State College band Urban Fusion is still flavorful after 30 years

State College-based band Urban Fusion was formed in 1986 and members continue to perform danceable jazz fusion throughout the area.
State College-based band Urban Fusion was formed in 1986 and members continue to perform danceable jazz fusion throughout the area. Photo provided

The Centre region music scene is condensed.

For such a small, mostly rural area, there’s a lot of music representing a lot of different genres and instrumentation. We have rock, blues, bluegrass, reggae, indie, folk, singer-songwriter, hip-hop and jazz.

Within the genres, there are sub-genres. Jazz in particular is like an onion. You can keep peeling it open and finding more and more layers, such as mainstream, free form, acid, cool, crossover, bebop, Dixieland, ethno, gypsy, latin, ragtime, soul, fusion and many more.

Jazz fusion is particularly relevant here because we’ve had an outstanding fusion band for more than 30 years, and they’re still gigging, still expanding their approach and repertoire. And that’s really the point when you’re in a band, just like it is when you’re in a relationship, or in your career. Expansion is the final phase that leads to the top of Abraham Maslow’s self-actualization.

Urban Fusion is a State College-based band that manages to draw on city life, even here in the Centre region, a bright and shimmering — albeit small — gem glowing in the midst of the Seven Mountains. But the name is more about the roots of the musicians in the band, which includes Andrew Jackson on percussion, Gary Abdullah on bass, Chip Lovette on keyboards, Jeff Gibble on guitar, Carl Ector, Eli Byrne on horns and Eric Ian Farmer and Jackie Brown on vocals.

“When I say urban, it’s just that kind of vibe,” Jackson said. “Chip’s from New York, Corey’s from Philadelphia and I’m from Chester.”

Urban Fusion is a jazz band, through and through, complete with truth-seeking instrumental improvisations, musical risk-taking, and with singers who turn their insides out while performing.

“It basically started in ’86 at my house,” Jackson said. “We would meet every Sunday and just jam.”

These days, we sometimes take jazz music for granted, thinking of it as a type of popular music people listened to and loved a few generations ago. We think of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Christian, Les Paul and a slew of other jazz popularists. But let’s not forget jazz emerged from back rooms, from under the stairs, from repression, from virtuosity, from the quest for freedom and enlightenment, from alcohol, drugs and mental illness and, frankly, from the beautiful, blinding light and the sorrowful swallowing of hearts and minds.

“Old jazz started from slave music,” Jackson said, “and migrated from the deep south to (places like) Chicago and New Orleans, where it got a different flavor and became more upbeat.”

When Urban Fusion plays, we can listen, watch and read into what they are doing. Sure, it’s 2017 and we’re about 150 years removed from the roots of jazz, if we can actually pinpoint the roots of jazz, or anything else for that matter. We can read into what they are doing, while fusing the recipe of where jazz music came from and the 21st century members of the band, and then we can simply tap into the experience, trusting what Gestalt theory teaches us, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, taking the refreshing jazz concepts the band gives us.

“Much of Happy Valley’s image of jazz is somewhat frozen in the bebop and swing styles from the ’50s and ’60s,” Abdullah said, “so when we do a hip-hop collaboration with a rapper or poet, it takes a while to find a target audience. We’re doing more music with vocalists like Jackie Brown and Eric Ian Farmer, and that really helps bridge stylistic gaps.”

So, Urban Fusion brings different styles together — which is the essence of the word fusion — and with the goal of extending the musical journey, giving everyone at least a double solo, all the while celebrating the member’s eclectic backgrounds.

“Jazz fusion adds an urban flavor of solos,” Jackson said. “I wouldn’t play pure straight without everyone having a solo. It stretches things out a little bit. It’s danceable. A lot of people like that dance flavor. I think in State College you have to provide more of a dance vibe.”

Along with providing jazz fusion music people can dance to, Urban Fusion has a headier, more philosophical approach to performing. That makes sense, seeing as four of the members of the band have earned doctorate degrees in varying fields.

“For me, sometimes I close my eyes and go in a trance,” Jackson said. “I’m still listening. My goal is to draw people in. No matter how hateful or angry people are around the world, music draws people together. If you provide a beat, they’re going to dance to it. My focus is just to bring people together to enjoy music and enjoy each other. That’s what I’m always striving for.”

Urban Fusion’s next gig is 4-8 p.m. Feb. 11 at Tussey Mountain’s Edge’s Pub, and has pre-Valentine’s Day and Black History month themes.

Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail .com.