Friday, September 26, 2008

Another New York Weekend at Home

Everyone seems to have their “picks of the weekend” so why not me? This weekend the recommendations are pretty much unanimous across my usual sources (The Star Tribune, Minn Post, Jazz Connections). It’s one of those weekends when I am not jealous of the Manhattan line up. If I was at Birdland or Blue Note this weekend, look what I would miss:

Kelly Rossum’s CD release party at the Artists Quarter (Friday and Saturday nights at 9 pm). I reviewed Kelly’s new “Family” (see, CD of the Month) and find new joys with each listening. Some have dubbed this as his most “straight ahead” recording yet, but don’t expect typical swing or bop because there is a lot more going on here. And this quartet is hardly an ensemble dedicated to sitting back and honoring its legacy, even if that legacy includes the likes of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman or new millennial experimenters. With Bryan Nichols on piano, Chris Bates on bass and JT Bates on drums, the Kelly Rossum Quartet might start here, but they always go somewhere else. How many musicians have covered “If I Were a Bell?” On Family, even the familiar benefit from creative redesign.

Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra with Carla Bley (Saturday at Ted Mann, 8 pm). It took an election year for Charlie Haden to reassemble his 70s band of protest with original collaborator and arranger Carla Bley. But the leftist bassist had already written his definitive musical denouncement of the Bush administration, Not in Our Name, a few years earlier. Maybe a retrospective of three decades of musical commentary will have more impact than trying to single out any one platform or misstep. And it’s a great excuse to hear an assemblage of some of the finest musicians working today, including not only the distinguished Haden but drummer Matt Wilson, himself not immune to the musical language of protest and arguably the most divergent thinker in modern percussion. (And hey, if this ends by 10:30, there’s still a late set to catch at the Artists Quarter!) Pamela has posted an interesting interview with Haden on this week’s MinnPost (

The Artists Quarter Tribute to Leigh Kamman (Sunday at 7 pm at the Artists Quarter). Not only an opportunity to hear some of the Twin Cities’ best jazzers in one evening in varying combinations, this Sunday night party also provides us with one more chance to thank Leigh Kamman for brining jazz into our lives and homes for 65 years as one of the nation’s leading jazz broadcasters. The Jazz Image on national public radio has been silent for about a year since Leigh’s retirement, but his pithy interviews and observations continue to inform our interpretations and appreciation of jazz every day and night. The salute includes the inimitable rhythm section of Laura Caviani, Gordy Johnson and Phil Hey; the vocal chops of Carole Martin, Arne Fogel and Bruce Henry (back from Chicago for the weekend), the hornlines of Pete Whitman, Dave Graf, Brad Bellows and Dave Karr..... and more. And I think we can count on a few spontaneous interviews with Leigh Kamman.

Benny Green and Bucky Pizzarelli, Live Recording Session (Sunday/Monday, 7 and 9:30 pm at the Dakota). I blogged last month about the first encounter of 45-year-old pianist Benny Green and 82-year-old swing guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. This was a musical blind date arranged by Dakota owner Lowell Pickett, and it was loving swing at the first note. The music was intimate, the communication telepathic, the rapport reverant. The tapes should have been rolling. Moments can not be recaptured but can be given new birth, and that is the plan as Benny and Bucky return to make a live recording at the Dakota, inventing new magic. Maybe there will be room at the late set after we shut down the Artists Quarter Sunday night. If not, I have my seats for both sets on Monday.
More coming.... Not sure there is much time to rest up from this whirlwind. Among the happenings of the new week, there's the monthly REEL Jazz film series at Bryant Lake Bowl. The October 2nd offering includes documentary films about Milt Hinton and Freddy Cole. The weekend finds the eternal bluesman Mose Allison back at the Artists Quarter for three nights. And if you can stay up late like they do in New York, there's the masters of innovation, the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet at the Dakota on Friday for Late Night, starting at 11:30 pm. And I am sure there's more.

If you call and just get my voice mail, I am not out of town. I’m reveling in mine. The other Apple.

Photos: (top) Kelly Rossum in a pensive mood; Benny Green and Bucky Pizzarelli at their Dakota debut in August. Photos by Andrea Canter

Friday, September 19, 2008

Senior Moments of Jazz and Lifelong Learning

My friend Pamela resents the label “Senior Citizen Education” as used by St. Thomas University for their innovative outreach program. And I agree, I much prefer the “lifelong learning” designation used by the University of Minnesota for its equally innovative Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. One implies a certain age, while one implies a certain perspective. But in the end, I don’t mind being classified as a “senior” if it opens the door to the jazz education opportunities that I have experienced over the past few years. Besides, I carry my AARP card and collect a school district pension, so who’s fooling who?

I admit, however, that I was a few months shy of the requisite 55 when I registered for my first St. Thomas senior class with Joan Griffith. Don’t tell Sister Marie Herbert. That first class was an overview of Latin music—bossa nova, samba, rhumba, tango, mambo, danson. Joan made it an adventure, and often a hilarious one at that. But always she brought the music to life, through recordings, film clips, her own guitar and mandolin, her special guests like Nachito Herrera and Lucia Newell. I told a friend later that if Joan taught a course in plumbing I would probably find it worthwhile. Fortunately the next opportunity was an overview of jazz history from the perspective of specific instruments—piano, sax, guitar, etc. Although I had read a great deal of jazz history and attended some community programs on the topic, again, the infusion of recordings, demonstrations, and Joan’s own storytelling made it more real. Forget Ken Burns. Check out a Joan Griffith class. (No, they will not ask to see your birth certificate, but try to look 55, 65 would be better.)

Now I’m back at St. Thomas for fall semester and what seems to be the most interesting class yet. Using Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz (the long-running National Public Radio program) as a model, Joan brings in a guest musician each week and we’re treated as participant-observers as Joan interacts with her guest through words and music. Her first guest happened to be one of my local favorites, pianist Laura Caviani. Joan and Laura recently completed a recording project of Brazilian music (Sambanova) but have played together off and on for years. Predictably, Laura started off with a Monk tune—I don’t think I have ever heard Laura perform without slipping in a bit of Monk, or sometimes a lot of Monk. But this was the first time I heard Monk played as a piano/bass duet—Joan brought along her electric bass because “I didn’t’ want to drag the upright from Minneapolis.” Without drums, we’re able to focus more clearly on the climbing intervals of “Misterioso” and enjoy how one blues oriented pianist interprets another. They finish the tune and the conversation begins, Laura describing the 12-bar blues form, the foundation of intervals of 6ths, the use of the whole tone scale, Monk’s atypical chords that make his compositions so readily identifiable, even to novice ears. Somehow they turn to a jazz history lesson, how Laura’s introduction was stride-based, how the role of the bass in bop freed up the pianist’s left hand.

We get snippets of Laura’s background, the daughter of a classical cellist (mom) and avid jazz fan (dad), how despite her classical training she often found herself composing jazz compositions even before she really played jazz, how she transcribed a McCoy Tyner recording before learning that jazz musicians don’t play the exact same music twice. Questions flew from my fellow students—the difference between composing and improvising; how Laura developed her “blues” sensibility (largely inspired while living in Kansas City), whether she first composes a melody or the chords? They talk about the importance of the audience to performers—“The audience is central,” says Joan, “we feel your energy up here.” We get a quick lesson in jazz forms, the use of chords to create tension and release. Laura demonstrates how one goes from the straight melody to embellishments to new melodies by changing chords.

We hear Laura’s beautiful composition, “Paper Cranes,” inspired by a World War II memorial sculpture when studying in Japan; Joan and Laura perform one of the pieces from Sambanova.
With their instruments or dialogue, Joan and Laura converse like old friends, which they are, and we’re drawn into the conversation. Something even Marian McPartland can’t do on Piano Jazz—the audience is invisible, passive listeners. We “seniors” on Wednesday mornings at St. Thomas are not only part of the audience, we become part of the music.
An evening of beautiful music awaits on Sunday, September 21st at 7 pm at the Artists Quarter when Joan and Laura officially launch Sambanova.
Photos: (top) Joan plays mandolin at the Artists Quarter, as she will on September 21st. (Bottom) Laura Caviani. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Expert Testimony: The Roy Hargrove Quintet at the Dakota

Local print coverage of jazz is often limited to a few lines from Tom Surowicz or Britt Robson under the “Jazz” listing of “The Big Gigs” in Friday’s Variety section of the Star Tribune. Sometimes it would seem that there are no “big gigs” on the jazz scene. Occasionally the Strib runs an in-depth preview when one of the giants of jazz comes to town, like Return to Forever or Christian McBride. More rare would be a review of a jazz club gig. So count it as a) unusual and b) highly appropriate that the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a review of the first set of the Roy Hargrove Quintet’s recent visit to the Dakota. Dan Emerson’s description of one tune easily described the full two-night run as a “tour de force display of instrumental firepower.” I was there for three of the four sets, and after each one, heard many comments to the effect that this was one of the most exciting Dakota shows in recent memory.

My memory was not all that challenged as I had heard this ensemble only a week earlier at the Detroit Jazz Festival, as well as Hargrove’s previous Dakota gigs, most recently in November 2007 with the same quintet. Hargrove is one of the all-too-rare jazz artists of his generation who never, I mean never, fail to deliver the goods at full throttle, regardless of the audience or venue. They embody all of the elements that make live jazz live and irreplaceable regardless of technology—they play in the moment, and each moment as if it was the only moment in time. The first set on Sunday night came off as if the band had been warming up for hours, yet each successive set proved just a bit more spontaneous, more passionate than the last. By the final set Monday night, we were beyond the sound barrier—not in volume, but in raw emotion and technical brilliance. I can’t say it was the best show ever at the Dakota as different configurations and styles defy comparison. I can say it was one of the most inspired horn ensemble I’ve heard in the Twin Cities, and perhaps the finest straight-ahead horn gig I’ve heard live, period. And I wonder what we would have heard had the band stayed on for one more night?

What makes the Hargrove ensemble stand out in an era of fine mainstream trumpet bandleaders (Nicholas Payton, Sean Jones, Christian Scott, Irvin Mayfield) is a confluence of elements: There’s Hargrove himself, of course, often dubbed the greatest trumpeter of his generation or even the greatest trumpeter working today of any generation. In a sea of talented bandmates and volcanic eruptions, Roy manages to command center stage...except when he leaves the spotlight to focus attention on his cohorts. Like a model for the street edition of GQ, he dressed in shiny black, white shirt and a bowtie, oddly (if weirdly effectively) paired with stark black and white Nikes (or more likely, whatever the latest hot name in cross-trainer footwear). For the first couple tunes in each set, he peered through hip shades which were discarded midway, as was the suit jacket. But put the trumpet to his lips, and nothing distracts from the sparkling palette of sounds, assertive dry blasts, soft and creamy ballad tones, scoops and squeals, funky slides, sonic somersaults, hard bop ribbons. And there may be no better lyricist on flugelhorn. He burned through phrases like a blow torch (“Nothing Serious);” his ballads flowed like sweet breezes (“Never Let Me Go”, “I’m Glad There’s You”); he convincingly testified with the blues (“Bring It Home to Me”); with a Harmon mute he was as mournfully sublime as Miles (“Society Red”).

But perhaps Hargrove’s greatest talent is as bandleader and builder of ensembles that collectively match his own versatility and energy. Those other elements are four: 1) Bassist Danton Boller whose walking lines carved the terrain of “The Stringer” and “Society Red” and lent Latin pulsations to tunes like “Nothing Serious;” 2) young monster drummer Montez Coleman who reminds me of the muscular assertiveness of local percussionist Kevin Washington, dancing through fire on pieces like “Once Forgotten” and “Camaraderie”; 3) sympathetic and inventive alto saxman Justin Robinson, whose Bird-inspired hot-poker phrases fueled “Nothing Serious” and particularly “The Challenge” while engaging Hargrove in harmonic collaborations throughout; and 4) much-heralded young pianist Gerald Clayton, whose phrasing ranges from giddy eccentricity (“Strasbourg-St Denis”) and forward thrusts (“Camaraderie”) to bluesy abstraction (“I’m Not So Sure”) to surprising delicacy (“Society Red,” “Time for Love”). Scary, Clayton was only the runner-up in the 2006 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition. I caught part of Gerald’s trio set in Detroit last weekend—he’s sure to be a significant voice for decades to come.

And so blows Roy Hargrove, already a significant voice, but at not quite 39 his trajectory is merely an abstract concept. And we are merely mortals, enjoying every note.
Photos (top to bottom): 1) Montez Coleman; 2) Danton Boller, Justin Robinson, Roy Hargrove and Montez Coleman; 3) Hargrove on flugelhorn (all at the Dakota, September 7-8). Photos by Andrea Canter

Friday, September 5, 2008

In the Shadow of the RNC, A Parlor Concert

What if you could invite a favorite musician into your home to relax, chat about composers and compositions, and most of all, just play whatever came to mind? Add in a handful of like-minded friends? When Kenny Horst decided to keep the Artists Quarter open during the RNC, it was a gamble. Maybe he thought delegates and spectators would want some relaxation after a long night of speeches and spins? I missed what promised to be a political upheaval of sorts when the AQ booked outspoken maverick of guitar Dean Magraw on Labor Day night. But despite fears of security checks, detours or worse, I couldn’t miss a night with Jon Weber, surely one of the most talented, energetic and entertaining pianists around, the resident pianist for many Twin Cities Jazz Festivals, a recent transplant from Chicago to New York.

I was in the vast minority, however, for despite Jon’s wide following locally, there were no more than a dozen hearty fans (Democrats?) in the AQ Wednesday night, only a mere handful remaining after the first set. Of course when the first set really started was hard to pinpoint. What seemed like a sound check evolved into give and take with old friends in the audience, and soon Jon was demonstrating stride and offering little known details of the lives of the swing era songwriters. Fifteen minutes into his solo salon, the full trio with Gordy Johnson and Kenny Horst joined Jon for swirling renditions of "Take the A-Train," "Tiger Rag," "Swanee," and "Elmer’s Tune," and there was no tune without a story.

How did Harry Warren come to be called Harry Warren? How many quotes can you find in “There Will Never Be Another You?” How did Jon morph this into the national anthem of Iceland? By the time the tune is over, you forget where it started. Uncharacteristically, Jon could not name the composer of “Penthouse Serenade,” but then, neither could we. (It was the title track to a Nat King Cole album, attributed to composers Burton and Jason.) The beautiful Bill Evans tune, “Very Early,” was dedicated to John and Pamela’s 20th anniversary. Not able to leave well enough alone, Jon gave it a James P. Johnson treatment.

Jon talks almost as fast as his fingers move around the keyboard, his ideas tumble out of his mouth nearly as fast as his hands refashion the most common standard or the most quirky Monk classic. At the top of the second set, he goes solo again, “like Art Tatum playing Monk,” shifting from “Straight No Chaser” to “Blue Monk” to James P. Johnson again. “Has anyone ever heard ‘Going Back to Joe’s?’ He thinks he has stumped us but that particular tune is a favorite of Kenny’s mother-in-law, singer Carol Martin. She put it onto her last recording and sings it on New Year’s Eve and sometimes inbetween at the AQ. “What key should I play it in?” I suggest G-sharp, and he doesn’t blink.

The night continues with a discussion and demonstration of the themes from Mister Ed and Rocky and Bullwinkle, the former full of TV-land quotes and the latter in stride mode. A horse is a horse... a pianist is a pianist, unless of course the pianist happens to have an encyclopedic storehouse of jazz trivia that flows in tandem with ten of the most flexible digits in modern music, fingers tethered to the acrobatic mind of Jon Weber.

Of course Weber should play to a packed house. The fact that he could not draw more than a handful of his own fans was one of a list of crimes committed during the RNC. Fortunately it was one crime that is not likely to have long-term repercussions. Jon will undoubtedly return no later than the next Twin Cities Jazz Festival.

Meanwhile, my favorite memory of the RNC is sitting in the parlor, enjoying the congeniality and genius of Jon Weber.

Photos: Jon Weber hitting his stride and retrieving a few facts at the Artists Quarter. That purple jacket was not complimented by the yellow spotlight. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jazz Love in Detroit: First and Lasting Impressions

Detroit is not a destination city. Its depressed economy, high unemployment, and reputed urban crime rates have served to separate Motor City from more appealing centers of Midwest tourism and conventioneering. But consider the origins of jazz, a music that rose like the Phoenix from the ashes of adversity, swathed in a spirit of hope in the future and simply joy in living another day. Jazz of course was not born in Detroit, but the city nevertheless embraces this music as if it is indeed its native tongue, and when Labor Day weekend comes around, Detroit is no longer Mo’town. It’s Bop City.

This was my first Detroit Jazz Festival, and the massive gathering at the continent’s largest free jazz festival, one of the world’s largest jazz happenings, offered a striking contrast to the typical attention paid to America’s own music in our own country. From the first scatted verses from Dianne Reeves on Friday’s opening night to the last hot notes of the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Band in the final hour of Labor Day, more than half a million eager listeners flocked to six stages to see and hear more than 100 jazz acts representing the full range of the genre. And of course, this is Detroit, there had to be a smattering of the Motown Sound, most notably the opening night tribute to hometown legend Marvin Gaye (and featuring Twin Cities native Jose James blowing out the field on vocals). But unlike some big festivals and many “jazz” clubs today, the Detroit Jazz Festival is thoroughly focused on jazz. This year, the theme was Brotherly Love, connecting the jazz legends of Detroit and Philadelphia. Native Philadelphian and honorary Detroiter Christian McBride, a bass legend-to-be, served generously and intelligently as Artistic Director.

Metro Detroit is home to about 5 million residents. Labor Day Weekend, about 15% spent their free time at the jazz festival. Of course there were many visitors, like me, from out of town, but given the cost of travel these days, it is a fair guess that the vast majority on Hart Plaza were local. And it is not as if there was nothing else to do in Detroit this weekend. In neighboring Pontiac, an even bigger “Arts, Beats and Eats” festival enticed about a million; the famed Belle Isle Grand Prix drew its share of car racing fans. Yet, given those options, as well as the usual array of family picnics, over half a million chose jazz. Here in the Twin Cities, with a metro area about two-thirds the size of Detroit, we draw maybe 25,000 to our annual jazz festival. Why?

Minneapolis in many ways is a much more vibrant jazz community than Detroit, given the number of musicians, schools, and jazz oriented venues. The Detroit festival, now in its 29th year, nearly folded up its tent a few years back due to lack of funding and an erosion of its “real jazz” lineup. But the DJF now has something we don’t have in the Twin Cities—community support through the newly formed Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation. The Foundation is largely supported by a ten million dollar endowment from Detroit’s Mack Avenue Records Chairperson, Gretchen Valade, as well as a growing membership base of corporate and private donors. Like Monterey and other major festivals, DJF is a year-round operation. After spending four days not only listening to some of the best jazz on the planet but watching the well-oiled machine of festival operations, I wonder where our struggling Twin Cities Jazz Festival would be if, say, a 3M or Target heir decided to invest in the future of American music?

The Detroit Festival has a three-pronged mission: 1) foster the history and nurture the development of jazz; 2) perpetuate Detroit’s significant jazz legacy through educational and collaborative opportunities accessible to all; and 3) present a world-class signature event that makes Detroit a tourist destination. The 2008 event succeeded on all dimensions.
Throughout the weekend, we learned and heard about the many influences of Detroit and Philadelphia on the development of the music. Philly native Benny Golson told stories about playing as a teen with fellow Philadelphia John Coltrane. Ravi Coltrane (embodying the merger of Detroit and Philadelphia) led a transcendent tribute to his mother (and Detroit native) Alice Coltrane. Detroit natives Gerald Wilson (who at nearly 90 was perhaps the oldest performer and certainly the oldest big band leader on site), iconic pianist/educator Barry Harris, legendary guitarist Kenny Burrell, superstar vocalist Dianne Reeves, elegant pianist and composer Geri Allen, alto sax star Kenny Garrett, the brash man of many reeds, James Carter, and many more helped us trace the development of jazz from early bop to modern avant garde, as did their compatriots from Philadelphia, saxman Sonny Fortune, piano lyricist Kenny Barron, tireless composer and bandleader Jimmy Heath, inventive trombonist Robin Eubanks... and of course host Christian McBride.

Not only did the many performances and commentary nurture appreciation for the legacy of jazz, but on the Here and Now and Stage, rising stars like Sachal Vasandani, Esperenza Spalding and the Brubeck Institute Quintet, gave us a taste of the vitality of the present and promise of the future, as did some of the true innovators of the current day on the Mack Avenue Records Pyramid Stage--Robin Eubanks’ EB-3 (via loops, Robin managed a trombone quintet, solo), the high energy Arts and Crafts Quartet led by Matt Wilson, and the exciting compositions of pianist Gerald Clayton.

The festival was not just about performance but about promoting jazz as local culture, across generations. The Pepsi Talk Tent provided opportunities to hear from the legends that performed throughout the weekend; the Kid Bop stage provided a variety of performances and demonstrations aimed at the youngest jazz fans, complete with colored chalk and other appealing activities. The Jazz Garden stage presented student bands throughout the weekend, and many area college jazz bands were featured as well, often in the company of such heroes as John Faddis, Terrel Stafford and Jimmy Heath.

And finally, without a doubt, Detroit presented a world class event. The sea of red-shirted volunteers covered the festival grounds like an army of ants, answering questions, directing traffic, supervising and supporting the artists, and maintaining a safe and orderly routine. They were a genuinely friendly bunch, some clearly jazz aficionados, some curious to learn more. The food vendors were busy and lines long, but everyone seemed in good humor and committed to making this festival a showcase for Detroit hospitality.

A four-day annual event will not by itself make Detroit a tourist destination. But at least for Labor Day Weekend, the Detroit Jazz Festival should be on the top of the list –worldwide—for jazz destinations. Next year will be the 30th anniversary celebration.
Photos: Three generations of Detroit/Philadelphia jazz, top to bottom: An energetic 89, Gerald Wilson led his acclaimed orchestra in a battle of the bands with the Count Basie Orchestra; pianist and composer Geri Allen appeared with both the Christian McBride band and Ravi Coltrane's tribute to late mom Alice; Philly bassist Christian McBride served ably as Artistic Director and the festival's busiest performer. (Photos: Andrea Canter)