Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Christopher Bakriges, citizen of the world

  • From left, Avery Sharpe, Billy Arnold, Jay Hoggard and Christopher Bakriges

Published: 6/29/2016 3:37:39 PM

There’s too much quality music in the world to ever discover all the goodies by yourself. Sometimes you need records to fall into your lap — or be handed to you by a friend, which is how I learned about pianist Christopher Bakriges.

The Vermont musician just released a new jazz CD, “Clear and Present,” on which he’s joined by familiar faces of the Pioneer Valley: vibraphonist Jay Hoggard (a frequent guest at the Northampton Jazz Workshop), Springfield bassist Avery Sharpe (a 1976 University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate who worked with McCoy Tyner for decades and has collaborated with too many other luminaries to list) and drummer Billy Arnold (another in-demand Springfield player, who holds down the beat for the Young@Heart Chorus and was the friend who handed over said CD).

Each of the band members gets chances to peek out of the collective playing, but what grabbed me most were Bakridge’s melodic themes, the engaging framework on which everything dances.

“Gnosis” is a seven-minute journey whose intriguing chord changes, ear-tickling melody and playful circularity make you wish the song was double the length. “Western Oceans, Eastern Seas” ends the album with a relaxed, expansive mood until a stormy coda comes along. “Blue Book” is the catchiest thing on the album, a swinging and colorful composition with a breeziness that brings you back for repeated listens.

Bakriges is a lecturer in music at Elms College in Chicopee and also teaches a world music course at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston that focuses on how cultures improvise.

The quartet (without Hoggard) played a recent gig in Great Barrington, but Bakriges has no other shows scheduled in the 413 at the moment. As he told me last week in an email interview, “My sense is that our future touring schedule may actually take us farther and farther away from home base rather than closer to it. In fact, I’m working right now on getting us to Fez, Morocco, for the Sacred Music Festival. I think that when one plays this sort of music, one becomes a citizen of the world.”

Clubland: Why did you name the album “Clear and Present”? I see the phrase and immediately think “clear and present danger.” Were you trying to put a positive spin/pun on a phrase often used with conflict, or was the title inspired by something else entirely?

Christopher Bakriges: So often military terminology [I’ve got an album called “Surface to Air”] appropriates otherwise positive imagery, especially from the natural world, in their branding of war. If there is one thing that ties the quartet together, it’s that we are clear and present in the music!

Clubland: You live in Vermont but recorded the new album with musicians from these parts. You’ve collaborated with Jay, Avery and Billy individually at various times in the past, but what made you decide to work with them together for this project?

Bakriges: I was born and raised in Detroit, so I must say that Vermont is not exactly the hotbed of jazz life that one envisions for a city kid from the streets like myself. But I learned from people like Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland and other artists that one can live in one place and work elsewhere. It makes coming back home after being on the road even more special. Jay, Avery, Billy and myself are kindred spirits musically and otherwise. That’s a winning artistic combination when you can combine friendship, admiration, and attention to detail. I expect to be playing with these gentlemen for a long time to come at the highest levels possible.

Clubland: How has Detroit influenced your composing, if at all?

Bakriges: I often say that I carry my Detroitness in me wherever I go. In fact, I just wrote a short story called “Night Gigs in the Night World” (in Phil Cousineau’s book “Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night’s Journey into Day”) that described meeting legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders at the iconic Detroit haunt Cobb’s Corner in one of my first professional performances. I lived just a stone’s throw from the original Motown Studio and my first teacher outside of classical music was one of Motown’s unheralded Funk Brothers, Earl Van Dyke. Detroit is important.

Clubland: The new CD’s online liner notes describe the song “Door of No Return” as a memorial to the Atlantic slave trade on Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal. Is this a topic you had in mind before the composition of the piece, or did the music you were creating lead you to think of that topic, and then that title?

Bakriges: I get the inspiration either way — either the music comes first and then the title, or else vice versa. With “Door of No Return,” I’d been reading a lot about origins of the slave trade and when I heard that President Obama had gone there, the music seemed to just download. I come from that lineage of what Max Roach referred to as “composer-pianists” who invent on the piano [Abdullah Ibrahim, McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Mal Waldron, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Jaki Byard, etc.]. But it’s also a lineage that is spiritually centered rather than chops oriented, whose music reflects their hopes, dreams, desires and aspirations for a better world. It sounds sappy when I say it, so it’s best that I let the music do the talking for me.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at

“Clear and Present” by the Christopher Bakriges Quartet is available from CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon and the artist’s website,


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