Aug 28, 2012 - Justin Echols Trio kicks off Jazz Depot's Autumn Series

 Justin Echols Trio kicks  off Jazz Depot's Autumn Series

            When it comes to jazz, singer-pianist Justin Echols was a late bloomer. But he caught up fast – thanks to a turn of events that could’ve just as easily spelled tragedy.

            In the early part of this century, Echols – a member of the Oklahoma City police force currently serving as a school resource officer – began training soldiers to be military policemen during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A member of the Army Reserve, Echols was also slated for deployment to Iraq.

            That was before a head-on collision in Oklahoma City left him with serious spine injuries, as well as several other physical problems. The Army Reserve gave him a medical discharge, and, by his own admission, he couldn’t do much of anything for a while.

            “I was in my twenties when all this was happening,” he says, “My mother had bought a piano, and I began to pluck a little on it. I’d also started listening aggressively to music. I started to study, and then to sing, jazz – more for me, for my emotions and self-esteem, than for any other reason. Pretty soon, I was doing it three and four hours a day.”

            And after a while, he decided he wanted to try doing it for others, too.

            “I’d run into a guy who sang to background tracks, and I thought, “I could do that,’” he recalls. “ So I went out and got a disc with 12 tracks on it, mostly Nat King Cole stuff like  ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ and `Nature Boy.’

            “Now, I’d sung in church, but I didn’t know jazz at all. At the time, those 12 tracks were the only 12 jazz songs I knew.  But, in August of 2004, I got a gig at the Boulevard Steakhouse in Oklahoma City, singing to background tracks. It took about a year for me to get good enough to play and sing.”

            Once he did, however, there was no stopping him. He next got involved with the Red Piano Lounge in Oklahoma City’s Skirvin Hilton, which offered five nights of live jazz every week.

            “I was in the hard-hat area before it opened, trying to figure out where to put the piano,” he remembers. “I played there the first week, and I remember feeling very much like a novice. But I wanted to have a place where people could hear jazz; I couldn’t go hear it anywhere else that often.”

            Echols played the venue weekly for four years, booking it himself for the first year. These days, he’s doing much the same thing as artist-in-residence at the Hefner Grill in Oklahoma City, where his trio (including bassist Nathan Eicher, who appeared at the Jazz Depot last Sunday with his father and brothers) plays four nights a week – when Echols isn’t on the road.

            “I’m touring 15 weeks out of the year now,” he says. “I’m able to do it because my job allows for flexibility in my schedule.”

            He isn’t just playing around Oklahoma, either. In fact, he recently returned from a three-week tour in Italy, where his work included a guest appearance with jazz great Wynton Marsalis.

            “I knew when we went over that I had a concert booked with Mr. Marsalis,” says Echols. “He had gotten a copy of my CD some time back, and had introduced me to Antonio Ciacca, who’s my mentor to this day.”

            A pianist, Juilliard School instructor, and Director of Programming of Jazz for Lincoln Center, Ciacca “has basically put me through Julliard in my home,” Echols says.     

Last spring, he collaborated with Echols on a recording called “Danny, My Dear,” based on the rhythmic structure of Thelonious Monk’s  “Ruby, My Dear.” It was a tribute to an Italian jazz vocalist who’d been killed in an accident while in New York, and, during a recent concert in Andria, Italy, Marsalis asked Echols onstage to perform it.

            “It was pretty strange to see Wynton Marsalis handing me the microphone,” admits Echols.

            Patrons can expect to hear “Danny, My Dear” at Echols’ Jazz Depot show, along with a roster of tunes he says are taken from the pages of the Great American Songbook.

            “That’s what I do,” he says. “I do standards. And we’re excited to be able to present them in our own way.”

            The Justin Echols Trio is set to begin Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First St. Tickets can be purchased at the Depot or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5. 

            The show is the first in the Jazz Hall’s 2012 Autumn Concert Series.

            The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.