It's interesting to watch a good musician cut through the ambient noise of a restaurant. Slowly, heads lift and turn towards the source of the sultry Latin chords of a Spanish guitar. In this case it's Mark Towns - tall, casually dressed and slowly bobbing his head. As he starts a new number, the tempo picks up, and people suddenly forget about weekend plans, portfolios and designer nachos and start to bob their head along with the goateed maestro.
Do they know this man has played with jazz greats like Roy Hargrove, Stanley Clarke and Arnette Cobb? Are they aware that he's been heard in New Orleans, Nashville and as far away as Alaska and Germany? Probably not. The people who come to Taco Milagro on Friday nights come to relax and unwind. Few know that the man who serenades them has national aspirations. "It's never bothered me whether or not people are paying close attention to the music," says Towns. "You can look around the room and tell who's there to listen and who's not. But you'd be surprised - even the people who you don't think are paying attention are. If you're playing good, they notice it."
Much of what Towns performs each Friday comes from his CD Flamenco Jazz Latino. With well-crafted blends of salsa, merengue and various other rhythms, it's markedly different than the host of generic "Latin" offerings that pile in record stores. Towns has purveyed Latin jazz for years, and it shows on this release.
National jazz recording artists Hubert Laws and Kirk Whalum, both from Houston, were so impressed with Towns' work that they agreed to play on his album. Whalum lends his smoothly raspy sax solo to "The Way/La Via," a radio-friendly cover of pop act Fastball's "The Way." A veteran of local gigs himself before achieving national fame and Grammy nominations, Whalum says he was "blown away" by Towns' work, and from there a friendship grew out of mutual respect. "It's an oxymoron," he says of Towns' music. "Mark's music has an intensity to it that makes you want to move and dance, and yet it really relaxes you too."
Towns handled all facets of the album's production and release himself, even starting his own record label, Salongo Records, and arranging national distribution and promotion. Now he's working on a second release, which will feature the same basic lineup as Flamenco Jazz Latino -- and more of Hubert Laws. "Besides being the best jazz flute player in the world," says Towns of Laws, "his style is a great fit for this music."
The second album will be similar to the first in that several of the songs (like Flamenco Jazz Latino's "Salamanca," "Corriente," and "Like the Wind") were first developed in front of live audiences. The real test, for Towns, is how songs translate live. "Sometimes I think they sound good, but I play them live, and they completely change. Then the simplest thing will sound really good and totally work," says Towns of his creations.
A guitarist since he was a small child in Fort Worth, Towns has honed his skill by playing a myriad of genres, especially Latin. He devised tumbao patterns for the guitar normally intended for the piano. As a young man in Houston, he'd hang out with serious local jazz musicians, which nurtured his songwriting and playing. It's apparent in his live performances, as Towns will carry the tune, then suddenly and casually slip into a flurry of notes, his fingers flying up and down the fretboard as he nods to patrons. With his leading-man guitarist flair, band of impeccably skilled musicians, and penchant for improvising on his own work, he's reminiscent of pop star Dave Matthews. (People have even told Towns that he resembles Matthews.) And while not a huge Matthews fan, he doesn't balk at the comparison. "We should be on tour with Dave Matthews," he says wryly, marveling at the big-time potential. "They'd love it."
His follow-up album three-fourths complete, a European tour in the works and a Grammy nomination around the corner, Towns is savoring the moment before things get hectic. His Friday night gigs draw large crowds eager to purchase his CD after hearing him and his trio. His work as a music journalist and his connections with national artists like Whalum have assured him a bright future. "I think it's a good thing to be a people's musician or troubadour," says Whalum of his friend. "It's all about the timing and progression of things. It helps you remember that you're devoted to developing and then giving away this gift that has been given to you."
Towns is open to stardom, though the major appeal of national celebrity, for him, is simply playing the music he loves to a wider audience.