Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bobby McFerrin: One Man, One Orchestra

© Andrea Canter
Bobby McFerrin looks like an ordinary, middle aged man. With dreadlocks. He’s starting to turn gray, he’s slight and wiry. Then he opens his mouth.

McFerrin is a musical instrument, and I am not using that metaphor as I would typically use it to describe the human voice in an orchestral or other music context. I mean that McFerrin, the whole man, is an instrument that produces the sounds of a full symphony. The mouth, the throat alone can not possibly create this music. He becomes a vibrating reed, a set of chimes, an arsenal of African percussion, a four-string bass, a keyboard, any horn. And yes, he can sing, too, and his range runs from the deepest bass to the highest soprano. Sometimes simultaneously.

Last night, a full house at Orchestra Hall listened with disbelief as McFerrin followed a very accomplished set from Cantus—an all male acapella ensemble—with an hour-long solo set, as well as a couple jointly created pieces with Cantus. Some of the music sounded like arrangements of reggae and traditional African folk; more familiar were his imaginative take-offs on 20th century television and commercial themes and his arrangements of Bach--requiring counterpoint melody and rhythm as well as a full chorus solitaire. For one tune, he invited local songstress Judi Donaghy, who has worked with McFerrin’s Voicestra project, to join him on the Jimmy Cliff hit, “I Can See Clearly Now”—Judi playing the (perfect) straight voice, McFerrin providing the full rhythm section with both single lines and full-fledged chords. He surely challenges the concept, “one man, one voice.” Here, one man provides two, three, even four voices at once. I suspect his vocal chords do not look like mine. But then again, he is not merely using his voice. Striking his chest he sends vibrations in all directions, his torso now a steel drum, now a cajon.

“Solo” is not really an accurate description of a McFerrin set, as he makes full use of the audience as back-up musicians to provide words and harmonies. He even offered a visual lesson in intervals, taking half or full steps or leaps on stage to signal different tones to the audience—a lesson that would surely enthrall kindergartners as much as it did 2000 adults. McFerrin engaged even the most stoic Minnesotans.

The best was saved for last as McFerrin presented the entire songlist from The Wizard of Oz, complete with spot-on imitations of the Wicked Witch, Glenda, Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and Wizard, as well as the Munchkins, Lollipop Guild, and more, in perfect sequence, with multi-part harmony, a ten-minute whirlwind of energy and sheer delight.

He seemed finished but a third curtain call persuaded him to give us one more. And what would be more fitting than the iconic farewell from the Mickey Mouse Club show? Again engaging the audience and providing all of the beloved verbiage, McFerrin closed with M-I-C...K-E-Y... M-O-U-S-E.

It was a cultural almanac as much as a musical event. One man, one orchestra.

Photo: Bobby McFerrin from a recent Kennedy Center press release.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Lead Sheet, January 31-February 5

Strings of interest this coming week! Start off with the Artists’Quarter’s Jazz Guitar Hero Weekend, Friday and Saturday. Backed by the immensely creative Chris Bates on bass and the always swinging Kenny Horst on drums, six of our local six-string masters, across generations, will strut their stuff. Friday night features Dean Magraw, the wizard of fluid motion and ambient textures who leads his own trio and Red Planet; Billy Franze, the sometimes maniacal, always groovin’ and sometimes singin’ string man of the Tuesday Night Band; and prodigiously talented heir to Django and leader of the Clearwater Hot Club, Sam Miltich. Come back Saturday night for another hat trick—the Dean of local guitar jazz, Dean Granros; McNally-Smith instructor and fleet-fingered star of Framework, Chris Olson; and another young talent on the rise—who lately leads the early edition of Tuesday nights, Cory Wong.

It’s been a while since jazz violinist Randy Sabien performed in the Twin Cities. He returns for two nights at the Dakota, February 3-4. He is as likely to play some Stephane Grapelli as some Grateful Dead or even some folk tunes. What makes this gig extra special is the band—local jazz icons Laura Caviani on piano and Gary Raynor on bass, drummer Pete Johnson, guitarist Jim Ouska (who plays in Randy’s Fiddlehead Band) and two more violins! He’s been recording live with Prairie Home Companion throughout January. This is a one-admission show at the Dakota—one cover at 7 pm, good all evening. Only $12 but advance reservations are a good idea.

A restaurant in Burnsville might not seem like a likely venue for a west coast bassist/vocalist but somehow Kristin Korb was booked into the new Applewood Rustic Grill on February 4th. There’s been little PR so far but then it is a small venue. I first saw Korb at the 2004 Hot Summer Jazz Festival – she really can sing and play bass, even at the same time. A protégé of the late Ray Brown, she is currently on the faculty of the Thornton School of Music at USC. I hope she packs warm clothes—she’ll be in Bemidji after Burnsville.

In addition to this string of great music, you can hear vocalist Christine Rosholt at the Dakota on Monday night, which usually means you can also hear Tanner Taylor, Dave Karr, Graydon Peterson and Jay Epstein. If you have checked her My Space page lately (which I recommend), you know that Christine is branching out beyond the Great American Songbook and tackling some new compositions from an English songwriter. It’s some of her most exciting work yet.

Young up-and-comer John Raymond has been gigging around the Twin Cities since high school. I first saw him play trumpet with the original Jazz Is Now ensemble when he was barely past graduation. In his first year at UW-Eau Claire, John put together his first edition of John Raymond Project and blew the roof off the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater. He’s returned home many times since, playing with Nachito Herrera, Yohannes Tona, and leading different configurations of his Project. His latest band will be at the Dakota on February 5th, with new compositions and arrangements that are sure to be flying high with energy and purpose.

And KBEM’s monthly REEL Jazz film series moves into the winter season on Thursday with local historian Bob DeFlores hosting an evening of film from his private collection, including a Mel Tormé interview and performance from 1960s San Francisco Jazz TV, and a feature from Chicago tv’s Art Hode’s Jazz Alley, this one with a band including Eddie Condon and Jimmy McPartland. These monthly screenings start out at 6:30 with a half hour of live jazz with the film rolling at 7 pm. See the monthly schedule at the KBEM website ( All screenings at Bryant-Lake Bowl in south Minneapolis. Catch the film and then come over to the Dakota for the John Raymond Project!
Finally, MPR's loss (self inflicted) is KBEM's gain--Maryann Sullivan returns to weekly jazz radio with Corner Jazz, every Saturday night from 9-11 on FM 88.5. She's looking forward to working with old friends, and carrying on the work she started at MPR, "only more so." Her first broadcast is Saturday night, January 31st.

It’s always fun to look ahead: The Atlantis Quartet at the AQ on Friday (2/6) and then on the other “coast” Saturday night for the Dakota Late Night spot; Rossum Electric Company at the Dakota for Late Night on Friday; the 30th Anniversary bash for the Twin Cities Jazz Society on Sunday (2/8) at the Dakota; Ann Hampton Callaway at the Dakota February 9-10, and too many options on February 12th—Twin Cities Mardi Gras with Irvin Mayfield at Orchestra Hall; Jazz Is Now with Ron Miles at the Minnesota Opera Center; and ECM recording artist, the very unusual trumpeter Jon Hassell.
Photos: (Top-Bottom), Billy Franze at the 2008 TC Jazz Festival; John Raymond at the Dakota, summer 2008; Christine Rosholt at her CD release party in November. Photos by Andrea Canter

Monday, January 26, 2009

With Songs in His Heart, John Pizzarelli Warms the Night

John Pizzarelli came back to the Dakota, just about six months since his memorable visit last summer. He again brought his working band—brother Martin on bass, Tony Tedesco on drums, and the should-be-better-known Larry Fuller on piano. The late set was hardly sold out but as far as John was concerned, he was playing the Carlyle in Manhattan on New Year’s Eve. The chatter was festive, the band swinging, the vocals buttery and warm.

Pizzarelli was literally born with a song in his heart, the son of one of the genre’s living legends, Bucky Pizzarelli, himself a recent star on the Dakota stage. As Lowell Pickett noted when introducing the band, the two greatest performers on seven-string guitar are both named Pizzarelli. And they share more than their instruments—both generously share the stage with their band mates, both know how to charm an audience into rapt attention. Bucky is far more low key than his exuberant offspring. If John isn’t singing, he’s talking, telling tales of the songs and songwriters interspersed with a stand-up comedy routine ripe for Vegas. It’s pretty entertaining without the music, but the music is the main event.

The Great American Songbook is John’s playground, his most recent release, With A Song in My Heart, focusing on Richard Rodgers. He covered some of that territory during last night’s second set (the title tune, “I Have Dreamed” and “Johnny One Note,” which lends it self readily to Pizzarelli’s hijinks). From his Sinatra tribute he pulled the beautiful “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” –which it nearly was when the 90-minute set was over. The tune also served as a launching pad for his most hilarious schtick of the night, recounting the serendipitous meeting of songwriter David Mann and Sinatra that made this the title tune for one of The Chairman’s hit albums in 1955; throughout the tale, Pizzarelli overlaid Manhattan insider taxi chatter. The lyrics alone are delightfully silly on “Rhode Island” (“Pencils come from Pennsylvania....” you get the idea) and John tipped his guitar to the songs of Bobby Troup and Nat King Cole. But the highlight of the evening came last, an encore that grew from “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” into a medley of at least six or seven fully presented love songs—I lost track, but in between “Polka Dots” and “As Time Goes By” we heard “More Than You Know,” “Misty,” “In the Mood for Love,” and a couple more—a fifteen minute coda to an evening that warmed the heart and fed the ear.

There’s more tonight.
Photos: (Top to Bottom). John Pizzarelli has one of the most expressive faces of jazz musicians; Larry Fuller swings and zigs and zags across the keyboard; Tony Tedesco and Martin Pizzarelli keep the pulse going strong. Photos by Andrea Canter, January 25th at the Dakota.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Lead Sheet, January 23-29

Another cold weekend but, as Jeremy Walker said recently, where else “when it’s 20 below zero do people go out to hear live jazz three, four, five nights per week?”

This weekend it is worth fighting the parking and traffic of the first days of the St. Paul Winter Carnival to hear Pete Whitman’s X-Tet at the Artists Quarter. The X-Tet naturally is a group of ten musicians and they don’t even fit on the AQ stage. Technically a small big band, Pete has been directing this accessibly modern ensemble for much of the decade, and he’s assembled quite a cast of performers—“the Daves” (Milne, Karr, Hagedorn), an unbeatable rhythm section (Laura Caviani, Gordy Johnson, Phil Hey), and Adam Rossmiller, Kelly Rossum, Jeff Rinear, and of course Pete himself. Big sounds tonight and Saturday at 9 pm.

John Pizzarelli’s back in town. That one-night stand in August wasn’t enough, so now the guitarist/vocalist is back with an outstanding quartet (including brother Martin on bass) for two nights. John’s chops make guitar-wielding dad Bucky proud, and his easy swinging voice fits a small cabaret as effectively as a large concert stage. We get the best compromise hearing him at the Dakota Jazz Club, January 25-26. And the Dakota can keep you warm all weekend with the return visit of Estaire Godinez, LA-based percussionist/vocalist. She always draws a crowd and a hot band.

Katie Gearty sings with The Wolverines Trio every Sunday this month for the Times’ Jazz Brunch. Katie has a versatile voice that shines on jazz standards, R&B and blues. A perfect partner to Eggs Benedict and frittata. Stop back for a drink or late dinner on Wednesday nights in January when Maud Hixson is singing with the Wolverines. More songful entertainment awaits at the Dakota on Tuesday night with Connie Evingson, and again on Wednesday night with Charmin Michelle—she must be taking a night off from Fireside Pizza!

Need your free jazz fix? Check out the southwest Minneapolis oasis of spontaneous improvisation, electronica and other odd-ball activities that keep the local jazz scene fresh and unpredictable—Café Maude. Saturday night (January 24) you’ll find sax specialist Chris Thomson testing the limits of his saxophones and bass clarinet with the effects of loop pedal and laptop in partnership with percussionist Tim Glenn in what is billed as a “free electronic duo.” And the music is free, too.

Midweek warmup with a Brazilian twist is set for January 29th when guitarist/vocalist Robert Everest brings his band to the Dakota, featuring pianist extraordinaire Mary Louise Knutson. Things are always hot midweek at the AQ--with the Tuesday Night Band. And fun and jazz go well together Wednesday night thanks to the Dave Karr Quartet.

Next weekend—mark your calendar for the Artist Quarter’s two-night festival of “Guitar Heroes” with three each night, Dean Magraw, Sam Miltich and Billy Franze (Friday) and Dean Granros, Chris Olson and Cory Wong (Saturday). Six guys, six strings, six degrees of separation.
Photos: (Top) Chris Thomson, unplugged last winter at MacPhail; John Pizzarelli at the Dakota last summer. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Gong Show at Rogue Buddha

Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be bassists. They’ll beat it with sticks; they’ll scrape it with the end of the bow; they’ll push a wooden spoon through its strings and then make it twang and buzz... Or maybe they will grow up to be Chris Bates or Adam Linz. Maybe all the scrapes and slaps and whines will somehow fit together in a flurry of pitches, glissandos, flutters and static crackles. Maybe they will grow up to play free-form symphonic poems with a percussionist who knows no limits to the universe of created sound, someone like Tatsuya Nakatani. And maybe they will pull in an audience that would overflow a similar space in New York.

Tatsuya Nakatani is touring cross country with a van full of traditional and invented percussion, including drumset, hanging gongs, hand-held cymbals, singing bowls, bells, and a variety of wood and metal weaponry. His organic creations infuse jazz, rock and noise with the space and beauty of traditional Japanese folk music. He appeared at the always on-the-edge Clown Lounge in St. Paul last year, and returned to the Twin Cities for two nights with some of the area’s most inventive musicians, Milo Fine on January 20th (Art of This Gallery) and Chris Bates and Adam Linz on January 21st (Rogue Buddha Gallery). And despite recent suggestions from the uniformed press that jazz in the Twin Cities is both “hard to find” and “hard to understand,” jazz seems to be growing a broader audience, with swinging vocalists now appearing in bars and restaurants in the farther reaches of the Metro while free improvisers like Bates, Linz and Nakatani find gigs several nights per week in odd little art gallery spaces, the Dakota Late Night series, and small clubs like the Clown. Nakatani’s second gig this week brought about 75 to Northeast’s Rogue Buddha, and maybe one-third were musicians of somewhat leftward leanings. And maybe as many turned out to see the antics of bassists Bates and Linz as for the experiments in acoustic engineering presented by Nakatani.

Nakatani performed the first, nearly hour-long set solo, moving methodically, counterclockwise through his percussion array before reversing direction, beginning and ending with the two large hanging gongs. Having heard a demo compilation filled with eerie waves of sound, I was eager to actually see Nakatani in action, to learn how this acoustic menagerie was generated. But one might need a degree in physics to fully grasp the creation of numerous pitches, even polytonal washes that were the percussion equivalent of chords that oscillated like a distant train. Such sounds Nakatani brought forth from the large metal disks by bowing the edges at different points, at different angles—he has been described as “orchestral” with good reason. From the ever increasing intensity of the gongs—varied not only in pitch but in rhythm as well—Nakatani moved to the drumset, a kit of bass, tom and snare expanded by an array of implements that only partially resembled the familiar sticks and brushes of a standard trapset, augmented by “singing bowls” and more bows. Each item had multiple uses, yielding diverse and intriguing thuds, clicks, scrapes, shrieks. Most intense were sounds Nakatani created with his mouth on the drumhead. Having seemingly exhausted the options, he worked his way back through the hanging gongs, gradually lowering the dynamics to a final set of shimmers where each sustain had more space than the last, until nothing remained but space and the last decay fading into the night.

The second set featured the trio of two bassists and percussionist, yet it was more like three percussionists setting out on the journey, as each dealt his instrument(s) an assault—from banging the bow like a hammer to jamming a wooden spoon into the strings and then jabbing it to produce a buzz or a thwack, to the hand percussion that created flutters and crackles. Adam Linz was more the straight man at the party, weaving a more classically infused backdrop to the scraping and banging of Nakatani and... the scraping and banging of cohort Bates. In sum the trio created an urban symphony, filled with city sounds of rush hour traffic, commuter trains and busy airspace.

Experimental music challenges the mind and ear, at times even the eye. And there may be more unfettered improvisation in the Twin Cities per capita than anywhere in the country—any given week, sometimes more often, we can hear the likes of Fat Kid Wednesdays, Happy Apple, Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty, Kelly Rossum, Framework, Dean Granros, Ingo Bethke.... And we hear visitors like Tatsuya Nakatani who introduce us to more ways to appreciate sound and who bring out the best and most innovative in our home grown musicians like Chris Bates and Adam Linz.
Photos: (Top) Tatsuya Nakatani on solo percussion with a "singing bowl" at Rogue Buddha; Chris Bates sawing away at his bass during the trio set on January 21st. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Soul Café Feeds Ear and Spirit

The theme tonight was “beauty” in poetry and music. Soul Café is, however, always about beauty in poetry and music, specifically poetry and jazz. After about five years of regular performances, usually in the Gallery of the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church off Loring Park, the trio has been officially “on hiatus.” The musicians are busy with other projects, the church is busy booking other events. But guitarist and leader Steve Blons promised return engagements, such as tonight.

Jazz and poetry seem to have a special affinity for one another. The Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village has a weekly “Spoken Word” night that often brings area poets and jazz musicians together. In St. Paul, jazz and open mic poetry are on the stage every Monday. Acclaimed artists from Steve Lacy to Fred Hersch to Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling have merged jazz and poetry with great success.

Soul Café –Blons, pianist Laura Caviani, and alto saxophonist Brad Holden—not only bridges poetry and jazz, but supports that bridge with a spiritual trestle. Not surprising, given Blons weekly radio program with Michelle Jansen, “Jazz and the Spirit.” This connection too has a rich tradition within jazz, from Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts” to Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” to contemporary jazz services at churches and temples.

Among the joys of attending a Soul Café evening are the opportunity to sit within six feet of Laura Caviani’s keyboard and flying fingers, to be only a few feet away from touching the interaction between Brad and Steve, to hear purely acoustic sounds from piano and sax (Steve is plugged into an amp, but there is no other electronic enhancement), to hear music that is not on everyone’s playlist, and to be introduced to unfamiliar poets or unfamiliar works.... or just to hear beloved words and melodies again in a new context. Through Soul Café I met Pablo Neruda. Through Soul Café I encountered beautiful compositions from the lesser known works of Thelonious Monk.

Usually Soul Café builds connections between music and poetry through a theme or selected composer. Tonight, “beauty” was played out over tunes with “beauty” in the title or beauty in the melody and harmony. The set included Ellington’s “Heather” (from the Sacred Concerts), “Over the Rainbow,” “Where or When,” “Beautiful Friendship,” and Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” and “Reflections,” both with more rounded corners than the more familiar Monk fare. The combination of piano, alto sax and guitar yields music that can swing or haunt, strong on melodicism, a wide palette for shaping engaging harmonies. Brad’s slippery, twisting descents make you chuckle and shiver at the same time; Steve’s guitar sings with delicate lines and gentle chords; Laura lands perfectly placed accents and richly textured solos that create their own zen of time and space. The evening’s readers added the beauty of words from Rumi, Neruda, Wendell Berry, Grace Paley.

Together, words and music are the soul’s café.
Photos, from top: Steve Blons, Brad Holden, Laura Caviani. Photos from Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church gallery, January 18th, by Andrea Canter.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Coldest Nights, Warmest Heart: Bruce Henry at the Dakota

There are few guarantees in life, but fortunately, Bruce Henry is one of them. Spend an evening with Bruce and you are guaranteed nonstop and most sincere entertainment; a voice so flexible that it will stretch from bass to soprano and never sound falsetto; ballads that make you cry, blues that make you whine, and soul that rips right through to your inner Wonder. And absolutely, you are guaranteed to be on your feet before the end of the last set, be it to clap, to sing and/or to dance. Maybe we appreciate Bruce even more since he moved to Chicago last summer. Arriving for the coldest weekend of the winter, Bruce left none of his charm, wit, or musicianship back in the Windy City; everything we have long admired was on full display at the Dakota from the first note to the last curtain call.

Visits from Bruce also guarantee the reassembling of one of the hottest jazz ensembles in town—Peter Schimke on piano, Dean Magraw on guitar, Jay Young on bass, Kevin Washington on drums (and vocals—more on that later), and Darryl Boudreaux on percussion. The band gave us back-to-back full-throttle takes on Herbie Hancock standards before Bruce came on stage... or rather bounced in with “Billie’s Bounce.” The lyrics popped like machine gun fire as Bruce slipped in and out of scat, his phrasing adding the horn licks. Charlie Parker would have danced. A major outbreak of percussion introduced “Autumn Leaves,” the arrangement rising from locales where leaves never turn red and gold, Bruce ultimately climbing high into soprano range. A lovely ballad from Peter Schimke was marred only by overly zealous mic amplification, no doubt intended to force the quiet tune above the usual Friday night chatter.

Tunes from Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder incited the crowd, and frequently Bruce demonstrated the power of repetition of phrases and particularly syllables,along with a Bobby-McFerrin elasticity that leaves you wondering where the other voices came from. And a down-and-dirty blues brought friends on stage (T. Mychal Rambo, Kevin Jackson) and even drew on the surprise vocal skills of Kevin Washington—so why are we not hearing more from his voice?

If the first set smoldered, the second set burned unabated, with a Latinized “Footprints,” an incantation of Ellington’s “In the Beginning, God,” a melodic song from Tanzania that morphed into “Just My Imagination.” The dancing in the aisles, the clapping, the directed audience call and response, and the accompaniment of some from Bruce’s Freedom Train ensemble capped this evening with the High Priest of Song.

The final guarantee? You will leave a Bruce Henry show on far better terms with the world than when you arrived. It’s like having a pain-free heart transplant. A little bit of Bruce goes home with you, keeping the warmth flowing even if it is 15 below outside, keeping a spirit greater than yourself pushing you through the day ahead, with a song (and a band) in your heart.

He’ll do it again tonight, January 17th, 8 pm at the Dakota.
Photos: Bruce Henry (at a fall 2008 visit to the Dakota) and Kevin Washington. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Lead Sheet, January 16-22

This seems to be the month for outstanding local composers and improvisers, and the trend continues in the coming week.

Arguably (not by me!) the most innovative vocalist in region, Bruce Henry bid farewell to the Twin Cities last summer to return to his childhood environs of Chicago. Fortunately he left a trail of vocal breadcrumbs which he follows back every month or two. This weekend, you have two chances to hear Bruce at his old stomping grounds, the Dakota Jazz Club, with his regular band of local hotshots (Peter Schimke, Jay Young, Kevin Washington, Dean Magraw, Darryl Boudreaux). You haven’t heard “Afro Blue” til you hear Bruce. His repertoire includes original songs and arrangements of gospel, blues and some of the prettiest Gershwin you’ll ever hear.

Jeremy Walker is not only one of the most ambitious composers and bandleaders in town but one of the most durable and determined of all musicians. When neurological and joint maladies forced him to give up the saxophone, he turned to the piano, studied with such giants as David Berkman and Frank Kimbrough, and emerged as the keyboardist for his Jazz Is Now! ensemble. But no matter what instrument, Jeremy is a composer’s composer, and a raft of new compositions will be the centerpiece of the Jazz Is Now Nownet performance, “Winter Warmer” on Saturday night (one set at 8 pm) in the intimate Jones Hall of the Minnesota Opera Center in the warehouse district just north of downtown Minneapolis. A band with other accomplished composers and improvisers—Kelly Rossum, Chris Thomson, Scott Fultz, Anthony Cox, and Kevin Washington—makes for an exciting evening.

Bless the Artists Quarter for its late start—you can catch an early set from Bruce Henry or the single set from Jazz Is Now and still make at least the second set and more from the Phil Hey Quartet at the AQ, Friday and Saturday nights (January 16-17). Hey and company (Phil Aaron, Tom Lewis, Dave Hagedorn) make the Modern Jazz Quartet seem dated while offering some of the same energy and sublime harmonies that kept the MJQ among the top jazz ensembles of the 60s and 70s. This is indeed a “modern” jazz quartet featuring four of the area’s most serious performers.

If that is not enough for the weekend, there’s always Sunday! On hiatus for the past six months, Soul Café returns for a single performance at their old haunt, the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church across from the Walker Art Center. It’s a small gallery space, perfect for the piano/guitar/sax trio of Laura Caviani, Steve Blons and Brad Holden. Combining elegant interpretations of jazz standards with poetry readings, Soul Café is always as interesting as musically pleasing. Music at 7 pm.

There’s more during the week—inauguration celebration with Four Women for Obama (Yolande Bruce, Debbie Duncan, Ginger Commodore and Tonia Hughes-Kendrick) at the Dakota on January 20th; Dean Granros (January 21) and more guitar with Framework (Chris Olson, Chris Bates, Jay Epstein) on January 22nd at the AQ; piano trio finery with the “Dakota Trio” (Tanner Taylor, Gordy Johnson and Phil Hey) at the Dakota on January 21; some very “out there” excitement with Chris Bates, Adam Linz and visiting percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani at the little gallery in Northeast, Rogue Buddha (357 13th Av NE), on January 21st at 8 pm. Chris emphasizes that this is an all acoustic performance with no amps! (It’s a tiny space, so who needs amps?) Yes, there’s a lot going on for January 21st... balance your schedule and you can probably make two gigs! If you like experimental music, one of those gigs should include the amazing Nakatani--he's also performing solo and with free jazz wizard Milo Fine at a small space in South Minneapolis, Art of This Gallery, on January 20th.

Looking ahead, it never rains in Minnesota, we just get blizzards of artistic opportunities. The weekend of January 23-24 finds Pete Whitman’s X-Tet in a rare weekend show at the AQ, while Estaire Godinez comes back to town for two nights at the Dakota, followed by two nights of virtuoso guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli. And note that one of the Twin towns most ear-pleasing voices, Maud Hixson, is at the Times every Wednesday night this month with the Wolverines Trio.

Rest up. Not sure when.

Photos: Top-Bottom, Jeremy Walker; Phil Hey; Bruce Henry. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Lesson in Life and Bebop With James Moody

Anyone uncertain as to the definition and nature of “bebop” should enroll in the James Moody Academy of Jazz. At the Dakota Jazz Club, Moody’s opening set last night could have served as a lesson for the uninitiated as the 83-year-old saxophonist conducted nonstop experiments in rhythm and harmony, exposing, renovating, and designing the details of every structure. That he conducted his class with equally nonstop humor and humility made the lesson all the more effective and entertaining.

Moody’s most recent recording is a quartet outing featuring 90-year-old Hank Jones on piano (Our Delight, IPO 2008). Together, Moody and Jones exude elegant restraint, taming the bop vocabulary to emphasize melody, the rhythm section assertive yet clearly serving the horn. In contrast, backed by a quartet headed by trombonist Jay Ashby and with guitar (Marty Ashby) as the only chordal instrument, this live gig was more about interaction and exploration, the music at times majestic and mellow (“Body and Soul”), but more often a sonic playground where everyone got a turn to be “it.” In the tradition of the great bands of the bop era, each tune was fully explored, the band covering only six compositions in the hour-long set.

After the quartet (the Ashbys, bassist Dwayne Dolphin and drummer Roger Humphries) warmed up the stage with “Just Squeeze Me,” Moody joined the fray with a most appropriate rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “BeBop.” A round-robin of agile soloing from all set the tone for the set and particularly warned the audience that trombonist Jay Ashby (strutting through a quote from “Putting on the Ritz”) is a force deserving greater visibility.

James Moody has a story –or a joke—to fill every space between tunes. He referred to his octogenarian status and accompanying “CRS”—politely reframed as “Can’t Remember Stuff.” He also was quick to point out that the older he gets, the more he realizes what he doesn’t know—although he delivered a convoluted monologue to share this observation. The saxophone could just be a prop for a hilarious stand-up comedy routine, but of course in the hands and mouthpiece of James Moody, the horn is no prop but an extension of a man’s mind and heart. “Woody ‘N You” is covered warmly on the new recording but was more of a burner at the Dakota. Roger Humphries may be one of the very best kept secrets among drummers, soloing with rolls of thunder and punctuations of hail, wind and rain. (Moody asked the audience, “Did someone make him mad?”)

Poking fun at himself and government leaders, Moody told the audience that “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit!” And then he dazzled us with baffling brilliance on “Body and Soul.” A tune that in lesser hands can be merely trite or too precious, this is a standout track on Moody’s release with Hank Jones, but given a very different treatment last night when enveloped in the brass and strings of the quartet. Marty Ashby’s guitar added an ambient layer, a mesh that supported a seamless, back and forth transition between Moody and Jay Ashby. Moody, like an old-time tailor, weaved one solo into another, never dropping a stitch in passing the thread back to Jay, who slipped through canyons of notes like a hiker on slickrock.

To the delight of the audience, Moody closed the set with his vocal signature, “Moody’s Mood for Love,” his gruff tone, big smile and sudden shifts in dynamics both humorous and skillful, as he moved in and out of blues, scat and an almost-hip hop cadence.

My only disappointment was that Moody did not bring the flute on stage during the first set. Although he once told an interviewer that the does not consider himself a flautist, but merely a “saxophonist who plays the flute,” he is one of the most accomplished and lauded on the instrument. Maybe tonight. I'm going back for another lesson.
Photos: (Top-Bottom), James Moody; Jay Ashby with brother Marty; Roger Humphries, all on the stage of the Dakota, January 12th. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Lead Sheet, January 9-15

Another week of music gone by? Sometimes it is hard to keep up. The past week saw swinging vocals and blues at their best courtesy of Barbara Morrison, and youthful creativity at its most exuberant in the ensemble of Paris Strother, the latter featuring a revolving cast of like-minded young warriors visiting families for the holidays. The coming week celebrates youth and experience as well.

McCoy Tyner has been a frequent employer of drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt, but Gravatt is also an accomplished bandleader. Still living among us in the Twin Cities, Gravatt tours with Tyner but finds time to come into the Artists Quarter with Source Code. The band, featuring vibist Dave Hagedorn and saxophonist Jim Marentic, performs tonight and tomorrow night at 9 pm.

Six decades of performing have not slowed James Moody, and he makes his first Twin Cities appearance in years at the Dakota January 12-13 with an ensemble led by trombonist Jay Ashby and brother, guitarist Martin. Moody tops the polls consistently for his virtuosic flute playing, despite his claim that he is really just a saxophonist who plays flute on the side. It's a great side! Sets at 7 and 9:30 pm. He's 83. Don't miss this one.

The modern fusiony vibes of the Atlantis Quartet hit prime time at the AQ on Wednesday night--some of the most interesting jazzmen in town, with Brandon Wozniak on sax, Zaac Harris on guitar, Chris Bates on bass and Pete Hennig on drums. They're cool to hear and fun to watch. On Halloween, they performed the full Love Supreme, a daring act with or without a saxophone but they brought their own spin to the iconic set. Even Coltrane would have approved.

Finally, for a good introduction to what's happening with the youngest generation of jazz artists, check out the early set (free!) at the AQ on Thursday night when The Alternates perform. These are five guys interconnected through the various jazz programs of the Twin Cities as well as their auditions for the Dakota Combo. We'll be hearing a lot more from them. Stick around the AQ for the late show with Phil Aaron.

And rest up, Phil Hey is at the AQ next weekend and then there's Inauguration Day madness!
Photos: A fountain of youth comes to the AQ on January 15th with The Alternates (Cory Grindberg, Peter Nyberg, Chris Misa, Caleb McMahon and Rob Fletcher). The night before, the Atlantis Qt will be at the AQ (Zaac Harris, Brandon Wozniak, Chris Bates, Pete Hennig). Photos by Andrea Canter.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

MPR: From Jazz Image to Jazz Ignored

We felt the increase in seismic activity about eighteen months ago when Leigh Kamman announced his retirement from Minnesota Public Radio and the final broadcast (September 2007) of his long-running, nationally acclaimed Jazz Image. It was just a rumble but enough to raise the hairs on the back of a jazz fan’s neck. Would MPR really continue to broadcast a weekly jazz show? Could anyone replace Kamman? Did the creation of The Current from the ashes of WCAL signal future changes in public radio programming?

After declaring a “national search” to replace Kamman, MPR went inside and tapped veteran broadcaster (and jazz fan and singer herself), Maryann Sullivan, to host a new weekly jazz program, The Jazz Connection, in Kamman’s old time slot. No one could replace Kamman and Maryann didn’t try. She gave it her own spin, which included some pretty interesting interviews as well as an eclectic selection of jazz releases. I would have become a regular listener save the fact that most Saturday nights find me out listening to live jazz, often music recommended on Maryann’s weekly Jazz Connection e-newsletter. Sometimes I found the broadcast archived and enjoyed it later in the week.

But it was a short-lived transition from legendary national jazz broadcast to no-cast. Sullivan has been laid off and The Jazz Connection terminated in favor something more “au Current,” aka a mixed bag of music hosted by the Morning Show’s Dale Connelly and Radio Heartland. Aftershocks are sure to follow.

This leaves us with KBEM and KFAI as the two radio stations that present mostly jazz for what is often described as one of the top markets for jazz in the nation. Neither station is likely to have the resources to pick up a show like The Jazz Connection. Worse, perhaps, The Jazz Connection was the last remaining jazz program on MPR. Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz was picked up by KBEM, which also broadcasts Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Jazz Set and other national as well as local productions. We do have good options on KFAI as well. So in a sense, we are lucky that we were not dependent on MPR for our jazz connections.

Still, the idea that Minnesota Public Radio no longer serves as a conduit for music as basic to the original spirit of public radio as jazz is a bit absurd. Freedom from commercialism? Serving the needs and interests of a broad segment of our society? Fostering independence in the arts?

I hear jazz, live, on radio or on CD, every day, every night. So I know jazz is not dead. Which is more than I can say for some of the brains that used to program it.
Photos: Maryann Sullivan eats and breathes jazz, from broadcasting to singing to raising two jazz musicians with life partner and jazzman, Doug Haining. Leigh Kamman was ever-humble in accepting praise at his "retirement" tribute party at the Dakota in Septermber 2007. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Lead Sheet, January 2-8

I already like 2009 as a great year for jazz in the Twin Cities. When you close out December with Bill Carrothers, the Bad Plus, and the annual AQ bash, January could easily be a let down. Not 2009.

Tonight (January 2) is a welcome return of the inventive threesome with that odd name, Fat Kid Wednesdays. That’s Mike Lewis on saxes, Adam Linz on bass and J.T. Bates on drums. Put them on the same pedestal with The Bad Plus and Happy Apple but with their own sound, their own sense of harmony, their own road maps to the edge of the acoustic universe. One night only at the Artists Quarter (9 pm), this gig is a warm-up to their debut at The Stone in New York’s East Village January 15-16. (The Stone’s guest curator this month is native son Craig Taborn, and he is ensuring that Big Apple jazz audiences get an earful of some of the most innovative musicians from the Minneapple. Check

Gypsy jazz at the AQ? Seems just a bit to the left of traditional jazz for this bastion of postbop and avant garde—which puts the Twin Cities Hot Club in select company. This is the main gig for the four virtuosos who formed the TCHC some years ago, so if you want to hear some truly tricky acoustic guitar licks (Robert Bell and Reynauld Philipsek), energetic basslines (Matt Senjum), and exquisite fiddling (Gary Schulte), catch it all in one night (January 3rd). You can hear them every Sunday night at the Times, too, but at the AQ there’s no dance floor and superior sound—and these guys are truly worth listening too, not just as wallpaper for a swing dance. Maybe you can dance on the tables.

After a two-year absence, soulful Barbara Morrison returns to the Dakota for two nights of blues, standards and spit-n-vinegar banter (January 5-6). Count me among this lady’s biggest fans. She headlined the Twin Cities Jazz Festival for two consecutive summers and made her last recording Live at the Dakota in 2006. She’s living and teaching in LA so we’re lucky she’s willing to come here in the dead of winter. Be ready for a January Thaw like none other.

Will our prodigal teen jazzers keep coming back “home” after they’ve launched their adult careers? Two such local products share the bandstand Wednesday night (January 7) at the Dakota when pianist Paris Strother returns for a visit, this time with longtime pal Chris Smith on bass and hot-handed drummer Kevin Washington in the elder statesman role. I first encountered Paris playing blitzkrieg piano runs at the grand opening of the new relocated Dakota in 2003. She was still a highschooler at the time and clearly destined for big things. Four years at the Berklee College of Music fanned the flames of her talent as both performer and composer, and after her May graduation she did an internship with the Monterey Jazz Festival. Now establishing herself in the LA area, Paris accepted an invitation to perform with her trio at the Dakota. One of Paris’ former teen cohorts, Chris Smith finished his two-year stint at the prestigious Brubeck Institute and enrolled last fall in the jazz program at the New School in Manhattan. Perhaps the most accomplished young bassist from this region in years, Chris has already won a Downbeat student composer’s award. And Kevin Washington, a small generation ahead, is one of the most explosive drummers out there, recently sitting in for a few tunes with James Carter. Check out the future of jazz from three electrifying talents.

Competition is a good thing, right? While the Paris Strother Trio is scorching the stage at the Dakota, the Tanner Taylor Trio, led by a still-20-something volcano at the keys, will be inflicting similar damage across the river at the AQ on January 7th. Hint: The music at the AQ will start later (9 pm) and go on longer (midnight) than the sets at the Dakota. So you can have your jazz cake and eat it too.

There's always more--Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg swing with the greatest of ease at Fireside Pizza Monday and Wednesday nights; the edgy How Birds Work hold court at the AQ on Thursday, while Minnesota's First Lady of Song, Debbie Duncan, chills out at the Dakota, also on the 8th. And look ahead, the legendary James Moody and a fine quartet led by trombonist Jay Ashby come into the Dakota January 12-13.
Photos (top to bottom): Tanner Taylor; Paris Strother (at the Dakota in 2008); Barbara Morrison; Michael Lewis with Adam Linz (FKW). All by Andrea Canter.

The Bad Plus: Silence Is Out of the Question

The Bad Plus were back in town for their (8th?) annual post-holiday, post-modern soiree at the Dakota. What was once a one-night gig has grown to a four-night residency. Judging by the sell-out crowds at every set (yes, with the curtain open), this could easily become a full week. If the guys can fit it into their schedule—they were headed back to New York for a long New Year’s weekend at the Village Vanguard.

There were some new twists to the trio’s already eclectic-beyond-eclectic repertoire. With their latest recording (For All I Care) released in Europe this fall and on deck for an American release in February, TBP have at least briefly become a quartet with the addition of indie rock vocalist Wendy Lewis. Based here in the Twin Cities, Lewis was on hand for a few tunes over the first two nights at the Dakota. I missed those sets but got a chance to hear the recording recently. Not a big fan of 21st century rock, nevertheless I thought the combination worked. For the most part, the late sets Sunday and Monday did not showcase For All I Care as much as repertoire from earlier releases and new works.

I did attend the late sets on Sunday and Monday, which surprisingly had significantly overlapping playlists. But this isn’t the Minnesota Orchestra, this is the Bad Plus, and they can play the same piece ten times without retracing their steps to the point of true familiarity. Both nights, they kicked off with a piece from the new recording, Milton Babbit’s “Semi-Simple Variations,” filled with quirky, jagged time shifts and TBP signature sequences of furious, three-way percussion―thundering cascades from Iverson’s piano, propulsive thumps from Anderson’s bass, the ever-strong bleats and crashing accents (including a toy drum slammed on the tom-tom) from King. It was a small symphony of different small movements seamed together with off-kilter breaks.

A favorite from Suspicious Activity, “Anthem for the Earnest” pulsated with King’s heavy, backbeat and majestic, repeated phrases from Iverson. Here TBP displayed another vintage element, sudden dynamic shifts that occur just before you tired of the relentless groove. The trio “drumline” became an East European-inflected calliope on Ligeti’s “Metal” (aka “Fem”), another preview of the instrumental tracks of For All I Care.

As Pamela Espeland noted on MinnPost, the BP "doesn’t swing” and typically that is true. But “Have You Met Miss Jones” only proved that the Bad Plus remains unpredictable. Their rare, almost “mainstream” arrangement of a classic jazz standard still retained some of the trademarks of the trio’s playbook, including percussive vamps and thumping unison lines. And it didn’t swing but Ornette Coleman’s “Song X” burned with an energy that nearly consumed the audience. Sometimes there is so much going on among these three musicians that you want to yell “Stop a minute!” and try to concentrate on each instrument in turn. We did get a chance to breathe during Reid Anderson’s extended solo—and for once, everyone was listening to the bass solo, one filled with melodic passages, double stops, fragrant chords.

All three musicians are accomplished composers and frankly I usually prefer their originals to their reinvented rock and pop—meaning I am really looking forward to their post For All I Care project, which is to be their first all-original recording. And among the threesome, I find myself most attracted to the beauty and elegance of Reid Anderson’s compositions, well represented this week by several works, especially “Silence Is the Question” which dates back to the very first days of the band. His exquisite introduction was followed by Ethan’s gently lyrical wanderings, octave-alternating notes and gradual filling of space. Dave’s tinging ride cymbal started a forward climb until the threesome reach frenzy level while never losing the melodic intent. And as often is the case with TBP, the collective explosion ultimately receded into subtlety. Reid also penned the new, percussively twisted “Berryl Loves to Dance” and three popular late-set encores, the rhythmically exciting “Big Eater,” the bassline-heavy “Giant” and the melodic “Flim.”

On their first curtain call of Monday night’s final set, the trio presented a characteristically eccentric cover of Bacharach’s “This Guy’s In Love With You.” Anderson’s strumming prologue folded into King’s hollow hand percussion before the drummer scraped a cymbal in a seizure-like explosion. Keyboard phrases that somehow blended blues and Mozart followed, then a bass solo break brought the guys back together in percussive unison. One more curtain call, and the four-night stand ended with Anderson’s sublime “Flim,” conjuring Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination.”

Purely, the Bad Plus.
Photos: All from December 28th, the late set: Curtain call for Ethan, Reid and Dave (colorfully distorted); Reid Anderson; Ethan Iverson; Dave King. Photos by Andrea Canter.