Most often, the life of a musician is transient. While national and international performers travel incessantly, local musicians typically string together work at a network of club and festival venues and private functions in order to survive.
And then there's bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Elgin Wells, who's just begun a Thursday through Saturday house gig at Wild Times Cafe in Alpharetta. He held a similar residency at Ray's on the River for 16 years. That's 4,000 shows and roughly 16,000 sets of live music. Such longevity is extraordinary in Atlanta (the late Paul Mitchell's stint at Dante's comes to mind).
The gig ended in January 2000, soon after Ray's came under new ownership.
"Leaving Ray's was oddly liberating, like going on an extended vacation," Wells says. "I began to discover a lot of stuff I'd been missing over the years." This included "regular guy" experiences like the Rip Van Winkle sensation of viewing prime-time television for the first time in more than a decade, or of simply having a weekend night off.
But before long, Wells made an unexpected discovery: "After a few weeks of not performing, an avalanche of new musical ideas began pouring into my mind's ear. It was as if they had been waiting unheard in the corners of my imagination until my mind was quiet enough to hear them. And they began to fill the void. It was all I could do to try to get each strain down on manuscript paper or tape before it escaped me. I was like a kid in a musical candy store! I still am."
Meanwhile, Wells was testing his limits in other ways. A competitive aerobatics pilot, Wells joined Airshow Unlimited, flying for roughly 3 million spectators a year. The business also enabled him to incorporate the graphics and video production skills he'd acquired from his years as a performer.
Fatefully, the events of Sept. 11 struck a devastating blow to the air show industry, as sponsorships and events vanished and insurance rates skyrocketed. Concurrently, Wells was receiving "a new flood of phone calls and e-mails from fans, telling me that it had been long enough, that it was time to get back to work, playing music."
Starting in February, Wells returned to public performance with shows at Sambuca Jazz Cafe in Buckhead. The band now performs at Sambuca twice a month on Wednesdays -- and it was via Sambuca that Wells connected with Wild Times Cafe. A distinctly diverse venue, Wild Times includes a first-class restaurant and bar with a unique nature theme, a children's game room (a la Chuck E. Cheese), an arcade/game room for adults and a dance area (separate from the bar where Wells performs) complete with reflective disco ball.
While the Wild Times experience is different from his days at Ray's, the aesthetic of Wells' shows is largely unchanged. His sets include a mix of jazz, blues, R&B and New Age, with Wells performing on 10 or more instruments on any given night -- including a variety of horns, and a guitar and violin (both of which Wells built).
"I'm the same old performer, but I've just come back from a long and exciting journey, and I've got a lot of new stories to tell," he says. "My job is to take you away for a little while, from your world into mine, where I hope to make you laugh a little, feel the magic in the music and leave as a happier, richer person. If I can do that, I'm not too concerned about where it happens."
The Elgin Wells Group also performs Wed., Sept. 4, at Sambuca Jazz Cafe, 3102 Piedmont Road. 404-237-5299. www.sambucajazzcafe.com.
Take Five covers jazz and related subjects, with an emphasis on local artists, venues and events. E-mail or mail jazz news to: Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville GA 30045-3156.
I'm pretty sure he was 19.
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