TWO YEARS ago, on a hot July evening, Transparent Productions set up some microphones in Food for Thought and let saxophonist Joe McPhee and bassist Michael Bisio tear up the joint, improvising madly and making people forget the weather.
An auspicious beginning, with Food for Thought full of folks who wanted to hear challenging music, music to bend their brain cells, the kind of music that the upstart production team has focused on in the 32 concerts it has presented since then.
"We started getting together back around February of '97," recalls Bobby Hill, one-fifth of Transparent. "I got a call from Lisa Stewart, who was helping with programming at District Curators. She said she'd been talking with Larry Appelbaum about presenting smaller, more experimental concerts than what District Curators was doing, and we started meeting at her house." Hill and Appelbaum (who both host jazz programs on WPFW-FM) and Stewart were joined in these chats by Thomas Stanley, Herb Taylor, Chris Downing and Vincent Kargatis.
"We knew that District Curators was focusing on its Jazz Arts festival and that there was room in Washington for year-round improvisational concerts," Hill says. "In these conversations, we all started coming up with names of musicians, our dream teams of who we'd like to present, then we all marched out in different directions to make contact with those folks and invite them to come to Washington."
Stewart moved away and Downing backed out because of time constraints (though he continues to help by running the sound system at most of Transparent's productions) leaving the five fellows you see in the accompanying photo to run things. They were immediately successful in reaching their various "dream teams" and followed up the McPhee concert with ones in 1997 by saxophonist Bobby Zankel, guitarist Jim Morris, violinist Matt Maneri and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.
Not household names, but all superb musicians, busting down walls, pushing various envelopes, shredding musical preconceptions. "We're trying to present jazz that is expeditionary in its nature and spirit," says Stanley, "and we think we've found an audience for that." Transparent Productions had indeed found itself a niche, putting on shows at places like Food for Thought, Crush, Chief Ike's Mambo Room, recital halls at George Washington University and other sometimes unconventional locations. "We only hold the concerts in venues that are free to us," Stanley says. "We keep costs to a minimum so that tickets won't be expensive. We don't pay for advertising, we don't send out snail mail."
Stanley says the savings get passed on to the audience and the dollars get passed on to the musicians. "We're a volunteer collective. We never hold on to any money. We're just a conduit for the money from the audience straight to the artist."
The members' passion for the music has gotten them a reputation far beyond Washington. "People have begun to approach us about playing Washington, people from all over the country and even around the world," Stanley says. "Word of mouth has been very good in the arts community, and the Internet certainly helps get our word out."
As with any successful endeavor, there's been some backlash, and in Transparent's case, it's come from the local experimental music scene.
"That's the next obvious challenge, cultivating people from the area," Stanley says. "We've concentrated on bringing in people from out of town because they're a bit better known and we're more likely to get people out to see them. But you'll see us trying to get more local acts onto our bills. There's a lot of great musicians here, and it's part of our job to help them find an audience."
Bill Warrell, the director of District Curators (who have been producing jazz concerts in the area for more than 20 years), says he couldn't be happier about the appearance on the scene of Transparent Productions. "When they started two years ago I thought to myself, `Thank God. Finally there's a group to pick up where we dropped off,' " he says. "With District Curators focusing on bigger names for its annual festival, and without d.c. space or another small venue to book, I wasn't doing much on the edge or for more modest audiences. I was really happy when they started."
In fact, several of Transparent's concerts are co-productions with District Curators, including a July 31 concert by Trio Three, featuring Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. That show is part of both the Jazz Arts festival and Transparent's own ongoing summer series, dubbed (by Stanley) "A Flock of Doves in the No Fly Zone." But before that one, Transparent Productions presents two more "Flock of Doves" concerts: Saturday at 8 p.m. in Room B120 of GWU's Phillips Hall, it's reedman Marty Ehrlich and pianist Myra Melford and July 10 at the same time and place it's drummer William Hooker and saxophonist Sabir Mateen.
True to its name, Transparent Productions keeps a low profile, but if you want more information or want to be added to the group's e-mail announcement list, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at 703/243-3787. And finally, what about the name? "We were sitting there trying to come up with names that work," says Hill, "and we were working from our philosophy that we wanted to be fairly invisible as a group so that people would concentrate on the music. When someone said `Transparent,' we all just said, `Yeah, that's it.' "
In 1994, 17 musicians got together and began to swing, catching the wave of the latest dance craze and getting lots of gigs on account of it. Swing Shift formed at the right place at the right time, and has had plenty of work since. This week, the group releases its second CD, "Still Swingin'," recorded in one day this past April. "Seventeen tunes, all in one day," says band leader and trumpeter Garry Henson proudly.
Hmmm. Seventeen band members, 17 tunes? A connection? "Not really, though it is a pretty democratic band," says Henson, "and everyone did have a say in what made it onto the record." The material is mostly standards like "April in Paris," "It Had to be You" and "It Don't Mean a Thing," almost all with arrangements by Henson. The band, tight from all its gigging, set up in a lecture hall in Springfield's Washington Irving Middle School that April day and just played its heart out. "We did everything live, so there are some parts that might not be perfect, but that's us, that's what we are. But mostly it sounds wonderful. We're ecstatic at how it's turned out."
Catch Swing Shift's CD release party Wednesday at Blues Alley (202/337-4141) or see them with a dance floor June 25 when Swing Shift performs on the Birchmere's Band Stand (703/549-7500). You can also keep up with the band through its Web site, www.swing shiftdanceband.com.
CAPTION: Transparent Productions: Bobby Hill, far left, Herb Taylor, Vincent Kargatis, Thomas Stanley and Larry Appelbaum.