Refresher Course: Local musicians grow, learn with Higher Education
It's the dead of winter. The New Year has turned and the local club scene is slow. That's not to say there are not good shows out there; it just means that it's time to look a little closer or perhaps take a moment to go back to some of the gigs that may have been overlooked. After all, what's that old adage? Familiarity breeds contempt? Adjusted for Tulsa, familiarity breeds apathy. But I digress...
I'm past due to revisit one of the most consistently rewarding standing gigs in town, Dustin & Jesse's Higher Education. By now, everyone should be familiar with both of these gentlemen on their individual merits. If not, let me refresh your memory.
During past decade, Dustin Pittsley has developed from young gun guitar prodigy to probably the best blues-rock axe slinger in Tulsa, if not the entire state. And I'll be damned if he doesn't have the perfectly warm and rich baritone voice to go with it. Is it fair that someone be blessed with both? Nevertheless, look up "stone cold badass" in the Tulsa
MusicDictionary and you'll find his picture instead of words.
Jesse Aycock is quite possibly the epitome of the understated Southern gentleman - an amazing talent in his own right. If it has strings, he can play it, and play it well. His own material is incredibly good, melding his Americana roots and Beatle-esque pop sensibility (see his disc Life's Ladder). But he also proves to be a consummate sideman and stage foil, making him one of the most in-demand players in Tulsa.
Put the two men together, and it's a whole different animal. As long-time friends, they've been working together for years, with possibly the most rewarding of their collaborations being the Higher Education project at McNellie's every Thursday night. Loosely modeled after Tom Skinner's Science Project, Pittsley and Aycock's standing gig has become a gathering place and common ground for some of Tulsa's best musicians.
Explaining the genesis of Dustin & Jesse's Higher Education, Aycock said, "Dustin, I and Tex Wagner (on bass) had already been playing in Brookside together and were looking for a change.
"We wanted to do something different and started brainstorming," he said. "We'd been visiting Tom Skinner's Science Project at the time. They had mentored us and brought us up on stage. They were heroes to us and examples to us how music should be -- with an open door policy."
With that in mind, the trio took inspiration from their heroes' example, creating a format which Aycock described as "not so much an open mic, but more of an open invite." More to the point, they started by proactively seeking out other musicians to come sit in with them.
"When we started the gig, it seemed like there was an unspoken competition even though we were all working toward the same thing," he said.
Eventually, the trio's lineup evolved, along with the evening's format. Initially an acoustic endeavor, the show eventually evolved to include much more instrumentation. Red Dirt elder statesman Rocky Frisco has become a fixture on piano and "Skintight" Dave White settled at bass after Wagner moved to Texas.
The group worked its way through a couple of other players and a drummer was added, initially bringing in Doug Wehmeyer, then Josh Raymer, and now Jesse's brother Dustin.
Musically, Higher Education is a mixed bag, with the group drawing from the individual players' original material and a repertoire that includes a few tasteful classics from Dylan, Hendrix or Blind Faith.
"Playing covers can be cool," Aycock said, "because music is a passed-down thing anyway. So it's cool to take songs that have influenced you or mean something to you and put your own stamp on it or show respect to someone. We play a Tom Skinner/Don Morris tune that most people don't even know is theirs until we announce it as such."
The nature of the entire evening is very organic and off-the-cuff, with the mood of the room and the players determining what happens week to week. Some nights, things are rather subdued and primarily acoustic, while other weeks it may be a full-on electric blow out. Either way, it's always inspiring to see a room full of musicians feed off each other.
The only thing that's really missing is a Higher Education record, something Aycock admitted has been considered. The logistics of getting everyone together to write and rehearse outside of the Thursday night gig is the initial challenge.
Another factor is deciding how to accomplish a studio recording. "We've discussed possibly handpicking the songs and the people we want to sing and play on them, but that just doesn't seem natural with what we've been doing," Aycock said.
"This is like our non-serious gig," he said. "Even though we all love it so much, it's always been our fun, no-pressure gig and we want to keep it that way."
What's the significance of the project's moniker, Higher Education? "I'm really not sure how we got the name," Aycock laughed. "It probably just came to us one night and it stuck."
Even so, the project couldn't have been titled more appropriately. Not only has it been a learning experience for the musicians involved, but it's been a training ground for other rising acts. And although it can possibly be viewed as a "Music Appreciation 101" class for the audience, it's always enlightening and a good time.