Before he was a jazz maven, Scott Sawyer was corrupted by the down-and-dirty blues denizens of Tate Street when he was still in high school.
“I remember sneaking into Aliza's Cafe back then. That's where I met Billy 'Ransom' Hobbs, Dakota Joe. Then I went to UNCG. I lasted about a semester and a half. I was down there a lot, especially every Thursday night to hear the Sentinel Boys, and then eventually, I got to play with them which was like, if Clapton had called me and invited me to join Cream, I would have said, 'Sorry, I'm playing with the Sentinel Boys,'" he says laughing.
One Sentinel Boys' playing was a major factor in Sawyer's musical growth. “He was a big influence for me," Sawyer says of assorted instrument player Scott Manring. “He was my guitar teacher for a little while, too. Just playing in the Sentinel Boys, that was like the first major thing for me. That was great.”
Sawyer says that when he heard the recently released Sentinel Boys project, it impressed him all over again. “I just remember thinking, 'Man, these tunes are even better than I thought they were.'”
Sawyer had relocated to Greensboro from his native Chicago. His father's job as a sales manager for a furniture business firm moved the family from Texas to Maine to Greensboro. Sawyer's dad had an extensive jazz collection with biggies Miles Davis and John Coltrane featured prominently, with some Lou Rawls and Nancy Wilson sprinkled in.
But Sawyer's tastes were a bit more localized at first. The Sentinel Boys' kitchen-sink fusion first captivated him. Then the gritty roots of The Little Alfred band let him revisit some of his Chicago heritage before exploring the outer limits of musical space with David and Dennis Licht in Dark Door.
Dark Door was ahead of its time locally, so far so that Sawyer says it sailed over his head at times as well. “I didn't know what I was doing, but I was writing,” Sawyer recalls.
Sawyer on guitar, David and Dennis Licht on percussion, bassist Tom Shepard, whom Sawyer says was unlike any other bassist he'd ever played with, keyboardist Tom Wimbish and saxophonist Bruce Swaim made up the band, with Scott Adair sitting in once in awhile.
“We didn't do any covers, man. It was an all-original band,” Sawyer says, admitting that it was “odd meter, kinda jazz fusion. In retrospect, a lot of it was probably a little bit beyond me. In fact, I said at one point to David (Licht) in a Facebook exchange, I would love to have another crack at playing those tunes 40 years later.”
Little Alfred was a whole other animal. Co-founded with Hobbs, it was a fluid operation, membership-wise. It was a blues aggregation that included Dakota Joe Dunn, with Manring in for a time as well.
“As I recall, David Moore (Driveway) and Jimmy Carpenter, were in the band, and I don't remember there be any falling out or anything, but they started wanting to do more kinda R&B stuff. I think the Nighthawks were a band that we all really liked a lot, and they started wanting to push it more it in that direction.”
That direction turned out to be the Alkaphonics, Greensboro's dare-demon hell-raisers that warped rockabilly, R&B and soul to its rip-roaring bar band persona, lathering up audiences for years up and down the East Coast with its musical mayhem.
But Sawyer wanted to pursue other music, eventually moving to Chapel Hill and re-embracing his jazzy side. Over the years, Sawyer has become a jazz slinger, spreading that sophisticated stuff on stages all over the world, backing Nnenna Freelon and touring Central America as a member of Jon Metzger's Quartet.
Sawyer also had both of the funky Burbridge brothers — Kofi (Tedeschi Trucks Band) and Oteil (Allman Brothers Band, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Dead and Company and Tedeschi Trucks Band,) — in his band Go There from '99 to '04, producing one funk-stuffed eponymous release in '06.
Sawyer also resurrected his love for the blues with a stint with Mel Melton and the Wicked Mojos. He's appeared as a sideman on nearly 50 albums, collaborating with Bruce Piephoff as co-producer and guitarist on several albums and with Piephoff and David Childers on 2016's “Army Town Madrigal.” He slipped back into his jazzy shoes for 2013's “Dreamers” and for his latest, the just released “Night Visions.”
Sawyer wrote all the material on “Night Visions,” which came out in May. Though rooted in jazz, there's a lot of genres tying to bust loose under that slick surface. “Crawl” is suffused with big city soul, like a midnight creeper lurking in after-hours Chicago back-alley joints.
“The blues is where I kinda started off even though in some ways I've come a long ways away from that,” Sawyer confesses. He says the cut has a gospel flavor but admits to never studying gospel closely. “I listen to it and I like it, but gospel music is kinda like blues, it's church blues.”
But there's nothing churchy about “Blue Lounge.” Undercut with a sinister pulse, it recalls the theme songs from 1960s-era TV detective shows such as “Peter Gunn.” But about three minutes in, Sawyer comes riding in on guitar like an Ericco Morricone spaghetti Western gunslinger on acid.
“If there's a tune that doesn't belong on that album its “Blue Lounge,” Sawyer says, “but that seems to be the tune a lot of people like. That was my nod to Southside Chicago.” Sawyer used to play that tune with his band Go There, but the song was called “Willie Dixon” back then because the riff came from Dixon's “Same Thing.”
For the Night Visions project, the band, Dave Finucane on tenor sax, Ron Brendle on acoustic bass, and Kobie Watkins on drums, laid it down in one take. Watkins and Brendle kept it simple, "like this repetitive, almost caveman kind of a feel,” Sawyer says of the relentless pulse, like a mugger sneaking down an alley ready to pounce.
“Passage” took a bit longer to polish. “That tune came outta nowhere,” Sawyer says. “I'm a really big fan of Bill Frizell, and I think I was probably trying to play more by playing less.”
Despite playing less of it as time passed, Sawyer says he's still up for a recorded blues journey. ”I have said on the record, if somebody wants to produce a blues record for me, I will do a straight-ahead Chicago blues record. I would love to do one with a good singer and harmonica player.”
Sawyer dipped a toe into blues waters last year doing a few gigs with Shiela Klinefelter and Chuck Cotton, who Sawyer calls “my favorite blues drummer between here and Chicago. He's marvelous.”
He's also up for a reconnection with Oteil Burbridge. Sawyer's younger brother John wants to produce the record and has reached out to Burbridge about the project, possibly using drummer Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit) and Boone native Melissa Reaves, who performs with Dave Fox and his otherworldly The Meldavians, often with Sawyer sitting in on guitar. But there's a Dead elephant in the room.
“I think the minute everything starts back up, he's gonna go back on the road with Dead and Company and make a bunch of money because he can, and I wouldn't blame him,” Sawyer says.
Meanwhile, Sawyer labors virtually in Raleigh, teaching online at Eastern Carolina University and waiting for his in-person slot at Durham Jazz Workshop, where he has an office, to open up again.
But he still pines for Greensboro.
“I would love to live in Greensboro again, I could end up there again,” he says wistfully. “There's something in the water there. I realized years later some of the best musicians I've ever played with and some of my favorite people to listen to were just hanging around Tate street playing in the bars. Amazing so many are still there. Great for Greensboro, not so great for the rest of the world who don't know who they are.”
Contact Grant Britt at email@example.com.
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