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Randy Villars with the Brandon Coleman Trio at Filament

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by Andrew Patton on June 17, 2019

Filament at the Vanderelli Room in Franklinton continues to present a wide range of high quality live jazz (and beyond) entertainment, including a special show next week. Dayton multi-instrumentalist and educator Randy Villars will be joined by the Brandon Scott Coleman Trio at Filament on Thursday, June 27th at 9pm. A $10 donation is requested at the door for admission – more info here. This same band – with Cincinnati’s Coleman on guitar, Matt Wiles on bass, and Jeff Mellott on drums – put on a rousing show at Filament on June 27th, 2018, so the same is expected a year later! Villars was kind enough to provide extensive answers via email to my questions about the band, his career, and his numerous upcoming projects. Keep reading to learn more and come down to Filament on the 27th for a high-powered straight ahead show from some of Southwest Ohio’s finest musicians!

Looking forward to your show with the Brandon Coleman Trio at Filament – I heard the band’s last show there was excellent! What can jazz fans expect at this concert?

Randy Villars (RV): Glad there were good reports from last time, Andrew! We had a great time playing at Filament last year! Cool place! It was the first gig on our little mini-tour last summer. The other dates were in NYC. What jazz fans can expect this time is a band that has gotten to know each other musically a little more and, as with last year’s performance, we will be doing originals by Brandon Coleman and myself.

What excites you about what Coleman, Matt Wiles and Jeff Mellott bring to this band’s sound?

RV: That’s an easy one to answer! They each have a voice, a confidence in what they play. Because they have played together as a trio so much, I am the beneficiary of a refined, honed continuity in their tones, time, inventiveness, language, and more. With Brandon, he’s a genius composer and improviser. World class! And he brings a totally fresh approach to every gig and every tune. It is never “phoned-in.” He is always present and listening and responding – and that makes it fun! With Matt, his time is rock solid and because he is a fan of many different styles of music, his solos and playing are filled with references and influences from those other styles as well as the styles that are closer to what we do. He, like Brandon, is very inventive and fresh every time out! Matt, like Brandon and Jeff is very current with his knowledge of the iconic older guys and also the younger players who are showing up in the music and this results in constant new influences being felt in the group when we play. Jeff Mellott is a great, great drummer from so many angles. He has all the rudimentary skills down, of course, and is an endorser for Canopus Drums, Bosphorus Cymbals and Vic Firth sticks, so he is very conscious of sound and tone and has worked very hard to find the right combinations that work for him and allow him to be very musical and responsive and also to deliver great power and force when it’s called for by the music! His time is impeccable and it makes it so much easier for a horn player like me to blow over good time! No matter how much in the way of language and chops a drummer has, if the time is not solid, it is not comfortable for me to try to play together with that kind of drummer. All three guys have great time and that is so fortunate! Jeff is kind of the glue that holds it all together and he is never selfish about his playing whether he is comping or soloing. That is musical maturity and benevolence and I am very grateful that he is that way!

Although I first played together with Matt and then Brandon and finally Jeff, they had been playing together as a trio for a while before the “trio” actually became the rhythm section for my quartet gigs. But I still prefer to bill these gigs as “Randy Villars with The Brandon Scott Coleman Trio” as opposed to the original way we used to bill it as “The Randy Villars Band” out of the tremendous respect I hold for those guys individually and as a performing trio.

It is rare for a musician to play at a high level on both piano and saxophone. What led you to develop your skills on both instruments? How does that dual knowledge affect your approach to music?

RV: When I was a junior in college, I auditioned for a summer show that ran at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Was fortunate enough to be selected and when I got to L.A. I met and eventually had the great experience of playing together at Disneyland with the great pianist/saxophonist/clarinetist Tom Ranier and the great pianist/saxophonist/composer/arranger Gordon Goodwin. I found there were others who kept both keys and wind instruments going as gigging instruments. My ability to play the keyboard instruments as well as saxophone, clarinet and a tiny bit of flute, got me the gig at the park the second year I was there – as the book I played for the show was written for alto sax, Minimoog and Lyricon! That is a good example of how being able to play more than one instrument or family of instruments can help someone to keep working! It started for me with requesting of my parents at five years old that they get me a piano teacher – that was my desire. I took classical piano lessons for about 10 years and entered college on a scholarship as a classical piano performance major. I was also interested in the violin, but that path was not to be. Then, because my dad was from New Orleans, I had heard Dixieland music (Pete Fountain was my hero) and I started on the clarinet in the 4th grade and studied it very seriously with Art Eresman, the principal in the Dayton Phil, and lastly, the saxophone in high school – and that’s when the jazz bug really got me! I have tried to keep them all going equally ever since. And to the last part of your question, the sax is the closest I’ll ever get to singing. If you heard me try to sing, that would make sense :-). And the piano is an orchestra at your fingertips. The piano has certainly informed my playing on all the instruments I play and also has helped me tremendously in my pursuit of understanding/grasping harmony – which obviously helps in improvising and composing/arranging.

I see that your first big break was to play piano with the legendary Sonny Stitt at Gilly’s Jazz Club in Dayton. What was that experience like?

RV: Oh, man! This is better told out loud in person or at least over the phone, but here goes…I was a college student at Wittenberg University, 20 years old, and got a phone call in my dorm room from my friend and great drummer Steve Barnes, who just took over the drumming chair at North Texas with the legendary Ed Soph retiring. Steve in a very excited tone asked me if I was “sitting down!” He proceeded to tell me that Jerry Gillotti, the owner of Gilly’s in Dayton, Ohio, had booked the saxophone giant Sonny Stitt for a weekend and told me that I would be on piano along with the soon-to-be legendary Dave Carpenter on bass, and Steve on drums!!! I have to admit that at 20, I wasn’t fully aware of how big a deal this was, but I soon found out! There is so much more to this story, but no time here to tell it. Maybe another time? Anyway, the bottom line was it was a beautiful experience and we all had a blast and Sonny was cool and beautiful with us and the audience loved it and Jerry was happy. It was INCREDIBLE! The GREAT Sonny Stitt!! He sounded MAGNIFICENT!!! And I learned a lot from him through osmosis just being in his presence that weekend.

I understand that you played with the great keyboardist Bernie Worrell for several years – any particular stories or memories of that experience?

RV: Well, yes, of course! First off, Bernie was one of the greatest human beings I have ever met. High consciousness, a musical genius, humble, funny, immensely talented and very, very nice to me personally. I loved him instantly when we met. I used to look forward to a couple alto sax solos I had in the Bootsy shows when Bernie would lay down his patented chorused Clarinet and Rhodes sounds under my solo. He would throw a little Herbie-esque stuff in there and get a mischievous look in his eye as if to say, “Look at us, you and me, getting away with a little jazz in the middle of this funk concert!!!:-)” He was delightful and I am so saddened that he is gone now. It was Cancer and I wish he could have beaten it. I love Bernie Worrell!

Tell me about the Dayton Jazz Institute. How did this program get started and what impact has it had on local jazz education?

RV: Thanks for asking about that, Andrew. The Dayton Jazz Institute is my teaching studio. Here is the website with lots of info on it for anyone who is interested in finding out more: www.daytonjazzinstitute.com. Since my late 20’s, I have had a fascination with the idea of creating a teaching studio along the lines of the one Dick Grove has in L.A. for about 20 years. The idea was to offer jazz improvisation lessons to players of all instruments and technical instruction on specific instruments from a staff of qualified teachers who are themselves working professional musicians. That is what we are building at The Dayton Jazz Institute. And it is starting to catch on! In addition to private instruction, we offer a free-to-attend monthly jazz jam (2nd Saturday of each month during the school year) and a monthly Masterclass with world-class clinicians on the last Saturday of the month – usually. This month the guest artist/clinician is the great Los Angeles trombonist Scott Whitfield (Saturday, June 22nd at 11am till 12:30pm at The Dayton Jazz Institute, 1625 Springhill Ave, Dayton, Ohio 45409 – $20 cash or money order admission at the door only)! Scott plays with the Carl Saunders Big Band and the Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra. He is amazing and definitely worth seeing even if you are not a trombonist! So, the concept is to keep building the student roster and the faculty roster and to offer more special events and to even eventually act as a cultural liaison in bringing in world class jazz acts for performances in the Dayton area. We have a wonderful facility in Kettering and things have been going very well and in the right direction there since we moved into this new facility a year ago or so. We are going to be working with the high schools in a collaborative way to let students know that there is high quality jazz education available to them – a rare commodity for so many reasons – at The Dayton Jazz Institute. Here is a small testament to how we have been able to impact the local jazz community:

• Successful college jazz auditions for a number of Dayton Jazz Institute high school saxophonists in the last 5 years. I received a very nice note of thanks from the audition professors at Julliard School of Music after the audition there of one of my students.

• Helped facilitate an adult saxophonist graduate in Jazz Studies and perform her senior recital at CCM (University of Cincinnati)

• Presented Masterclasses from the following great local and national artists:

– Tom Buckley – drummer
– Jeff Mellott – drummer
– Brandon Scott Coleman Quartet Masterclass (BSC, Ben Tweedt – now teaching at Central State, Matt Wiles, Jeff Mellott)
– Peter Mazza – World-class New York City jazz guitarist
– Scott Whitfield – World-class Los Angeles trombonist, author and educator (upcoming on June 22nd)
More in the works!

• Randy Villars with The Brandon Scott Coleman Trio will present a Masterclass at The Stivers School for the Arts on September 19th. I taught at Stivers for 6 years and served as an assistant to the Symphonic Winds, Concert Band and Jazz Ensemble, teaching private lessons to saxophone and piano students and working with the woodwinds from the Symphonic Winds and Concert Band and the sax section and rhythm section from the Jazz Ensembles from 2009 to 2015.
I accompanied the Jazz Ensemble to New York in 2012 for their performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center under the direction of now former-director Claude Thomas. This is sponsored by and representing The Dayton Jazz Institute as all of us are available for lesson arrangements at DJI.

My hope is that things will keep expanding at The DJI and that we will add, among other things, a reading big band for players to just have some fun sitting in the section and reading great big band arrangements, and also, along the lines of what the Musician’s Union Hall has going in Los Angeles, a chance for arrangers to bring in their new charts and rehearse them and hear them played!

Do you have any new projects, albums or concerts in the works?

RV: Oh, my gosh, YES! Here is a short list:

• The NEW North Berlin Sundays Club – jazz fusion album project underway. Original band: Steve Petrey – gtr (Florida) Randy Villars – keyboards, Dave Carpenter (sadly, the late) – bass, Steve Barnes – drums (Texas). Current players: Steve Petrey, Randy Villars, Matt Wiles, Steve Barnes’ student Chris Parker – drums (Brooklyn, New York). Originals by Dave Carpenter and Randy Villars.

• The Randy Villars Trio (Rv piano) Recording project with Matt Wiles – bass and Jeff Mellott – drums. The album is almost finished and will be released later this year. It is called “TWO WORLDS” and features all post-bop originals by Randy Villars.

• “Randy Villars with The Brandon Scott Coleman Trio” recording project – In the works. May be released in 2019. The album is called “THE OTHER SIDE.”

• “Randy Villars with The Brandon Scott Coleman Trio”
LIVE AT THE DAYTON LEVITT PAVILION!!! Friday, June 28th. 7-8:30PM. Free concert! Open to the public. Beautiful, new outdoor venue in Downtown Dayton right across the street from the former GILLY’S NIGHT CLUB.
Our highest profile gig yet!!!

• I also have a clarinet album planned – a tribute to my mentor, the great Pete Fountain, a solo piano project, a tenor sax ballads album, an orchestral recording and live performance of a through-composed improvised jazz-flavored orchestral original called “Out-Fluence.”

• A pop-jazz saxophone album called “DREAMS.” Now in the early stages of production. There is an arrangement on this project that will feature the great trumpet players Dan Fornero and Wayne Bergeron. But that song is not mixed yet. Long way to go on this project!

• A second Randy Villars Trio album called “MELODIES” which will feature re-worked standards. Matt Wiles – bass, Jeff Mellott – drums. Not underway yet although we have already played the arrangements at live performances.

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