Wednesday night’s combo — Tony Davis on guitar, Matt Dwonszyk on bass, Josh Bruneau on trumpet, Andy Breskin on tenor sax, and bandleader Gil Hawkins, Jr. on drums — proved to be a muscular unit. Bruneau infused his playing with urgency while Breskin turned lyrical. Davis kept things cool while Dwonszyk and Hawkins lit a fire under the rhythm that drove the tune through horn, guitar, and bass solos, and back to the top. On the street end of the smoke-filled bar, patrons were chatting away, but in the back, closer to the stage, nobody made a sound, except to cheer for solos they particularly liked, and applaud at the end.
Sponsored by Jazz Haven, the Hawkins Jazz Collective has been playing at the Owl Shop every Wednesday for nine years.
“We started as a trio, and there wasn’t even a stage then. We played on the floor,” said Hawkins. Glen Greenberg, the Owl Shop’s owner, loved the group, and “wanted to do us a favor.” So he built the stage.
Back then, they were the George Lesiw Band. “At the time, we were touring a lot,” Hawkins said. Hawkins himself balanced the weekend tour schedule against his day job in city government. (He retired four years ago after 26 years in New Haven’s City Plan Department.) Sometimes that meant leaving on Friday afternoon for a flight to southern California. Hawkins would take a nap when he arrived, then play all weekend. The band gigged at Spaghettini in Seal Beach, the Baked Potato in North Hollywood, the Long Beach Jazz Festival. Twice it played a charity event thrown by the NFL. Then Hawkins would board a red eye back to the East Coast, land at 5 a.m., and show up for work at City Plan at 9 a.m.
He did that for years. The other members of the band wanted to tour more. Hawkins couldn’t.
“Finally George said, ‘Why don’t you take over the band?’” for the Wednesday Owl slot. “And we’ve been here ever since,” Hawkins said, playing the straight-ahead jazz that was part of his upbringing in Norwalk.
“My parents were into it,” Hawkins said. His mother sang gospel and played guitar. As a kid, Hawkins was in a gospel choir. “I hated it,” he said with a laugh. But he didn’t hate music. “I’ve been playing drums my entire life,” he said. “Drums chose me.”
His first gig, he said, was in the fourth grade, playing in a garage band. “We played for my elementary school. I was scared to death. I’m sure we weren’t that good. I didn’t even have a full drum kit.”
He joined a drum corps while still in elementary school and was playing jazz — on a full kit, naturally — by high school.
“Back then, they spent a lot of money on the arts,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins was still playing when he moved to New Haven three decades ago to join the City Plan Department. He became a part of the jazz community. “You play Cafe Nine. You play all those places,” he said, “next thing you know, you know everyone.” So when he took over Wednesday nights at the Owl from George Lesiw and called it the Hawkins Jazz Collective, he had a large roster of musicians to choose from.
“We all help each other. I call them for a gig. They call me for a gig,” Hawkins said. “I’m glad it’s in New Haven. I’m glad it’s at the Owl Shop.” Some nights, he explained, are packed with people, and it’s loud and boisterous. “And then you have audiences like tonight, that are really listening,” he said.
The band’s second set showed that the first set had been a warm-up. Joined by Miguel Johnson on alto saxophone, the now fuller band kicked it up a notch. Johnson pushed the music in his own direction, adding grit and hints of noise to his solos, and the rest of the band responded in kind, digging in a little deeper and playing a little harder. By the time the band parted around Hawkins to give him a solo, the music was raw and tight, throwing off energy while exuding control. Hawkins himself played with the ease and enthusiasm of a man who’s been drumming for years and kept his ears open all the while, surrounded by friends new and old, secure in the knowledge that next week it’ll all happen again, and at the same time, be completely different.
The Hawkins Jazz Collective plays at the Owl Shop, 268 College St., every Wednesday from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m.