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Upholding the Maryland Jazz Scene with Tom Lagana

Apr 06, 2017 04:00PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

TLG with GG at 49 West '15

By Aaron Kilbourne

Tom Lagana’s fingers dance over the nylon strings of his guitar, too frantic to be pre-composed, yet too precise to not be measured. Dominic Smith plays the drums in swinging fashion, dynamic enough to give his band mates some leeway to explore, but also keeps them in time. Tom Baldwin plucks the bass keeping the beat a bouncy jaunt, providing some calm to the chaos. George Garzone roars through his saxophone with complex notes that always surprise. Lagana’s guitar breaks out from the background as his notes clash with Garzone. The two jazz masters unleash a flurry of notes, space, up-tempo, down-tempo, and solo exploration. Finally the ensemble meets in the middle, reforming the previous balance and continuing the groove. This is the live jazz experience. This is the Tom Lagana group.

The Tom Lagana Group is a jazz trio with over 10 years’ experience playing together. Bandleader and guitarist, Lagana, has been steadily building a strong reputation as a multi-faceted artist in the mid-Atlantic region. He and the group have released three full length albums and played numerous festivals.

Lagana graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and began his career as a musician by playing for the Walt Disney Jazz Band. Hungry for the life of a true jazz musician, Lagana formed the Tom Lagana Group with some friends and started taking gigs right here in Annapolis. Lagana would later earn a Master’s degree in Jazz and Classical Guitar Performance from Towson University. He would then become a music teacher at Towson and now tries to cultivate jazz appreciation in today’s youth as an educator at UMBC.

“Part of the reason I got a Master’s was to teach. It’s rewarding to teach someone who wants to learn. But, being a jazz musician takes a lot of determination and disciple. It’s a 24/7 hustle if you want to make a living.”Tom Lagana

Legendary Saxophonist, Garzone, joined the group to release their second album. Since then, Garzone has become a pillar of the group and helped infuse the Brazilian style that is present on The Tom Lagana Group’s third album Vol.1. Now, with a line-up of Jazz masters playing an invigorated sound and style, the Tom Lagana Group is sure to entertain.

The Tom Lagana Group Ft. George Garzone will be performing at The Mainstay Friday, April 7th, 8 p.m. Tickets are $17 in advance or $20 at the door.

Photo courtesy of The Tom Lagana Group

 

When did you start playing guitar and what inspired you to play?

I played violin and clarinet in elementary through middle school. When I was 13 or 14, just entering high school, I heard Michael Jackson’s “Beat it” and instantly wanted to play guitar. The guitar rift right in the beginning inspired me so much. Plus, I was a big fan of Eddie Van Halen. He made it cool to play guitar. Obviously, my goals and influences have changed significantly since then, but that’s how it all started.

What made you focus on jazz and classical guitar when obtaining your Master’s degree in music at Towson University?

It’s hard to describe exactly why I went that direction. Before I got into Berklee College of Music, I was in the jazz ensemble at Anne Arundel Community College. My college roommate exposed me to jazz in a way that got me hooked. He was into some of the iconic jazz figures like Charlie Parker and suddenly the music resonated with me in a big way. I also saw a jazz concert at Berklee during my first week there and found it fascinating. Those events together made me change my musical focus.

Classical guitar however, was a natural outgrowth of studying jazz guitar at a high level. There is a lot of cross-pollution between jazz and other genres, so I was already playing some classical guitar. I was thrilled to be able to actually study it and have some formal training.

I’ve read earlier in your career that you played The King of France Tavern in Annapolis, three nights a week for over a year, essentially becoming the house band. What was that experience like as a young musician, having a home venue like that?

The club’s original owner was bought by a bigger company that wanted to go with a house-band style. Charlie Byrd, a jazz legend, would play there and invited me to play with him a few times. This opened the door for us [The Tom Lagana Group] to play there on a regular basis. Charlie would come back every seven weeks and play for the weekend.

But for me, it was overwhelming. I was 23 and had no idea what I was doing, I had never even played a real gig before. Previously, I had been a guitarist in the Walt Disney Jazz Band. But, that was just playing a 22-minute set a couple times a day. Once you know the set, you’re on cruise control. It was nothing like playing a different set every night in a more riotous night club setting. It was great experience though and I am very lucky to have had it. I learned a lot from some incredible musicians and gained invaluable experience as a performer.

As a local musician, do you have any favorite venues to play around Maryland?

The times I get to play the Strathmore, Meyerhoff, or the Kennedy Center are always fantastic because those are some of the best venues in the country, period. I don’t really have a “favorite” local place. We have a great relationship with Rams Head Tavern and Jalapenos Tapas restaurant as we have played both for over ten years. A lot of restaurants bring a band in to make up for lackluster service or food and if the band doesn’t draw, they get fired. These two places want to have music because they like music and I respect that.

The Mainstay, where we’re playing soon, is a great place to play as well and I mean that. I just don’t consider them local as they are so far of a drive for me. The people there are really cool though and that’s what makes a venue. I’d rather play a room with twenty or so people that are really digging what we do, than play a big venue of people that don’t care. That being said, I am a working musician who lives to perform so my favorite venue is wherever I’m playing that night.

You are an educator as well as a musician. What unique challenges do you encounter when teaching music? Do you have the same passion for it you that you do for performing?

Part of the reason I got a Master’s was to teach. It’s rewarding to teach someone who wants to learn. But, being a jazz musician takes a lot of determination and disciple. It’s a 24/7 hustle if you want to make a living.

I find it difficult to teach students that and are in love with the idea of being a jazz musician, but not in love with jazz music. When I was an aspiring musician, I wanted to get a new Miles Davis album every week. No one told me to, it was just my passion so I followed it. That means it’s extra important for me as an educator to foster that passion in the students who do have it.

George Garzone is an internationally known saxophonist and has recorded with the Tom Lagana group for the last two albums. How did he come to join the group and what is it like performing with him?

I met with Harvey Stein, a producer in Annapolis who loves jazz, and wanted release a jazz album. I said we should have a named saxophonist on the album to launch the group. We called George and offered him the money to do it. Luckily, out of recording, a friendship was born between him and I. We did the second record and now I can safety say he will be on all subsequent albums, which is great because he is one of the best saxophonists in the word.

What is the role of a bandleader on stage in a jazz band?

A bandleader can take on various duties depending who the leader is. I book the shows we play but Dominic, the drummer, is always on the lookout for venues too. I do the day to day stuff like promoting and interviews like this.

Some bandleaders run the group completely by writing and arranging all the music. They control how the music is produced and presented, while having a group of musicians work for them. Not us, we are a trio. They deserve equal credit if not more for what we do. We all have an equal say and voice our input so really, I’m more of a caretaker. I look to them and solicit advice because I’m only as good as the people I am surrounded by.

Plus, it helps that they are great fiends. We have played together for over 10 years and known each other even longer. We would be friends even if we weren’t all musicians.

Photo courtesy of The Tom Lagana Group

 

The Tom Lagana Group’s last album, Vol. 1, has a strong brazilin influence which will be present during your next show at the Mainstay. Why the change in sound and is it difficult to meld that with more traditional jazz standards?

It’s really not a difficult transition as jazz musicians have always had their ear bent to Brazilian music. It has been a large influence on jazz for decades. After studying jazz and classical music, it was a natural excursion, a product of trying to experiment as a group.

We were playing a show one time and I said to George, “Let’s play a couple Brazilian songs.” We did and it was really fun for us and the crowd. George was already a fan of that kind of music so I said, “We should do a whole Brazilian record!”

With your unique perspective of being a local musician and educator, how healthy is the Maryland jazz scene?

It’s as healthy as the players that play allow it to be. It has always lived on the fringes since the big band era and will never be mainstream like that again. But, the jazz scene will always exist. It does have problems of course. There are honestly not a lot of places to play and that number has shrunk significantly in the last twenty years.

In Annapolis, its literally just 49 West and Rams Head Tavern’s jazz brunch. Across Maryland there is enough to keep bands playing, but largely jzz has be relegated to restaurant background music, which is kind of a drag because it’s so much more than that. The real music is exploring sound and theory while playing live, finding a grove and just going with it. That kind of thing can only happen in clubs.

As I said, it has always existed and will exist, partly because we all teach. It’s too hard to forge a living from just playing gigs every night. Also, today’s jazz musicians are diversified. For example, I play classic guitar music and have also worked gigs where I play some modern pop tunes. I might not always play jazz, but I will always be playing something.

What is next for the Tom Lagana group? A new album perhaps?

I would like get a new album out this year. Record by September if all goes as planned. I have some new tunes written and George has some songs that haven’t been recorded, so that would be exciting. That being said, it will probably be more original material, but still with some classic Brazilian tracks included.

Other than that, I just want to continue practicing my craft and play as a working musician. I’ll always play whatever is assigned to play.

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