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The Delbert Anderson Jazz Quartet shares cross-cultural tunes

Canyons of the Ancients and Southwest Colorado Canyons Alliance collaborate to bring band back to the area
Delbert Anderson Jazz Quartet plays at Canyons of the Ancients on Aug. 8. Colette Czarnecki/The Journal.

Outside, in front of the Canyons of the Ancients entrance doors, a trumpet could be heard blaring staccato notes alongside rhythmic drum beats, a bright sounding keyboard and the bass guitar’s low frequency line. Just before dusk took down the evening sun, the air still held its heat from the length of the summer day.

Mingling Diné sounds with a jazz infused flow in the National Monument was the band’s intention since they devote incorporating Indigenous life and history with cross cultural stories.

On Tuesday, Aug. 8, the Southwest Colorado Canyons Alliance collaborated with Canyons of the Ancients to make the Delbert Anderson Quartet Jazz Band’s concert possible that evening. It’s imperative for the band to talk to tribe members before actively doing anything on their land. During the Painted Mountains Tour, the band wanted to hear the stories of the tribes where they worked.

Anderson, the trumpeter, said they all shared the same message – the desire to get their youths more involved with their cultures.

“When we asked if we could use the songs and put them in a way that we can play them, they (tribal members) approved them and said, ‘yes’ because if you can play it at least it’s some way of documenting our song,” said Anderson, who is Navajo. “The elders thought it was a really good way of not only preserving their culture but for getting their music out there in front of everyone.”

Earlier that day, on Aug. 8, D’DAT also held a workshop for community members to participate and play music with them. They also did this with all other visits from the Painted Mountains Tour.

Robert Muller, left, and Delbert Anderson, right, at Canyons of the Ancients with their band D’DAT on Aug. 8, 2023. Colette Czarnecki/The Journal

D’DAT’s keyboardist Robert Muller said that five people showed up and everyone played one tune together at that morning’s workshop. They also talked about connecting with different types of people.

“Putting everything aside, like belief systems, and coming together for a common cause of hope helps us connect and respect each other in a totally different way,” Anderson said. “We (as a band) use that process.”

Between each jazz piece during the concert, Anderson talked about the tour and the band’s purpose with the BLM residency. He said they’re currently working on the Land Healing Album, which will be the finished outcome of the tour. They anticipate the album will have 10 tracks on it and they hope to have it out next year.

They then played Ebola Blues, where the bass flowed its scales with rhythmic drums and a melody of keys flew. Soon after, Anderson introduced the trumpet with staccato notes that climbed the scale.

Jazz was historically derived from very hard times, and the Quartet continues that story by improvising with the Indigenous cultures they visit. Anderson said that the elders’ long walks from the past is what created inspiration for the Land Healing Album.

“You need to keep going no matter what,” Anderson said. “Moving, whether forward or backward, keeps the positivity up. Staying put gets you in trouble.”

Since 2013, they’ve fused many different sounds into their jazz, including hip hop and funk and band members have changed, except Anderson and the bassist Mike McCluhan have remained since the beginning.

Anderson said that he thinks one thing that keeps the band going are the creative residencies they have, such as the BLM artist-in-residence. It pushes them into new projects and new music. He said that the recent addition of Muller and Khalill Brown has elevated everything the band’s done for a long time.

Each member of the Delbert Anderson Jazz Quartet carries musical talent scaled back from their early days.

Trumpetist Delbert Anderson found his love for the trumpet in fourth grade when he was introduced to jazz in Farmington’s middle school and joined the community jazz band. He also played in big bands since seventh grade, but he really learned jazz when he attended college, where he received a scholarship from Eastern New Mexico University in 1999.

Their drummer, Khalill Brown (Blackfoot, Cherokee) rolls the drums with much grace and energy. He began playing as a drummer in the marching band at his school in Georgia, but he remembers listening to his father’s reggae band, where Brown would play around with their instruments as a kid. He lives in Denver and joined the band this past April.

The quartet’s keyboardist, Robert Muller, has been playing the piano since he was 5 years old. He originally was trained in classical and pop while growing up in Portland, Oregon, but before he left college he studied closely with Blue Note jazz musician Andrew Hill. He then relocated to New York City to play in smokey clubs and other venues. He resides in Santa Fe.

Their bassist, Mike McCluhan, is versatile in the jams he provides to the band. Originally from western New York, he attended the University of Arizona in Tucson and began playing music there in 1988. He then met a woman from Cortez, and they moved back to Cortez in 1999 and raised their family. Now based in Farmington, he teaches and plays music in the city when not on tour.

Mike McCluhan, left, and Khalill Brown, right, play with the Delbert Anderson Jazz Quartet at Canyons of the Ancients on Aug. 8. Colette Czarnecki/The Journal

“I’m an old deadhead. I grew up on jam band-type stuff,” McCluhan said. “I love when we start doing stuff, not knowing really where it’s going. When the magic really happens, that’s my favorite part.”

Their next tune introduced a sad and longing sound with the trumpet called “Heart Passage.” This was created through the Spirit Coalescent project, which was funded through the Association of Performing Arts Professionals. The organization awarded the Quartet $50,000 to input music and workshops into the Cortez community in summer 2022. Anderson explained that the Spirit Coalescent project was an interactive project that combined eight original orchestrated tunes with eight giant multimedia visual art pieces. “Heart Passage” was the seventh of the Spirit Coalescent, and he said that the “Aztec Arc” was painted for the piece, although it was not at the concert.

“The trumpet kind of hovers on one note while the rhythm section changes,” Anderson said before they played the tune. “This is the land composition for the Aztec Ruins National Monument’s Arch, and this is called Heart Passage.”

With a busy schedule before and ahead – Anderson said that since this past February he’s counted 45 days of spending time at home – he mentioned that they will play in Seattle in September, Hawaii in October and they anticipate playing at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island next year.

When working with other cultures, the band makes sure they have someone who acts as a cultural consultant so they don’t accidentally appropriate them.

“In Hawaii we have a guy named Tao that’s going to be helping us, because we are going to be composing for volcanoes that are not on our lands and they are a big part of Indigenous history there,” he said. “It’s better that way, rather than us going in. I think that’s just part of the ethics of going about this business and a lot of people don’t do that anymore, they just go and go and go.”

D’DAT also founded the Build a Band mentorship project, an extracurricular activity where they teach Farmington-based high school students the ins and outs of everything it takes to be part of a band, from touring to practice and the essential camaraderie between band mates.

“We just finished a five day tour with them, where we mentored them and gave them a good idea of what touring is,” Anderson said. “We utilize our band structure, like if someone is mad at one another, how we go about it. It’s a lot of stuff institutions don’t teach and I thought it was very valuable.”

Anderson used his own family’s method to incorporate on how to keep a band together. During the pandemic, he noticed his own family, his wife of 20 years and five children, didn’t have as much trouble as others had. He came up with several traits that helped keep his family going, which he turned into key points for the Build a Band program – unconditional love, respect, discipline and sacrifice.

“When you look at them now, they’re all hanging out together at the school,” he said. “Before, they used to just kind of have their own cliques, but now they feel like they have something special together.”

The Delbert Anderson Jazz Quartet ironically closed with their tune called “The Opener,” an upbeat sound that might have gotten people pumped for their drive back home.

“Robert suggested that we call it ‘Closure,’ and so this is ‘The Opener aka Closer,’” Anderson said.