All That Jazz 

Eden Atwood and The Last Best Band do dinner

It’s hard to straddle the jazz fence—either you love it or you hate it. It seems to fall into that category of tastes one acquires over time, like a fine wine or a cigar whose appreciation relies on some intimate, subtle knowledge of the thing. You have to work at it, devote yourself to tasting the hint of tannin left by the oak fermenting barrels or the hot tropical sun on the drying tobacco leaves. Like the wine and the cigar and unlike most music cranked out by the pop music machine, a jazz song has that unique character. It is ephemeral, spontaneous, blemished even. No two versions are quite the same. Jazz requires a deliberate effort on the part of the listener. This is, of course, why many people find it inaccessible, more cerebral than other musical forms. And yet, jazz, at its most fundamental level, is improvisation. It’s the art of using the song to express feelings, and what is the soul of music if not expression?

One popular series of jazz compilation CDs is called Moods. There’s Summer Jazz, Evening Jazz, Blue Jazz. This seems appropriate, as jazz is all about mood. Jazz is also interactive. As such it benefits from its context and setting. Living in the Last Best Place has for some time had the drawback of having insufficient opportunities to listen to good jazz in small, moody clubs. However, thanks to local singer Eden Atwood, Missoula will soon be exuding a more sophisticated jazz vibe. Eden and the Last Best Band are releasing their new CD, Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues, at the Blue Heron this Friday. In a return to the supper club dinner shows of the 1950s, Eden and her band, in conjunction with the Steelhead Grill at the Blue Heron, will offer dinner and show for one price, one show only at 8 PM. Dinner will be prepared by chefs Charles Davidson and Adam Young, formerly of Marianne’s at the Wilma and now co-owners of the Steelhead Grill.

Eden has built an enormously successful career on the expressive foundation of her voice. Although she now resides in Montana, she was born in Memphis, Tenn. Her father was a writer and arranger for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Harry James, Stan Kenton and Nat King Cole. Music ran in the family and she was singing at a local pizza parlor by the time she was three years old. When she was five she moved to Montana with her mother (daughter of Pulitzer prize-winning author A.B. Guthrie) who kept her passion for music alive by encouraging her participation in musicals. At age 15 Eden was fronting a local band and at 19 set out for Chicago to pursue a career in music. In Chicago she was headlining in a popular nightclub and attended the American Conservatory of Music. In between her singing career she also successfully pursued her interest in acting. Atwood had a recurring role in ABC’s “The Commish” and starred for nine months on the ABC daytime drama “Loving,” as well as a guest role in Paramount’s “The Untouchables.” In 1993 the president of Concord Records got a hold of Eden’s self-produced CD Today and signed her to a three-record deal. Eden remains the youngest artist ever signed to the Concord label.

How lucky we are to live in Montana and hear good jazz. In fact, Eden is the only Montana jazz artist who appears in the definitive All Music Guide to Jazz and The Last Best Band is even more proof that Montana is jazz compatible after all. Drummer Brad Edwards has played with Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Harris and Nat Adderley and hosts an acclaimed afternoon jazz program on Yellowstone Public Radio. Bassist Greg Loughman has rubbed shoulders with performers like Curtis Fuller, Roy Hargrove and David Murray. Bob Nell’s piano prowess won him the international Dewars Profiles Performance Arts competition and guitarist Craig Hall has performed with Richie Cole, David Newman, and Mose Allison.

There’s a reason that musicians of all genres often cite jazz artists as their musical idols: Technical virtuosity is a prerequisite to expressing yourself through improvisation on an instrument. The Last Best Band has the goods and lucky for both Eden and the band, they managed to find each other in our sprawling state.

Eden Atwood’s versatile and sensuous voice has inspired comparisons with such jazz legends as Etta James, Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday. Eden writes as well as composes some of her own material, but her new album, Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues, is a mixture of jazz standards and retooled pop tunes. She is a fine interpreter of lyrics and lends a fresh sound to classics like “At Last” and “Angel Eyes.”

Eden has just returned from a tour of Asia and recently headlined for the first ever Bangkok Jazz Festival where she performed some of “His Majesty,” the King of Thailand’s compositions. Her dinner club CD release event will be an enjoyable change of pace from the usual Friday night lineup. We don’t often get the chance to travel back in time to the fledgling days of jazz and partake in old-time dinner theater.

With a growing legion of fans worldwide, Eden probably won’t alight in Missoula for long before she’s off again to spread the jazz. Eden Atwood and The Last Best Band recently signed to the GrooveNote label, a division of the Audiophile label, and a new collection of Bossa Nova material is due out in April. Your next chance to see her may be in Rio.

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