Jazz legend Mose Allison once said, “The essentials of jazz are: melodic improvisation, melodic invention, swing and instrumental personality.”
With that in mind, make sure you don’t miss Oak Totem Trio do their take on jazz at Choices Restaurant this coming Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. It is also the first of what might be many jazz nights at Choices.
Oak Totem Trio is Chazz Canney on sax, trumpet and flute, Alex Abraham on upright bass and John “JD” Tolstoi on piano. Aaron Normand is in the band on drums but is not playing this night. The band has only been together for five months but have known each other longer. Both Abraham and Tolstoi play in the Bow Thayer Band and a musical mutual friend introduced them to Canney.
Tolstoi says, “We knew he had the jazz background and super talent so we started playing with him. We’re trying to get our licks on those old jazz classics.”
Tolstoi grew up in Chester, Vt., and started a jazz band when he was in grade school after becoming bored with the regular concert band he played in. He played the saxophone growing up and was always a part of the district concerts. The schools would get together and he either played sax or piano, whatever he was playing that year, he explained. Tolstoi taught himself how to play the piano; he never took a lesson. He did take a couple lessons for the sax in grade school, though.
Tolstoi’s biggest musical influence is Medeski, Martin and Wood (MMW). “I studied John Medeski so much by watching videos and listening to their albums. I think he’s got something special. As far as piano players and jazz, Thelonious Monk is a huge influence on me for his song writing and him as a person. I gotta say Jerry Garcia of course because he is the timeless troubadour. Those are the big ones but I listen to all kinds of music. Blues, funk, jazz, country. Lately I’ve been listening to some Jerry Reed. It depends on the day. Yesterday I listened to Frank Zappa and Betty Davis. I don’t know what I’m going to listen to right now.”
What’s great about Oak Totem is they can play the jazz standards of yesteryear or they can play the modern jazz, funk jam styling of MMW. “That’s the beauty of that music,” says Tolstoi, you can throw anything into it. A little page to some melody line that somebody sang in a love song and then right back to the funk.”
Oak Totem is not your average jazz band. Tolstoi explains, “We play the standards, the timeless classics mixed with a contemporary styling. We didn’t grow up when these songs were written so this is our take on those old jazz classics. A taste of yesterday in the mood of today.”
Tolstoi continued, “I love the same thing about playing live as I do about playing by myself alone at home, the great amount of joy it brings. I can’t explain it, it just feels real good. I’ve noticed lately that being part of a band on stage, I can help bring joy to people listening live. That means a lot. I don’t have much to give but if I can give people some of my great joy, that is something special. There is something special about music that can just lift you up, without words you don’t even have to sing the song. It can really change the mood and I think that’s great.”