Beyond the swinghouse

Boulder-bred Lao Tizer shares some thoughts on jazz radio, adding a vocalist and surviving a big project

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Lao Tizer
Courtesy of Lao Tizer

After a failed attempt, or three, we finally caught up to Lao Tizer on a Friday afternoon after he had wrapped up a band rehearsal session in Los Angeles. Tizer is a cat constantly in motion; writing, playing, managing his band and schedules, chasing gigs… so our chat wasn’t exactly chill time for the keyboardist/bandleader. Calling us from his car on one of those SoCal freeways, we felt a little weird about chatting him up while he was navigating LA traffic.

Is that really such a great idea? 

Tizer laughs.

“Well, it’s rush hour, and during rush hour it’s always bumper-to-bumper, so it’s a little hard to get into too much trouble,” he says. “But hey… Denver’s no cakewalk for traffic either.”

Fair enough.

Tizer plays at Dazzle next Friday, May 24, for a return engagement with his quartet after having played there last summer. 

It’s a kind of homecoming for the artist; raised in Boulder, Tizer played his first gigs as a high school kid on the Pearl Street Mall for loose change and moved to LA pretty much right after graduating from Boulder High.  

His band’s latest project, Songs from the Swinghouse, came out last year. The ninth release for Tizer, the album is a full-bore, multi-media project (album and DVD), with as many as 15 players and a professional eight-camera video crew (directed by Andy LaViolette) capturing the tracks in real time at Conway Studios in Hollywood. On paper that may sound a bit dry, but the results are fairly astonishing — Tizer’s deep and mature arrangements, combining guitars, a variety of keys, strings and a four-piece brass section, highlight his deft compositional discipline and the band’s innate connection to the material. Ranging from the Latin-garnished “16th Heaven,” the lithe and melodic “A Prayer for Unity,” and the hard swing of “The Source,” Tizer summons the full package from funk and bop to nuance and introspection. 

This was one of those watershed, everything-else-led-to-this moments. A year later, with a couple of videos still to be released online, the glow of exhausted satisfaction hasn’t yet dissolved. 

“I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life,” Tizer says. “I ate, drank and slept it, and everybody in the band and all the additional musicians really just brought their 100 percent A-game. The whole thing was such a family vibe and a lot of joy when we finally got to the sessions… but the leading up to that, man, especially six months before, three months before, it was working every night until three or four in the morning, sleeping a few hours, hardly eating. You’re really in it. 

“Super gratifying to pull it off, and of course, some of the best musicians anywhere. I’m lucky to keep such amazing company.”

We wonder if the cameras — panning across the studio, drawing in tight for close-ups — were a distraction. 

“Y’know, they actually weren’t,” Tizer says. “At first you thought it might be, but you know what? Everybody in the band are such pros with so much experience, they’ve all done TV, a lot of them have been on the late night shows. And I of course was band leading, wrote the tunes, did most of the horn and string arrangements, trying to stay focused on playing well, and was liaising with the director who was always right next to me with a boom. So, yeah, it was everything.” 

The project also marked another first for Tizer, the addition of a vocalist on three cover tunes, including a zesty and utterly unpretentious read of “Ramble On,” with vocalist Tita Hutchison teasing the lyrics for every gram of whimsy and rage the original served up. Alternately bluesy and buoyant, hypnotic and fierce, the addition of a genre-defiant cover like this only serves to underscore Tizer’s confidence in his band and arranging skills. No, a Led Zeppelin cover shouldn’t work on a jazz record. Yes, it soars beautifully here. 

“[Tita] and I have have co-written a whole bunch of cool original vocal stuff since then, and two of them have been in the live show for over a year, and we have two or three more that we’re almost done arranging for the band. So the next project will probably have original vocal stuff — I don’t know that we’ll do any more cover stuff; I mean, it’s just never really been in my DNA — and the rest will be instrumental.”

There used to be a time when a solid cover was a play for some radio time, but radio airplay is a diminishing target for a commercial jazz band these days. We chatted a bit back in 2007 about the slow atrophy of so-called “smooth jazz” radio, and things haven’t gotten much better. Any better, for that matter.

“Well, I was never really a ‘smooth jazz’ artist,” Tizer says. “My music has sensibilities and appeals to that audience, but we also appeal to a lot of other audiences as well. So I never really fit into that box.   

“In 2009, over the course of six to nine months, the bottom just kind of fell out, the format lost 15 of the major market stations. All the key markets: Chicago, New York, San Diego, Miami. These days, there just isn’t much radio to speak of. Songs from the Swinghouse is actually a pretty eclectic record to begin with, and we did have a single that we went to radio with, and we did have another campaign to straight-ahead radio, college and jamband, and that’s actually where we had more success. 

“But the one big reason we did all the video … was social media. Did you know, there’s 20,000 new tracks added to Spotify every day? Every day. The logjam of content out there can be really daunting.” 

Tizer says he always welcomes the chance to come back to Colorado — he played with longtime Denver sax icon Nelson Rangell last summer, and they’ve remained in touch — but raises a question that’s been dancing around the music community here for years. 

“How does Denver/Boulder not have a jazz festival? How can we not have an annual jazz festival at Red Rocks? The Playboy Jazz Festival (which is still a thing, kids) should be at Red Rocks. The Denver area has a great music scene, including some really great jazz musicians.”

Maybe Tizer, who’s been planted in the palm-lined pastures of SoCal for more than two decades now, should consider a move back? Leavin’ LA… isn’t that a song?  

He laughs.

“It took a long time to get tied in, a network, friends that’re your people. But now … I really have a great situation and a great network of people. Part of me would love to move back to Colorado. My girlfriend is a Pasadena native and loves Colorado… but she’s afraid of winter.”  

ON THE BILL: The Lao Tizer Quartet featuring Eric Marienthal.6:30-10:15 p.m. Friday, May 24, Dazzle @ Baur’s 1512 Curtis St., Denver. Tickets range from$15 to $30.