Thursday, January 31, 2008

Christine Rosholt: Singing Without A Net

About two years ago, a relatively new vocalist named Christine Rosholt released her debut recording, Detour Ahead. It was intimate and enjoyable, a raft of standards from her favorite era of the 30s and 40s.

Tonight on the Dakota stage, as she and her quartet recorded live, Christine paused between tunes to ask her packed audience, “So who out there came the farthest?” My only thought was, “You did.” Whereas two years ago Christine was a charming entertainer who sang, today she is a charming jazz singer who entertains. There’s a world of difference, and Christine has moved quickly from capably singing the tunes of Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin to personally owning them. It’s sort of like transitioning from a Republican to a Democrat, but without irritating anyone in either camp.

You can’t help but like Christine Rosholt—she is sincere when she says she really loves having such a big audience. She really wants to perform for you and make you feel as if you are the only one receiving her music. She truly appreciates the incredible talent that shares the stage with her—young monster of the keyboard, Tanner Taylor; also young and sagacious acoustic bassist, Graydon Peterson; eloquent gymnast of percussion, Jay Epstein; and red-socked master of many reeds, Dave Karr. And she selects tunes that are mostly familiar and speak to everyday passions.

But it is the evolution of Christine Rosholt that most impresses and inspires. She’s left her safety net of conservative “sweet ‘n loveliness” to take risks in interpretation and arrangement, giving her songbook favorites (“Summertime,” “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” "If I Were A Bell") clever, even quirky spins. Not every experiment fully succeeds (a nifty arrangement of “Surrey” flew by so fast that Christine’s usually perfect diction couldn’t keep up), but every effort conveys the explorer’s passion for discovery—of self and beyond. While staying within the basic melodies and harmonies of the repertoire, today Christine is finding her own voice, mining the stories behind the lyrics, using her early work in theater to inform her phrasing and dialogue with her audience. She still brings a sweet and sassy charm to the stage, but far more—a downhome elegance to “Alone Together” buoyed only by bass and drums; a sparkling flirtation to “It’s A Lovely Day;” a shimmer to “My Shining Hour;” and even a brief surprise dash of vocalese to “Comes Love.”

Christine’s first recording was Detour Ahead. Her forthcoming Live at the Dakota marks a major upward turn on her journey.
Photo: Christine on stage at the Dakota (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Jon Weber’s Book of Quotations (And Other Scary Aspects of Genius)

Pianist Jon Weber is a scary guy and not just because you feel like a dwarf when you stand next to him. (He must be about 6’6” in bare feet.) And not because there is anything the least bit intimidating about the way he chats with you between sets or the way he jokes with the audience from the stage. Really, Jon is as personable a guy as you will ever meet and any evening in his musical presence is great entertainment.

Jon Weber’s keyboard talent is undeniable. His fingers do things that clearly are superhuman, most obvious when he takes a stride standard at an Indy 500 clip, but equally awe-inspiring when he twists and turns through what used to be a great songbook standard, now translated into a five-minute magical romp through 100 years of jazz history. But it’s Jon’s musical brain that is truly scary.

Jon has been startling family, friends and teachers since he was a toddler (I’d say since he was barely tall enough to reach the bench, but I doubt he was ever that short). His pitch was perfect and so was his memory—by six he had memorized 2000 tunes from his grandmother’s piano rolls. It’s truly frightening to think how many tunes now rattle around in his tightly woven gray matter. Maybe almost as many tunes as basic facts about the composers, producers, performers and events in music that explode every time he introduces his choices from the bandstand. Before a tune begins, we generally have been given the composer’s vital statistics including date of birth (and death of relevant)… and I don’t mean just the year, but also the date. Once I shouted out “and when did he graduate from high school?” and Jon shot back with a date, not missing a beat. (Later he admitted he just quickly added 18 to the year of birth…. But hey, how many of us can add that fast?)

Jon’s encyclopedic knowledge (and extremely efficient internal retrieval system) makes for great entertainment, but don’t be fooled; this is no vaudeville act. The information is not just sitting in his head awaiting the opportunity to play back. It moves seamlessly and instantly from mind to fingers as Jon tosses in quotes from hither and yon throughout his improvisations. Quoting is hardly a new tactic in jazz but for Jon it becomes its own art form. It’s not just that in the midst of Jerome Kern he will toss in snippets of anything musical from Broadway themes and television commercials to Monk or Evans or even another page from the Kern songbook. Jon Weber can present a cavalcade of disparate quotes such that they not only complement the music but sound as if they have always been there—that this was indeed the way these phrases were intended to be played. Want a challenge? See how many quotes you can identify in a given Weber rendition. The phrases aren't unfamiliar, but they go by so fast you are still searching your memory bank when three more fly by. Sometimes the quote is a mere teeny riff, sometimes that riff becomes a new theme that chases and tag-teams the original melody. And sometimes Jon’s sense of humor prevails, such as when the Windy City resident throws in a whiff of “Chicago Chicago” or when his quote fortells the next tune… or reprises the last.

Last night, Jon Weber made a rare Twin Cities appearance outside of the Hot Summer Jazz Festival, his home away from home every summer. On stage at the Artists Quarter (with the very complementary backing of Gordy Johnson and Kenny Horst), his first set was a whirlwind of mostly Jerome Kern treasures. “Long Ago and Far Away” quoted Mozart and hinted at a later rendition of “Old Man River.” His “All the Things You Are” (with the seldom played opening verse) featured multiple bastings of “Stomping at the Savoy”, and when he really did get to “Old Man River” he inserted “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Night in Tunisia,” and far more than I could process. Sometimes he is almost too clever, as Jon will use the composer's own songbook to find his quote of the moment—throwing in Ellington to embellish Ellington, Kern to augment Kern.

Watching Jon Weber live, you can enjoy the physical gymnastics of his high-energy playing or the mental gymnastics of his high-flying imagination. There’s no line where one stops and the other begins.

Jon Weber has one scary brain. And you can quote me on that.

Jon Weber will be back as “house pianist” for the summer jazz festival in June. Meanwhile check out his 2004 recording, Simple Complex. That title sums it up. (Photo: Jon bewitched the crowd backing Irv Williams at the 2007 Twin Cities Jazz Festival. Photo by Andrea Canter.)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Miles Files

I recently listed the newly published The Miles Davis Reader as one of my recommended jazz books for the holidays. A compilation of hundreds of articles, interviews, reviews and photos from the vaults of Down Beat, it’s the first in the magazine’s new series of tributes to the legends of jazz. Do we need another tome on the inscrutable trumpeter? Between his [expletive deleted] autobiography, Quincy Troupes’ accompanying bio of the autobio, Ashley Kahn’s bio of Kind of Blue, and a rather long list of other efforts to shed light on the Prince of Darkness, what can be offered by further musings and analysis? Perspective!

What makes the Down Beat collection unique in the Miles bibliography is the “in the moment” perspective: the words of reviewers at the time recordings were originally released or at the time the music was first heard on stage; the reports of events as fresh “news;” the speculation and analysis of the mysterious musician and his ever-evolving music as it evolved; the criticism and praise of his fellow musicians at each phase of his career; and above all, the “musings of Miles” from the perspective of the current moment. While the views of the artist looking back are of great value, even more revealing (and undoubtedly more accurate) are the observations and self-appraisal along the way.

Miles Davis was a chameleon, a quiet, shy, self-effacing man in private, a volatile, often angry, seemingly arrogant genius in public. But as many colleagues noted throughout his career, when he was on stage, the only thing on his mind was the music. And to Davis, music was an art that had to change constantly, no matter how popular, how marketable. The drive to push every note into a new space is an overarching theme throughout the interviews, both with Davis himself and with legendary sidemen like Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. It was as if Miles actually feared that repeating the same riff, the same melody, the same harmony would lead to a loss of self—a far more dire consequence than loss of an audience or plunge in sales.

The polyphony of viewpoints over the span of his career, as presented in this volume, seem to organize the chaos of Miles Davis into a logical, albeit tumultuous, whole in which his seemingly multiple musical personalities merge with an intact core. As Miles played “in the moment,” The Miles Davis Reader plays back those moments, retracing the evolution of genius without the irony or bias of the usual retrospective account. For those of us who might have missed much or all of this era, for the vast majority of us who were never close enough to witness the man as he created the music, The Miles Davis Reader takes us on the journey, in 3-D. The only thing missing is the surround sound. But you can almost hear it on every page.

The Miles Davis Reader, edited by Frank Alkyer, Ed Enright and Jason Koransky, was published in late 2007 by Hal Leonard Books

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sophie Milman: From Russia (and Israel and Canada) With Love and Swing

She sang a traditional folksong, turned a faux traditional show tune into a swinging delight, and reinvented a Sesame Street classic as a personal revelation. In her first set Tuesday night at the Dakota, Sophie Milman used three highly divergent sources to deliver an autobiographical sketch in song. A bold move for any vocalist, but Sophie, at only 24, isn’t “any” vocalist. Her control, presence, and particularly her interpretative sense transcend her youth by a generation.

Sophie explained that her life has been a cycle of cultural and social uprootings—first leaving her homeland in the Ural Mountains of Russia for the more extroverted environs of Israel at age 7, and then, finally comfortable in her adopted country, finding herself once again an outsider in a new culture, and yet another language, when, at 16, her family moved to the more sedate Toronto.

Thus her fresh and even painful interpretation of “It Isn’t Easy Being Green,” Kermit the Frog’s theme song from Sesame Street. Surely the frog’s creators, and songwriter Joe Raposo, never envisioned a young chanteuse taking the tune, and the theme of being different, to the level of a jazz ballad. Sophie and arranger Cameron Wallis gave Kermit’s refrain new life, new depth. Making a kid’s song an adult’s anthem—and one that works-- is no easy feat.

It may have seemed more logical that Sophie would choose to sing “Matchmaker Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof, the beloved Broadway musical set in a small Russian Village, perhaps one not unlike Sophie’s native home. But Wallis’ arrangement was no showtune, nor was it a Russian folksong—Sophie and the band came out swinging…and with her tasty phrasing, Milman conjured sonic images of (now) fellow Canadian, Diana Krall, in a higher key. In fact I liked this live presentation much better than the track on Sophie’s new CD (Make Someone Happy), probably because at the Dakota there was no distracting harmonica.

On the recording, the traditions of Eastern Europe are conveyed through the very beautiful “Eli Eli (A Walk to Caesarea),” sung in Russian. For this set last night, Sophie selected a traditional, familiar Russian folksong which proved to be the most moving effort of the evening. There’s no doubt that Sophie lived within the lyrics, and no translation was necessary.

With only two recordings, and just a few years of public performing behind her, Sophie Milman is carving a unique musical identify—yes, I hear influences of Diana Krall as well as Ella and Billie in her phrasing, but her voice has a distinctive color and tone, and she brings a broad jazz vocabulary to each tune. This is a young musician who brings a wealth of personal experience and artistic intelligence to her work.

See review of Sophie Milman’s new recording on Jazz Police at . Photo: Sophie at the Dakota on January 22nd (by Andrea Canter)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Suite for Cello and Jazz Club

It was hard to decide—in Loring Park, the trio Soul Café was performing the music of Miles Davis in tandem with the poetry of Robert Bly, with Bly himself reading. Down the street, maverick cellist Matt Haimovitz was performing a mostly classical program that included a suite based on Shakespeare and another based on the words of Mark Twain. Modern classical cello on a jazz club stage won out. I am really sorry I missed this special Soul Café evening. I am not the least bit sorry I spent the evening with Matt Haimovitz.

Haimovitz opened with Bach’s "Suite for Cello in G Major." This is music written to be performed in intimate surroundings, the grand parlors of royalty. The Dakota may not be so opulent but certainly the acoustics surpass any Bach imagined. And performed on solo cello, viewed from a vantage point of only six feet, surely is the way Bach envisioned it. Even the Dakota’s normally low level of chatter was absent, and hardly a fork tine clinked.

Haimovitz, only 36, is a virtuoso on any scale, but his “bring it to the people” presentation will be his legacy. He’s as likely to be found in a bar, night club or outdoor festival as in a concert hall; when he comes to town (as he seems to do here annually), he leads master classes and performs with local chamber groups in addition to his pilgrimage to the Dakota, where he draws a sell-out crowd of folks who are as likely to love Miles and Coltrane as Bach and Mozart.

The centerpiece of the two-set program tonight was Ned Rorem’s suite, “After Reading Shakespeare,” nine movements, each introduced by Haimovitz’ reading of Rorem’s selected quote from the Bard’s plays (Lear, Tempest, Othello) and sonnets, including a snippet of a stage direction from A Midsummer’s Night Dream. To set the stage, so to speak, Haimovitz closed the first set with his commission of a companion piece by Paul Moravec, “Mark Twain Sez,” a suite whose segments were introduced with lines from Mark Twain. There’s a third suite, also commissioned by Haimovitz and composed by Lewis Spratlan (“Shadow”), inspired by the works of Rambo/Rimbaud. Together the three suites appear on the cellist recent release, After Reading Shakespeare.

Although his liberal (some say controversial) interpretations of classical repertoire are his hallmark, Haimovitz is a musician of the 21st century and gains inspiration from modern culture. After Bach and Rorem, he next tackled Jimi Hendrix with his arrangement of “Star Spangled Banner” (or more accurately, “mangled”), returning with an Allemande from another Bach suite for his encore. Somehow it all seemed to flow, placing Bach and Rock on a single spectrum.

Haimovitz, regardless of repertoire, coaxes as many sounds from his cello as does the best jazz bassist. His left hand is as graceful as any in music, and his bow can ignite with a furious staccato or soothe with a liquid legato. His elongated glissando pushed notes right off the staff, and you had to watch very carefully to identify the source (left hand or right?) of many pizzicato plunks. Haimovitz must be seen as well as heard.

Why not hold classical recitals in unlikely spaces like jazz clubs or cafes? Why separate the music from the listener with cold stages and aisles of theater seating? Why not talk about the music along the way? Present classical music in such informal intimacy on a routine basis and watch record sales soar. Bring new audiences into jazz clubs… and it won’t hurt jazz, either.

Photos: Matt Haimovitz at the Dakota. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

So Much Music

I just posted my “Favorite CDs of the Year” article on Jazz Police ( I actually dread this annual ritual. Jazz Times gathers the ratings of the past year from its large crew of reviewers and then lists 50 from 1-50. Sometimes I’ve heard as many as half on the list, sometimes there are CDs on the list I haven’t even heard of, let alone actually heard. Down Beat has a similar process, only they use a 5-star rating system and list those that have earned 4, 4 ½ or 5 stars in the past year. That list must be around 100 deep. The Jazz Journalists’ Association asks members to send in their “top ten” lists and this year I complied. I really didn’t have a “Top Ten,” more like a “Top Five” and a long list vying for the next five slots. But three seconds after I emailed my top ten, I knew it was wrong and hopeless.

There were really two CDs that I listened to incessantly from the moment I slid them into the car CD changer (see Maria Schneider and Bill Mays below). There were a lot of others that I listened to a lot before swapping them out for a new batch. There were a number that I reviewed and therefore felt personally involved in a way that goes beyond serious listening. So how meaningful is a top ten list? My feelings about music vary from moment to moment, mood to mood. Am I ready to hear a saxophone, a trumpet, piano or voice? Trio or big band? Solo? Bop or avant garde? Jazz is far too broad and complex a genre for these annual lists!

Nevertheless, I came up with six I would put into my car CD changer if driving away from civilization for an extended period. And then I came up with another twenty or so that I would certainly miss if not able to hear them again. But as I got to the end of the list, I realized I was leaving out some pretty nice albums—and had I generated the list all over again an hour later, there would be some changes.

And let’s face it, who listened to every CD that was issued in 2007? I am still playing catch up with 2003! Or 1973 for that matter. One of the coolest recordings I heard for the first time in 2007 was first issued in 1961, The World of Cecil Taylor. (Thanks to Joel Shapira for recommending it!) Had I heard it in 1961, or even in 1989 when it was reissued on CD, I probably would have lasted through one or two tracks and discarded it. That’s what I did with Taylor’s Unit Structures about ten years ago. It was out of my aural grasp. Now it sounds well within reach. Something I heard in 2007 and tossed aside will resurface with new interest ten years down the road. I can’t even guess which one.

This year, this month, today—my fantasy trip has the six-CD changer loaded with:
· Maria Schneider’s Sky Blue
· Bill Mays (Inventions Trio)’s Fantasy
· Keith Jarrett Trio’s My Foolish Heart
· Woody Witt’s Live at Cezanne’s
· Geoff Lapp’s Stained Glass
· Kendra Shank’s A Spirit Free: The Abbey Lincoln Songbook

This of course assumes I can only bring along releases from 2007. Right now my surround sound for the road includes a late 90s live release from Irene Krall and a couple from Oscar Peterson, two from the 50s that had eluded my collection til recently. There’s also a pair of recordings from Los Angeles based pianists, courtesy of my friend Glenn who writes for LA Jazz Scene.

There’s jazz in fifty states. I am only familiar with the musicians here in the Twin Cities and a number of those with high profile labels and national distribution. My list of favorites is not too long….. it’s dangerously narrow.

So much music. It will never end. I will never get caught up. I love it.

Photo: Kendra Shank performed at the Dakota last June, shortly after releasing what became my favorite vocal CD of the year (barely a breath ahead of Kurt Elling's Night Moves). Photo by Andrea Canter.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Our First Lady of Song

There’s no shortage of strong jazz vocalists in the Twin Cities, many who are natives of the area. But one of the most revered was raised in the shadow of Motown, eventually coming to Minneapolis by way of Los Angeles. Debbie Duncan was dubbed Minnesota’s First Lady of Song at least a decade ago, as well as Perpetually Outstanding Performer by the Minnesota Music Academy. She wears both mantles well, perhaps with even more elegance and sass than ever before.

Audiences love Debbie. She’s equal parts entertainer and jazz singer, making a few cracks about romance (or lack of it), sending the crowd (and it usually is a crowd!) into peels of laughter before stabbing at the heart with an emotive ballad. But she’ll end the set on an upnote—she can make you cry but she’ll leave you smiling every time.

Tonight at the Artists Quarter, she mentioned hearing Mark Murphy sing the opening verse to “My Foolish Heart,” already a gorgeous tune in its usual presentation. And she vowed that she would learn the verse soon, but tonight she only had the usual arrangement. But this is Debbie Duncan. There are no ordinary songs. As much as she can rock the house with a blues or uptempo burner, Debbie is a tender balladeer. She crawls deep into the lyric and slowly pulls it inside out. Three minutes later she’ll make you cry again—from laughing.

If you missed Debbie this weekend at the Artists Quarter, she’ll move across town to the Dakota on Tuesday night.

Photo: Debbie upstages winter gloom at the Artists Quarter. (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

MacPhail: The Hub of Everything Music

The MacPhail Center for Music celebrated its centennial last year. It’s one of the nation’s few (and among the largest in terms of population served) community-based music education centers. Current MCM serves over 7500 students of all ages, from infants to seniors through a diverse array of programs, including study of 35 instruments and voice under the direction of 165+ instructors. You can learn to write as well as sing songs, play in a jazz ensemble or string quartet, learn how to listen to music or trace the history of jazz. There’s also a unique music therapy program that supports individuals with various developmental challenges. And for those outside the immediate reach of downtown Minneapolis, there are outreach sites through schools and community partnerships.

Music education doesn’t end in the classroom at MacPhail. Their mission to bring music to the entire community comes to life through several series of public performances—including master classes, faculty and student recitals, a jazz series, international music series, and a very enjoyable “Bach’s Lunch” series of noon concerts. And through a recent partnership with the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education, MacPhail Jazz Director Kelly Rossum leads a selected high school ensemble, the Dakota Combo.

Last year I attended my first master class, a two-hour lesson and demonstration from Chicago-based jazz vocalist Janice Borla. I don’t sing. But I listen to vocalists. Sitting in on the master class (for a mere $5) was a golden opportunity to learn more about what I hear at vocal gigs and to see how vocal jazz can be taught. Personally I did not emerge with any singing skills, but my jazz listening has improved significantly. Those student vocalists who were brave enough to serve as demo subjects undoubtedly came away with much more.

This fall and early winter, along with a handful of “jazz buddies” from various related activities, I’ve enjoyed weekly sessions of Jazz 101, taught by Kelly Rossum. (Been reading Pamela’s blog? She has reported on our progress all along the way— ). The content was a winner to start with—understanding various styles of jazz in an historical context; Kelly took us beyond the textbook through discussion (starting, and ending, with the inevitable “What Is Jazz?”) and guided listening to his personal choices for each era and style. We heard classics from the icons like Miles Davis but we also heard more obscure recordings from the likes of Gunther Schuller and even local gems such as the Slide Huxtable Quartet. There was only one course text but Kelly stimulated our thinking and soon I had acquired a half dozen more books and CDs. This spring we look forward to continuing our dialogue through Kelly’s new Jazz Book Club course, an in-depth consideration of four wide-ranging books and listening to related music. We’re also pushing him to develop Jazz 201, 301, 401 and beyond.

The Bach’s Lunch program is somewhat on the order of the Landmark Court Room series in St. Paul, hosted by the Schubert Club and featuring one or two often-young artists, usually of a classical bent, in a monthly noon concert at Landmark Center. At MacPhail, donors host an invitation-only box lunch an hour before the performance, a means of introducing the community to MacPhail and, in a very low key manner, promoting donations. No pressure, no donor cards, no follow-up pledge requests—just a pleasant hour learning about MacPhail’s programs, meeting nice people interested in music, and a very decent box lunch. The lunch group also has reserved seats for the Noon concert, which is open to the public at no charge. The music can be just about anything from classical to world to jazz, usually provided by MacPhail faculty. Last fall I attended an hour reliving the great partnership of Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, interpreted by faculty instructors Vicky Mountain and James Allen.

This past week, MacPhail moved from its much-too-small downtown facility into a brand new, multi-million dollar modern complex near the river in what is becoming the city’s new arts corridor, with the new Guthrie Theater and Mill City Art Museum just down the street. Part of the grand opening events has been a week of “Bach’s Lunch” concerts. Today was jazz day, with Kelly Rossum and his quartet filling the main floor atrium/Gary Sipes Performance Space with swinging, quirky and elegant sound, from re-arranged classis of Strayhorn, Mingus and Monk to Kelly’s own soaring compositions. He dedicated the very lovely “Fly Away” to the recently departed Oscar Peterson, and OP would have no doubt approved. Young pianist Bryan Nichols delivered a knockout interpretation of Monk’s “Let’s Cool One,” as my friend Ruth pointed out, playing a lot more notes than Monk ever imagined. Still, it retained the playful unpredictability of Monk and the audience responded with spontaneous enthusiasm. And unique even in the smallest club venue, the instruments were truly acoustic—nothing was plugged in and there were no mikes on the scene. It was a glorious sound.

MacPhail is one of the significant cultural hubs of the Twin Cities because it promotes an essential art form—music—as an unalienable right of all citizens, regardless of background, resources, age or ability. “Music belongs to everyone,” reminds David O’Fallon, Executive Director of MacPhail. Tuition for classes is not cheap but MacPhail offers many avenues for support for those who can not afford it as well as for those for whom access is challenging. Community and corporate donations help expand their reach.

I quit flute lessons after four weeks when I was a fourth grader. I stuck with piano for five years but it was painful. Maybe if I lived in the Twin Cities 50 years ago….Still, I am here now. And MacPhail is part of my community.
Above photo: MacPhail faculty concert in spring 2007 featured vocal instructor Vicky Mountain with Chris Lomheim on piano, Kelly Rossum on trumpet, Jim Chenoweth on bass. (Photo by Andrea Canter). For information about MacPhail programs, visit their site at

Sunday, January 6, 2008

And The Band Played On-- Armistice 2008

One of the biggest and most talented big bands in Twin Cities jazz crowded into the Artists Quarter last night—and that was just the audience. It seems unlikely that any other jazz was performed at other area venues given the many talented pianists, saxophonists, drummers and miscellaneous others who spent this Saturday night at the AQ in order to be part of the live American recording of Bill Carrothers’ Armistice 1918 project. Originally recorded four years ago in a Minneapolis studio for release on the French label Sketch, Armistice has enjoyed numerous stagings in Europe but, until now, none in the U.S. Sketch has since gone under, and its new owner in Japan declined to distribute or reissue this epic, inspired by the music and cultural impact of World War I. Maybe the first “great war” was not sufficiently hip to generate interest among marketing agents. It didn’t even garner a production from the Walker Art Center—too retro, too 20th century? The theme might be 1918, but the music is definitely of the 21st century where war is clearly not out of style.

The Artists Quarter was without doubt the right venue. On the second night, it was standing room only. The club was filled with the “usual suspects” as well as musicians who normally spend their Saturday nights on the other side of the mikes and monitors. Everyone wants to hear Bill, whose trips back to his native environs are too far and few between. He now calls the Upper Peninsula of Michigan “home,” but his touring is largely confined to Europe, where WWI is still relevant. He brought half the original band—wife and vocalist Peg Carrothers, cellist Mark Turner, percussionist and local pal Jay Epstein. The others were more than up to the task—hometown bassist Gordy Johnson (sporting a “new” rebuilt ax); Belgian drummer Dre Pallemaerts; and French clarinet/bass clarinet ace Jean-Marc Foltz.

Having listened to and reviewed the original recording only last week, I was surprised how much the music has evolved since its first release. Bill noted that it is different every night, but it is more than the improvisations that reinvent the music; the sequence of the segments, the list of compositions (popular tunes of the era as well as Carrothers’ originals), the transitions from one to the next--all have been modified to fit the mood of the musicians. And it has been condensed to some degree, fewer specific pieces yet more stretching out on those that are covered. But above all it remains a dark, epic tone poem that begins with the naiveté of the new (20th) century and proceeds through a call to arms, separation of loved ones, and the ensuing horrors of war, while those left behind kept “the home fires burning,” ultimately reaching the conclusion that they “did not raise my boy to be a soldier.”

Hearing this multilayered work is one thing, seeing it is another. Live, the dark moments (and there are many) are stormier, bleaker, louder, while the few bright moments are brighter and swing harder. Watching as well as listening, one is even more fascinated by the wild array of sounds that are created largely by the endless arsenal of percussion and the clever shenanigans of Foltz’ reeds. A DVD is needed to capture the source of the nonstop sound effects from Pallemaerts and Epstein, the former from within the trapset and the latter from a treasure chest of noisemakers, rain sticks, metal sheets, bowls, hanging cymbals and more. At one point Foltz dismembered his clarinet and added a mouthpiece to create two small instruments that he proceeded to blow simultaneously. Turner coaxed new whines and scrapes from the cello, and of course Bill was at times up to his elbows in piano innards. Over it all, the melodic and the catastrophic, Peg Carrothers’s soprano voice was miked with a slight echo, giving each effort an eerie hollowness that added tragedy.

As on the original recording, the music was alternately playful and funereal, bleak and majestic. And filled with Carrothers’ trademarks—lyrical, percussive, delicate, forceful, acrobatic, the ideas at times tumbling out of his fingers faster than our brains can process them. In a given verse, Bill often throws out snippets of multiple tunes, standards or even snatches of tunes that preceded or will follow. “There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding” reappeared in bits and pieces throughout; even the Cole Porter classic “So in Love” surfaced in the midst of “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” So much music lives in those fingertips.

It was not exactly what one would describe as an “upbeat” evening—the first set sliding into global tragedy, the second set filled with the clamor of battle and the inevitable flood of loss, and perhaps in a politically inspired revision, the displacement of “And the Band Played On” from its original position early in the epic to the afterthought of an encore. Yet there were the almost humorous moments, thanks to the oddly derived sound effects and clever insertions of melody fragments. And despite the dark theme, the caliber of artistry and international collaboration was as uplifting as any orchestral incantation. The genius and invention of Bill Carrothers trumps our darkest hours.
Photos: Top, Jean-Marc Foltz turns his clarinet into a "double reed"; Bottom--Bill and Peg Carrothers opened Armistice with a brief vocal duet rendition of "There's a Long Long Trail A Winding." (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Local Sustainable Jazz

Even Bon Appetit has gone green with their latest issue, promoting recipes and restaurants that favor ecologically sound practices and organic and locally sustainable ingredients.

The jazz equivalents of “green” are those venues and patrons who support “good sound” practices and locally grown and sustainable music. In the Twin Cities we seem to be witnessing a broad-based rise in venues that at regularly present local music, albeit not always in “good sound” circumstances. Three relatively new restaurants are cases on point:

Crave, the slightly upscale and very eclectic newbie at Galleria in Edina which opened about a year ago in the old Sidney’s space. In addition to a platter of sushi, flatbread pizzas and a long list of other comfort and designer dishes, on Fridays (and some Saturdays) you will find some of the area’s top musicians squeezed into a 4-foot square staging area, hemmed in by fireplace on one side, booths on the other, backed by a wall and fronted by the only walkway connecting the bar and dining room. The space does not constrain the likes of Laura Caviani, Phil Hey or Lucia Newell, but the cobbled-together sound system is among the worst in town. But never mind, go early for the food and entertaining bartending, but stay late—when things quiet down, slide over right next to the music and you will be amply rewarded. It’s rather fun to sit that close a virtuoso pianist without being blasted out of the room.

Cavé Vin, an outstanding and affordable French bistro in southwest Minneapolis, recently added music to the menu on Wednesday nights. Along with frog legs, authentic onion soup, and daily specials of salmon, chicken and more, midweek patrons can enjoy three hours of sublime and swinging music from vocalist Rhonda Laurie, guitarist Reynold Philipsek, and usually Jeff Brueske or Matt Senjem on bass. Last month Rhonda made it a duet with guitarist Dean Magraw. One of the most sophisticated among local vocalists in her selection of tunes and interpretation, putting a hot club swinging spin on her repertoire has been both challenging and rewarding for Rhonda, and with Twin Cities Hot Club anchor Philipsek, the music goes well beyond the popular “gypsy jazz”, taking Django ahead a few decades, and delightfully so.

Café Maude, open only about six months, is another southwest Minneapolis hot spot. CM has dared to present not only a unique menu of food and designer cocktails, but at least weekly, some of the most ‘out there’ jazz in town, often musical fugitives from the Clown Lounge like Adam Linz, Chris Bates, Chris Thomson and Bryan Nichols, as well as Artist Quarter veteran guitarist Dean Granros. Sometimes on Wednesdays, always on weekends, check the schedule for current offerings. And reserve way ahead for dinner. For listening, however, come after 10:30 on Friday nights—by then the noise level and subsequently the acoustics will be tolerable.

Fortunately, however, you actually can eat your locally grown cake and hear it too with an ideal sound system at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis. The menu has long featured organic local and regional produce; the high tech sound system was probably designed before the kitchen; and at least three or four nights per week feature area artists who would be high flyers in any metro zone—lucky for us, they live here. Tonight –with your locally grown potato-leek soup, heirloom tomato salad and Amish chicken breast—you could have heard a quartet of the best: leader Pete Whitman on tenor and soprano sax, pianist Laura Caviani, bassist Adam Linz, and drummer Phil Hey.

As area bands go, this was a dream team. Phil’s drum solo on “Alone Together” was a series of little experiments involving most of his percussive artillery; Pete’s sweet “Skylark” surely made Hoagy Carmichael smile; Adam swayed back and forth with his big box partner, always subvocalizing while his fingers danced across, around and over the strings, most engaging on his original composition “You.” (Or maybe it was “Ewe”?) Laura, in addition to her usual inventive bounce through Monk (in the first set, “I Mean You”), deftly challenged buddy Pete in the mad dash through Johnny Hodges’ “Squatty Roo.” While the audience did not necessarily make listening its first priority, even the chatty-kathys couldn’t help but notice the level of music on stage, applauding throughout—even after the bass solos. Maybe they realized that this Thursday night was as good, and green, as any in Manhattan.

And I can’t close this topic without mentioning the locally sustainable daddy of all Twin Cities jazz venues, the Artists Quarter. Tucked into a modest lower level bar, the AQ occasionally brings in some amazing out of towners, but it’s the locals who ensure the highest expression of modern jazz, at least six nights per week. The sound system is close to perfect and there seldom are any competing interests other than the music. And even when the music comes from farther away, it often has a local connection. This weekend, for example, don't miss home boy Bill Carrothers, now a resident of Michigan's UP and a touring artist in Europe, presenting the American debut of his epic, Armistice 1918. It could well be one of the nation's most signifcant jazz events of 2008. But the rest of the month includes such still-local heroes as Gary Berg, Phil Hey, Dave Karr, Phil Aaron and Peter Schimke.

As long as the AQ stands, we’ll sustain local jazz in the Twin Cities. And every Tuesday Night (with “Uptown Bill Brown” on B-3), it’s also certifiably organic.

Photo: Locally sustainable saxman Pete Whitman. (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year's at the Artists Quarter

Ever wonder if there really is a bar like “Cheers”? The sitcom was more or less modeled after a real bar in the Boston area, or so I remember. But here in the Twin Cities, we have our own Cheers, only this one also happens to be one of the finest venues for jazz in the country. At the Artists Quarter in St. Paul, they remember your name. And really, they are always glad you came. Owner Kenny Horst can always use the business. It’s been a labor of love to keep the musician-friendly, serious listening preferred bar and jazz room going, now in its third or fourth location (I lost count). Like the basement Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, the AQ sits below ground level, no kitchen (although you can bring in or order from a neighboring grill or brew pub), and the bar offers the basics--don’t ask for a latte or Glenlevit. Like the Vanguard, the audience is mostly interested in the music and there’s an expectation that indeed, you are there to listen, not shout over the drums and horns.

Unlike the Vanguard, most of the talent is home grown and relatively unknown outside of the Midwest. Yet that’s hardly a drawback given the quality of the local jazz scene. Kenny does book a great national act nearly monthly—Roy Haynes, Lew Tabackin, Mose Allison, Eric Alexander, Lee Konitz have all been through in the past year. But usually we’re paying very little to hear Laura Caviani, Dean Magraw, Pete Whitman, Phil Hey, Chris Lomheim… the list is thankfully too long. And unlike the Vanguard, your host Davis Wilson is “pleased and flipped” to chat with you about most anything; and the room, though hardly filled with designer furnishings, is as warm and inviting as your den… unless of course you are sitting under that vent!

Every year for I don’t know how long now, the AQ hosts the best New Year’s Eve Party in town. Not the classiest, not the biggest, and definitely not the priciest. Just the party you would probably throw yourself if you wanted to invite 100 good friends to listen to some great jazz as you count down to midnight. The crowd (and it sells out fast) tends to be AQ regulars and their friends; the food is brought in via Kenny’s mother-in-law Carole Martin, who just happens to be the main attraction on stage as well. At midnight there’s champagne for all as well as choice selections of party hats, noisemakers and confetti streamers. You know that Carole will sing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” at 11:55 and that you’ll be cued to blow your paper horn every time she sings “skin.” And you know that after the midnight countdown, Carole’s daughter, Dawn, will be up on stage with mom singing a down-n-dirty blues and drawing the inevitable “why don’t you sing more often?” questions. And usually, you know that 88-year-old tenor saxophonist Irv Williams will start blowing “Auld Lang Syne.”

Irv missed the AQ bash this year. 88 and he was double booked! But the rest of his band (Phil Aaron, Tom Lewis and of course Kenny Horst) was on stage and by midnight they were joined by guitar whiz Dean Magraw, giving Carole and Dawn all the support they needed to sing the rest of the night away.

Davis was minding the door as always, talking about upcoming gigs and politics. Johanna played Coat Check Girl—as close as the AQ comes to the amenities of a classy joint. Dan and David kept the drinks flowing from the bar, while Jenn was maneuvering trays of glasses in and out of the miniscule spaces between tables. And onstage, Carole Martin sang ballads and blues as she’s been doing for nearly 70 years…and she’s been in her prime for most of them. She doesn’t miss a note, and she doesn’t let a lyric escape without her personal caress.

It’s not the Vanguard. Or Cheers. It’s our little bit of heaven. Not just on New Year’s Eve.

The Artists Quarter is in the lower level of the Hamm Building in downtown St. Paul, 408 St. Peter Street. Check the calendar at Above photo: Carole Martin on New Year's Eve, photo by Andrea Canter.