Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ahmad Jamal: The Magic at Close Range

I’ve particularly enjoyed jazz piano as far back as I can remember recognizing jazz. The piano is a big orchestra in a big box that a single human can conduct with ten fingers. Everyone’s fingers, ears and brain differ, and no two pianists playing even the same tune on the same piano will sound exactly alike. And in jazz, even the same pianist playing the same tune on the same piano will produce something at least a little bit different from one gig to the next.

Unlike a symphony orchestra or a jazz big band, a piano is best enjoyed in much smaller spaces, in solo, duet, or small ensemble settings that most readily allow the pianist to lead, support, or interact. Small spaces allow the serious listener to become a silent witness to the creative process, and when one has the fortune to be seated within a few feet of the piano, when the pianist is Ahmad Jamal, the magic is as visual as it is aural.

Twice I have observed piano magic from a few feet. Two years ago I sat in the first row of the (old) Jazz Showcase in Chicago for a very sparsely attended Sunday matinee of the Kenny Barron Trio with Buster Williams and Ben Riley. I could almost reach the keyboard myself. It didn’t matter to Barron if there were a dozen or a hundred in the audience, he came to play. He played for me. From my perch I could focus on every movement, every touch, every lingering note.

Last night the Dakota Jazz Club was overflowing, the entire main floor and mezzanine filled for the opening set of Ahmad Jamal’s “new” quartet. (In addition to long-time bassist James Cammack, Jamal reunited with percussionist Manolo Badrena and had recently brought on James Johnson as his regular drummer.) Somehow I scored a table about six feet from the edge of the piano bench, the piano for this particular gig a Steinway in place of the club’s own Yamaha, placed in the center of the stage, the bench perfectly aligned with my table. While it lacked the house party privacy of that afternoon in Chicago, the situation nevertheless offered a rare intimacy, even for a jazz club.

I have seen Ahmad Jamal at the Dakota (in Minneapolis and in the old location in St. Paul) at least four times now, and each time he seems younger, more agile, more peaceful, more engaging. At 78 he is one of the last survivors of the swing to bop to post-bop generation, a bridge between the older Hank Jones, Dave Brubeck and Marian McPartland, and the younger brigade of McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. He inspired no less than Miles Davis as well as countless others who tried to follow. Tonight he inspired us all, musicians or not. Merely observing and hearing Jamal, especially from a few feet away, offers lessons in patience, efficiency, balance and collaboration.

The concept of “patience” is not often mentioned in discussions of music. But perhaps it should be, and an evening with Ahmad Jamal is proof. Regardless of the speed of his fingers—and at 78, his speed and dexterity remain phenomenal, one never feels he is rushing to judgment. Each idea, each note is given its due. Yet full development is never prolonged—the idea resolved, the master moves on. The motion of musical ideas is nearly constant yet never wasted—if his intent can be fulfilled with just the right hand, the left can rest. And vice versa. Space here is not a vacuum—a pause allows that magical sonic dust to settle a bit before another whirlwind stirs the cauldron of creation. A final note might slowly dissipate in a wispy cloud or explode like that last blast of 4th of July fireworks. The fingers might stop, Jamal might even rise up from the bench and turn his attention to Badrena’s menagerie of percussion gear, physically proscribing the breathing room he gives his partners.

The balance of space and dynamics has been a long-standing hallmark of Jamal’s compositions and improvisations. His notes seemingly tumble out of his fingertips, perfectly articulated, at gravity-defying speed only to suddenly halt, turn, and flutter into piles of sonic dust; percussive bursts and hand-over-hand arpeggios of densely voiced chords give way to delicate filigree phrases, all within a few bars. The loudest thunder might follow a barely audible breeze, yet the dynamic shifts never seem to disrupt the artistic flow. It is always surprising yet invariably coherent. I’m not aware of any other pianist who displays the ferocity of McCoy Tyner and the delicacy of Bill Evans in such tight juxtaposition.

Last night, Jamal announced some of the compositions, many from his latest, majestic recording, aptly titled It’s Magic. For the most part, the titles were superfluous as the pianist reinvents each piece as a superstar quarterback issues audibles at the line of scrimmage, designing and directing his team with a nod of his head, a wave of his hand, a turn of his phrasing. Practically sitting on that line of scrimmage, we visually witnessed some of that communication, yet clearly there’s a telepathic connection as well. Certainly the success of the evening was in part due to Ahmad Jamal’s stellar partners—drummer James Johnson who displayed a sense of space and time wholly compatible with Jamal’s, never overpowering yet offering a full range of supporting (seldom soloing) camaraderie; 26-year partner and sympathetic bassist James Cammack, whose position a bit behind the piano belies the magnitude of his contribution and the graceful dance of his hands; and percussion master Manolo Badrena, who largely evoked Latin rhythm through subtle shadings that hinted rather than thundered clave.

Jamal typically includes his reinterpretation of standards as well as original compositions in a given set, but at times the “standard” exists only in remnants of melody rewoven into new fabric, elaborated over an extended collaborative context like “The Way You Look Tonight” or in minimalist quilting like the closing one-minute rendering of “Like Someone In Love.” What the audience always anticipates is “Poinciana,” Jamal’s signature tune for the past 50 years. Ahmad didn’t write it, but he surely owns it. And as familiar as the underlying drum vamp has become, one never knows where Jamal will take the melody. Last night, the introduction with just left hand bass notes elongated to nearly three minutes before we all smiled in recognition.

For as close as we were sitting, the sound was cleanly balanced; we could feel the vibrations of each instrument, see the expression of each musician, and experience their interaction as a private encounter with the spontaneity of creative genius. Moments of joy, shared.

Ahmad Jamal and his quartet perform again tonight and tomorrow night, 7 and 9:30 pm at the Dakota. Photos taken during the opening set on November 24th by Andrea Canter... a few feet away.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Touch Tones (and Missing Rivets)

Observing a musician’s “master class” provides a different perspective than attending a concert or gig, taking a lesson, or watching Ken Burns. A master class is part demonstration, part performance, sometimes part direct instruction―it all depends on the musician and the nature of the audience.

As an observer, I’ve attended a few master classes at conferences such as the late IAJE convention. In 2007, drummer Matt Wilson used volunteers to try out some of his ideas for “getting to know your drums.” One exercise involved striking the cymbal with different objects at different points on the metal surface and listening to the way the sound dissipated. It’s difficult to be aware of such aural details in the midst of a quartet or big band gig.

I’ve now attended two master classes at MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis. Janice Borla presented a master class for voice students (and observers like me!) two years ago, using critiques of student performances as the centerpiece. And last Saturday afternoon, I attended what was surely the most entertaining master class of the season, a drum “clinic” presented by local legend Dave King, percussion master for the edgy bands The Bad Plus and Happy Apple. Dave is well known worldwide not only for his powerful and sleight-of-hand technique on the trapset but also for his arsenal of atypical percussion “instruments”—items never intended for musical purposes. Who else uses ET Walkie-Talkies, plastic megaphones, and other children’s toys to evoke a menagerie of sound from otherwise traditional drum heads and cymbals?

With deadpan delivery and a monologue that could serve as a Saturday Night Live script, Dave talked about a number of elements and strategies in jazz drumming and gamely took on questions from an audience filled with drummers, drum students, and drum fans, some as young as five years old. Throughout the two hours, a common thread in Dave’s commentary was the centrality of the relationship between musician and instrument, and particularly the interactive quality of touch for a percussionist.

Just as Matt Wilson had emphasized the nuances in contact between stick and metal, Dave talked about “bringing the cymbals to life yourself rather than relying on technology” and thinking about the gear as a “blank canvass” from which to create. The drummer’s touch—not the sticks, the drumheads, even the ET Walkie Talkies—is what makes each musician unique. “There’s an infinite variety of touching,” notes Dave, and each touch alters the time, the tone, the color of the sound.

King demonstrated his tactile kinship with his kit through several prolonged solos that yielded a cornucopia of sounds, some very musical, some simply odd, even whimsical. If there are infinite ways to execute a percussive act, there are infinite resulting patterns of sound, some tonal, many atonal. In the absence of other instruments, percussion must feed its own fire. Dave King builds that fire from a few logs that ultimately burst into flame as a roaring inferno or smoldering campfire or mere flicker. All this through his ability to alter sound through touch as much as through his choices of props. A creaking hinge is suggested by a drumstick scraping along the skin of the drumhead. A fierce explosion is created by a stick crashing down on the edge of a ride cymbal (Dave says he never uses “crash” cymbals, but he crashes nevertheless). A low whine rises from a tom-tom when a plastic megaphone serves as both a percussive agent and sound amplifier. And Dave uses direct touch often, striking the snare with one hand while the other attacks cymbal with stick or muting the drumhead with an elbow. (I’ve seen local drum counterpart J.T. Bates as well as Matt Wilson generate a similar effect with the heel of his foot.)

Sounds from a master percussionist can be soothing or scathing, energizing or relaxing, violent or conciliatory, smooth or jagged, abrupt or flowing. Dave King describes the “iconoclastic thinking musician” as one who is constantly seeking an individual sound, one who is guided by his vulnerability, the “human intent”—one who is “in touch” with his (or her) relationship to the instrument. Or perhaps one who would remove the rivets of his ride cymbal “to change its potential.”

It’s not a bad approach to life, even for us nonmusicians.
Photos: Dave King demonstrates and philosophizes about touch, time and sound. (Photos by Andrea Canter at the MacPhail Center for Music on November 22, 2008)

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Master's Voice

Once in a while an artist gives a performance that not only surpasses expectation but seems to transcend the art itself. Barely into his 30s, trumpeter Sean Jones has won over many fans in the past year in the Twin Cities, performing with his quintet at the Dakota in September 2007 and leading the Downbeat Rising Stars ensemble at Orchestra Hall this past spring. Without a doubt, his chops were consistent with his rep as one of the top rising trumpeters on the scene, and with his appointment as lead trumpeter for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

We were therefore pleased when it was announced that Jones would be the special guest artist for the annual “A-Train” Party tonight at the Dakota. The “A-Train” is a unique program that provides several levels of club membership, including tickets to national shows and other perks. We get advanced notice, priority seating, unlimited local shows and more depending on the dues level we select. In return, the Dakota has a guaranteed fund base and can count on filling a lot more seats for lesser known artists. It’s a win-win deal. Tonight it was far more—it was a private coronation. Tonight Sean Jones soared beyond his already-stellar reputation and exploded as a post bop supernova spewing showers of sixteenth notes and pepper sprays of trills, sliding and whining, shouting and whispering, and most of all, singing like a choir of Gabriels. He was devilishly fast and angelically sweet.

Without a doubt, Jones was backed by a rhythm section that would have well served Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie—Phil Hey on drums, Gordy Johnson on bass, and young Tanner Taylor (whom Jones nicknamed “T ‘n T”) on piano. But the show belonged to Sean Jones, whether he was burning through a long fuse on “Cherokee” or weaving an elegant tapestry on “In a Sentimental Mood.” Arguably the latter was the capstone of the evening, as Jones followed his exquisite opening solo with seductive juxtapositions of “Pure Imagination” and “If I Only Had a Brain.”

In praising a great singer we often describe his or her tone and phrasing in comparison to a horn. In Sean Jones, we have a horn player whose tone and phrasing we can describe in comparison to the human voice. And there are few voices, or horns, that warrant the comparison.

Photo: Sean Jones defined music at the Dakota A-Train Party, November 16th. (Photo by Andrea Canter.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Three Gifts of Piano Jazz

There were three generations of keyboard giants in town this past week, although only one has really stirred much press. And at 21, he is the youngest.

When Eldar Djangirov was born in Kyrgyzstan (in the former Soviet Union) in 1987, Rick Germanson was a teen piano whiz in Milwaukee; Eddie Higgins had been playing piano for over 50 years (he started at age 4). Eldar took over the Dakota for one night on October 29th; Rick Germanson returned to favorite haunt, the Artist Quarter, for the weekend, while Eddie Higgins capped the week with one night at the Dakota on Saturday. If you worked out your schedule carefully and drove with a bit of gusto, it was possible to catch all three, even making multiple sets for Eldar and Rick. And among this threesome, you would have heard nearly all that one can imagine in modern jazz piano.

From the late 50s through the 60s, Eddie Higgins was a mainstay at Chicago’s famed London House and later Mr. Kelly’s. Although his name was never as well known, his sideman credits covered modern legends, from Coleman Hawkins and Jack Teagarden to Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter. In recent years, Eddie has visited the Twin Cities a few times and made two live recordings at the Dakota—in 2000 at the old club in St. Paul with bassist Brian Torff and local swing guitar man Reuben Ristrom; and in the new club in 2005, again with Ristrom and Tom Lewis on bass. For this return—nonrecording session—gig, Eddie once again called on Ristrom, adding young bass standout Graydon Peterson. The cross-generational interaction gave the evening a special warmth.

In addition to some of the most graceful piano chops to ever channel the standard repertoire, Eddie Higgins, now 76, is a born storyteller and not shy about sharing this talent. He not only introduces every tune (an increasingly rare accompaniment to modern gigs), he has a story about many of them—when he first heard it, when he first played it, and perhaps a few tidbits about the composer. He recalled his first time playing “Prelude to a Kiss” (“when I sat in with Johnny Frigo”), the time he learned Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” ("while playing on a cruise ship in the Caribbean"), and his anticipation in presenting Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” at the London House with Hoagy himself in the audience. (Hoagy and his wife, it seems, came into the club already a few drinks beyond the minimum, and left before Eddie played a note of Hoagy’s famous song.)

But it was the opening “mystery tune” on Saturday night that immediately announced Eddie Higgins as a lot more than an accomplished swinger. A long introduction that recalled (or really was) a Bach toccata swirled into “Autumn Leaves,” and even the usually rambunctious Dakota weekend crowd paused to listen—a state that ended all too soon. By the time the trio launched into “The Peacocks,” the din overshadowed the complexities and softly executed elegance of the composition. Still, any night with Eddie Higgins is a pleasure. The breadth of his music knowledge is as vast as the depth of his passion for expressing it.

Rick Germanson studied and gigged around Milwaukee, toured with the late Frank Morgan, and took top honors in the American Pianists Association Competition in 1996. He’s “house pianist” for the Ruth's Chriss Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, an odd but steady gig that makes the restaurant one of the best spots for intimate jazz in the Big Apple. His other steady jobs of late are perhaps more telling, holding the piano chair for Louis Hayes’ Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band and for the Pat Martino Quartet. Rick has been coming to the Artists Quarter for much of the decade, even supporting vocalist Carole Martin on her most recent CD. He’s in the midst of planning his next recording, and personally I can’t wait. Rick is a creative improviser who seems equally comfortable playing the blues, ballads or hard bop barnburners; his voicings are rich, his quotes spontenous. And he always seems to have a good time interacting with his partners, this weekend Jay Young on bass and Kenny Horst on drums. Hearing Young on acoustic upright is always a too-rare treat.

Rick puts a light touch on his melody lines, surrounding them with dancing cascades of chords, throwing in licks of familiar fare in seamless junctures. Most appreciated this weekend were two solo versions of a Strayhorn/Ellington medley. The first night, the rarely played (and most elegant) “Single Petal of a Rose” gave way to a “Prelude to a Kiss” that soared as a prayer-like call and response among left and right hands; “Lush Life” closed the exquisite sequence. The next night, again solo, Rick reversed the order, “Prelude” again separating the more narrative “Lush Life” from the melodic “Rose.” Ben Webster recorded an outstanding “Rose” (on See You at the Fair) and we can only imagine a pairing of Germanson and Webster. The second night brought another medley with the full trio, this time a lively set of Monk (“Ruby My Dear,” “Pannonica” and “Blue Monk”). Maybe the hit of the second night was Rick’s own “Daytona,” a catchy, upbeat melody kissed by Latin rhythms, and the kiss became a bearhug once Kenny Horst turned rimshots to clave. Germanson is a pianist who reveres tradition while turning the past inside out with an ear tuned in global directions.

Which brings me back to Eldar, himself a product of global directions. Clearly a prodigy in his homeland, Eldar and family emigrated to Kansas City when he was in his early teens, and from that point on, he was on everyone's radar screen. After winning several awards, he became the youngest guest to appear on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. At about 18, he made his debut at the Dakota with a rhythm section of veteran players, bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Todd Strait. Even at 18, Eldar seemed to channel the mature chops of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson with the youthful exuberance of a young Benny Green. His hands moved faster than the ear or eye could really appreciate and he was utterly fearless in his attack. All this remains three years later but add to his earlier prodigious approach a more direct integration of his own generation’s love of electronics, hip-hop and beyond. Add also a much younger pair of cohorts, his now regular bassist Armando Gola and drummer Ludwig Alfonso, appearing with him for the first time and hopefully not the last.

Eldar’s speed on uptempo tunes borders on the ridiculous but his articulation never suffers. And like Rick Germanson, one fleeting idea can touch off a string of new voices and/or trace memories from standard playbooks. His own compositions are interesting but the high point of his late set was a delightfully convoluted presentation of Miles Davis’ “Donna Lee.” The basic melody spun out of orbit early on, phalanges of notes and chords spewing out from the molten core to form their own little galaxies. Like his older counterparts in jazz piano, Eldar’s frequent grin confirms the joy that comes with the gift, and it is a joy of giving as much as receiving.

Thankfully, these gifts are shared.

Photos: (Top to bottom) Eldar at the Dakota (October 29th); Rick Germanson at the Artists Quarter (October 31st); Eddie Higgins (at his 2005 live recording date at the Dakota). All photos by Andrea Canter.