Monday, April 28, 2008

In the Spirit of Ray Brown

Sometimes a tribute gig really does justice to the honoree. It seems over the past few years, every other gig is a tribute to this or that legend, or the performers have come together as the so-and-so Tribute or Legacy Band, which of course makes every show a tribute gig. Of course there are some notable tribute ensembles, including the various configurations of the Mingus legacy bands; the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All Stars; the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band. Last fall I heard a fabulous new ensemble at the Iridium in Manhattan, in tribute to the great Wayne Shorter. Interesting, I can’t recall any Miles Davis or John Coltrane Tribute Bands—maybe the stakes are just too high?

On current tour, the legacy of the great bassist Ray Brown is reverently and joyously honored by three of his protégés, all monsters of their instruments—bassist Christian McBride, pianist Benny Green, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Green and Hutchinson toured with Brown in one of the last configurations of his trio, while McBride appeared with John Clayton in Ray’s Super Bass, one of the few times one heard three bassists together.

Ray Brown may be best remembered for his associations with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, but to younger musicians, his influence came at least equally through mentorship. Among the careers he helped jump start, count Geoffrey Keezer, Kareem Riggins, and Russell Malone along with Green, Hutchinson and McBride.

The Ray Brown tribute ensemble settled in for three nights at the Dakota recently, and the result was one of the most sympathetic and telepathic ensembles in recent memory, as well as one that was joyously swinging and soulful—in other words, a band in the spirit of Ray Brown. The music was ever-accessible and the musicians could not disguise their delight in the music and each other. The repertoire was largely tunes from Brown’s songbook, his compositions and favorite covers. Each of these consummate jazzmen took his turn introducing the tunes and telling favorite stories of their mentor.

Ray Brown had a sure but gentle way of setting the pulse, and most often that spirit prevailed at the Dakota, as on the band’s delicate reading of Neil Hefti’s “Lil’ Darlin’. McBride, whom I last heard in the very different context of the Pat Metheny Trio, added a beautifully intricate passage, and as a whole the threesome seemed to coax sound from their instruments while barely making physical contact. Benny Green in particular seemed to poise his hands above the keys as if merely the passage of air caused enough vibration to produce sound. Exquisite. “I like the pretty notes,” explained Greg Hutchinson. A similarly soft and poignant rendition of “Tenderly” was highlighted by McBride’s bowed soloing that so entranced the audience that dinner conversation in the adjacent dining room was audible i the club-- during a bass solo!

Hutchinson had high praise for his old employer, noting that “Ray was also a great person and to me that outweighs the great bass player.” He then introduced Art Blakey’s “Gumbo Hump” and seemed to take a few pages from the Jazz Messengers’ playbook, his choreography as much a visual feast as were his percussive antics a sonic buffet.

The trio was reminiscent of such simpatico gatherings as the classic Oscar Peterson Trio. Green, a significant protégé of Peterson as well as Brown, has incorporated much of the swing and virtuosity of the late legendary pianist with perhaps a greater palette of emotional colors. Hutchinson was crisp and physical throughout, as in his attack on Brown’s hard swinging “Captain Bill” (a salute to Count Basie), while McBride delved into his arsenal of acoustic sound effects to pull the most frin every pluck, every glissando. The trio’s interplay conjured an animated yet intimate conversation among close friends, where small changes in expression, gesture and eye contact signal significant moments of feeling and shared experience.

I saw Ray Brown perform several times in the late 1980s and 90s, including a couple times at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago and twice at the old Dakota in St. Paul. In July 2002, he died in his sleep after a round of golf, a few days before he was to return to the Twin Cities. But in late April 2008, he was back at the Dakota with Christian, Benny and Greg.
Photos: 1) Benny Green, Christian McBride and Greg Hutchinson take a bow at the Dakota on April 22nd. 2) Christian McBride at his most acoustic. 3) Greg Hutchinson was poetry in motion. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Four Strings Attached

After listening to Jake Shimabukaro’s 2007 release, Gently Weeps, I was sure there were some overdubs. It was hard enough to figure how such an array of sound could be generated by the little ukulele. Surely the 12 “solo” tunes included some self-dubs, at least a bass track here and there. I was sure I heard a third hand at work. No, said his publicist Michael Bloom, this is just Jake alone. And now I know because I have seen Jake at the Dakota. Just Jake. And like any other mortal, he really has only two hands and ten fingers. But that seems to be where such a mundane comparison ends. I have not seen his PET scan so I can not verify my hunch that Jake’s brain works very differently from mine, but I know what I saw and what I heard, and it is beyond genius. And I have witnesses—the Dakota was sold out. Not just the club, but the entire space, dining room and mezzanine. Not a common occurrence on a Sunday night. Not when the performer has yet to attain “household name” status in this part of the world. Not when the performer is a 30-year-old whose chosen instrument normally elicits smiles, giggles, or dismissive gestures.

Jake has attained star status in Japan and in his native Hawaii, and is developing a loyal following on the West Coast. Obviously, that trend is evolving quickly in the Midwest. And why not? Not only is Jake Shimabukaro an amazing talent on a unique instrument, he is also one of the most charming performers you will meet. His engaging interaction with his audience only encourages rapt attention to the music, and tonight’s audience was one of the most attentive in months—thankfully, as much of Jake’s music these days is acoustically driven, often delicate, and far ranging dynamically, from raw string power to ethereal grace. His tours with Bela Fleck and Jimmy Buffett notwithstanding, Jake’s solo efforts bring dignity to the instrument and clarify what a true virtuoso can do with it—just about anything he wants.

I fear I might overuse the word “exquisite” here, as it describes much of the evening’s first set, as well as Jake’s just-released EP recording, In My Life, and his most recent full-length CD, Gently Weeps: An elegant, self-generated counterpoint on “Misty,” a solemnly majestic “Ave Maria,” the beautifully executed cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and the Far East flavorings of Jake’s “Dragon,” a tune inspired by actor Bruce Lee. Delicacy was not a constant, however, as Jake’s range emotionally, rhythmically, and dynamically wanders far and wide, sometimes within the same tune. His variety of techniques is similarly diverse, including damping the strings to allow the small hollow-bodied ax to be transformed into a booming drum. On his “Wes on Four” (inspired by Wes Montgomery), he grazed the strings at warp speed. Chick Corea’s “Spain” at a fast tempo and “Gently Weeps” at a slower pace most challenged the notion that Jake has but one brain—surely one set of impulses controls the right thumb, another mind altogether manages the remaining fingers, the coordination appearing totally independent, and this does not even take the left hand into account. Somehow with one hand, Jake creates bassline counterpoint as well as chord progressions. What Jake described as “ukulele bluegrass” (his original, “Orange World”) demonstrated even further the elasticity of hands that were able to weave such intricate patterns from one end of the neck to the other within such a small space, humorously quoting “Deliverance” along the way.

At 30 or so, Jake grew up on the pop music of the 80s and 90s, although he reaches back another decade or two for some of his inspiration, particularly to the tunes of the Beatles, which Jake told the audience “use every tool in music.” And through Jake’s ukulele, I felt I was being reintroduced to the music that shaped several generations, including Lennon and McCartney’s “In My Life” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” tunes that gently exploded with emotion through Jake’s seamless display of variable dynamics.

After about 75 minutes, Jake left the stage to rest up for the late set. I felt the need to rest up as well, from an often-breathless display of virtuosity tempered with charm and passion, presented by a young man who makes the tiniest instrument sing and dance like the largest symphony.
Photos: Jake Shimabukaro at the Dakota, April 27th. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Samba 101

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Minnesota is a unique organization dedicated to learning across the lifespan, particularly the elder end of that span. In fact it was once called the Elder Learning Institute before an endowment from the Osher family inspired a new name and a less pejorative descriptor of its members. OLLI has no age limits—you don’t have to show your AARP card or Medicaid statement to enroll. But to take advantage of most of the learning opportunities, you do need to be able to attend programs and classes during the day. Hence it is essentially an educational haven for retired Twin Citians. From a “jazz 101” class five years ago, a special interest group formed and has grown to over 80 members who are fondly known as the OLLI Cats. Led by the intrepid Joan Delich since its inception, the OLLI Cats meet monthly for a presentation about their favorite subject, usually delivered by an area jazz musician. Over the past few years we have heard Kelly Rossum talk about Miles Davis, Dave Hagedorn explain the inner workings of the vibraphone, Vicky Mountain demonstrate scatting (even getting everyone to try it out), Phil Hey describe the role of the drummer, and Mary Louise Knutson discuss the basics of rhythm and harmony.

Sometimes the presenter illustrates the talk with favorite CDs, but most enjoyable of course is the opportunity to hear the artist at work, demonstrating techniques and styles, or just giving us a sampling of the music in the private, all-acoustic environment of a small auditorium. Such was our April session, a preview of new Brazil-inspired works by local guitarist/mandolinist/bassist Joan Griffith as well as arrangements of works by famed Brazilian composers. Joan and local piano star Laura Caviani have conspired in the studio on the forthcoming CD, SambaNova, and their session with the OLLI Cats included some of Joan’s new compositions as well as tunes from the likes of Jobim that helped demonstrate the most popular styles of Brazilian music. For the afternoon, Joan and Laura were joined by ace percussionist Gary Gauger.

There’s nothing like a private concert, and particularly one led by the instructive and entertaining commentary of Joan Griffith. Spending more time in the classroom than club room or concert hall, Joan heads jazz studies at St. Thomas and leads ensembles at St. Kate’s and Macalester. For 20 years she has partnered with Ruth McKenzie as visiting artists in the public schools to introduce students to jazz. Her work at St Thomas has included teaching about jazz and Latin music through that university’s “senior college” program. My first experience with OLLI in 2003 was Joan’s demonstration of the basics of jazz bass, and my only encounters with the St. Thomas program have been her courses on Latin music and the history of jazz. Like any master teacher, Joan can entertain while imparting vast knowledge, but like only a small handful that I have encountered, I am fully convinced she could engage this older learner in the study of plumbing or wallpaper hanging. But on this afternoon, I was pleased to learn more about samba, bossa nova and choro. And I was particularly pleased to be among the first to hear the stunning melodies and delicate harmonies coming this fall on SambaNova.

The afternoon session evolved as a sampling of the key styles of Brazilian music, starting with the basic samba. But there’s no such thing as simply samba—Joan learned that there are at least 26 variations of this popular, gently swinging rhythm, including the bossa nova. Her own “Belleview” is named after her high school and dedicated to her parents who endured listening to Getz/Gilberto for hours on end. Joan and company also demonstrated the delicate “Baiao” style of northern Brazil, what Joan referred to as “roots music” heavily tinged with a Spanish and Middle Eastern folkloric. The result is exquisite and recalls the gentle side of Granados. With a tune from Brazilian guitarist Joao Lyra, Joan and Laura (no percussion) ramped up the tempo in “Frevo” style, the fast-paced party music filled with swirling, gnarly rhythms.

Two examples of “Choro” followed, giving Joan the opportunity to switch from guitar to mandolin. A quick mandolin lesson—the eight-string instrument with violin tuning is popular in many world cultures and found in several shapes, Joan’s most resembling the round English guitar of Renaissance troubadours. In Brazil, the mandolin rose to prominence from the 1930s-50s in large part due to one Jacob Bittencort, aka Jacob du Bandolim. Our trio presented “Doce de Coco” and “Noites Cariocas,” which Joan later described as Brazilian ragtime, music heard in small cafés. Thanks to the mandolin, the music had a Django quality, as if “hot club of Rio” – a transformation that was no easy feat in a synagogue auditorium on a dreary and cold spring day. There were more original compositions from Joan—“Sambanova in F Minor,” “Samba for Jake”; Jobim’s familiar “Triste,” and “the inspiration for all this,” Cesar Mariano’s “Samambaia.”

I have heard each of these musicians separately, and Joan and Gary together with another fine interpreter of Brazilian music, vocalist Lucia Newell. Most surprising, perhaps, was Laura Caviani, whose own compositions tend toward thick clusters of chords, bluesy melodies, and angular rhythms not unlike one of her muses, Thelonious Monk. The setting of samba and choro exposes Laura’s delicately lyrical heart—some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard from her piano. In this context, she is a simpatico foil for Joan Griffith’s elegant strings, guitar or mandolin. And Gary Gauger, with a drum kit here limited to a snare and variety of cymbals and hand percussion, created haunting and organic soundscapes that never intruded, but always painted a supportive canvas. He does not appear on the forthcoming recording, but his contributions this afternoon were pivotal.

On September 21, 2008, these musicians will celebrate the release of SambaNova at the Artists Quarter in St. Paul, a perfect, intimate setting for new interpretations of Brazil’s native music. The performance will launch the new season of the Twin Cities Jazz Society’s J to Z series, and perhaps it will also launch a new appreciation for the gifts of Joan Griffith and Laura Caviani.
Photo: Joan Griffith at the Artists Quarter last fall. She'll be back in September to celebrate SambaNova. (Photo: Andrea Canter)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Soul Cafe: Grand Finale?

Call it a Seven-Year Itch or just “time to move on,” as leader Steve Blons described the decision to discontinue Soul Café as a regularly performing ensemble. Tonight was the final performance before an indefinite hiatus of one of the most creative and unusual jazz bands in the Twin Cities and beyond. I’ve been attending Soul Café evenings and writing about this engaging trio for the past four years, which means I missed their first three seasons. (In fact, I blogged about Soul Café earlier, December 16, 2007.)

Soul Café merges the unusual instrumentation of piano, sax and guitar with poetry. As members of the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, guitarist Steve Blons and alto/bari saxman Brad Holden did a few duo performances for the congregation as “Jazz Meditations.” Soon they added poetry readings to the music and planned a monthly schedule with guest artists. Pianist Laura Caviani was the first guest. She never left. The church setting may reinforce the spiritual quality of words and music, yet the gathering transcends religious boundaries and dogma, bringing a diverse audience together each month united in art. The trio has presented themes as broad as “Love” or “Beauty” and as focused as pairing the music of Rogers and Hart with the poems of Pablo Neruda. Sometimes they invite a guest, often vocalist Lucia Newell with whom the group recorded their second CD, The Poetry of Jazz.

Steve Blons summed up the trio’s approach to the music in an interview a few years ago: “We began experimenting with two-part and three-part improvisation, with dropping out to leave just a duo or a solo voice. We rehearse very little and play mostly new material each time, so our interpretations and choices are very fresh. We enjoy the risk and adventure of this kind of music.” And so does their audience, largely members of the HAUMC congregation who might not necessarily gravitate toward Monk or Mulligan otherwise.

Tonight, Soul Café made it a special, if final, occasion. First there was the cake, lettered “Congratulations, 7 + 65.” Seven for seven years of performance; 65 for Steve’s birthday. And they might have added “10” as well, as Steve’s wife Jan, who has coordinated the poetry through seven seasons of concerts, was celebrating ten years since a cancer diagnosis and a few days since her oncologist told her she did not need further follow-up.

The poet selected for this last hurrah was a past favorite, e.e. cummings; the music included the band’s favorites, although some of the arrangements (or, as Brad said, “what arrangements?”) were definitely spontaneous efforts. Swan Songs seem to bring out the best in everyone, which might account for those performers who seem to hold perennial “farewell” tours. (Steve predicted the large turnout for the finale when I saw him last night, suggesting that he had overlooked an obvious promotional ploy!)

Aside from an opening reading of a poem from Rilke, each jazz selection was followed by an e.e. cummings reading. The trio started out with the bittersweet Charlie Chaplin standard, “Smile,” a perfect introduction to the three reasons this ensemble soars each month. Piano, sax and guitar may be an unusual blend but not for lack of harmonic elegance. Brad Holden plays alto sax like no one else around here, swinging with a Paul Desmond sweetness that makes vocals superfluous (although he does sound great with Lucia Newell!). Steve Blons provides further goosebumps via un-amped acoustic guitar, while Laura Caviani never fails to find the improvisational opportunities in each crevice of melody, sometimes pushing the trio to full throttle, sometimes pulling it back into subdued revelry. But the totality here is greater than the sum of its parts, and each solo flows seamlessly into the next and into the group voice.

The familiar “Smile” was followed by a less familiar Lennie Tristano composition on the chord changes to “Out of Nowhere” (“317-32nd Street East” if I have the right address), which was followed by a dramatic take on Monk’s Misterioso, my first opportunity to hear Brad on baritone. Laura led off with an appropriately quirky solo introduction, and as the guys came in, the bari sax chugged the bassline like a slinky tuba. But from that point it became a romping blues, Steve riffing on lines from Gershwin, Brad conjuring James Carter-ish growls and honks, Laura catapulting across blue lines until the trio came full circle, ending on Monk’s familiar theme.

I was captivated by Laura’s original, swinging “Yes, We’ve Met” when I first heard it during their live in-studio recording for The Poetry of Jazz, the one tune on that CD not written by Rogers and Hart. It was a fitting addition to the playlist tonight, starting (and ending) with the three voices in unison and a lovely duet exchange between sax and guitar.

But the highlight of the set was a totally obtuse improvisation initiated by Brad blowing through the alto’s separated mouthpiece to create a mesmerizing series of bird calls, sometimes sounding like an angry crow, sometimes like a lost loon, then swooping air as he replaced the mouthpiece. What began as vaguely familiar fragments gathered momentum across the trio until Desmond’s “Take Five” emerged, fully formed. Later, Brad confessed that much of it was spontaneous combustion, “never played the same way once.”

The last bow followed Gerry Mulligan’s “Line for Lyons,” Brad again picking up the bari, each musician taking a brief personal journey before they joined together one last time.

Applause, a series of thank yous, and Steve hinted that there might be some special reunions in the future, maybe at other venues. Fortunately, two CDs help to preserve this collaboration, but many of us will miss this monthly ritual, music without amplification, performed simply for the love of the sounds and the partnership, creating a community of listeners under the spell of the poetry of jazz.

If you are interested in either or both of Soul Café’s recordings, contact Steve Blons at

Photo: Soul Cafe with Lucia Newell at their Poetry of Jazz recording session in fall 2005. L-R, Laura, Lucia, Steve and Brad. (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Rise of Jazz Education, the Fall of IAJE

Jazz education seems to be in great shape. The extensive listings of jazz camps and jazz degree programs listed every year in Downbeat are certainly one type of evidence of the growing interest in serious jazz studies. Many festivals including Monterey and Atlanta have student-centered components that include selection of student all-star bands, scholarships and more. Locally, there are a variety of student music programs dedicated to jazz, from middle school and high school bands to independent programs such as Walker West, MacPhail, Twin Cities Jazz Camp, and McNally Smith College. Then there’s the Twin Cities Jazz Society which provides scholarships and frequent performance opportunities, and the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education, which funds the all-star Dakota Combo, student stage at the summer jazz festival, and co-sponsors the Jazz Piano Scholarship Competition with the Schubert Club each year.

And until this winter, jazz education internationally seemed to thrive with the presence of the International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE), most visibly during their annual convention that drew 7,000+ educators, music students, performers, journalists, industry professionals and avid jazz fans. IAJE published a quarterly journal, provided resource teams to consult with musicians and educators worldwide, and sponsored affiliate state organizations. Really, IAJE did a whole lot more, and had plans for a whole lot more. But after two highly successful conventions back-to-back in New York City, attendance dropped sharply in 2008 in Toronto. Maybe that was predictable—travel outside the US is problematic for many Americans tied to university and school district rules about travel and limited budgets; the exchange rate was moving farther and farther away from even with the dollar; airfares soared between Toronto and many major cities. And the jazz scene just wasn’t New York---clubs were few and far between. About 4,000 came to Toronto. It’s one of my favorite cities but even I ended up canceling my reservation when airfare topped $500 and I realized how much four days would cost in American dollars.

IAJE took a big hit on the Toronto Convention, but this apparently was only one more financial setback for an association that was slowly imploding, plagued by a variety of ills that can beset an organization that is largely volunteer driven, under-funded, and perhaps not recognizing the need for restructuring. Today, IAJE President Chuck Owen informed members that IAJE had filed Chapter 11 and canceled the 2009 Convention, scheduled for Seattle, another wonderful city that often proves to be relatively expensive for travelers. In essence, IAJE has gone dormant. As the only national or international organization dedicated to promoting jazz education, the demise of IAJE leaves a critical gap. We hope that the remaining leaders can muster the energy and support to rethink the organization and plan strategically for its recovery.

Meanwhile jazz education moves ahead. Last night at Orchestra Hall, a brief opening set was presented by a high school ensemble mostly from the School of Recording Arts, a St. Paul charter school. They blew “Stompin’ at the Savoy” with more enthusiasm than any of the pros who followed—after all, this was their big moment, not another concert on the tour. Young trumpeter Caleb McMahon (who attends St. Paul Central High School and studies with Kelly Rossum) honored the subsequent tribute to Louis Armstrong with skill and passion, creating a joyful voice that deserved to share the stage with headline trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Lately, Orchestra Hall has presented student musicians in opening or accompanying roles as part of its new jazz series, and it gives the music community a wonderful opportunity to hear the fruits of jazz education—formal or informal.

Also yesterday, another group of high school jazz artists—the Dakota Combo—was featured on KARE 11’s Showcase, as part of a story about area arts programs and summer camps. The Combo (funded by the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education and MacPhail Center for Music) has already performed at the Dakota Jazz Club, MacPhail’s grand opening gala, and the Winter Jazz Festival. Each member of the sextet has participated in his or her high school jazz program as well as various summer jazz camps in Minnesota and beyond. And there are many just within the metro area.

Earlier this week, Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul—the program that has been a launching pad for many successful area jazz students—hosted Delfeayo Marsalis, in town for the Louis Armstrong tribute at Orchestra Hall. It was an opportunity for some serious interaction between an accomplished artist and young hopefuls who learn and perform through programs at Walker West.

There probably will be no immediate fallout from the IAJE debacle at the local level—strong programs and local organizations will continue and hopefully expand their commitments. But jazz, and jazz education, are truly global; the music grew because its creators crossed boundaries of language and culture. Jazz thrives on its broad perspective and those who live it, teach it and support it need to revive an international entity to ensure its growth and vitality.
Photos: 1) Students from LaGuardia High School in New York performed at the 2007 IAJE Convention. 2) Delfeayo Marsalis and the Dakota Combo hosted an open student jam at the Dakota Jazz Club in December 2007. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Jazz These Days -- Easy to Find

"Here's the problem with jazz these days..." Anytime I read something that starts like that, I cringe. It could have been written in the early 50s when Bebop was first alienating the swing purists, or in the 70s when the rise of fusion further alienated the bop purists, or in the 90s when it was just fashionable to sigh “Jazz is dead.” This particular phrase led off what was supposedly a promo for the Downbeat Rising Stars show at Orchestra Hall, one of the highlighted events in Minnesota Monthly’s “Hot Summer Nights” feature in their May issue. The problem with jazz, at least in the Twin Cities, is editors like MM’s Andrew Putz who seem to have plenty to say about topics they don’t bother to research or even consider with a reporter’s obligation for accuracy. In full, Putz said: “Here’s the problem with jazz these days: For everyone save true aficionados, it’s too damn hard. Hard to understand. Hard to appreciate. Hard to love. Hell, it’s even hard to find a good place to hear jazz live (at least, if you don’t live near Minneapolis’ Dakota Jazz Club or St. Paul’s Artists Quarter).”

Like any art form, jazz can be "understood" on many levels, from pure enjoyment of the melody and rhythm to a deep understanding of chord progressions and improvisational theory. Hard to appreciate? Hard to love? Any harder than acid rock, hip hop or modern classical experiments? Appreciation and love naturally are not universal reactions to jazz any more than to Impressionist paintings or opera or Mozart or eggplant. Each to her own taste. But clearly jazz appreciation—or at least recognition that jazz has a local audience--is hard for someone who apparently has taken no time at all to look around and see just how much jazz is available in the Twin Cities, perhaps more per capita than in any city in the US. Hard to find? Check the Friday Strib, Jazz Police at, Pamela Espeland’s weekly column at, the Twin Cities Jazz Society site at, or Maryann Sullivan’s weekly “Jazz Connections” via MPR. Just don't check MPR’s own Minnesota Monthly!

Recently on Jazz Police I posted an overview of where one can find free and cheap jazz in the Twin Cities area (see Seems that every day I learn about or recall a venue I left out, and I will update the listing periodically. Jazz isn’t limited to downtown clubs, although the Dakota and Artists Quarter are certainly the best known venues in the Metro. But to declare that there are few options beyond the Dakota or AQ is like complaining that there are few jazz venues in Greenwich Village beyond the Vanguard or Blue Note. Take away our two very centrally located jazz clubs and what’s left? In and near downtown Minneapolis, we have Rossi’s (jazz a few nights per week), The Times (jazz seven nights per week), Babalu (Latin jazz), the new Rosewood Room in the warehouse district, and that’s just clubs. Downtown and nearby Minneapolis also boasts Orchestra Hall with its new high profile jazz series (Delfeayo Marsalis and an amazing cast tonight, Dianne Reeves on May 2nd, the great Dave Brubeck Quartet on May 25th, the Downbeat stars on June 26th, Terence Blanchard and his “jazz at the movies” show on August 1st); the Walker Art Center presents modern and world jazz throughout the year (Bill Frisell, Craig Taborn, Drew Gress, Dave Torn have been on stage recently); the U of M presents a half dozen major acts via the Northrop Jazz series each year (Ramsey Lewis, Ravi Coltrane, and Roy Haynes were on this season’s agenda); the new and amazingly hip and beautiful MacPhail Center for Music, now in the Mill District, holds a Jazz Thursdays series highlighting local talent and in March hosted the Twin Cities Winter Jazz Festival with headliner Sonny Fortune. And, perhaps oddly, the Minnesota Opera Center in the warehouse district is the new performance home for the Jazz Is Now! ensemble.

Move across the river, and not only will you find the musician-friendliest club at the Artists Quarter in the Hamm Building but such small venues as the Black Dog Bar and Hat Trick Lounge, serving jazz on a regular basis. Fan out toward Midway and find at-least-weekly jazz at the Clown Lounge. But so many more venues spring up in the neighborhoods and out in the burbs, it’s hard to keep up. In the past year we’ve seen live jazz presented at least weekly at Café Maude and Cave Vin in southwest Minneapolis; at Crave in the Galleria (Edina), Sage Wine Bar (Mendota), the Dakota County Steakhouse (Burnsville) and other spots far from the din of downtown. Live jazz is available seven nights per week at multiple venues to anyone with open eyes and ears.

And really, is jazz just “too damn hard?” Tonight there were few empty seats at Orchestra Hall, and I doubt that two-thirds of the audience qualified as hard-core jazz aficionados. And no one seemed to find the music too difficult to applaud with enthusiasm or stand and clap in time with minimal encouragement from Delfeayo Marsalis or Kermit Ruffins as they presented the sounds of New Orleans and Louis Armstrong.
Andrew Putz, get out of your office and unplug your ears. Even if you don’t understand this music, you can surely find it.

Photo: Dave Karr's Mulligan Stew quintet performed recently in Antonello Hall at the new MacPhail Center for Music, with city lights serving as the backdrop. (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Snowblind: The Brass Pack

I’m not sure why I love brass ensembles. My first jazz record (courtesy of my father when I was about 9 or 10) featured swing trumpeter Jonah Jones. Why trumpet? I have no idea. But my next record was Al Hirt, so there must have been a brass connection early on. Much later I was a fan of the Canadian Brass, whether they were playing Mozart or Armstrong. And today I think the trombone has a strangely glorious sound, wonderfully demonstrated by local band Slide Huxtable.

It’s no wonder then that I am a big fan of Snowblind, an oddly named brass quintet of young Twin Cities jazzers. The front line features Adam Rossmiller (trumpet), Shilad Sen (tenor sax) and Scott Agster (trombone), all working on advanced degrees at the University of Minnesota while filling various roles in area bands. The pulse is provided by drummer Reid Kennedy, a recent U of M grad, and bassist Graydon Peterson, a product of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire jazz program and one of the busiest first-call musicians in town. Snowblind has been blowing around the Twin Cities for about three years, experiencing turnover only in the bass chair when Tom Lewis and then Peterson replaced original bandmember Mark Drehmann.

The guys already have two CDs on their resumes, Arctic Fury and Taking Shape, and they recorded the first tracks for number 3 last night at the Dakota. If their recent trajectory continues, this next recording will be volcanic. Three years ago, the band was already impressive with their original arrangements of tunes like “Night and Day” and “Night in Tunisia.” Without a chordal instrument, the harmonies are created via varying combinations of brass voices, summoning a crisp and elegant energy that can give you goosebumps or make you smile, often within a few beats. But over time, Snowblind has proven itself a caldron of new compositions, each member of the band contributing his talents to their growing and diverse repertoire. Taking Shape is entirely original works--one tune is bluesy, another a tropical funkfest, another a sweet, serene ballad. And as they proved last night, they are not above a bit of humor, initiating Livingston Taylor’s “Pajamas” with a verse of Brahm’s famous “Lullabye.” (Reid Kennedy, responsible for this arrangement, told me later that he remembered hearing Taylor sing this song about getting ready for bed when he was a kid, so it seemed logical to mesh with Brahms.)

Maybe part of the appeal of a brass ensemble is its character as musical amoeba—an ability to change the shape of its sound without losing the nucleus. Snowblind can conjure all formats from small chamber ensemble to Big Band with small shifts in harmonies and dynamics, the same nuances that transform waltz to samba to ballad to grooving dance to majestic march. Each musician has a distinct voice in his own right but it’s the sum total, the telepathic interplay that creates their unique sonority, five lobes of the same brain signaling hypersonic activity.

Together, they kick brass.

Photos: 1) Adam Rossmiller on trumpet; 2) Snowblind at the Dakota; 3) Shilad Sen on tenor sax; photos by Andrea Canter 4/9/2008

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Iron Chef of Jazz Piano

Each time I hear pianist Bill Carrothers I feel as if I have been thrown into a cyclone of jazz history. Himself a military history buff, Carrothers has also assimilated jazz from roots reaching back to the spirituals of African slaves and the cultural confluence in New Orleans through swing and bop and the current masters of the avant garde. That by itself would not really distinguish Carrothers from some other modern masters, but Bill tosses the past 100 years of influences into a few minutes of soloing in such a way that it makes perfect sense, yet never appears self conscious. He’ll interweave tradition and innovation to create multi-layered concoctions of thick, robust chords and far-reaching scales, or dissect melodies and harmonies until nothing remains but delicate, skeletal structures of exquisite irony. And always the listener is challenged to identify the process, the origins, how many standards, how many familiar theme songs, how many popular motifs can you identify before Bill moves seamlessly to the next… and how does he make it seem so musically right?

It doesn’t have to be his gig or his intent; Bill will steal the show. Saturday night he was billed as sideman for trumpeter Jim Rotondi, but Carrothers’ soloing, and quoting in particular, commanded center stage. “Honeysuckle Rose” bloomed within “What’s New;” Monk licks careened through “Love for Sale;” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” diverged (with conceptual logic) into “”When I Fall in Love” and “Secret Love.” None of which is meant to negate the virtuosity of Jim Rotondi, one of the Artists Quarter’s most popular New York visitors, a hornman who can make you fall in love with the rich and mellow flugelhorn in just a few notes. Surprisingly, he’s released only one quartet recording, his new Four of a Kind (Positone Records), typically setting himself in larger ensembles such as the acclaimed One for All Sextet with saxman Eric Alexander. Yet Jim’s style seems perfectly aligned with a rhythm section alone, and at the AQ that rhythm section featured not only the ubiquitous Carrothers but the elegant and perhaps underestimated Tom Lewis on bass and the ever-playful Kenny Horst on drums. There’s no formula at work here, standards or original tunes are as likely to begin with a crash of percussion as with a tinkling of piano, bass vamp or horn verse. Rotondi gives his cohorts plenty of space to stretch out while he stands off in the shadows, returning to the stage to duel with Carrothers, ride in tandem with Lewis, debate with Horst, or encourage another solo.

And if that soloist is Bill Carrothers, you have two choices. Sit back and enjoy the ride, as you will be tossed and turned amid all-out dashes across the keys, hand-to-hand somersaults from chord to chord, sweetly articulated single-line phrases and even an occasional thwang of an inside string. Or lean forward and try to follow the Iron Chef of Jazz as he grabs one ingredient after another, mixing old and new into rich stews or airy soufflés; play “Name That Tune;” and resign yourself to the realization that your ears and brain have been outdistanced again by Bill Carrothers’ flying fingers and inventive mind.

Photos: (1) Bill Carrothers works over the keyboard at the AQ. (2) Jim Rotondi sings on flugelhorn. Photos by Andrea Canter, 4/5/2008.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Phil Hey Quartet: Jazz That Grins

I came of jazz age listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet in my early 20s. I never saw them live, but Milt Jackson was my introduction to the vibes, and I have been in love ever since. In the Twin Cities we have a 21st century answer to the MJQ, and I suspect that if this was New York, the Phil Hey Quartet might be held in similar regard. They swing and sway and go into orbit nearly monthly (usually the 4th Thursday) at the Artists Quarter. Last weekend they had a rare Friday/Saturday gig that might have been their most inspired yet. I had the opportunity to hear them in a more sedate concert setting Sunday afternoon when they performed at Schmitt Music Center’s Edina performance studio for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s Jazz Appreciation Group (fondly known as the OLLI Cats). Despite the more formal venue, the PHQ played with the same joyful abandon as they had displayed into the wee hours the night before. Once ignited, they just kept burning, each musician fueling his cohorts.

Each member of the quartet has plenty of chops to spare and each is a familiar sight and sound at local jazz haunts. Leader Phil Hey was often called out of town to perform with the late Dewey Redman and otherwise is a frequent supporter of such acclaimed artists as Laura Caviani, Pete Whitman, Lucia Newell and Gordy Johnson as well as many national touring musicians. Pianist Phil Aaron similarly is on call to visiting stars and local luminaries, an elegant stylist with an Evanescent touch. Bassist Tom Lewis is one of the most versatile of pacesetters, appearing throughout the area with mostly small ensembles, instrumental or vocal. And Dave Hagedorn, one of the few local vibes artists but easily comparable to the best in the nation, performs far less frequently than his talent demands.

In 2006, the quartet finally got around to recording a representative sampling of their eclectic repertoire, from Hey’s original title track Subduction to covers of Irving Berlin, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane; vibes master Bobby Hutcherson’s “Highway One,” a lovely tune from Marc Copland (“Darius Dance”), and my favorite, Don Cherry’s “Mopti.” It’s the longest track at nearly 13 minutes, and last weekend I heard it twice live, Saturday night at the Artists Quarter and again by request at the OLLI concert. It’s the penultimate PHQ collaboration, a beautiful melody filled with rhythmic excitement that seems, inevitably, to prompt gleeful interaction among the musicians.

“Mopti” is named for the African city that sits on three islands, known as the “Venice of Mali.” Like the rivers that converge on the city, the composition flows together as Africa meets postbop. Dave Hagedorn opens with melodic statement that’s already an improvised bit of celestial seasonings, setting the tone for the rest of the band. Evolving with a sense of joyous urgency, a tribal chant underlies the main voice as Phil Hey sets a forceful percussion line in motion. Like stirring a pot of surprise ingredients, the musicians add successive layers, a contrapuntal partnership played out between piano and bass, Phil Aaron bringing a level of energy to the music seldom suggested by his usual tasteful comping in other contexts. Tom Lewis similarly is not often heard engaging his fertile imagination so unfettered, but the laughter captured on record as well as the enthused audience reaction in live performance provides ample justification for more. The centerpiece however belongs to the leader as Hey takes an extended solo (live as well as recorded) that showcases the vast array of sound available within a standard trapset, finally aligning with Hagedorn to tag team a forceful conclusion. Here, there is no substitute for live performance.

Next best thing to a live performance is a rendition of “Mopti” captured by Don Berryman and posted on You Tube at Unfortunately, the sound doesn’t do the band justice. You’ll have to come down to the Artists Quarter. Close your eyes and you could be at the Village Vanguard. But keep them open, you don’t want to miss the grins. One will be yours.

Photo: Dave Hagedorn swings the mallets over leader Phil Hey at the AQ on March 29, 2008. Photo by Andrea Canter.