by Clint Burgess

Descending the stairs to Catacombs is a transcendent experience. Each step down the subterranean corridor leads you out of Spokane and into a place much more mysterious, perhaps long since forgotten. You might swear you're in the depths of a medieval castle -- or anywhere else in Europe for that matter, just not Spokane.

The stairs give way to bare, even cave-like rock walls, and a vaulted ceiling in the main dining area. The sense of space and seclusion found here border on magnificent. Tapestries and paintings adorn the walls and are all softly lit by a dancing fire flickering from underneath an immense stone fireplace, perfect for a late-night rendezvous with friends. On this particular winter's eve Peter Daniel and his jazz trio -- normally a quartet -- were caressing the cavernous walls of the Catacombs with what you would have to call good jazz. Daniel laid down the licks on his smoothed-out sax and Anders Peck, on the keys, tickled weightless melodies from his keyboard, providing the soundtrack to the easygoing evening clientele. I just kept waiting for the whole scene to turn black and white and transform into 1950s hipster Hollywood. I was quickly pulled from my daydream, however, by the din of applause for the jazz trio.

These guys really knew their stuff. Surprisingly young for jazz musicians, they all had chops, and you can't go wrong with a stand-up bass. I asked Peter Daniel what the deal was. "Rarely do you find a group of twenty-somethings who aren't music majors, in a music town, playing jazz. It's pretty rare," Daniel told me. It seems the quartet formed from some impromptu jams and a Gonzaga University variety show; all the members are full-time students. Bass player Joe Stippel is the youngest member and joined the ensemble straight out of high school. For this evening's performance, the group opted to let drummer Dan Lauth sit out due to space constraints and the laid-back atmosphere of the late dinner crowd. But I got the impression that the patrons would have loved these guys anyway. The advantage that this trio had was that they knew their limitations and used them to put on a solid performance. Jazz is very difficult, not just in its complexity or structure, but also in its delivery. It is so easy to do it until your face looks like Louis Armstrong, but unless you "get it," the audience won't. Fortunately, the Peter Daniel Trio got it.

I took in some more soulful tunes along with the sensual aroma of calzones and gourmet pizza emanating from the stone oven behind the bar. The list of beverages at Catacombs is longer than my arm, and bartender Jeff Sirek had a healthy grasp of it all. His knowledge of domestic regional favorites along with imports and the robust wine list make him a valuable asset to the establishment. Sirek, also a musician, said, "Anytime we can get music down here, it's a good thing. A lot of good things are happening in town -- Far West, the Davenport, Niko's -- and it's all within walking distance." Sirek's enthusiasm for the bustling core of the arts district was embodied by the ambience and music found at Catacombs.

Publication date: 1/22/04

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