Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Vital Organ

I never cared for jazz organ until the first time I heard Joey DeFrancesco live. Somehow that Hammond B-3 just made me thing of baseball stadiums. But Joey—he coaxed so many different sounds from that big brown box, from piantistic phrases to all-out moaning assaults to melodic smears that conjure horns. He never reaches bombastic and often delivers it “soft and mellow.” I try to get to his gig whenever he’s in town, which is usually once per year. We were lucky in 2007 as he was scheduled to play at the Winter Jazz Festival in St. Paul—the event that had to be cancelled at the last minute due to some catastrophe with the heating system in the temporary music tent. But jazz is about improvisation and the nearby Artists Quarter provided a venue for some of the musicians, including Joey and his trio. And they stayed in town long enough to come back to the AQ to perform with the Tuesday Night Band—our local organ trio.

Joey and his band were back at the Dakota over the past two days, and we were treated to the usual array of bop, ballads and blues, as well as a new young drummer (Carmen Intorres) who rearranged time like a seasoned veteran. Guitarist Jake Langley was again on the bandstand with his meticulous lines and energetic improvisations. And for two tunes each set, Joey’s fiancée Colleen McNabb grabbed the spotlight, presenting such lush melodies as “Don’t Go to Strangers” and “Waltz With Debbie” in a voice bronzed with glowing accents, a perfect accompaniment to Joey’s turn on the trumpet. But the biggest treat was not Joey’s organ or even his horn, but his own voice, down-in-the-delta bluesy on Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” on the first night and a crooning delight on the final set closer, “Nice and Easy.”

He’s a big man, but his talent is bigger still.
Above photos: (L) Colleen McNabb sings at the Dakota, (R) Joey DeFrancesco at the Artists Quarter in winter 2007. (Photos: Andrea Canter)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Joyful Noise

Dee Dee Bridgewater, who has transformed herself as a singer several times already, has claimed her African roots and in the process has affirmed her musical identity as one of the most dynamic, and honest, purveyors of modern jazz. Visit her website (www.deedeebridgewater.com/) and read her own account of her journey to find her ancestral home in Africa, identifying a rich legacy in the red earth of Mali. From this reconsideration of life and heritage, Dee Dee discovered within herself, and within the music and culture of her spiritual homeland, stories that begged to be told in the tradition of the “griots” – the storytellers. And who better to tell their stories than the incredible musicians she met in Mali? The resulting recording, Red Earth: A Malian Journey, as uplifting as it is, pales in comparison to the live performance that Dee Dee brings to American audiences through a limited tour this fall.

One stop on this tour was the Dakota. It’s not by chance that the Minneapolis club is one of very few venues of any size to host Dee Dee Bridgewater’s trio and the six Malian musicians that form the touring Red Earth ensemble. There’s mutual admiration among Dee Dee and Dakota co-owner Lowell Pickett, and as she mentioned several times during the closing set last night, the band was well fed by chef Jack Riebel. By the time I checked in for the late set on the second of the two-night gig, Dee Dee and company had just finished a 90+-minute opening set that was described as “amazing” by exiting patrons. Similarly her opening night sets had been labeled “incredible” by several who had returned for another dose. I had been listening to the new CD and thought I was prepared for the showcase of blazing new interpretations ("Afro Blue" was in fact the title track of her first recording 30 years ago) and original compositions.

Of course (usually) there is no comparison between live music and even the best recording. What distinguished the late set--besides the energy that sustained our rapt attention for nearly 2 ½ hours --was the communication between musicians and audience of a transcendent joy, a pure love of life and music that bridged class, culture, race, language and generations. Herself in the role of the village griot, Dee Dee told of her journey and self discovery in Mali, gave little lessons in the history of African music, and introduced us to the artists on stage who were performing for the first time in the U.S. Their instruments—the forerunner of the harp (the kora), the granddaddy of the xylophone (balofon), congas of all sizes―were as intriguing as their stories.

Dee Dee and I are the same “certain” age. I was exhausted after standing and clapping during the finale, a seismic uproar that enticed a line of the young and not so young to come up on stage to bump and whirl. Dee Dee was barely breaking a sweat after two long back-to-back sets of singing, dancing, and teaching. Maybe she slept on the flight to San Francisco where the next stop is the Herbst Theater.

As for me, I was too energized to sleep.
Above photo: Dee Dee Bridgewater celebrates Mali with "Griot" Kabiné Kouyaté, drummer Minino Garay and percussionist Baba Sissoko at the Dakota (Photo: Andrea Canter)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Jazz Musicians: The Ultimate Multi-Taskers

The more I learn about jazz, the more I am impressed that anyone can play this music well! All musicians have to deal with a common set of skills—understanding the mechanics of the instrument, time, rhythm, scales, etc. Reading music may not be mandatory but it is certainly an expectation. I took piano lessons for a few years and I could read music and pretty much put my fingers on the right notes at the right time, at least if I went slowly enough to coordinate what I read with what notes I touched. And after a while I could simultaneously play one set of notes in my left hand and the corresponding set of notes in my right hand. Reading, left, right, sometimes a little push of a pedal with a foot… that was the extent of my multi-tasking. And the results were not too promising.

Look at a jazz musician. Reading or remembering the melody. Reading or remembering the chord changes. Often transposing the key on the spot without a crib sheet. Then there’s improvising—recomposing with infinite variations in response to the variations of the other musicians on the bandstand as well as in response to the feeling of the moment. Keeping the form, melody, rhythm, tempo in mind at all times. Coordinating at least two and maybe all four limbs that might each have a separate game plan! Just watch a jazz drummer—left leg pumping on the hi-hat; right leg on the bass drum; left hand beating out a pattern on the snare while the right hand alternately taps the tom-tom and ride cymbal….. whoa, how did he hit the cowbell? The toes are doing what while the heel is doing what?

I am convinced jazz musicians (and drummers in particular) have brains constructed of multiple lobes that operate independently, yet in concert, with each other. Is this anomaly present at birth or does the jazz brain mutate over time? I don’t know but I wonder if Microsoft has ever analyzed the neuro-circuitry of a jazz musician. There’s a blueprint for some pretty amazing software between jazz ears.
Above photo: Multi-tasking drummer Matt Wilson put all limbs to full use with his Arts and Crafts Quartet at the Dakota in January, 2007. (Photo - Andrea Canter)

Sound Falls on Deft Ears

I brought ear plugs to the Pat Metheny Trio concert at Minnesota Orchestra Hall (October 14th). Metheny’s tour took him to Iowa City earlier this week, and my octogenarian parents lasted about twenty minutes. They reported that the hall's sound level measured 95 db, and even at the rear, it was too much for them. So I came prepared.

Metheny, one of the living legends of jazz and fusion guitar, played the first three tunes solo on three different acoustic guitars—a standard classic style body, a baritone guitar (a bit longer in the neck I assume), and a double neck, hollow-body ax with maybe 40 strings in multiple directions that looked like a fantasy of Leonardo DaVinci. But then the electric gear came out, along with Christian McBride on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums… and after a few chords the ear plugs were in place. I have given up trying to understand the level of amplification common to large music halls that otherwise have excellent acoustics and, with classical orchestras and chamber groups, good sense regarding decibel levels. Musicians blame sound engineers and sound engineers claim they only follow the directions of the musicians.

Ears protected, I really enjoyed the two-hour set, diverse in tempos, rhythms and soundscapes, from modern post bop to fusiony grooves. By the end of the evening, Metheny had pulled out no less than five guitars—the acoustic menagerie noted above, an electric hollow-body and an electric solid body, the right one at the right time thanks to Metheny’s guitar valet. Sanchez appeared at times to have a third leg, with at least five and maybe six different pieces of apparatus engaged simultaneously. I wondered if the guitar valet had crawled behind the trapset and was surreptitiously working the hi-hat. Apparently Antonio’s toes went one way and his heel another. McBride, definitely at the top of the heap of his generation of bassists, thankfully played acoustic on all but one tune, and it was a virtuosic display of melodic, high-speed artistry. His duet with Metheny on “My Romance,” the only cover tune of the program, could be the foundation for an elegant recording.

Ear plugs—I highly recommend them, at least when jazz comes to Orchestra Hall.
Above photo: Even Bad Plus drummer Dave King protects his ears!! (Photo: Andrea Canter)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Cafe Ena, Ditto

My friend Pamela posted a brief retort to Dara Moskowitz's odd review of my favorite neighborhood restaurant, Cafe Ena, and I have to underscore her comments as well as our utter disbelief at the City Pages review, which ran about a month ago. I don't expect everyone to like what I like in food any more than in music. But I rarely read such a diatribe in the press. And usually I have either agreed or at least understood Dara's restaurant reviews. Not this time. Not only was she dissatistifed with most of the offerings at what she reported to be multiple visits, she closed her review with a sarcastic putdown of the huge following this new restaurant has acquired over its first six months, noting that "if you think you are going to have a good time at Cafe Ena, you probably will." Well, Dara, if you think you are going to have a BAD experience at Cafe Ena, you probably will. Something must have been amiss on her first visit and the rest were doomed by attitude.

I am not a four-star chef although I like to think of myself as a discerning, four-star eater. I get around and I get out (too often!), in the Twin Cities, in Chicago, in New York, in New Orleans, in San Francisco..... this Iowa Girl is not a slave to hot dish and beanie weanie. Cafe Ena opened two blocks from my house but convenience would not keep me returning. After all, I am also in walking distance to Corner Table and the Grand Cafe, and only 5 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. I am not in need of such enticement down the street. But since opening week last spring, I think I have had dinner at Ena at least a dozen times and lunch at least as often. Consistency, as well as great ingredients and interesting combinations of tastes, marks an outstanding restaurant, and Ena is not only outstanding in those respects, it is very reasonable. Most of the entrees at dinner are under $20. And as much as I am trying to work my way through the menu, the specials keep derailing my progress.

I could wax eloquently about the tasty, smoky chicken arapas (thin little corn cakes smothered in mildly spicy ambrosia) or the sweet salmon croquettes or the always zippy ceviche on the appetizer list, or any of the pork and seafood dishes that grace the entrees. But let me just mention that the coriander crusted salmon atop a bed of artichoke hearts surrounded by crispy slightly sweet plantains with a sauce I can only swoon over is the single best seafood dish I have had in the Twin Cities, and maybe anywhere else save some fresh-from-the-water oysters I once enjoyed on Willapa Bay in Washington. My waiter that night confided that he always orders this dish when he is working at Ena. So would I.

And the key lime pie? You have to understand how hard it is to live only two blocks away and know that every day, every night, I am that close to heaven.....

Dara, put on a happy face and try again.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Musical Hat Trick

A “hat trick” in sports, most often used in hockey, refers to socring three consecutive goals. Sometimes our local music scene scores a Hat Trick—three (or more) great shows within in a short period of time. Within eight days in October, the Music Gods were smiling on the Twin Cities with unusually bright grins. I got to most of it although I understand I missed a big hit in young Christian Scott, whose debut at the Dakota Sunday night was received with such accolades as Pamela’s review on Jazz Police (http://www.jazzpolice.com/content/view/7321/115/). Yeah, sometimes this does feel like Manhattan, an embarrassment of riches!

The Eroica Trio returned to Ordway (October 2) with a divergent and highly enjoyable program, one of the first classical concerts I have attended in a long time when I did not want to stand up and yell, “Do you really have to play that the way it was written?” This is a winsome threesome, pianist and cellist having founded the trio 20 years ago, adding a new violinist last year. Who can resist the sway and swing of Astor Piazzola (without accordion!) or the playfulness of Stephen Schoenfield, once-upon-a-time musician in residence right here in the Twin Cities? And for me, you can never go wrong with Schubert (Sonata in F). Two nights later, improvisation was just the beginning, as the saxophone quartet Jazz Ax blew out a 90 minute set at the MacPhail Center for Music as part of the (usually) free Jazz Thursdays series. Nothing but sax, thank you, and thanks to Dave Milne (soprano), Mike Walk (alto), Pete Whitman (tenor) and Greg Keel (baritone), the absence of a rhythm section was quickly forgotten as the four horns provided as much harmony and timekeeping as one could ask for, while a set of often quirky, always exciting arrangements kept the audience engaged. Seated together in the front row was the new edition of the Dakota Combo, six high school jazz prodigies who came from their first meeting with leader Kelly Rossum to hear four role models. It was a good first lesson. Last but not least, honoring Monk’s 90th birthday (October 10th), pianist Laura Caviani and her trio (Adam Linz on bass, Phil Hey on drums) made it a celebration that Monk would have loved himself, full of quirky arrangements, elastic tempos and rhythms, and telepathic group interplay. I wonder what Schubert would have thought of Thelonious Monk? (See my review on Jazz Police at http://www.jazzpolice.com/content/view/7330/115/ )
Above photo: Monk interpreter Laura Caviani ends a passag with a flourish at the Artists Quarter on October 10th. (Photo - Andrea Canter)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Virtual Jazz?

One of the hallmarks of jazz relative to most other genres of music is spontaneity—what makes jazz “jazz” is not only swing and improvisation, but the “in-the-moment” interactions among musicians, and among a soloist and the audience. Thus the saying that “jazz is never played the same way once” (and who said that? I forget!) – it isn’t fully planned ahead (if at all) and there are no re-runs. Yet I read an article from the LA Times about a new technical marvel that will allow Art Tatum to re-record his 1933 masterpiece, “Piano Starts Here.” Isn’t Tatum long dead? It seems that the copyright holder, Sony BMG, has called on a North Carolina company, Zenph Studios, to digitally translate not only Tatum’s notes but his style—how he struck the keys, moved his fingers, worked the pedals….characteristics that modern technology can analyze and supposedly recreate with precision. Notes the Times, “the result, if all goes right, will be a new CD that replicates the original performance, in stereo and higher fidelity.” So hang on jazz fans, soon we can hear Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” or the voice of Bessie Smith without scratch and hiss. Virtual re-issues might be the next big thing on the record market, and surely this will revive jazz sales!

I guess I can see some merit to this Brave New World—it would be nice to listen to Tatum’s flying fingers unfettered by the relatively poor recording science of his day. What would Armstrong sound like if he had recorded his 1920s squeals and shouts without the additional hiss and crackle of early high fi? But early recordings not only captured the blemishes of primitive audio engineering, they also captured the way the sound was delivered to mesh with that technology—singers shouting into the recording horn long before microphones allowed wax to capture nuance, sound layers dictated by where the musicians stood in the studio. Recreating those performances in modern digital stereo would indeed produce a great sound—but would it be the sound of King Oliver’s brass band or the Benny Goodman Orchestra? Would this Zenph-ified music be jazz as intended or a translation out of context?

Neither Tatum nor Armstrong would have considered regurgitating an earlier performance. The hallmark of jazz is not the ability to improve on the past, but to continuously move beyond it. Technology should help us create new ideas, new sounds. Leave the recycling to newsprint and tin cans.

No, I am not in Los Angeles and I don't subscribe to the LA Times. For a sampling of news about jazz from around the world, I check out the weekly E-news from www.jazzinstitut.de – as they say, “we read the newspaper for you.” Consider signing on for this free service if you just can't get enough jazz locally. You’ll receive an email with highlights of jazz related article from the world’s press and links to the full articles… not always in English!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Jazz 101: Educating the Community

I admit I have become a jazz junkie, not just in terms of listening to the music but reading all things jazz and looking for opportunities to become jazz literate. Last spring, the MacPhail Center for Music and Minneapolis Public Library offered a six-session overview of the history of jazz ("Looking at Jazz"), which drew 100+ to most of the sessions. The "students" ranged from middle schoolers to seniors. For the fall semester, MacPhail announced "Jazz 101," a 12-week course on understanding jazz in an historical context, taught by acclaimed trumpeter Kelly Rossum--who not coincidentally was the curator of the Looking at Jazz series. Seven of us, ranging in age from 30-something to 60-something, sit in old fashioned wooden school desks in a small classroom at MacPhail, trading ideas and challenges to those ideas with each other and with Kelly. Six of us know each other fairly well and in fact plotted to register for the class to ensure it would not be canceled. But our common agenda really is to learn as much as we can from a master teacher who lives and breathes jazz 24/7, both as a performer and as a committed educator. We arrive early like eager 7th graders discovering astronomy or biology, and we leave an hour later, all too soon...so like the adults we really are, we take our questions and our arguments down the street for another hour of coffee or beer. This is better than college--the "homework" involves reading about our passion and listening to the music; there are no midterms or final exams; we aren't competing for grades. The only real stress is trying to remember all that we hear. Now I eagerly await my next live jazz outing--can I identify the form of the tune? Can I differentiate jagged rhythms from polyrhythms? Do I notice the different sounds between the ride and crash cymbals? Cool! Jazz education should mean more than including jazz in our public schools, establishing summer jazz camps and funding scholarships to Berklee-although of course these are essential programs. But to keep music (and jazz) in our schools and to encourage our students to follow their dreams, our communities must understand, appreciate, and support jazz as part of our culture. That means not only introducing young children to jazz, but encouraging adults of all ages, and particuarly those not already involved in music, to learn about and hopefully enjoy jazz as an informed audience. When our communities are filled with voters and advocates who are at least familiar with jazz, then the future of this music will be secure.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Welcome to the JazzINK Blog!

October 8, 2007. Why am I doing a blog? I don't even own an I-Pod! You may already be familiar with my website, http://www.jazzink.com/. Or my contributions to http://www.jazzpolice.com/. I am not totally convinced that I have blogger credentials but I have been inspired by my friend Pamela (see her blog at Bebopified) who tells me I can be a technoidiot and do this. So we'll see about that. I post interviews, reviews, and news on JazzINK and Jazz Police so I see this blog as an opportunity to communicate in smaller ways about jazz and other subjects that rattle around in my brain from time to time. I'm also hoping this blog will interest you in visiting the JazzINK and Jazz Police sites. And this way I do not have to wait for my family techie (aka brother Larry) to post something for me on JazzINK. This is a do-it-yourself blog.