"You grow up as a jazz player hearing over and over again, 'In the old days, we used to learn by going down to the club and duking it out on the bandstand. If you were good enough, you could stay, and if you weren't, you went home and practiced.' That's still alive in New Orleans." Currently, McGrain is showing a young nephew the paces, from informal weekly jam sessions to a Saturday-morning clinic conducted by the Treme Brass Band. And of course, New Orleans has a much lower cost of living than Boston for a musician.
It's economics, too, that make a trio more practical than a larger band. "It's a welcome discovery when you find that you can do more with less." Even so, McGrain can't afford to fly his New Orleans trio everywhere, so at the Outpost he's hooking up with saxophonist Tom Hall — an old friend from his Boston days — and bassist Marty Ballou. Unlike a pianist supporting a rhythm section, or even a singer playing from a book of standards, McGrain is a horn player bringing in a book of original material — a challenge for bandmates, and not a slam-dunk with audiences.
"The trick has always been — and I tried to express this as a teacher — you want to compose music that is interesting for musicians and challenging and expands the envelope of the genre to some degree. But at the same time, you want someone who's doing their gardening or driving a cab or possibly not a music lover to be drawn to it — the human element that's appealing to anyone."
McGrain remembers a Plunge gig at the Mermaid Lounge in New Orleans. "We went in to set up and there were three construction workers sitting there in hard hats, drinking after work. We started playing and two of them got up and left. But the third one just sat there and sat there for the entire set. At the break, he came up and said, 'You know, when you guys came in, I didn't think I was going to like this, and then when you started playing, I thought, man, this could be pretty weird. I don't know about this stuff. Then I hung out and I really liked what you were doing. I've never heard anything like it.' And you walk away with the feeling that you've actually enlightened someone to new sounds, that you've triggered something in them where they'll listen to something new that they wouldn't have approached before. Their biases would have shut them down before they even got to it."
And hey — he converted 30 percent of his listeners. In sheer marketing terms, that's the kind of audience development that even Dolphy wouldn't have sniffed at.
PLUNGE | Outpost 186, 186 1/2 Hampshire Street, Cambridge | June 24 @ 8 pm | $10 | 617.876.0860