Friday, June 27, 2008

Not Just Another Coltrane

Sons and daughters of legends, be they titans of jazz like John Coltrane or world leaders like Jimmy Carter, face an uphill battle in forging their own identities. Many take the path of least resistance, finding themselves on paths as far removed from the famous parent as possible. Imagine young Ravi Coltrane considering the saxophone in the shadow of his late father’s genius. Actually he first considered the clarinet but told an interviewer that “Jazz music was something I always appreciated but I had to reach my late teens and go through profound family changes before the music became a dominate force in my life.” One of the profound changes that heavily influenced his commitment to music was the death of older brother John in a car accident in 1982. For a while, Ravi stepped back from music—and from the clarinet. Four years later, with a renewed sense of purpose, he enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts to pursue musical studies—and the saxophone. Now a major force on tenor and soprano sax, Coltrane is also an acclaimed bandleader, composer, and founder of an independent record label, RKM. It took a while, but his horn speaks for itself, and for Ravi, not the iconic father. “When I decided to pick up the saxophone, it was because I was falling in love with the music,” he said. “It wasn’t because I felt that I needed to do this or because of other people’s expectations. Or that it’ll be cool because my name is Coltrane.”

I first heard the Ravi Coltrane Quarter three years ago at the Dakota Jazz Club, again this past March at Ted Mann Auditorium as part of a double bill with the Roy Haynes Quartet, and now as the headliner for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival weekend at Mears Park in St. Paul last Saturday night. One of the elements that makes this one of the tightest, most exciting small bands in modern jazz is its consistency in personnel—pianist Luis Perdamo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland have been co-conspirators since the release of In Flux in 2005, each bringing a unique style and energy to a repertoire of largely original compositions.

A few minutes of light rain started their set at Mears Park but only drew the audience in closer, with Ravi’s encouragement, and the band played on, the journey including the original “World Order” and twists on Monk’s “Round Midnight.” Playing mostly on tenor, Ravi is an elastic improviser with endless ideas, but also a generous leader who recognizes the other three talents on stage, giving them plenty of space to design and resolve their own puzzles. Drew Gress, who appears with some of the most fascinating ensembles in jazz (most recently at the Walker Art Center with his own Seven Black Butterflies band), contorts and twists around the bass as if auditioning for the Pilobolus Dance Troupe, while coaxing solos that perfectly balance the thrust of the music.

If intimidated by the Coltrane brand earlier, Ravi today has the confidence to not only break free but pay homage to his lineage as well, as he did Saturday night to honor his late mother Alice, covering one of her compositions with soaring spirals at the tenor’s high end, while drummer E.J. Strickland provided nonstop thunder (prompted by the weather?). And as he did in March, boldly acknowledging his legacy, Ravi and the band closed out the night with, what else? John Coltrane’s own masterpiece, “Giant Steps.” Somehow there is no disputing heredity, yet there also is no doubt that this Coltrane has taken his own Giant Steps. Genius here extends across generations, the son’s path informed, not confined, by the name Coltrane.

Photos from Mears Park: Ravi Coltrane, Drew Gress. (Photos by Andrea Canter, June 21, 2008)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shells and Bones...and Amazing Tones

With more than a dozen national touring artists appearing at the Dakota Jazz Club this month, along with the Return to Forever reunion tour and the annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival, we risk an overdose of musical genius. But it is a risk I am willing to take.

This week (June 16-22) the Dakota has already hosted a hat trick of jazz genius, with young Taylor Eigsti’s piano trio on Monday, Steve Turre’s Sanctified Shell Choir on Tuesday, and Patricia Barber’s Quartet on Wednesday. I had to miss Eigsti, one of few child prodigies who actually lives up to, and surpasses, his early promise as an adult. After interviewing him for JazzINK and reviewing his latest recording, I was eagerly anticipating his Dakota debut...but the date didn’t work for me. I heard enthusiastic comments and hope he can return soon. (Check with me Taylor, I will clear my calendar!)

Tuesday night was the first Twin Cities visit of Steve Turre’s Sanctified Shells, although Turre the trombonist was here last summer as part of the Dakota’s Trombone Summit. I caught his sextet at Dizzy’s in New York last fall. As a trombone master, Turre launched his career with the Escovedo brothers, then worked through a pantheon of legends, from Ray Charles and Art Blakey to Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, J.J. Johnson, Herbie Hancock, Lester Bowie, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Van Morrison, Pharoah Sanders, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Woody Shaw and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk introduced Turre to the seashell as a musical instrument; while touring with Shaw in Mexico, he learned that his own relatives had played the shells. Shells, Turre told the Dakota audience, are the roots of the horns. Indeed it seems that the first wind instruments were seashells which indigenous peoples used to communicate as well as entertain. In the Mediterranean, a shell sounded as a fog horn; in Samoa, a blast of the shell announced the comings and goings of boats; Shinto priests still use a triton trumpet to summon their constituents to prayer. Turre has spent years refining the use of shells in music, specifically salsa-drenched jazz.

Imagine the Dakota club stage with twelve musicians—a standard rhythm section, congas, “talking drums,” and seven hornmen (one trumpet/flugelhorn player, a tenor sax, and five trombones). Add to the musicians an arsenal of mutes as well as a variety of shells. The dozen become a full symphony. Remember as a kid filling empty pop bottles with water, and blowing across the open top to create a strangely resonant sound? Watching Steve Turre and his “shell section” at work evokes a similar image, especially as Turre moves from one shell to another, a small one for high pitches, larger ones for lower pitches. On most tunes, only Turre blows the shell, usually alternating with the trombone. The shells have a unique vibrato, perhaps most like a flute in tonal quality. Sometimes Turre blows through two shells at once to create his own harmony. On his opening tune (“The Emperor), Steve promises to take us on a journey in which each musician serves as a storyteller, and the musical journey evolves through a sequence of instruments. The most versatile of all is Turre who grabs one hand percussion tool after another, then shells, maracas, block and cowbell, and of course trombone. An unexpected treat is hearing the great Billy Harper on tenor sax, his twisty turns of phrases reminding me of my recent encounter with Charles Lloyd.

No shells needed to create a unique, orchestral sonic poem out of “Body and Soul,” the trombone giving it more body, Harper’s sax giving it plenty of soul. “Rhythm Within” is more shell-oriented, with three of the ensemble putting down trombones for shells, including bass trombonist Aaron Johnson hefting the biggest white conch I ever saw, creating notes that suggest a tuba. “Happiness” is partly composed, partly created on the spur of the moment and features Turre on a large painted shell while three trombonists put down the brass in favor of the varying sized shells. The ensuing conversation is filled with joy, salsa with hard boppin’ overdrive. As on the other tunes, the rhythm section pushes the band with abandon, pianist Benito Gonzales (who was here last summer with Kenny Garrett) shining throughout with his raw energy and devastating rhythm.

If Steve Turre only played trombone and composed music, he still would be known as one of the modern-day giants of jazz. His leadership in developing shells as viable instruments is nothing short of genius.

Photos: Steve Turre switched off between shells and trombone, and most spectacular was this brightly painted conch. (Photos by Andrea Canter, at the Dakota on June 17, 2008)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Fountain of Haynes

I think I first heard legendary drummer Roy Haynes live four or five years ago at the Artists Quarter in St. Paul. The AQ is not a typical stopover for artists of his stature, but Roy has a special relationship with AQ owner and fellow drummer Kenny Horst. He’ll bring his band into the AQ about every two years and fill the room for three nights of the most joyful bop magic on the planet. And the fact that Roy is 83 and still burning behind the trapset is the definition of “legend.” An alum of the bands of jazz titans from swing to bop and beyond (from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane, from Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie to Pat Metheny), it might be Haynes’ influence on the future of jazz that will be his most significant legacy. Like another legendary drummer, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes has become the master baker fueling the rise of a new generation of stars, including two of the finest sax players of the 21st century, first Marcus Strickland, now Jaleel Shaw. The Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Quartet – Haynes has about as many years alone as his three sidemen together—is one of the most consistent, high octane mainstream ensembles on tour and on record. In the Twin Cities, we’ve been lucky enough to have FOY in town twice in the past three months—at Ted Mann Auditorium with the Northrop Jazz Series in March, and this week, a rare stop at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. It was an occasion to draw Kenny Horst away from his own club, serving nominally as “co-sponsor” but mostly just sitting back and enjoying the music with the rest of the nearly packed house.

There is a certain degree of predictability when the Fountain of Youth performs. There will be at least one tune by Thelonious Monk (“Trinkle Tinkle,” “Bemsha Swing”), and at least one or two from Pat Metheny (“Question and Answer” and, nearly every night, the band’s glorious rendition of “James”). Roy often uses “Summer Nights” as a closer; since his last recording, they bring the house down with a darkly delicious “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” But there is always variety, from great songbook staples like “Autumn Leaves” and “Everything Happens to Me” to the best bop standards like “Body and Soul,” “Solar,” “Oleo, and more. And “Hippity Hop,” which Roy first recorded live at the Artists Quarter on Where As, is now a much-anticipated solo interlude.

That there are few surprises in the playlist is offset by the pure magic of the quartet’s interaction, the sheer enjoyment of their company, the soaring spirits that yield one passionate phrase after another. Haynes knows how to carry his 83-year-old pulse across two sets of nonstop drumming—yielding the floor frequently to his young sidemen, this time taking no prolonged solos until well into the second set. No one is disappointed—the Energizer Bunny of percussion never stops swinging the sticks (or mallets, or brushes), perhaps dropping back to a simple tickling of the rims while a soloist carries on, but never, never taking a break. And each tune gives the other musicians wide berth for setting up and carrying out their own explorations. Martin Bejerano should be as well known as Brad Mehldau or Jason Moran, and probably would be if flying primarily under his own name. Watch his fingers dance across the keyboard-- is it possible to sit close enough to see his brain spinning, spewing out ideas that seem to arrive fully formed? One moment he slides into a Latin bounce, the next minute a bluesy meander, back again to a hard bop cascade of arpeggios and hand-over-hand somersaults. He attacks the keys like a Shiatsu masseur. David Wong, who took over for bassist John Sullivan about a year ago, gave us a slippery double-time solo on “James” and generally mirrored his boss’s pace, at some point engaging each of his partners in a sympathetic duet. Alto/soprano saxophonist and award-winning composer Jaleel Shaw nearly stole the show, however, filling the air with sinewy climbs, glissando-like dives, songful ballads, and generally exhibiting the physical and artistic energy of his mentor.

Roy Haynes packs a lot of entertainment into his small frame. He never stops moving. If he isn’t stroking the skins with his brushes or pounding out intricate artillery rounds with his sticks, he’s jumping up and pacing behind the kit, adding a well-placed hit or cymbal crash. “Hippity Hop” was performed solo with mallets, and here Roy taught a master class in control, never rushing, letting the patterns develop, the decibels rise and fall, each sound telling its own story. The master class was not yet over—noting he was using a “Roy Haynes Signature” snare, he invited “any drummers in the house” to come on stage and try it out. Several responded. If I played drums, even badly, I would have jumped at the chance to climb on stage and take a swat at Roy Haynes’ snare.

The band was in town for just one night, jumping over from Madison before returning to New York. It was a “Summer Night” of pure “hippity hop.” And our “hearts belonged to Daddy” Haynes.

Photos: (Top) an impressionist view of Roy Haynes at the Dakota; (Bottom) Jaleel Shaw blows over boss Haynes. (Photos by Andrea Canter, June 9, 2008)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

When Jazz Stars Align

Much of the impact of good music is subconscious. It can resurface at any time, even 38,000 feet above Wyoming. I had worried needlessly that a week in northern California would dull my recollection of two nights at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, the two opening concerts held in the small Jackson Theater in Santa Rosa. The venue is perfect for chamber jazz, small enough for intimacy, a great sound system, away from the bustle of this growing Sonoma County city. But the hall was also very dark and my scrawled notes nearly impossible to read days later, with such interfering sensations as driving along Highway 1 toward Mendocino, the best Thai curry I’ve ever tasted, the smooth-as-glass waters of Lake Tahoe, the wind blowing hard through row upon row of new grapes in Russian River vineyards. Aboard a crowded 757 enroute home, indeed some details are gone, but the poetry remains: One night of Fred Hersch and Kurt Elling, another night of Charles Lloyd and his latest configurations including tabla master Zakir Hussein and young piano monster Jason Moran.

Fred Hersch has intrigued me since I heard his early recordings, interpretations of standards as well as Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. His affinity for vocalists is well represented in his discography but perhaps never better than his own compositions, setting Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to music in the company of two of the finest vocalists on the planet—Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. Is there is anyone more elegantly attuned to the nuances of the piano? Kurt Elling is to the human voice what Fred Hersch is to the piano, but with a higher profile. He’s equally at home interpreting great standards like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and writing new lyrics for jazz classics like “Body and Soul.” Both musicians use elastic phrasing that they transform into hornlines; both can make you laugh or cry with minimal notes. Their collaboration seems inevitable, stars in perfect alignment. And such an alignment was the opening concert of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival on May 30th in Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theater. Poetry transcends form. Fred Hersch and Kurt Elling, whether reinterpreting Walt Whitman or inventing language in the moment, are complementary instruments, contrapuntal minds, weavers tying souls together with silken thread.

Charles Lloyd is another intriguing, somewhat mystical figure on and off the jazz scene over the past five decades. My first encounters with his flute and saxophone came on the early ECM recordings with Keith Jarrett. He was in retreat for a period, resurfacing in the 90s, ultimately in collaboration with the late drummer Billy Higgins, and lately in his trios with young drum master Eric Harland and Indian tabla guru Zakir Hussein. His music often reflects Eastern or Latin folk traditions, and he’s been known to sit at the piano, behind the drum kit, add hand percussion or harrowing sounds of flute, taragato or Tibetan oboe. You’re never sure what his ensembles will perform but you can always count on an evening of globally, spiritually inspired music. The concert on the festival’s second night in the Jackson Theater was filled with soaring moments and reflective calm, in varying configurations of the five musicians – four of whom now comprise Lloyd’s new “Rabo de Nube” Quartet (with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland) and three of whom form the “Sangam” Trio (with Harland and Hussein). Most intriguing were the trading of sounds and patterns among Hussein and Harland, the raw energy created by the addition of Jason Moran’s piano, the pulsations from bassist Reuben Rogers. On flute or sax, Lloyd was masterful, dropping gorgeous arpeggios and sinewy phrases. Sometimes the harmonies evoked Coltrane in Marrakesh, a carnival in Havana. An encore featuring Lloyd’s recitation ended the night in meditation. Again, poetry transcends form. Charles Lloyd and his companions are nomadic storytellers, wandering through centuries and continents.

The Healdsburg Jazz Festival is one of those little gems of musical enchantment that seldom receives the press it deserves, but maybe that is a good thing as the festival has maintained a small town intimacy seldom enjoyed at a jazz festival of national stature. Jessica Felix and company have been producing incredible opportunities to hear the best of modern jazz for ten seasons in the heart of Sonoma wine country. In addition to creative musicians with ties to the Bay Area (like Lloyd, Hersh, Billy Hart and young guitar sensation Julian Lage), such giants as McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton and Frank Morgan have appeared on the festival roster in the past decade. It’s definitely worth the travel from the Midwest. And this year, the stars were in perfect alignment.

Photos, not from Healdsburg: Top, Fred Hersch at the 2007 IAJE Convention; Kurt Elling performing last year at the Dakota (photos by Andrea Canter)