Councilman’s band celebrates diversityWritten by Jason Mack | | firstname.lastname@example.org
After serving as co-grand marshal alongside drag performer Hershae Chocolatae in the inaugural Toledo Pride Parade, Toledo City Councilman Steve Steel will keep the party going with his band What’s next. in Promenade Park.
“I think the beauty of living in Toledo is the diversity of points of view and of people,” Steel said. “Whether it’s ethnicity, religious beliefs, artistic expression, sexuality or anything else, Toledo Pride is one more piece of the diversity that makes Toledo a strong and vibrant community.”
The jazz trio What’s next. formed last fall after Steel met Petr Kharchenko through a mutual friend. Steel said it is impossible to truly label the band’s sound.
“We play jazz songs with kind of a rock feel, and we play rock songs with a jazz feel,” he said. “If there is such a thing as a fusion of rock, blues and jazz, then that’s what we do. We do a lot of improv, but we also do pretty steady beats and driving stuff.”
Kharchenko plays guitar in What’s next. and occasionally works in a Middle Eastern instrument called an Oud.
“Petr comes from a jazz background, but he also likes a lot of other styles,” Steel said. “He’s played in punk bands. He’s played in straight kind of rock cover bands. There are times when he’s just rocking out and you would swear he was a heavy metal guitarist. There are other times where he is very sensitive with very careful melodies.”
The band also features Sam Woldenberg on percussion as well as guitar and keyboard.
“There are percussionists who are very technically sound and play the same song three times and are straight on the same beat,” Steel said. “Sam feels what is going on musically and can improv even when we are not. He is always moving the band the way he is feeling it rhythmically. He improvs a lot, which a lot of percussionists don’t do.”
Steel has played piano for more than 40 years and also plays accordion for What’s next.
“My keyboard style is based on Billy Preston and Ray Manzarek from The Doors,” Steel said. “I wouldn’t consider myself a technically proficient keyboard player. I don’t go up and down the keyboard. I just try to make it move with what my hands can do. I’m inspired by people like Ray Manzarek, but I don’t think I can play like him. I can try to feel what the audience is responding to and work to make them enjoy the groove.”
Raised on rock and blues, Steel was not interested in playing jazz growing up. Each band member brings his own non-jazz influence to form a genre all its own.
“Part of what takes us in new directions is we all come from different traditions,” Steel said. “I was a straight up rock and occasional blues keyboard player for at least 20 years. Petr has done punk, jazz and heavy metal. Sam has been in more kind of folksy groups. Our backgrounds are a fusion of music.”
The band’s fusion of music has led to unique covers of jazz standards and rock hits such as “The Long and Winding Road” by The Beatles.
“Covers are more what inspires us to extend ourselves,” Steel said. “It will start with a song, then we’ll think about where that takes us. We could probably play the same song twice in a row, and you wouldn’t recognize that it is the same song.”
Like most jazz bands, What’s next. does a great deal of improvising in its shows. The band often invites other musicians and artists to perform with them, including spoken word performer Ryan Bunch, performing and literary arts coordinator for the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo.
“We’ll do a song like ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ with an extended improv in the middle,” Steel said. “We’ve also done entire sets where there is freestyle rap going on, and we’re just completely improvising the entire set. We’re just playing what we’re feeling. Most songs we do, people will kind of recognize it at a certain juncture in the song. But there will never be a situation where people say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s that song.’”
What’s next. will perform at Toledo Pride Entertainment from 6:55-7:20 p.m. Aug. 27 at Promenade Park. Admission is $5 before 7 p.m. and $7 after, and ages 17 and younger get in free. Visit ToledoPride.com for more information.
“I think it’s going to be a really festive atmosphere and a celebration of the diversity of Toledo,” Steel said. “I’m really looking forward to it. We have a half hour. We’re called What’s next. It’s kind of what challenges us to step up all the time. We’re always trying to be what’s next and go to the next level. It’s important that we bring in a variety of other kinds of art and musicians with us. This show, we’re trying to really step it up and make this one for the ages. I think this show is going to unique. We have a lot to prove in a half hour.”