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Columbia jazz duo finds inspiration in challenge, history of jazz

Friday, November 28, 2008 | 11:23 a.m. CST; updated 11:36 a.m. CST, Friday, November 28, 2008
For Alan Arnold, left, and Dirk Burhans, practicing is the key to their ensemble. Burhans said two musicians can never be too close or too in tune with each other when playing jazz; it allows them to anticipate each other.

COLUMBIA — People in coats and scarves warmed their hands on steaming cups of coffee as they walked around the Columbia Farmers' Market recently. At the end of the rows of booths, sheltered only somewhat from the wind, a saxophonist and a guitarist played a lilting version of  "Autumn Leaves." Almost on cue, handfuls of withering leaves blew by.

From the be-bop sounds of an early John Coltrane to the modal jazz of Miles Davis, Columbia jazz musicians Alan Arnold and Dirk Burhans know their stuff. And better yet, they can play it.

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This is their language; instruments their voice. The Arnold-Burhans duo speak via guitar, saxophone and recorder in their local jazz duo called Tempus Fugitives — a play on the Latin for "time flies."

Arnold, the saxophonist, and Burhans, the guitarist, meet every Tuesday to practice. They each find time amid their everyday lives, families and full-time jobs to engage in what they love.

The two met last spring at the Jazz Repertoire Lab, a monthly get-together of jazz artists of various skill levels at the Cherry Street Artisan. They had heard one another perform and "jammed" together in the past, and Burhans, having been in search of a music partner, gave Arnold a call.

One wouldn't know by watching them interact that their first meeting took place only a matter of months ago.

Their connection now is a strong one, grounded in a love for the rich sound of jazz and its deep history. Tightness is key, Burhans said, and their weekly practices are crucial for their closeness.

"We know each other well enough now that it becomes intuitive when the other one wants to stop, or where the other is heading (in his music)," Arnold said. The two can work through the tougher sections and, many times, end up just rolling with the music.

"As long as you have something to say, you keep going," Arnold said. And the other band member can sense when there is more to be said.

"The myth 'close enough for jazz' holds true here," Burhans said. This saying comes from the assumption that jazz is a deep and interactive kind of music. Burhans agrees and said two musicians can never be too close or too in tune with each other when playing jazz together.

A two-man band itself makes for easier interaction in general.

"It's easier to get into the groove and to feel each other out," Burhans said. A band with only two people is also portable and flexible when it comes time to play at various venues, he said.

Important to the duo is their desire for jazz history and an ongoing challenge. Their weekly rehearsals provide a rich and casual exchange of technique, artists and musical background.

The duo's entire endeavor is also an educational exchange, one that usually turns into a conversation of music rather than words. Jazz artists Coltrane and Davis comprise only a small portion of a shared jazz knowledge.

"You really have to be a historian," said Arnold, who is drawn to the history of jazz. Although he keeps his music on the side as opposed to full time, he stresses the importance of a musical education. The duo knows songs from every age and style. But they also know the stories behind the tunes.

When you know the story behind the musician, Arnold said, the music becomes more meaningful. Initially, he said, he disliked Coltrane.

"I didn't like his later stuff that I heard when I was in college," Arnold said. But this music, he would learn, was only one of the many types of jazz that the great saxophonist produced.

"I came to appreciate him when I learned about him, his story and his reasoning," Arnold said, referencing Coltrane's shift from the chord heavy and structured be-bop music to a more simplified modal jazz, removing the tonal complexities. "Every tune has a history to it."

Once Arnold discovered that Coltrane's "later stuff" stemmed from a desire to explore an "unfettered musical creativity" and pulled away from the confinements of musical rules, he came to appreciate Coltrane's variety.

 "Hearing his earlier stuff helped me appreciate his later, although I really love the older, classic Coltrane," Arnold said.

He likes to play the challenging, the be-bop and the soulful. "You feel such an empathy for the people who wrote it."

To Arnold and Burhans, their combined field knowledge is just a beginning. "I know over 100 tunes," Arnold said, "and that's nothing yet." The duo is drawn to the challenge jazz provides.

"I always want to be experiencing growth; swimming forward in some manner," Arnold said. He wants that feeling of constant improvement, he said.

"It's an exhilarating learning experience," Burhans said. He loves to play his music but also loves to continuously learn how to play it better, he said.

Although he has mastered many instruments in the past, Burhans is now focusing on jazz guitar, exclusively so for about a year and a half. "I have to be the whole rhythm section — base, piano and drums — that Alan plays over," Burhans said. That's challenge enough for him.

For Arnold, who has always had a good ear and a talent for sight-reading, now finds his challenge in the reading of more difficult music.

A novelty that Tempus Fugitives adds to the local jazz world is their incorporation of a recorder, an instrument not commonly associated with jazz. "It's a fun thing that no one else around here brings to the table," Arnold said.

There has been a great response to the use of the recorder, they said. People are usually surprised, and it catches them off guard, Arnold said. "They always compare the recorder to their 5-year-old coming home from school and playing around on it."

Arnold, however, plays with quick fingers and when he manipulates the recorder's holes, pushes the notes to their full potential. Arnold said the recorder makes a fitting addition to the band.

Jazz has the benefit of being mutable; pieces of one song, or approaches to the music can fit with others.

"There are less frames of reference than number of tunes," said Arnold, explaining the ways they navigate new and different pieces. Similar chords and keys provide a map for the jazz artist when approaching new songs.

"Even when you are working with a totally new tune, there are familiar ways to approach it," Burhans said.

The strong interaction that the two share extends beyond the two men to the best reward of all.

"The one thing for a musician is to have someone listen to them," said Arnold. Nothing compares, he said, to the ability to truly reach inside people. "There's no replacement for the adoration of a fan base."

"When Alan and I are interacting," Burhans said, "the audience is right there with you even if they aren't musicians."


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