Dysfunctional Family Jazz Band

For Patty, Melissa, Scotty, and Travis, it really is a family affair. This foursome stretches their biological connections through to their creative tissue as the Dysfunctional Family Jazz Band (DFJB), an incomparable collective with a Jazz/Americana/Soul/Folk sound that, by all reasonable accounts, functions quite nicely, thank you. As the history of their marvelous and complex family relationships comes out in their music, it is clear that this is a community, a truly relational organism. The way they work, the way they live, and the way they make music is an expression of family, through and through.

The high-functioning dysfunction began when Patty Carpenter and Scotty Shetler were high school sweethearts a billion years ago, and, in 1972, had a daughter, Melissa Shetler. Then they split, and Scotty married Jill Gross, a lead singer in the band he was playing with. Now, Jill sometimes sings with them both live and in the studio. Patty married Charles Light, who manages the band, and, in 1990, they had a son, Travis Light, who at 17 moved to New York City to live with his sister Melissa and her husband Alan McCarthy. True to his family roots he is now living in California attending Jazz School.

Yes, you are correct; this would be easier with flow charts and a laser pointer. The complexity, however, bears beauty for them, and the multi-faceted nature of their almost three generational family is expressed in their music. Patty composes and plays keyboards and sings. Melissa handles vocals and melodica. Scotty is a wind man on tenor sax, clarinet, baritone, penny whistle, and even mandolin. Twenty year old Travis lays down the bass. The wealth of talent in this gene pool is astonishing, and while they will admit that the inherent tension of working with family increases the drama, it also increases the reward.

The musical mélange here puts the funk in dysfunctional. Patty studied Jazz at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with the great Archie Shepp and Max Roach, and was heavily influenced by many great women artists from Joan Baez and Roseanne Cash to Billie Holiday and Carmen McCrae. Scott was nearly born with a mandolin in his hand and is now a fantastic windbag. He has also scored big as a songwriter, co-writing the Jon Bon Jovi hit “Show Me the Way” with Mighty Sam McClain. Melissa danced to Coltrane from the moment she could walk and has a deep love of African and Latin music and harmony. Travis has had a fascinating journey to discovering his love of the bass guitar. The soulful, grooving result of this massive mix is kind of crazy, and kind of brilliant.

A very significant chapter of their history, one that has constant impact on their music and relationships today, was the 10-14 years spent living on Communal Farms. Described by Patty as “both really wonderful and really difficult,” the communal life deepened their dependence on each other practically and creatively and wove creative communication into the fabric of their family. Many of the themes of their music and activism are reflections of their life on the farm, including the priority of nature and the natural world and their passionate involvement in the anti-nuclear, peace, and environmental movements.

While some families gather in a room to watch a movie, this gaggle gathers to record an album. "Come Over" is a collection of connected songs written by Patty and her close friend, and fellow communard, poet Verandah Porche. Covering a great amount of emotional and musical ground, this album weaves through genres and styles as deftly as it does personalities, moods, and priorities, presenting songs that carry the emotional weight of life and living. Rather than just a collection of songs, the album tells a story. It is as impeccable as it is expressive, with arrangements by Scotty and session work by Bassist Tony Garnier (Bob Dylan), Drummer James Wormworth (Max Weinberg Seven/Conan O’Brien Show), Brian Mitchell on organ and accordion (Levon Helm Band) and the mastering expertise of Rob Fraboni (Bonnie Raitt, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan). The result is a record that is, true to form, relational, conversing between the several styles of music and the players who created it, and soundly fulfilling Patty’s desire that Come Over would take what is personal and make it as universal as possible.

These days, this tremendous tangled family is a bit spread, with Patty and Charles alternating between Brattleboro, Vermont and Brooklyn, New York; Melissa lives two blocks away from them in Red Hook; Scotty and Jill live in a country farm like house in Boston; and Travis is temporarily parked in the hills of Oakland, California. The kids are adults, the parents are kids again, and the sound is as diverse as they are. With so many moving parts and family foibles, there’s bound to be some dysfunction. However, in this house, dysfunctional is functional, and their talent, their history, and their hard work is all an expression of their commitment to relationship. Relationship with music. Relationship with their fans. Relationship with the family. Relationship with society and the planet. This is where they live. This is the Dysfunctional Family Jazz Band.

How do you describe your music to people, Melissa?
Well right now we've decided to call it "Spicy americana jazz gumbo". It is really hard to describe because each of us brings different passions to the group. We all have a great deal of love and respect for Jazz, and while it influences us deeply we play quite a bit of folk and rock. It's soulful, that's the goal.

Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
Music is in our family, is our family. All of us played when we were young in school and I grew up on the road a lot with my parents various bands. My mom used to put on John Coltrane records and I would dance around the house. She sang me to sleep almost every night. I remember the sound of my dad playing scales up and down the sax, over and over, became soothing after a while. My grandfather is a cellist and was a music educator at Eastman. My step-mother is a great singer and songwriter as well. My little brother is out in Oakland studying Bass. We all just love to play music together.

What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
The Ocean! Swim in it, surf in it, sail on it, fish from it. We have these really great family days. Sometimes we all get together on Martha's Vineyard and hit the beach, sometimes we just drive out to Rockaway. Me, my mom and dad, my step-mother, my step-father, my brother, my husband, the cousins, you name it. We call ourselves the Blowfish Family on those outings.

What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
The music business has changed so much over the last 10 years and I think people are still trying to figure out what works. People really want to play music so they take gigs that don't pay much of anything and then it's hard to argue with a club owner that you want more, that what you do really takes a lot of hard work and that you're worth investing in. I learn more about it every day that I do it, and that's the part I like.

When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
Anything but a musician. Honestly, I wanted something stable. Growing up on and off the road, seeing the club scene, hustling for gigs - none of this looked attractive to me as a kid. I wanted to be a biologist like my step-mothers father. He was my hero - still is.

In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
Wow, in so many ways, I mean that's what music is all about - it's an expression of our culture. I would say for my parents coming of age in the 60's was a big piece of their influence. I grew up singing a lot of Civil rights songs and believing in the power of music to make change. I also felt early on like it was a window into other people's worlds. I began to travel to other countries and found music a great aid in attempting to speak new languages. My dad was in Turkey for six weeks and that really broadened his playing. All those amazing scales! I've spent time in Mexico, Cuba and South Africa and Ireland and have tried to absorb as much as I can.

New York is a great place to live if you love Jazz music. We like to go up to Harlem on Sunday nights to see Seleno Clark at the American Legion. There's a B-3 organ jazz jam and it is all about community!

Up in Vermont we have the Belden Hill Boogie Band - basically a roving jam session where we cook up big potluck dinners and hang out playing music all night.

What other artists out there do you love?
Dianne Reeves, Rosa Passos, Lyle Lovett, Salif Keita, Bonnie Raitt, Sonny Rollins, Bob Dylan, Silvio Rodriguez, Sharon Jones, Justin Townes Earle, Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder,  Esperanza Spalding, Taj Mahal, Rosanne Cash, Carmen McRae, Prince, Lee Morgan, Miriam Makeba, Jimmy Cliff. Millions more!

What does your future hold?
Hit the road! We're going to get a bus and paint it crazy colors and take the band on the road, the whole family! When I was a little girl we had a 1957 Cadillac,  powder blue, and we traveled cross country in it, from Vermont to Oregon and back.