“We’re too jazzy to play the rock clubs and not jazzy enough to play the jazz clubs.”
That’s trombonist and composer Ryan Heinlein describing his band, the Project H, which has become one of the most intriguing and talked-about in town.
Though the band has been going without a lot of notice for well over five years, it’s finally getting some well-deserved attention with its new CD, “We Live Among the Lines,” and a growing gig calendar that includes an appearance Thursday at the Westport CoffeeHouse.
There’s simply nothing else on the local scene quite like it. (Have yourself a listen at TheProjectHKC.com.)
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The Project H lineup has plenty of coloristic possibilities, with three horns plus guitar, piano, bass and drums. And Heinlein explores those possibilities by writing pieces that turn corners, duck down alleys, dance over trap doors and run for the horizon.
The groove might change from moody to funky in the blink of an eye, and sometimes the melody slips logically into odd meters — “I try not to force it,” Heinlein says — but the whole thing feels organic.
Each tune seems to be set up as a concerto to feature just a couple of the soloists — and the band is full of good ones. The A-team has Heinlein, trumpeter Clint Ashlock, tenor saxophonist Brett Jackson, pianist Andrew Ouellette, guitarist Jeff Stocks, bassist Dominique Sanders and drummer Matt Leifer (though on any given night there might be a sub or two).
Heinlein doesn’t even give himself many of the solos. He just follows the Ellington model: give a player some good music and some space to play, then enjoy what happens next.
All kinds of influences come through in the music. Heinlein grew up listening to rock and soul, everything that his cover-band organist father played and everything his older siblings liked. He’s a fan of heavy metal and reggae along with Thelonious Monk.
He started the trombone in sixth grade, though it was his third-choice instrument after sax and cello. Still, he stuck with it. He got serious about jazz at Wichita State University when he heard a Charles Mingus record — one with the kind of big, ambitious, moody pieces that Heinlein is writing today.
The compositions started appearing later, when Heinlein found himself teaching high school music in Wichita.
“I had always been kind of interested in writing but never really pursued it. I had a piano in my band room, and having a band of 20 kids got frustrating sometimes, so that was my release. I’d stay late at night just messing around on the piano. I came up with chord progressions I thought were cool, wrote some melodies for them and summoned enough courage to ask some people to come play them. We had some practices, got a gig at a new-music festival in Wichita and took off from there.”
His wife’s work brought them to Kansas City in 2008. Heinlein seized the opportunity to focus on playing instead of teaching, and he enrolled at the University of Kansas. Bobby Watson heard him on a gig and recruited him for the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The rest is history in the making.
He has a bachelor’s in music education from UMKC and is finishing his doctorate in trombone. But hearing the Project H music, with its intricacies and its own logic, you think this guy must have done some serious composition studies. Not true.
“Aside from the music theory courses you have to take in school, I’ve never taken composition lessons,” Heinlein says.
(Ashlock says, “I hope he never does.”)
The Project H has been an on-again, off-again thing since he has been in Kansas City. Heinlein has taken some time off for studies and family matters. (He has a 4-year-old, who plays with a plastic trombone to help his dad practice, and a 4-month-old.) And there was some time out to write new music.
But it’s been on for the last year or so, and it shows in the band’s spirit and dedication.
It’s hard to say what kind of music this is. Words like “cinematic” come to mind. And “moody” and “funky,” but we already said that. It’s music that goes on dancing in your head a long time after it has stopped playing. It’s jazz and more. It’s the good kind.
The Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., has trumpeter Stan Kessler’s Parallax band, with the two-drummer attack of Ryan Lee and Brian Steever, at 7 p.m. Thursday. Singer Lady D appears at 8:30 p.m. Friday. Baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, promoting her CD of Thelonious Monk music, “Baritone Monk,” performs with her quartet at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Pianist T.J. Martley is in charge of the Monday jam at 7 p.m.
Highlights at the Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., include organist Chris Hazelton’s trio at 9 p.m. Thursday and his Boogaloo 7 band at 10 p.m. Friday; keyboardist Max Groove’s trio at 9:30 p.m. Saturday; the Foundation 627 Big Band at 8 p.m. Sunday; bassist Karl McComas-Reichl’s trio at 9 p.m. Monday; keyboardist Bram Wijnands and his B3 Bombers at 9 p.m. Tuesday; and organist Ken Lovern’s OJT at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Highlights at the Broadway Jazz Club, 3601 Broadway, include singer and percussionist Miguel “Mambo” DeLeon and Carte Blanc at 6 p.m. Thursday; singer Molly Hammer at 7 p.m. Friday; singer Angela Hagenbach at 7 p.m. Saturday; and a live recording session for the “12th Street Jump” radio show, honoring the music of Les McCann and featuring pianist Joe Cartwright, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Take Five Coffee + Bar, 5336 W. 151st St. in Leawood, has the band Hard @ Play, evoking the brass-rock-jazz sound of Blood, Sweat & Tears or early Chicago, at 8 p.m. Friday. Singer Shay Estes performs at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Bassist Karl McComas-Reichl’s Team Sports band plays the next show on the alternative jazz series at RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road, at 8 p.m. Sunday.
The Project H appears at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11, at the Westport CoffeeHouse Theatre, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave.