“I never would’ve imagined in my wildest dreams when I was first living in New York, taking lessons with Tony Williams and hanging out with Elvin Jones. I thought I would be in New York for the rest of my life; I thought there was nowhere else on the planet where anybody could be a jazz musician.”
It turned out there was another place where drummer Robert Jospe could be a nationally known jazz musician---Charlottesville, Virginia. Having lived there for twenty five years, he could almost be called a native Virginian. Sunday afternoon, he brings his band, Inner Rhythm, to Hampton for a matinee performance at Thomas Nelson Community College.
I first met “Jos” at the 1999 Chesapeake Jubilee when he and Inner Rhythm played right before my band. I became a fan on the spot, taken with the polyrhythmic funkiness, multicultural references and impressive musicality. His last three albums have all been on my yearend “best of” lists, and his 2004 release, Hands On, spent much of the year on the JazzWeek national radio airplay chart, rising as high as #4. He’s got a new one due out this spring.
“The release date is April 18th,” he told me recently. “It’s called Heartbeat. I did it with the working band that I’ve been doing gigs with the last couple of years. Also, I’ve got a vocalist on two tracks who is really good and adds a different kind of dimension to the sound of the group. Her name is Heather Maxwell. She had been teaching Afro-pop at UVA for a couple of years, and that’s how I met her. She is a former Peace Corps volunteer and spent a number of years in West Africa. I really dug her style---she brought a kind of African pop sound to the band. She’ll be joining us at Thomas Nelson.
“We had a chance to record at the Dave Matthews studio in Charlottesville. I had been hanging with the Dave guys, they were going to Australia and they were very generous. We had a great time recording there.”
Besides being a master drummer, composer and bandleader, Jospe is an experienced teacher, having taught at the University of Virginia since the mid-‘80s. He also has an educational roadshow, the World Beat Workshop, which he has presented in schools and libraries throughout the state, looking at the African rhythmic influences on American music. When we talked, Jospe was finishing up a two-week World Beat residency in Hawaii with bandmate Kevin Davis, a multi-percussionist.
“I’m at the University of Hawaii,” he said. “I’d been out here a couple of years ago, and their outreach library proposed a tour of 21 different libraries and public schools over a period of two weeks. It has been incredible. We’ve been able to go to remote parts of the islands that tourists don’t usually go to and perform for schools and public libraries. It’s been really well received.”
Jospe has certainly traveled an interesting road. After growing up in Westport, Connecticut, he went to New York City in 1968 to attend NYU. He got to town just as the fusion era was taking off.
“I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I was able to hook up with Tony Williams and study with him for six months. Not too many people can say they studied with Tony Williams! He took a look at my hands and said, ‘You got some work to do, pal.’ He sat me down and said, ‘You got to practice this stuff.’
“I actually met Miles, and got to hear the beginnings of Mahavishnu. It was a great time to be there. I had a loft down in the village, I was practicing and people were jamming all the time, every day.
“Then it started to fade out; there was this feeling that something was changing. When John Lennon got assassinated, that had a huge effect on me.”
In 1981, he drove south for what he assumed would be a one-time summer break from the city.
“I came down with some other musicians, John D’Earth being one of them,” he remembered. “We had a band in New York called Cosmology, and we had a bit of a following going in Charlottesville. We just decided in ’81 to leave the city for the summer and we rented a farmhouse outside of Charlottesville. Then there was this small studio and record label that was starting up and we did some work for them. One thing led to another---the University of Virginia was developing a jazz program and John and I both got connected there. John is now the director of the jazz ensemble, and I’ve been teaching jazz drumming there for almost twenty years.
“The lifestyle in Virginia was just so much easier than in New York City. It was fun when I was in my twenties and early thirties. When you’re young, you don’t mind dealing with the scene---it was great. But you need to be able to live a much more comfortable, well-rounded life and still be able to play and teach. I found myself developing my own thing, living in the country and playing music. I started putting the band together and found some other good players.
“In the early ‘90s I got connected with the Virginia Commission for the Arts with a touring grant. And that made a tremendous difference with the development of Inner Rhythm because I was able to keep the group together and pay professional type of wages. I’ve gotten pretty well established around Virginia.”
Two years ago, I wrote of Jospe’s Hands On, “If they give those ‘Virginia’s Finest’ stickers to CDs, this disc deserves one.” Inner Rhythm is one of the best, most exciting jazz bands around. Sunday afternoon, they’ll have TNCC locked in a funky groove.
copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.