The Habitat at Weber’s Inn has been a townie bar for many years, and when they have live music, it’s often reflective of roots in this area. Al Hill and his Love Butlers band, long gone to Nashville, used to play for dancers, and I’ve seen old Ann Arbor Germans wearing suspenders get out on the floor and let down what hair they had. Lately I’ve been going on Sunday nights to hear the James Cornelison Quartet, where roots of a different kind are involved: the members are students in the U-M’s consistently adventurous jazz program.
You never know quite what you’re going to get–and that’s the appeal. One evening, I heard the quartet do fascinating instrumental elaborations on a set of Bill Withers songs, taking the rhythmic elongations that reveal key twists of emotion (“but oh baby, baby, baby, baby, when you love me I can’t get enough”) and spreading them out still more, playing with them as they developed. The original tunes were still intact and fully recognizable, and vocals were even added on a few pieces, but the music was true jazz, not slightly ornamented R&B. While jazz journalists fret about how to connect jazz with songs more contemporary than the old standards, these young people were going out and doing it for themselves.
Other nights they’ve played more straight-ahead modern jazz, and their enjoyment as they master this tradition is evident. They ask each other about the tunes. They laugh. And they often seem to find something new with each number. Electric guitarist Cornelison has the elusive way of seeming not to be the leader even as he’s clearly setting a musical agenda that connects the guitar’s bebop and funk moods. The membership of the rest of the quartet changes, but he holds the group together whoever’s playing.
When the quartet’s first set is finished, they sit down to dinner. They can, I was told, order whatever they want, “within reason.” This is, of course, how jazz bands often got paid when jazz was new, and playing for your supper adds something honest to the proceedings regardless of what kind of fees may also be involved–a flavor of jazz as it developed organically in its natural club habitat, before it became a kind of classical music. After one more set, they get dessert.
And on top of all this, the Habitat is a nearly ideal spot for jazz, with the seating area angled away from the stage and permitting various levels of engagement with the music. The Sunday crowd there is a mixture of friends in conversation, business travelers, and a few who focus on the music. It’d be good if that last category grew, for the heart of jazz is beating out there on Jackson Road. Even if you just go, have a steak, and let the music filter in, you’ll be getting a bit of the real deal.