RJ Spangler keeps the beat with new band, album
RJ Spangler is a hustler. The longtime Detroit musician doesn’t waste time lamenting the lack of live gigs, or the lack of clubs that book jazz and blues — he’s too busy drumming up gigs and filling his concert calendar for the next 12 months.
“I never knew anything else,” Spangler said with a laugh. “I never gave lessons or taught school, so I learned how to devise my own gigs. It’s that John Sinclair, do-it-yourself thing from the ’60s and ’70s. I got that from hanging out with John and Frank Bach when I was a teenager.”
Zoom ahead to 2016, and Spangler has a brand new album with the nimble, swinging jazz ensemble he and trumpeter James O’Donnell lead, called Planet D Nonet.
Planet D Nonet’s new album, “A Salute to Strayhorn,” was released by Mack Avenue Records’ Detroit Music Factory label, and the group is playing a slew of shows to support it.
Spangler and Planet D Nonet will perform at a special CD release party, 8-11:30 p.m. Nov. 23, at the Music Hall’s Jazz Café. The gig also will serve as Spangler’s 60th birthday celebration.
With all his different groups, it’s the 9-year-old, self-described “down and dirty little swing band” Planet D Nonet that’s been taking up most of Spangler’s time. The group is small enough to turn on a dime if it needs to, but large enough to put out a big, brassy sound when required.
The core band consists of Spangler (drums), O’Donnell (trumpet, vocals), Goode Wyche III (baritone sax), John “T Bone” Paxton (trombone, vocals), Michael Zaporski (piano), Justin Jozwiak (alto sax), Jim Holden (tenor sax), Ken Ferry (trumpet), Shannon Wade (string bass).
Billy Strayhorn was the slight, bespectacled pianist best known for his composing, arranging and songwriting collaboration with Duke Ellington, who mostly credited him. Strayhorn wrote or co-wrote such classic numbers as “Satin Doll,” “Lush Life,” “Take the A Train” and “Such Sweet Thunder.”
On the new album, Planet D Nonet perform “Satin Doll” (with O’Donnell singing lead), Such Sweet Thunder,” “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Just a-Sittin’ and a-Rockin’,” and the beautiful solo piano number, “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.”
Strayhorn could be lyrical, or he could be breezy and modern, as on “I’m Taking Off — Goom-bye,” which features the group’s saucy side, with Camille Price on vocals.
Spangler adds an mesmerizing, Afro-Latin drumbeat to “Sugar Rum Cherry,” which is a Strayhorn-Ellington arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Sugar Plum Fairy.”
Devising gigs for Planet D Nonet and his many other groups (RJ Spangler Trio, Kansas City Six, PD9 Township Jazz Band, RJ’s Blues Gang) has almost become a full-time job for Spangler, who recently won a $52,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant to fund a concert series he runs at Detroit’s Scarab Club.
With the Knight funds and other fundraising, Spangler and co-producer Scott Strawbridge will put on six concerts over two years.
“I’ve been doing my jazz thing for about four or five years now,” he said. “I would do Kickstarter or Indiegogo, or pass the hat ... to pay my guys. So to have this recognition is great.”
Susan Whitall, author of “Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul,” is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.
Planet D Nonet
8-11:30 p.m. Nov. 23
Jazz Café at Music Hall, 350 Madison, Detroit
8 p.m. Dec. 9. The San Marino Club, Troy. sanmarinoclub.com
8 p.m. Dec. 13. The Cadieux Café Annual Holiday Show, Detroit. cadieuxcafe.com
4 p.m. Dec. 18. Blue Goose Annual Holiday Show, St. Clair Shores. bluegooseinn.net
7 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 23, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, dia.org
Dec. 28-31 (New Year’s Eve). The Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, Grosse Pointe Farms. dirtydogjazz.com