Alison Margaret's arms are adorned with as many tattoos as the punk and metal musicians who play at venues like the Annex or the Frequency. But Margaret leads a jazz quartet backed by a soothing vibraphone and a stately upright bass. She gigs at places where wine and fine dining are in vogue, the Brink Lounge and Restaurant Magnus.
Her body art is just another way Margaret reinvents music for modern accessibility. She's currently working on a CD that reinterprets traditional folk songs using modern jazz harmonies and rhythms. "Applying modern chord structures to old tunes is something that I love to do," she says.
Margaret's efforts to demystify musical tradition are more than skin deep. The 31-year-old, Madison-based jazz vocalist and pianist wants to revolutionize the way jazz is taught and to forge connections between musical improvisation and social activism.
As a graduate student in music education at UW-Madison, Margaret is writing papers that call for the jazz curriculum to move away from what she calls "the tenets of West European art music." She advocates for the primacy of the "aural tradition," handing down songs and improvisational skills from one generation to the next through listening and emulating.
It's an approach consistent with Margaret's own pathway to jazz. Her mom was a church musician and bandleader. Her dad played guitar and sang. Margaret took piano lessons growing up in DePere, Wis. She joined her high school jazz band when her family later moved to Rockton, Ill.
"I knew in high school that I wanted to study jazz," says Margaret. "It was just something that naturally appealed to me. Performing and connecting with the audience is one of the things I like best about being a musician."
Margaret moved to Madison, "very spur of the moment," in 2004. She had been living in Chicago, where she completed an undergraduate degree in vocal jazz performance at Columbia College and sang in local funk bands.
Since moving here, Margaret has connected with the local jazz scene. She spends her days teaching performance at Wardt-Brodt Music Mall.
In the cultural tradition that is uniquely Madison, Margaret has begun to forge links between art and social activism.
"I'm interested in the idea of music as a tool of social inclusion and am building a thesis about improvisation as a way of collaborating, creating social relationships and pursuing social justice."
Margaret describes herself as a social activist. She says she is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Jazz has deep roots in cultural awareness," she says.
Margaret's jazz quartet is composed of Geoff Brady on vibraphone, John Christensen on upright bass and Michael Brenneis on drums. In December, the quartet will release a CD called Shades of Morning. The disc's approach to folk songs represents Margaret's commitment to "aural traditions."
She says her favorite song on the new disc is a track called "Homeward Bound." It's a reinterpretation of a modern folk song written by Marta Keen.
"In my interpretation, it is a song about the restless feeling to find independence, to experience life to its fullest, to search for self," says Margaret.
"The character sets out far from home, perhaps realizing that home is where she is meant to be and that in time, she will return."
Every note of the track feels painstakingly deliberate, revealing why the Alison Margaret Jazz Quartet has emerged as one of the best local groups in this genre.