Friday, March 27, 2009

The Lead Sheet, March 27- April 2

© Andrea Canter

Here comes another week of jazz in the Twin Cities! If you missed Tierney Sutton last week.... well, don’t make that mistake the next time she’s in town! (See last night’s blog.) Of course more great jazz is coming this week:

Two of the area’s finest voices and most entertaining performers join together at the Dakota tonight (3/27)—Debbie Duncan and Judi Donaghy. Once-time partners with The Girls (and Judi still has that gig), these masters of their craft also teach at McNally Smith in St. Paul. And across the river at the Artists Quarter (3/27-3/28), we once again are blessed with a visit from New York saxman Jim Snidero, an alum of the Frank Sinatra Orchestra, Akiyoshi Orchestra and Mingus Big Band. Here we will enjoy him in the more intimate small club setting, backed by a trio led by the monstrous Tanner Taylor.

If you are looking for something a little different, check out the Spotlight Series concert at the MacPhail Center for Music tonight (3/27) in the beautifully and acoustically sophisticated Antonello Hall. Entitled “Musical Mosaic,” it features the combined efforts of faculty from classical and jazz realms, including star trumpeter Kelly Rossum(who actually has a doctorate in classical trumpet!), trombonist Scott Agster (Snowblind, Davina & the Vagabounds and much more), and trumpeter Takako Semiya Senn as the MacPhail Brass Trio. There will be performances by voice/piano duo, solo clarinet, and “The Prairie Song Project” (flute, voice, piano) with readings from Shakespeare and Willa Cather.

Whatever you do Saturday night (3/28), try to store up the energy for another winner with the Dakota Late Night series, featuring the debut of the 2009 Late Night All-Stars. There have been a few gatherings of Late Night performers in the past, and now this popular idea has been formalized as a quintet featuring guitarist Zacc Harris, trumpeter John Raymond, saxman Chris Thomson, bassist Jim Anton and drummer Jay Epstein. Sounds like a brassy ball of fire! They take the stage around 11:30 pm and keep the place jumping til about 1:30 am. Zacc promises tunes from the likes of Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Bill Frisell, Horace Silver, and Thom Yorke. At $5, it’s also one of the cheapest sources of great music for a Saturday night.

And then there’s Sunday (3/29). Two matinees are an unfortunate overlap but you can’t say there are no options! At 2 pm in downtown Minneapolis, the Blue Note Seven will undoubtedly prove to be one of the jazz highlights of Orchestra Hall’s season. The esteemed record label assembled this septet and tour in honor of its 70 years producing the top names in jazz; the resulting CD (Mosaic) pays reverent tribute to the classic works of the 60s and 70s (Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Green, Joe Henderson, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter....), as will the band Sunday afternoon. All heavyweights led by pianist Bill Charlap, with Ravi Coltrane, Steve Wilson, Nicholas Payton, Peter Bernstein, Peter Washington and Lewis Nash.

Across town, across the river at the Bloomington Center for the Arts (Black Box Theater) at 3 pm, the afternoon will be filled with the songs of Ella, Carmen and Sarah as “Sisters in Song” give their first concert hall performance. These “sisters” are three of the Twin Cities’ finest—Vicky Mountain, Dorothy Doring and Lila Ammons, and their band is a similarly impressive combination of Phil Aaron, Jocko McNelly and Reid Kennedy.

No matter where you spend your afternoon, make one more stop to hear Soul Café at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Loring Park, 7-8 pm. It’s always amazing how much music and inspiration they can fit into one hour. Steve Blons (guitar), Brad Holden (alto sax) and Laura Caviani (piano) have been performing together for about six years, and it’s an elegant musical collaboration paired with readings from acclaimed poets. The theme tonight is the poetry and jazz of women writers—the poems of Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, and the music of Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Lil Hardin, Irene Higginbottom, and Laura Cavianim

As for the rest of the week? Every Tuesday there’s the Tuesday Night Band (B-3 Organ Night) at the AQ, and Thursday (4/2) is the AQ’s special CD Release Party for Framework, the trio of Jay Epstein, Chris Olson and Chris Bates. The music is subtle, sophisticated, with a sometimes classical overtone thanks to Chris Olson’s guitar, and always an improvisational focus. None of these guys is shy about experimentation!

Also on Thursday (4/2) and early enough to make the AQ afterwards, catch the next film in KBEM’s REEL Jazz series at Bryant Lake Bowl in south Minneapolis. The April screening is Martino Unstrung: A Brain Mystery from director Ian Knox and neurologist Paul Broks. This is an inside examination of the guitar legend’s recovery from brain surgery that forced him to totally relearn everything, including his own instrument. Call KBEM and reserve a spot in this small theater for the 7 pm show, and come early to catch some live jazz.

There’s always more—Debbie Duncan (4/1) and Benny Weinbeck (4/2) at the Dakota; Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg at Fireside Pizza in Richfield every Monday and Wednesday evening; free-leaning and experimental jazz at Café Maud every weekend and often during the week. Watch and for ongoing updates.

And coming soon? Great NY guitar hero Greg Skaff at the AQ next weekend (April 3-4); the edgiest of improvisers Milo Fine and special guest Taylor Ho Bynum at Homewood Studios (April 5); The Girls at the Dakota (April 5); Snowblind at the Dakota (April 9). And if you really like to plan ahead, note: Jim Rotondi and Rick Germanson at the AQ (April 24-25); The Bad Plus at Cedar Cultural Center (April 25), Brad Mehldau at the Dakota (May 3), Jason Moran’s Monk at Town Hall Project at the Walker (May 9), and Hiromi at the Dakota (June 21-22). And remember the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, St. Paul only this year, June 18-20.

Photos: Sisters in Song (Bloomington Center for the Arts on 3/29); Steve Blons with Soul Cafe (3/29); Jay Epstein with Framework (4/2).

Tierney Sutton: Cycling Song and Desire

© Andrea Canter

There are a few jazz vocalists who truly stand out in the crowd. And it’s quite a crowd these days. Scott Yanow came up with over 500 entries for his “A” List of jazz vocalists in his new compendium, The Jazz Singers, and another 200 or so on his “B” list—that’s over 700 individuals identified as jazz singers, and it seems that a majority are still alive and performing.

If Yanow had limited his honor roll to a mere dozen, I expect Tierney Sutton would be among the chosen. Surely she makes the cut on my list, based solely on the last set of her two-night stint at the Dakota. Of course there is far more evidence of her stature than one set—her raft of recordings, including the new Desire, and the other three sets of the Dakota gig. But for the sake of brevity, let’s consider just one hour.

Apparently no one ever told Tierney to “never open with a ballad.” Starting the set at the point that the new recording ends, her “Skylark” soared like the revered bird over Christian Jacob’s harp-like arpeggios, wasting no time in introducing us to her signature interpretive skills. No one phrases like Tierney Sutton, whose eternal patience allows the lyric to evolve from a deep emotional well. The composer may have fashioned the melody but Tierney takes charge of each note, each bar, each break, which might come mid-verse or mid-syllable.

Tierney Sutton, and in equal partnership, her stunning band of Christian Jacob (piano), Kevin Axt (bass) and Ray Brinker (drums), will not play slave to time or rhythm. She opened “It’s All Right With Me” at a cautious pace, only to double time her own tempo on the next verse, shifting rhythm and time in generating tension that surged and receded on what she playfully described as “Cole Porter’s version of ‘Love the One You’re With.’” She shuns the ordinary, unearthing a seldom heard verse for a high-octane version of “I Want to Be Happy,” putting herself in unison with Brinker’s big beats.

Sometimes her juxtoposing of tunes was as innovative and powerful as the songs themselves. And as no two sets are ever the same—the band comes up with different pairings, different sequences, different combinations every time, even her most frequent selections take on new colors, new passions depending on the context she creates with her setlist. Tonight the yin and yang of romance were sharply contrasted with a gorgeous rendering of “Then I’ll be Tired of You” followed by an on-the-brink “Cry Me a River,” bridged artfully by Kevin Axt’s bellicose bass. From this dark mood, Tierney quickly erupted with seemingly reckless abandon in a scat-laced duet with spitfire Brinker, taking “The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top” for a wild ride over hilly terrain. Only the most agile voice could transact the lyric at this hell-bent speed without losing focus.

Back to the song cycle format, Tierney and the band presented three songs from My Fair Lady: A conversation between Jacob and Axt to start “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” worked its way into a half-scat verse in which Tierney played with each syllable; “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her [His] Face” took on the shroud of a ritual chant over a beautiful bass vamp, Jacob withholding his contribution until mid-verse and then shifting the mood from holy rite to Evanescent swing; “Show Me” filled the air with drama.

The mood shifted again as Sutton and Jacob offered Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road” in duet, in exquisite partnership. Has she ever hit an off note? Next, “Daddy’s driving,” announced Tierney, as the band launched an almost sinister version of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” perhaps darker in this set due to its placement following a luxurious ballad. This was Brinker’s playground and he can turn his attack on a dime, from flailing brushes to snare swats to a sudden, delicate touch on the cymbal. On tunes like this one, Tierney’s hand gestures seemed to signal each shift in rhythm, each mood of the lyric, spontaneous yet perfectly choreographed to the score.

Tierney Sutton recorded a set of Bill Evans’ tunes (Blue in Green) and shared one as an encore and tribute to two friends from the Chuck Mangione Band lost in the recent Buffalo air crash. Presented with spare but elegant instrumentation, “We Will Meet Again” was a hauntingly beautiful finale.

Sometimes, music truly feeds the soul.
Photos: Tierney Sutton and band at the Dakota on the first night, March 25th. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Harms' Way: Nancy Shines at the Dakota

© Andrea Canter

Showing exponential growth of late, vocalist Nancy Harms is a small town gal making big city folks sit up and take notice. Big city venues too—she is on a quasi-regular rotation at the Dakota Jazz Club, filling prime Friday night slots over the past year. That’s not an easy feat for a young singer with no recording credits. But Nancy isn’t your typical young singer. That’s obvious from her first notes. Her repertoire, for one, includes a wide range of material, not just the most common standards. Her arrangements (thanks to mentoring and collaboration with guitarist Robert Bell) are particularly fresh and perfectly aligned to her unpretentious, sensually delicate, yet personably assertive approach to storytelling. We have heard many singers do “Cry Me a River” or “Blue Skies,” but Nancy’s renditions give old tales new plot twists. Her pitch is true and she has a wonderfully conversational, sometimes sassy, sometimes wistful voice; her respect for the lyric is pervasive. Nancy Harms makes a good story better, and she captures the ear of her audience with her relaxed, intimate delivery.

But Nancy does something else very well—she knows how to assemble a band that plays to her strengths and adds new colors to an already open palette. Tonight she enlisted veterans Phil Aaron and Jay Epstein; young star Graydon Peterson; and the true coup de grace, trumpeter (and, very infrequently, a vocalist’s sideman) Kelly Rossum. Each added considerably to the upbeat vibe, but it was the inclusion of Rossum that pushed these sets beyond the realm of “another great night at the Dakota.” Of course we hear Kelly frequently, leading his own quartet or his electronic ensemble, Rossum Electric Company; he’s on stage with the Pete Whitman X-Tet nearly monthly at the Artists Quarter; and he finds gigs with the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet, Jazz Is Now, and other bands leaning toward free improvisation. But hearing him in more straight-ahead trappings—on familiar tunes―is a revelation. He swings, he soars, he squeals, he sings. With a wild assortment of mutes (Harmon, plunger, cups, you name it, if it can be stuffed into a trumpet bell, Kelly has one at his feet!), he creates every sound imaginable (and some not), yet in this context every sound belongs, often adding to the drama or the humor of the lyric. And he was most effective on those occasions when less is more, when sparse lines traced the melody, hinting at every note (e.g., the wholly instrumental “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and his muted solo on “Cry Me a River”).

Each set seemed to pick up where the last left off. The first set closure, “Bye Bye Blackbird,” smoldered with understatement. The second set crackled with a sassy “Just Squeeze Me” and a seductive “Beautiful Love.” A unique interpretation of “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise,” reinvented rhythms of “Blue Skies,” and a devastating “Cry Me a River” reached a boil in the final set, and everyone let off some steam on the final “Save Your Love for Me.”

Come September, we’ll have to travel to New York to hear much of Kelly Rossum. It will be worth our while to make the trip. But we’ll hear plenty at home from Nancy Harms. And it will be worth our while to hang around.
Photos: (top) Nancy Harms with Graydon Peterson on the Dakota stage; Kelly Rossum blows with conviction between Nancy's verses. (Photos by Andrea Canter on March 20, 2009 at the Dakota)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Lead Sheet, March 20-26

© Andrea Canter

It’s another weekend that supports cloning, at least to enable jazz fans to be in two places at once. Club hopping might be worth considering:

The Artists Quarter this weekend hosts a trio that can only be described as transcendent. Chris Lomheim, Anthony Cox and Phil Hey, three of the Twin Cities’ busiest and most effective jazzers, have proven their flexibility across contexts from bop to free improv, from comping for vocalists to heading their own projects. As a trio, they first came together about two years ago on the stage of the Artists Quarter, and this weekend they return to the scene of that first (and several subsequent) fantastic voyages. In their previous gigs, they typically played about a half-dozen elongated pieces per set, ample time to search, develop, explore and resolve without ever losing the attention of their audience or the intention of their music. Pieces as familiar as “Caravan,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” and “Alone Together” are recast as modern discoveries; tunes as exquisite as “So Tender” (Keith Jarrett), “We’ll Be Together Again” (Fischer and Laine), and “Little B’s Poem” (Bobby Hutcherson) maintain their dignity amidst the trio’s musings and reworkings; and bop masterpieces like Powell’s “Sub City” and Hodges’ “Squatty Roo” explode in multiple directions, the spatter to be reassembled, the tapestry rewoven. They will be on the AQ stage at 9 pm Friday and Saturday (3/20-21).

Across the river at the Dakota, it’s also an interesting and very eclectic weekend, starting with local rising star vocalist Nancy Harms, who has assembled a hip and popular quartet with Phil Aaron, Graydon Peterson, Jay Epstein, and Kelly Rossum. Kelly rarely performs with a vocalist so you know this will be a special evening (Friday, 3/20). And there’s a triple header Saturday night (3/21) running the gamut from classical to global avant garde. The Chiara String Quartet bring classical music to the club stage at 7:30 pm, followed by acclaimed vocalist/actress Regina Williams at 9 pm. Then it’s the weekly Late Night at the Dakota series, and a very special treat awaits those who can stay awake and alert for the 11:30 pm start: From the Denver area comes the Aakash Mittal Quartet, and I promise this will be one of the most exciting ensembles you will hear this spring... and beyond. Mittal draws upon his personal roots in American bop and Indian folk traditions to create an original cross-cultural tapestry of elegant melodies and free-wheeling improvisations with a talented ensemble of guitar, bass and drums.

For better or worse, depending on how much conflict you like in your jazz schedule, Saturday night (3/21) is also the designated “final” live performance of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” by the Atlantis Quartet, at the Riverview Café and Wine Bar in south Minneapolis. The quartet (Zacc Harris, Brandon Wozniak, Chris Bates, Pete Hennig) first tackled this epic work as a Halloween treat at the Dakota last fall. It’s a bold move for a relatively young band, but they pulled it off admirably and bring it back one more time as part of the Riverview’s monthly Showcase series. But Zacc assures us this will be the final performance! There will also be original compositions and creative twists on covers. If you missed the Halloween performance, don’t make the same mistake twice. Showtime is 8 pm, which means you can still catch Mittal at the Dakota or Cox/Lomheim/Hey at the AQ later!

Sunday afternoon brings yet another rare opportunity to hear one of the Twin Cities most exciting artists in a concert hall setting. Tanner Taylor salutes his muse Oscar Peterson at the Bloomington Center for the Arts (3/22, 2 pm), backed by bassist Graydon Peterson, drummer Mac Santiago, and special guest, sax king Dave Karr; Arne Fogel serves as emcee. Many have heard Taylor spice up the band behind a long list of area vocalists, but seeing and hearing Tanner leading an instrumental ensemble is surely one of the most satisfying experiences in local music. Like Peterson, Taylor is hard swinging, technically gifted, and clever in his interpretations. Plus in this setting, there will be no clinking glasses or distracting chatter.

The big gig of the coming week, I think, is the return of Tierney Sutton, who will spend two nights (four sets) at the Dakota, March 25-26. It’s been quite a while since Sutton was in town, and she is celebrating the release of Desire on Telarc with her long standing band, Christian Jacob, Trey Henry and Ray Brinker. Sutton has a unique style that places her among the most creative of modern interpreters. She reinvents the melodies, the harmonies, and in the process, the emotional impact of each song. The new recording brings fresh readings of Cole Porter, Dave Frishberg and Johnny Mercer, among others.

There’s always a lot going on among Twin Cities jazz artists---Connie Evingson with the Twin Cities Hot Club (3/22) and Lee Engele (3/23) at the Dakota; Marv Dahlgren (3/25) and Pete Whitman’s X-Tet at the AQ (3/26); and on the far end of our modern scene, Volcano Insurance with Chris Bates, Adam Linz, Nathan Hanson and Joey Van Phillips at the Clown Lounge (3/23).

And coming next weekend? New York saxman and popular AQ crowd pleaser Jim Snidero at the AQ (3/27-28); the acclaimed Blue Note Seven honoring the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records, at Orchestra Hall next Sunday afternoon (3/29) with Nicholas Payton, Bill Charlap, Ravi Coltrane and more; Judi Donaghy and Debbie Duncan together at the Dakota (3/27); Sisters in Song (Lila Ammons, Dorothy Doring and Vicky Mountain) at the Bloomington Center for the Arts (3/29); and Soul Café (Laura Caviani, Steve Blons, Brad Holden) celebrating women composers and poets at the Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church (3/29).

Looking way ahead, mark you calendars for the annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival, downsized to one weekend at Mears Park in St. Paul, June 18-20. Watch for details.
Photos (top): Aakash Mittal comes in from Denver for Late Night at the Dakota on 3/21; Nancy Harms takes the Dakota stage with a quartet featuring trumpet master Kelly Rossum on 3/20; the Atlantis Quartet performs Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" one more time at the Riverview Cafe and Wine Bar on 3/21. (Mittal photo courtesy of the artist; Harms photo by Mark Hannan; Atlantis Quartet by Andrea Canter.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Lead Sheet, March 13-19

© Andrea Canter

My recommendations this week are as diverse as jazz, from post bop piano trio to Afro-Cuban firestorms to guitar wizardry and youthful exuberance. Never dull on the Twin Cities jazz scene!

Although it may sport the area’s worst sound system, the little music corner inside Crave at The Galleria (Edina) also hosts some of the area’s top chamber musicians and vocalists. The “house band” generally features Laura Caviani and friends, and tonight (Friday the 13th—good luck in music!) the friends include seldom-heard bassist Kevin Clement, drummer Phil Hey, and birthday girl vocalist Lucia Newell. Clement flies planes for Northwest so his gigs are infrequent but he is well worth seeking out. The ambient chatter should dissipate by 10 pm or so and the kitchen makes the wait worthwhile.

One of the area’s most intriguing small bands, Fat Kid Wednesdays, does a double play tonight (3/13), opening at the Dakota for Haley Bonar and then running crosstown for the evening show at Café Maude at 54th and Penn in south Minneapolis. This little haven of experimental music and great bar food can be crowded and noisy, but the music is among the most exciting in town. FKW is case in point with Michael Lewis, Adam Linz and JT Bates. Each deserves his own star on the Twin Cities Jazz Walk of Fame.

Dean Magraw already fronts two of the most exciting guitar trios in town—his own trio and Red Planet. Now he’s come up with another configuration dubbed Impulso, featuring RP cohort Jay Epstein on drums and Atlantis Quartet saxophonist Brandon Wozniak. Sparks will fly at the Artists Quarter, March 13-14.

And on Saturday night, start off at the Dakota and help the Twin Cities’ most swinging couple, Ginger and Bobby Commodore, celebrate their March birthdays with their annual bash. Just be careful if you’re holding a wine glass when Ginger hits her high notes---I’m sure she can shatter glass. But it will be a lovely explosion.

Two worthy events within about 100 feet of each other on Sunday night (3/15): At Brit’s Pub (upstairs in the Clubhouse), guitar guru Paul Renz teams up with Berklee College classmate, flautist Anders Bostrom, and his usual bandmates for an evening of “beyond bop.” They’ll be chilling out after a duo recording session. Meanwhile, across the street at Orchestra Hall, Nachito Herrera is back in town with Juan deMarcos and the Afro Cuban All-Stars. The band has been touring out west and through the Midwest for the past month following a week of rehearsals at MacPhail, and head east after tonight’s gig to finish the tour in New York and New England. I had an opportunity to sit in on a couple rehearsals and this is one of the most exciting, talented ensembles of Afro-Cuban music you will hear. Many of the musicians are alums of the famed Buena Vista Social Club and its offshoots. And we already know what a volcanic pianist we have in Nachito. Dancing shoes are highly recommended.

Looking for something a little different for St. Patrick’s Day? You can get green beer and Irish jigs in St. Paul but instead catch singers Dorothy Doring and Donald Thomas at the Dakota. It might not feel like Dublin but you’ll hear some great standards and blues from two very satisfying voices. Good chance Jack Riebel will have something besides blarney on the menu.

Young Reid Kennedy, one of the most exciting of a new crop of drummers, has assembled a radiant trio with pianist Chris Lomheim and bassist Graydon Peterson, and on Wednesday night (3/18) they celebrate their debut recording, Reflections, at the AQ. Entirely original compositions from Kennedy and Peterson, the CD is a remarkably mature and elegant feast. Enjoy it live.

And speaking of young, youth rules during an early set at the AQ on Thursday (3/19) when The Alternates grab the stage. These guys are still in high school but their sound, their creativity are years beyond. They made quite an impression at their debut gig in January, and return now and again next month (4/16). Jazz is alive and well. And well into the night—enjoy a set with the Dave Karr Quartet at 9 pm and then head out to the Red Sea for a late set with Pooches’ Playhouse, featuring guitar star Joel Shapira, bassist Pooch Heine and friends. Plan to sleep in on Friday.

And if you need a break from jazz, or just like to keep your ears open, Yo Yo Ma returns to Orchestra Hall with his Silk Road Project on Monday (3/16). It’s not bop, but it is transcendent.

What’s coming up? The great “Bon Vivants” trio with Anthony Cox, Chris Lomheim and Phil Hey at the AQ (March 20-21); Denver-based saxophonist Akash Mittal at the Dakota late night on March 21st; Tanner Taylor’s Tribute to Oscar Peterson at the Bloomington Center for the Arts (March 22); vocalist nonpareil Tierney Sutton at the Dakota (March 25-26).

Don’t forget there’s great pizza and song nearly every Monday and Wednesday nights at Fireside Pizza in Richfield, with Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg. No cover and extra cheese.
Photos: (top) Laura Caviani brings her trios to Crave nearly every Friday night; Reid Kennedy releases his first trio CD on March 18th at the AQ; The Alternates energize the AQ on March 19th (early set). (Photos: Andrea Canter)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Week on the Jazz Planet (aka Club Dakota)

© Andrea Canter

I am quite certain I could not survive the life of a jazz musician, and this is based solely on my state of exhaustion following six consecutive nights at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis in the audience, not on stage. Even for me, I think that was a record. The waitstaff offered me overnight accommodations. And at least for the past week, I suspect there were enough nightly patrons to create our own jazz dorm. But really, all this jazz has me a bit worn out. And happily so, although I am somewhat relieved to stay home this evening and bask in the glow of jazz nights past.

The delights of the past week were not only in hearing some of the most talented musicians on the national (and local) scene back to back to back, but seeing a jazz club filled, even to the point of standing room only. Dakota owner Lowell Pickett advised us each night that the best way to counter the recession was to go out and hear live music. Apparently that advice was taken to heart and ear, at least on Nicollet Mall. So what did I hear?

March 2­–3, The Joshua Redman Trio. Now that he is over 40, the winner of the 1991 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition is not so much a “young lion” as a mature monster, as composer, performer and bandleader. He steered the mythic SF Jazz Collective through its first few years while continuing to build his improvisational chops and character as one of the 21st centuries most engaging writers. Touring with equally impressive if lesser known bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, over four sets Redman treated us to swinging interpretations of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” gorgeous balladry on “My Foolish Heart,” and a sheaf of original tunes (e.g., “Insomnomaniac”) that soared far above the modal exercises of much of the contemporary saxophone repertoire. As on his new CD, Compass.

March 4, Claudia Schmidt with the Dean Magraw Quintet. After years on the folk circuit, Prairie Home Companion alum and former Twin Citian Claudia Schmidt gave in to her long-standing jazz yearnings. Over the past few years she has released several recordings of standards and jazz interpretations, culminating in her Live at the Dakota release in 2006 with the Dean Magraw Quintet. She’s returned annually, and each time her jazz sensibilities seem to have moved up another level. This night was the best yet, likely in part due to the growing synchrony between singer and band. Magraw and Schmidt were once-upon-a-time cohorts on PHC, and their rapport is evident throughout live performance. Add to guitar wizard Magraw the likes of pianist Bryan Nichols, bassist Chris Bates, drummer JT Bates and saxophonist Brandon Wozniak, and you have plenty of tinder awaiting ignition. And indeed, there were plenty of sparks as Claudia performed not only tunes from the live recording but bits and pieces from her otherwise diverse repertoire, all given bright jazz and blues interpretations, and often a story or two about the song’s origin. All delightful but what stands out a few nights later—“Chickadee Blues” (based on the “tune” she heard chirped outside her window), “Having a Drink With Jane,” “Frim Fram Sauce,” and the eternal “Skylark.”

March 5, Esperanza Spalding. Esperanza is young enough to be dubbed a “Young Lioness” but that hardly seems sufficient. At 24, the bassist/vocalist is already a veteran performer and faculty instructor at Berklee; her resume includes the talk show circuit and a performance at Obama’s inauguration; her second recording (Esperanza) was on many “best of” lists for 2008. And of all the gigs at the Dakota this week—maybe of all 2009 gigs so far—Esperanza not only sold out the tables and barstools, she sold out what standing room tickets were available. For both sets. Top that off with a show that crackled with energy from the first note, with a stage presence that easily matches or surpasses any veteran, and with a downright excess of musical talent. Vocally she has a mature approach to phrasing and a dare-devil sense of interpretation, capped with bits of Mina Agossi’s elasticity, in three languages (English, Spanish and Portuguese); her bass playing (on acoustic or electric) smacks of the dexterity of a Christian McBride and the power of a Stanley Clarke. Watching her is nearly as exhausting as it is fascinating, as she sways and twists as if body English alone could extract the notes. Maybe it can. Her young cohorts were nearly as impressive, particularly pianist Leo Genovese, and her encore duet with drummer Otis Brown III (playing just snare on the front edge of the stage) was sheer delight.

March 6, Debbie Duncan/Late Night Jam. Honestly I only caught the final 20 minutes of Debbie’s last set and the opening notes of the Bryan Nichols Trio’s late jam, having walked over to the Dakota from Orchestra Hall after an evening with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (see March 7th blog). Debbie ran well beyond the usual 11 pm stopping time and no one minded; every moment with Debbie is time well invested. It was clear that there would be a sparkling jam session as most of the JALC musicians began filtering in, instrument cases in hand. They weren’t just there for the menu. I planned to return the next night so opted out of one more late evening. I hear I missed some ferocious playing from trumpeter Sean Jones, among others.

March 7, Kenny Werner Trio with Debbie Duncan. For years, Kenny Werner has been one of my favorite pianists, someone whose exquisite touch and inventive mind yield diverse interpretations and compositions that define post bop elegance. Although recording and touring most often in trio format, he’s also a long-time partner of harmonicist Toots Thielmans and Broadway star Betty Buckley, and has led some highly effective quintet and sextet projects. He is currently touring with a new trio of youngbloods—Jorge Roeder on bass and Richie Barshay on drums. Despite their youth, or perhaps because of it, Werner’s partners offer the perfect complement to the master’s music---if Werner himself took up bass or drums, he would be Roeder or Barshay. One of Werner’s trademarks is his use of pianissimo and open spaces, two traits his cohorts shared with patient reverence. As did the audience, the most attentive Saturday night crowd I have ever experienced at the Dakota. Among a bagful of gems were Werner’s interpretation of Bach’s “Sicilienne” (my personal favorite of Werner’s book), Horace Silver’s “Peace” and Kenny’s “Beauty Secrets.” But the two sets were not limited to the Kenny Werner Trio. Vocalist Debbie Duncan (whose Saturday night gig was bumped when Werner was available for just one night) joined the ensemble for two tunes each set, and as marvelous as she is on any given night, she was simple stunning with Werner, particularly in rendering Jon Hendricks lyrics on “‘Round Midnight.” Werner seemed well aware that this local musician was of national caliber.

March 7, Late Night Jam. This time, there was no leaving. As the Kenny Werner Trio packed up, Bryan Nichols, Adam Linz and JT Bates assembled on stage, the anticipation electric. If no one showed up to jam tonight, we would nevertheless be treated to insanely powerful and provocative music from these musicians. The trio began. Then Wynton Marsalis was on stage. Not just for the obligatory tune―he returned later with a JACL quartet, with pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson. Freddie Hendrix, young trumpeter with JALC, joined the fun with Nichols and company, and local trumpeter Dave Thomas and what I assume to be two of his students put on a fiery display of brass. Nichols, Linz and Bates were in top form, yielding only after a short break to the core of the JALC. Hearing Wynton in a club setting is ample proof that he deserves his lofty ratings as one of the top trumpeters of any generation. And his sense of humor and on-the-spot invention was on display as well, as he commandeered an empty cocktail glass to serve as an effective mute. I thought we stayed til the final note, only to learn later that local thunderbolts Mike Lewis (Happy Apple’s saxman) and Kevin Washington (drummer nonpareil) spent another ten minutes with Wynton before the lights went out. I’m sure they blew the house down.

So excuse me while I spend an evening at home with my cat. With a smile on my face and a glow in my ear.

Photos: Lots of megabytes this week. (from top) Esperanza Spalding comps for her vocals; Debbie Duncan got steamy 'Round Midnight with Kenny Werner; Wynton Marsalis and Ali Jackson jammed right through Daylight Savings Time. (Photos: Andrea Canter)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Monk in Translation

© Andrea Canter

This winter marks the 50th anniversary of one of the legendary concerts of jazz—Thelonious Monk’s Town Hall concert, performed with a ten-piece band—Monk’s first big band performance. Last week, two concerts at Town Hall, February 26-27, celebrated the original Town Hall gig, the first as a reenactment of sorts featuring the Charles Tolliver Trio, Quartet and Tentet, the second a more interpretative, mixed media presentation led by Jason Moran with his “Big Bandwagon” octet. Last night in Minneapolis we got our own celebration of Monk with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

The idea of a big band, and one more known for its traditional repertoire, playing the craggy tunes of Monk was intriguing. There was no question that the musicians of JALC would be up to the task of tackling the often-difficult rhythms and intervals of the “Genius of Modern Music.” But ultimately the question was more basic—can big band arrangements and JALC spit-and-polish adequately translate Monk’s music? For the most part, I have to say “no”---which is not to negate an evening (March 6th) of virtuosic soloing, mostly peppy orchestrations, and an enthusiastic crowd at Minnesota Orchestra Hall. The music of Monk, however, is not dependent on virtuosity or tight arrangements, but rather on the spontaneity, interaction, and free will of the musicians, on the unpredictability of time and space stamped on such tunes as “Epistrophy” and “Criss Cross.” Big band arrangements seem to be the antithesis of Monk’s essence and appeal. Of course Monk himself did write arrangements for the ten-piece ensemble that gathered at Town Hall in 1959, choosing some of his lesser known tunes as those that might best translate into larger band charts and adding tuba and French Horn. JALC made no effort to revive that concert or instrumentation, and in fact played only one tune from that performance (“Crespuscule with Nellie”), as well as three more that Monk later recorded in big band format, “Epistrophy, ” "We See" and “Four in One.”

Still I have to give Wynton Marsalis and company credit for the attempt and for bringing Monk to mainstream concert goers. Many who might not otherwise stop to listen to Monk, or who have found his music too challenging in the past, were introduced to some great melodies (e.g., “We See,” “Ugly Beauty,” “Crespuscule With Nellie”). We all were treated to some burning solos—altoist Ted Nash, trumpeter Ryan Kisor and bassist Carlos Henriquez on “Epistrophy”; drummer Ali Jackson on “Four in One”; pianist Dan Nimmer on “Criss Cross”; and, most elegantly, trumpeter Sean Jones on “We See.” But for me, it’s the playful bumps and angles that make Monk’s music unique, and the JALC’s large band arrangements smoothed out those blemishes. In a way, the music was too beautiful, too resolved. Monk’s is an “Ugly Beauty.”

For an encore, Wynton returned to the stage with just a sextet—trumpet, sax, trombone and rhythm section. They ran through “Green Chimneys”—bumps and angles and blemishes in full view. It was Monkish. It was glorious.

So what was the outcome at Town Hall last week? You can get a taste of the result from an eight-minute studio video of Jason Moran’s ensembe at Relative to the (larger) JALC effort, Morans’ arrangements preserve more space, the piano more dominant. From reviews, Tolliver’s varying combinations (from trio to full tentet) offered the most authentic recapitulation of the original Town Hall concert, while Moran’s octet (including tuba) offered less angular, more “hallucinogenic” and impressionistic interpretations (see Will Friedwald’s review in the Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2009). Both Town Hall concerts probably appealed most to those already enthralled with Monk as well as modern post bop. We’ll get to see/hear the multi-media event on May 9th when Jason Moran brings the Big Bandwagon and “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall” to the Walker Art Center.
Photos: (Top) Monk at Town Hall (1959); Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; Sean Jones of JALC, during a gig at the Dakota last fall. (Jones photo by Andrea Canter)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Lead Sheet, March 3-12

© 2009, Andrea Canter

I figure I am behind enough for this week that I should just keep looking ahead!

There is one more night of pure postbop bliss at the Dakota with the Joshua Redman Trio. The opening sets last night featured some of the most inventive and musically satisfying sax to grace the club stage in recent years, as Redman has only grown in artistry as both performer and composer. The young lion is now a mature musician who trades bravura virtuosity for confident risk-taking, while also opening wide spaces for his talented cohorts, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Their shouts of mutual admiration and big grins throughout the set tell it all. Last sets tonight at 7 and 9:30 pm (March 3rd).

The Dakota is having a blockbuster week. Wednesday night is the return of Claudia Schmidt, the folkie-turned-jazzer who recorded live with the Dean Magraw Quintet three years ago and will reunite with the dazzling guitarist and mostly the same ensemble, with Brandon Wozniak replacing the touring Mike Lewis. Stick around for young bass/vocal sensation Esperanza Spalding on Thursday night. I caught her with an equally youthful trio at the Detroit Jazz Festival last September. Easy to see why her alma mater Berklee wasted no time in giving her a faculty appointment. Cap off the weekend with a rare evening in the lyrical arms of pianist Kenny Werner and his trio, at the Dakota for an unusual Saturday night gig. (Unusual for the Dakota—this isn’t party music!) Werner is a longtime personal favorite who has not made the Twin Cities scene in a long time, but has been releasing recordings in varying configurations from instrumental sextets to big bands to duets with Roseanna Vitro. His affinity for singers will be on display Saturday night when he welcomes guest vocalist and local icon Debbie Duncan.

Keep your table warm at the Dakota, the SF Jazz Collective returns with a tribute to the compositions of McCoy Tyner on March 10th. Just one night, two shows, seven of the most productive and creative jazz musicians on earth sharing the stage. (Normally the SFC is an octet—vibraphonist Stefon Harris is on a one-year leave.) New leader Joe Lovano has not been heard here in a few years; in the interim he has released some dazzling duets with Hank Jones as well as one of my favorite recordings of 2008, Symphonica with the WDR Big Band. The rest of the band can readily hold their own on any stage—Dave Douglas, Robin Eubanks, Miguel Zenon, Renee Rosnes, Matt Penman, Eric Harland.

Good sounds come from the Artists Quarter this weekend—young guitar stud Cory Wong on Friday (3/6) and noted pianist/composer Laura Caviani on Saturday (3/7).

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis and featuring 14 more of New York’s finest, will do a two-day residency this weekend, starting with a day of high school band clinics on Friday, a free family concert on Saturday afternoon, and back to back evening concerts at Orchestra Hall. Friday night they focus on Thelonious Monk—which might seem like a conceptual stretch for Marsalis, but he IS a student of jazz history and Monk is certainly one of history’s most colorful figures. Saturday night will be a more varied program highlighting the JALC’s soloists.

Not enough choices for the weekend? It’s really too much—for free and unforgettable, you have two nights to hear one of the most creative of modern pianists, Frank Kimbrough, in trio (with Gordy Johnson and Phil Hey) on Friday night (3/6) as part of the U of M Jazz Fest weekend, and with Jazz Ensemble I on Saturday night (3/7). Seriously, I am planning to be cloned.

More casually speaking, chanteuse Vicky Mountain joins swing guitarist Reuben Ristrom for some exquisite brunch fare at Trygs on Sunday (3/8, 11 am – 3 pm) and you can usually wash down your pizza with beer and Charmin Michelle at Fireside Pizza in Richfield every Monday and Wednesday night.

Looking ahead? Dean Magraw has a new trio project, Impulso, with Jay Epstein and Brandon Wozniak, debuting at the AQ on March 13-14; Fat Kid Wednesdays open for Haley Bonar at the Dakota on March 13th; the Reid Kennedy Trio celebrates the release of their sublime CD at the AQ on March 18th; and the AQ also presents one of the most energetic young bands in the region when The Alternates take the stage for the early show on March 19th.

Rest up.
Photos: (Top), Joshua Redman at the Dakota on March 2nd; Claudia Schmidt recorded live at the Dakota in 2006; Joe Lovano returns with the SF Jazz Collective. Photos by Andrea Canter.