Making a living playing jazz music in a small Western city is no easy feat.
But for Durango musician Jeff Solon, it’s always been the only option.
“There was nothing more that I enjoyed than playing music,” he said. “So, I just continue on to do that. It’s more important to create the art than do many things that money provides.”
Solon, a staple in the local music scene who has been playing swing and jazz and teaching music in Durango since the late 1970s, is releasing his 15th album this week. The album, “Alchemy,” brings 10 tracks of organic jazz that he recorded in a Durango living room with bandmates Jack Maynes on keyboard and Elizabeth Riordan on upright bass.
The album, Solon says, captures the unique musical process of listening, riffing and creating that the three share.
“The things that are going on in the music in this recording, that just doesn’t happen very often with people,” he said. “That’s the specialness of this group. Everybody listens so well.”
Solon, who plays harmonica and saxophone on “Alchemy,” said the album in some ways represents the accumulation of all the musical experiences he has ever had.
“It’s a culmination of my life’s work up to this moment in time,” he said.
“Alchemy” comes four years after his last album, “Conversations,” a duet he cut with guitarist Kevin McCarthy. He started writing the tracks for “Alchemy” last fall and had a body of work by the end of January.
He worked through the pieces with his bandmates, both during gigs and in rehearsals, where the three musicians tweaked and refined the songs until they were ready for recording. The album was recorded in a living room sans headphones, fancy equipment or overdubs before it was mastered and mixed, Solon said.
“It was completely live,” he said.
The name, he said, refers to the alchemy of creating music, the way the process enables him to condense his experiences into songs and how that gives those experiences more clarity.
With regular gigs in town, a large swing band and performances with various configurations of local musicians, Solon is a familiar face on the Durango music scene.
He also teaches private lessons, does musical outreach through all-school assemblies and works as an adjunct professor at Fort Lewis College. And he practices a lot. He says he often plays six hours a day.
“I’m kind of a practice fanatic,” he said. “I think that, with anything, if you put your time into it and you really, really get good at it, opportunities come.”
Solon first heard jazz on AM radio as a child. He didn’t know what in the world it was, he said, but he immediately loved the swing feel of it.
He began playing the harmonica at the age of 13 after being exposed to it at a summer camp, but he was a closet player for a long time because he was shy. He moved to Durango in 1975 to attend FLC, and he jammed with some friends and bands. But he didn’t dive into it fully until after college, when he traveled around South America for several years. There, he began his musical career as a street performer, playing his way through countries such as Ecuador and Brazil, where he played on street corners and clubs. He was even able to pull a year-long cultural visa in Ecuador through his music.
“That kind of stuff really kind of sucked me into playing music and finding a voice,” he said. “Latin America was so open and inviting. It really broke down a lot of my American-learned judgements.”
It’s also where he picked up a clarinet, which he learned by practicing for several hours a day (and which led him to playing the saxophone a couple years later.)
He returned to the Durango region in 1985 and has been gigging, teaching and collaborating since. He has played corporate events, parties, shows and special events on most of the stages around town, taught jazz studies and composition at FLC and collaborated with many musicians.
The self-taught jazz player says he learned what he knows about composing, arranging and playing through volumes of books. And through a lot of playing.
“There’s nothing more that I enjoy than playing music,” Solon said. “I hope I can keep going at it. I hope I can continue playing music and continue creating music for the rest of my life.”