Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bill and the Night and the Music

It takes a devilishly divergent mind to even conceive of improvisation on themes from nursery rhymes and mass media promotion. That Bill Carrothers’ latest recording (Play Day) sports idiosyncratic interpretations of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” “The Itsty Bitsy Spider” and the Oscar Mayer Wiener theme song isn’t really all that surprising if you are familiar with Carrothers. Simultaneously traditional and avant, playful and deadly serious, always insidiously brilliant, Carrothers goes where everyone has been yet few if any dare to reconstruct, and all while staying within an acoustic environment.

A Twin Cities native now living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when not touring in Europe, Carrothers returns “home” for the holidays, giving us at least one opportunity each year to hear him in a small club setting. This past weekend, the celebration was at the Artists Quarter in the sublime company of Gordy Johnson and Kenny Horst. Yet a lot of the action was solo, as Bill often creates tangled and enticing prologues that perhaps leave even his bandmates pondering the destination; sometimes the prologue becomes its own destination, a solo performance so complete in its development that there’s no need, no room for another voice. Leave perfection alone.

A student of military history, Carrothers’ repertoire is a classic piano roll of popular songs from 19th and early 20th century parlors, but dissected and reassembled by a 21st century Merlin. Last January, he brought his acclaimed Armistice 1918 ensemble to the AQ, eerie interpretations of both popular and military tunes of the era. The latest trio sets were more eclectic if nevertheless pure Carrothers magic. Where many musicians infuse their original compositions or covers with quotes from well known standards or pop culture tunes, Bill’s often humorous deviations are not mere quotes but evolutionary transpositions; he doesn’t simply toss out the thought but marries the concepts, creating enduring relationships. Sometimes those relationships are purely musical, sometimes the connections more metaphysical.

As an improviser, Bill Carrothers uses multiple devices from the gitgo. Starting off Friday’s opening set with “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” and moving on to “Billie’s Bounce,” “Blood Count,” and a solo “Moonlight Serenade,” he combined eccentric extended chords with thickly overlapping notes, often disguising but never really subverting the melody. Or melodies—just when you think you have identified Bill’s theme, gears switch, new ideas enter, another tune evolves. The so-called “wisdom” that certain notes don’t work as chord extensions is simply ignored and disproved by Carrothers; “dissonant” harmonies never seem acrimonious, just interesting, launching pads for another idea.

A prolonged piano solo introduced “Nature Boy,” building to a dark vamp of bass and mallets, evolving slowly, filled with hesitations, like a backroad journey to a popular tourist attraction, sure of the destination but startled by the scenic detours along the way. On the other hand, Carrothers gives tunes like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” such abstract reconfigurations that the destination seems unfamiliar until the last bend in the road.

Opening the second night with “You and the Night and Music,” Kenny Horst’s long cymbal decays heightened awareness of Bill’s own use of sustained notes, a quality that I have found particularly appealing in much of his work; his notes often linger in the air like chimes. Staying with the season, “White Christmas” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” swirled with echoes of other holiday fare while the core theme of “Autumn Leaves” emerged only fleetingly through a haze of modal experiments tossed among the threesome. Perhaps one of the highlights of the weekend was Bill’s solo “My Old Kentucky Home,” a sweetly wistful hymn accompanied by his most audible vocalizations of the set. Stephen Foster? There’s a lot more where this comes from, on the new release, The Voices That Are Gone, a collaboration among cellist Matt Turner, Bill and Bill’s wife, vocalist Peg Carrothers.

Bill’s been busy lately. Both the Stephen Foster project and Play Day (on Bill’s Bridge Boy Music) were recorded here in Minneapolis at Creation Audio, at least in part during breaks from performing Armistice last winter. And there’s a new release, The Best Is Yet to Come Volume 1(Pirouet), from Marc Copland with Bill and trumpeter Tim Hagans (that’s two pianos and trumpet!). Copland is also responsible for uncovering a never-released set from 1992 led by Bill with Gary Peacock and Bill Stewart, now issued on Pirouet as Home Row. But my current favorite has been rotating in my car stereo for the past two months—After Hours, recorded at the AQ with Billy Peterson and Kenny Horst, released in France early in the decade and now reissued on Bridge Boy Music. Like most everything else he touches, After Hours is filled with familiar standards (“My Heart Belongs to Daddy” is lethal) that have been given new and remarkable life.

OK, so my musical heart belongs to Bill.

Photos: (Top to bottom) Kenny Horst, Gordy Johnson, and Bill Carrothers at the Artists Quarter on December 26th. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Lead Sheet, December 26 - January 1

For local jazz fans, the best gifts come after the holidays this year. Fortunately, the sequence allows us to enjoy both.

Among the most innovative musicians to call the Twin Cities “home” are pianist Bill Carrothers and two-thirds of the Bad Plus, Dave King and Reid Anderson. Carrothers, a student of the late Bobby Peterson who performs far more often in Europe than stateside, takes the weekend gig at the Artists Quarter. With Gordy Johnson and Kenny Horst, this is hardly a pick-up band for Carrothers. They might even give us a taste of Bill’s “new” release on Pirouet, Home Row, recorded in 1992 with Gary Peacock and Bill Stewart and for some reason held back from release until now. Carrothers is among an elite pool of modernists who never stops creating within the acoustic universe—and his is a far-reaching universe where every means of generating sound from the instrument is fair game. Bill can defy every tenet of harmony to produce always-harmonious (if sometimes off quadrant) results. For the past few months his After Hours release with Horst and Billy Peterson (originally issued about seven years ago) has stayed in my car stereo rotation. It’s glorious. The tunes are all familiar standards, the sounds and rhythms are all new. You never know what you’ll hear from Bill, just that he will enchant, challenge, and entertain. December 26-27, 9 pm at the Artists Quarter (408 St. Peter Street, St. Paul;

Also getting underway tonight but continuing through Monday is the annual holiday residency of The Bad Plus, aka Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King. Reid and Dave, along with New York-based keyboard monster Craig Taborn, jammed together as teens before their burgeoning careers took them off in separate directions. As the 20th century closed, Anderson and King, along with Wisconsin native Ethan Iverson, discovered that together they had something very unique. They released a couple self-productions before landing a gig at the Village Vanguard. American jazz has never been the same. They’ve gone on to international rock-star status, a spate of highly regarded albums on Columbia, and now their own label, Do the Math. Each of the threesome is a skilled composer, although their covers of mostly rock fare tend to get more attention.

There’s no doubt that by tackling (and reinventing) the works of Black Sabbath and David Bowie, The Bad Plus has pulled in an audience that might not otherwise think of jazz as more than their grandparents’ music. But this remains music that their grandparents can nevertheless appreciate for its accessibility and clever reconstructions, and simply for the artistry of each musician. They have a new release on EmArcy (For All I Care), already out in Europe and expected locally in February, including vocals from Twin Cities’ alternative rocker Wendy Lewis. Lewis is not expected to turn up at the Dakota this weekend but no doubt we will get a taste of the new material. Dave King introduced a few snippets at his master class at MacPhail last month.

No one plays four consecutive nights at the Dakota. Except the Bad Plus. December 26-29, 7 and 9:30 pm (1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis;

If you hit the early set at the Dakota tonight or tomorrow, or plan to catch the late sets at the AQ, consider stopping in for a drink and a crab cake at Cue at the Guthrie and enjoy what might be the last weekend of coolly sophisticated and swinging jazz at this classy Mill District venue. Maud Hixson (December 26th) and Charmin Michelle (December 27th), as well as Dean Brewington (New Year’s Eve) should provide ample justification for Cue to continue live music. The music is free, parking is not, but consider it a good trade off.

Finally, New Year's Eve means a number of options all over town, some pricey, some not. You can catch an intimate early set (seating at 5 pm) with Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson at the Times; no cover at all for Dean Brewington and his quartet at Cue; or my favorite NY Eve activity, the party at the Artists Quarter with Carole Martin and the Dave Karr Quartet. Carole is a NY Eve tradition, just like the down-home buffet and noisemakers. The cover has gone up to $33 but consider the food, champagne and the feel of a party with all of your friends and none of the prep and clean-up! No formal attire required. At midnight, you can count on Carole to share the stage with daughter Dawn Horst for some rib-kickin' blues.

Happy New Year from JazzINK!
Photos, Top-Bottom: Reid Anderson of the Bad Plus; Carole Martin; Bill Carrothers. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Lead Sheet: December 19-26

Two weeks in a row! Maybe this will become a habit. I just need to figure out when the week begins—Friday? Sunday? Let’s go from weekend to weekend?

Jazz isn’t taking a holiday this season, in fact the end of the year often brings about some of the best in music. And the offerings this weekend alone give jazz a broad definition. You can hear the most classic of swing and song or the most “out” and envelope-stretching of modern improvisation.

A rare three-night gig at the Artists Quarter in St. Paul presents the very hip, very on-the-edge trio, Happy Apple (December 19-21). I first heard Happy Apple before they hit the international scene as part of a double bill at the Cedar Cultural Center, maybe seven years ago. They followed a very cool set of solo bass by Adam Linz, no slouch himself when it comes to on-the-edge innovation. But as much as I loved Linz, I was totally thrown off guard by Happy Apple. I left after three tunes. At the time, I would have said that I was using the word “tunes” generously. About five years later, and after many hours of listening to increasingly out music, I braved another Happy Apple set, at the Artists Quarter. And I enjoyed myself and the many turns and twists of their collective improvising. I suspect the difference was an intersection between some changes in Happy Apple’s approach and changes in my own listening and thinking about modern jazz. By then I had also heard saxman Michael Lewis with his other main band, Fat Kid Wednesdays, and drummer Dave King with the inimitable Bad Plus. Both bands have significantly different sounds than Happy Apple, but I think the familiarity and appreciation of the musicians in other contexts creates a navigable pathway into the music. With Lewis, King and bassist Erik Fratzke, Happy Apple will keep your ears and brain fully engaged. Be warned if you go that this tends to be the biggest draw of any gig at the AQ, so arrive early! Sets at 9 pm Friday and Saturday and at 8 pm on Sunday.

On the other side of the jazz universe is Bing and the Andrews Sisters, a musical revue starring Arne Fogel, Kathy Mueller, Lisa Pallen and Aimee Fischer at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (December 21, 2 pm). Fact is the show is sold out so if you don’t have a ticket, your chances are slim although always worth calling the box office to see if tickets have been turned back. Arne Fogel has been keeping the voice of Bing Crosby alive and well in the Twin Cities for years, through live performances and his radio show, The Bing Shift. He’s also had the privilege of working with Bing’s widow Kathryn Crosby and examining some of the papers and other memorabilia of Bing’s estate. Not sold out and at a more intimate venue, Arne performs Friday night (December 19th) at Cue at the Guthrie, maybe the classiest if unintended spots for jazz in the Twin Cities. As I mentioned last week, this might be the end of jazz at Cue if the new owner isn't convinced that jazz and Cue were meant for each other. Meanwhile, check it out for yourself and tell him what you think. (Alicia Wiliey, Maud Hixson, Charmin Michelle and Dean Brewington are on the schedule for the rest of December—check out

Connie Evingson is always a good bet, and she’ll be at the Dakota on Monday (December 22, 7 pm), undoubtedly with some frankincense and myrrh from her holiday recording (The Secret of Christmas) and likely more from her recent release with Dave Frishberg (Little Did I Dream). But you never know, Connie is the most eclectic jazz singer around, and she is as likely to pull out Lennon and McCartney as Peggy Lee or George Gershwin. Or Django Reinhardt. And she covers them all as if they were written with her in mind. Dave Karr tends to appear whenever Connie is near, and that is always a good thing.

Like the big sales, some of the most exciting jazz will come right after Christmas next weekend, when the highly creative pianist Bill Carrothers returns to the AQ (December 26-27) and the highly flammable Bad Plus returns to the Dakota (December 26-29). They overlap. For me it is a no brainer, this means two nights of Bill and two nights with the BP. I’m warning you early because you will need reservations for the BP and you better not wait.

Happy Holidays from JazzINK!

Photos: (Top) Connie Evingson at last summer's Bloomington Jazz Festival; Arne Fogel; Happy Apple's Dave King; Michael Lewis. All photos by Andrea Canter.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Lead Sheet-- December 14-20

Someone suggested I do this every week. That was weeks ago. I’ll try harder.

Seems to be the great piano week at the Dakota. Attorney by day and composer/performer by night, Larry McDonough celebrates the international release of his Simple Gifts. His abstract improvisations and experiments with time and space are hardly simple, but it is a gift to see Larry and his quartet on the Dakota stage (Monday, 12/15). Next, Laura Caviani holds her nearly annual celebration featuring music from Angels We Haven’t Heard. Actually Laura is the angel we hear as often as we can—whether it be her playful takes on Thelonious Monk or her own, often blues infused compositions. And with frequent partner Lucia Newell on vocals and the always sympathetic timekeeping of bassist Tom Lewis and drummer Phil Hey, the holidays have never sounded better (12/16). Come back to the Dakota Thursday night and catch one of the youngest and brightest stars of the keyboard, Dan Musselman. Dan flexed his solo muscles and compositional chops last spring with the release of Ruminations. In solo or quartet context, he dazzles with an intriguing sense of harmony and melody. Dan will soon release a duet album with songbird Rachel Holder, who might turn up for a tune or two (12/18). Visit for more on these three keyboard giants.

I’m heading out to the Capri Theater for the 2008 edition of A Copasetic Christmas Carol with honey-hued singer Charmin Michelle, versatile saxman Doug Haining and the Twin Cities Seven. The music will swing and the very hip version of Dickens will keep you warm through the season. Only two shows, tonight and the Sunday matinee (12/14). Check for tickets at 651-209-6799 or

There are no weak line-ups at the Artists Quarter in St. Paul. You can always count on the Tuesday Night Band (B-3 Organ Night), on Tuesdays of course. This week you can catch a too-infrequent appearance of Exquisite Corps, aka the Dave Roos Quartet. Roos is one of those guitarists who is hard to define and impossible to ignore; this music has its own form and soul (12/17). Just about every month (and it seems, always on a Thursday) you can enjoy the Phil Hey Quartet. Subtle and sympathetic when backing touring artists and vocalists, Phil gets downright aggressive with his own bands and will put on a master class in drumkit magic. Plus it’s a great opportunity to enjoy one of the finest vibes players you’ll ever hear, anywhere, Dave Hagedorn (12/18). Fans of modern improvised music will be lined up this weekend for Happy Apple. With saxman Mike Lewis, bassist Erik Fratzke and drummer Dave King, not much is predictable except high energy and innovation (12/19-12/21). Check out

Finally, you just have this week to run down to the Lagoon Cinema in Uptown and see the acclaimed new film, Anita O’Day: The Life of Jazz Singer. What a voice, what a life. Shows at 2 pm and 7 pm daily through 12/18. I’ll have to hit a matinee, there’s too much music in the evenings this week!

Planning ahead? The future of jazz at Cue at the Guthrie seems in doubt despite the apparent popularity of this very classy venue. Cue, the bar and restaurant on the main level of the theater, glass and gleaming metal interior looking out into the Mill District, has presented a cadre of jazz artists every Friday and Saturday night for the past six months or more. Rumor has it that a new owner is not so sure this will continue beyond the holidays. So if you are looking for a cool spot for a drink, appetizers or the full menu, make a reservation for the slow 8-10 pm period when most are in the theaters..... and enjoy Arne Fogel (12/19), Alicia Wiley (12/20), Maud Hixson (12/26), Charmin Michelle (12/27) or Dean Brewington (12/31). Maybe if enough of us applaud, the music will go on into 2009.
Photos: (Top) Maud Hixson with Rick Carlson at Cue; Phil Hey; Dan Musselman with Rachel Holder. Photos by Andrea Canter.

James Carter: Every Sound in the Galaxy

I can picture him as a two year old, sitting on the kitchen floor, or perhaps in the living room, grabbing at nearby objects and putting them to his mouth. He blows hard, he blows softly, intrigued by the sounds he creates, giggling at his accomplishments and then reaching for yet another object to find yet another sound. A squeal, a honk, a gurgle, a sputter, a pop.

Maybe it never happened that way but now, nearly 40, James Carter brings a wide-eyed happy explorer’s antics to his music, grabbing one horn or another (he plays every saxophone, bass clarinet and flute), and trying out yet another way to generate a sound not quite like the last--- or the next.

During his recent two-night gig at the Dakota with his touring quintet, Carter often evoked the sound of electronic gadgetry with a merely acoustic arsenal, bending notes like bent circuits, pulling his octaves beyond the mere 12 tones, transforming notes into punctuation marks.

Instantly we’re awed by the physicality of his musical presence—a superhuman lung capacity; an almost graceful dexterity as fingers twist and tumble over brass keys; seemingly effortless intonation at the lowest and highest realms of his horns; a reach so high into the upper range of his soprano on Django Reinhardt’s “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure” that you fully expect your wine glass to shatter into a thousand diamonds. And one has to wonder if James Carter really needs his props at all, as so many of his sound effects seem to rise from within James himself, the controlled passage of air, placement of tongue, even vocalizations that vibrate against that column of steam rushing through the flute like a giant kazoo (“Dodo’s Bounce”) as if adding a reed where none belongs.

With such physical capacity, one can overlook the artistic integrity Carter brings to his own compositions and covers. Like pianist Ahmad Jamal, Carter is a master of sudden changes in direction, rhythm and dynamics—he can stop on a dime and then explode as if stepping on a musical landmine. His choices of quotations are both seasonal (December audiences treated to frequent licks from “Sleigh Ride” and “Jingle Bells”) and serious (including expanding his “Bro Dolphy” with sustained passages of tango and march from Carmen), yet never musically out of place.

No small part of Carter’s artistic success is his choice of bandmates, each an extension of his array of instruments, each a fellow innovator conducting sonic experiments in tandem with the leader. Not surprisingly, most hale from Detroit. Pianist Gerard Gibbs has been the core of Carter’s Organ Trio, but his higher calling appears to be acoustic piano. Throughout the two evenings, Gibbs unleashed his own menagerie of sounds, and like Carter, he doesn’t rely solely on convention—when fingertips were insufficient, he used his palms, his elbow, even his feet. But it wasn’t all fire and brimstone; lyricism and swing are fully embedded in his repertoire.

Ralphe Armstrong proved to be one of the most entertaining bassists to perform at the Dakota, one whose facial expressions were directly parallel to his wide assortment of pizzicato and arco tricks. His glissando magic often mirrored the whines, squeals and slides of the horns; with bow in hand (“Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure” and “Christmas Time Is Here”), he became another percussionist tossing snap/crackle/pops across the stage. Everyone pays attention to the bass solo when delivered by Ralphe Armstrong.

Leonard King is a long-time associate and mentor of James Carter, and the drummer recently relocated to the Twin Cities. Yet we rarely see him apart from his gigs with Carter, truly a crime as he is one of the most broadly talented and quick-thinking trapmasters around. His sustained solos were infrequent but his presence and energy never absent. On “Hymn of the Orient,” in particular, he stoked the furnace, keeping the heat on high, yet was constantly adjusting the thermostat with sudden shifts of rhythm. And no one had more fun than King.

The newest addition to James Carter’s ensemble is Chicago-based, AACM trumpeter Corey Wilkes. If Hargrove and Payton led the post-Wynton generation of trumpet kings, then Sean Jones, Christian Scott and now Corey Wilkes lead the post-Hargrove surge, and Wilkes might be the baddest lion of them all. His efforts on trumpet and flugelhorn here seemed to blend Dizzy Gillespie and Lester Bowie, matching Carter’s control and innovative spirit, physical power and artistic heart. And playfulness--at one point he managed both flugelhorn and trumpet simultaeously. His tone was angular and hollow, his lines chromatic braid. One of the joys of both evenings was the jousting conversations between Carter and Wilkes, often building to a cacophony of two birds debating politics (e.g., “Hymn of the Orient” and “Anchor Man”).

And no James Carter visit to the Twin Cities seems complete without a guest appearance from his “musical father,” Donald Washington, and his son Kevin. Wielding his baritone sax, the elder Washington proceeded to take apart every sound Carter could throw at him in a thirty-minute blowing session, punctuated right and left by Kevin’s fast and furious percussion. The lineage was very clear, from Donald to both James and Kevin.

Carter’s most recent CD, Present Tense, strong as it is, pales in comparison to his live performances. Like the Roy Hargrove Quintet at the Dakota a few months earlier, this ensemble holds back nothing and in the process incorporates everything, every sound of the galaxy in orbit around a supernova named James Carter.
Photos: (Top) James Carter; Ralphe Armstrong; Leonard King; Corey Wilkes. All from December 10, 2008 at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis by Andrea Canter.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ahmad Jamal: The Magic at Close Range

I’ve particularly enjoyed jazz piano as far back as I can remember recognizing jazz. The piano is a big orchestra in a big box that a single human can conduct with ten fingers. Everyone’s fingers, ears and brain differ, and no two pianists playing even the same tune on the same piano will sound exactly alike. And in jazz, even the same pianist playing the same tune on the same piano will produce something at least a little bit different from one gig to the next.

Unlike a symphony orchestra or a jazz big band, a piano is best enjoyed in much smaller spaces, in solo, duet, or small ensemble settings that most readily allow the pianist to lead, support, or interact. Small spaces allow the serious listener to become a silent witness to the creative process, and when one has the fortune to be seated within a few feet of the piano, when the pianist is Ahmad Jamal, the magic is as visual as it is aural.

Twice I have observed piano magic from a few feet. Two years ago I sat in the first row of the (old) Jazz Showcase in Chicago for a very sparsely attended Sunday matinee of the Kenny Barron Trio with Buster Williams and Ben Riley. I could almost reach the keyboard myself. It didn’t matter to Barron if there were a dozen or a hundred in the audience, he came to play. He played for me. From my perch I could focus on every movement, every touch, every lingering note.

Last night the Dakota Jazz Club was overflowing, the entire main floor and mezzanine filled for the opening set of Ahmad Jamal’s “new” quartet. (In addition to long-time bassist James Cammack, Jamal reunited with percussionist Manolo Badrena and had recently brought on James Johnson as his regular drummer.) Somehow I scored a table about six feet from the edge of the piano bench, the piano for this particular gig a Steinway in place of the club’s own Yamaha, placed in the center of the stage, the bench perfectly aligned with my table. While it lacked the house party privacy of that afternoon in Chicago, the situation nevertheless offered a rare intimacy, even for a jazz club.

I have seen Ahmad Jamal at the Dakota (in Minneapolis and in the old location in St. Paul) at least four times now, and each time he seems younger, more agile, more peaceful, more engaging. At 78 he is one of the last survivors of the swing to bop to post-bop generation, a bridge between the older Hank Jones, Dave Brubeck and Marian McPartland, and the younger brigade of McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. He inspired no less than Miles Davis as well as countless others who tried to follow. Tonight he inspired us all, musicians or not. Merely observing and hearing Jamal, especially from a few feet away, offers lessons in patience, efficiency, balance and collaboration.

The concept of “patience” is not often mentioned in discussions of music. But perhaps it should be, and an evening with Ahmad Jamal is proof. Regardless of the speed of his fingers—and at 78, his speed and dexterity remain phenomenal, one never feels he is rushing to judgment. Each idea, each note is given its due. Yet full development is never prolonged—the idea resolved, the master moves on. The motion of musical ideas is nearly constant yet never wasted—if his intent can be fulfilled with just the right hand, the left can rest. And vice versa. Space here is not a vacuum—a pause allows that magical sonic dust to settle a bit before another whirlwind stirs the cauldron of creation. A final note might slowly dissipate in a wispy cloud or explode like that last blast of 4th of July fireworks. The fingers might stop, Jamal might even rise up from the bench and turn his attention to Badrena’s menagerie of percussion gear, physically proscribing the breathing room he gives his partners.

The balance of space and dynamics has been a long-standing hallmark of Jamal’s compositions and improvisations. His notes seemingly tumble out of his fingertips, perfectly articulated, at gravity-defying speed only to suddenly halt, turn, and flutter into piles of sonic dust; percussive bursts and hand-over-hand arpeggios of densely voiced chords give way to delicate filigree phrases, all within a few bars. The loudest thunder might follow a barely audible breeze, yet the dynamic shifts never seem to disrupt the artistic flow. It is always surprising yet invariably coherent. I’m not aware of any other pianist who displays the ferocity of McCoy Tyner and the delicacy of Bill Evans in such tight juxtaposition.

Last night, Jamal announced some of the compositions, many from his latest, majestic recording, aptly titled It’s Magic. For the most part, the titles were superfluous as the pianist reinvents each piece as a superstar quarterback issues audibles at the line of scrimmage, designing and directing his team with a nod of his head, a wave of his hand, a turn of his phrasing. Practically sitting on that line of scrimmage, we visually witnessed some of that communication, yet clearly there’s a telepathic connection as well. Certainly the success of the evening was in part due to Ahmad Jamal’s stellar partners—drummer James Johnson who displayed a sense of space and time wholly compatible with Jamal’s, never overpowering yet offering a full range of supporting (seldom soloing) camaraderie; 26-year partner and sympathetic bassist James Cammack, whose position a bit behind the piano belies the magnitude of his contribution and the graceful dance of his hands; and percussion master Manolo Badrena, who largely evoked Latin rhythm through subtle shadings that hinted rather than thundered clave.

Jamal typically includes his reinterpretation of standards as well as original compositions in a given set, but at times the “standard” exists only in remnants of melody rewoven into new fabric, elaborated over an extended collaborative context like “The Way You Look Tonight” or in minimalist quilting like the closing one-minute rendering of “Like Someone In Love.” What the audience always anticipates is “Poinciana,” Jamal’s signature tune for the past 50 years. Ahmad didn’t write it, but he surely owns it. And as familiar as the underlying drum vamp has become, one never knows where Jamal will take the melody. Last night, the introduction with just left hand bass notes elongated to nearly three minutes before we all smiled in recognition.

For as close as we were sitting, the sound was cleanly balanced; we could feel the vibrations of each instrument, see the expression of each musician, and experience their interaction as a private encounter with the spontaneity of creative genius. Moments of joy, shared.

Ahmad Jamal and his quartet perform again tonight and tomorrow night, 7 and 9:30 pm at the Dakota. Photos taken during the opening set on November 24th by Andrea Canter... a few feet away.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Touch Tones (and Missing Rivets)

Observing a musician’s “master class” provides a different perspective than attending a concert or gig, taking a lesson, or watching Ken Burns. A master class is part demonstration, part performance, sometimes part direct instruction―it all depends on the musician and the nature of the audience.

As an observer, I’ve attended a few master classes at conferences such as the late IAJE convention. In 2007, drummer Matt Wilson used volunteers to try out some of his ideas for “getting to know your drums.” One exercise involved striking the cymbal with different objects at different points on the metal surface and listening to the way the sound dissipated. It’s difficult to be aware of such aural details in the midst of a quartet or big band gig.

I’ve now attended two master classes at MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis. Janice Borla presented a master class for voice students (and observers like me!) two years ago, using critiques of student performances as the centerpiece. And last Saturday afternoon, I attended what was surely the most entertaining master class of the season, a drum “clinic” presented by local legend Dave King, percussion master for the edgy bands The Bad Plus and Happy Apple. Dave is well known worldwide not only for his powerful and sleight-of-hand technique on the trapset but also for his arsenal of atypical percussion “instruments”—items never intended for musical purposes. Who else uses ET Walkie-Talkies, plastic megaphones, and other children’s toys to evoke a menagerie of sound from otherwise traditional drum heads and cymbals?

With deadpan delivery and a monologue that could serve as a Saturday Night Live script, Dave talked about a number of elements and strategies in jazz drumming and gamely took on questions from an audience filled with drummers, drum students, and drum fans, some as young as five years old. Throughout the two hours, a common thread in Dave’s commentary was the centrality of the relationship between musician and instrument, and particularly the interactive quality of touch for a percussionist.

Just as Matt Wilson had emphasized the nuances in contact between stick and metal, Dave talked about “bringing the cymbals to life yourself rather than relying on technology” and thinking about the gear as a “blank canvass” from which to create. The drummer’s touch—not the sticks, the drumheads, even the ET Walkie Talkies—is what makes each musician unique. “There’s an infinite variety of touching,” notes Dave, and each touch alters the time, the tone, the color of the sound.

King demonstrated his tactile kinship with his kit through several prolonged solos that yielded a cornucopia of sounds, some very musical, some simply odd, even whimsical. If there are infinite ways to execute a percussive act, there are infinite resulting patterns of sound, some tonal, many atonal. In the absence of other instruments, percussion must feed its own fire. Dave King builds that fire from a few logs that ultimately burst into flame as a roaring inferno or smoldering campfire or mere flicker. All this through his ability to alter sound through touch as much as through his choices of props. A creaking hinge is suggested by a drumstick scraping along the skin of the drumhead. A fierce explosion is created by a stick crashing down on the edge of a ride cymbal (Dave says he never uses “crash” cymbals, but he crashes nevertheless). A low whine rises from a tom-tom when a plastic megaphone serves as both a percussive agent and sound amplifier. And Dave uses direct touch often, striking the snare with one hand while the other attacks cymbal with stick or muting the drumhead with an elbow. (I’ve seen local drum counterpart J.T. Bates as well as Matt Wilson generate a similar effect with the heel of his foot.)

Sounds from a master percussionist can be soothing or scathing, energizing or relaxing, violent or conciliatory, smooth or jagged, abrupt or flowing. Dave King describes the “iconoclastic thinking musician” as one who is constantly seeking an individual sound, one who is guided by his vulnerability, the “human intent”—one who is “in touch” with his (or her) relationship to the instrument. Or perhaps one who would remove the rivets of his ride cymbal “to change its potential.”

It’s not a bad approach to life, even for us nonmusicians.
Photos: Dave King demonstrates and philosophizes about touch, time and sound. (Photos by Andrea Canter at the MacPhail Center for Music on November 22, 2008)

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Master's Voice

Once in a while an artist gives a performance that not only surpasses expectation but seems to transcend the art itself. Barely into his 30s, trumpeter Sean Jones has won over many fans in the past year in the Twin Cities, performing with his quintet at the Dakota in September 2007 and leading the Downbeat Rising Stars ensemble at Orchestra Hall this past spring. Without a doubt, his chops were consistent with his rep as one of the top rising trumpeters on the scene, and with his appointment as lead trumpeter for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

We were therefore pleased when it was announced that Jones would be the special guest artist for the annual “A-Train” Party tonight at the Dakota. The “A-Train” is a unique program that provides several levels of club membership, including tickets to national shows and other perks. We get advanced notice, priority seating, unlimited local shows and more depending on the dues level we select. In return, the Dakota has a guaranteed fund base and can count on filling a lot more seats for lesser known artists. It’s a win-win deal. Tonight it was far more—it was a private coronation. Tonight Sean Jones soared beyond his already-stellar reputation and exploded as a post bop supernova spewing showers of sixteenth notes and pepper sprays of trills, sliding and whining, shouting and whispering, and most of all, singing like a choir of Gabriels. He was devilishly fast and angelically sweet.

Without a doubt, Jones was backed by a rhythm section that would have well served Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie—Phil Hey on drums, Gordy Johnson on bass, and young Tanner Taylor (whom Jones nicknamed “T ‘n T”) on piano. But the show belonged to Sean Jones, whether he was burning through a long fuse on “Cherokee” or weaving an elegant tapestry on “In a Sentimental Mood.” Arguably the latter was the capstone of the evening, as Jones followed his exquisite opening solo with seductive juxtapositions of “Pure Imagination” and “If I Only Had a Brain.”

In praising a great singer we often describe his or her tone and phrasing in comparison to a horn. In Sean Jones, we have a horn player whose tone and phrasing we can describe in comparison to the human voice. And there are few voices, or horns, that warrant the comparison.

Photo: Sean Jones defined music at the Dakota A-Train Party, November 16th. (Photo by Andrea Canter.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Three Gifts of Piano Jazz

There were three generations of keyboard giants in town this past week, although only one has really stirred much press. And at 21, he is the youngest.

When Eldar Djangirov was born in Kyrgyzstan (in the former Soviet Union) in 1987, Rick Germanson was a teen piano whiz in Milwaukee; Eddie Higgins had been playing piano for over 50 years (he started at age 4). Eldar took over the Dakota for one night on October 29th; Rick Germanson returned to favorite haunt, the Artist Quarter, for the weekend, while Eddie Higgins capped the week with one night at the Dakota on Saturday. If you worked out your schedule carefully and drove with a bit of gusto, it was possible to catch all three, even making multiple sets for Eldar and Rick. And among this threesome, you would have heard nearly all that one can imagine in modern jazz piano.

From the late 50s through the 60s, Eddie Higgins was a mainstay at Chicago’s famed London House and later Mr. Kelly’s. Although his name was never as well known, his sideman credits covered modern legends, from Coleman Hawkins and Jack Teagarden to Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter. In recent years, Eddie has visited the Twin Cities a few times and made two live recordings at the Dakota—in 2000 at the old club in St. Paul with bassist Brian Torff and local swing guitar man Reuben Ristrom; and in the new club in 2005, again with Ristrom and Tom Lewis on bass. For this return—nonrecording session—gig, Eddie once again called on Ristrom, adding young bass standout Graydon Peterson. The cross-generational interaction gave the evening a special warmth.

In addition to some of the most graceful piano chops to ever channel the standard repertoire, Eddie Higgins, now 76, is a born storyteller and not shy about sharing this talent. He not only introduces every tune (an increasingly rare accompaniment to modern gigs), he has a story about many of them—when he first heard it, when he first played it, and perhaps a few tidbits about the composer. He recalled his first time playing “Prelude to a Kiss” (“when I sat in with Johnny Frigo”), the time he learned Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” ("while playing on a cruise ship in the Caribbean"), and his anticipation in presenting Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” at the London House with Hoagy himself in the audience. (Hoagy and his wife, it seems, came into the club already a few drinks beyond the minimum, and left before Eddie played a note of Hoagy’s famous song.)

But it was the opening “mystery tune” on Saturday night that immediately announced Eddie Higgins as a lot more than an accomplished swinger. A long introduction that recalled (or really was) a Bach toccata swirled into “Autumn Leaves,” and even the usually rambunctious Dakota weekend crowd paused to listen—a state that ended all too soon. By the time the trio launched into “The Peacocks,” the din overshadowed the complexities and softly executed elegance of the composition. Still, any night with Eddie Higgins is a pleasure. The breadth of his music knowledge is as vast as the depth of his passion for expressing it.

Rick Germanson studied and gigged around Milwaukee, toured with the late Frank Morgan, and took top honors in the American Pianists Association Competition in 1996. He’s “house pianist” for the Ruth's Chriss Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, an odd but steady gig that makes the restaurant one of the best spots for intimate jazz in the Big Apple. His other steady jobs of late are perhaps more telling, holding the piano chair for Louis Hayes’ Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band and for the Pat Martino Quartet. Rick has been coming to the Artists Quarter for much of the decade, even supporting vocalist Carole Martin on her most recent CD. He’s in the midst of planning his next recording, and personally I can’t wait. Rick is a creative improviser who seems equally comfortable playing the blues, ballads or hard bop barnburners; his voicings are rich, his quotes spontenous. And he always seems to have a good time interacting with his partners, this weekend Jay Young on bass and Kenny Horst on drums. Hearing Young on acoustic upright is always a too-rare treat.

Rick puts a light touch on his melody lines, surrounding them with dancing cascades of chords, throwing in licks of familiar fare in seamless junctures. Most appreciated this weekend were two solo versions of a Strayhorn/Ellington medley. The first night, the rarely played (and most elegant) “Single Petal of a Rose” gave way to a “Prelude to a Kiss” that soared as a prayer-like call and response among left and right hands; “Lush Life” closed the exquisite sequence. The next night, again solo, Rick reversed the order, “Prelude” again separating the more narrative “Lush Life” from the melodic “Rose.” Ben Webster recorded an outstanding “Rose” (on See You at the Fair) and we can only imagine a pairing of Germanson and Webster. The second night brought another medley with the full trio, this time a lively set of Monk (“Ruby My Dear,” “Pannonica” and “Blue Monk”). Maybe the hit of the second night was Rick’s own “Daytona,” a catchy, upbeat melody kissed by Latin rhythms, and the kiss became a bearhug once Kenny Horst turned rimshots to clave. Germanson is a pianist who reveres tradition while turning the past inside out with an ear tuned in global directions.

Which brings me back to Eldar, himself a product of global directions. Clearly a prodigy in his homeland, Eldar and family emigrated to Kansas City when he was in his early teens, and from that point on, he was on everyone's radar screen. After winning several awards, he became the youngest guest to appear on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. At about 18, he made his debut at the Dakota with a rhythm section of veteran players, bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Todd Strait. Even at 18, Eldar seemed to channel the mature chops of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson with the youthful exuberance of a young Benny Green. His hands moved faster than the ear or eye could really appreciate and he was utterly fearless in his attack. All this remains three years later but add to his earlier prodigious approach a more direct integration of his own generation’s love of electronics, hip-hop and beyond. Add also a much younger pair of cohorts, his now regular bassist Armando Gola and drummer Ludwig Alfonso, appearing with him for the first time and hopefully not the last.

Eldar’s speed on uptempo tunes borders on the ridiculous but his articulation never suffers. And like Rick Germanson, one fleeting idea can touch off a string of new voices and/or trace memories from standard playbooks. His own compositions are interesting but the high point of his late set was a delightfully convoluted presentation of Miles Davis’ “Donna Lee.” The basic melody spun out of orbit early on, phalanges of notes and chords spewing out from the molten core to form their own little galaxies. Like his older counterparts in jazz piano, Eldar’s frequent grin confirms the joy that comes with the gift, and it is a joy of giving as much as receiving.

Thankfully, these gifts are shared.

Photos: (Top to bottom) Eldar at the Dakota (October 29th); Rick Germanson at the Artists Quarter (October 31st); Eddie Higgins (at his 2005 live recording date at the Dakota). All photos by Andrea Canter.

Monday, October 27, 2008


We often hear that the human brain has far greater capacity than we use. Part of that capacity is to coordinate movements that most of us can’t even imagine, let alone execute. Among musicians, that coordination of movements combines with artistic imagination, often leading to visually or aurally pleasing results. But now and then we meet an artist whose vision is so in sync with his or her coordination that we respond with a sense of discovery—Hey, I didn’t know humans could do that! And who would have even thought to try it?

Stanley Jordan has created a unique way of expressing himself in music by reinventing guitar and piano technique. It’s his “finger-tapping” guitar that has fueled his reputation as an innovator for the past 30 years, but as he demonstrated tonight, he has an equally idiosyncratic approach to the piano as well as the skill to play both instruments simultaneously. In fact Jordan plays a guitar more like a piano, and a piano more like a guitar. He primarily uses the fretboard with both hands, the fingers that normally pluck and strum pressing the strings with a sometimes legato, sometimes staccato touch. And with the strings tuned to an alternative “fourths” progression, the sound Jordan coaxes from his electric guitar comes at you in multi-part harmony, in cascades of zen, like desert winds sweeping across lunar landscapes, sometimes howling, sometimes whispering. Brazilian standards, John Lennon hits, and Mozart concerti are all equally open to Jordan’s interpretations.

If Jordan's guitar is piantistic, his piano is most overtly a string instrument as he lightly tap dances across the keyboard, weaving intricate phrases with his right hand while the left hand works a complementary pattern on the guitar, the alternate tuning allowing melodies to unfold seamlessly. On one composition he brushed his hand across the full length of the keyboard as if strumming an 88-stringed guitar. It no longer sounds like a piano, but like a small string orchestra.

Is it jazz? It is most decidedly improvisation. Be it “Eleanor Rigby” or “Piano Concerto Number 21,” there’s a shade of blues. It does not particularly swing, but it zings and sings. It’s a fusion of disparate elements and roots.

It’s Stanley Jordan.
Photos: Stanley Jordan at the Dakota, October 27, 2008. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bettye LaVette: Raising Hell at the Scene of the Crime

Since 2004, the “Great Lady of Soul,” aka Bettye LaVette, makes an annual pilgrimage to the Dakota Jazz Club, in part to remind us that our hearts are never buried that deep, and in part to acknowledge her self-described debt to owner Lowell Pickett for “taking a chance on an old broad” -- he booked her into the newly relocated club based pretty much on hearing one track ("Forecast") from her then-new release, A Woman Like Me. Every year, I go to two sets. Unlike many vocalists, Bettye never sings the same set back to back. Her repertoire covers more than enough territory for a full night of song, and she wants to share it.

Bettye’s story of her 46-year career reflects the worst of the recording industry—discovered as a teen, releasing a series of hit singles, she was brought into the studio by Atlantic for her debut LP recording which was mysteriously shelved for nearly thirty years while her career flagged. But she rose from the ashes in her 50s, saw the long-delayed release of her 1972 album (“that’s what we used to call them!” she reminded the younger members of the audience), now titled Souvenirs, in 2000, and has since issue two more acclaimed CDs and garnered Grammy nominations and blues awards. Some of her songs address the traumas and triumphs of her career, others just address the traumas and triumphs of life itself. Whatever she’s singing, she bares her soul, and in the process, she takes over a part of mine.

Bettye is one of my favorite photo subjects, although she is also one of the most challenging in the dim light of the Dakota—she never stops moving. Even if her limbs are at rest (which is seldom), her face continuously relays signals from heart and mind. I’ve never even been a real fan of soul and R&B, but turn Bettye loose on “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got,” simply a capella (and the only tune repeated over two sets), and I’m a convert. And with her high-energy band, Bettye swings and sways and engages every ear with sets covering many tunes from her most recent recordings, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (celebrating women songwriters) and Scene of the Crime, the "crime" being the delayed release of Souvenirs, the “scene” the same recording studio in Muscle Shoals.

Sometimes the vibe is distinctly swampy, as on “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” courtesy of some guitar skronk from Brent Lucas and a sultry delivery that openly defies Bettye’s 62 years. Well, everything about Bettye defies those 62 years. On stage she is as much a dancer as a singer, her body’s motion mirroring the beat—pulsation from the trapset, gyration from Bettye, percussive accents in sync with body language. And on a wrenching tune like “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” Bettye’s masterful phrasing and dynamic control work in tandem with the lyrics to “tear you apart.”

The Great Lady of Soul can raise her hell here anytime. Heaven can wait.

Photos: Bettye LaVette at the Dakota, October 20, 2008. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

AQ Lucky Thirteen: Lucky Us

Every jazz city needs its “Cheers.” As the refrain goes, it’s “where everybody knows your name.... and they’re always glad you came.” In the Twin Cities, the Artists Quarter in downtown St. Paul is our “Cheers” equivalent among jazz venues. Maybe just among venues, period. This weekend, the AQ celebrated its “Lucky Thirteen” years in downtown St. Paul, split nearly equally among its first Jackson Street location in Lowertown and the new millennial years in the lower level of the Hamm Building across from Landmark Center.

I’ve at times likened the AQ to the Village Vanguard in Manhattan—it’s a no frills, basement-level venue with furnishings that have seen better days, a basic bar with no peanuts or pretzels, and home to a stellar sound system and nearly daily line-up of largely instrumental, bop and cutting-edge jazz. But at the AQ, you also get Midwest casual, a warm welcome from Davis Wilson at the door and owner Kenny Horst nearby, drinks with a smile from Dan or David behind the bar or delivered on busy nights by Sheila or Jane. And they do know our names, and they are sincerely glad we came.

And we come often. Not to chat with our regular cohorts of jazz fanatics although before the music, between sets, after the show, the AQ is a relaxing room to just hang out with friends. But if you want to see and be seen, order a designer martini, treat the music as wallpaper, or order something from a bar menu, you need to head down the street or across the river. The AQ is a club for musicians and those who want to hear the music, and the music is jazz, never R&B, pop or whatever else so many jazz clubs have been booking lately to expand their patronage and their bottom line. It’s always a struggle but Kenny has maintained the AQ as a jazz club, prompting some to declare that the AQ is the “only” jazz club in the Twin Cities. An exaggeration perhaps, but the point is well taken.

You can have your jazz over easy, with the bebop delights of Dave Karr or the smoky vocals of Carole Martin. Or you can take your jazz shirred and poached, with the innovative twists and turns of the Phil Hey Quartet or Pete Whitman X-Tet. And you can take your jazz thoroughly scrambled by the surprising explorations of How Birds Work or the highly combustible Happy Apple. Best of all, you can take it nearly every night (Sundays often are open for private events) and the covers won’t give you sticker shock—weeknights are usually $5, weekends generally $10-$12. Even a legendary touring artist like Roy Haynes or Mose Allison won’t run more than $20-$25. Try that in Manhattan. Or even Minneapolis.

Surely one of the factors in the AQ’s longevity, and certainly a significant part of its down-home, family atmosphere, is the partnership within Family Horst. Kenny runs the club—his “staff” consists of doorman, announcer and AQ poet laureate Davis Wilson plus the small bar crew. Wife Dawn is usually there on weekends, or more often, checking to be sure you are having a good time, clearing tables or delivering drinks when things get busy. Or singing the blues on stage if it is New Year’s Eve or another very special occasion. Son David is often behind the bar. Dawn’s mom Carole Martin is one of few singers on the schedule, and not often enough, we tell her.

The anniversary party was everything AQ, from the seemingly endless line-up of some of the club’s most popular musicians to the free CD offered to patrons (“buy a ticket, pick a CD from our box of live recordings”) to the balloons and cake. In true AQ fashion, music started late and ran late; the Tuesday Night Band must have forgotten the Sunday night gig and an ailing Pete Whitman had to bow out of the Pete Whitman Quartet. No matter, the house was full of AQ fans from aspiring high schoolers to retired bandleaders; the Whitman Minus Whitman Trio was arguably the hit of the evening, and super bass star Anthony Cox introduced a new band (“Shovel”) that was still raising the roof when I reluctantly climbed the stairs at midnight.

Veteran drummer George Avaloz started off the evening with a bang, literally, as he is one of the more heavy-handed of area percussionists. But he also brings to the stage one of the most versatile saxophonists around, Jim Marentic, whose Coltrane interpretations were incendiary one minute (“Cousin Mary”) and stunningly lyrical the next (“Naima”). Peter Schimke, Gordy Johnson and Phil Hey came together for their first-ever trio performance, and even without Pete Whitman’s horn, they soared, gently dismantling “Round Midnight,” swinging abstractly through “All The Things You Are.” Surely this has to be the start of something good!

I am a long-time fan of the Phil Hey Quartet, to me a 21st century edition of the famed Modern Jazz Quartet. And I will put Dave Hagedorn up against any Milt Jackson legacy, any night. Was it worth it to drag out the vibraphone, wheel it through the crowd and onto the stage, for a thirty-minute set? You betcha. And what fun to hear pianist Phil Aaron take off as he never can when comping for even the most daring vocalist. No standard fare either, with Mark Copeland’s “Darius’ Dance,” Monk’s “Shuffle Boil,” Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation.”

Carole Martin and Debbie Duncan separately are outstanding as vocalists and as entertainers--together they are magic. They started and ended the set with duets (“But Not For Me,” “Beautiful Friendship”) and banter, each taking her own jaunt in-between, Debbie slaying us with “But Beautiful,” Carole torching “Small Day Tomorrow.”

The last two sets were the most adventurous in sound and concept. How Birds Work is a great opportunity to hear guitarist Dean Granros, another virtuoso musician who plays clubs too infrequently. It’s also a showcase opportunity for Kenny Horst. This is not a matter of a club owner using his venue to further his performance ops—Kenny delivers with the best in town. No wonder touring musicians are willing to stop by the little AQ in St. Paul—they know they will find great rhythm sections, and Kenny is a large part of it. Another of our great improvising guitarists, Dean Magraw, was on the stand for the last set with Shovel, led by veteran sensation Anthony Cox on bass with Chris Thomson on saxes and JT Bates on the drums. The music was odd and beautiful, ranging from high octane to sweet contemplation.

Maybe there was more, I was fading but the music was still burning. And long may that little light of jazz, the AQ, shine on. Lucky thirteen... lucky us.

Photos: (top to bottom) Host Kenny Horst; Dave Hagedorn with the Phil Hey Quartet; Debbie Duncan and Carole Martin; Dean Granros with How Birds Work. All photos from the AQ's Lucky Thirteen party on October 19th by Andrea Canter.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bruce Henry: Summoning the High Spirit

I wonder if Bruce Henry was a Cantor in another life. A real one, not like me. Maybe someone in my distant ancestry could really sing. After all, the original spelling of my family name was Cantor, not Canter. (It’s a long story...but maybe somewhere along it was determined that we did not possess sufficient vocal skills to deserve to be Cantors?)

But Bruce Henry would have made a terrific Cantor. Not just because his pitch is true and his multi-octave range can cover the demands of any prayer. Like the best Cantors, Bruce can summon the highest spirit with a simple incantation. And it matters little if that spirit is Judaic, African, or Bulgarian or if the origin of the call is Gershwin or Parker or folk tradition. No spirit would turn away from the unwavering sound, the pure tone, the thunder from the heart.

We can’t turn away when Bruce is on stage. His presence is simultaneously commanding and approachable. His joy is contagious. He nearly overpowers with emotion, leaving one breathless but still standing. When he improvises it’s as if creating a ceremonial chant from ancient fragments. His voice is his horn, and he can swing like Goodman, spin and spiral like Parker, or levitate like Coltrane.

And his home is now in Chicago, as it was throughout his childhood and coming of age. He’s returned to the Twin Cities often in the past few months for a variety of public and private gigs, but we’ll see less and less of him now as he builds connections on the Chicago jazz scene and tours in Florida with Joe Vass’s “The Soul of Gershwin,” a klezmer project. A klezmer project? Maybe he really is a Cantor.

Bruce Henry can’t stay away for long. He’ll perform at the Hopkins Center for the Arts in February and will open for Ramsey Lewis at Orchestra Hall in August.

Photo: Bruce Henry sent a call across the universe at his October 16th gig at the Dakota. (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

On the Vitality of Jazz, 2008

One of the questions we are debating in Kelly Rossum’s Jazz 201 class at MacPhail is the definition of jazz in a 21st century context. British writer Stuart Nicholson poses the more pithy question in the title of his book, Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved to a New Address)? The controversy—the growth or demise of jazz, depending on your point of view—has been around since at least the bebop era, when dance bands and swing music fell on hard times post World War II, when rock ‘n roll replaced swing as America’s popular music, when bop erupted as a true art form in search of an audience that would perceive it as a cultural phenomenon and social commentary rather than mere entertainment. If you were young and hip and seeking “cool,” then the odd rhythms, dissonant harmonies and ridiculously fast tempos of bop opened the door to the future of jazz. For others, bop was the death knell of the genre. Fifty years later, we are still debating the vitality, even the definition, of jazz.

Some historians and critics feel that bop was the last “new thing” in jazz. Pointing to the Wynton Marsalis phenomenon, Nicholson and others voice concern that jazz has become a retro art, its contemporary practitioners focused on virtuosic preservation rather than passionate innovation. But consider the jazz presented at just the major venues in the Twin Cities last weekend:

Tribute to Leigh Kamman at the Artists Quarter. Celebrating the career of retired broadcaster Leigh Kamman, the Artist Quarter welcomed crooner and Bing Crosby expert Arne Fogel, balladeer/torch singer Carole Martin, vocal innovator Bruce Henry, and bop masters Dave Karr, Dave Graf and Brad Bellows. Martin, whose public gigs are too few and far between, sang one of her signature songs, “Blame It On My Youth,” with timeless emotion. It’s not a new tune. It’s not a new style. But can music that grabs your 21st century heart be dead? Or even retro? What about Bruce Henry’s shattering interpretation of “Afro Blue?” Using the human voice as a horn is no longer innovative, yet Henry finds new sounds, new phrases, his incantation taking a yodeling quality like no singer I’ve heard, at once rooted in an ancient land and seeking a new world.

Benny Green and Bucky Pizzarelli, live recording at the Dakota. Revealing swing at its most lyrical and dynamic, pianist Benny Green and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, two generations apart, united at the Dakota as the most sublime and sympathetic pairing in years. No argument here that the music is drawn from a past era of Gershwin, Basie and Ellington. So why does it matter so much in 2008 that music of the 30s still shines? Are we only admiring a past glory or are we captivated by the spontaneous joy that even “old” music can inspire? It is said that jazz is never played the same way once. The same notes can have new feeling; the same tune can be given new notes, new harmonies, new rhythms. Jazz is only dead if it is repeated.

Charlie Haden/Carla Bley, Liberation Music Orchestra at Ted Mann. Taking the form of the 30s regional big band infused with social justice messages and modern harmonies, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley and a masterful cast brought a mid-century format to the new millenium’s political quagmire, and the result transcended both. “Old music” from Dvorak to Metheny to “Amazing Grace” and “American the Beautiful,” when arranged by Bley in the context of one of the most critical elections of our time, stirs new fears, new resolve. Art remains viable if it continually elicits emotional response.

Kelly Rossum Quartet, CD release at the Artists Quarter. One moment playing out, the next moment paying homage to Miles, the next moment giving elegant lyricism a 21st century glow, Kelly Rossum and his quartet celebrated the release of Family. Some consider this a more conservative recording than Rossum’s earlier Renovation and Line. Some consider it his most adventurous yet. The music is deceptively accessible, often melodic, typically transparently rooted in the history of the music much as our lives are rooted in the histories of our family, our culture. New compositions from Rossum, Bryan Nichols and Chris Bates aren’t so “out” to leave the listener in startle mode, but well tethered on earth where one might more readily interpret the feelings evoked. Yet interpretation of the most standard composition, “If I Were A Bell,” rearranges, reconsiders, restructures those “old notes” with new messages. Jazz has always been about bringing different, even ancient, threads together to weave new fabric.

While the preservationists (aka “neoclassicists”) fear jazz has moved too far from its roots in blues and swing rhythm, others fear there is too little spontaneity and innovation among today’s practitioners. Some critics listening to the above performances would declare that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” a symptom of the pending demise of jazz. Yet, using only one weekend in the Twin Cities as the point of reference, if the individual sounds were anchored in the works of earlier masters, the existence of so many directions for those sounds, under the umbrella of one genre, seems itself an innovation and fundamental to the definition of jazz. And is the transparency of heritage a negation of creativity? Surely Stravinsky was swayed by Bach, even if Johann himself would have difficulty finding his footprint in Igor’s sandbox.

Photos: (top) Carole Martin "blamed it on her youth" at the Artists Quarter. (Middle) Benny Green and Bucky Pizzarelli enjoyed one of many joyful moments at the Dakota. (Bottom) Kelly Rossum and Chris Bates celebrated a new CD and beyond. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Another New York Weekend at Home

Everyone seems to have their “picks of the weekend” so why not me? This weekend the recommendations are pretty much unanimous across my usual sources (The Star Tribune, Minn Post, Jazz Connections). It’s one of those weekends when I am not jealous of the Manhattan line up. If I was at Birdland or Blue Note this weekend, look what I would miss:

Kelly Rossum’s CD release party at the Artists Quarter (Friday and Saturday nights at 9 pm). I reviewed Kelly’s new “Family” (see, CD of the Month) and find new joys with each listening. Some have dubbed this as his most “straight ahead” recording yet, but don’t expect typical swing or bop because there is a lot more going on here. And this quartet is hardly an ensemble dedicated to sitting back and honoring its legacy, even if that legacy includes the likes of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman or new millennial experimenters. With Bryan Nichols on piano, Chris Bates on bass and JT Bates on drums, the Kelly Rossum Quartet might start here, but they always go somewhere else. How many musicians have covered “If I Were a Bell?” On Family, even the familiar benefit from creative redesign.

Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra with Carla Bley (Saturday at Ted Mann, 8 pm). It took an election year for Charlie Haden to reassemble his 70s band of protest with original collaborator and arranger Carla Bley. But the leftist bassist had already written his definitive musical denouncement of the Bush administration, Not in Our Name, a few years earlier. Maybe a retrospective of three decades of musical commentary will have more impact than trying to single out any one platform or misstep. And it’s a great excuse to hear an assemblage of some of the finest musicians working today, including not only the distinguished Haden but drummer Matt Wilson, himself not immune to the musical language of protest and arguably the most divergent thinker in modern percussion. (And hey, if this ends by 10:30, there’s still a late set to catch at the Artists Quarter!) Pamela has posted an interesting interview with Haden on this week’s MinnPost (

The Artists Quarter Tribute to Leigh Kamman (Sunday at 7 pm at the Artists Quarter). Not only an opportunity to hear some of the Twin Cities’ best jazzers in one evening in varying combinations, this Sunday night party also provides us with one more chance to thank Leigh Kamman for brining jazz into our lives and homes for 65 years as one of the nation’s leading jazz broadcasters. The Jazz Image on national public radio has been silent for about a year since Leigh’s retirement, but his pithy interviews and observations continue to inform our interpretations and appreciation of jazz every day and night. The salute includes the inimitable rhythm section of Laura Caviani, Gordy Johnson and Phil Hey; the vocal chops of Carole Martin, Arne Fogel and Bruce Henry (back from Chicago for the weekend), the hornlines of Pete Whitman, Dave Graf, Brad Bellows and Dave Karr..... and more. And I think we can count on a few spontaneous interviews with Leigh Kamman.

Benny Green and Bucky Pizzarelli, Live Recording Session (Sunday/Monday, 7 and 9:30 pm at the Dakota). I blogged last month about the first encounter of 45-year-old pianist Benny Green and 82-year-old swing guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. This was a musical blind date arranged by Dakota owner Lowell Pickett, and it was loving swing at the first note. The music was intimate, the communication telepathic, the rapport reverant. The tapes should have been rolling. Moments can not be recaptured but can be given new birth, and that is the plan as Benny and Bucky return to make a live recording at the Dakota, inventing new magic. Maybe there will be room at the late set after we shut down the Artists Quarter Sunday night. If not, I have my seats for both sets on Monday.
More coming.... Not sure there is much time to rest up from this whirlwind. Among the happenings of the new week, there's the monthly REEL Jazz film series at Bryant Lake Bowl. The October 2nd offering includes documentary films about Milt Hinton and Freddy Cole. The weekend finds the eternal bluesman Mose Allison back at the Artists Quarter for three nights. And if you can stay up late like they do in New York, there's the masters of innovation, the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet at the Dakota on Friday for Late Night, starting at 11:30 pm. And I am sure there's more.

If you call and just get my voice mail, I am not out of town. I’m reveling in mine. The other Apple.

Photos: (top) Kelly Rossum in a pensive mood; Benny Green and Bucky Pizzarelli at their Dakota debut in August. Photos by Andrea Canter

Friday, September 19, 2008

Senior Moments of Jazz and Lifelong Learning

My friend Pamela resents the label “Senior Citizen Education” as used by St. Thomas University for their innovative outreach program. And I agree, I much prefer the “lifelong learning” designation used by the University of Minnesota for its equally innovative Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. One implies a certain age, while one implies a certain perspective. But in the end, I don’t mind being classified as a “senior” if it opens the door to the jazz education opportunities that I have experienced over the past few years. Besides, I carry my AARP card and collect a school district pension, so who’s fooling who?

I admit, however, that I was a few months shy of the requisite 55 when I registered for my first St. Thomas senior class with Joan Griffith. Don’t tell Sister Marie Herbert. That first class was an overview of Latin music—bossa nova, samba, rhumba, tango, mambo, danson. Joan made it an adventure, and often a hilarious one at that. But always she brought the music to life, through recordings, film clips, her own guitar and mandolin, her special guests like Nachito Herrera and Lucia Newell. I told a friend later that if Joan taught a course in plumbing I would probably find it worthwhile. Fortunately the next opportunity was an overview of jazz history from the perspective of specific instruments—piano, sax, guitar, etc. Although I had read a great deal of jazz history and attended some community programs on the topic, again, the infusion of recordings, demonstrations, and Joan’s own storytelling made it more real. Forget Ken Burns. Check out a Joan Griffith class. (No, they will not ask to see your birth certificate, but try to look 55, 65 would be better.)

Now I’m back at St. Thomas for fall semester and what seems to be the most interesting class yet. Using Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz (the long-running National Public Radio program) as a model, Joan brings in a guest musician each week and we’re treated as participant-observers as Joan interacts with her guest through words and music. Her first guest happened to be one of my local favorites, pianist Laura Caviani. Joan and Laura recently completed a recording project of Brazilian music (Sambanova) but have played together off and on for years. Predictably, Laura started off with a Monk tune—I don’t think I have ever heard Laura perform without slipping in a bit of Monk, or sometimes a lot of Monk. But this was the first time I heard Monk played as a piano/bass duet—Joan brought along her electric bass because “I didn’t’ want to drag the upright from Minneapolis.” Without drums, we’re able to focus more clearly on the climbing intervals of “Misterioso” and enjoy how one blues oriented pianist interprets another. They finish the tune and the conversation begins, Laura describing the 12-bar blues form, the foundation of intervals of 6ths, the use of the whole tone scale, Monk’s atypical chords that make his compositions so readily identifiable, even to novice ears. Somehow they turn to a jazz history lesson, how Laura’s introduction was stride-based, how the role of the bass in bop freed up the pianist’s left hand.

We get snippets of Laura’s background, the daughter of a classical cellist (mom) and avid jazz fan (dad), how despite her classical training she often found herself composing jazz compositions even before she really played jazz, how she transcribed a McCoy Tyner recording before learning that jazz musicians don’t play the exact same music twice. Questions flew from my fellow students—the difference between composing and improvising; how Laura developed her “blues” sensibility (largely inspired while living in Kansas City), whether she first composes a melody or the chords? They talk about the importance of the audience to performers—“The audience is central,” says Joan, “we feel your energy up here.” We get a quick lesson in jazz forms, the use of chords to create tension and release. Laura demonstrates how one goes from the straight melody to embellishments to new melodies by changing chords.

We hear Laura’s beautiful composition, “Paper Cranes,” inspired by a World War II memorial sculpture when studying in Japan; Joan and Laura perform one of the pieces from Sambanova.
With their instruments or dialogue, Joan and Laura converse like old friends, which they are, and we’re drawn into the conversation. Something even Marian McPartland can’t do on Piano Jazz—the audience is invisible, passive listeners. We “seniors” on Wednesday mornings at St. Thomas are not only part of the audience, we become part of the music.
An evening of beautiful music awaits on Sunday, September 21st at 7 pm at the Artists Quarter when Joan and Laura officially launch Sambanova.
Photos: (top) Joan plays mandolin at the Artists Quarter, as she will on September 21st. (Bottom) Laura Caviani. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Expert Testimony: The Roy Hargrove Quintet at the Dakota

Local print coverage of jazz is often limited to a few lines from Tom Surowicz or Britt Robson under the “Jazz” listing of “The Big Gigs” in Friday’s Variety section of the Star Tribune. Sometimes it would seem that there are no “big gigs” on the jazz scene. Occasionally the Strib runs an in-depth preview when one of the giants of jazz comes to town, like Return to Forever or Christian McBride. More rare would be a review of a jazz club gig. So count it as a) unusual and b) highly appropriate that the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a review of the first set of the Roy Hargrove Quintet’s recent visit to the Dakota. Dan Emerson’s description of one tune easily described the full two-night run as a “tour de force display of instrumental firepower.” I was there for three of the four sets, and after each one, heard many comments to the effect that this was one of the most exciting Dakota shows in recent memory.

My memory was not all that challenged as I had heard this ensemble only a week earlier at the Detroit Jazz Festival, as well as Hargrove’s previous Dakota gigs, most recently in November 2007 with the same quintet. Hargrove is one of the all-too-rare jazz artists of his generation who never, I mean never, fail to deliver the goods at full throttle, regardless of the audience or venue. They embody all of the elements that make live jazz live and irreplaceable regardless of technology—they play in the moment, and each moment as if it was the only moment in time. The first set on Sunday night came off as if the band had been warming up for hours, yet each successive set proved just a bit more spontaneous, more passionate than the last. By the final set Monday night, we were beyond the sound barrier—not in volume, but in raw emotion and technical brilliance. I can’t say it was the best show ever at the Dakota as different configurations and styles defy comparison. I can say it was one of the most inspired horn ensemble I’ve heard in the Twin Cities, and perhaps the finest straight-ahead horn gig I’ve heard live, period. And I wonder what we would have heard had the band stayed on for one more night?

What makes the Hargrove ensemble stand out in an era of fine mainstream trumpet bandleaders (Nicholas Payton, Sean Jones, Christian Scott, Irvin Mayfield) is a confluence of elements: There’s Hargrove himself, of course, often dubbed the greatest trumpeter of his generation or even the greatest trumpeter working today of any generation. In a sea of talented bandmates and volcanic eruptions, Roy manages to command center stage...except when he leaves the spotlight to focus attention on his cohorts. Like a model for the street edition of GQ, he dressed in shiny black, white shirt and a bowtie, oddly (if weirdly effectively) paired with stark black and white Nikes (or more likely, whatever the latest hot name in cross-trainer footwear). For the first couple tunes in each set, he peered through hip shades which were discarded midway, as was the suit jacket. But put the trumpet to his lips, and nothing distracts from the sparkling palette of sounds, assertive dry blasts, soft and creamy ballad tones, scoops and squeals, funky slides, sonic somersaults, hard bop ribbons. And there may be no better lyricist on flugelhorn. He burned through phrases like a blow torch (“Nothing Serious);” his ballads flowed like sweet breezes (“Never Let Me Go”, “I’m Glad There’s You”); he convincingly testified with the blues (“Bring It Home to Me”); with a Harmon mute he was as mournfully sublime as Miles (“Society Red”).

But perhaps Hargrove’s greatest talent is as bandleader and builder of ensembles that collectively match his own versatility and energy. Those other elements are four: 1) Bassist Danton Boller whose walking lines carved the terrain of “The Stringer” and “Society Red” and lent Latin pulsations to tunes like “Nothing Serious;” 2) young monster drummer Montez Coleman who reminds me of the muscular assertiveness of local percussionist Kevin Washington, dancing through fire on pieces like “Once Forgotten” and “Camaraderie”; 3) sympathetic and inventive alto saxman Justin Robinson, whose Bird-inspired hot-poker phrases fueled “Nothing Serious” and particularly “The Challenge” while engaging Hargrove in harmonic collaborations throughout; and 4) much-heralded young pianist Gerald Clayton, whose phrasing ranges from giddy eccentricity (“Strasbourg-St Denis”) and forward thrusts (“Camaraderie”) to bluesy abstraction (“I’m Not So Sure”) to surprising delicacy (“Society Red,” “Time for Love”). Scary, Clayton was only the runner-up in the 2006 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition. I caught part of Gerald’s trio set in Detroit last weekend—he’s sure to be a significant voice for decades to come.

And so blows Roy Hargrove, already a significant voice, but at not quite 39 his trajectory is merely an abstract concept. And we are merely mortals, enjoying every note.
Photos (top to bottom): 1) Montez Coleman; 2) Danton Boller, Justin Robinson, Roy Hargrove and Montez Coleman; 3) Hargrove on flugelhorn (all at the Dakota, September 7-8). Photos by Andrea Canter