Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Maria's Magnum Opus


When composer/bandleader Maria Schneider performed at Ted Mann Concert Hall about two years ago, she introduced “The Pretty Road,” describing a childhood memory of her hometown, Windom, MN. I recall that half the town of Windom was in the audience. Well, maybe not that many but friends and family were clearly in abundance. Maria told of the wonder she experienced when her family would take a certain country road, how the lights of the small town would sparkle as the car came over the rise enroute home.

A few months ago, Schneider used “The Pretty Road” as the opening track to her new, Grammy-nominated recording, Sky Blue. It extends now for 13 minutes, anchored by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen’s majestic soloing. I’ve never been to Windom in southwest Minnesota, but I think of my own family excursions along old Highway 218 in eastern Iowa. After several wide curves and a series of hills, there was that last rise before the lights of our town came into view. At least in the dark, it too was a “pretty road.”

On Sky Blue, Schneider leads her long-standing ensemble of 18+ musicians (21 are involved in this recording project), a jazz orchestra of modern improvisers whose sustained collaboration harkens back to Ellington. A protégé of Gil Evans, Schneider’s talents as composer and arranger have no peer in the world of modern jazz big band, and for me, Sky Blue has no competition for my favorite recording of 2007. From start to finish, Sky Blue evolves as a five-party symphony combining classical and jazz elements to create a majestic tapestry that reaches skyward like an Ellington sacred concert or Copeland orchestration.

“The Pretty Road” is just the beginning. “Aires de Lando” is a passionate tango featuring the songful clarinet of Scott Robinson, while the hymnal “Rich’s Piece” was conceived as a showcase for tenor saxophonist Rich Perry. Schneider gained a second Grammy nomination for instrumental composition for the 21+ minute opus, “Cerulean Skies,” which not only features stellar soloists (Donny McCaslin on tenor sax, Charles Pillow on alto, and Gary Versace on accordion) but the vocalizations of Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza and horns translated into bird calls. Within a total work of heavenly elegance, “Cerulean Skies” is the epiphany, filled with symphonic hornlines, incomparably sacred harmonics, celestial tinkerings from pianist Frank Kimbrough, other-worldly sound effects from Gary Versace’s accordion and a list of others contributing the sounds of “bird,” “high chirps,” and a series of “twittering birds.” “Sky Blue” closes the recording as balladic hymn built around Steve Wilson’s soprano sax, which, like other instruments on the preceding track, often mimics the call of birds against the surging harmonies of the horn choir.

In 2005, Schneider received the Grammy for Best Jazz Recording for her Concert in the Garden, the first winner in Grammy history without in-store distribution. Like Sky Blue, it was produced through ArtistShare, the collective of musicians who are finding considerable success as their own producers and marketing agents. Sky Blue might bring Schneider and ArtistShare another Grammy. I can’t imagine otherwise.

A friend, who is an expert in big band music, questioned classifying Sky Blue as a jazz work. “It doesn’t swing,” he said. In the traditional view of “swing,” Schneider’s music only qualifies intermittently and subtly. But her emphasis group harmony and solo improvisation, with touches of blues, tango and folk roots, is far beyond the forms of classical music. Sky Blue not only moves forward, it moves skyward. It propels the listener to a higher plane. And that is really the essence of “swing” in the 21st century.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Leaving a Trail of Musical Dreams: Oscar Peterson, 1925-2007


Since I was old enough to recognize that jazz pulled at me like no other music, I was a fan of Oscar Peterson. My father introduced me to Peterson when I was in my teens. I first heard him live at Jazz at Ravinia (outside of Chicago) in the late 1980s or early 90s, and I had the opportunity to see him perform twice in the Twin Cities, including his last visit in 2005. I own over 60 of his recordings, which is actually but a small sampling of his total discography. When I first heard his “Love Ballad” I thought I was hearing a magical improvisation on a Mendelssohn theme, not realizing until later that this was one of Oscar’s most beloved original compositions.

Peterson died last night at his home near Toronto, where the Montreal native had lived for over 50 years. He never succumbed to the gravitational pull of New York despite his early affiliation with the Norman Granz “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert series or his numerous recording dates at major label studios. He remained true to his Canadian roots as well as to his approach to music until the end. As recently as November, despite recent health problems, Oscar had returned to writing his electronic journal, assuring fans that he was “back” and eager to maintain his relationship with his audience.

Peterson was a survivor. He survived an impoverished childhood, the son of a train porter who encouraged his five children to pursue music as a means of escaping poverty. He survived a variety of barriers reflecting American racism. He survived the bop, cool and fusion eras without compromising his own style. He survived a serious stroke in 1993 that weakened his left hand but not his musical spirit. Over the past decade or more, he also survived the physical challenges of severe arthritis, continuing to perform and tour through early 2007.

But it is the longevity of his talent that is most impressive. More modern in his approach than the swing-era pianists he most admired—particularly Art Tatum and Nat “King” Cole, yet more joyful and swinging than the bop-era pianists to whom he was sometimes unfavorably compared, Peterson ultimately became the one of the most influential pianists of his generation, and is often cited by young stars today as an early and significant source of inspiration.

Why is Peterson’s appeal so universal? First, the music swings so hard you can’t help but tap your feet. Oscar put the movement in “rhythm.” Second, be it a standard or original tune, the tune is paramount. A melody that might be easily forgotten in the hands of another musician would become a classic in Oscar’s hands. His own melodies—“Tenderly,” “You Look Good to Me,” and of course “Love Ballad”― simply “make you want to sing” as Ella Fitzgerald once said of her long-term collaborator. And despite his star status, Oscar led his trios and quartets as a true collaborator, giving his bandmates plenty of space to reveal their musical personalities while developing a distinctive ensemble sound. And that sound was so lush, so celestial, so powerful that you often forgot that only a formidable technique could sustain it. Oscar made it seem so effortless. The music just flowed from his fingertips.

In 1996, Peterson told an interviewer that “There's an extreme joy I get in playing that I've never been able to explain. I can only transmit it through the playing; I can't put it into words." Neither can I, but I hear that joy whenever I spin an OP recording, be it his early “songbooks” or his final original release, Trail of Dreams. His rich and extensive discography ensures us that the trail will never end.
Photo of Oscar Peterson by Edward Gajdel. See full obituary at http://www.jazzpolice.com/content/view/7468/79/

Friday, December 21, 2007

Rogue Bassists


I don’t know when I first fell in love with the upright bass as a jazz instrument. Probably I can blame Ray Brown since the Oscar Peterson Trio, particularly its early incarnations, was the ensemble that cemented my attraction to jazz. Ray forced the audience to pay attention to the bass solo, not an easy task in most venues. For some reason, perhaps the lower tone and less obvious translation of melody, many otherwise attentive listeners seem to regard the bass solo as the “intermission” portion of the performance.

It’s these very qualities, however, that make the bass one of the most intriguing instruments of the ensemble. In his terrific jazz primer (What Jazz Is), New York pianist Jonny King wrote,“What a misunderstood instrument the acoustic bass is. It is large and physically impressive, and booms with the lowest of sounds and greatest of rumbles. Yet it is also a fragile piece of wooden sculpture that resonates in the background of the musical conscience of most listeners.” Misunderstood and typically in the background, the bass often goes more or less unnoticed by the average listener, yet ask musicians if the bass is all that important. “The bass is literally the pulse of any jazz band… as crucial to the sound of jazz as any other single element,” King reminds his readers.

Aside from Ray Brown, whom I saw three times, I’ve heard some of the best of the modern era, from Dave Holland to Gary Peacock to Buster Williams to Christian McBride. McCoy Tyner always travels with an A-Team bassist, and on a recent Tyner trio gig at the Dakota, Charnett Moffett unleashed a ten-minute solo in which he used every conceivable means of coaxing sound from an acoustic wood chamber. Or so I thought at the time.

Tonight at a small art gallery in Northeast Minneapolis, dubbed The Rogue Buddha, two of the most inventive bassists in the area provided new insights into the creative potential of the upright bass, with and without electronic enhancement. The first set belonged to Chris Bates alone. A mainstay of such innovative groups as How Birds Work, Red Planet and Kelly Rossum’s Quartet, Chris can be a mellow pulsesetter for a vocalist or a dynamic magician of time management for a touring artist. Tonight Chris took his instrument into unexplored territory where only the brave will go, the universe of solo and freely improvised bass. Furthermore, he extended the concept of “solo” by creating multiple roles for himself through the use of electronic looping. “Using electronic sounds has allowed me to create soundscapes, textures and harmonic structures that I can play over in a solo context,” he told me recently. “Every performance is different because the emphasis for me musically is on improvisation.”

The first work of the thirty-minute set was indeed an acoustic solo, no less interesting without the power chord and giving us a baseline from which to appreciate how electronic gadgetry can enhance acoustic elements. As Chris moved into the next piece, however, a sequence of high tech ideas began to flow, as he bowed a segment, then through electronic playback used it as a vamp of undertones to accompany his next exploration—in this case the use of a suction cup to create a shower of static. And so followed each new improvisation, a long bowed melody, playback of tone poems and sound effects, even seemingly incorporating a distant squeaking door hinge as if it was an intended element. Through it all, using melodic plucks, bowed chords, and the squeals, slides and growls of glissando, Chris tangoed and caressed his instrument, at times conjuring a wrestler holding a hostage in a half-nelson, at other times slapping the wood like a conguero. On one of the final pieces his sliding left hand created multi-string glissando, on another he created his own polyphonic quartet with three simultaneous loops comping the master. The effect was hypnotic. It’s hard to imagine anyone tuning out this soloist.

Yet this was just round one at The Rogue Buddha, as Bates’ set was followed by an equally compelling group of free association masters, the Poutums Trio + 1 (tenorman Chris Thomson, bassist Adam Linz, drummer Alden Ikeda plus trumpeter Jon Pemberton). My focus still on the acoustic bass, I knew from past experience that Adam Linz (of Fat Kid Wednesdays and Gloryland Ponycat fame) possesses one of the widest musical palettes in local music, and he pulled out the doublestops with abandon. Using no electronic effects, he nevertheless created the illusion of techno manipulations, building multiple pathways to reverberation—mashing two strings against each other with his right hand; turning glissando upside-down by sliding his right hand up and down the strings beneath the neck, sending echoes into the air—an acoustic loop of sorts. And throughout it all, Adam made the bass dance—literally as he twirled and dipped his instrument to match his sonic choreography.

Chris and Adam might make the bass seem like the most hip instrument in jazz, but they manage to do so while also reminding us that the bass indeed has a melodic soul. Chris will be at the Artists Quarter twice next week, with How Birds Work (December 28th) and Red Planet (December 28-29). Watch for Adam with Fat Kid Wednesdays… or any other opportunity.

Maybe it’s a long reach back to Ray Brown. Maybe not.

Jonny King, What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz (1997, Walker & Co) is still in print. Above photo composite is a photographic version of looping (Chris on the left, Adam on the right).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Jazz Meets Poetry at Soul Cafe'


A few years ago I attended my first evening with Soul Café. I probably would have paid little attention to a Sunday night concert at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Loring Park, but the jazz trio included pianist Laura Caviani and the flyer indicated that the music would be combined with poetry. I figured it would be worthwhile for the piano alone.

I’ve been a faithful follower of Soul Café ever since, “faithful” in the secular sense. While the supporting venue since the ensemble’s debut has been the church, the programs offer eclectic combinations of jazz and poetry, feeding the spirit and soul, certainly, but in a thoroughly ecumenical, open-to-all atmosphere. Intrigued by the whole idea, I spent some time interviewing the musicians and posting articles on Jazz Police (see http://www.jazzpolice.com/content/view/4895/53/ for a fairly comprehensive article about Soul Café), and attend their monthly offering as often as I can. Through Soul Café, I first encountered the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. And through Soul Café also first encountered the marvelous music of alto saxophonist Brad Holden and guitarist/leader Steve Blons, who when joined with Caviani create harmonies that soar.

There’s always a theme or juxtaposition of composer and poet—merging Rogers & Hart with Neruda, Beat poets and Thelonious Monk, e.e. cummings and Wayne Shorter, themes of Light and Darkness. Sometimes the poets are local children reading from their own works; and often there is a guest musician or accomplished poet. Tonight, a few days before the winter solstice, the theme was “A Little Night Music”; the poet a Methodist cleric named Jan Richardson who writes about loneliness, loss and faith. The music was more upbeat while still honoring the theme— “A Night in Tunisia” (rarely played by such a small ensemble but perhaps the trio format allows the listener to focus more on the melodies and structure?); “Monk’s Dream” (no Caviani set is complete without Monk); “Night and Day” (the darkness lifted by a samba rhythm), “Autumn in New York” (gilded by Brad Holden’s alto sax weaving in and out with Steve Blon’s guitar chords); “Stella by Starlight” (deconstructed to the degree that I never figured it out); and a closing, delightfully obtuse “Silent Night” (complete with a straight final verse of community sing-along).

Jazz and poetry have enjoyed a long association, from the presentations of the late Steve Lacy to Fred Hersch’s Leaves of Grass project to Patricia Barber’s recent reinvention of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (on Mythologies), and locally from Prudence Johnson’s Millay Project to the weekly open poetry night at St. Paul’s Artists Quarter.

The intersection of jazz and literature is the subject of at least one journal (Brilliant Corners) and a number of books, including several by Brilliant Corners’ editor Sascha Feinstein. Feinstein edited the recently released Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz and Literature (Indiana University Press, 2007) and authored a collection of jazz-themed poetry, Misterioso (Copper Canyon Press, 2000). Like Laura Caviani, it seems Feinstein can not help but connect the music of Thelonious Monk to poetry…. which, with its emphasis on time and cadence in a context of free expression, indeed seems to be the literary equivalent of jazz.

You can experience Soul Café throughout much of the year, on the third Sunday of the month at 7 pm at the Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church on Groveland (in Loring Park near the Hennepin/I-94 exit). You can also enjoy two recordings of their efforts, Soul Café and Jazz & Poetry.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Remembering Frank Morgan


Yesterday the jazz world lost one its last great bop masters with the passing of alto saxophonist Frank Morgan. Just shy of 74, Morgan had one of the more remarkable up and down and up careers in music. An acolyte of Charlie Parker, Morgan took hero worship to its extreme, emulating Bird in every way possible, including self-destructive heroin addiction. Having shown considerable talent early on, Morgan spent the better part of three decades in an out of addiction and incarceration, reemerging in the mid-80s with the fire and artistry promised years earlier. Over his last 20 years, he recorded prolifically, overcoming a major stroke in 1996 with yet another amazing comeback. In the past five years, he toured extensively, released an acclaimed three-CD series on High Note, "Live at Jazz Standard,” and capped it all with one of the sweetest studio recordings of the year, Reflections (technically released in 2006).

Through it all, Frank remained humble, noting the number of outstanding younger sax players on the scene today and his endless quest to evolve as a musician. “Oh, well, I'm just a baby, you know,” he told Brandt Reiter (All About Jazz) in 2004. “And if I ever have any doubts about that, all I have to do is go listen to Charles McPherson. Or Sonny Fortune, Kenny Garrett, Donald Harrison, James Spaulding. There's so many beautiful alto players out there…”

On the bandstand, talking with the audience, Frank Morgan was a gentle soul who was quick to explain, “It’s great to be alive.” His soft-spoken manner belied the power of his horn, which could sting, cry, bite, burn or caress. He moved back to his native Minneapolis about two years ago, but his ongoing touring schedule never waned and we only had a few opportunities to hear him play in the Twin Cities. Yet through those moments we had a chance to see Frank at his most engaging and most humble. He initiated a series of sax/piano duos, beginning with a performance with Ronnie Matthews at the Dakota in 2005, with long-time collaborator George Cables at the Artists Quarter in 2006, and with Joanne Brackeen back at the Dakota in early 2007. At each gig, Frank played host as much as sax, often putting his pianist in the spotlight as soloist, simply delighted in the opportunity to present a favorite artist. But it was the interaction between Frank and his cohort that truly captured his talent.

The last time I saw Frank Morgan in a real gig setting was at the closing of the 2007 Twin Cities Jazz Festival. The Dakota hosted the triple delight of a three-sax quartet—Peter Schimke on piano with 87-year-old Irv Williams on tenor, 73-year old Frank on alto, and 15-year-old Grace Kelly (who headlined her own set earlier in the weekend) on alto and vocals. Frank had recently “adopted” Grace as her musical “grandfather,” a protégé whose career he hoped to guide away from the potholes that had derailed his own. Said Grace in an interview for the Asian American Press in July, “I love him so much! He's like my grandpa, totally sweet. And his music is such an extension of his soul.”

I just turned on KFAI (FM 90.3). Bill Kottman is playing the music of Frank Morgan this morning. Totally sweet.

Photo: Frank Morgan on stage at the Dakota in early 2007. (Photo by Andrea Canter). See Jazz Police obituary at http://www.jazzpolice.com/content/view/7452/79/. And if you are in the Twin Cities, pay tribute to Frank at a memorial set for Sunday, December 23rd at the Artists Quarter in St. Paul, 3 pm.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

American Made: Jazz Informed by Poetry Housed by Opera


Jazz does not require a dark club setting to be sophisticated and cool. For example, you can hear great jazz in a small Japanese hotel in Manhattan, the Kitano. With room for 35, the performance space adjacent to the bar allows for the most intimate relationship between performer and audience, as well as a side of sushi.

Here in the Twin Cities we have our own unique spaces. On Friday night, we heard a fusion of jazz and poetry in a space that normally serves the Minnesota Opera Company. The MOC and Jeremy Walker’s Jazz Is Now project joined forces to cosponsor one of the more unique ensembles in jazz, Matt Wilson’s Carl Sandburg Project. About five years ago, Wilson’s quartet was one of the headliners at the short-lived Brilliant Corners, the experiment in small club jazz headed by Walker, who has since lived from grant to grant in trying to keep Jazz Is Now afloat. The Sandburg Project marked the beginning of JIN’s revival as a purveyor of original and experimental music; its Nownet (so called as it will sometimes be a Nonet, but you never know…) will return to public performance next fall.

The MOC stage in the lower level of a warehouse district building proved to be a fine match to the compositions of one of the most creative percussionists in modern music. The lighting was bright enough to allow the audience to watch Wilson’s impromptu choreography and gleeful expressions when the ensemble sound pleased him, which was often. The sound was surprisingly clear and well differentiated considering this was, after all, a warehouse basement. The tones emanating from Ben Allison’s bass—first turned toward the back wall, later perpendicular to the front of the stage as he essentially straddled his instrument as if mounting a bicycle—resonated with the mood of the Carl Sandburg poem of the moment, liquid as “Soup,” ethereal as “Fog.” Dawn Thomson played guitar and added an interesting, sometimes compelling layer of vocals. And no matter where Jeff Lederer took his sax or clarinet, in staccato honks or anguished moans or soaring spirals, not a note was lost to underground acoustics. We heard it all.

But visually and aurally, the most fascinating musician was Matt Wilson, a shirttail relative of Sandburg and fellow small town Illinois native. Attracted to the words and cadence of Sandburg’s poetry, Wilson created his own poetry of sound and motion, using not only arms and legs as do most jazz drummers, but elbows and fingertips as well, and facial expressions that seemed to coax additional layers of crackle and pop. He doesn’t limit the hi-hat to opening and closing—he makes the whole apparatus vibrate. I’ve seen him put his foot on top of the snare but not tonight.

All together, the Carl Sandburg Project honored the poet by conjuring both the hustle of urban life and the slower moving rustic charm of Mid-America. That they did so using the jazz idiom on an Opera Company stage in a warehouse setting is unquestionably American, undeniably Matt Wilson, and surely blessed by Sandburg himself.

Photo: Matt Wilson in an early 2007 gig at the Dakota. (Andrea Canter)

Monday, December 3, 2007

It’s Only New Once: Don’t Be Afraid of the “Avant Garde”


Humans tend to reject the unfamiliar, at least on the first go-round. I detested single malt scotch. I cringed at the idea of sushi. And after one listen I took a Cecil Taylor recording to the used music store.

I still dislike single malt scotch but sushi is now a regular part of my diet. (If only I could coordinate chop sticks!) And while I have not embraced the music of Cecil Taylor, I have started to accumulate a collection of what would have been defined as “avant garde” music a few decades ago (1960s Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy); periodically I attend live sessions of artists like Tim Berne, Anthony Braxton, Jim Ryan, and hometown genre stretchers Fat Kid Wednesday and Happy Apple. I even reviewed (positively) Craig Taborn’s Junk Magic.

In Kelly Rossum’s Jazz 101 class, we spent a session recently on the Avant Garde. Just how avant is this music today? Even Beethoven was criticized for his “ultra modern” orchestrations when first published. Our parents shuddered at the new rock ‘n roll sounds of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Remember the initial response to bebop?

Avant garde in any genre refers to art (music, literature, painting, whatever) at the outer edge of its universe, but that edge is not static. Ultimately, it seems that everything moves from the outer boundary toward the center as a new wave of “new” pushes out that thin membrane separating inside from outside. Today’s “avant garde” jazz, defined perhaps by such ensembles as the World Saxophone Quartet or Anthony Braxton’s bands, may seem pretty tame and logical in another decade, when sounds we can’t yet make or imagine will then define that outer boundary.

Unfortunately another human tendency is to avoid that which is unfamiliar, dissonant, difficult to organize. Hence I rejected Cecil Taylor after one listen. But as with my experience with sushi, I suspect I might have found some appreciation for Taylor and his odd structures had I listened a few more times, and even more likely, had I seen a live performance. For me, nothing in modern music makes as much sense as when I can see it as well as hear it. What start out as foreign sounds become organized and identifiable, when directly observed.

This “I’ll hear it if I can see it” phenomenon was particularly apparent last spring when I attended a performance by Anthony Braxton at the Iridum Jazz Club in Manhattan. Multi-reedist Braxton is one of the legends of outer-edge music, known for assembling groups of unusual instruments that in turn create unusual patterns of sound. Play a recording of Anthony Braxton and you’re apt to turn down the volume quickly as you encounter bleeps, squeals, scratches, shrieks, scrapes….. a cacophony of wild tones, odd rhythms, combinations that redefine dissonance. So why would I elect to spend one of my few New York jazz club opportunities at a Braxton show? Simple. I was invited. I met Jim Eigo, who runs Jazz Promotion Services in New York, at previous jazz conferences as well as via email, as Jazz Police is one of Jim’s media contacts for CD releases and a number of jazz club calendars. Jim handles the press for the Iridium and usually goes to the club weekly. When he invited me to hear Braxton, I decided I should open my ears for an hour or so and give it try.

I’m still very unlikely to put on a Braxton recording and kick back and listen. But seeing his tentet of mostly young musicians perform a continuous, freely improvised “composition” allowed me to anchor those sounds in the mostly familiar instrumentation that created them, to appreciate the interactions among the musicians, to understand how something as basic as a trombone could create such hair-raising snarls. And often with a great deal of humor. What is funnier musically than a relatively small man surrounded by a circle of saxophones, from sopranino to contrabass? One fits in the palm of your hand and looks like a toy from K-Mart. The other rises about 10 feet from bell to mouthpiece and requires a ladder or raised platform to play. Both tend to be regarded as novelty instruments, and the sheer size and expense of a contrabass sax relegate it to a seldom-heard circus prop. Unless the musician is Anthony Braxton. From the center of his brass galaxy, Braxton rotated from one sax to another as the group composition evolved, each sax giving the desired sound quality for the moment. And when not distracted by his orchestra within the orchestra, there were many sideshows worthy of attention—trombones muted by what looked like serving platters, an alto flute that seemed nearly as long as its master was tall, violins, trumpets, bass and what seemed like rather standard percussion, yet in sum there were no standard harmonies or rhythms. If I had closed my eyes, I would have had little clue as to or who had taken the musical lead, how a certain sound was formed and why it was in tandem with another.

Seeing all this in real time, I still cannot claim to understand all that was happening on that stage or why it was so mesmerizing for over an hour non-stop. I would not label most of the music as melodic or tonal or beautiful. It was incessantly interesting and I would not hesitate to attend a similar production again.

What years ago seemed simply dissonant often sounds today like fascinating harmonies with their own unique elegance. It’s not for everyone. But if you are innately curious about music and wonder about its outer edges, don’t stop at the first screech. Keep listening. And watching.

Photo: Take a very straight-ahead trombonist (Corey Henry) and twisting the heck out of the image....much like a free jazz improvisation? Andrea's avant photo...

Sunday, December 2, 2007

From Louis to Jake: Jazz Is Alive




Like many of us who spend a fair amount of time listening to music, as part of our work or just as part of our daily lives, I often hear a melody or a specific rendition of a tune echoing from my “internal” CD player. Subconsciously, the brain records music and activates the playback button. This is not always pleasant or convenient, but usually I can trace the origin of this “recording” to my initial experience of the music, in live concert, on a new CD. The brain’s selectivity may not always seem rational but it is not random either. When the music runs through my head throughout the day, I know I’ve had a cosmic encounter—with a composer, a performer, an arranger.

This morning, my internal stereo is replaying “[When It’s]Sleepy Time Down South,” a tune long associated with Louis Armstrong, written by Clarence Muse / Otis Rene / Leon Rene, and to which Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Dean Martin have added lyrics. But it’s not Armstrong’s recording dancing in my head, nor subsequent versions by such acclaimed artists as Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry or Wynton Marsalis. I’m hearing Jake Baldwin. Jake’s a junior at Minnetonka (MN) High School and trumpeter with the current edition of the Dakota Combo, a select sextet of Twin Cities’ high school jazz students. Last night, with guest artist Delfeayo Marsalis on stage and with combo director Kelly Rossum ecstatically nodding his approval from a dark corner of the Dakota Jazz Club mezzanine, these very serious teen musicians challenged any notion that “jazz is dead.”

A relatively new project of the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education and the Minneapolis-based MacPhail Center for Music, the Dakota Combo is one of a number of area programs that fuel the future of jazz, not just locally but on a national level as well—“graduates” of programs such as the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth (MITY) jazz band, Minnesota Youth Jazz Band, Walker West Music Academy, Twin Cities Jazz Workshop and MacPhail, as well as area high school jazz bands and the first alums of the Dakota Combo, have moved on to the Brubeck Institute, Berklee College of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Oberlin…..and to careers in New York as well as closer to home.

In its second year, the Dakota Combo holds auditions and begins a series of rigorous rehearsals under Kelly Rossum’s guidance, preparing for a truly professional gig on the weekend, prime-time stage of the Dakota Jazz Club, with additional performances and school visits planned. For many of these musicians, all veterans of school bands and elite summer programs like MITY, the Combo offers the first significant opportunity to work with a small ensemble, where improvisation, soloing and arranging rapidly accelerate their development as jazz artists. An important component is the guest artist, who comes in for intense rehearsal, a public student clinic, and the featured performance. Delfeayo Marsalis proved to be an ideal guest, engaging a large group of mostly middle school and high school student musicians in a Saturday morning clinic and taking the sextet through a constructive critique.

I observed the Friday afternoon rehearsal, about a month after sitting in on an early rehearsal at MacPhail. I remembered Jake from the first rehearsal—I had not heard a young trumpeter with such a confident, clearly articulated tone. Now, on the eve of the Combo’s big gig, Delfeayo took the students through much of the planned program, including “Sleepytime Down South,” Jake’s featured solo. It seemed to go well but Delfeayo felt the final chorus needed work. Jake probably ran through a dozen variations of embellishment, each sounding more interesting and more majestic than the last. Wow, what is this going to sound like tomorrow night?

Saturday night, the program as a whole was strong; by the second set, everyone seemed relaxed and basking in the warmth of the audience’s reception and Marsalis’ enthusiastic support. Jake’s “Sleepytime Down South” –with a knock-em-dead final chorus – was worthy of a musician twice his age. And he was in good company. Stephanie Wiesler on tenor sax, Jacob Wittenberg on piano, Geoff Lacrone on guitar, Corey Grindberg on bass, and Matt Roberts on drums combined to demonstrate the breadth and depth of jazz talents in the Twin Cities, to show off the value of investing in youth music programs. The audience was filled with friends and family, but also with the usual Saturday night patrons who, for their $12 cover, not only got a chance to hear one of the premiere trombonists in modern jazz, but to hear six voices of the “shape of jazz to come.”

Already, my internal recording studio would welcome the work of any of these musicians. And soon, I’m sure we will be hearing from them in a more public forum. Jazz is alive, and will remain vital as long as young musicians, and the programs that support them, thrive.

Learn more about the Dakota Combo at www.dakotacombo.com, and about the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education at www.dfje.org

Photos of Jake Baldwin and of the Combo by Andrea Canter.