The Illicit Sextet was not the first Twin Cities jazz band to become popular while playing original material.
Natural Life had blazed that trail in the 1970s, but when the Illicit Sextet came along as a repertory, all-original music combo in 1987, they were still taking the road less traveled, and had the field pretty much all to themselves.
The band beat long odds, developed a strong following, won some awards, put out a fine CD called “Chapter One” and played an amazing 350 consecutive weekly gigs at O’Gara’s. Then the sextet disappeared, or “went into remission,” according to trumpeter Steve Kenny.
The other members — David Roos (guitar), Paul Harper (sax and flute), Chris Lomheim (piano), Tom Pieper (bass) and Nathan Norman (drums) — stayed busy gigging around town. But Kenny, who tended to write the band’s most fiery, hard-charging numbers, embarked on a self-described “decade-long near-death experience.”
Compulsive in all things, Kenny threw himself as wholeheartedly into the drug culture as he had thrown himself into post-bop jazz, or into his day gig of software engineering.
“It’s a real riches-to-rags story,” he bluntly explained. “I co-founded a computer company that had 80 employees, and was billing $10 million a year in consulting fees. I had a lovely wife, two great kids and a successful jazz band. But my disease took over, and by ’97 it all was kaput. I didn’t play or even own a trumpet from 1997 to 2002. I went to the point of being homeless. Technically, I joined a street gang that was infiltrated by a Dakota County task force. After many attempts at rehab, starting in 1997, finally in 2007 and 2008 I was jailed for 126 days, and was facing 48 months in prison. That’s when I finally saw the light. It took the prospect of prison to make me surrender, to do a 180-degree turn. And every single facet of my life improved, starting in 2008.”
Since then, Kenny has been sober and is playing better than ever. The Illicit Sextet has a great new album that proves it, its first in 20 years. It carries the witty title “Chapter Eleven,” a salute to our precarious world economy. The band will play all 14 songs, in order, at release parties next weekend at the Artists’ Quarter.
The venue is appropriate. “It was at the urging of Artists’ Quarter owner Kenny Horst that we put the band back together in 2009,” Kenny said. “For whatever reason, when I was down for the count, the guys never replaced me. And our reunion’s been a hit, with good turnouts at gigs, and now a lot of airplay from KBEM [88.5 FM].”
Kenny wrote the arresting title cut and a barnburner called “Little Big Horn.” He had lots of help in the composing department. This is an ensemble with a wealth of good writers, as anyone who’s heard Lomheim’s excellent trio CDs already knows.
Other highlights come from Harper, whose gorgeous piece, “Will,” has cool tempo shifts and ample echoes of John Coltrane, and Roos, whose “Your Bird’s Feet” is an obvious tip of the hat to Charlie Parker and the bebop generation. Plus, Pieper makes his songwriting debut with the brainy and rather fascinating “Pardon Who?,” which features a true sonic surprise — some “prepared” autoharp licks.
“Chapter Eleven” is a thorough triumph, and nobody is happier about it than Kenny, who also served as the album’s producer and publicist.
“Everything was too easy and too fast the first time,” he says. “I’m so privileged to have crawled my way out of the gutter into some kind of relevance again. I feel like a teenager.”