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A soul for jazz


After being signed to a major-label record deal at age 23, jazz pianist Travis Shook took some career detours.

But the winding road is leading uphill these days. This weekend, it’s brings the award-winning musician back to his boyhood home in Olympia.

His concert Saturday – with drummer Matt Jorgensen and bassist Phil Sparks, both of Seattle – is his first time playing here in seven years.

A California native who moved to Olympia at age 10, Shook played piano from the time he was 5, but it was at Olympia High School that he was first exposed to jazz.

“I joined the jazz band at the age of 16,” said Shook, whose mother, Belva Shook, still lives in Olympia. “I’d always taken classical lessons but did not really want to become a classical musician.

“When I started playing jazz, I said, ‘Oh, well, this is actually perfect.’ I pulled out a Duke Ellington album we had at home. I’d never heard it; it was still in the plastic.

“There was no question about what I wanted to do after that.”

What captured his attention was the energy of jazz.

“Jazz is composing on the spur of the moment,” Shook said. “There’s something magical that happens. Say there are four of us playing at once; we’re all listening to what the others are playing but we’re all saying what we want to say at the same time.

“There’s something that can’t be written down,” he said. “Bach, Beethoven, Mozart … They were great improvisers, but it became lost in the classical world because it couldn’t be written down.”

After his graduation from William Paterson College in New Jersey, he returned to Olympia and found work in Seattle, notably with legendary bassist Buddy Catlett. He played a lot in Seattle and some in Olympia, too, including at Barb’s Soul Food and the Rainbow Restaurant, both now defunct.

Among those Shook played with in the early ’90s was horn player Jay Thomas, a longtime fixture on the Seattle jazz scene. “The guy was amazing,” Thomas told the Seattle Times this fall.

And Ornette Coleman once told him, “Man, you’re a really good player!”

Shook was signed to Columbia Records after winning the Jacksonville Jazz Festival’s Great American Jazz Piano Competition at age 22. His debut album was well-received, but Sony’s 1993 purchase of the label – coupled, perhaps, with a poor review by a New York Times critic – ended his contract.

Though he continued to find work, most notably touring with Betty Carter, Shook still faced a bumpy stretch of highway. He struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction over a decade ago. He’s open about that time, but he’s also focused on the future.

“It’s part of my story,” he said, “but I’m going to make an attempt to focus on the positive. There’s a lot of positive.”

“My biggest concern now is really to get out there and do something for the music every day,” he said. “It’s funny. Mickey Rourke said that when he got into acting, he really thought that if he just became a good actor, that was all he had to do, but he’s since learned that it is a business, and it’s the same thing in the music world.

“The actual business of music is totally different than the art of music,” he added. “It’s about becoming part of the mechanism again.”

Shook, now 40, and his wife, jazz singer Veronica Nunn, have their own label, Dead Horse Records. And he’s ventured outside of the local club circuit in New York club – he lives in tiny Woodstock and has an apartment in Brooklyn – in the past few months with a few trips to Seattle, including one at the Earshot Jazz Festival.

Back in Western Washington to play on an album being made by friends, he decided to play in his hometown again.

“This is actually a beginning for me,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve actually reached out and talked to people and put shows together.”

Next stop: Switzerland, where he’s headed in January. “The European market is the number-one market for jazz,” he said.

“You have to go where the audience is.”

Spoken like a man who knows his business.

(Molly Gilmore, The Olympian, Dec. 6, 2009)























































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