Monday, October 27, 2008

Stringamagination




We often hear that the human brain has far greater capacity than we use. Part of that capacity is to coordinate movements that most of us can’t even imagine, let alone execute. Among musicians, that coordination of movements combines with artistic imagination, often leading to visually or aurally pleasing results. But now and then we meet an artist whose vision is so in sync with his or her coordination that we respond with a sense of discovery—Hey, I didn’t know humans could do that! And who would have even thought to try it?

Stanley Jordan has created a unique way of expressing himself in music by reinventing guitar and piano technique. It’s his “finger-tapping” guitar that has fueled his reputation as an innovator for the past 30 years, but as he demonstrated tonight, he has an equally idiosyncratic approach to the piano as well as the skill to play both instruments simultaneously. In fact Jordan plays a guitar more like a piano, and a piano more like a guitar. He primarily uses the fretboard with both hands, the fingers that normally pluck and strum pressing the strings with a sometimes legato, sometimes staccato touch. And with the strings tuned to an alternative “fourths” progression, the sound Jordan coaxes from his electric guitar comes at you in multi-part harmony, in cascades of zen, like desert winds sweeping across lunar landscapes, sometimes howling, sometimes whispering. Brazilian standards, John Lennon hits, and Mozart concerti are all equally open to Jordan’s interpretations.

If Jordan's guitar is piantistic, his piano is most overtly a string instrument as he lightly tap dances across the keyboard, weaving intricate phrases with his right hand while the left hand works a complementary pattern on the guitar, the alternate tuning allowing melodies to unfold seamlessly. On one composition he brushed his hand across the full length of the keyboard as if strumming an 88-stringed guitar. It no longer sounds like a piano, but like a small string orchestra.

Is it jazz? It is most decidedly improvisation. Be it “Eleanor Rigby” or “Piano Concerto Number 21,” there’s a shade of blues. It does not particularly swing, but it zings and sings. It’s a fusion of disparate elements and roots.

It’s Stanley Jordan.
Photos: Stanley Jordan at the Dakota, October 27, 2008. (Photos by Andrea Canter)



Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bettye LaVette: Raising Hell at the Scene of the Crime




Since 2004, the “Great Lady of Soul,” aka Bettye LaVette, makes an annual pilgrimage to the Dakota Jazz Club, in part to remind us that our hearts are never buried that deep, and in part to acknowledge her self-described debt to owner Lowell Pickett for “taking a chance on an old broad” -- he booked her into the newly relocated club based pretty much on hearing one track ("Forecast") from her then-new release, A Woman Like Me. Every year, I go to two sets. Unlike many vocalists, Bettye never sings the same set back to back. Her repertoire covers more than enough territory for a full night of song, and she wants to share it.

Bettye’s story of her 46-year career reflects the worst of the recording industry—discovered as a teen, releasing a series of hit singles, she was brought into the studio by Atlantic for her debut LP recording which was mysteriously shelved for nearly thirty years while her career flagged. But she rose from the ashes in her 50s, saw the long-delayed release of her 1972 album (“that’s what we used to call them!” she reminded the younger members of the audience), now titled Souvenirs, in 2000, and has since issue two more acclaimed CDs and garnered Grammy nominations and blues awards. Some of her songs address the traumas and triumphs of her career, others just address the traumas and triumphs of life itself. Whatever she’s singing, she bares her soul, and in the process, she takes over a part of mine.

Bettye is one of my favorite photo subjects, although she is also one of the most challenging in the dim light of the Dakota—she never stops moving. Even if her limbs are at rest (which is seldom), her face continuously relays signals from heart and mind. I’ve never even been a real fan of soul and R&B, but turn Bettye loose on “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got,” simply a capella (and the only tune repeated over two sets), and I’m a convert. And with her high-energy band, Bettye swings and sways and engages every ear with sets covering many tunes from her most recent recordings, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (celebrating women songwriters) and Scene of the Crime, the "crime" being the delayed release of Souvenirs, the “scene” the same recording studio in Muscle Shoals.

Sometimes the vibe is distinctly swampy, as on “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” courtesy of some guitar skronk from Brent Lucas and a sultry delivery that openly defies Bettye’s 62 years. Well, everything about Bettye defies those 62 years. On stage she is as much a dancer as a singer, her body’s motion mirroring the beat—pulsation from the trapset, gyration from Bettye, percussive accents in sync with body language. And on a wrenching tune like “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” Bettye’s masterful phrasing and dynamic control work in tandem with the lyrics to “tear you apart.”

The Great Lady of Soul can raise her hell here anytime. Heaven can wait.




Photos: Bettye LaVette at the Dakota, October 20, 2008. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

AQ Lucky Thirteen: Lucky Us





Every jazz city needs its “Cheers.” As the refrain goes, it’s “where everybody knows your name.... and they’re always glad you came.” In the Twin Cities, the Artists Quarter in downtown St. Paul is our “Cheers” equivalent among jazz venues. Maybe just among venues, period. This weekend, the AQ celebrated its “Lucky Thirteen” years in downtown St. Paul, split nearly equally among its first Jackson Street location in Lowertown and the new millennial years in the lower level of the Hamm Building across from Landmark Center.

I’ve at times likened the AQ to the Village Vanguard in Manhattan—it’s a no frills, basement-level venue with furnishings that have seen better days, a basic bar with no peanuts or pretzels, and home to a stellar sound system and nearly daily line-up of largely instrumental, bop and cutting-edge jazz. But at the AQ, you also get Midwest casual, a warm welcome from Davis Wilson at the door and owner Kenny Horst nearby, drinks with a smile from Dan or David behind the bar or delivered on busy nights by Sheila or Jane. And they do know our names, and they are sincerely glad we came.

And we come often. Not to chat with our regular cohorts of jazz fanatics although before the music, between sets, after the show, the AQ is a relaxing room to just hang out with friends. But if you want to see and be seen, order a designer martini, treat the music as wallpaper, or order something from a bar menu, you need to head down the street or across the river. The AQ is a club for musicians and those who want to hear the music, and the music is jazz, never R&B, pop or whatever else so many jazz clubs have been booking lately to expand their patronage and their bottom line. It’s always a struggle but Kenny has maintained the AQ as a jazz club, prompting some to declare that the AQ is the “only” jazz club in the Twin Cities. An exaggeration perhaps, but the point is well taken.

You can have your jazz over easy, with the bebop delights of Dave Karr or the smoky vocals of Carole Martin. Or you can take your jazz shirred and poached, with the innovative twists and turns of the Phil Hey Quartet or Pete Whitman X-Tet. And you can take your jazz thoroughly scrambled by the surprising explorations of How Birds Work or the highly combustible Happy Apple. Best of all, you can take it nearly every night (Sundays often are open for private events) and the covers won’t give you sticker shock—weeknights are usually $5, weekends generally $10-$12. Even a legendary touring artist like Roy Haynes or Mose Allison won’t run more than $20-$25. Try that in Manhattan. Or even Minneapolis.

Surely one of the factors in the AQ’s longevity, and certainly a significant part of its down-home, family atmosphere, is the partnership within Family Horst. Kenny runs the club—his “staff” consists of doorman, announcer and AQ poet laureate Davis Wilson plus the small bar crew. Wife Dawn is usually there on weekends, or more often, checking to be sure you are having a good time, clearing tables or delivering drinks when things get busy. Or singing the blues on stage if it is New Year’s Eve or another very special occasion. Son David is often behind the bar. Dawn’s mom Carole Martin is one of few singers on the schedule, and not often enough, we tell her.

The anniversary party was everything AQ, from the seemingly endless line-up of some of the club’s most popular musicians to the free CD offered to patrons (“buy a ticket, pick a CD from our box of live recordings”) to the balloons and cake. In true AQ fashion, music started late and ran late; the Tuesday Night Band must have forgotten the Sunday night gig and an ailing Pete Whitman had to bow out of the Pete Whitman Quartet. No matter, the house was full of AQ fans from aspiring high schoolers to retired bandleaders; the Whitman Minus Whitman Trio was arguably the hit of the evening, and super bass star Anthony Cox introduced a new band (“Shovel”) that was still raising the roof when I reluctantly climbed the stairs at midnight.

Veteran drummer George Avaloz started off the evening with a bang, literally, as he is one of the more heavy-handed of area percussionists. But he also brings to the stage one of the most versatile saxophonists around, Jim Marentic, whose Coltrane interpretations were incendiary one minute (“Cousin Mary”) and stunningly lyrical the next (“Naima”). Peter Schimke, Gordy Johnson and Phil Hey came together for their first-ever trio performance, and even without Pete Whitman’s horn, they soared, gently dismantling “Round Midnight,” swinging abstractly through “All The Things You Are.” Surely this has to be the start of something good!

I am a long-time fan of the Phil Hey Quartet, to me a 21st century edition of the famed Modern Jazz Quartet. And I will put Dave Hagedorn up against any Milt Jackson legacy, any night. Was it worth it to drag out the vibraphone, wheel it through the crowd and onto the stage, for a thirty-minute set? You betcha. And what fun to hear pianist Phil Aaron take off as he never can when comping for even the most daring vocalist. No standard fare either, with Mark Copeland’s “Darius’ Dance,” Monk’s “Shuffle Boil,” Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation.”

Carole Martin and Debbie Duncan separately are outstanding as vocalists and as entertainers--together they are magic. They started and ended the set with duets (“But Not For Me,” “Beautiful Friendship”) and banter, each taking her own jaunt in-between, Debbie slaying us with “But Beautiful,” Carole torching “Small Day Tomorrow.”

The last two sets were the most adventurous in sound and concept. How Birds Work is a great opportunity to hear guitarist Dean Granros, another virtuoso musician who plays clubs too infrequently. It’s also a showcase opportunity for Kenny Horst. This is not a matter of a club owner using his venue to further his performance ops—Kenny delivers with the best in town. No wonder touring musicians are willing to stop by the little AQ in St. Paul—they know they will find great rhythm sections, and Kenny is a large part of it. Another of our great improvising guitarists, Dean Magraw, was on the stand for the last set with Shovel, led by veteran sensation Anthony Cox on bass with Chris Thomson on saxes and JT Bates on the drums. The music was odd and beautiful, ranging from high octane to sweet contemplation.

Maybe there was more, I was fading but the music was still burning. And long may that little light of jazz, the AQ, shine on. Lucky thirteen... lucky us.



Photos: (top to bottom) Host Kenny Horst; Dave Hagedorn with the Phil Hey Quartet; Debbie Duncan and Carole Martin; Dean Granros with How Birds Work. All photos from the AQ's Lucky Thirteen party on October 19th by Andrea Canter.




Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bruce Henry: Summoning the High Spirit


I wonder if Bruce Henry was a Cantor in another life. A real one, not like me. Maybe someone in my distant ancestry could really sing. After all, the original spelling of my family name was Cantor, not Canter. (It’s a long story...but maybe somewhere along it was determined that we did not possess sufficient vocal skills to deserve to be Cantors?)

But Bruce Henry would have made a terrific Cantor. Not just because his pitch is true and his multi-octave range can cover the demands of any prayer. Like the best Cantors, Bruce can summon the highest spirit with a simple incantation. And it matters little if that spirit is Judaic, African, or Bulgarian or if the origin of the call is Gershwin or Parker or folk tradition. No spirit would turn away from the unwavering sound, the pure tone, the thunder from the heart.

We can’t turn away when Bruce is on stage. His presence is simultaneously commanding and approachable. His joy is contagious. He nearly overpowers with emotion, leaving one breathless but still standing. When he improvises it’s as if creating a ceremonial chant from ancient fragments. His voice is his horn, and he can swing like Goodman, spin and spiral like Parker, or levitate like Coltrane.

And his home is now in Chicago, as it was throughout his childhood and coming of age. He’s returned to the Twin Cities often in the past few months for a variety of public and private gigs, but we’ll see less and less of him now as he builds connections on the Chicago jazz scene and tours in Florida with Joe Vass’s “The Soul of Gershwin,” a klezmer project. A klezmer project? Maybe he really is a Cantor.

Bruce Henry can’t stay away for long. He’ll perform at the Hopkins Center for the Arts in February and will open for Ramsey Lewis at Orchestra Hall in August.



Photo: Bruce Henry sent a call across the universe at his October 16th gig at the Dakota. (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

On the Vitality of Jazz, 2008




One of the questions we are debating in Kelly Rossum’s Jazz 201 class at MacPhail is the definition of jazz in a 21st century context. British writer Stuart Nicholson poses the more pithy question in the title of his book, Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved to a New Address)? The controversy—the growth or demise of jazz, depending on your point of view—has been around since at least the bebop era, when dance bands and swing music fell on hard times post World War II, when rock ‘n roll replaced swing as America’s popular music, when bop erupted as a true art form in search of an audience that would perceive it as a cultural phenomenon and social commentary rather than mere entertainment. If you were young and hip and seeking “cool,” then the odd rhythms, dissonant harmonies and ridiculously fast tempos of bop opened the door to the future of jazz. For others, bop was the death knell of the genre. Fifty years later, we are still debating the vitality, even the definition, of jazz.

Some historians and critics feel that bop was the last “new thing” in jazz. Pointing to the Wynton Marsalis phenomenon, Nicholson and others voice concern that jazz has become a retro art, its contemporary practitioners focused on virtuosic preservation rather than passionate innovation. But consider the jazz presented at just the major venues in the Twin Cities last weekend:

Tribute to Leigh Kamman at the Artists Quarter. Celebrating the career of retired broadcaster Leigh Kamman, the Artist Quarter welcomed crooner and Bing Crosby expert Arne Fogel, balladeer/torch singer Carole Martin, vocal innovator Bruce Henry, and bop masters Dave Karr, Dave Graf and Brad Bellows. Martin, whose public gigs are too few and far between, sang one of her signature songs, “Blame It On My Youth,” with timeless emotion. It’s not a new tune. It’s not a new style. But can music that grabs your 21st century heart be dead? Or even retro? What about Bruce Henry’s shattering interpretation of “Afro Blue?” Using the human voice as a horn is no longer innovative, yet Henry finds new sounds, new phrases, his incantation taking a yodeling quality like no singer I’ve heard, at once rooted in an ancient land and seeking a new world.

Benny Green and Bucky Pizzarelli, live recording at the Dakota. Revealing swing at its most lyrical and dynamic, pianist Benny Green and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, two generations apart, united at the Dakota as the most sublime and sympathetic pairing in years. No argument here that the music is drawn from a past era of Gershwin, Basie and Ellington. So why does it matter so much in 2008 that music of the 30s still shines? Are we only admiring a past glory or are we captivated by the spontaneous joy that even “old” music can inspire? It is said that jazz is never played the same way once. The same notes can have new feeling; the same tune can be given new notes, new harmonies, new rhythms. Jazz is only dead if it is repeated.

Charlie Haden/Carla Bley, Liberation Music Orchestra at Ted Mann. Taking the form of the 30s regional big band infused with social justice messages and modern harmonies, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley and a masterful cast brought a mid-century format to the new millenium’s political quagmire, and the result transcended both. “Old music” from Dvorak to Metheny to “Amazing Grace” and “American the Beautiful,” when arranged by Bley in the context of one of the most critical elections of our time, stirs new fears, new resolve. Art remains viable if it continually elicits emotional response.

Kelly Rossum Quartet, CD release at the Artists Quarter. One moment playing out, the next moment paying homage to Miles, the next moment giving elegant lyricism a 21st century glow, Kelly Rossum and his quartet celebrated the release of Family. Some consider this a more conservative recording than Rossum’s earlier Renovation and Line. Some consider it his most adventurous yet. The music is deceptively accessible, often melodic, typically transparently rooted in the history of the music much as our lives are rooted in the histories of our family, our culture. New compositions from Rossum, Bryan Nichols and Chris Bates aren’t so “out” to leave the listener in startle mode, but well tethered on earth where one might more readily interpret the feelings evoked. Yet interpretation of the most standard composition, “If I Were A Bell,” rearranges, reconsiders, restructures those “old notes” with new messages. Jazz has always been about bringing different, even ancient, threads together to weave new fabric.

While the preservationists (aka “neoclassicists”) fear jazz has moved too far from its roots in blues and swing rhythm, others fear there is too little spontaneity and innovation among today’s practitioners. Some critics listening to the above performances would declare that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” a symptom of the pending demise of jazz. Yet, using only one weekend in the Twin Cities as the point of reference, if the individual sounds were anchored in the works of earlier masters, the existence of so many directions for those sounds, under the umbrella of one genre, seems itself an innovation and fundamental to the definition of jazz. And is the transparency of heritage a negation of creativity? Surely Stravinsky was swayed by Bach, even if Johann himself would have difficulty finding his footprint in Igor’s sandbox.



Photos: (top) Carole Martin "blamed it on her youth" at the Artists Quarter. (Middle) Benny Green and Bucky Pizzarelli enjoyed one of many joyful moments at the Dakota. (Bottom) Kelly Rossum and Chris Bates celebrated a new CD and beyond. (Photos by Andrea Canter)