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Summers’ Heavy Heat

Fronted by the Summers Brothers, Jayakar Brings Weighty Poetry to the Pop-Fusion Sound

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Jayakar plays the HonFest June 11 on West 36th Street.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 6/8/2005

English major: thick, proselike, full of metaphor and hyperbole. He spends months and even years tossing around concepts in his head until he comes out with something workable—usually something that starts with a simple but profound concept as its seed or a delicate metaphor at its heart.

If Graham Summers were, say, a singer/songwriter type, or a spoken-word poet, oh what a drag his songs would be. Thankfully, the 24-year-old singer and guitarist is the frontman for local quintet Jayakar, a band that plays a funky blend of jazz fusion and pop rock that gives an invaluable lightness to Summers’ heavy concepts. The band’s keen sense of melody arrangement balances the complexity of Summers’ songcraft, and the result is a big greasy plate of philosophical vitamins with all the calories of a hippie-rock continental breakfast, captured on its debut EP, Set Your Senses Free.

Take “The Street,” a song that Summers dedicates to the 19th-century poet John Keats. Its subject is a character named Anji who is modeled after themes from Keats’ Odes and after Romantic-era heroines such as William Blake’s Thel. Practicing the song last month in a studio on the second floor of Peabody Conservatory, Summers sang the thoughts of his protagonist: “This desire it surpasses reason/ Can I find an earth-dwelling Eden?/ How I ache . . . ”

Exactly: Guh. But the basic groove behind the song is driven by chunky piano chords from Summers’ younger brother Alec and a meandering sax riff from Alex Mekelberg, and sounds like Ben Folds Five playing jazz on uppers—almost exuberant and effortlessly danceable. In rehearsal, drummer and Peabody junior Shareef Taher’s facial features twist soulfully as he taps out beats that recall Dave Matthews Band’s Carter Beauford and that strengthen Ethan Montgomery’ bass lines. The Summers brothers work out round vocal harmonies across the room from one another, their voices occasionally sounding snippy when they can’t make their parts jive.

“We like to keep the emphasis on funky beats and melodies,” Summers says over the phone from the Eastern Shore, where he is attending a publishing industry conference (his day job is as an editor at Agora Publishing in Mount Vernon). “But my lyrics really help me sort things out. Ultimately, my real goal lyrically is to have a cohesive body of work where the songs reference other songs, almost like a cosmology of our music.”

Appropriately cosmic enough, the name of the band comes from a Hindi word associated with Karttikeya, the god of war, and since the lineup solidified in the early months of 2005, the band’s logo, a silhouetted seahorse behind a graphic of their name, has become more and more ubiquitous around Baltimore, Hampden in particular.

“Yeah, I keep seeing it on cars, and our name in the subject lines of e-mails,” Summers says. “People see the name of the band and say, ‘Oh, that’s the seahorse band.’”

Jayakar recently attracted the attention of Eric Willison, a local filmmaker who got tired of making instructional videos and started making movies about Hampden’s arts scene, starting with recycled-metal artist Jim Pollock. Summers saw the Pollock film and “was quite taken with it. So I spoke to Eric, and it turned out that he had been coming to our shows for quite a while.”

Willison has started work on a promotional documentary about Jayakar and its story. The documentary finds the band onstage, in rehearsal, and just hanging out, working through the songs that it recorded last August for Set Your Senses Free. The band will start selling copies of the disc, with a proper CD-release party slated for June 24 at Frazier’s on the Avenue.

Listening to the record, you can sense the time line of the band’s development. In the hands of less well-trained and seasoned players, their songs would be 12-minute-long noodle-fests, full of wanking solos and bad wah-wah. Instead, Jayakar keeps its compositions short and shuffles through thematic parts and bridges with the ease of bebop heads. The sax lines occasionally sound like elevator jams, but their smoothness complements Summers’ more suave lyrical moments, like when he tells you he wants to “Lick you hard/ Like a plum/ Swollen with/ Spring and sun,” in “Sliding Doors.”

Such tact and maturity is a function of the members being mostly conservatory-educated musicians who grew up playing together. All of them, save Taher, attended Columbia’s River Hill High School and started playing together sophomore year. “We were all a lot more pretentious back then,” Summers says. “And the sound was a little more the jam thing. I think we all grew up and realized what’s musical and what’s just self-indulgent.”

They parted ways for a few years, Graham Summers to study English at Oberlin College, his brother music at Northwestern University. Original drummer Ryan Mead left the band to attend Stanford University, which led them to seek out Taher. Now all living in the Baltimore area, and either studying or working full-time, they are finding more and more time to play as Jayakar.

In fact, it has reached the point that they are recognizing fewer and fewer people at their shows, which is a good thing. Summers hopes that Jayakar’s music is actually connecting with people who they don’t already know. “My personal feeling on music, about what is funk and what is jazz, I think that stuff has been saturated to the max,” he says. “What I wanna do is to create something that is a synergy, a very unique blend of influences, but at the same time to have it be very familiar.”

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