With over a decade of hardcore gigging under their belts, jazz combo Premium Blend has become an beloved institution within the Indianapolis jazz scene. Considering the group’s well-established presence on the live circuit, it might surprise some to learn that Premium Blend’s excellent new disc The Road is only their second recorded effort. But, as the saying goes: what they lack in quantity is made up for in quality. The Road is a thoughtfully assembled collection, featuring nine originals penned by saxophonist and bandleader Jared Thompson and guitarist Ryan Taylor.
Throughout a few lineup switch-ups, Thompson’s soulful lead sax has remained a constant, as has the brilliant keyboard work of Steven Jones. Taylor and drummer Brian Yarde round out the group’s current incarnation.
While the Premium Blend sound is built around a classic post-bop approach to jazz, the group’s playing is informed by more contemporary styles. That balance has been an essential element of the band’s broad appeal, and is very much present on The Road, as the album’s track-list volleys between Thompson’s reflective melodic excursions, and the earthy grit of Taylor’s soul jazz-influenced creations.
Taylor’s hard grooving “In the ‘Lac” is a highlight, culminating with an invigorating call and response between Taylor’s guitar and Thompson’s horn. The Thompson-composed title track provides another memorable moment, and represents an artistic high water mark for Premium Blend, the delicately constructed ballad recalls the haunting beauty of Coltrane’s classic “Naima.” The Road concludes with “Conveyor Belt Dreams”, a stunning piece of spoken word protest voiced by poet/MC Theon Lee.
I recently caught up with Thompson to discuss The Road and the blend of musical and socio-political concepts that influenced the creation of the disc. See the group live during their weekly Wednesday night residency at Marrow.
Many moments throughout the 10 days of IJF shimmered in space and time, until, hummingbird-like, a sudden dart to elsewhere broke the spell.
Jared Thompson: Kind of by piecemeal, I’ve been playing with Steven for about eleven or twelve years. So he was in the original Premium Blend. It’s definitely been a morphing and evolving group over the years. Ryan came along about five-years-ago, and his timing was absolutely impeccable. I had another band member that was moving to Austin, Texas and Ryan happened to come by and sit-in, and I’ve seen him every week since then. Brian Yarde was another guy that was sitting-in. I wouldn’t say Brain got a late start in music, but maybe in the jazz genre, but in a very small amount of time his playing surpassed so many other people in this city. It was really impressive the way he found his distinct voice and made it work with a group that was already existing.
Kyle: You mentioned Premium Blend has been an evolving unit. Around what year would you say the group officially started?
Jared: I will always say that it started when I said it did. [laughs] I’d say around 2005. There’s been members like Brandon Meeks, and Sleepy Floyd. We were all coming back to this city and trying to make a go out of it together. We still play together here and there, but we’ve all got our own projects going and we’ve figured out how to hone in on what we wanted to do. Around 2006 or 2007 it really started to take shape, and our sound was really starting to emerge. We’ve been tweeking it and perfecting it since then.
Kyle: Before we talk about your new record The Road, I want to ask you about a composition you wrote on Premium Blend’s first album S.O.A.P. (Sum of All Parts) from 2015. You composed a song in honor of one of my favorite writers, the great Indianapolis poet Etheridge Knight. What inspired you to write the track “Song For Etheridge”?
Jared: Etheridge Knight was a name that I grew up hearing at a really young age, I’m talking like six or seven years old. My grandmother was very good friends with Etheridge Knight’s sister Eunice. I believe Eunice passed two or three years ago. But Miss Eunice would come over when we spent the night at grandma’s house. She was just a regular person, I didn’t know anything about the context of her brother and the significant impact he made on not just literature, but the Black Arts Movement too. We got the full details about him even as little kids, things that would be looked at as a checkered past, a drug used and in prison. But I always took the perspective that if someone has gone through all that, and submits such an a very earnest and scathing view about his life and the lives of those that look like him, there’s got to be something to that.
So I based the song off one of his poems called “Cell Song” that’s included in Poems From Prison. The words just struck me. It’s very short, but with short poems, especially the one he writes, there’s a lot of information. It’s a very loaded poem. I came up with the melody and the band just ran with it. It’s sensitive, it’s a little dark, but there’s a also some hope, or sounds of resilience in it as well.
He’s definitely one of those people that I go back and read his work every now and then and get inspired. I put him up there with James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, and Toni Morrison. It was a first glimpse, before I even knew it, that there’s so much culture and art from the citizens of Indianapolis, and most importantly for me growing up, from Black citizens of Indianapolis.
Kyle: Since we’re talking about great poets I want to ask about the closing track from your new album The Road, “Conveyor Belt Dreams” which features the voice of a brilliant multi-talented artist, poet and rapper Theon Lee.
Jared: Theon is an artist I met last year through the Indianapolis Arts Council’s Art & Soul event. I’ve always been impressed with that guy. The way he speaks in front of a crowd is absolutely amazing. He’s an amazing lyricist as an MC, and as a poet, he’s a very humble, yet thought provoking individual.
I have to thank Ryan Taylor for a lot of this track to be honest. I came up with the concept, I do write – I don’t want to say lyrics, but every now and then I just kind of jot my thoughts down on paper. Over the last five years everyone is aware that there’s been a disproportionate amount of police brutality against the African-American community. It’s take a toll, and it affects everybody in some way. So I was flushing these ideas out on paper, and I said, “You know, I think I want to put this on the album.”
I showed Ryan a first draft of it. He said, “This is good. But if you really want to knock it out of the park, you have to go deeper.” So Ryan really encouraged me to use my brain a little more, and rely on other resources that I had to flush out exactly what I was feeling as a person who sits at many different intersections of minority groups. Being a Black, gay person in Indianapolis can be a bit of an ordeal sometimes.
“This is a very pro-Black record, but it’s not anti-white, and it doesn’t mean that if you’re not white you can’t get anything from it. It’s not an exclusive record. It can be an educational tool for people who are not Black.”
“Conveyor Belt Dreams” hits on everything from the struggles of women, and Black women, of Black men, of gay men both black and white. It touches on a very culturally sensitive topic that unfortunately does not go out of style. This piece could’ve worked 60 years ago, and here’s hoping that this piece will not be as relevant 50 years from now. That’s always the dream, and that’s the conveyor belt that we’re on.
Kyle: The last song I want to ask you about is the ”Pursuit of Happiness”.
Jared: There’s a very distinct purpose for this tune. The phrase “pursuit of happiness”, as everyone knows, is part of the American credo that we’re free to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. That’s what we’re told, but if you fall into a certain category that’s just not for you. When Vice President Pence was the governor here, RFRA was a huge issue, it still is.
This piece was something I was asked to write during the year that I was a presenter for the Indianapolis Arts Council’s Art & Soul series. The theme was the “journey to freedom” for African-Americans. The last part of the journey to freedom is marriage equality, and I fall into that category. I’m just know able to marry my fiancé.
This was a direct response to Mike Pence. To be candid, for lack of a better term, this was kind of my middle finger to Mike Pence. I will say that to anybody, including him.
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