"I'm sorry 'bout the Cubs, y'all," says Peven Everett from behind his Roland keyboard. "But I don't believe in curses."
It's just minutes after game seven and the Funky Buddha Lounge is practically empty. The gloomy countenances of the scattered patrons echo the mood at Wrigley Field a few miles away. It's an atypical crowd--or lack thereof--for Everett's Wednesday-night gig at the club, where the onetime jazz trumpeter and his backing band Seance Divine have cultivated an impressive following with two- and three-hour sets of largely improvised soul music. Everett, a lithe, soft-spoken dandy in a silk shirt and fur cap, guides the group with subtle gestures and hand signals and sings in a sleepy, honeyed tenor.
Tonight his voice shows the strain, though just barely, of a recent bout with the flu. The illness lingered for weeks, he says, because he was too busy working to rest. So far this year Everett's released three albums, including the bossa-flavored My Brazil, the sunny Summer Solstace (his spelling), and a rap record with fellow Harvey native Asian A called Star Studded. His latest effort is a three-song EP called Swing Dirty Dirty, but two more full-lengths--a straight jazz record, Lillie Walk, and an R & B album, Kissing Game--are slated to drop in the next few months.
Everett produced all these albums himself; he wrote all the music, played all the instruments, and does almost all the singing, too. Predictably, his auteurism has earned him comparisons to other virtuosos like Stevie Wonder, Prince, and D'Angelo. But his dexterous voice and fusionary spirit link him more directly to underrated 70s soul crooner Donny Hathaway, jazz maverick Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and maybe even cosmic funkmaster Lonnie Liston Smith.
He's also released nearly all his work himself, on CD-R with minimal packaging, despite interest from labels on both sides of the Atlantic. He did emerge briefly from the deep underground last year with Studio Confessions, for which he and DJ Beni B cherry-picked the best songs from his other releases. The collection, licensed to Beni B's ABB imprint in the U.S. and Diaspora in the UK, is his only widely available album; it's sold more than 25,000 copies to date.
At 28, Everett has already had two other distinct careers, as a studious jazz hand and a house music innovator. "I don't remember exactly how it started, but I was very young," he says. "I was banging on pots and pans at some point, then that became instruments. The availability of the instruments came from my mom, just seeing that I wanted to do something. She fed [the] appetite."
He grew up in south suburban Harvey, where he soaked up jazz and gospel, Miles and Mahalia. "Also, I loved Aretha Franklin," he adds. "I was a little kid when the Blues Brothers movie came out and [when] I saw her...that was it! That hooked me to a certain feeling of music with my people."
By the fifth grade, he was teaching music to other students. "The band director who taught me said, 'I'm giving you something. Now you have to give that thing to someone else,'" he says. "And, really, that's how I became a multi-instrumentalist. I learned how to play everything in order to be able to show other people how to do it as well."
First he learned bass and guitar, then trumpet, saxophone, flute, and drums, and then later piano. "I stayed after school a lot just playing, 'cause we lived in a pretty bad hood," he says. "I didn't want to be around that too much."
The youngest of four children, Everett was only nine when his brother, Theo, was murdered during a convenience store holdup. "He was going out for a pack of cigarettes at like 12:30 at night. It happened right down by our house," he says. "They robbed him, and he gave them the money. Later, the [murderer] said he saw in my brother's face that he knew he was gonna kill him. My brother took off running and tried to zigzag as much as he could, but he still got hit. From where we lived we heard the [shot]. He tried struggling home, but he died three or four houses away from our place.
"My life was shattered in a lot of ways when he passed. But it totally forced me to realize certain things, 'cause I might've gone in a bad direction myself. I could've ended up being a hustler or whatever. That was the environment. But once I saw what happened to my brother, it was a done deal for me what to do: just get out."
He became a serious jazz trumpeter in high school and was offered a full scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1991, but he would never set foot on campus. That summer he jammed with hard-bop horn man Roy Hargrove--whom he'd met at a jazz education conference in Atlanta years earlier--at a local showcase. Everett's playing that night impressed Hargrove's drummer, Greg Hutchinson, a veteran of Betty Carter's band. Upon his return to New York the trapsman told Carter about the young phenom.
"About a week later the phone rings and this woman on the line says, 'Hey, it's Betty Carter,'" Everett says. "I'm thinking to myself, I only know one Betty Carter."
Carter said she had an opening for a trumpeter in her touring band and asked Everett if he was interested. "I was like, 'Could you hold on a second?'" he says. "I put the phone down and screamed like I'd won the lottery."
Everett told Berklee no thanks and headed to New York to join Carter's sextet. "It was a hard decision, but I felt like that was a better school to go to at the time than Berklee," he says. "It was the best learning I could've gotten in a short amount of time. I mean, I was barely 17 and my first show with her was at Carnegie Hall! That's an education."
The notoriously uncompromising Carter, who died in 1998, would put the young trumpeter through his paces. "I became her ballad boy," he says. "We'd play these really hard-core ballads together. Slow, difficult songs that required a lot of breathing control, very concentrated stuff. It was a tough gig. But she took care of me. And most of what I got I learned from her." He would remain a mainstay of her touring outfit for four years.
He still wasn't 21, so when he wasn't on the road he charmed his way into the downtown jazz clubs. "A lot of the club owners and proprietors were women," he says with a sheepish grin, "so I could coo a little bit and they'd let me in and make sure I didn't have to pay that $20 cover on a Saturday night."
Before long he'd gone from regular audience member to regular player, joining marathon jam sessions with fellow up-and-coming postboppers like J.D. Allen, Brian Blade, Chris Thomas, and Karriem Riggins at all-night hothouses like Small's. "That was the swing joint every night until 7:30 or 8 AM," he says. "It'd be morning, people are going to work, and I'm just straggling home. But that's what it was about for me. I was still new to the game at that point and getting my name known. So I had to be out there cranking every night."
In 1994, Wynton Marsalis recruited him for a tour that would form the basis for the PBS kids' series Marsalis on Music. "I can't say enough about that experience," he gushes. "It was the greatest musical education anyone could ever get."
Through fellow trumpeter (and Illinois native) Russell Gunn, Everett then landed another prestigious gig, touring with Wynton's brother Branford. But he'd started to grow disillusioned with the purist tendencies of Wynton Marsalis's New York.
"At the time there was a big effort to discourage younger jazz [players] from getting into hip-hop or R & B," he says. "People would make disparaging comments about my generation being into that kind of music. And I thought that attitude stank. I wasn't into that kind of repression."
As it happened, Everett was getting deeper into modern R & B and the progressive rap of New York's Native Tongues posse--De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, the lunatic flow of Busta Rhymes. On the road, he'd sneak off to compose R & B tunes: "I was a closet writer. I would go into my hotel room, into the shower, and write my R & B tracks in there, 'cause I didn't want anyone to hear me," he says. "Which was silly. It's like, I'm not any less of a jazz musician because I know R & B."
Everett quit the road in 1995. "The whole situation was too constricting," he says. "I had too much energy. I wanted to dance around, I wanted to freak out onstage, and that just didn't go over well in a suit and tie."
To try to revive the spirit that had drawn him to music in the first place, he moved back to Chicago, eventually settling in Pilsen. "It's hard to explain, but New York wasn't a place that I'd grown up," he says. "I didn't feel the city, and I didn't feel it could give me the music in the way that I'd been getting it, the way that had made people like me in the first place. So I came back to make sure my roots were intact."
His homecoming ushered in the next phase of his career: "I was hitting the dance clubs pretty heavy, getting into that whole scene, and I wanted to apply what I was learning in a way that was constructive."
Through a friend in New York, Everett met south side turntablist Roy Davis Jr. In 1996 they released "Gabriel" on Jeff Craven's fledgling Large label. The song, featuring Everett on trumpet and vocals, became a major European club hit. With its brass hook, old-soul croon, and spiritual message, it would prove massively influential on the UK scene, sparking the garage and two-step movements. He followed up with a succession of 12-inch singles-- "Watch Them Come," "Don't You Dare Stop Lovin'," "I Can't Believe I Loved Her"--for prominent house labels like Undaground Therapy, Dust Traxx, and King Street.
But he was also already writing and recording a series of solo records that reflected his increasingly diverse interests. Beginning with 2001's Speed of Light, Everett has married house beats to jazzy melodies and swirling Afro-Caribbean rhythms on albums full of sumptuous ballads and understated funk. Broadly speaking he fits into the neosoul category--not exactly old school but respectful of his elders--but his oeuvre also includes genre exercises in rap, bossa nova, hip-hop, and hard bop.
He burned about 1,000 copies of Speed of Light at home (autographing each one). "The whole point was to not wait on a record company to decide how much or what kind of material I could produce," he says. To a degree, his one-man business model has succeeded. He sells his work primarily through his Web site (www.peveneverett.com) and a smattering of retail outlets across the country. In the past few years he's sold around 15,000 CD-Rs--and kept 100 percent of the profits.
But demand exceeds what he's able to supply this way. "To date, we've sold over 1,500 units of Peven's work--more than a few hundred of each title--but we'd have sold far, far more than that if Peven could get us enough copies," says Dusty Groove buyer Rick Wojcik. "We could have easily moved 10,000 or more in the past few years if he'd produced that many copies, but he can't, which makes it tough."
Not surprisingly, Everett also handles his own management and booking. "I get off on trying to do it my way, man. I really do," he says. "There's some sick part of me that gets totally energized by being the underdog. This is how I've chosen to do it. And it might be hard sometimes, but it shows me what I can do pulling my own weight doing something I love."
In addition to his residency at the Funky Buddha, Everett has been performing monthly in the UK, where he enjoys the support of influential BBC DJ and Talking Loud/Acid Wax label honcho Gilles Peterson. At the end of this month he'll return to England to play the Southport Weekender festival, which bills itself as the country's "premier soulful dance event."
Stateside, press and radio attention have spiked recently--his music is in regular rotation on the tastemaking Santa Monica station KCRW, and recently India.Arie invited him to open for her in Saint Louis.
"As far as gaining notoriety, people are looking me up now and I think that's hip," he says. "It's been slow and sure, but I'm not complaining. To have any type of effect on this kinda scene, as big as it is, I just feel blessed to make my mark."
It's well after midnight when the Funky Buddha dance floor finally fills up. Everett and company deliver their sweat-soaked grooves for another two hours. The club empties again after last call and Everett quickly packs his gear--he's rushing back to his home studio for a late-night session, eager to spin some of the evening's fresh ideas into new tracks. Plus, there are another half dozen records still awaiting completion, including a reggae album and a second volume from Upper Esh, his project with Asian A.
"I think like this: I could get swiped off the earth at any moment," he says. "And I'll be damned if I wasn't gonna be trying everything I could to get this music out there. I've loved it too long to do anything less."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.