The Mackay Project

After playing together for only three months, The Mackay Project is making its debut in Ashland. The trio is made up of Thomas Mackay on vibraphone, John Zalabak on bass and Kelvin Underwood on percussion. Together they play contemporary jazz, mostly composed of originals by Mackay.

"This is music that used to cause riots," said Zalabak.

As newcomers on the Ashland music scene, the trio hopes to encourage listeners to take in the conversation happening in songs between musicians.

"It's probably the first time in 15 years that I've been able to dig out all my own originals," said Mackay, "I subject these guys every Monday to a laboratory in my head. It's like the best conversation in the world, we barely ever see each other outside of playing and when we get together we don't even really talk, we just play."

"Musically, we talk," added Zalabak, "It's just so much fun and I'm the Johnny-come-lately over here, I've only been here a year. I come from the San Francisco bay area where I played with various sundry bands."

Mackay and Zalabak are joined by Underwood, who specializes in taiko, the art of Japanese drumming. Underwood is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music and performed with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Henry VI. In this formation though, he plays on a drum kit.

"There's not a lot of jazz in the valley; if there is, it's standards," said Underwood.

Mostly the group plays Mackay's original music with some tunes they remake in a jazzy style, such as "Fields of Gold" by Sting.

"I don't want to do 'Bye Bye Blackbird' and all that stuff," said Mackay. "If we do you probably wouldn't recognize it."

Mackay says he's particularly excited by the opportunity because seven months ago advanced carpal tunnel in his hands meant he couldn't even play the vibraphone. The condition came from using the mallets for more than 25 years. But since changing to a gluten-free diet in April, his condition has cleared up and he is able to play again.

In a video for the Tidings Cafe, The Mackay Project performed "afterthought," an original tune by Mackay. The trio will perform at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Playwright Public House, 258 A St. Cover is $5.

"I wanted to do a higher energy jazz thing, and the Public House was into it," said Mackay, "they don't normally have anything going on Saturday nights."

Since coming together, the trio has performed only at South Stage Cellars in Jacksonville, but in addition to Saturday's show they have another gig lined up for First Friday in January at Edvenvale Enoteca in the plaza.

"For me, it's challenging because I'm usually playing a lot louder," said Underwood, "but the response has been really great."

The group also has plans to start recording an album in January and have been talking to a record label in California. Its sound is still in development though, as most of what they play is Mackay's tunes, they look forward to introducing more music composed by Underwood and Zalabak.

"We haven't quite gotten to the point where all of us are totally collaborating; I think until we do that it's not going to be as easy to define the overall sound," said Underwood. "But I would say it's a more contemporary jazz sound. I play in a lot of different types of projects, so I will bend towards the other players I'm playing with."

For the casual listener, jazz can raise barriers to entry, said Zalabak, but in that is a sophistication that the trio hopes they can win Ashland audiences over with.

"One of the pieces of genius that Thomas brings to it, is that he tends to bring in other folks. He uses various contemporary mechanisms to get people involved in it," said Zalabak, "and playing with Kelvin is such a joy. He plays in a really thick fashion and a lot of people who do that don't leave a lot of room for other musicians, but he's done his homework and he leaves holes for other people to fill in and it's really fun."

As a group the three men hope that their music encourages people to listen more to the music coming through the valley.

"I go out a lot to see live music and it seems like there is more emphasis on the social scene. I'm not saying that everyone should sit and be quiet and listen," said Underwood, "but just really pay attention to what people are saying. The message gets lost sometimes. It's loud and people are talking over it. It'd be nice to have people just open up to that part of it."

Since the trio seeks to encourage Ashland music fans to support different genres of music including jazz, they have offered to waive the cover charge at their Dec. 8 show for anyone who brings a ticket stub from the Dmitri Matheny show at Paschal Winery from earlier that evening.

"You're already out, don't go home! We really want to change the scene and liven it up. There needs to be more of a community in the jazz scene," said Mackay, "just like how all the reggae people come together and support each other. There needs to be more of that."

Mandy Valencia is a reporter for the Mail Tribune and Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at or 541-776-4486.

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