STRAIGHT-AHEAD JAZZ JAM AT LIAM FLYNN’S THURSDAY NIGHTS
—By Liz Fixsen
Jams come in many flavors. We have jams for Gypsy jazz, contemporary jazz, and straight-ahead jazz. Jams also come in a range of levels. There are jams that welcome rank beginners, and there are jams that intimidate all but the most advanced players.
Students of jazz are often told that they should aim to play with the best players they can find. But that can present a dilemma if the jazz novice is faced with a choice between a jam where everyone is still on training wheels, or a jam that is a testosterone-driven competition over who can blow the most 32nd notes at 200 clicks (which, for the uninitiated, is a fairly aggressive tempo).
So it’s gratifying to find a jam where an intermediate-level player can be welcomed and still be challenged by other players who are further along on their jazz journey. The Thursday night straight-ahead jam at Liam Flynn’s is just such a place.
The advanced players include guitarist Michael Raitzyk, who up until recently was the leader of the jam. Raitzyk is a well-known and highly regarded Baltimore-based musician who is accomplished in a range of styles, including klezmer and funk as well as straight-ahead jazz.
However, Raitzyk has now moved on to other projects, and he has passed the baton to his guitar student, Steve Caballero, who is doing his teacher great credit. Six-string bass player Ben Grant and drummer Chuck Karner round out the house band; both are familiar and respected figures in the jazz community of Baltimore and DC. Other guitarists who have appeared at the jam include Jonathan Epley (of the Jazz Ambassadors, and formerly of the US Army Band), and Joe Friedman (from the Navy Country Band). Bassist Alex Meadow often comes to sit in and lend his hot chops to the mix. Dan Wallace is a regular participant, mostly on saxophone, but on my recent visit, he also gave a soulful vocal performance of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and even Ben Grant was persuaded to share his considerable vocal talents on a very inventive rendition of “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.”
Among the other musicians coming to sit in is a young pianist named Matt. At first, his playing was rather tentative; he would lay back and listen carefully to the other, more advanced players before jumping in full bore. But with every session, he grew more confident and more artful in his playing. This jam definitely has provided him with a fruitful growth experience, while not reducing the overall quality of the jam session.
I also have frequented the jam on a number of occasions as a novice vocalist and, like Matt, have found the band both accommodating and challenging. Raitzyk’s complex and inventive solos required my complete attention in order to follow the form, but he usually would throw in a helpful nod at the end to prompt me to come back in. After his departure, I found that the group was still as challenging and as accommodating, and young Steve is always open to trying new tunes.
The jam happens from 8 pm to 11 pm every Thursday night at Liam Flynn’s pub at 22 West North Avenue in Baltimore’s Station North arts district. There is a convivial pub atmosphere, with lots of laughter and conversation going on while the musicians jam on the rear upper level, neither activity disrupting the other. Bartender Derrick is in non-stop motion all evening, making sure that no one’s glass stays empty for long. The pub offers an eclectic menu of sandwiches, soups, and salads, but drink, conversation, and music are the main focuses of of the denizens of Liam Flynn’s—especially music, as a different jam happens every night, from Sunday through Thursday, making Liam Flynn’s a real music mecca in Charm City.