Locals Only: Liquid Crystal Project
Then one day about four years ago, he witnessed Brandon "B-jazz" Scott playing piano at Brownstone on Main.
"Once I met him," Rawls said, "it just clicked."
The pair began to collaborate on a shared vision of "jazz-hop," a fusion Rawls described as "the hard drums and beats of hip-hop with the refined smoothness of jazz." They soon recruited a slew of Scott's jazz mates and adopted the name The Liquid Crystal Project.
Since then, the band - which these days includes drummer Rob Riley and saxophonist Eddie Bayard - has racked up a resume including two full-length albums and a pair of European tours with Ghostface Killah and Dilated Peoples.
After establishing an international presence, they've been turning their attention back home, where they hope a new weekly jazz night will help foster a scene they say has been flagging.
Before jazz hubs like Barrister Hall and The Dell shut down over the last decade, the city's greatest players used to frequently gather for free-spirited sessions where you never knew who might show up or sit in.
"It was darn near every night you could go just about anywhere and see it going down - real, live, cutthroat music," Scott said.
Liquid Crystal Project wants to cultivate that kind of environment with Blend Thursdays at Barrio, the new Thursday residency that begins tonight. Each week the band will collaborate with guest performers including R&B singer Talisha Holmes and emcee/poet/orator Speak Williams.
Making the Downtown tapas bar into this city's latest jazz hub is only one of the many projects Liquid Crystal has on its plate.
Rawls, who'll mostly sit out the Blend Thursdays, continues to do production work for other artists, and he's starting a monthly DJ night at Ravari Room with his crew the Usual Suspects. That begins with his birthday party on Feb. 27.
The band is also working on Bayard's next jazz album with "some pretty heavy cats," though they're not at liberty to say who just yet. And they're conceptualizing the third Liquid Crystal Project album, which they hope to release before the end of the year.
"We've started talking about it, hashing out some ideas, figuring out direction," Rawls said.
Further on the horizon, after conquering Europe's hip-hop circuit, they hope to schedule another tour of the continent's jazz clubs.
Basically, it's a busy time for the barons of jazz-hop.
"We're trying to take Columbus to the next level," Bayard said. "We're trying to brand the sound of jazz-hop."
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When: 9 p.m. Thursdays
Where: Barrio, Downtown