There was a time when jazz was dangerous -
both to the powers that be and to the audience. It’s hard to imagine now, but Paradigm Shift bandleader Melvin Henderson and his longtime creative partner Gerry Youngman remember it well. Children of jazz, Henderson and Youngman grew up weaned on the stuff. Henderson cut his teeth playing guitar in nightclubs of dubious enough repute that his father occasionally had to come along as his chaperone. Years earlier, a 10-year old Youngman would skip accordion lessons and catch a city bus to the legendary Upstate NY jazz club the Pythod Room, where a sympathetic doorman would let him in. Whether it was any place for a kid, it’s a good thing, because it was there that Youngman got to witness many of jazz’s all-time organ legends in action at the very peak of their powers.
This was, of course, a time before the artform had been put in mothballs, when jazz wasn’t considered background music, and there was real grit in the clubs. "At that time," recalls Henderson, "it didn't matter if a tray of dishes came crashing down in the middle of the dining room. That kind of thing wasn't unusual at all. People didn't just sit there quietly. There was truly a live atmosphere because you never really knew what was liable to happen. So you had to be aware. And look for ways to connect with the crowd if you wanted to keep their toes tapping." Yes, as Henderson knew, real life was happening in the audience: love affairs might get off to a passionate start or come to a screeching halt – sometimes on the same night! People sweated, they argued... and, of course, they danced. So you thought twice about taking the attention of the crowd lightly. And you learned fast that it wasn’t about people looking at you – it was about people feelin’ it.
This was at the glorious dawn of the organ in jazz, when players like Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Dr. Lonnie Smith – the latter two Henderson would go on to play with, but more on that later – were waging a small revolution with the instrument that would forever re-direct the course of the music. Meanwhile, guitarists like George Benson and Kenny Burrell were catching on and doing their part, crossing swords with these hot organists and pushing the guitar to new heights of expression. As the soul-jazz movement was making bold strides and capturing the imagination of the public, Henderson and Youngman were listening – intently. Together, they represent the last generation of musicians who were still in their formative years during jazz’s golden mid-to late-'60s period. As young kids, they soaked up the myriad sounds as post-bop blossomed into experimental, fusion, and funkified strains of the art. George Benson's 1966 soul-jazz masterpiece The George Benson Cookbook, which featured Dr. Lonnie Smith, changed everything for Henderson, while Jimmy Smith’s Organ Grinder Swing, which featured Kenny Burrell, had done the same for Youngman a year earlier. Both records laid the groundwork for the organ-guitar archetype that Henderson and Youngman would expand on later.
But at that time, as the music was getting hotter, the world was feeling change in the air. Society was lurching forward – often in painful ways – and jazz musicians were still at the frontlines battling for that hard-won change. And while it might be tough to figure out quite how we got to the point where a once vital, cutting-edge music became so damn safe, when Paradigm Shift hits the stage and starts to tear it up, the safety goes right out the window and the music’s true spirit comes roaring back to life, the band clawing at glory like a hungry, creatively ambitious beast. If precious few artists have kept the home fires burning since soul-jazz’s storied heyday, Henderson and Youngman understand that this music still captures everything that is colorful and vibrant about us. To them, jazz isn’t static. It isn’t a museum piece. And not only must musicians do their absolute best to make their mark and re-create the art form as their own, they also have to reflect the everyday concerns weighing on listeners' minds – concerns which came to bear on the band’s 2007 album Street Expressionism.
Naturally, Henderson and Youngman feel most at home in front of an elbow-to-elbow crowd, with people standing up to get down and put the band through the paces. The band is happy to return the favor, with sizzling grooves that seem to say: when the hell did we start looking back at this great music as something that passed on? Nobody told us! So put the embalming fluid back on the shelf, because organ jazz is alive and well and – at least in these nimble hands – a decisively modern artform. Right there at their fingertips, the future of jazz is being molded, sculpted, sweated and wrung-out, one tasty lick at a time.
But before we look forward, here’s a quick recap of where these two gentlemen have been.
Youngman and Henderson (who attended Berklee College of Music in the ’60s and ’70, respectively) were well-traveled veterans by the time they co-founded Paradigm Shift in the early ‘90s. Youngman had toured with classic R&B icons like The Drifters, The Platters, Martha Reeves, and seminal St. Louis blue-eyed soul legend Walter Scott, while Henderson had toured and/or recorded with Al Jarreau, Roy Ayers, Cheryl Lynn, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. As a hungry, intrepid gunslinger just out of music school, Henderson pursued playing with Jack McDuff – simply because “that’s what George Benson did, so that’s what I figured I’d do.” A more mature Henderson would go on to gig regularly with both David “Fathead” Newman and Dr. Lonnie Smith. Henderson also understands jazz from the other side of the velvet rope, with years under his belt as a successful nightclub owner (Indigo’s, in the band’ native Rochester, NY).
Of course, organ-guitar fireworks have powered the Henderson-Youngman vision from day one, but Paradigm Shift became a bona-fide organ trio one fateful night, when the group's then-bassist had to leave a gig early. Henderson looked at Youngman and both men new what had to be done. "Looks like you're playing the basslines tonight," said Henderson. Youngman instantly embraced his expanded role, the gig was a success, and they haven't looked back since. The band’s Grammy-nominated first album, 2004’s Shifting Times, released on Nagel-Heyer Records, featured the additional talents of Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra luminaries Wycliffe Gordon and Marcus Printup, as well as vibraphone star Joe Locke. Paradigm Shift has cultivated a longtime relationship with Gordon, whom the band has toured with in Europe.
Along the way, both with and without the extra personnel, Paradigm Shift has carried the classic organ-trio sound into the 21st-century. And, they stand perfectly poised to do it even better now that they have the extraordinary talents of up-and-coming drummer Sean Jefferson behind them. Jefferson comes to the group not only as a drummer but as a composer in his own right and brings an orchestral sensibility to his parts. He rises far above the role of mere beat-supplier, instead thinking as an arranger with a keen ear for how the drums fit the whole of the music. While heavily inspired by innovative skinsmen like Elvin Jones, Jack De Johnette, and Jeff “Tain” Watts, composers like Thelonious Monk, Aaron Copeland, Paul Hindemith, and Beethoven have also had a profound impact on Jefferson. Which is not to say that he doesn’t groove. This is funky music, after all. And Jefferson more than delivers, in the form of impeccable chops, hard-charging rhythms and an innate feel for swing. But he is also an emerging pioneer of his generation, always searching for where this music can go next. And the explosive chemistry between Jefferson’s forward-thinking drive and the core duo’s seasoned experience is the fruit come to bear on year after year of knuckle-breaking work.
Make no mistake, this is hearty music made by players with a workhorse ethic. Which means it’s music you move to. But Henderson also cautions against lumping the band in with some of its younger, more narrowly beat-focused contemporaries. "We're not just playing groove music," he says. True – as funky and dirty as these guys get, there’s no denying Henderson's smooth-as-silk delivery, the elegance in Youngman's rich organ phrases, or the underlying complexity in Jefferson’s drum flourishes. Not to mention the band’s poise as it turns soulful chord progressions inside out and renders them new.
Indeed, Paradigm Shift doesn’t want to just give you an excuse to party like it’s 1966 again. Henderson and company don’t want to leave you stuck in the past. They’re out to pump the blood and vigor and fury back into jazz’s heartbeat. Their music reflects a yearning for a life on the edge – the edge of new experiences, of becoming a more aware person, of growing as a society, and (as the bandname suggests) taking a collective leap forward. This razor’s edge, between one state and the next, is of course the place where jazz was meant to exist, and where the most compelling music continues to be made.