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Drummer Robert Jospe strives to challenge without alienating listeners. 

Wide Range

Robert Jospe focuses his command of the complexities of improvised music into a single musical strategy: focus on the audience. In an era when "jazz" includes everything from intense and abstract expression to vapidly pretty mood music, the drummer's goal is to achieve a balance between art and communication.

It apparently works. His most recent album, "Blue Blaze," got a four-star review from the influential jazz magazine Downbeat and is climbing the radio airplay charts. (As of this writing it's at No. 20.)

"I want to keep a high level of content without alienating listeners who are not that well-versed in the music," Jospe says. "In a lot of jazz, when the improvisation starts, listeners lose a sense of what the tune is.

"My basic approach is to keep the listener connected to the form of each piece, and I do that through the rhythms: Afro-Cuban, swing, rhythm and blues, rock — they're all dance rhythms." That is, to paraphrase George Clinton: Move the feet and the mind will follow.

Variety is another key. "I try to avoid ear fatigue," Jospe says. "I use a lot of styles, and try to play an authentic sound for each. Contrast and variation are important; you have to be sensitive to keep changing style and tempo, not stay with any one thing for more than one song at a time."

As in a multicourse meal, "the palate needs cleansing after every tune," he says.

Improvisational concision is another critical element. "I try to play as many tunes in a set as possible without crimping the solos. It makes for a more compelling live performance." Jospe draws inspiration for this from the Blue Note records of the late '50s and early '60s. "On those great albums nobody is taking a solo of more than a chorus or two."

The same applies to "Blue Blaze," which includes arrangements of a number of classic Blue Note compositions — including Horace Silver's "Cape Verdean Blues" and Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes" — in addition to Jospe originals. What is striking is that the old and new pieces are combined into a unified yet varied whole.

Jospe's distinctive sound results from technique and his distinctive, custom drum setup, a hybrid between a standard drum set and hand-percussion instruments. "The great thing about it is that you can play either with sticks or like a hand drum," Jospe says. "It has conga skin, with the rims below the heads. The feel is different, softer and more intimate. It doesn't have the metallic high-end overtones of a traditional set. I've gotten used to the fat warm sound."

While being intuitively accessible to the general public, "Blue Blaze" is also designed to appeal to more sophisticated ears. "If you intellectually understand the phrases as well as the beat — AABA song forms, the 12-bar structure of the blues — then you can appreciate the music even more," Jospe says. "Like classical music you are working with form, theme and variation, only in jazz it is through improvisation."

The album's recent success is starting to have tangible results. "We're being invited to play at more prominent national festivals and clubs," Jospe says. "That means more travel, and more playing for audiences who are familiar with our music. I feel like we are almost at that point of breaking through to the next level."

Whatever success the drummer achieves will be due to communication, not compromise. "I play these different styles because I love to play them," he says. "I'm trying to please myself first."



Robert Jospe will perform at Bogart's, 203 N. Lombardy St., Dec. 1, $5. 353-9280

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