Updated: Feb 20
On February 26, Forte Jazz Lounge will celebrate the release of Rooibos, the self-titled album by the Rooibos Quartet (click to reserve your seat). This project has been in the works since 2016, when guitarist Jesse Shafer first began writing the songs. Rooibos features Shafer on guitar, Tyler Sim on piano, Fisher Wilson on bass and Kain Naylor on drums. And while some members of the group knew each other before joining forces as the Rooibos Quartet – Shafer had met Wilson at the College of Charleston and Naylor at their music store job – their formation was organic and largely a result of chance.
“I originally had an idea of recording this as a guitar-drum-bass trio,” says Shafer. “And then one evening, we were all placed on a gig together – none of us booked it, someone else booked it and put all of us on the gig, including Tyler. I just brought some of the charts in with me, and we played it, and everybody in the restaurant seemed to love it. Though the crowd was small they were all very engaged, which is uncommon for most restaurant gigs.”
It was an “exciting moment” for Shafer, he remembers, “to hear the other members of the band actualize the songs in their own way.” Though he has long been writing and performing original music, when he played the Rooibos material with Sim, Wilson and Naylor that night, “It seemed to immediately click in a way I hadn't experienced before.”
Inspired, Shafer acted quickly on putting the album together. “Every once in a while you find something that you know is good in your heart of hearts, that you really believe in. I’ve just been sitting on these songs and I wanted to do something with them for so long, and I knew they needed to be recorded and heard.”
Shafer recognizes that the album would not be what it is without his bandmates. “I may have written the songs,” he says, “but they certainly would sound nothing like they do, the recordings anyway, without the other guys playing on them. “Plus,” he adds, “we’re all friends, we all know each other really well, and they were open with criticizing things… which I was hoping for and appreciate.”
The Rooibos Quartet recorded the album with producer Wolfgang Zimmerman at Rialto Row, a studio located on the Charleston peninsula. “It really just worked in there, and the creative juiced were flowing. We got it done in two days,” says Shafer.
Almost immediately after recording, the project was briefly put on hold as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country. Not to be deterred, Shafer began to search online for collaborators on the release and promotion of Rooibos. Eventually he reached François Zalacain of New York -based jazz label Sunnyside Records, who agreed to work with them on the project.
Shafer recalls an “easy and smooth” editing and mastering process compared to other recordings he has done. “Every time you play any jazz tune it could be radically different, and there’s no really knowing what it might sound like going into it. There’s one song that we did a few takes of – I believe the first take was like seven minutes long. We ended up going with a take that was almost fifteen minutes long because that was the strongest and most colorful version of it. …When you’re recording jazz, it’s really just capturing a single moment.”
Rooibos will be available for purchase in-person at the release party on February 26th hosted by Forte, where the band will be playing the full album in their early set. It is also available for preorder on their BandCamp page.
Interestingly, Shafer has only been playing jazz for the past five or so years. Having grown up in Nashville, he hails from a country and folk background, evident in his second instrument, which is widely associated with classic American country music. In addition to the traditional steel-string guitar, Shafer plays the pedal-steel guitar, which lies horizontal and affixed to a stand, and whose pedals and levers requires use of all four limbs.
It was moving to the Holy City as a teen, he says, that led him into the jazz community. “When I moved to Charleston… all of my friends were playing jazz gigs at the time. I guess I had never really been exposed to it that much before I moved here, and then I just realized how open and beautiful the music is, and how wide an array of things jazz encompasses. There’s so much to learn and such a high ceiling of what you can do with it that I’m always striving to be a better musician.”
Shafer’s dedication to his work is clear, as he balances multiple music projects and his final semester as a jazz performance major at the College of Charleston. And he, like many, saw the pandemic lockdown as an opportunity for growth. “I spent essentially all of May to August every day just sitting there practicing, and I’ve recorded some music. I’ve started doing some session work and made a little film score. I hope to do more of that kind of stuff. I’m still playing gigs. It’s not as abundant as it once was, but that’s to be expected.”
“The music scene in Charleston is very welcoming, and I am thankful for that,” says Shafer. “Likewise, there is a lot of available work here that makes this a great city to pursue a career. I think while the jazz scene is small, it is exceptionally strong, and some of the world's best jazz musicians live and work here.”
Forte Jazz Lounge in particular has become a vital part of the local music community, elevating musicians to the focal point in a city where so often they find themselves competing with the din of nightlife. With sofas, calm lighting and balanced sound levels, its relaxed and intimate setting draws young and old alike. The value of such a venue is not lost on Shafer, who notes that “most jazz gigs in this city focus on jazz as a background element to a pre-existing event. At Forte, jazz is the event.”
Shafer lists among his musical influences Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Bill Frisell, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. But he credits his stepdad with fostering his love of the art form. “He introduced me to everything from jazz to experimental music and noise and classical music. …And after that I started getting really inspired, because I was hearing tons of music that I actually felt a deep connection to. I guess when I started to play gigs and my friends started to offer me gigs, I knew I needed to put it into high gear.” He names Tyler Ross, guitar teacher at the College of Charleston, “the most important person in pushing me to my limits and shaping me as a musician,” and touts the low student-to-teacher ratio he has enjoyed in the College of Charleston’s jazz program.
Shafer’s other bands include Inn Vinegar and Wolfgang Zimmerman’s Invisible Low End Power. The other members of Rooibos are just as active in the local music scene: Naylor in a group called the Dumb Doctors; Wilson with the Pluff Mud String Band; and Sim a member of Contour. Wilson and Sim also regularly play at Forte. As for the Rooibos Quartet, Shafer says they intend to play mostly on special occasions, rather than regular gigs.
When asked about his most memorable gig, Shafer tells a story not about jazz specifically, but one that illustrates the power of improvisation: “I’ve gotten to play some amazing gigs and some festivals, but… one of the most important gigs of my life actually happened last weekend. It was just a solo guitar gig that I was covering for a friend of mine at a little restaurant; there were maybe like ten people there. There was a construction site across the street that was super loud, and the staff of the restaurant and all the people eating there were irritated by it. And then at one point, there was like a super loud hammering sound that was in time, coming from the construction site. So I just used it as a metronome and started playing along with it, and nobody even cared that the construction was happening. That’s like a once-in-a-lifetime chance for sure. That kind of stuff means way more to me than playing in an arena in front of a million people. Finding value in that kind of stuff is definitely what it’s all about to me.”
For tickets to the Rooibos album release and performance, please visit https://www.fortejazzlounge.com/tickets.
Saxophonist Kevin Patton, like many of his peers, got his start with his instrument in his middle school band. But his first musical experience was in choir in church. His spirituality would remain a strong influence on his musical life for many years to come. “Growing up in church, that’s really influenced my sound and my style,” says Patton. “You can hear that little gospel twang in my playing across the board.” But, he notes, “we’re really influenced by everything around us to some degree.”
Patton lists among his influences saxophone legends John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. But just as important have been his personal mentors. A 2014 graduate of the College of Charleston, Patton remembers one jazz mentor in particular: “My personal saxophone professor was Robert Lewis — he’s now the conductor and music director of the Charleston Jazz orchestra. Studying with him has allowed me to grow in with the culture of the city and easily transition into professional music in Charleston.”
Many College of Charleston graduates have spoken of the valuable performance opportunities available to young musicians building their careers. “The city is the campus and the campus is the city,” observes Patton. “It’s very very integrated with the city, you can be walking down the street and pass by one of the buildings and not even know it. Having that situation where your professors are also the biggest players in town, your professors are also composing for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra… It can be kind of awkward, especially with the professors that are kind of strict in the classroom, but when you actually play with them… Once you get to a certain level there’s certain things you can let fly, and we have the freedom to bend if you actually know what’s going on.”
Patton has played at such major events as Piccolo Spoleto, the Savannah Black Heritage Festival and the Atlanta Heritage Music Festival. One of his crowning achievements has been the album he released in summer 2015 with fellow College of Charleston graduates Demetrius Doctor, Brett Belanger and Brandon Brooks. In addition to private lessons, Patton substitute teaches at the Allegro Charter School of Music. Since the pandemic began he has been producing an online series titled “Music In Charleston”, in which he records music at iconic local settings such as Marion Square and the Gibbes Museum of Art.
Speaking of the effect of social distancing restrictions on local businesses, Patton says, “I’m glad Joe [Clarke] has been able to create Forte and keep it going. Big credit to him for being able to weather the storm. …I can see Forte blossoming into one of the man jazz spots not just for to Charleston but for all of South Carolina.”
Gillian Kohn’s love of the classic era of jazz and Hollywood began in her youth. Growing up in small-town Hartsville, SC, she always dreamed big, studying closely the black-and-white films she loved and their stars: Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland. Involved in her community theater from a young age, she kept an eye toward performing and a hope of traveling to New York City.
This wish was granted when at 17, Kohn’s acting talents earned her an invitation to study at the the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, where she honed her storytelling skills with acting teacher Geoffrey Horne. After graduating high school, she went on to the College of Charleston, where she studied classical voice with soprano Margaret Kelly-Cook; however, finding that classical voice wasn’t her calling, she went back to New York City, where she was accepted at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
The financial difficulty of sustaining life and study in New York, however, led Kohn to travel even further — this time to live and work in London, England and then Sydney, Australia. Kohn describes this as a time of personal growth and confidence-building. Never giving up on her music career, she continued to perform on her days off from work.
In 2003 Kohn returned to the United States. In the following years, she studied communications at Coker College, formed a jazz trio, and moved back to Charleston, where she won the FOX 24 Low Country Idol competition which earned her a trip to Chicago. During this time she also met her husband, and over the next decade her attentions were largely focused on their family and the business they owned together.
However, Kohn has returned to the stage. In 2018 she met jazz guitarist Chris Dodson, when he moved in next door, and together they formed Neighbors Jazz Duo. She has performed at many local venues, has been involved with such high-profile events as Charleston Fashion Week, and is a strong advocate for non-profit organizations like the Charleston Walk for Autism, Surfers Healing, and the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Gillian Kohn will be performing at Forte Jazz Lounge on Saturday, October 10th. For tickets, go to https://www.fortejazzlounge.com/events/forte-jazz-trio-7-00pm-11-00pm-6. For more about the artist, visit her website at https://gilliankohn.com.