Sunday, September 27, 2009

Stretching the Aural Universe With the Astral Project

© Andrea Canter

I know I heard the New Orleans-based Astral Project some years ago when the Dakota was still in Bandana Square. I know I did not make their last gig or two at the Minneapolis club. What I really don’t know is why I was not blown away the first time I heard them. Their first visit to the Artists Quarter last weekend prompted me to listen to Blue Streak, their 2008 release. At its core are seven tunes that leader/ saxophonist Tony Dagradi wrote as a suite in tribute to Katrina. Apparently when the band performed the suite live, they added a few other original tunes from guitarist Steve Masakowski and bassist James Singelton, and in the recording studio, they similarly expanded on Dagradi’s set. It’s a varied, sometimes swinging, sometimes harrowing, always virtuosic recording. And not like much of the music of long-time New Orleans musicians, although in some respects Astral Project reminded me of another Crescent City favorite son, Branford Marsalis and his Quartet.

At the AQ, they drew some of the first set from Blue Streak as well as some newer compositions. It was one of the most memorable sets I’ve heard recently. Three of the musicians have been together for over 30 years (Masakowski is the newcomer with only a 20-year tenure); their communication is invisible and instantaneous. They can be bluesy and soulful as on Dagradi’s salute to “Cannonball” Adderley, elegantly balladic on some new unnamed material, and truly avant, with Dagradi executing Tim Berne-ish calisthenics suggesting a futuristic snake charmer. Bassist Singleton contorts his entire body in creating a menagerie of sounds not necessarily within the usual realm of acoustic bass, at one time like an out-of-tune banjo, on another jaunt combining hand slapping and symphonic bowing, somewhere slipping in some intriguing loops. Masakowski tends to play the straight man, little to be read from his facial expressions yet plenty of emoting from his guitar.

Yet it is John Vidacovich who is truly mesmerizing, visually as well as aurally. The music is a physical extension of the musician; he is a slinky turned loose onthe trapset, his long, thin, lines extending and contracting, arms like ribbons of water that flow and ebb, his facial expressions mirroring the percussive questions and answers. Like a taller, older Ari Hoenig, his movements are angular yet simultaneously graceful, and prone to sudden shifts in direction, like the fickle breeze ahead of a cold front.

The concept of “astral projection” suggests out-of-body experiences. Playing here on Earth, Astral Project certainly delivered an out of the ordinary experience that stretched the universe of our mere mortal ears, and delightfully so.

Photos: (Top) Tony Dagradi with Steve Masakowski and James Singleton; John Vidacovich. (Photos by Andrea Canter at the Artists Quarter)

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Lead Sheet: Twin Cities Jazz, September 25- October 1

© Andrea Canter

It’s a packed weekend of big jazz productions in the Twin Cities, and some of the choices are mutually exclusive.

I’m eagerly anticipating the appearance of The Astral Project at the Artists Quarter, tonight and Saturday night, two sets per night (9/25-26). I recall very vaguely a performance some years ago, maybe at the old Dakota... maybe someone remembers where and when? And frankly I had not heard the AP’s music in a long time, until I got a press kit from leader/saxman Tony Dagradi that included their 2008 release, Blue Streak. Dagradi had originally written the core suite of tunes under the title “Cobalt Blue,” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But in live performances, the AP added more music, and in the end, Blue Streak augments the suite with more material, both solemn and celebratory. Whatever the story, the music is as elegant, hip, modern, and appealing as any I’ve heard lately from 21st century jazz ensembles and particularly some of the most intriguing music I’ve heard from post Katrina New Orleans. Each member of the (now) keyboard-less Astral Project is independently acclaimed on his instrument—in addition to Dagradi, AP includes guitarist Steve Masakowski, bassist James Singleton, and drummer John Vidacovich. All have been part of the ensemble since its beginning 30 years ago except “newcomer” Masakowski, who has only been with AP for 20 years. This is as rare an event in the Twin Cities as astral projection.

Competing this weekend: Saturday night (9/26) brings tough choices in mainstream and swing genres. Arne Fogel, our town’s jazz vocal historian and ever-popular crooner, has assembled a new production in tribute to the centennial birthday of master singer/songwriter Johnny Mercer (“Have Mercer On Us!”) at the Bloomington Center for the Arts. Arne will share the stage with rising stars Nancy Harms and Sheridan Zuther, and special guest Connie Evingson, along with the Tanner Taylor Trio. Great voices, great songs. Great music and great tunes will also be highlighted when the JazzMN Big Band opens its new season at the Hopkins High School Performing Arts Center with guests Debbie Duncan and special guest star, Grammy-winning saxophonist Ernie Watts. Watts was here last year with Kurt Elling as part of Elling’s Coltrane/Hartman project. JazzMN Big Band is one of the top jazz big bands in the Midwest, offering charts from swing to bebop and beyond. Relax a bit on Sunday afternoon with yet another centennial tribute, this one honoring the great saxophonist Lester Young, as the kickoff concert for the Twin Cities Jazz Society’s Jazz From J to Z season. Led by the JAZZAX Saxophone Quartet (David Milne, Michael Walk, Pete Whitman and Greg Keel), the music of Young will also be highlighted by the Laura Caviani Trio (Laura with Gordy Johnson and Phil Hey) and special guests, local sax legend Dave Karr and sublime vocalist Charmin Michelle. This is a great opportunity to see the renovated Capri Theater in north Minneapolis.

Another highlight later in the week, Adam Linz takes his new role as coordinator of jazz at the MacPhail Center for Music to the stage for the opening Jazz Thursdays concert of the season (10/1) in Antonello Hall. One of the most exciting and inventive musicians in the area (and that area is really global), Adam celebrates the release of his second solo recording (A Kiss for Luck) and then brings on his Fat Kid Wednesday cohorts Mike Lewis and JT Bates to finish the evening with edgy chamber jazz. Another acclaimed string-based trio, Framework, returns to the Artists Quarter on Wednesday (9/30), with leader/drummer Jay Epstein, guitarist Chris Olson and bassist Chris Bates.

Speaking of edgy... always something to rock your ears at Café Maude on weekends, and this weekend it’s the Peter Schimke Collaboration. Not sure who is collaborating, but if Peter is in the middle of it, it will be worthwhile (9/25-26).

There’s always more going on, far more than one can take in—Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson every Friday night at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill in St. Paul; Debbie Duncan (Galleria) and Aaron Keith Stewart (Mall of America) keep things swinging at both Crave venues tonight (9/25); California bassist Kristin Korb returns to the Applewood Grill (9/26); legendary New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint (9/27) and the ever-evolving and always charming Christine Rosholt (9/28) at the Dakota; Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg swing at Fireside Pizza every Monday and Wednesday (9/28, 9/30); and KBEM’s next “REEL Jazz” film night at Bryant Lake Theater features Bob DeFlore’s “The Ladies Sing the Blues” with narrator Leigh Kamman exploring the great divas of jazz.

Coming soon: The great bassist and fusion god Stanley Clarke has proven to be equally mythical on acoustic, and on October 4-5 at the Dakota, he makes this abundantly clear with a trio including young star Hiromi on keyboards and Return to Forever mate Lenny White on drums. Young trumpeter Adam Meckler releases his new recording at Dakota Late Night on October 2nd; the smart and sassy The Girls wrap up their long run with a farewell at the Hopkins Center for the Arts on October 3rd; the Northrop Jazz season launches with the Larry Ochs ensemble on October 8th; Basie Orchestra drummer Butch Miles begins a week residency in the area with the St. Croix Jazz Orchestra on 10/8 and back to back nights with the Wolverines in Bloomington on October 10-11; the AQ hosts a benefit for Dean Magraw on October 11th.

There’s no excuse to say jazz is hard to find. What’s hard to find is time to enjoy it all. Good luck.

Photos: Astral Project; Arne Fogel; Adam Linz (Fogel and Linz photos by Andrea Canter)

Virtuosity and Human Feeling: History Lessons From the Marcus Roberts Trio

© Andrea Canter

Marcus Roberts once described his approach to music as “this interest in a combination of extreme dignity, virtuosity and musical integrity, but mixed with this human feeling that might cover...thousands of years.” Maybe I should let him write his own review as this statement perfectly sums the artistry of his trio’s first set at the Dakota Jazz Club last Wednesday night.

In a way, this was a reprise of a stunning evening of solo piano that Roberts presented at the Dakota last May—an equally wide ranging setlist covering much of the history of jazz, from Fats Waller to Irving Berlin, from George Gershwin to Cole Porter, from Tadd Dameron to Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Ahmad Jamal. Yet even this diversity is misleading as no tune was presented in a solitary style, be it stride, swing or an edgy post bop. Rather, jazz scholar Roberts manages to infuse this history of jazz into every note, every phrase, and you’re never sure where on that timeline he will land next. And with long-time cohorts Roland Guerin on upright bass and Jason Marsalis on the trapset, virtuosity abounds but tempered with storytellers’ purpose, probing curiosity, and a collaborative spirit.

Like the best of the long-term piano trios—Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, the Marcus Roberts Trio defines empathetic communication, and here that means a seamless transition from phrase to phrase, idea to idea, even from one style to another in the mere blink of an ear. “Blue Skies” constantly changed shape, from a slow and dark overture to the more familiar swing, then rising thunderheads as Roberts percussively attacked on the bridge, then closing like a film noir soundtrack. Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin” was given a 21st century facelift with shifting rhythms and dramatic voicings while the original stride foundation was never obscured. Roberts led with restraint on Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird,” starting out sweetly as if expecting a vocalist to come onto the stage at any moment before shifting into more energetic improvisations, even a brief quote of “Take the A-Train” as the trio appeared to create a new arrangement on the spot.

Shining throughout, Jason Marsalis was at his best in counterpoint to Roberts on “Lady Bird,” emulating a tap dancer with his quick staccato fills. Roland Guerin was featured (appropriately) on Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” with extended opening and closing solos, bringing a new twist to the idea of “slap bass” as his thumb snapped against the wood like a second percussionist. And Marcus Roberts seemed to pick up where he left off last May despite his highly accomplished cohorts, providing an often dazzling display, always in artistic command of whatever composition was presented, his big hands swallowing the keyboard in an explosion of chords one minute, delicately etching single notes the next, calling up stride as elegantly and (seemingly) effortlessly as a bebop frenzy. His one solo of the evening, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” was filled with articulate embellishments, but even more striking was his nearly invisible movement from ballad to rhapsody to swing to ballad, all styles merging in one familiar melody.

It was a set of about 75 minutes, during which more than 75 years of jazz traditions rose from the Dakota stage without losing definition. Not slaves to the past, Marcus Roberts and his trio exude a modern-day approach to whatever music they choose to play, from Waller to Mingus, without ever losing the joy, the swing that evokes “jazz.”
Photos: (top-bottom), Roland Guerin; Jason Marsalis; Guerin with Marcus Roberts (photos by Andrea Canter at the Dakota on 9/23/09)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Lead Sheet, Twin Cities Jazz--September 18-24

© Andrea Canter

There’s great music this weekend and beyond, and I am missing most of it to spend some time with family in northern California. (Not close enough to Monterey, where the jazz festival will produce the best vibes in the nation.)

So what I will miss this weekend: The Tuesday Night Band on Friday and Saturday nights, with special guest Pete Whitman. One of the funkiest and longest-running jazz acts in town, it’s a treat to see TNB as SNL.....

Then there’s a rare national gig for Dakota Late Night when Dave King invites buddies Tim Berne, Ethan Iverson and Hank Roberts to commit various acts of mayhem as Buffalo Collision, Friday and Saturday at 11:30 pm. That’s a lot of talent for $10. And as they say on the Dakota website, “not for the faint of heart.” Also leaning toward the far side, Alden Ikeda, Bryan Nichols and Chris Bates salute free jazz drummer Rashad Ali at Cafe Maude on Friday night... best listening after 10 pm.

For the light of heart, there’s a reprise of Sisters in Song... Sing the Songs of Ella, Sarah and Carmen, on Friday at the MacPhail Center for Music in the Minneapolis “arts district.” Vicky Mountain, Lila Ammons and Dorothy Doring do their legendary “sisters” proud. And Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson continue their weekly Friday night serenade at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill.

Sunday brings two special treats and it is possible to take in both. Connie Evingson, last week on stage with the Hot Club of Detroit, reaches back to her Peggy Lee tribute and comes up with some new tunes and a new venue which she presents “Happy With the Blues: Singer/Songwriter Peggy Lee” at the Jungle Theater, her first of three Jazz at the Jungle shows this season. And she does it twice in Sunday, at 4:30 and 7:30. So if you got to the early show, make it a double and head over to the Dakota to hear Minnesota native singer Sony Holland, the diva of the Bay Area and now relocated to Los Angeles. She’s been at Catalina’s, Yoshi’s, the Blue Note and all over Asian venues.

Next week (9/22-23) brings Marcus Roberts back to the Dakota this time with his long-standing trio with Roland Guerin and Jason Marsalis. Roberts performed sublime solo sets last May, but built his reputation around this 14-year partnership. And at the AQ, two great ensembles, the Atlantis Quartet (9/23) and Pete Whitman's X-Tet (9/24).

Sure, there’s a lot more... and coming soon there’s New Orleans hottest modern jazz band, Astral Project, at the Artists Quarter (9/25-26); Alan Toussaint at the Dakota (9/27); the opening concert for the JazzMN Big band with Ernie Watts (9/26); Arne Fogel and company in “Have Mercer On Us” in Bloomington (9/26); the JAZZAX Saxophone Quartet and Laura Caviani Trio saluting Lester Young (9/27) ... the list goes on.

Photos: Tim Berne with Buffalo Collision; Sisters in Song; Marcus Roberts. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Lead Sheet, September 11-17

© Andrea Canter

It’s actually a relief to be back in the Twin Cities where we have plenty of options for great jazz but at a less dizzying pace than a major jazz festival. I loved Detroit (see blog, September 9th) but four days of nonstop music on 5 stages... I was ready to return to “real life.”

Real life on the Twin Cities jazz scene is plenty! This weekend, hot club chanteuse Connie Evingson stretches out with the Hot Club of Detroit in a special one-night gig at the Dakota (9/11), while across the river at the Artists Quarter, Lucia Newell and her Quartet (Laura Caviani, Gordy Johnson and Kenny Horst) swing through three distinctly different sets of bossa, bebop and beyond, also for one night only (9/11). Here’s my plan: Connie and the Hot Club, at least the first set at the Dakota at 8 pm. Hop in the car between sets and head east to St. Paul, catch the last two sets of Lucia Newell. Or something like that. If I had my own helicopter I would hve an easy time returning to the Dakota for the last of Late Night, which tonight features the debut performance of the Zacc Harris Quartet. Guitarist Zacc takes on Kelly Rossum’s rhythm section of Bryan Nichols and the Bates Brothers. All this in one night?

There’s more to Friday night—Debbie Duncan holds forth at Crave (come late, you might actually find a seat near the music and be able to hear her!); Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson (as per usual) at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill in St. Paul. And it is the first day of the Concrete and Grass Music Festival in downtown St. Paul (Mears Park), a celebration of all things music including some things jazz, with jazzers Story City at 3:30 pm and accordion wizard Dan Newton at 6 pm. Come back Saturday (9/12) with the McNally Smith Student Ensemble on stage at noon; Moore by Four at 4 pm; Alicia Renee at 5 pm; Sunday (9/13) brings gospel jazz with Ginger Commodore and Tanner Taylor at noon and the edgy sounds of Jello Slave at 5pm. Another outdoor festival brings smooth jazz to the neighborhood—at Selby and Milton in St. Paul, it’s the annual Selby Ave JazzFest, with this year’s headliner, Kim Waters.

Saturday night brings a very special and rare performance to south Minneapolis, when hometown-boy-makes-good José James and his quartet (featuring fellow South High grad Chris Smith on bass and another local star, Brandon Commodore, on drums) brighten the late night series at the Pillsbury House Theater (food at 8, music and other performances at 9 pm). I just heard José and Chris at the Detroit Jazz Festival. It’s easy to understand the great press José is earning as he builds his reputation at top clubs and festivals, and as guest with such luminaries as Chico Hamilton. No slouch himself, Chris Smith continues touring with the great Jeff “Tain” Watts while finishing studies at the New School in Manhattan.

Another later gig on Saturday finds the inventive young pianist Dan Musselman at Café Maude with compatible cohorts Matt Peterson and Jay Epstein. The modern edge of jazz will also be on display at the Artists Quarter with How Birds Work and Late Night at the Dakota with “Quartet” featuring Chris Thomson, Bryan Nichols, James Buckley and Sean Cary. If mainstream is more your style, check out Lee Engele singing her heart out at the new Crave in Mall of America.

Want some education with your piano jazz? Saturday night brings pianist/educator Mary Louise Knutson to the St. Barnabus Center for the Arts in Plymouth, where she will present an evening to help you in “Making Sense of Jazz,” combining lecture and audience participation with live performance.

Monday (9/14) brings the next benefit for ailing guitarist Dean Magraw, this one at the Dakota with vocalists Cookie Coleman and Cynthia Johnson and visiting former resident pianist Adi Yeshaya. Avant garde reigns on Mondays at Homewood Studios in North Minneapolis where this week (9/14) Milo Fine improvises on a theme of autumn leaves, and Tuesday (9/15) at the Kitty Kat Club in Dinkytown with the always inventive Chris Thomson. On the other side of the jazz coin, swinging vocals waft from the teeny “stage” of Fireside Pizza in Richfield, courtesy of Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg on Monday, with Maxine Souse' sitting in on Wednesday (9/16).

The big one that will get away from me this week is the exceptional Eldar, returning to the Dakota with his trio on Wednesday (9/16), unfortunately for me the first day of my California trip. Eldar Djangirov emigrated from eastern Europe about ten years ago and has been catching the ear of the jazz cognescenti ever since—from Billy Taylor to Benny Carter to Marian McPartland—he was her youngest ever (at the time) guest on Piano Jazz. Compared variously to Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, Eldar just released his third for Sony, Virtue, a dazzling display of performance and composition chops by a 22-year-old maturing into one of the top talents of 21st century jazz piano.

I’ll also miss the Atlantis Quartet at the Dakota and the Lomheim/ Johnson/Hey trio at the Artists Quarter on Thursday night (9/17). I’ll enjoy northern California but hate to miss either of these great bands.

Coming soon: Again, I will miss some big gigs next weekend, especially Buffalo Collision with Tim Berne, Ethan Iverson, Dave King and Hank Roberts on both Friday and Saturday (9/18-19) on the late shift at the Dakota and a rare weekend with the Tuesday Night Band and guest Pete Whitman at the Artists Quarter, prime time September 18-19. Sisters in Song (Lila Ammons, Vicky Mountain and Dorothy Doring) reprise recent performances of the songs of Ella, Sarah and Carmen at Antonello Hall at MacPhail on Friday (9/18); and Sunday (9/20) brings visiting native vocalist Sony Holland to the Dakota. Also Sunday night, songbird Connie Evingson launches her Jazz at the Jungle series (at the Jungle Theater) with a night of Peggy Lee tunes. The Marcus Roberts Trio will be at the Dakota, September 22-23.

Photos: (Top-Bottom) Connie Evingson; Jose James (at the Detroit Jazz Festival); Eldar Djangirov. (Photos of Connie and Jose by Andrea Canter; Eldar courtesy of his website)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Celebrating Community Through Jazz

© Andrea Canter

Not even Hurricane Katrina could prevent an otherwise devastated New Orleans from bringing its community together through jazz. Eight months after the storm tore apart neighborhoods, emptied schools and businesses, and scattered an historic confluence of musicians, the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival rose from the debris to prove the healing power of music. On both a smaller and larger scale, two Midwest jazz festivals repeat this message every year. Music, particularly jazz, unites diverse communities, transcends economic as well as cultural and generational barriers, at least for one weekend in late summer.

In Minneapolis, the Freedom Jazz Festival draws hundreds to Minnehaha Falls Park to “further the awareness and appreciation of jazz and its African American origins; enhance the Twin Cities’ jazz cultures and various jazz communities in Minnesota; stimulate the interest of the youth audience in jazz music; create a regular interaction between jazz artists and enthusiasts as a way to connect communities; and promote positive community and family relations through jazz events.” About 700 miles east, the Detroit International Jazz Festival draws hundreds of thousands to the heart of downtown Detroit and its riverfront, to “ foster the history and nurture the development of jazz; perpetuate Detroit’s significant jazz legacy through educational and collaborative opportunities accessible to all; [and] present a world-class signature event that makes Detroit a tourist destination.”

The modest Freedom Jazz Festival does not seek status as a “tourist destination” and its reliance on local musicians may keep it far below the radar screen of “world-class signature events,” yet it shares many commonalities with its giant cousin. Despite the vast difference in scope, the two festivals bring jazz to the “neighborhood” and draw heavily upon that neighborhood for both organization and performance. Both communities have longstanding, rich jazz traditions. Both communities and their festivals heavily emphasize the spirit of “passing it on,” putting student performers and jazz educators in the spotlight. (In 2009, the FJF honored 90-year-old saxman Irv Williams with the Sam Favors Award for his contributions to jazz and 34-year-old Detroit native/drummer/educator Kevin Washington as one of its Jazz All-Stars; the 2009 DJF’s “Jazz Guardian” recipients included 91-year-old pianist/NEA Jazz Master Hank Jones and longtime Detroit Public Schools jazz educator Ernie Rodgers.) And due to economic pressures, both communities nearly lost their festival in recent years. The Detroit Jazz Festival was salvaged and greatly enhanced in 2006 by the generosity of a ten million dollar endowment from the Carhartt family, particularly Gretchen Valade, which among other business owns Mack Avenue Records. The Freedom Jazz Festival canceled the 2008 event to regroup, found new sponsors, and through the leadership of Lamarr Scott and Jeff Keys, came back strong in 2009.

Naturally there are differences between these two events. Freedom Jazz Festival is held on one Saturday in early August in a city park, drawing from the south Minneapolis neighborhoods as well as from pools of jazz fans across the Twin Cities. There’s one stage, 7-8 groups of performers, displays of area artists and community organizations. More than showing off the community to the outside world, FJF brings its community together to celebrate its own artists—celebrating its elders and the next generation. The elders in 2009 included Cornbread Harris and Morris Wilson, the newbies included the teens in Public Newsense.

The Detroit International Jazz Festival is held over 31/2 days on Labor Day weekend on 5-6 stages over an area encompassing three city blocks, a city park, and a large modern riverfront plaza with approximately 100 musical acts, a “talk tent” where artists are interviewed, a “kid bop” area of jazz activities for young children, and three blocks of arts, crafts and food vendors. Beyond bringing its own community together for a multi-generational celebration in the midst of economic depression (highlighted in 2009 with a theme of jazz families, including the Heath Brothers and father-and-son teams of Brubecks, Claytons, and Pizzarellis), the DJF is one of the city’s best opportunities to show off its cultural riches to the outside world.

There’s a cross pollination effect between the FJF and DJF. Among the leaders of the FJF are the Washingtons—Faye, flautist and conductor of the Capri Big Band; Donald, saxophonist; and son Kevin, powerhouse drummer and, like his parents, a dedicated jazz educator. The Washingtons moved to Minneapolis from Detroit about 20 years ago, but not before Donald had mentored the early career of one of Detroit’s favorite sons, titanic saxophonist James Carter, not before Faye and Donald had make their mark in the Detroit Public Schools, not before young Kevin had made his percussive mark as one of the city’s promising young jazz artists. And at the 2009 DFJ, Detroit native, now Minneapolis resident Leonard King led a tribute to Detroit organist Lyman Woodard, while two Minneapolis South High grads, acclaimed vocalist Jose James and up-and-coming young bassist Chris Smith, wowed a packed Mack Avenue venue.

Both festivals are entirely free. Even among 100 acts featuring many of the world’s most revered artists (Hank Jones, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, and Wayne Shorter in 2009), Detroit has not a single ticketed or reserved event. There’s VIP seating for those who donate at given levels, but anyone can find a seat or bring a chair. And maybe an umbrella—like the Freedom Jazz Festival, Detroit is entirely outdoors, save the Talk Tent.

Compared to the Freedom Jazz Fest, which draws maybe 1000, the DJF, which draws 750,000, is exhausting if one has the will to participate over the entire weekend. Both festivals—for a few hours or a few days—generate a source of energy that overcomes fatigue, energy that shines in every note of the music, from the middle and high schoolers in the student bands to the local or international octogenarian (plus) legends, energy that fuels the audience and spills into the surrounding community. That jazz is a democratic music is never more obvious than at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis for an afternoon in August, or at Hartt Plaza in Detroit for a weekend in September.

Photos (from top): The 2009 Freedom Jazz Festival featured the McKissick Drum Troupe; Faye Washington led the Capri Big Band; Hank Jones received a Jazz Guardian Award from festival director Terri Pontremoli at the 2oo9 Detroit Jazz Festival; at the DFJE, Leonard King (drums) and Jose James connected Minneapolis and Detroit. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Lead Sheet, September 4-10

© Andrea Canter

This week I’ll mention the jazz events around town I most likely would attend... if I was going to be here. I’ll be in Detroit for the city’s 30th anniversary jazz festival. I know a few of you will be there as well. And there will be at least one Minnesota connection on stage—young vocalist Jose James, Minneapolis South High grad who has gone on to launch a very promising career in New York. Jose impressed thousands last year in Detroit when he sang as part of an opening tribute to Motown, and now he is back on his own gig. Furthering the local connection, bassist Chris Smith (another South High graduate now finishing his college studies at the New School) will be part of band behind Jose. (If you are in Detroit, Jose is on at 3:30 Saturday on the Mack Avenue stage.)

So what great jazz am I missing? The always sensational Debbie Duncan, at the Dakota Friday night, followed by our favorite import from Havana, Nachito Herrera testing the durability of the Dakota piano on Saturday night. Stick around for late night as Frankhouse, a relatively new ensemble from trumpeter Dan Frankowski, heats up Late Night. Across town, the talented and tragic Lee Morgan is celebrated by Jon Pemberton and his quintet—Chris Lomheim, Jim Marentic, Kenny Horst and a split of bass duties among Adam Linz and Gary Raynor.

Vocally, it’s a hot weekend. In addition to Debbie, on Friday Charmin Michelle sings at Crave in the Galleria, Lee Engele at the new Crave in the Mall of America, Nichola Miller at Hell’s Kitchen, and Maud Hixson (with Rick Carlson) at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill. (Maud also hits White Bear Lake at the Ingredients Café on Saturday night; Charmin will be at Fireside Pizza on Monday and Wednesday nights.)

But the big gig in town comes Monday/Tuesday when Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White come to the Dakota for one if the club’s most expensive and most eagerly anticipated shows. And even though I will see the trio Friday night in Detroit, I plan to get back in time for the late last set. Corea, Clarke and White were here last summer with the reunion of Return to Forever (with Al DiMeola), but this show promises to be more jazz than fusion, each of the three artists equally renowned across genres. They’re on a tour that includes festival stages, concert halls, and a few small clubs. Three giants at once!

Three more giant talents, albeit not yet at the status of such legends, arrive for the Arts Midwest Conference and a gig at the Dakota Thursday night. Vocalists Tierney Sutton, Gretchen Parlato, and Sachal Vasandani offer three distinct approaches to the jazz repertoire as well as their own creations, and they perform back to back to back. Sutton was here last March for a knock-out gig; Vasandani was here two years ago, a fresh voice out of New York that seemed to meld James Taylor and Frank Sinatra (and I caught him in Detroit last year); Parlato will be making her Dakota debut but she is a veteran of international tours and critical acclaim, taking the 2004 Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition by storm (Vasandani was a semi-finalist). Vasandani has a new release due out next week; Parlato released an intriguing set that includes African guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke just two weeks ago. (Check out a short review on Jazz Police, “New and Notable.”)

Also part of the Arts Midwest music schedule, across town and unfortunately on the same night as Sutton et al, is a rare appearance of George Cartwright’s Gloryland Ponycat (with Adam Linz and Alden Ikeda) at Studio Z in St. Paul. And down the street, the Phil Hey Quartet holds its near-monthly residency at the Artists Quarter. This must not be the day that MPR picks to declare jazz hard to find?

There’s more to find, if only there was more time to listen.

Coming up: Connie Evingson with the Hot Club of Detroit next Friday night at the Dakota; the Lucia Newell Quartet same night at the Artists Quartet; the Lowertown Concrete and Grass Festival next weekend (including a set from Moore by Four late Saturday afternoon); the Selby Avenue Jazz Festival also on September 12th; benefit for Dean Magraw at the Dakota on September 14th; young keyboard terror Eldar at the Dakota on September 16th, Lomheim/Johnson/Hey return to the AQ on the 17th. Plan ahead for the Marcus Roberts Trio at the Dakota on September 22-23.

Photos: Jose James at the 2008 Detroit Jazz Festival; Debbie Duncan (with Kenny Werner at the Dakota in early 2009); Tierney Sutton at the Dakota in March 2009. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Eddie Higgins, 1932-2009

© Andrea Canter

Chicago jazz fans, musicians and critics knew Eddie Higgins. Knew him as one of the most elegant and swinging of bebop pianists, and by various accounts also one of the most engaging and personable. He had a long stint at the famed London House and was well known at the Windy City’s favorite jazz haunts of the 50s and 60s. Originally from Cambridge, MA, he ultimately split his time between Cape Cod and the Fort Lauderdale area in semi-retirement.

Like much of the world outside Chicago, I had not encountered Eddie Higgins until relatively recently. A bevy of recordings brought him more attention in the last decade or so, and in 2001 he recorded a live trio set at the old Dakota in St. Paul, featuring bassist Brian Torff and local guitar king Reuben Ristrom. I vaguely recall being in the audience that night and finding his swinging piano a great antidote for a long day at work. A few years later he returned to repeat the act, this time recording with Reuben and bassist Tom Lewis at the Dakota’s new digs in downtown Minneapolis. The late Tom Keys was involved in producing the recording and recruited a couple local photographers to contribute to the project. Howard Gitelson and I spent some time posing the musicians and shooting their performance, and in the end a few of my shots made it onto the CD liner. I preferred my out-takes, however!

Last fall, Eddie returned for an unforgettably swinging evening with Reuben and bassist Graydon Peterson, which spilled over to a “house party” with his Twin Cities hosts, Mike and Donna Wolsted. Eddie was the center of an afternoon and evening filled with varying combinations of area musicians known for bop and swing, from saxman Doug Haining to vocalist Maud Hixson. The music was enchanting, as was Eddie. Nothing phased him; he responded to each tune proposed with his trademark taste, touch, and elegantly expressed passion.

Eddie Higgins passed away in Florida on August 31st at age 77. He’ll be best remembered for his years on the Chicago jazz scene, but here in the Twin Cities we also remember Eddie with great fondness.

See for a full obit.

Photos: Eddie Higgins at the Dakota in August 2005; Eddie with Tom Lewis (left) and Reuben Ristrom (center) outside the Dakota in August 2005; Eddie with Reuben and Graydon Peterson at Wolsted’s in November 2008. Photos by Andrea Canter