Thursday, August 13, 2009

Six Cool Picks

© Andrea Canter

I’m afraid I’d be in dire straits if I depended on writing gig reviews for a living. Not because I don’t get out to hear live jazz, and not because I fail to record my thoughts about performances at the time. But finding time to put those thoughts into some semblance of a review in a timely manner is challenging to say the least.

But I might borrow a strategy from the Star Tribune, which otherwise has little to offer in the realm of jazz, and “pick six” cool jazz gigs from the past week or so. Each deserves its own blog, but... this fits my reality better at the moment. Think of this as six short blogs in one long entry.

July 30, Dan Musselman Quartet at the Dakota. Dan’s star is rising fast, and deservedly so. His brash recording debut of all original solo compositions was a valid heads-up. Young (maybe 23?), creative and technically brilliant, somehow the fact that Dan studied with both Craig Taborn and Kenny Werner says it all regarding his melodic bent steeped in harmonic excitement. With masterful Adam Linz on bass and Jay Epstein on drums, and another quickly rising star, Brandon Wozniak on alto sax, this was the sort of night that defines a good jazz gig—nothing held back but lots of appeal to a wide audience. My friends came by mistake, they thought this was the night of the Trumpet Summit. They stayed, they bought Dan’s CD, and raved about their accidental discovery.

This glorious night deserved repeating, and we only needed to wait two weeks for the next gig at the Artists Quarter on August 12th. As in Minneapolis, this was another night to savor Dan’s technical wizardry and creative explorations, as well as those of his cohorts. Even if Adam Linz was heard to mumble “Oh man, this one is hard” at the start of Dan’s “On the Way,” the bassist made it seem easy. It’s hard to photograph the musicians who use body English to form notes and phrases, and Brandon Wozniak is artfully in that camp. And there’s no one in this jazz town with more dramatic body language than Jay Epstein, whose entire forearm is a drum stick.

July 31, Trumpet Summit at the Dakota. We get lots of opportunities to hear Kelly Rossum in a variety of moods and configurations this month, but it’s all a grand farewell as he takes off for New York on the 30th. But first, he assembled a gaggle of horns for an evening of everything trumpet. The initial billing was a foursome—Kelly, young whiz John Raymond, and two of the finest from the Minnesota Orchestra, Charles Lazarus (who legitimately composes and plays jazz) and Manny Laureno (who sticks with classical repertoire but has the chops for more). That would have been exciting enough, but then Kelly invited his recent mentee, now alum of the Dakota Combo and incoming freshman at the New England Conservatory of Music, Jake Baldwin. Now more than enough to sing the glory of brass, there was more, as the final set found several local trumpeters taking their turn, and the final chorus was a blowout of no less than six .

With all that it could have been too loud and too raucus, but then that’s the beauty of trumpet in expert hands and lips—one, two, three or more at a time, these trumpets sang, soared, sassed, whined, cackled.... but it was always musical. Kelly opened soloing with the always fine Dakota Trio (Tanner Taylor, Gordy Johnson, Phil Hey) on “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” the tune Jake soloed on with the Combo last December. Jake got his turn later, and made it count, his professional debut at the Dakota as well as his own farewell, at least til the holiday break. Only 18, he proved he belongs on stage with the best in town. And John Raymond, with an unforgettable “Night in Tunisia,” saved some energy to lead his band in the Late Night set, also a memorable farewell as he heads to New York (SUNY Purchase) for graduate studies. Maybe he and Kelly can join forces.., and hey, Jake is only a short commute away in Boston. Maybe the Trumpet Summit East is on the horizon!

August 1, Chris Morrissey Quartet at the Artists Quarter. There’s a growing number of top-level jazz artists who call the Twin Cities “home,” even long after they move on to New York or beyond: Bill Carrothers, Craig Taborn, Reid Anderson, Michael O’Brien, Geoffrey Keezer (if you stretch your boundaries of the Twin Cities), and more. Now count bassist Chris Morrissey, based in New York, who returned to celebrate his debut recording for Sunnyside, The Morning World, with Michael Lewis, Bryan Nichols and Dave King—three hot commodities in the jazz world who maintain their Twin Cities addresses. Sometimes suggesting a Bad Plus With Saxophone, this quartet played some of the most interesting, accessible modern music I’ve heard in quite a while, varying from lushly beautiful to edgy and even humorous, all from the pen of Morrissey, all highlighting the individual as well as collective voices. I hope Morrissey enjoys many visits back home.

August 7, Kevin Washington Quartet at the Artists Quarter. Usually in a sideman role in which he often steals the spotlight with his explosive percussion, 34-year-old Kevin Washington has been booking and leading gigs at the Blue Nile. It was time to put his far-ranging musical ideas on stage at a prime jazz venue. Seeking to go beyond the usual sounds of post bop and infuse both the energy and the rhythms of an even younger generation, Kevin put together a quartet of young artists, tossed in veteran bassist Jay Young, and brought down the house at the AQ. The repertoire covered “Work Song” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and a batch of Washington originals, including his glorious “Air” and the hymnal “Completion,” the latter written for wife Lisa. Lisa, aka spoken word artist Sol Testimony, joined the band as well.

But the surprise delight of the evening was Kevin’s vocals. Yes, mom Faye Washington is a singer as well as flautist, and yes, Lisa had advised me some time ago that Kevin really can sing. But this was my first opportunity to hear him, providing another “horn” voice for the quartet. Overall it was an evening of surprises, starting with a young keyboard giant whose name, I think, is also Kevin. I better get down to the Blue Nile and check out these guys on their home turf. And maybe we will see the KWQ again, soon, on one of our mainstream stages?

August 8, Metropolitan Port Authority CD release at The Beat. I’ve met each of the young musicians of MPA in one context or another. Pianist Joe Strachan, bassist Cory Grindberg, and trumpeter Jake Baldwin have been part of the Dakota Combo (Jake and Cory for the past two years); drummer Isaac Zuckerman is a familiar voice of Jazz 88 radio as a student broadcaster and has also led his own quartet as a warm-up to the KBEM REEL Jazz film series at Bryant Lake Bowl. Saxophonist Remy Taghavi was already familiar from his years with Walker West and MITY jazz ensembles. Five young men on a mission to create new compositions and arrangements got themselves a studio date and recorded a CD that surely verifies jazz as a very much alive and attractive genre.

At the Beat Coffee House in Minneapolis’ Uptown, and despite the parking challenges created by the final evening of the Upton Art Festival, a full house of family, friends, and interested bystanders enjoyed a remarkable performance, highlighted by original compositions and intriguing arrangements. All but Taghavi are new high school graduates now headed to college music programs, while Remy is returning for his second year at the University of Southern California where he studies classical bassoon. They gig around town as MPA, and hopefully will reunite periodically as school vacations allow.

The CD, and the gig at The Beat, were filled with original compositions, like Joe’s “Beetle Day,” Jake’s “User Error,” Cory’s “French Benefits” and Remy’s “Bathroom of the Gods.” One of my favorites was Cory’s “Faded,” recorded for the Dakota Combo self-titled release but performed by MPA with a new arrangement, the pseudo-scary trombone antics of the original replaced by a more swinging, sassy groove for trumpet and sax. The band also powered through a set of standards with new twists, from Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G” to “Lady Bird,” “Lullabye of Birdland,” a rousing “Footprints,” and an ethereal “Round Midnight.” St. Thomas U guitar student Geoff LeCrone joined the band for a final set. No one left, the house was still full at the end of the third set.

August 12, Nancy Harms and the Hot Swing Combo at the Lake Harriet Bandshell. I live so close to Lake Harriet that it is a crime I don’t get to more of the summer concerts at the bandshell. With some new seating and landscaping, it is as classy a venue as you will find in an outdoor Twin Cities park. Of course you have to put up with an occasional jet overhead and a sound system that, at least on this evening, wreaked havoc with the reverb from guitar and accordion, but Nancy’s vocals were clear and generally the sound system did not interfere with an enjoyable set of swinging standards interpreted with a sassy warmth. I still remember less than two years ago when Nancy debuted at the Dakota, her relaxed voice totally out of sync with her stiff body language. That’s all history now, as she seems as comfortable physically as musically. She’s been performing a lot with the Hot Swing Combo, featuring hot club guitar specialist Robert Bell and the always interesting young master of accordion, Patrick Harrison. Nancy pleased a decent midweek crowd (and handful of swing dancers) with “If I Were a Bell,” “’Deed I Do,” and my favorite, her bluesy swing on “Summertime.”

I am temporarily passing over one of the coolest events of the summer, The Freedom Jazz Festival. It will get its own blog. Soon. Really.

Photos: Dan Musselman; Chris Morrissey; Kevin Washington (all at the AQ); Cory Grindberg and Joe Strachan (MPA) at The Beat. (Photos by Andrea Canter)