Versatility has been the hallmark of pianist Tad Weed's career. Raised in a family of professional musicians in Jackson, he studied the classics at Central Michigan University and eventually relocated to California. His broad musical training served him well, and he quickly landed jobs with major singers of the time Anita O'Day and Carmen McRae. He also played and recorded with Dick Berk and Charles Lloyd. In 1989 he became the accompanist for Paul Anka, and for the next eleven years he toured the world with the singer. This gig provided security, but at the same time Weed became closely involved with the Los Angeles experimental jazz scene loosely associated with woodwind player Vinny Golia. The pianist recorded two of his own albums for Golia's record label and appeared as a sideman on some more radical dates. His most memorable avant-jazz performance is on Golia's Dante No Longer Repents.

Soon after leaving Anka, Tad Weed came back to Michigan and quickly established himself as one of the top pianists and arrangers in the area, working with the finest jazz musicians in Detroit and offering instruction in his Ypsilanti studio. He continues to work with singers such as Shahida Nurullah, but he has not forgotten his love of more experimental jazz trends, a passion that goes back to his CMU days.

For the last four years he has been leading his Freedom Ensemble at the Firefly Club on the last Tuesday of each month. The quartet includes three of the area's most accomplished musicians: saxophonist Andrew Bishop, bassist Tim Flood, and drummer Pete Siers. All four have a deep knowledge of the whole history of jazz, and this diachronic perspective informs much of the ensemble's music. Dedicated to the future, it is firmly founded in tradition; committed to improvisation, it is devoted to composition. Weed continuously brings in new material, some of it his own, and some composed by neglected masters such as Herbie Nichols. The Nichols work seems particularly suited for this group; he was a modernist who made a living playing in Dixieland bands, and his compositions often mix periods and genres. This allows Weed to indulge in his own brand of atonal stride, or Siers to use 1920s drums techniques in novel ways.

On a recent Tuesday night a set of Nichols tunes was interrupted by a Japanese composition and then finished off with a quirky swinging melody written by the relatively unknown West Coast saxophonist Ray Reed. Throughout the set the tempos changed, extended instrumental techniques alternated with normal sounds, and the overall sound of the band kept changing. The ensemble allows Weed to play with more drama than is possible in more orthodox surroundings, which often require fluid runs against a steady beat. The result is novel and exciting: this is a band that plays with high energy even when it abandons a regular pulse, but it is all done in a manner that is surprisingly accessible. Hear these musicians often, as they investigate new material at their monthly Firefly gig on Tuesday, August 28.

[Review published August 2007]