Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Three For All: Lomheim, Cox and Hey

Recipe for a night of musical magic? Take one pianist with the touch of Bill Evans but a predilection for more rhythmic challenge. Add a bassist of international renown who reinvents lines and chords while never losing sight of the underlying pulse. Finally, mix well with a trapset master whose sheer elegance of time and motion disguises his creative and assertive compositional chops. Tonight’s key ingredients—Chris Lomheim, Anthony Cox and Phil Hey, three of the Twin Cities’ busiest and most effective jazzers who have proven their flexibility across contexts from bop to free improv, from comping for vocalists to heading their own projects. As a trio, they first came together about a year ago on the stage of the Artists Quarter, and this weekend they returned to the scene of that first fantastic voyage.

Both nights featured opening sets of about ninety minutes each, the half-dozen elongated pieces given ample time for the musicians to search, develop, explore and resolve without ever losing the attention of their audience or the intention of their music. Pieces as familiar as “Caravan,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” and “Alone Together” were recast as modern discoveries; tunes as exquisite as “So Tender” (Keith Jarrett), “We’ll Be Together Again” (Fischer and Laine), and “Little B’s Poem” (Bobby Hutcherson) maintained their dignity amidst the trio’s musings and reworkings; and bop masterpieces like Powell’s “Sub City” and Hodges’ “Squatty Roo” exploded in multiple directions, the spatter to be reassembled, the tapestry rewoven.

Perhaps “Caravan,” the Tizol/Ellington standard that never seems to wear out its welcome, offered the weekend’s best example of spontaneous improvisation, three threads fitting together so effectively that it was hard to believe Phil Hey when he told me that the “arrangement” on Friday night simply evolved with no prior discussion. Assertive basslines and ambient piano tones led the way darkly, Chris lingering on the sustain pedal, Phil delving into his sonic library as he revved up his solo. Once I heard Phil present on the basics of percussion, and he commented that the listener should be able to identify the music simply by listening to the drummer. I figured he meant highly trained listeners such as other musicians. But had I walked into the Artists Quarter in the middle of his drum solo Friday night, there would have been no question that this was “Caravan” despite the fragmentation of the rhythm. The next night, Anthony opened the set with a long bowed solo that conjured a Schoenberg sonata wrapped inside a hard bop tune. Ten minutes later, “Caravan” emerged from the trio’s abstract wanderings, another spontaneous arrangement, this time continuing the journey into ballad territory. They say jazz is never played the same way once.

Saturday night also offered what might be described as a “Bop Sandwich,” two long extractions of “Squatty Roo” held together by a tossed salad of “Rhythm-a-ning” choruses, cleverly merging Johnny Hodges and Thelonious Monk. The quirky trend continued with a jagged run at “Alone Together,” an often-sung tune that in this rendition might have defied vocal effort. Gentleness returned with Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem” before the trio closed out the set with Phil Hey’s “Marse” ("short for 'Marser', idiomatic form of "Master" from the antebellum South," Phil tells me), its clangy dissonant chords and Anthony’s low-register hard-walking lines keeping the faith with the likes of Monk and Powell.

There were some young musicians in the audience. One day they will be on the AQ bandstand, keeping the faith with the likes of Lomheim, Cox and Hey.

Photos: (Top to bottom), Chris Lomheim, Anthony Cox and Phil Hey. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Evidence for "Monk in Motian"

Whether or not you are a particular fan of the often quirky music of Thelonious Monk, it’s nearly impossible to avoid his influence if you listen to jazz, live or recorded, vocal or instrumental. Even the most casual jazz listener has heard such great standards as “Round Midnight,” “Ask Me Now," "Rhythmining.” Among the most serious musicians, the Monk songbook often has biblical significance, a source of inspiration for improvisers and composers.

Although often cast as one of the founders of bebop, Monk’s style veered off in an idiocyncratic direction, his compositions marked by dissonant harmonies and angular melodic twists, while his unique, self-taught piano style featured a highly percussive attack with abrupt use of silence and hesitations. One of the greatest (and most prolific) composers of the 20th century, for many years only the most sophisticated jazz musicians, including Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, appreciated his genius. Yet today, Monk’s compositions are part of the standard repertoire of jazz, from straight ahead to avant garde. Not only did Monk write hundreds of tunes, his off-kilter structures and rhythms offer endless avenues for interpretation regardless of stylistic leanings.

One renowned interpreter of Monk is the great drummer Paul Motian, himself a partner of Monk in the 1950s before defining stints with Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley and Charlie Haden. In the late 70s, Motian formed the Electric Bebop Band, a unique ensemble with two guitars, sax (or two saxes), bass and drums that reinvented compositions of Monk, Bud Powell and other great bop-era composers. This transposition of the work of one genius through the creative mind of another was the impetus for a new Twin Cities band, aptly calling itself Monk in Motian, pun intended.

Monk in Motian debuted as part of the Late at the Dakota series of weekend, after-hours performances by the area’s most cutting-edge and experimental bands. Monk in Motian certainly qualifies on both counts. It’s core includes members of the fusion-fueled Atlantis Quartet—guitarist Zacc Harris, saxophonist Brandon Wozniak and drummer Pete Hennig, as well as their frequent collaborators guitarist Park Evans and bassist Cody McKinney. McKinney missed the debut, replaced for the evening by Jeremy Boettcher, a recent grad of the the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Boettcher was recently on the Dakota stage with the John Raymond Project, so he’s certainly had experience with innovative jazz ensembles.

As familiar as I think I am with Monk’s songbook, hearing some of his less familiar compositions (“Introspection” ? I have not yet tracked down a recording of that one!) as well as those that seemed vaguely familiar but totally disguised by this instrumentation was akin to hearing new works. As anticipated, given this was billed as “in the style of Paul Motian,” the gig proved to be a drummer’s playground, Pete Hennig grinning from one rim shot to another, driving hard and fast, popping left and right, contorting above the snare with arms flailing from crash to ride....the man barely removed from the boy sitting on the kitchen floor, delightedly banging mom’s pots and pans. What joy to be a drummer uninhibited by musical convention, surrounded by kindred spirits unashamedly adding twists and angles to what was already jagged and bent? Monk’s music is innately filled with movement, across intervals, across time zones, and tonight’s band thrived on the double meaning of its name.

The dueling guitars of Zacc Harris and Park Evans, along with Jeremy Boettcher’s electric bass, and given the absence of a keyboard, are the purveyors of much of the motion, alternately ambient and angular, a debate among forces of acoustic and electronic, sometimes playing in unison, sometimes back and forth, sometimes in simultaneous rampage. Brandon Wozniak shifts between leading man and supporting roles, often matching the lines of one guitar or the other, otherwise adding harmonic tension or pulling at the melodic thread. That thread was most evident on the one ballad of the first set, “Ask Me Now,” one of the easily identified themes of the night.

Neither listeners nor performers can get too complacent regarding Monk’s compositions. For more than 50 years, we have been fascinated by these engaging, irregular, elastic sequences of sounds and silences. Monk has been imitated, dissected, reassembled by countless artists from the most conservative swinger to the most adventurous explorer. Paul Motian has been one of the most innovative in his effort to excise the essence of Monk. Locally, Monk in Motian offers a new way to examine that innovation, an effort that forces us to rethink our own understanding of the mind and music of Thelonious Monk. And have a lot of fun!

Photos: At their Dakota debut on July 12th, (top) Pete Hennig; (bottom), Zacc Harris with Jeremy Boettcher. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ears on the Future, Part 2

I was not really aware of the depth of youth jazz in the Twin Cities until I heard a set at the student stage of the Hot Summer Jazz Festival about five years ago. On the bandstand were four boys in their early to mid teens, led by the youngest, a slight, red-headed kid blowing through Monk’s classic, “Well You Needn’t.” Only 13, Owen Nelson was already a bandleader, and for the next few years he would oversee an increasingly popular student group known as The Eggz. Through their high school years, the quartet endured some personnel changes, helping to “hatch” the jazz careers of not only Owen but pianist Javier Santiago, bassist Chris Smith, drummer Miguel Hurtado, vocalist Berit Ulseth. At the high school level, other student bands emerged, often sharing these same intensely serious musicians under band names like The Bridge, performing at area festivals and neighborhood events. And repeatedly we heard the same names attached to evolving chops—Nelson, Smith, Santiago, Hurtado, Commodore, Hartnett, Fitch, Ulseth...

Another common denominator among our locally emerging jazz artists has been the public schools. Despite serious budget problems indigenous to urban schools, south Minneapolis music programs have nurtured jazz—Ramsey Middle School under Tom Wells, Southwest High School under Keith Liuzzi, South High under Scott Carter. Among a long list of alum credits, South High produced an unprecedented two-fer---two grads (Javier Santiago and Chris Smith) selected for the prestigious Brubeck Institute Fellows program, with overlapping residencies during the past year. Javier, Chris, and Miguel are all products of Ramsey as well as South High. Across the river in St. Paul, Central High School under Matt Oyen similarly has served as an incubator of talent, filling four of the seven slots of in the inaugural Dakota Combo for 2006-07.

Recent performances on Twin Cities stages allow one to trace the evolution of jazz talent from festival tents to top club venues. Seeking a happy hour refuge in the Dakota during the recent Twin Cities Jazz Festival’s only rain delay, I ran into Owen Nelson, home from his first year at McGill University in Montreal and a year beyond his tenure with the first edition of the Dakota Combo. He was a guest performer with the regular Friday Happy Hour band featuring 88-year-old tenor saxophonist Irv Williams. He soared through “Body and Soul,” clearly expending both through his horn.

Earlier, before the rain cut their set short, I had been listening to Neoterik at Peavey Plaza. This band of college musicians was 50% Eggz and South High alums, Javier Santiago, Chris Smith and Miguel Hurtado. And I wondered if the festival audience realized that we were also listening to 50% of the current Brubeck Fellows Quartet? Their three cohorts, none local, attend programs at Manhattan School of Music and Northern Illinois University. Their opening tunes were filled with spiraling horn harmonies, peppery percussion, fine soloing moments from piano and bass. Then came the rain and thunder.

Festival gigs are only part of the schedule for our college student stars. Since high school graduation, a core of this talent has been booked at least one summer night at the Artists Quarter and/or Dakota Jazz Club, the latter as part of the Late Night series. Javier, Chris, Miguel and saxophonist Joe Hartnett have appeared together, again this past week at the AQ with St. Paul Central/Dakota Combo grad Daniel Duke replacing Chris on bass. Javier and Daniel cemented the rhythm section of the first edition of the Dakota Combo, the Twin Cities’ elite high school jazz ensemble directed by Kelly Rossum, while Javier and Miguel have teamed together since the Eggz and their days at South High. The long history of these musical relationships plays out on stage, the spirit of collaboration ever present. The repertoire on July 10th was adventurous as the quartet generally veered away from common standards toward more challenging covers of Sam Rivers and Kenny Garrett, along with some intriguing original compositions.

As one might expect from veteran artists, the four collaborators mapped out each journey, generously shared their mission, listened and reacted as each new idea was born and followed their individual paths to a common destination, with a focus on melody and movement. And as one does expect at the Artists Quarter, the audience was treated to an evening of well executed, challenging but accessible music that never seemed derivative. Rather than an outstanding student band, we experienced a memorable performance from four talented, professional musicians.

As we hear the enthusiasm of young students in programs such as Walker West, MacPhail, MITY, Dakota Combo and area school bands, it’s encouraging to also watch the trajectories of the musicians who found their initial inspiration from these sources, nurtured by band directors like Scott Carter, Matt Oyem and Kelly Rossum, and driven to perform by young leaders like Owen Nelson. Eggz become Eggz Benedict!

For a more detailed review of the quartet at the Artists Quarter, visit http://www.jazzpolice.com/

Photos: Top, Owen Nelson performed during Happy Hour at the Dakota on June 27th. Bottom: Javier, Joe, Daniel and Miguel at the Artists Quarter on July 10th. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ears on the Future, Part One

If you follow the often amazing youth jazz scene in the Twin Cities, you probably know that summer provides the best opportunities to check on our future investments, jazzwise. School’s out, and be it the middle and high school summer jazz camps or the often short-lived ensembles that come together as college students return home for a month or two, student musicians have no trouble finding each other to jam, or to more formally put together bands and find gigs. There are many outdoor venues, special events, festivals, etc. that are happy to bring youth and student bands to the stage.

The Twin Cities Jazz Festival has long supported aspiring musicians. Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul always has a slot at Mears Park for the first weekend of the festival. Usually the exuberant younger students take the first set followed by the more polished, more serious high school ensemble under the baton of master educator Felix James. I missed their set this year but many of the WWMA students and alums turned up the following weekend on the Dakota Foundation/MacPhail Student Stage on Nicollet Mall. After a few years you recognize particular musicians who have risen through the ranks of the local jazz schools and camps. By the time they graduate, many of these young artists have five or more years of performance experience. It shows.

On the Student Stage this year were two very impressive high school bands, from Roseville and Totino Grace High Schools. Their sense of swing, their interplay, and their soloing are all indicative of serious attention to jazz fundamentals couched in programs that promote a lifelong appreciation for the music, even for those whose formal efforts stop at graduation. The young man from TG singing a la Bobby Darrin was a showstopper. And I am always surprised and delighted by the joyful skills displayed by the youngest festival participants, the IAJE Mid Level (middle school) Jazz Camp band. Leader Eric Songer and his young charges whipped through some big band charts with swing in their horns and big smiles on their faces. It’s too cool to be 12 and blowing your sax out into the downtown breeze while dozens of perfect strangers (and a few family!) applaud and tap their feet.

Opening the student stage this year was the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth (MITY) Jazz Band, led by director Scott Carter. Scott is no stranger to talented youth—he’s led MITY’s summer program for at least a few years but has also been the mastermind of the successful jazz program at Minneapolis South High. Just the night before on Peavey Plaza, three of his graduates (Chris Smith, Javier Santiago, Miguel Hurtado) joined with three other college musicians to open the Minneapolis segment of the festival as Neoterik, later holding down the stage at the Dakota for the festival late night jam. MITY includes a wide age range, and brings some students back year after year. On keyboards this weekend was Joe Strachan, finalist for the recent Dakota Foundation/Schubert Club Jazz Piano Scholarships. His technique and jazz feel are dazzling. We’ll be hearing more of Joe for years to come.

The closing two sets on Saturday night were the final performances of the Dakota Combo, second edition. By this evening, the metro-wide sextet (4 graduating seniors, two juniors) had considerable performance experience, having debuted at the Dakota Jazz Club in December (with guest artist Delfeayo Marsalis), performed at the gala opening of the new MacPhail facility, the Winter Jazz Festival, and the final Jazz Thursdays concert at MacPhail in May; and they had demonstrated their skills and jammed with students during a three-school tour in February. Ten months beyond that first rehearsal, they were a band that communicated, enjoyed each other’s talents and ideas, and ready to move on. Over the year of rehearsals under the direction of Kelly Rossum, their repertoire had expanded; their original compositions and arrangements had jelled; their comfort on the bandstand now flowed into easy-going commentary. Their skills? Tentative and cautious in September, the ensemble individually and in total expressed confidence, willing to take artistic risks, sailing freely through the playlist. Simple harmonies and practiced riffs had given way to more personal and complex explorations. The four graduates now head off to even more serious jazz studies at Stanford, New England Conservatory of Music, Columbia College of Music in Chicago, and St.Thomas University in St. Paul. And it looks like the third edition of the Combo will have veterans on bass and trumpet!

Sunday, in addition to Totino Grace, included two back-to-back sets organized by MacPhail Center for Music faculty. The first set provided opportunities for student “guests” while the second set featured the two finalists in the jazz piano scholarship competition. We were impressed with 13-year-old Austin holding down the keyboard for musicians three and four times his age. Stephanie Wieseler, graduating tenor sax player for the Combo, returned to the stage, first to trade bars with teacher Greg Keel, then side by side with Combo director Kelly Rossum. It was a rare opportunity to see Rossum engage one of his students on stage, as he typically keeps himself far away from the action, giving his students full latitude to make their own mistakes and learn their own lessons. But this was a special occasion and one both student and teacher seemed to relish as partners in music. Piano scholarship winners Joe Strachan and Jacob Wittenberg (also the Combo pianist) each performed a short set with the backing of MacPhail bass instructor Tom Pieper and Combo drummer, Matt Roberts. It was quite clear from their performances why the judges had such a difficult time selecting the winner of the competition in May! Jacob won the day, by an 8th note. Now Joe is eying the Combo’s piano chair. He’ll have big shoes to fill, but he seems to have big feet!

The Student Stage is not expected to draw hundreds or thousands. There are no concessions at 10th and Nicollet Mall unless you count sitting on the Dakota’s patio sipping martinis as a concession. A block down on Peavey Plaza, there are more amenities, lots of seating, a big stage, usually a couple thousand at any one time. But at each student set, most of the 80+ chairs were filled, listeners lined up along the sidewalk for a half block, and the Dakota’s patio tables were consistently full. Family and friends certainly account for some of the crowd, but not for the majority of the 120-150 who listened attentively, some dancing n front of the stage, and many looking incredulous that these musicians were only in their teens. And some barely.

It was the best possible advertisement for funding music education in our public and private schools.

(See Part Two, coming shortly, on the student-to-professional transition that played out recently at the Artists Quarter.)
Photos: Top, the final bow of the 2008 Dakota Combo; Middle, enthusiastic brass in the MITY band; bottom, Stephanie Wieseler with Kelly Rossum at the MacPhail Faculty Jam. All photos from the 2008 Twin Cities Jazz Festival by Andrea Canter.