Thursday, August 28, 2008

I'll Get Along Without Rossi's, Very Well

I hate to trash any venue that presents live music, particularly one that at least some of the time presents live jazz. But Rossi’s and its Blue Star Room are closing at the end of the month, so I don’t think I can do them any harm. And maybe my rant will lead to improvements at other clubs.

Rossi’s has been a fixture on the downtown night scene for quite a while. They were on 9th Street near Nicollet Mall long before the Dakota relocated down the street. Known as a basement steakhouse with a jazz room, Rossi’s was the only Minneapolis venue besides the Dakota to offer live jazz seven nights per week. And the room was built for music, unlike many of the area restaurants and bars that squeeze in a small stage or just a tiny corner of a room for music where none was ever anticipated by the architect. Rossi’s had a decent stage and piano, a sound system that at times was quite reasonable depending on who was manning the controls. When someone cared.

Caring about the music was not a consistent feature of Rossi’s. And its commitment went downhill. Often booking vocalists, a few years ago the manager informed one of our local songbirds that, while he intended to keep booking her, she needed to lose the drummer. “People can’t hear their conversations over a drummer.” Actually I thought it was more the other way around at Rossi’s—it was hard to hear even a drummer over the conversations around the bar and, when the place was busy, from just about any point in the dining room.

Back in the days B.S.B (Before Smoking Ban), it was much worse in many respects. The bar area was terminally smoky. The Happy Hour crowd was boisterous and there was always a group that stayed on beyond the cheap drinks and eats to wreak havoc on the listening environment far into the night. I remember coming in to hear Jeremy Walker one night, when he was still playing sax. It was just a duet with a pianist. No one, I mean no one, was listening. And that was no surprise, the music was far too sophisticated and instrumental for the leftovers of Happy Hour on a Tuesday night. I asked Jeremy why he bothered, and he said he viewed it as a paid rehearsal.

Paid rehearsals probably are the main reason the musicians kept returning to Rossi’s. Some, who had no trouble getting prime time bookings at better music spaces like the Dakota or Artists Quarter, didn’t return. Over time, it seemed that Rossi’s was booking more and more R&B and blues, less and less jazz. If it was jazz, 99% of the time, it was a very mainstream vocalist. After all, it is much easier to carry on a conversation over a vocal ballad than over a boppish riff. ASB (After the Smoking Ban), it was sometimes possible to enjoy a set at Rossi’s because the place emptied out after Happy Hour. But too often, even if there were no more than six in the entire room, there was still too much competition between bar patron and musician. If there was one person at the bar, he or she had to shout to the waitstaff. Hardly anyone noticed the music or applauded the effort. Paid rehearsal. But a paid rehearsal with lots of competition for the sound space.

Once in a while, Rossi’s brought in a national act, and often a big one—Cassandra Wilson. Spyro Gyra. Bobby Caldwell. Up-and-comers like Sara Gazarek. The prices tended to be higher than the Dakota and I hear the noise level was higher as well. Lately the big acts have been few and far between, and leaning more toward smooth jazz and blues. The weekend crowds dwindled as more sexy, more trendy downtown night spots pulled in the younger “see and be seen” set.

Tonight I stopped by Rossi’s for one last frustration. And only because hearing swinging singer Maud Hixson in duet with accordionist Patrick Harrison was too appealing to ignore, even if it was at Rossi’s. Even if the tiny crowd would nevertheless drown out Maud’s informative commentary about song origins and composer motivations. Even if the only applause was mine. Someone near the bar was paying attention for a while. He requested a tune they didn’t know so they substituted something similar. I don’t think he noticed their effort. He was too busy singing his version of a tune from an earlier set. Off key. But at least he had, on some level, processed the performance. He was in a tiny minority.

But the music nevertheless met expectations and then some. Mostly in a hot club vein (of course, this was accordion!), Maud particularly covered Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, drawing comparisons of their lifestyles and approaches to composition. The tunes were largely upbeat—this was not a setting for serious balladry. “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” “Dream Dancing,” “Fancy Free,” “What Will I Do?” and an appropriate closing of “For All We Know” should have drawn enthusiastic applause as is the case at most of Maud’s gigs. Few noticed when the song was over. Maud boldly sang several tunes in French, and predictably this was merely sophisticated sonic wallpaper. I, on the other hand, struggled to translate, recognizing that five years of high school and college French constituted a truly wasted education.

Maud swings effortlessly, embracing the lyric as well as the melody, and in the right setting, she can literally whisper on pitch. Even in the wrong setting, she gives each song her undivided heart. Patrick, recently returned from a trial run of the New York jazz and busking scene, was unperturbed by the Midwest midweek bar crowd, noting that the money he was paid tonight was far more than a similar gig would bring in the Big Apple, yet his rent was far less. He was happy to be home for a while. And we should be happy to have him back as one of the few jazz accordionists in town and one who can provide a big band world of swing with only ten fingers and a zillion cool buttons.

It’s not that I am happy we are losing Rossi’s and one of our very few fulltime, mostly jazz venues. But I am relieved that I won’t have to force myself to go into a space to hear music that is overpowered by oblivious conversations or feel guilty that I am avoiding gigs by musicians whom I respect and want to support. I hear that the very popular diner Hell’s Kitchen is moving in from a few blocks away, needing a bigger space for their burgeoning clientele. HK has not been a music venue and probably will not become one. But there is that nice stage and sound system. If they keep it, maybe they will be willing to respect it. I think Hell’s Kitchen would be a helluva a name for a jazz club.
Photo: Maud Hixson with Patrick Harrsion, playing for just about no one at Rossi's near the end of its run. (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Irv Williams: 89 and Blowing

I’m not sure how many times I have attended a birthday gig for intrepid saxophonist Irv Williams, but I’ve witnessed a fireball of birthday candles since at least number 84. That was five years ago. Over the past decade, Irv has battled cancer, maintained a weekly Happy Hour gig at the Dakota, led nearly every countdown on New Year’s Eve at the Artist Quarter, and released four recordings over a mere four-year period (from age 85). He’s been a frequent headliner at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, received a Legend of Jazz tribute at the 2006 KBEM Winter Jazz Festival, and this past spring was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. If there is but one living icon of jazz in Minnesota, it is Irv Williams, aka Mr. Smooth.

This past weekend, we helped Irv celebrate #89. He needed no help blowing out the candles. He certainly needed no help blowing his tenor sax over three consecutive nights, Friday and Saturday at the Artists Quarter and an encore on Sunday at the Dakota. If you question the loyalty of his quartet cohorts, note that Sunday night was the very first time that AQ owner Kenny Horst has played drums on the Dakota stage. Kenny was not about to miss a gig with Irv.

It’s not that Irv is immune to the infirmities of aging. His gait is a bit slower these days. He might even be a bit shorter, but then he has always been small in stature, fat and mighty in tone. His stamina has waned a bit over the past decade, meaning that his gig at the Dakota Sunday night was limited to two robust sets. (“I’m glad we’re only doing two sets,” said Kenny Horst. “I’m tired—we played two late nights in a row.”) If Irv was tired, he didn’t let on. Between sets he shook hands, signed autographed, and cracked jokes with the Dakota patrons. And admitted he was working on a recording of holiday tunes.

Holiday tunes? When Irv released his latest quartet recording, ominously dubbed Finality, he asserted it would be his last. Well, at least the last he would fund! Apparently he still has an itch to record. Even holiday tunes. ”Not Silent Night!” he stated emphatically. “Not the tunes everyone plays. I need to do some research!”

Irv is known widely for his vast knowledge of the jazz canon, his ability to play any song in any key. This weekend he treated us to recent favorites leaning more toward balladry and elegance than hard bop angles and fleet phrases—his own “Debra’s Dream,” his emblematic “Old Folks,” the always sweet and lovely “In the Wee Small Hours,” a Shirley Horn favorite and increasingly meaningful “Here’s to Life.” Smiles crossed the stage frequently between his long-time pianist Peter Schimke, bassist Jay Young, and drummer Kenny Horst.

This multi-night weekend was not the norm. Now Irv will return to his more staid schedule, every Friday night Happy Hour at the Dakota, every Thursday with Peter at Il Vesco Vino, an occasional quartet gig. And doing that research.

As long as he can blow, let him eat cake!
Photos: Top, Irv Williams at the AQ, Birthday Party August 15th. Bottom: Kenny Horst in historic appearance at the Dakota, Birthday Party August 17th. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Swing! A Night on Broadway at Chanhassen

Normally I think Broadway song-and-dance musicals are fun but I rarely find myself enthralled with a production as a whole. If the dancers are strong, often the voices are inconsistent.... if the voices are appealing, sometimes the dance routines seem stale or more energy than synergy.

It was “press night” at Chanhassen, offering an opportunity to return (after an embarrassingly long absence) to one of America’s premiere dinner theaters to see an opening-week production of Swing! With songs from the pens of Goodman, Ellington and other masters of the era, a live band conducted by local master George Maurer, and choreography courtesy of veterans of the New York production, it seemed like a pleasant way to spend a Friday evening.

It was not pleasant. It was near perfect. The last time I saw such energetic and razor sharp synergy on the dance floor was a long-ago performance by Chicago’s famed Hubbard Street Dance Company. “Swing” was redefined as the dancers, led by elastic choreographer/dance captain Alison Solomon, were literally airborne, twisting, turning, catapulting, sliding....English vocabulary has inadequate descriptors for their simultaneous velocity and finesse.

There was consistency across vignettes, but the musical highlight of the show, for me, was the animated, whimsical, clever duet between young vocalist Erin Marie Capello and veteran trombonist John England on “Cry Me a River.” A comical, crying trombone and a sassy, satirical take on lyrics that are often delivered as self-pitying or bitter combined with just enough gusto, just enough pathos to mesmerize. And you had to see it to hear it.

Chanhassen has mastered the difficult art of merging fine dining with high-class theater without compromising either. The kitchen delivers a surprisingly high quality menu with impeccable service for a large crowd on a tight timetable. Like the cast of Swing!, the kitchen crew follows finely crafted choreography.

Swing! surrounds you with the big band sounds and nightclub ambience of a 1930s grand ballroom. The show runs through early October. More information at

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Swing Set Pas de Deux

Perhaps due to my affection for Oscar Peterson, I have long been a fan of pianist and Peterson protégé Benny Green. Until this winter, Benny’s last local appearance had been at the old Dakota with guitarist Russell Malone. He had been at the club a few times prior, usually as the keyboard anchor for the Ray Brown Trio. I saw Benny with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars at the Blue Note in Manhattan a few years ago, and he was eager to return to the Twin Cities and the new Dakota. It took a few more years to get Benny to town, but in recent months he was on stage with vocalist Belinda Underwood and again with Christian McBride and Greg Hutchinson in tribute to late mentor Ray Brown. The latter ensemble provided one of the most satisfying mainstream gigs I’ve heard locally. Early this week, Benny returned for a “blind date” of sorts, arranged by Dakota owner Lowell Pickett.

To paraphrase Benny, Lowell called and asked him if he was interested in a duo gig with the king of swinging jazz guitar, Bucky Pizzarelli. “How much do I have to pay?” asked Benny. Presumedly, Benny got a free ticket. Surely, the rest of us paid far less than the face value of the music. Having never met prior to their sound check Monday afternoon, Benny and Bucky proceeded to plant a most delightful, alternately swinging and exquisite garden of instrumental music. The joy of the harvest was ours.

On the surface, the two musicians offer significant contrasts—at a very youthful 45, Benny Green’s muppet locks and impish expressions would seem generations removed from the white-haired, pinstripe suited, 82-year-old master of the seven-string archtop. Benny swings hard from a firm core of tradition, but his repertoire is rooted in bop and post bop playlists, his employers ranging from Art Blakey to Freddy Hubbard to Betty Carter. Bucky grew up in the Swing era and has mastered the songbooks of the great composers of the 30s and 40s, his resume rich in swing credits from Benny Goodman to Stéphane Grappelli.

Yet join these two souls together on stage and the result is pure ecstasy with a swing beat in perfect alignment. With little time to merge their songbooks, the pair came up with two distinct sets repeated across the two evenings, and in true jazz fashion, they never played the same way once, yet always danced together. Their respect for one another was a given from the opening note, and only grew over the two nights. Noted Benny, “Bucky is every self-respecting jazz guitarist’s father.” Bucky, in return, spent much of the evenings beaming at his young cohort, nodding his head, grinning ear to ear, gesturing approval like a proud dad who just discovered a long-lost offspring. If they don’t share genetic material, they surely share the imprint of the same tradition.

Many of the selections were pure swing magic, one or the other musician casting off a melodic introduction before the conversation emerged, the rhythm buoyant with love and energy—“Robbin’s Nest,” “Tangerine,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “On Green Dolphin Street.” A few tunes dropped the emphasis on swing in favor of delicate balladry-- “These Foolish Things,” “Easy to Remember,” and a virtuosic display from the pair on two renditions of “Body and Soul” that differed significantly across the evenings. The second version was reconstructed so fully that it was nearly unrecognizable til the final choruses—a surprising break in the swingfest that proved the wide range of both artists. Each set also featured a unique medley, one featuring the tunes of Harold Arlen (“Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Last Night When We Were Young,” and “Sleepin’ Bee”) and the other highlighting the range of Duke Ellington’s work (“Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “In a Mellow Tone” and “Satin Doll” wrapped around Billy Strayhorn’s luscious “Passion Flower”). Even these mostly well-worn compositions offered interpretative surprises, Benny comping with an almost Eastern Zen on “In a Sentimental Mood;” the pair stretching out on their variations of “In a Mellow Tone.” And the blues were not forgotten, as the duo romped through “Limehouse Blues,” Bucky channeling a bass accompaniment.

Two traits shared by both musicians were displayed in neon throughout the evening—their ferocious swing chops and their impeccable articulation at any speed. Every note had its own identity, its own space—times two.

One of the attractions of live jazz is witnessing moments of musical creation. Those in the Dakota audience August fourth and fifth witnessed not only the spontaneous combustion of sound and rhythm, but the happy collision of soulmates finding each other for the first time. It was a dance of first love.
Photos: (Top) Benny and Bucky under the Dakota's new neon glow; (Middle) Benny Green; (Bottom) Bucky Pizzarelli, all from opening night, August 4th. Photos by Andrea Canter.