Saxophonist Mike Casey Finds Hartford Jazz Scene A Rich Training Ground

In "The Empire Strikes Back," we meet Jedi Master Yoda hanging out on the remote, swamp-planet of Dagobah, waiting in exile for the Empire to quiet down a little. Dagobah is where Luke Skywalker trains with Yoda for the inevitable "Return of the Jedi."

Mike Casey, a rising young saxophonist, sees parallels between Dagobah and Hartford — an unlikely place, he says, to find a thriving jazz scene.

"A lot of my peers said, 'Why do you want to stay in Hartford? Why don't you want to go to New York?'" Casey says. "Any young jazz musician, you'd expect him or her to want to leave, but I'm glad I stayed."

"Dagobah" is also the title of an original song by Casey, built around a propulsive bass ostinato, a low-key 6/8 groove and Casey's minimal head-melody. It's essentially a vehicle for a long solo by drummer Corey Garcia, and the third track on "The Sound of Surprise: Live at the Side Door," Casey's first full-length album as a leader (with Garcia and bassist Matt Dwonszyk).

Casey and his trio play a CD release show at Black-eyed Sally's in Hartford on March 2. The show is a partnership with RiseUP, a Hartford-based community development group that mentors young people in urban communities.

A Storrs native, Casey's light-switch moment came when he was a student at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts.

"It was my first time being around peers who were at or above my level," he says. "Almost all of them were above my level, but they matched the intensity of the passion that I had for this music. … I'll never forget that feeling: 'Finally, I'm with my people'."

The late bassist Paul Brown, who founded the Monday Night Jazz series in Bushnell Park and the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, was one of Casey's teachers, along with saxophonist Kris Allen.

For college, Casey decided to stay local, enrolling at the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford's Hartt School; he graduated nearly two years ago. In 2015, pianist Jason Moran selected Casey to participate in the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Casey's playing was also discovered by Marc Cary, a pianist and the founder of the Harlem Sessions, a collective that played curated jam sessions at the Gin Fizz Harlem, Ginny's Supper Club and other New York nightclubs. Casey soon became a regular. (The Harlem Sessions is on hiatus.)

"It's a really unique group," Casey says. "We play everything, the entire scope of black music. We'll play gnawa music from Morocco, then we'll play bebop, then we'll play Pharoah Sanders or Curtis Mayfield. We'll play hip-hop with a tap dancer sitting in with a spoken-word poet, then we'll play free jazz. That was my grad school, in a way."

As with most piano-less trios, there's plenty of space on "The Sound of Surprise"; filling in harmonies is largely left up to the listener.

"When you're writing for a trio, you end up having to emphasize melody and rhythm above everything else," Casey says. "Sound, too. With certain melodies, it does matter where [Matt] is playing in terms of register and where I'm playing, because I do want the counterpoint to ring. If I'm high or he's too low, it won't."

The bulk of "Surprise" is a meditation on group dynamics and tone color. On "Hydraulics," a minor-key hard bop composition by Garcia, Casey introduces simple motives, spinning them into longer threads and patterns, decorated with passing tones and trills, over a kitchen-sink groove by Garcia.

"Turnaround," a blues by Ornette Coleman, rolls out slowly, with each member adding drips and drops to the musical conversation. As its title suggests, "Heartbreak," the second Casey contribution (after "Dagobah"), is a mournful ballad with a barely discernible pulse.

The album ends with three more-or-less standards: a jaunty take on Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife" (with a lengthy solo by Dwonszyk), John Coltrane's "Miles Mode," and a mashup of Jackie McLean's harmonically adventurous "Little Melonae" and "Melody for Melonae," with pockets of loosely structured, start-stop improv and some back-and-forth repartee between Casey and Dwonszyk.

"Surprise" was recorded, mixed and mastered by Side Door engineer Nick Sexton. There's enough material left over, Casey says, for a second volume, to be released in the near future.

Being a part of a local scene means playing with former teachers, which Casey doesn't find weird at all.

"I keep in touch with them," Casey says. "I ask for advice, or I'll play with them at a jam session, and that's always good experience. Or we'll be on a gig together or I'll see them down in New York." Hartford alums return, too. "You'll be at Black-eyed Sally's on a Monday, and Wayne Escoffery will walk through the door, or Dezron Douglas or E-Mac [Eric McPherson]."

In high school, Casey was a nightclub DJ and a fan of DJ Logic, who's known for collaborating with jazz musicians. Casey has performed twice with Logic (at Hartford's Arch Street Tavern and at the Acoustic in Bridgeport) and now seeks ways of incorporating DJ concepts into his jazz sets. He's been known to jump on stage with rapper Tang Sauce.

Still, the trio format remains Casey's favorite vehicle for his music.

"I give these guys a lot of freedom," Casey says. "I don't like to dictate too much. I write [most of] the songs, and certain things about the melodies and how they're played are specific, but most of it is open-ended, because I trust them."

MIKE CASEY TRIO performs at Black-eyed Sally's in Hartford on March 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $50. blackeyedsallys.com

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