By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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Sweet guitar chords roll down the Broadwalk with the breeze, beckoning passers-by to the open-air, stone-face tavern. Nautical knickknacks -- ships' wheels, fishing trophies -- fill the low-ceilinged, dimly lit interior. And the place is packed, mostly with locals, people who've known and loved Nick's on Hollywood Beach for years.
Some come for the live music, a mixture of jazz chops and space jams superimposed on pop, folk, and blues covers from the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan. But just as likely, audiences will be treated to something by John Coltrane or Pat Metheny, as interpreted by the two men crammed on the tiny stage squeezed in front of the fish tank.
"I've always said that the Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood area has its own pulse, its own identity," says guitarist Jeff Egan during a break from his regular gig at Nick's. "And even its jazz is influenced by its surroundings because its a little islandish. New York jazz is very dark. Our jazz is very bright."
Playing jazz while a gentle night breeze tousles palm fronds and the long hair of passing sweet young thangs is not exactly conducive to soul-searching, ear-bending, avant-garde experiments. The pulses Egan refers to are not urban, anxiety-laden, traffic-and-street-noise inspired, but rather wrought by tropical, soothing, shore seduction. Soul balm.
Egan's warm, melodic guitar sound is immediately reminiscent of the masters of the idiom, at least the ones who played sweetly. "Most of the people who listen," he says of his audience, "say they hear all the styles, yet none of them. You know, a little Jim Hall, a little Wes [Montgomery], George Benson, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Charlie Christian A I absorbed them all. I just listened and listened and listened, grasping the feel of it. But it turned out to be my own style, which is the best you can hope for, really."
After years of playing coffee shops and cafes in the Providence area near Brown University, Egan came to South Florida in 1980, seduced by the warm January weather. "I came to visit some friends in West Palm Beach, but there was so much music, there were so many gigs going on, I said 'I should just stay.' I went back later that week and packed up the van. I've been here ever since."
One of the first gigs Egan landed was Nick's, soon after the young guitarist relocated from West Palm to Hollywood. "I wanted to go where the water was turquoise colored," he explains of his migration even farther south. Another was Kelly's Pub, just off Young Circle, where he's been playing with the Hollywood Jazz Quintet -- an outfit he formed with pianist Jimmy Petullo -- for the past eight years.
Since the inception of his gig at Nick's some thirteen years ago, Egan has been performing in a duo format with some of the best bass men in South Florida: John Goodwin, Carl (Kilmo) Pacillo, Jim Kessler, and Scott Whitney are all in the current weekly roster. And each influences the set in his own way. "Even the same song is a different interpretation," Egan enthuses of his rotating sidemen. "I've been playing with these guys for so many years, in every kind of situation, we all know each other so well. And we gotta like each other, because you've seen the stage in there," he says, hooking a thumb in the direction of the claustrophobia-inducing play space.
Egan brought some of his friends into the studio with him as well, laying down tracks for an album he hopes to wrap by summer's end. The tape, which runs the gamut from electric funk and fusion to gentle acoustic ramblings A most of it original A is almost complete from a guitar standpoint, but Egan still has to record his vocals. His smoky singing voice, like his guitar sound, is pleasant and soulful. It, too, finds a home in any genre.
But even when plying pop or fingering folk, Egan feeds the songs through a jazz filter, not so much deconstructing as re-constructing. "Jazz is still my favorite music," he says. "I started off listening to jazz. I used to have a little transistor in my ear when I was going to sleep as a baby and [WLKW-AM, from the east side of Providence] was all I listened to." But Egan's eclectic tastes soon grew, which aided him in finding steady work. "I work all the time," he says. "I found that's from crossing over a bit. Earlier in the night I play a little something for everybody, and then later in the night I play jazz. It depends on the mood. I'll step into their living room, and if I feel like I can bring them into mine, and enjoy it.... It's no fun playing jazz for them if they don't really want to listen to it. And what is jazz? It's just improvised music."
Egan makes his improvisations appear deceptively simple, as if he need never worry about finding his way out of a tricky solo. "It's gotten to the point where I don't think I have anything to do with it anymore. I'm just listening and it's pouring through me. I think it comes from God, through me, and through the instrument. I play eight to ten hours a day, every day. I'm just totally devoted to it. That's the beauty of all these years of my life playing, the frustration, and now it just pours out and it's beautiful. It's finally hit that stage. There's no way to describe it. I'm just blown away by it as much as somebody sitting and listening to it."
"New York jazz is very dark. Our jazz is very bright."
"It turned out to be my own style, which is the best you can hope for, really.