Hope Clayburn leads two very distinct lives.
Most evenings Clayburn can be found working the graveyard shift as a nurse in the trauma unit of the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, treating victims of car accidents, gunshot wounds and every other kind of late-night chaos.
But on other nights, Clayburn can be found in the middle of a different kind of action: blowing sax, flute and singing as part of a musical whirlwind conjured by her band, Soul Scrimmage.
The eclectic Memphis ensemble -- which includes guitarist Robert Allen Parker Jr., bassist Khari Wynn and drummer Shelby Baldock -- have been turning heads with their inspired fusion of jazz, R&B, reggae and Afro-pop.
As the band prepares to release its debut album in early 2010, Soul Scrimmage will take the stage of the Center for Southern Folklore for a headlining set on Saturday.
For North Carolina native Clayburn, her start in music came while she was attending college at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "I was a premed student originally, but I got bit by the music bug," she says. "And that was it for me."
Her first band, Baaba Seth, was a mid-'90s world beat-styled jam band that opened Clayburn's eyes to the possibilities of African music. "That band got me into a lot of things -- Afro-pop, Afrobeat, funk -- that opened my eyes."
After college, Clayburn moved farther up the East Coast, joining New York area-based band Deep Banana Blackout. Another eclectic jam outfit, she recorded a couple albums with the group and toured heavily in the late '90s and early 2000s. "We opened up for the Allman Brothers, played all kinds of weird gigs here and there," says Clayburn. "I got to play with James Brown in Belgium once, just random stuff from traveling around."
Although Deep Banana Blackout wound down in 2001, Clayburn kept touring and gigging on the jam band circuit, sitting in and guesting with the likes of Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Gov't Mule, and DJ Logic. Eventually, Clayburn began looking to make her escape from the East Coast. Her sister, a doctor with the Church Health Center in Memphis, suggested a move to the Mid-South.
Clayburn soon arrived in the Bluff City, returned to school, got her nursing degree and began working the night shift at The Med. "Whenever you see a car accident or gunshot or something crazy on the TV news, that's usually one of my patients," she says. "Music is my main passion but I love helping people that way, too."
Settling into the scene in Memphis, Clayburn soon encountered the members of her band, including Wynn, who also plays guitar with rap legends Public Enemy.
For Clayburn, Soul Scrimmage is a culmination of her myriad musical passions. "This project brings together all the styles I've played over the years," she says. "I like danceable, high-energy music. It's less about songs that have a definite beginning, middle or end, but more about how they groove."
"I'm not talking about jam band noodling, per se," she adds. "But the inspiration is more like (Afrobeat great) Fela Kuti, who had songs that went on for 20 minutes, but they were so hypnotizing. That's kind of where I'm at. Whenever I hit a groove and look out and see the audience tapping along or dancing, my feeling is, why stop it?"
During their live shows, Clayburn and company have evinced a flair for pulling off even the oddest musical segues. A recent set at the Center for Southern Folklore found Soul Scrimmage starting Bob Marley's reggae classic "Exodus," "and then, all of a sudden, it hit me," says Clayburn, "let's do 'Sweet Leaf' by (heavy metal pioneers) Black Sabbath -- they're in a same key, and the same groove. We went right from Marley to Sabbath and the crowd was still into it, and then we continued with James Brown's 'Get Up Offa That Thing,' and then into one of our original songs without stopping. That's what I'm more into now: stream of consciousness music."
Clayburn and the band have already completed work on an album of original material, which she plans on self-releasing in the spring. Clayburn also continues to take on various other gigs, including the occasional reunion show with Baaba Seth.
After nearly two decades of playing professionally, Clayburn says she's found her perfect personal groove. "I've always felt that my musical interests lie in a place that's too wild and crazy to be something commercial, or pop," she says. "So now, whenever I play music, I play it for myself. And, at this point, that's a very liberating feeling."
Hope Clayburn's Soul Scrimmage
9 p.m. Saturday at the Center for Southern Folklore, 119 South Main Street. Cover is $5. For more information, go to southernfolklore.com or call 525-3655.