Artist Spotlight: Vance Camisa Jazz Quartet

Dec. 21, 2018

The Vance Camisa Jazz Quartet makes for a spiffy good time. These four men, Jon Kohl on drums, Christopher Davis-Shannon on bass, Justin Odom on guitar and Vance Camisa on piano impress with their retro-look before they ever strike a note. Natty suits and ties are the order of the day (Camisa himself prefers 1930s cut suits, complete with fedora, high-waisted trousers and wide lapels). They look cool, cohesive, and coordinated. Watching and listening to them might make you think you had just stepped into a 52nd Street club in 1940.  When they begin to play, each man has his own voice, but his contribution to the performance is both informed and enhanced by the players around him. Vance’s fast fingers glide across the keys. Jon Kohl’s brushes release a distinct yet mellow sound from the drums. Justin Odom plays the guitar with effortless fluidity while Christopher Davis-Shannon keeps the quartet grounded with his upright bass, its deep voice framing the interplay of the other instruments. The music, usually drawn from classics from The Great American Songbook, is as cool and collected as they are. The Vance Camisa Jazz Quartet is old-school jazz with a modern twist, and they’ve met their mark perfectly.

The Vance Camisa Jazz Quartet dedicates itself to playing jazz dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. Their style functions as an homage to the small band sound of the big band years, a style that would shape the future of jazz and other genres to come. Bandleader Vance Camisa says, “Jazz is America’s only original artform.” Camisa continues, “New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz, and what’s amazing is that you can trace its origins to a handful of individuals from what was a relatively small community. We talk about the United States being a melting pot, and you can hear in the roots of jazz the influence of African music and its polyrhythms, European classical music, and Spanish influences. It was unique unto itself.”

The jazz styles of the 1930s and 40s are the foundation of virtually every jazz style to follow, influencing countless musicians to come, including a young Camisa when he began learning piano. Camisa says, “The improvisational aspect of jazz is why I was drawn to it.” Camisa continues, “In classical music, you take what the composer wrote and you master it, then interpret it. But it’s always composer-oriented music with your nuances coloring the composition. With jazz, it’s performer oriented music. It’s the jazz players putting this complex overlay on it, that makes every performance of it new and something different.” As a child, he inherited piano lessons since his older brother and sister had to learn before him. Camisa didn’t quite connect with his first piano teacher, so Camisa’s father introduced him to a teacher who would change his relationship to jazz forever: John Coates, Sr.

Camisa says, “Mr. Coates was a jazz pianist who started playing in the late 20s into the 50s and 60s. When jazz fell out of mainstream popularity, he started teaching.” Camisa continues, “But he was a jazz guy! I used to bring a cassette tape to our lessons to record them so I could listen to it later. Somehow, I found one of the old recordings from our lessons. I put it on a CD and I absolutely treasure it. It’s all I have left of the guy. He was my mentor and an amazing player. He was phenomenal. I studied with him for years.”

Coates’ mentorship of Camisa continued well into his adulthood. The Trenton native would even travel home on the weekends to continue his lessons with Coates while attending college in Philadelphia. After graduating, Camisa spent some time in Washington, D.C., where he studied ear training with noted jazz pianist and composer, David Kane. Camisa later returned to Philadelphia and stepped away from his musical focus while attending law school. After graduating from law school, Camisa was able to once again prioritize jazz in his life, and found that Coates’ influence had never waned. Camisa says, “When I started playing again, I could hear Mr. Coates in my music!”

Having rekindled his connection with jazz, Camisa set out to find like-minded players. He sought out other musicians who would be able to identify with his preference in jazz music – the classics of The Great American Songbook. Camisa says, “Our stuff is a little older, and in some cases a little newer. We strive to get a sound you can really listen to and even dance to.” Camisa continues, “The style we play tends to be more of a 1930s and 1940s style. Composers like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers; all what you would call the standards. We try to add to the ambiance of whatever venue we’re playing.” Once Camisa found the musicians who would later form the quartet, they had one small problem: no one wanted to be band leader. Camisa was happy just to be a member of the band, but his bandmates had other plans for him. Camisa says, “They told me, ‘You put out the ad, you contacted us, it’s your group.’ And that’s how it became the Vance Camisa Jazz Quartet.”

The Vance Camisa Jazz Quartet has since been making the Great American Songbook accessible to modern listeners. The Quartet plays throughout Philadelphia and can be found at the Library Bar once a month, adding to the beautiful bar’s elegant atmosphere. Camisa started the Vance Camisa Jazz Quartet in 1992, but his passion for jazz remains youthful. Camisa says, “The 1930s and 40s was a time when jazz was the popular music.” Camisa continues, “You had amazing artists, geniuses, playing this tremendous music that was creative and artistic. It was extremely virtuosic and challenging. It was melodically and harmonically complex, but it was still accessible and functional — you could dance to it! As jazz evolved much of that functionality was stripped away, and jazz became less accessible to the general public. We try to capture that period of time when jazz struck that perfect balance between artistry and accessibility.”

If you would like to book the Vance Camisa Jazz Quartet for your next event or to discuss additional entertainment and live music bookings in Philadelphia, contact our Talent Buyer, Sean Timmons at 215-240-8552.

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