Now Hear ThisPhoto: Michael WilsonTrumpeter John Zappa’s career in the Cincinnati Jazz scene bears at least a passing resemblance to the life of Woody Allen’s title character in 1983’s Zelig. He’s played with some of the area’s biggest musical icons and he’s been a presence in the background from an early age. Zappa’s relatively new band project, Now Hear This, has just released its eponymous debut album, a swirling fusion of groove and beat that both respects and refracts Jazz traditions, offering something for every musical taste.
“It’s not all one thing. Whatever the first tune is, the second tune is different in some way,” says Zappa. “We have things that are more Afrobeat or more American R&B. We have tunes that are long explorations on one chord, and tunes that have complicated harmonic mazes to figure your way through. I really like the record. It’s something I’m still willing to listen to myself.”
Drill down into Zappa’s lengthy resume and you’ll find he’s played with local Jazz luminaries like Jimmy McGary, Frank Vincent, Cal Collins and John Von Ohlen, who drummed in a trio with Zappa. At 18, he sat in with the renowned Blue Wisp Big Band, and shortly after he played in Jam Factor, a 13-piece show band that gigged regularly at the now shuttered Waterfront and featured the talents of future members of Blessid Union of Souls.
Zappa was born into a musical family; his father was trained as a Classical composer and conductor who started a local blue-collar opera company in northern Kentucky in the ‘70s, restored the dilapidated Devou Park bandshell and presented orchestral concerts in high schools and area parks to make music available to people who would otherwise have been unable to afford the experience.
“That started when I was 5 or 6,” Zappa says. “The singers would rehearse operas in my house. I’d sit there coloring or drawing and listen to Mozart or whatnot. I’m sure I got some of my isms and tastes from my father.”
Because of his father’s orchestral activities, Zappa was introduced to every conceivable instrument but was drawn by the sonorous sounds of the cello. He might well have wound up as a Jazz bassist had he pursued that muse, but his elementary school band program didn’t have a string component so he wound up with a trumpet.
“I wanted to play drums and my parents said, ‘No, you’re not playing drums,’ ” he says. “I picked the trumpet from a line drawing — they didn’t even have photos. I was not that thrilled because it’s a hard instrument to play. I’d gotten into the School for Creative and Performing Arts on the visual arts side but was still playing in the band, and I met some older musicians who turned me onto Jazz. I heard Miles Davis and I thought, ‘If the trumpet can sound like, I want to learn how to play the trumpet to sound like that.’ ”
From there Zappa wound up at University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music as a Jazz Studies major. He eventually did get to play those drums, obtaining his Masters degree in Jazz Percussion, inspired primarily by his work with and tutelage under the late, great Von Ohlen. Zappa has since gotten the opportunity to pay it all forward as an instructor at Northern Kentucky University.
Over the years, Zappa has gigged and recorded with a variety of structures, under his own name and as a group member, including Tropicoso, Rich Uncle Skeleton, Leroy Ellington’s E Funk and Stacy Mitchhart’s Blues-U-Can-Use. All of these aggregations have represented distinctly different musical approaches — Salsa, Swing Dance, Funk/R&B, Blues — and each one has added a new color to Zappa’s creative palette.
The seeds of Now Hear This were sown in 2015 when Zappa was in France for his second consecutive summer of touring. A canceled gig in Marseilles led the French group’s drummer to invite Zappa to stay with him, which turned out to be a momentous stroke of luck.
“He was a hardcore Irishman who’d met a French woman and relocated. He was a great Jazz drummer so we hung out and played,” Zappa says. “He was talking about how he was working out these Afrobeat rhythms. I had heard classic ’70s Fela Kuti and all that, but I had no idea what was going on in modern Afrobeat and how it evolved. So I went to France and got turned onto Afrobeat by an Irish guy.”
When Zappa returned home, he had the framework for a couple of songs and ideas for more and began assembling a group to realize his vision. His first guitarist was college friend Don Gauck, who brought an interesting sensibility to the material.
“He’s a Rock guitar player but he understands Jazz,” Zappa says. “He’s super creative and he doesn’t play, technically or vocabulary-wise, what typical Jazz guitarists play.”
Gauck moved away before Now Hear This got too far along, and Zappa replaced him with local Jazz luminary Brad Myers, who brings a similar-yet-different approach to his guitar parts. NHT is rounded out by pianist Mike Darrah and drummer Jason Smart — they and Myers are veterans of groove-driven Ray’s Music Exchange — plus bassist Aaron Jacobs. It’s an ensemble of Jazz titans, all of whom work in a singular fashion without overwhelming each other.
“It always has that sense of democracy amongst the players,” says Zappa. “At any given point, any person in the band can make some decision that’s going to change the course of the whole thing. And everybody is totally willing to go with it. We’ve done a number of performances of these tunes and they’re always different in different situations.
“We’ve been asked to keep the volume way down and the intuition had grown into becoming louder and more intense, so we were handcuffed and we had to find something else to do and it opened up a bunch of possibilities. We’ve built that into our concept and everyone is comfortable with that.”
With Now Hear This, Zappa has tried to hone in on his own personal definition of Jazz, which is a tricky proposition with the genre’s long traditions and history.
“Defining Jazz is hard because it doesn’t utilize the same criteria that all our various forms of popular music use to define themselves,” he says. “It boils down to a combination of improvisation and what I call musical conversation. We play improvised solos in Salsa, but there’s not a conversive element to it. The melody voice has to be flexible and the accompanying voices can’t be boxed in where they can’t respond. If that organic nature is going back and forth, that’s when Jazz is happening.”
For live dates and more on Now Hear This, visit nowhearthis.band.