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Merrimans’ Playhouse invites new audiences

Michelle Fordice | Friday, March 9, 2007

Hidden in the back corner of South Bend’s Century Center is an event that most Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students are unfortunately missing. Once a month, the Merrimans’ Playhouse Jazz Performance Series exhibits jazz talent from around the area in a setting welcoming to both enthusiasts and first time listeners. The Merriman Trio features a new musician to fill their third spot for each show, which both allows long time listeners to hear something new and lets those less familiar with the genre experience the essentials of jazz music.

Going to Merrimans’ Playhouse is less like a concert and more like a special invitation to a relaxed jam session. The music is entirely improvisational. One of the integral components of the playhouse is the series of guest artists featured in each performance.

Regularly, the “trio” is actually a duo, consisting of upright bassist Mary Merriman and drummer Stephen Merriman. Every session, a new guest artist from around the area is invited to complete the trio, assuring a new sound. For Mary Merriman, this provides a great opportunity to work with a variety of artists.

“[Each musician brings] their own way of playing this art,” she said.

This format is beneficial for the audience as well; the listening becomes more active than passive. Audiences get to watch a conversation between the artists that is often, especially for more formal concerts, done beforehand. The musicians, who have not played together regularly, listen and watch to stay together and trade solo moments.

Furthermore, the artists joke and talk with each other and with the audience throughout the evening, breaking the boundaries of the stage. The audience gets the chance to sacrifice some of the customary polish in order to see more of the creative process that the music often undergoes.

March’s concert featured pianist Eric Clancy from Fort Wayne, Ind. The show covered a wide range of music, from pieces composed by Thelonius Monk, to Cole Porter and Miles Davis. While many of the songs were classics, the artists provided their own interpretation of each and, not surprisingly, many of them focused around the piano in an effort to display Clancy’s artistry.

This year’s series will eventually feature other artists such as saxophonist Rich Cohen and pianist Jim Steele.

Co-founder and drummer of the Merriman Trio, Stephen Merriman, described the aim of the playhouse as working to provide a “neutral zone.” The Merriman Trio endeavors to break down as many barriers as possible, including those of gender, socioeconomic class, age and race, and to unite people in a common love of the ever familiar but ever changing sounds of jazz. The location of the series, in downtown South Bend, was chosen to allow for greater access to the public.

“[At Merriman’s Playhouse] you’re not going to get preached to,” he said.

The relatively new Merrimans’ Playhouse still has a lot of room to grow as it slowly gathers a following, but the essence of the series is a wonderful opportunity to share music with the community. Attending concerts such as this one is an easy way for Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students to get out and appreciate some of the talent to be found in South Bend.

Tickets to Merrimans’ Playhouse are $5 in advance and $8 at the door. The next performance, featuring saxophonist Rich Cohen, will be held on April 19 at the Century Center in South Bend. More information about other upcoming performances can be found at merrimansplayhouse.com.