In search of the groove in Zenith City

by Richard Thomas

Zenith City Groove Collective is a funk-jazz-jam outfit that might consider changing the first word in its name to Zen, given its quest for the perfect groove. Once they find that groove, it’s hard to get out. At their March 30 show at Beaner’s, they were doing Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge” and bass player Nick Glass played a few notes after the other members had stopped.

“Nick, the song is over! It was over 10 minutes ago!” faux-scolded drummer Todd Garland. In reference the original’s closing line, he added, “He’s trying to find that confounded bridge.” 

The lyrics don’t appear in Zenith City’s version because they’re an all-instrumentalist band, with the lead carried jointly by saxophonist Keith Bower and guitarist Jacob Jonker. Beside Zeppelin, they cover Nirvana, The Beatles the jam band Galactic, and jazz greats John Scofield, Charlie Hunter and Medeski Martin & Wood.

Drummer Garland organized the band soon after moving to the area in May 2017. He had been in many groups while living in Chicago, playing in the jam band festival circuit, at the House of Blues, and and opening for Los Lobos, Hot Tuna, the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Then he moved to Atlanta, played Bonnaroo and opened for Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Robert Randolph and the Family Band and Sister Hazel.

His drum kit was custom-made by Addiction Drum Design in Duluth, though while he was living in Tennessee. “I only had it down there for a year and a half before I drove it back up here. It was crafted by Alan Jensen, who happens to be my brother-in-law. My wife didn’t tell me he made drums for almost a year after we started dating. She wanted to make sure I was staying around for the right reasons. My father-in-law plays drums a little as well, or at least he did until he offered me his Slingerland drum kit.”

Six months before moving, Garland started placing ads on Facebook and Craigslist, and Bower, known locally for The Legendary Hell Puppies, was one of the first he connected with. “I had no idea what his age was because in our email correspondence he would reference modern bands like Snarky Puppy, Chris Potter and Phish with the same knowledge as old school jazz legends like Joe Henderson and Thad Jones,” Garland said. “If there’s a secret weapon In our band, it’s Keith.”

Only after moving to Duluth did Garland connect with bass player Nick Glass, who had played with Jensen in a Sublime cover band for the Ides of March festival. “I knew he would be funky. Or hoped. I wasn’t disappointed. The fact that he has a degree in jazz studies from UMD definitely helps,” Garland said.

He found a guitar player through his chiropractor whose husband, Jonker, just so happened to be a classical guitar professor at UMD and UWS. “Playing jazz is new for him and it’s definitely unlike classical or rock playing, where the music is usually written out note-for-note or gives you very little room for extended improvisation,” Garland said. “He has all the theory and technique together and it’s been great to watch and listen to him as he develops new ideas and skills.”

“We enjoy playing challenging music that is still listenable and danceable. Once you move away from blues formats, jazz can quickly become alienating for a lot of listeners. Our goal is to play music that people recognize and can connect with while at the same time giving the band a chance to do what we like to do,” Garland said. “We take those familiar songs and play them in a different context. With Nirvana we turn ‘Come As You Are’ into more of a quick waltz, or take George Harrison’s ‘Taxman’ and make it a funk tune in an odd meter.

“We also choose songs based on difficulty and funkiness since we all want to grow as musicians. That’s a challenge in and of itself, to make something groove that has no business grooving. Chris Potter’s ‘The Wheel’ or ‘Lucky 13’ by Jeff Coffin are examples.”

They are working on original material and intend to produce a CD. In the meantime, Garland said, their agenda is “moving people to bop their heads and shake their booties.”

Zenith City Groove Collective’s next shows are 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 29, at Hoops Brewing for the Homegrown Music Festival and 9 p.m. on Friday May 11, at Sir Benedict’s. They can be found on Facebook and YouTube.