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Lucky Strikes Again



Article Published: Apr. 1, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Lucky Strikes Again


In the early 20th century, the now iconic Lucky Strike cigarette brand touted a simple message on its packets - "L.S.M.F.T.," or "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."

In the early 21st century, the acronym takes on a different, and healthier, meaning - "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tunes."

Area jazz combo The Lucky Strikes has been hitting the High Country music circuit for the last three years, bringing a timeless sound to timely performances, be they public, private, or just for the fun of it.

With Jim Fleri on piano, Doug Brantz on guitar and Steve Roark on saxophone, accompanied by Ken Brashear on drums, The Lucky Strikes pride themselves on professionalism, versatility and, most importantly, creativity.

"We support the music, while paying homage to a time period that now, more than ever, seems very far removed from today's music," Fleri said.

Fleri and company didn't grow up during that particular period. They're children of the '70s and '80s, but their exposure to jazz, jazz standards and "The Great American Songbook" came at an early and influential age.

Fleri was exposed to jazz by his father, Gene Fleri, an acclaimed pianist and performer who hit the stages of New York and Miami with such musical luminaries as Sammy Davis Jr., Petula Clark and Clark Terry.

Gene introduced his son to the ivories, but formal lessons weren't part of the song. Fleri learned on his own, first on the drumset to accompany his father, and then on the piano to broaden his talent.
"My friends and I grew up playing with him," Fleri said of his father. "His talent was amazing, but more important, he had a wonderful way of making people feel welcome, with an incredible memory to match a person with their favorite song."

It was a lesson in musicianship that the Strikes practice today.

"Musicianship goes beyond the actual act of performing the music," Fleri said. "It's about really knowing what to play and being complementary."

That goes not only for the audience, but also for each other. The core trio of Strikes has been performing together in different bands and settings for almost 20 years, comfortable and knowledgeable about each other's respective style.

"Part of the fun of improv is trying to support someone doing this and someone doing that, so they can scrape out creatively while you complement what they're doing," Fleri said. "There's not anyone playing who's more important than the other, and there are no egos in this band. Everyone's there because they like the music and enjoy what they're doing."

The Strikes have enjoyed music for decades, albeit in their own separate ways.

Prior to college, Fleri performed with area musician Glenn Hubbard and Roark in the jazz/pop quartet, Azz Iz, before teaming with Brantz to form a college rock band, The Animal Crackers.

In 1993, he started a 10-year stint with a group called Cloud Nine, performing primarily at weddings and private functions, while also accompanying smaller jazz combos, Dixieland bands and big band outfits. Fleri also serves as a board member of the Blowing Rock Jazz Society.

Brantz, a Boone resident of more than 35 years and guitarist for 20 of those, works with Appalachian State University's Hayes School of Music. In 1989, he joined the music scene in Greensboro, playing guitar with various local rock bands, before returning to Boone to perform with Fleri in The Animal Crackers.

Roark, proficient in saxophone, keyboards and vocals, worked professionally in Nashville, Tenn., from 1995 to 2007, performing in big band, jazz, gospel, rock, and rhythm and blues, but is best known locally for his work with prog rockers Echo Park.

Also self-taught, Brashear grabbed his first drumstick in 1988. Though inspired by pop drummers like Phil Collins and Neal Peart, Brashear changed keys to jazz, learning an "open" playing style and playing left-handed on a right-handed drumset, before incorporating more percussion into his act, including shakers, bongos and congas.

In 2007, Fleri and Brantz decided to make a change.

"My father passed away about five years ago, and a jazz band was something we'd always talked about doing, more of a way to make a change," Fleri said. "As a drummer, I always had an interest in it, but now I could get back into it and form that sort of band, particularly for this kind of music. It was an itch I felt I had to scratch."

Fleri and Brantz formed The Lucky Strikes in spring 2007, performing as a piano and guitar duo. Brashear joined next, followed by Roark. Known primarily for their spin on celebrated standards, the Strikes' repertoire has evolved to span the decades, from the unmistakable sounds of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole to the early days of rock 'n' roll.

"It's fun to play, and also challenging," Fleri said. "And I always make a point to know the songs' origins. But in the same way that it's intriguing to play these songs in a jazz tune, we've been having just as much fun playing some of the '50s and '60s pop tunes ... play a few, and they're stuck in your head all day. There's nothing not to like about it."

As a band for hire, the Strikes make themselves available for shows far and wide, from weddings, openings and corporate functions to straight-up gigs, festivals and private parties.
Audiences vary, but Fleri always finds a commonality.

"These songs have withstood the test of time, because people have different memories associated with them," he said. "When we're performing, particularly for a wide age group, I can see it when they recognize a song, and I wonder what it means to them."

Fleri will be on the lookout this Friday, April 2, when The Lucky Strikes, with guest drummer Jamie Blanton, perform at the Bar at Pepper's in Boone. Showtime's 7 to 10 p.m., and there's no cover.
The Bar at Pepper's is located at 240 Shadowline Drive in the Shops at Shadowline center in Boone. For more information on The Lucky Strikes, visit http://www.luckystrikesjazz.com.

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