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"I used to come into places and hear these solo piano players who could take a melody and twist it around and go wherever they wanted to with it," recalls Black. "I remember hearing Dave Venn play solo and modulate a tune and take it through different keys. I was really jealous. I wanted that absolute freedom."
Black started playing solo several years ago at the South Side Diner, volunteering to play for tips just so he could list the gig on his résumé. That weekly performance soon started drawing customers, and Black used it to seek out other regular jobs. The increased exposure also helped Black in another area -- the RFT Slammie Awards. Black was named Best Acoustic Guitarist in 1996, 1997 and 2000, and Best Solo Artist in 1996 as well.
"I don't look at myself as the best," says Black. "There are really phenomenal players everywhere. Just here in St. Louis, you've got Tom Byrne, Rob Block, Vince Varvel, John McClellan, Kurt Hanser, Peter Clemens and a lot of others. But, hey, I have to admit I use those awards in my bio."
Booking yourself as a solo act and as a freelance musician can be a time-consuming, wearying business. That's why Black is appreciative of his membership in Dangerous Kitchen, a group led by bassist Dan Rubright, who also works with Black in Brilliant Corners.
"It's been great for me," Black says. "I love being a sideman for a change and just showing up and playing. Plus, I know everyone in the band, and they're all great musicians. It's a camaraderie I really need."
Rubright says Black brings more than talent to a band -- he brings a philosophy of musical expression that affects the entire group. "When I first played with Dave in Brilliant Corners, I already knew about his excellent playing," says Rubright. "But what Dave also brought to the table was an approach that went beyond jazz to include folk, country and other styles. He helped me realize that everything in your experience should be used when you play, no matter what's going on around you stylistically."
On a Saturday night at the Broadway Oyster Bar, despite the lingering layer of snow and chilly temperatures, the place is packed with patrons eager to hear Dangerous Kitchen. The band -- jammed between the door and the bar -- lays down a funky groove on Dr. John's "Right Place, Wrong Time," and Black kicks the music higher with a guitar solo that starts out in the Big Easy, then soars through jazzy variations that never lose their soulful groove.
"I don't think of myself as a jazz guitarist," says Black. "I love all kinds of music. I guess it fits my personality, which tends to wander all over the place when I'm playing. Classifications are good for historical reference, but I'm not sure they serve you well when you're playing music."