Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Art Tatum Live? Send in the Clones!

It has been said, only half in jest, that one of the hallmarks of improvised music in general, and jazz in particular, is that it is “never played the same way once.” The melody might remain intact, but each musician puts his or her own imprint on how that melody is presented and how ensuing improvisations take shape. Even if scripted, live music can’t help but differ each time it’s played, and that really holds true for traditional classical music as well as bop and beyond. No matter how faithfully the musician follows a score, each breath through a mouthpiece, each pressure from finger or forearm, each passing of the bow or plucking of the string will vary even if to a tiny degree. If it were otherwise, there would be little point to live music. We could just play one recording over and over.

Yet Sony Music and Zenph Studios have done the seemingly impossible—they are releasing a “live” performance of Art Tatum at The Shrine in 1949 (Piano Starts Here). Only this live recording was made in 2007. Say what? Since I am not a recording engineer, this will have to be the Techno-Wizardry For Dummies explanation. What I understand is this: Zenph has developed a process of reconstituting old recordings, in this case one that was damaged goods, by digitally capturing the exact rendering of the music, then replaying it through modern equipment, in this case a Yamaha Disklavier Pro Mark III Concert Grand placed in precisely the same spot on The Shrine Auditorium stage as Tatum originally performed, in front of a live audience. (This is termed a “re-performance.”) The result? An impeccable recording of Tatum’s artistry, complete with audience applause. The hype around this project is readily anticipated—we hear the “real” Art Tatum as did that audience in 1949, now with a record of every sound and nuance that defied capture and preservation six decades ago.

Is this really Art Tatum? He never touched a Disklavier. He wasn’t at the Shrine Auditorium in 2007. And if he had been able to jump into a Time Machine and show up for the gig, would Art Tatum have so perfectly matched Art Tatum? Would he have played such masterpieces as “Tea for Two” and “How High the Moon?” the “same way once?”

There is no doubt that the recording enables us to appreciate the speed, the delicacy, the dexterity, the inventiveness of one of the greatest musicians of all time in a way that perhaps is not really possible through Tatum’s existing discography. And if Tatum were somehow alive today, there is no doubt he would be playing and recording on equipment not even imagined in 1949.

But this is akin to taking an Ansel Adams negative from, well, let’s say 1949, scanning it digitally, and making a new print using the best of modern technology to restore contrast, highlights, shadows that surely were in Adams’ mind’s eye if not through his lens but impossible to reveal in print 60 years ago. Is it still an Ansel Adams photograph or an image based on Adams?

This brings up the dilemma, is it still art if it is imitated, no matter how skillful the duplication? Specifically in jazz, if the hallmark of the music is to be “in the moment,” is it still jazz if we faithfully recreate that moment?

We were all fascinated but also somewhat horrified by the arrival of Dolly, the first successful clone. Yet the stem cell spinoff has the power to save and improve countless lives. Medical technology may seem to be running ahead of our ethical and moral development, yet one can imagine how the creation of sheep or even a beating heart might enhance humanity through thoughtful application of progress.

I’m less inclined to consider the latest in sound technology as a major breakthrough that will benefit mankind. It’s intriguing but, unlike Art Tatum, it lacks soul and creation "in the moment." Those are essential characteristics of jazz. Music created in the laboratory is a marvel of engineering. Music created by musicians (acoustically or electronically, on the bandstand or in the studio) is a marvel of humanity.

If you are intrigued by the process or simply curious how Art Tatum might sound with the benefit of flawless recording technology, look for a copy of Piano Starts Here: Live at The Shrine on Sony.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Grateful Music

I am beginning to realize that my views of the current generation of young adults (late teens, early 20-somethings) is hopelessly (if heartwarmingly) skewed. Nearly everyone I know in this age group is an aspiring musician. Some are at the top of the heap of their high school jazz bands, some are studying at schools of music, and some are ready to launch their post-college careers. But those I have gotten to know all share at least one thing in common—gratitude. Not only are they thankful for the blessing of their innate talents, but they are quick to acknowledge the first teacher, the mentor, the band director, the club owner who provided countless lessons and opportunities. And they are grateful for the support—emotional and often financial—that they have received from their families. Those of us who enjoy the results of this support need to take time out and express our gratitude as well.

I first encounted Paris Strother when she was a senior at DeLaSalle High School and working at the Dakota Jazz Club. She was the first performer at the newly relocated Dakota in October 2003—owner Lowell Pickett asked her to open for Bobby Watson at the private opening party. There she was, this youthful teen, playing music that should have been pouring from the fingers of a much older musician. She had thick chords and powerful command of the keyboard even then, more resembling McCoy Tyner than her hero, Bill Evans, yet that lyrical thread of Evans was nevertheless detectable. I’ve been a Paris fan ever since. We catch up once or twice a year since she left home for studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Last week Paris graduated, and now looks forward to a future of performing, composing (particularly scoring films) and maybe some teaching.

And she held her graduation party, of sorts, appropriately on the Dakota stage with her working quintet, aka Paris Strother and Gentlemen. The Gentlemen came out from Boston for what turned into two nights at the Dakota and a night at La Bodega. Paris had “warned” me that this music would be loud, full of energy and plugged in! It was all of the above and more. With her sleight of hand percussionist Jonathan Merla on Sunday night, along with guest trumpeter John Raymond (another locally grown, rapidly evolving talent in his senior year at University of Wisconsin Eau Claire) and a special one-tune appearance by ace drummer Kevin Washington, Paris covered a wide swath of Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms, original compositions and arrangements of Carlos Santana. The energy was electric as was much of the guitar and bass, while Paris often had one hand on the Steinway and the other on the Korg keyboard. The joy and energy may have disguised the complexity of the music, the subtle insertions (e.g. licks of “My Favorite Things”), the wickedness of that right hand and the power of the left. Drummer Louis Cato deserves special mention, his high sticks and never-ending fluid motion reminding me of Winard Harper. The second set went on nearly two hours—youth has its advantages!

The second night at the Dakota had a different flavor, in part due to the absence of conguero Merla (who left for a tour with Erykah Badu), in part, Paris said, because the Dakota management wanted a lighter performance adjacent to the dining room. I missed the all-acoustic first set, arriving in time to hear the band cut loose once again, this time in a more blues and funk vein. The band started off with more Carlos Santana, but pretty soon the ensemble spewed forth “Afro Blue,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” and, I swear, a lick from every big hit of the 70s. Some of the funkiest blues to hit the Dakota followed (and I say this one night after Javon Jackson and Les McCann blazed through two sets on the same stage), with guitarist Rene DelFierro conjuring a wild B-3; next a tune from Brian Wilson and the capstone of the second set, Paris’ own “Sky Blue.” Don’t confuse this with Maria Schneider’s recent tune of the same title. Yet there are similarities –both composers build orchestrally from firm roots in bop and blues, but Paris creates her symphonic works for just piano quintet; the music builds in bold sweeping strokes with the drama of a film score, which perhaps is what Paris had in mind all along. This music does not beg for a film backdrop―rather, a film should be begging for this score.

The short final set was largely acoustic, Paris with just the trio of Josh Haari (on acoustic bass) and Louis Cato on drums. They bounced through “Poinciana,” washed Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” in hazy blue, and brought back guitarist DelFierro for one more funk blast before Paris sent the guys offstage for her solo finale, a multiphonic thunderstorm she later attributed to Denny Zeitlin. So much power, passion and artistry in just two hands that have barely experienced two decades leave one breathless.

A few months ago, as she approached her graduation from Berklee, Paris was eloquent in her assessment of the opportunities she’s had over the past four years—the area club gigs, the master classes with the very top echelon of jazz artists, the assigned projects that have pushed her talents into new spaces, the travels with fellow students to perform to the welcoming ears of music fans in Russia, the semester in Greece where she found new outlets for music, new friends, and new sources of support and adventure.

But most of all, Paris reflected on the opportunities and sacrifices on her behalf that have been the gift from her parents. “This was the best gift,” she said, “to send your child to this expensive school where she could spend four years doing what she loves so that she can do music for the rest of her life.”

To Helen and Curtis Strother—know that the money was well spent. And much appreciated.

Photos: Paris (top) and Louis at the Dakota on May 18th. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Revisiting Eric Dolphy With the OTLQ

I never paid much attention to the music of Eric Dolphy, although I own a few of his recordings. At the time I purchased his classic Out to Lunch, I was trying to broaden my jazz horizons but found the music too avant. But then, I used to think Cecil Taylor was the one who was “out to lunch.” I’ve since reevaluated my opinion of Taylor. And thanks to the revival of interest in Dolphy’s work by a group of local artists, I have reevaluated Dolphy as well. I now consider his music to be fascinating, exciting, harmonically and melodically freeing, in a good way.

About three cold Februarys ago, vibraphone master Dave Hagedorn organized a tribute to the music of Eric Dolphy at his home campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield. He enlisted the contributions of some of the best in the Midwest or anywhere else, for that matter—Phil Hey on drums, Tom Lewis on bass, Kelly Rossum on trumpet, and Dave Milne in the Dolphy role of multi-reedman. What, no piano? True to Dolphy’s arrangements, no keyboard. I recall that it was about 20 below zero that night and I probably would have passed on the trip if Don Berryman had not encouraged me to attend. Surprisingly for a cold cold night, the small auditorium was packed, probably in no small part due to the popularity of Hagedorn and the enthusiasm of his jazz students. But the chill abated quickly as the heat of creation turned to joyous steam rising from the Out to Lunch Quintet. Wow, this was not your usual Saturday night jazz!

Hearing it, seeing it live, it was challenging music but filled with surprises, humor, outlandish harmonies, and wild solos from everyone, an experience that has been thankfully repeated several times over the past two years at the Artists Quarter in St. Paul. Dave Milne plays every reed imaginable from bass clarinet to soprano sax, with alto and C-Melody saxes in between. Kelly Rossum blows through both ends of his trumpet, stuffing mutes of every shape into the bell or waving a tin “hat” across the airway. Dave Hagedorn, my nominee for the best vibes player on the planet, seems to grow two more hands swinging a dozen mallets, but I guess he really has but two hands and no more than four mallets at a time. Sleight of hand, certainly. Tom Lewis, who can be the most subtle of bassists when backing a singer, is dazzling and assertive when wearing his Dolphy shoes, and Phil Hey, also prone to elegant subtlty, becomes downright aggressive and playful behind the trapset, moving well beyond timekeeping to time making.

The OTLQ recorded Live at the Artists Quarter a few months after that night in Northfield and released the result in 2006; ever since, they come into the Artists Quarter for a weekend a time or two each year, most recently last weekend. They had to compete with the state fishing opener and Mother’s Day weekend, drawing a criminally small crowd Friday and a near full-house the next night. While continuing to mine the Dolphy repertoire, OTLQ is ever expanding its horizons, bringing on works from Charles Mingus and Grachan Moncur as well as originals from Milne and Rossum. And Dave Hagedorn announces the tunes with his trademark deadpan that belies a wit as slippery as his mallets.

It was a young audience on Saturday night, undoubtedly heavy with past and present students of the educators/performers on stage. I rather like the idea that students of the 21st century are still inspired by the music of the 1960s, and that the source of their fascination goes beyond the Beatles.

Interested in the OTLQ? Visit for information about the band and their recording.
Photo: OTLQ at their CD release at the Artists Quarter: (L-R) Dave Milne, Tom Lewis, Kelly Rossum, Phil Hey, Dave Hagedorn. (Photo: Andrea Canter)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Songs of Gold

Sometimes I realize there is no point lamenting that we live in the Midwest rather than New York. True, if I was in or near Manhattan on any given night, I would have at least a dozen top-flight jazz clubs to choose from, and most likely at least 4-5 gigs that would really tempt me. And this does not include Carnegie Hall, Rose Hall, or any of the other major concert halls. Nor am I throwing into the mix Broadway and off-Broadway shows, dance companies, and the rest of the live entertainment scene. The Twin Cities pales in comparison. But as my mother says, you can only go to one thing at a time. And even here in the Twin Cities, conflicts arise almost daily—do I go to the KBEM jazz film series or to the Artists Quarter to hear the Phil Hey Quartet? Do I go to the Dakota for Bruce Henry or to the AQ for the Out to Lunch Quintet? Do I go hear one of my favorite singers at the Times or one of my favorite pianists at Crave?

Sometimes the conflicts are irrelevant: the local talent will be around next week but a touring artist may not return for a year, two years, maybe a decade. In the past week, the Twin Cities has welcomed the best voices in the business, if jazz is your business. Or even if jazz is something you rarely notice. First, Karrin Allyson came to town, as she tends to do annually, and gave us what was arguably her best show ever (see my blog for April 30). A few days later, Dianne Reeves filled Orchestra Hall. And Sunday night, the rarest treat of all, Freda Payne donned her jazz chops for an Ella Fitzgerald tribute at the Dakota.

I almost passed on Dianne Reeves. I love her voice, I love her song selections, but her last performance at Orchestra Hall was marred badly by poor sound. Sometimes the deep box that is home to one of the world’s finest symphony orchestras is nevertheless a sonically evil setting for a vocalist or small ensemble, and particularly for jazz. Voices are often over-amplified to the point of distortion, with the band vibrating as if in an echo chamber. I am too accustomed now to the intimate, near-perfect sound of the small jazz clubs on either side of the river (Dakota and Artists Quarter), yet many larger halls manage small groups and soloists admirably, such as Ordway Theater in St. Paul.

I decided to take my chances for two reasons: 1) I really like Dianne Reeves and she never performs in small venues; 2) lately, Orchestra Hall has been a contender for Most Improved Sound of the Year. The arrival of pops/special projects director Lilly Schwartz likely has a lot to do with it. But Reeves also travels with her own sound engineer, which can be a big plus or disastrous minus depending on how well that engineer works with the hall’s characteristics and sound personnel. On May 2nd, the sound was more than adequate, amplification was within tolerable limits; no distortion interfered with our enjoyment of what may be the most perfect vocal instrument in modern jazz.

Reeves just released an eclectic recording produced by cousin George Duke, When You Know. On tour she is backed by some of the musicians from the recording, including Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Greg Hutchinson, along with pianist Peter Martin. Friday night she performed with the full quartet and in varying combinations. But most dramatic, most inspiring, was her a cappella rendition of “I Like the Sunrise.” When was the last time we saw a standing ovation in the middle of a set? Especially here in the land of “Minnesota Nice?” (That’s local lingo for our usually staid but pleasant Scandanavian exteriors, outwardly unflappable and rarely given to extreme emotional expression.)

Over the two sets, Reeves gave us a virtuosic demonstration of scat and vocalese, techniques that to some define jazz singing and to others simply interfere with the presentation of “real” lyrics. Not every jazz singer should scat—the substitution of sound for word should not be a mere afterthought to fill in space between verses or to wave a banner that screeches “I am a jazz singer!” Dianne Reeves uses scat as naturally as she uses words, as skillfully as a saxophonist blows riffs. And in doing so she makes full use of her own instrument, leaping across octaves like a sure-footed gymnast, executing accurate and graceful landings, sudden ascents and descents without once teetering off the edge of her destination. And she also fits her talent for vocalese (real words, but using her voice like another instrument) into her commentary and, at Orchestra Hall, into her introductions of her musicians. Starting “Our Love Is Here to Stay” with just Lubambo on stage, she vocalized her invitation to each of the other musicians to join her. But scat or straight, no matter, this was a night to savor a voice that exudes warmth and sweet joy, physical control and emotional freedom. Next time Dianne Reeves comes to town, I won’t hesitate for a second.

I hesitated for a few days after hearing that 70s R&B star Freda Payne would be bringing an Ella Fitzgerald Tribute to the Dakota. I remembered “Band of Gold,” her big hit of 1970. It was a great tune for the era. But it’s nearly 40 years later. And a far cry from Ella. But why not? It seemed like a fun way to cap the weekend. And she sounded great on the video clip we found on her website. Growing up in Motown, Freda Payne actually started out singing the songs of Ella in her teens. Both Berry Gordy and Duke Ellington wanted to sign her—but her mother wanted her to finish school. She went on to win the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, got her first job in New York from Pearl Bailey, and did some jazz gigs. Her connections to Detroit soon led her to a career in R&B. Over the next two decades she also acted on stage, film and television. Now she’s turned back to her first love.

At 65, Freda hasn’t lost her swing or her zing, her pitch is true and her enthusiasm for her material is infectious. Her show was worthy of the best of the 50s night club acts, from her sparkly long gown to her entertaining, as well as informative, commentary between tunes. She’s studied Ella on multiple levels, and while she does not really sound like Ella (although she often hints at Barbara Morrison, another mid-60s Ella interpreter), she has incorporated many elements of Ella, from her impeccable sense of swing to her smoothly flowing scat. It was a one-night gig and this was the second set—nothing held back. And it was a special treat to see two of the Twin Cities’ finest—bassist Gordy Johnson and drummer Joe Pulice—share the stage with this engaging performer, and so obviously enjoying the moment.

Most vocalists give the band a tune or two to “warm up” the audience, make their grand entrance, and take a break during each song, yielding some solo opportunities to the band while also resting the chops for a minute or two. Freda Payne came out with the band and never stopped. Not for 90+ minutes. Her “breathers” were her comments between songs. She’s svelte and youthful. Either her performance style keeps her fit, or her fitness allows her non-stop performing.

Opening the Ella Fitzgerald songbook is like plunging your hand into a deep treasurer chest and pulling out one gem after another. So did Freda, be it ballad, blues or uptempo romp, proving from the first tune that, indeed, “The Best Is Yet to Come”—energized swing on “A Tisket, A Tasket” and “The Lady Is a Tramp,” sultry on “It’s Too Darn Hot,” beguiling on “Miss Otis Regrets” and “Angel Eyes.” And the inevitable requests, saved for the finale, “Bring the Boys Home” and, of course, “Band of Gold.” In isolation these tunes bring back the disco energy of the 70s. Coming after 90 minutes of Ella standards, the energy was mythical.

Maybe we have fewer choices in the Twin Cities versus our coastal metroplexes. But I like the choices we have here. And sometimes we strike gold.

Photo: Freda Payne brought Ella to life at the Dakota on May 4, 2008. Photo by Andrea Canter.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Starlight, Star Bright, Everything She Sang Tonight

[April 30, 2008] Karrin Allyson always gives us a good show. A native Kansan and short-term Twin Cities resident before relocating to Kansas City and then New York a decade ago, Karrin seems to enjoy her return “home” every year, usually on the heels of a new release on Concord, her label throughout her fabled career. (Even her first, self-produced release ended up reissued by Concord when they signed her as a relative newbie back in 1992.)

But sometimes the stars and planets are in perfect alignment, and the event not only lives up to its hype but reaches far beyond expectations. There was a nearly sold-out club and dining room, pretty rare for the first of a four-set, two-night booking. And this audience included Karrin’s husband Bill McLaughlin, frequent touring partner/pianist Laura Caviani, and Karrin’s mom (who lives in Minneapolis) and other assorted friends and relatives. But a lot of credit goes to this band, surely the most elegantly supportive ensemble she has brought to the Dakota yet: Long-term collaborator/guitarist/arranger Ron Fleemans; Chicago-based bassist Larry Kohut; acclaimed vibes magician and Dave Holland partner, Steve Nelson; and our own master of percussive eloquence, Phil Hey. Each contributed mightily to the whole and as a soloist, and the vibes provide unique colors and textures seldom heard with a vocalist. This time Karrin is not touring with a keyboardist, handling piano duties on a number of the songs herself. And that’s not dumbing down the accompaniment. Not at all. As Gary Giddens once wrote, “she plays a mean piano.” Actually Karrin plays a lyrical and songful piano.

It wasn’t just me. I heard many others comment that this was the best Karrin Allyson set they’d heard. And I’ve heard her each time she has visited the Dakota since at least 2003. This tour is truly a Bilingual Songfest, with many songs from her new bilingual recording, Imagina: Songs of Brasil. Karrin has been performing Brazilian tunes, often in Portuguese, since her first recording, but most of the tunes on Imagina have not been in her recorded or touring repertoire for long, and she sings all fourteen in Portuguese, as well as many in English as well. Chris Caswell, her lyricist on her last CD, Footprints, returns with some new English lyrics for several songs, while she also makes good use of the words of such notables as Jon Hendricks, Susannah McCorkle and Gene Lees. The opening set was outstanding for many reasons, not the least of which was the selection of tunes. About half of the new recording was presented, including the pensive Vinicius de Moraes tune “Medo De Mara (Surrender the Soul”); a bright English setting of “Desafinado” as well as other gems from Jobim—his first tune and her title track, “Imagina,” “A Felicidade” from Black Orpheus; the delightful “Correnteza” (with Nelson here on vibes rather than marimba, but effective nevertheless); “So Tinha De Ser Com Voce”; and the sweet “Estrada Branca (This Happy Madness).” But Brazil was interlaced with ballads, blues and even a little French (the silly “Patout”): Johnny Burke's “What’s New?” (a Coltrane favorite), Blossom Dearie’s “Bye Bye Country Boy,” Hank Mobley’s “The Turnaround,” and Nat Adderley’s “Never Say Yes”—the latter pair from her marvelous 2007 release, Footprints, with new lyrics from current collaborator Chris Caswell. I never tire of her sparkling, deep-inside-the-lyric presentations.

Maybe she saved the best for last. Cajoled by applause to return for an encore, Karrin chose to go it alone at the piano, delivering a sensitive, sensual take on Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes.” And so it went, elegantly.

Usually artists warm up over the course of their multi-night engagement. If so, the final set tonight will be a nuclear meltdown. I’d return for a mere repeat.
Photo courtesy of Concord Records. Once upon a time, Karrin had an apparent aversion to photographers at her live gigs. She seems to have relaxed about that (as long as there's no intrusion of flash) and maybe next time I'll have a seat in a more photo-friendly location.