world where audiences prefer the familiar and the commercial interests are risk-averse. Sinnett is well aware of the necessary balance to please a wildly varying jazz radio audience. He says his nightly show on Hampton Roads' WHRV is the highest-grossing jazz show in the country, drawing more pledge dollars in Norfolk than NPR drive-time behemoths “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
But if pleasing the audience is essential, the best performances come from band interplay. “The important thing is the dialog between the musicians to be more interesting,” he says. “And with that groove underneath, it makes the connection that much more unique … I'm not doing this to connect to the listener, but I think it will naturally occur. I just want them to feel we really played for them, that we are having fun, that we are good musicians [and] we care about what they think and what they feel when they hear the music; that it was worth every penny and every minute of their time.”
It's not so much a matter of delivering virtuosic fire and energy, but what Sinnett calls that “beautiful, light touch” that made the music of his youth so effortlessly charming. The audience is moved by being invited in.
Richmond Jazz Society presents Jae Sinnett, with Justin Kaufman and Terry Burrell, live at the Capital Ale House on Nov. 10. Tickets: $15-$20. For more information, call 643-1972 or log on to captialalehouse.com. The DVD, “An Evening With the Jae Sinnett Trio: Live at WHRO,” is available from www.jaesinnett.com.