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Chris Hovan’s Quartet Brings Generations Together at Bop Stop Gig

Jazz has so many dialectics, you’d think it was invented by Socrates or Hegel. Inside/outside, written/improvised, traditional/avant-garde: all are ways of arriving at the truth about jazz.

As a journalist as well as a player, Cleveland’s Chris Hovan is surely familiar with these admittedly reductive categories and more–like this one: young/old. It’s implied in the name of his Generations Quartet, which will appear Thursday night at Bop Stop at the Music Settlement.

When jazz bands have occasionally incorporated the word into a band name, the generations described tend to cluster at the far ends of the age spectrum, but Hovan’s band, which includes trumpeter Mark Russo, and bassist Taylor Arbogast, are familiar players on the Northeast Ohio scene. Guitarist Chandler Carpenter, a Youngstown State student, is the junior member, both in age and onstage experience, but then it’s been a while since any of the quartet’s members had much meaningful time in front of audiences. It was an eagerness to play was the centripetal force that brought the Generations Quartet into being.

“Three years ago, I was covering the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival and the publicity guy contacted me and said, ‘Hey, we have a new jazz club in town. If you could write something up, it would be just awesome,” said Hovan in a Zoom call from his West Side home. The club, Con Alma, had just opened in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood and Hovan was impressed enough to write about it for [full disclosure: I also serve as a writer and editor for the site].

Then the world shut down. Amazingly, Con Alma remained open, moving to a new downtown location, and even added a second location in the city’s Strip District. When the weather began to warm, vaccines became available and optimism for a hot jazz summer ran high, management reached out to Hovan and asked if he could bring a band to play there.

“It’s a real small stage so I couldn’t do the organ trio with Larry [Barris] and Cliff [Metcalf],” Hovan said. “I wanted to do something with the young guys, and I love playing with Mark. The idea kind of came together, we rehearsed and it worked.”

Now the Generations Quartet heads back to work a little closer to home, and their leader is clearly energized at the sparks that are struck when the old/young dialectic comes together.

Like many musicians, Hovan started kid piano lessons, and when he was old enough to pick up an instrument in school bands it was the clarinet. But an encounter with jazz at an unexpected place altered the course of Hovan’s musical career.

“I went to North Ridgeville High School and they had a jazz band that would often play at the roller rink outside Elyria. I went out there a couple times, watching the drummer, and I was like, ‘Whoa. Yup. I think that’s what I rather do.'”

Hovan’s journalistic career also began in high school, in the North Ridgeville darkroom where he was encouraged to pursue what had been a hobby. A trip to the Detroit Jazz Festival gave him a taste that it might turn into something more.

“I remember taking a little point-and-shoot to the grate in front of the stage and shooting Elvin Jones,” Hovan said. “Then I started saying, ‘Okay, well, maybe I should get some serious cameras.’ And it just kind of went from there.”

After contributing articles to the Crusader Urban News and the newsletter of the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, Hovan realized that being a photographer who doubles as a writer could open doors. Assignments at Downbeat, and other venues followed.

Music, though, came first. Hovan studied classical percussion with George Kiteley at Baldwin-Wallace College and drum set for a year at the Berklee College of Music, but studies with Cleveland drum legend Harry Damas were crucial.

“He had big band charts for these Count Basie albums. He gave me these charts and said, ‘Basie. Straight ahead. Now, go up the street and buy this [Basie] record. I know they have it. I told them to stock it, because I send all my drummers there to get the record.’ So I learned how to read from him and play gig band stuff, Harry was just great.”

Now it’s Hovan’s turn to pass along what he’s learned to a new generation of players. He first encountered Arbogast at the Bop Stop’s regular jam sessions. “He’s only been playing a couple of years, and he just grows exponentially,” the drummer said. “He’s a Scott LaFaro nut and transcribes his solos. Every time I hear him play, it’s just it’s amazing.” Carpenter is subbing for fellow YSU guitarist Andrew Karkosiak, but according to Hovan, both share a similar aesthetic.  “He’s into a Bill Frisell approach. I liked the combination of doing standards with that kind of flavor.”

Trombonist Scott Marsh brought Russo and Hovan together. They have a lot in common; both teach in the schools and both have gigged widely in the area, but the connection was strengthened at another jam session. “Mark started doing these jam sessions at the Tavern of Independence on Sunday nights, and he let me know. It was a perfect time, 5:30 to eight on a Sunday night. What better way to spend a Sunday night?

Hovan made the gigs, but they didn’t last long. Yet the experience was valuable beyond the music. “I was there every Sunday, and I made connections,” he said. “I’d start with Mark met the other young guys that are in this band and those connections kind of got everything going together again, and it’s been great.”

Just how great will be on offer Thursday night at Bop Stop. 

Chris Hovan Generations Quartet, Thursday, January 27 at 7 p.m. at Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. In-person are $15, available here. The concert will will be livestreamed at Bop Stop’s Facebook page. Viewing the stream is free but donations to the band and the venue are appreciated and can be made here.