Halfway through a set at Simon's of Butchers Hill, the drummer of the David Wells Trio was onstage tapping and grinning with his mouth shut. Anyone sitting in the upstairs dining room with him could read his mind:
"Man, this is some smooooth jazz."
And if owner Eugene Jones can lock down a consistently solid lineup four nights a week, Simon's upstairs room will be a routine stop for local jazz lovers. Jones is pretty close right now but still has a kink or two to work out.
Jones, formerly the manager of Fat Lulu's, opened the upstairs in November. He'd hosted jazz performers downstairs before, but said the loud music drove away neighborhood locals who just wanted to sit and talk. To bring them back, he refinished the upstairs dining room, which meant building a slightly elevated stage and adding plenty of soundproofing and new decor. It worked.
Stand outside Simon's when a band's on stage, and you can hardly hear the music. It's the same at the bar downstairs, which plays CDs for background noise. The only place you can really hear the band is upstairs sitting at one of the dozen small, round tables. They're covered in white linen tablecloths and dotted with votive candles and small flowers in small vases. It's a really romantic setting - intimate, but not cramped.
At 9 p.m. last Saturday, the David Wells Trio, a keyboardist, drummer and bassist, kept the volume at the halfway point: Soft enough to talk over and loud enough to get into. They were veteran players who got into a groove and stayed there for a while, not constantly trading solos. Every so often the keyboardist or bassist would cut loose and launch a flurry of notes out into the crowd, but most of the time they let the music carry itself.
More than a dozen people sat chatting and watching the show, which made the room a few heads shy of comfortably full. Some ate and some just drank (we were in the latter group). Simon's boasts a solid collection of decently priced beers and wines, including Magic Hat #9, Boddington and Bass Ale on tap. I tried a draft of Abita Turbodog, a dark ale from Louisiana that was smoother and sweeter than Guinness. My girlfriend (Simon's is great for dates) had a glass of Whoop Whoop, an Australian shiraz that's as fun to drink as it sounds.
There's no cover to drink downstairs, but if you want to see some jazz, you pay $5 per person, which the waitress added onto our bill. For $5, you get your money's worth. Simon's also has jazz acts Friday and Wednesday nights for the same price. Mark Evans was supposed to play every Thursday night, but the gig fell through, and now Jones is trying to fill the slot.
The Jamie Baumgart trio, a younger group with a guitarist, drummer and a bassist, performs Wednesday nights. Last Wednesday, the drummer ran late, so the guitarist and bassist did a duet until he arrived about 9:30 p.m. Once the drummer set up, the show got moving.
The gig was a solo-fest, which is common for younger musicians. Playing a hollow-body clean, the guitarist kept looking down at his hands, especially when he riffed. The setlist had some standards, but a rendition of the Grateful Dead's "Help on the Way" stood out. They played to about a half dozen people upstairs - a pretty tiny audience, even for a Wednesday night.
The drummer got a little carried away and made it hard to talk, but the show was still a deal for $5.
If Jones can lock down Thursday nights and keep the talent at this level, he'll have no problem filling the place.
"I hate to see a room sit dormant when people could be being entertained," Jones said.
Simon's of Butcher's Hill, at 2031 E. Fairmount Ave., hosts live jazz Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights. The upstairs cover charge is $5. For more information, call 410-534-7100 or visit simonsofbutchershill.com.