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.