Friday, October 30, 2009

The Lead Sheet -- Twin Cities Jazz, October 30- November 5

© Andrea Canter

Halloween brings its own treats, but the biggest jazz treat of all will be the three nights of the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the rare, small-club surroundings of the Dakota. At 89, Brubeck may appear frail and uncertain in his steps, but seat him at the piano and much of the old pizzazz remains, in any meter of course. Now with the master for a long tenure, saxophonist/flautist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Randy Jones know Dave’s every move and mood. We’ve seen Brubeck in recent years at Orchestra Hall, and I have been able to catch his performances at a small theater in California and on the outdoor stage of the Detroit Jazz Festival, but never in a small jazz club. And he is 89, we may not get this opportunity again. One set Monday night with proceeds going to support the Dakota Combo, modeled after the Brubeck Institute Fellowship program; two sets per night on Tuesday and Wednesday. Contact the Dakota regarding availability.

Back to Halloween: There’s blues at the Dakota with Bobby Rush; there’s timeless vocalist Carole Martin with the Phil Aaron Trio at the Artists Quarter (Friday and Saturday nights), and a special Halloween late night performance of Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters music by the always-entertaining Atlantis Quartet, following Rush at 11:30 pm at the Dakota. It might not be scary but it should be memorable! Costumes welcome.

Singers abound around town. Friday night (10.30), Patty Peterson and her trio hold forth at Crave in the Galleria; Saturday night (10/31), Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson move north to Ingredients Café in White Bear Lake; Rick turns up “out west” at the new West End Crave in Golden Valley with Charmin Michelle for Sunday brunch (11/1); Charmin continues her twice weekly gigs at Fireside Pizza in Richfield every Monday and Wednesday night, alongside Denny Malmberg; Debbie Duncan and Mary Louise Knutson entertain at Camp Bar Tuesday nights in St. Paul, where the Jazz Vocalists of Minnesota stage a new showcase event on Thursday (11/5), featuring veteran and up-and-coming performers.

Need something over the edge to take the edge off the week? The Fantastic Merlins hold a CD release party at the Black Dog in St Paul’s Lowertown tonight (10/30); Café Maude in southwest Minneapolis hosts Poutums with Chris Thomson, Adam Linz and Alden Ikeda (10/30); Fat Kid Wednesdays make it hot jazz Mondays (11/2) at the Clown Lounge of the Turf Club in St. Paul, while the Zacc Harris Trio carries on every Monday at the Riverview Wine bar in east Minneapolis. MacPhail’s Jazz Thursdays continues (11/5) with visting saxophonist Greg Ward meeting up with Adam Linz and JT Bates in Antonello Hall. For a good straight-ahead time, Chris Lomheim brings his trio back to the AQ after a long absence on Wednesday (11/3), while on Thursday night (11/5), the Artists Quarter hosts a CD release for saxman Roger James, with a quartet featuring monster pianist Tanner Taylor.

And a very special treat, no tricks, on Thursday with the next installment of REEL Jazz at Bryant Lake Bowl’s theater, sponsored by KBEM: A screening of “Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch.” One of the most prolific recording artists, composers and educators in modern jazz, pianist Fred Hersch is a personal favorite and one often cited by other pianists as a source of inspiration and mentoring. Openly gay and HIV positive, Fred has survived at the top of the art form despite some pretty incredible setbacks. Email Kevin Barnes at to reserve a seat. (You can view the film and still get to the AQ for Roger James, maybe even catch the last half of Greg Ward at MacPhail.)

Coming Soon: Bruce Henry returns to the Dakota for November 6-7, while Jay Young salutes Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder at the AQ; the Turtle Island String Quartet is here for a night at the Dakota on November 12th; Lucia Newell salutes Anita O’Day on November 18th at the AQ; Nancy Harms releases a super CD at the Dakota on November 19th, and everything happens on November 21st—second night of Roy Haynes at the AQ, JazzMN Big Band features “Three Tenors” (Pete Whitman, Dave Karr and Dale Mendenhall); Northrop Jazz Series presents Dafnis Preito at the Walker; and Maud Hixson performs at Jazz @St. Barneys. Even I can’t get to all that night!

Remember to set your clock back an hour Sunday morning—that’s an extra hour to enjoy great jazz Saturday night!

Photos: Dave Brubeck at the 2009 Detroit Jazz Festival; Zacc Harris leads the Atlantis Quartet attack on The Head Hunters; Fred Hersch at the last IAJE in New York (2007). Photos by Andrea Canter

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Lead Sheet -- Twin Cities Jazz, October 23-29

© Andrea Canter

The weekend starts with a big bang, tenor-wise, with the return of Eric Alexander to the Artists Quarter (October 23-24). Runner up to Joshua Redman in the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition in 1991, 41-year-old Alexander has amassed an amazing discography of 19 recordings as leader and appears on at least 100 more. And this is not mass production but highly regarded efforts with top cohorts. He’s also a founding member of the sextet One for All, resident ensemble at New York’s Smoke. His heart remains in his native Midwest, however, and that means a nearly annual pilgrimage to the AQ. This weekend he is supported with spirit and virtuosity by Chris Lomheim, Tom Lewis and Kenny Horst.

At the Dakota (10/23-24), catch Cuban firecracker pianist Nachito Herrera in his mostly monthly blowout. He’s getting ready for a new recording so expect some new material as well as high velocity and plenty of Caribbean heat. Sounds perfect for these unseasonably cold and damp evenings. Meanwhile, down on West 7th in St Paul, Maud Hixson continues her Friday night serenades, tonight in the sublime company of pianist Mary Louise Knutson. And speaking of serenades, tonight (10/23) those in the east metro can catch Nancy Harms singing with hot hotclub guitarist Robert Bell at Ruby Begonia’s in Stillwater; in the west metro, Judi Donaghy entertains with the Laura Caviani Trio at Crave in the Galleria. And you can relive the heyday of Harlem with Harlem Nights at the Capri Theater, starring Charmin Michelle and Dennis Spears (10/24-25). And as usual, you can catch Charmin with Denny Malmberg at Fireside Pizza, Mondays and Wednesdays from 7-9 pm.

There’s plenty of experimental music around town this weekend, with Ryan Olcott bending circuits in solo at Café Maude and the electro-acoustic improvisational team of EarWorm at the Black Dog (both 10/23); EarWorm moves over to Café Maude for Saturday night.

One of the best bargains you will ever find—a free performance by guitarist Joan Griffith and pianist Laura Caviani at the Janet Wallace Auditorium on the Macalester campus at 3 pm Sunday afternoon! They will perform compositions from their hot Sambanova recording as well as some new and original Brazilian-influenced music. Sunday evening, Dakota A-Train members have a free party and evening with New Orleans clarinetist Evan Christopher—also open to the public for a cover charge.

Monday night (10/26), the Old Log Theater presents trumpeter Charles Lazarus and his quartet (Tommy Barbarella, Jeff Bailey and Craig Hara). Although he spends most of his time with the Minnesota Orchestra, Lazarus has serious jazz chops, demonstrated quite ably on his 2008 recording, Zambava.

During the week, don’t miss Sophie Milman at the Dakota, 10/26-27. Russian by birth, Israeli throughout much of her childhood and now a Canadian citizen based in Toronto, Sophie has quickly become one of the most sought-after vocalists on both sides of the border. This is her third Dakota appearance in two years, which should tell you something about her appeal. And another popular returning artist, cellist Matt Haimovitz, follows Sophie at the Dakota on Wednesday night, bringing classical and pop repertoire to new levels. It’s just one set, followed by the saxiest duo around, Dave Karr and Brian Grivna.

Also on 10/28, check out the homecoming of saxophonist Joel VanderHeyden and his band Koplant at the Artists Quarter. Now based in my home town of Iowa City, Joel grew up in St Paul and is looking forward to showing his friends and family that those music lessons paid off! And come back Thursday night to finish off the week in style with Pete Whitman’s X-Tet.

Coming soon! Carole Martin croons with finesse at the AQ (October 30-31), and the edgy Atlantis Quartet celebrates Halloween (likely in costume), this year reworking Herbie Hancock’s famed Headhunters, late set. And of course there is the rare club appearance of the Dave Brubeck Quartet at the Dakota, November 2-4.

Photos: (top) Eric Alexander; Sophie Milman. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Somehwere There's Music: Storytellers and the Poetry of Jazz

© Andrea Canter
The past week offered the perfect opportunity to explain jazz and blues as musical storytelling, or even poetry. Three cases in point, from visitors and locals:

Mose Allison at the Artists Quarter (October 16). Yes, he pretty much plays tunes from the same two dozen songs, year after year. But at 81, we can overlook Mose Allison’s unchanging repertoire and just sit back and enjoy that gravely voice and still-swinging piano, listening to lyrics that are as timeless as they are clever (“Your Mind Is on Vacation,” “Fool’s Paradise,” “Certified Senior Citizen”). And if he leaves out our favorite (“Monsters of the Id”), we pout!

Soul Café at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church (October 18). I first encountered this sublime melding of jazz and poetry about five years ago, when Soul Café (Steve Blons, Brad Holden and Laura Caviani) were monthly performers in the Art Gallery at HAUMC. The idea was to present music complemented by poetry readings, usually around a theme or a specific poet or composer. The trio has been on hiatus over the past year, occasionally reuniting for an evening as they did last weekend. The theme, appropriately enough given the weather, was “Seasons of Change,” and the poems and music took us through the year’s cycle, beginning with “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” followed by “Autumn Leaves” and an appropriately depressing poem of Billy Collins read by KBEM’s Michelle Jansen. Still the music sustained a more pleasant mood, buoyed by a guitar and sax duo. Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall” benefited from Laura Caviani’s arrangement that takes off on a riff from “Poinciana,” while “Joy Spring” and later “Summertime” brought us full circle, ending with “Autumn in New York” (emerging after the first few notes of “New York, New York”). The back and forth of spoken words and jazz trio is always an engaging format where the involvement of the performers with their audience is a natural part of the evening. The instrumentation of piano, sax and guitar seems perfectly suited to the art of Soul Café.

Tuck and Patti, at the Dakota (October 21). Together performing (as well as life partners) for three decades, the vocal/guitar jazz duo Tuck (Andress) and Patti (Cathcart) met at an audition in Las Vegas, began performing as a duo in California in 1981, and now have fifteen albums and a world of fans to their credit. Tuck (guitar) and Patti (vocalist/composer/arranger) have forged a partnership unequaled in modern music, applying a simple formula: Says Tuck, “Patti writes and arranges; I am just the orchestra.” And that’s more than a loose analogy. On stage at the Dakota this past week, Tuck Andress was indeed the orchestra with merely two hands, ten fingers, and six strings, his multi-part harmonies, wide arsenal of attack strategies, and elastic dexterity often conjuring a trio or quartet accompaniment for Patti’s equally agile, elegantly down-home vocals. Essentially Patti sings a cappella over Tuck’s improvisation, and ultimately we are hearing two improvisers who can sense each other’s next move as if sharing one heart. And it works. Their collaboration yields the sound of two guitars, two horns, one of each, mirror images, always on the same emotional plane, be it the superbly upbeat “Learning How to Fly” or the delicately sweet “Takes My Breath Away.” And we were breathless. (Watch Jazz Police for full review,

Photos: Mose Allison, a "certified senior citizen" when he played the Twin Cities Jazz Festival a few years ago; Soul Cafe (Brad, Laura, & Steve); Patti Cathcart and Tuck Andress at the Dakota (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Lead Sheet: Twin Cities Jazz, October 16-22

© Andrea Canter

Some of the area’s most popular performers as well as some long-beloved visitors dot the jazz calendar this week. And you can never go wrong to start your week with a dose of Mose Allison’s blues and good humor. The “William Faulkner of Jazz” returns to the Artists Quarter in St. Paul for three nights (10/16-18), an annual event that always draws a crowd and a lot of smiles. At 81, he’s been there, done that, and back again, but his lyrics never lose their bite or timeliness. Hit the late set Friday, starting out your evening on West 7th with Maud Hixson and guest Robert Bell at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill. Just a short drive to the AQ and you’ll make the 10:30 set with Mose. For some invigorating modern instrumental work, Pooch’s Playhouse (led by guitar wizard Joel Shapira) reigns nearby at the Hat Trick Lounge in Lowertown.

Across the river at the Dakota, Patty Peterson and Fred Steele join forces for two nights of funk, swing, and a little gospel (10/16-17). Sort of like uniting the royal families of Europe on one stage. And Saturday night only at the Sage Wine Bar, Vicky Mountain and James Allen celebrate their new collaboration, Sincerely Yours. It’s over early enough (10 pm) that you can still get out to the Dakota or AQ afterwards! Or for a more convenient two-fer, start your evening at Hell's Kitchen with swinging songstress Nichola Miller and the Rick Carlson Trio. You can still catch the last set a block down the street at the Dakota if you want to test your stamina. (Watch for Nichola's live CD recording session at the AQ next month!)

Or stay put in southwest Minneapolis tonight (10/16) and stop by Crave in the Galleria for some smooth vocals from Charmin Michelle and the Laura Caviani Trio, then wake up your ears for a while with some new music at Café Maude, featuring Bruce Thornton on clarinet and bass clarinet, Patrick Harrison on accordion, Chris Bates on bass and Joey Van Phillips on drums. You can catch Charmin again, and every Sunday, for brunch at the new Crave in St. Louis Park, 11-2 with Rick Carlson on keys. And with Denny Malmberg, she continues her Monday and Wednesday gigs at Fireside Pizza in Richfield, probably making her the most consistently booked jazz artist in the Twin Cities.

Sunday (10/18) also brings the long-awaited return of Soul Café to their old stomping grounds in the gallery of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church off Loring Park. With Steve Blons on guitar, Brad Holden on sax, and Laura Caviani on piano, the trio offers sublime music accompanied by mostly modern poetry. Meanwhile at the Dakota Sunday night (and the late set starts well after Soul Café closes), Grammy-nominee Meshell Ndegeocello crosses so many musical genres it’s hard to describe.... but the bassist/vocalist is sure to amaze.

And it’s the last weekend of Moore by Four’s reunion “At Ruby’s” gig at the Lab Theater, Friday-Sunday nights, a Cotton Club revue that only MB4 could pull off with such style.

Longtime duo Mary Louise Knutson and Debbie Duncan continue their run at Camp Bar in St. Paul on Tuesdays. Longtime music and life partners Tuck and Patti return to the Dakota next week (10/20-21) while veteran percussionist and educator Marv Dahlgren continues his nonretirement with a night at the Artists Quarter (10/21). Same date, the Atlantis Quartet heads a late night gig at the Red Stag.

Great shows coming soon! Eric Alexander at the AQ (October 23-24); Sophie Milman at the Dakota (October 26-27); Dave Brubeck Quartet at the Dakota (November 2-4); Roy Haynes at the AQ (November 20-21). Start thinking now about November 21st—in addition to Haynes, we have Dafnis Prieto at Ted Mann and the JazzMN Big Band’s “Three Tenors” in Hopkins.
Too much music, too little time. We love it that way.

Photos: Steve Blons of Soul Cafe; Charmin Michelle; Mose Allison (photos by Andrea Canter)

Somewhere There's Music: Horns and More at the Dakota

© Andrea Canter

An island in the Caribbean. A fantasy along the Nile. Two musical settings provided inspiration on multiple levels at the Dakota this past week.

Miguel Zenon, hailed as one of his generation’s most creative saxophonists and recipient of the famed McArthur “Genius” Grant, brought the fruits of another award, the Guggenheim Fellowship, to Minneapolis for two sets of music drawn from the Plena tradition of his native Puerto Rico (10/14). With his working quartet (Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Henry Coles on drums) and guest Plena percussionist/vocalist Hector “Tito” Matos, Zenon celebrated the upcoming release of Esta Plena (Marsalis Music) with an evening of often fiery, often beautiful, always joyous music. All original compositions, the music had at least as much in common with the best of modern American saxophone, particularly Branford Marsalis, as with Latin traditions, which most prominently introduced and closed each piece with a call and response interaction, voice and percussion, duties shared among Tito and Miguel. Zenon proved to have an agreeable, warm tenor voice to complement the rhythms of the panderetas (hand-held frame drums). Perdomo occasionally upstaged his leader with his post bop finesse on the keys, but it was Zenon the saxophonist who truly soared, sliding from one end of his alto to the other, his body rocking back and forth as if pumping air through the horn. Maybe he was.

Dreams of Egypt, a south-of-the-border getaway, or just some funky dance hall close to home provide plenty of inspiration for the original works of the CC Septet, one of the hidden gems of Twin Cities jazz ensembles that gathered at the Dakota to celebrate the release of their second CD (10/15), She’s Big in Egypt. Featuring an elegant front line of saxes (Paul Peterson and Larry Neumann), trumpet (Scott Snyder) and trombone (Ralph Brindle), buoyed by leader Tim Lackas (piano), Greg Stinson (bass) and Brett Smith (drums), the septet has been hanging out around White Bear Lake, honing their chops and evolving a distinctive sound that conjures the inventive harmonies of Maria Schneider and funky grooves of Roy Hargrove. The standing-room-only crowd caught the Dakota off-guard, and possibly the visitors from whatever-big-convention down the street were equally surprised by the power and sophistication of the music. I missed the first set but enjoyed the global fusion of “Chico’s Tacos,” the funky jigs and jags of “Sidewalkin,’” the glorious brass harmonies of “Feets” and the get-up-and-dance drive of the closing, “Grumbla Samba” (or something like that!). Find the CD. Find the guys in White Bear. (http//

Photos: Miguel Zenon with pandereta; composite of the CC Septet (clockwise from upper left: Tim Lackas, Paul Peterson, Scott Snyder, Greg Stinson, Ralph Brindle, Brett Smith, Larry Neumann. (Photos by Andrea Canter, at the Dakota)

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Lead Sheet: Twin Cities Jazz, October 9-15

© Andrea Canter

Maybe I should retitle this week’s column “What I Will Miss This Weekend.” I’ll be out of town, and I will really miss out on:

Laura Caviani’s mostly annual birthday salute to Thelonious Monk at the Artists Quarter (10/9-10/10). This year Laura brings in Gordy Johnson and Dave Schmalenberger for unforgettable interpretations of the great eccentric bop composer/pianist. Monk is always part of Laura’s setlist but this weekend he is the main event. It’s Laura’s birthday too so cake is on the agenda.

The Butch Miles weekend continues with the drummer on stage in Bloomington (Bloomington Center for the Arts) twice, with the Wolverines small ensemble Saturday night and with the Wolverines Big Band on Sunday. This is an unusual set of concerts featuring the drummer from the Count Basie Orchestra.

Sunday afternoon (10/11) through late Sunday night is the Artists Quarter’s benefit for Dean Magraw, who is now recovering from a bone marrow transplant in his battle with lymphoma. Starting at 3 pm, you can enjoy a long list of great area musicians and help one of our favorite jazz personalities. The line-up includes the always on-fire Tuesday Night Band, a slambang ensemble with Laura Caviani, Lucia Newell, Eric Gravatt, Gordy Johnson and Pete Whitman; guitar monster Tim Sparks in a trio with guest Prudence Johnson; another favorite ensemble, How Birds Work; the creative Wozniak/Nichols/Epstein trio; an exciting gathering of JT Bates, Jim Anton, Tommy Barbarella and Brian Gallagher; the sublime Dave Karr Quartet with special guest Connie Evingson; and the Regional Jazz Trio with local legends Anthony Cox and Debbie Duncan. Silent auction items include a private party at the AQ, studio time, Laura and Lucia for your own party; photos from Howard Gitelson and yours truly, and more. Come at 3 pm and stay!

Next week brings one of the hottest saxophonists around, Miguel Zenon, for one night (10/14) at the Dakota with his Esta Plena Quintet. Recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and a fellowship from the Guggenheim, Zenon has spent the past year working on the plena music of his native Puerto Rico, yielding a new CD (to be released next week) and augmenting his long-standing quartet with traditional percussion and vocals. Zenon was last here with the SF Jazz Collective—he is one of the founding musicians.

Two shows (at the same time, of course) on October 15th – the annual free performance of the U of M’s Jazz Ensemble I (7:30 at Ted Mann) and the CD release party for the CC Septet at the Dakota. Their new recording, She’s Big in Egypt, should be big in Minnesota.

There’s always more—check out Crave at the Galleria (Friday night with Debbie Duncan and Adi Yeshaya); Downtowner Woodfire Grill in St. Paul for Friday nights with Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson; Café Maude (Saturday night for “old world noir” with an ensemble lead by accordionist Patrick Harrison); Fireside Pizza in Richfield for Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg (Mondays and Wednesdays); the Wolverines at Hell’s Kitchen on Wednesdays. Dave Karr (10/14) and Phil Hey (10/15) bring their highly respected quartets back to back at the AQ.

I’m sure I left out something good but I gotta go pack for the weekend. But look ahead—Mose Allison at the AQ Friday through Sunday (10/16-18) as well as Vicky Mountain celebrating her new CD at the Sage Wine Bar (10/17) and the return of Soul Café (Laura Caviani, Brad Holden, Steve Blons) at the Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church (10/18).

Photos: Laura Caviani; Dean Magraw (photos by Andrea Canter)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Jazz Defined by the Stanley Clarke Trio

© Andrea Canter

[See full review on the Jazz Police site]

If someone were to ask “what is jazz?,” you might be tempted to play some Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson to illustrate the energy of swing, some trios of Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett to illustrate the elegant empathy of collaboration, some Charlie Parker or Herbie Hancock to illustrate the intricacies of improvisation, some Dave Brubeck to illustrate the elasticity of time, some Ornette Coleman to illustrate the freedom of expression.

Or you could just bring on the Stanley Clarke Trio with Hiromi and Lenny White. With unbridled energy, empathetic interplay, and creative attacks on melody, rhythm and time, they redefined and reaffirmed the modern jazz trio for enthusiastic audiences at the Dakota this week. Clarke and White, already legends on their instruments, were seemingly rejuvenated by the legend-in-the-making Hiromi Uehara. Individually and together, they offered plenty of razzle dazzle, not as a self-conscious conceit but as a natural expression of their delight in each other’s company.

Just a month earlier, Clarke and White lit up the Dakota stage with their Return to Forever cohort Chick Corea, and up to that point it surely ranked as one of the top acts at the club in the past year or beyond. Yet something about the Tatumesque chops, youthful recklessness and child-like glee of 28-year-old Hiromi pushed her elders to another level of spontaneity, of pure musical fun.

Not only must I confess to enjoying Clarke and White even more in the company of Hiromi, but I enjoyed Hiromi more in the company of Clarke and White: Leaving behind the interesting but sometimes abrasive electronic experiments of her Sonicbloom quartet, she relied on what I have always admired most in her music—an electrifying, all-acoustic eclecticism where “fusion” means melding elements of classical, stride, avant garde and her native Japanese traditions.

Of course Stanley Clarke’s near mythical status is rooted in his pioneering work on electric bass, and the trio’s recent Jazz in the Garden is his first all-acoustic recording. If acclaimed for bringing an acoustic approach to the electric ax, today he is bringing the endless palette of electronic sound to acoustic upright bass, as well as the (seldom played in jazz settings) acoustic bass guitar. Stanley Clarke could be a one-man band, but he so clearly enjoys his position between piano and drums, where he can both direct with a slight nod and acknowledge with a broad grin. The Dakota sets were filled with grins and laughs, on and off stage.

Lenny White spent years bringing volcanic action to rock fusion, but there’s an equally compelling jazz drummer behind the trapset. White’s contributions are neither too subtle nor too demanding, his solos offering any wannabees lessons in the dynamic use of restraint and purposeful release of energy.

But if the individual performances were the lava, the interplay among the trio was the molten core. What is jazz? Improvisation, collaboration, spontaneity, rhythmic drive, cultural integration? The Stanley Clarke Trio.
Photos: (Top-bottom) Stanley Clarke on the acoustic bass guitar; Hiromi attacking the Yamaha; Lenny White at the 2009 Detroit Jazz Festival. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and Sax in the Afternoon

© Andrea Canter

Sometimes there is no correlation between the size the audience and the quality of the music. This past weekend, that was true at concert halls across the metro. JazzMN Big Band, surely one of the most talented large jazz ensembles in the Midwest, welcomed virtuoso saxophonist Ernie Watts and always-ebullient vocalist Debbie Duncan to its season opener in Hopkins, and while the crowd was respectable, it should have been a sell out. I’d track down Watts to hear him again in a minute. And his playful duel with Dave Karr should be on You Tube.

Not too far away, Arne Fogel presented a revue in honor of Johnny Mercer. I couldn’t be in two places at once and neither could anyone else. I heard the hall was about half full despite the marvelous voices of Fogel, Nancy Harms, Sheridan Zuther and Connie Evingson. Maybe they will do a reprise sometime soon.

Sunday afternoons are often preferred for concerts—no conflict with Friday and Saturday nightlife, no late night before a work day, etc. So the Twin Cities Jazz Society always plans at least a couple of its Jazz From J to Z concerts on Sunday afternoons. The season opener at the newly renovated Capri should have been a big draw—the seldom-heard JAZZAX Saxophone Quartet, the Laura Caviani Trio, Charmin Michelle and Dave Karr. Try to squeeze more talent onto a small stage! Aside from the musicianship, the program itself was intriguing, a salute to the great but somehow underrated Lester Young and his partnership with Billie Holiday. The small theater was probably less than half filled. Excuses abound—a Vikings game, a Twins game, a shooting on the north side, too much music already over the weekend. Maybe all of the above.

Those who did turn out at the Capri were rewarded over and over through two long sets of familiar and less familiar tunes, written by, performed by, inspired by Lester Young and/or Billie Holiday—“Lester Leaps In,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Tickle Toe,” “One O’Clock Jump” were all familiar yet freshly arranged, expertly played. One of the unique contributions of an ensemble like JAZZAX is the wide variation in color produced by the different combinations of horns. Put four tenor saxophones together and you seemingly get a 15-piece big band; put four tenors plus a bari and you have the heavy-weight edition of a big band; put four different sax voices together (soprano, alto, tenor and bari) and you get a full orchestra. Yet other combinations yielded different orchestras-- two tenors versus two altos versus a soprano against the big guys. And often the blend of voices changed within a single tune. In essence, the JAZZAX Saxophone Quartet is the brass equivalent of a jazz choir with multi-part, ever transforming harmonies.
For most of the program there were at least seven, often eight voices on stage, JAZZAX in collaboration with the Laura Caviani Trio (Gordy Johnson and Phil Hey). Their mutual admiration as well affinity for the music and soul of Lester Young yielded one sparkling tune after another, punctuated by multiple savory solos.

JAZZAX leader Dave Milne, who alone is a sax quartet, penned two compositions as well as an arrangement of Young’s “Tickle-Toe.” And he brought far more than music to the stage through his engaging commentary that filled in some of the details and intrigue of the life and times of Lester Young. Part of that intrigue was his relationship with Billie Holiday, channeled at the Capri by the warm voice of Charmin Michelle. Charmin is no Billie imitator, which by itself is refreshing, offering her own charm and silky interpretations of the well known “When You’re Smiling” as well as mining some lesser known gems deserving more attention—particularly “Sailboat in the Moonlight.” You can give me Charmin Michelle and Dave Karr in duo any day, any night.

For me, one of the highlights was the performance of Laura Caviani’s 3-part “Suite Basie,” commissioned a few years ago by JAZZAX and filled with trademark Caviani bluesiness, sweet balladry, and ferocious swing. Everyone had a solo op on the closing Basie tune, “Boogie Woogie.” There was enough energy and enthusiasm to fill a stadium. Too bad the area jazz audience couldn’t fill this small theater.

For those who made it out last weekend, spread the word. Our local musicians are more than worthy purveyors of Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and Johnny Mercer.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Lead Sheet --Twin Cities Jazz, October 2-8

© Andrea Canter

There’s two fine local shows each at the Dakota and Artists Quarter this weekend, a good warm up to the week’s big gig, the Stanley Clarke Trio, coming into the Dakota for two nights October 4-5. You can start out in Minneapolis (the Dakota) tonight (10/2) with the ever-ebullient Debbie Duncan, and hang out for a late night CD release from young and creative trumpeter Adam Meckler (pick up a copy of his For Dad, a good revue of a fine new ensemble and some exciting original compositions). Or start off in St. Paul (AQ) with local sax titan Brian Grivna tonight, followed by rising young guitar talent Cory Wong tomorrow night (10/3).

But save your ears for one of the most exciting trios on earth, led by Return to Forever bassist Stanley Clarke, RTF drummer Lenny White, and the amazing young pianist Hiromi. On tour in support of their fine acoustic recording, Jazz in the Garden, the trio’s two night stand at the Dakota is one of the most eagerly anticipated chamber jazz shows of the year. Clarke and White were just here last month with Chick Corea, another trio of epic stature and complementary musicianship. Swap out Corea for Hiromi, an interesting transformation particularly given that the two pianists recently recorded together (Duet) and have a relationship dating back to Hiromi’s days as a high schooler in her native Japan. The two share an affinity for wide ranges of emotion in their compositions and performance, a love of electronic experimentation, and ferocious chops. With Hiromi, you also get a dose of 21st century youth and an equally significant layer of Japanese tradition, evident in her harmonies and lyricism. Clarke, now with his first all-acoustic bass recording, is proving himself to be as inventive on upright as on the electric bass that fueled his rise to fame in the 70s. And White has always impressed me in acoustic contexts such as the Buster Williams Something More Quartet, while his reputation was also carved out of the fusion era.

You an also lead into the Clarke et al experience with a more modernistic warm up, tonight (10/2) at Café Maude with Dean Granros and Anthony Cox, two of the most adventurous stringmen in town. For more laid back, week-ending relaxation, Charmin Michelle croons with the Laura Caviani Trio at Crave/Galleria, while Aaron Keith Stewart takes the stage at the new Crave in the Mall of America; Arne Fogel soothes with Rick Carlson at Ingredients Café in White Bear;Vital Organ with young hip singer Katie Gearty performs at Hell’s Kitchen; Maud Hixson romps with the Twin Cities Hot Club at Redstone Grill at Ridgedale, all tonight (10/2). Maxine Sousé swings at Sage Wine Bar in Mendota Heights Saturday night.

Also of note this weekend is the grand finale of one of the most entertaining ensembles in the area, The Girls, who go out in grand style at the Hopkins Center for the Arts Saturday night (10/3). The original Girls—Lori Dokken, Erin Schwab, Judi Donaghy and Debbie Duncan will be on hand along with most recent Girl Patty Peterson and others who have at one time or another been part of the banter, sass, and song.

The rest of the week includes a free concert with the eclectic pianist Uri Caine at Macalester College on Tuesday night (10/6); the opening concert of the Northrop Jazz Series, featuring innovative saxophonist Larry Ochs’ Sax and Drumming Core in the intimate space of The Whole Music Club in the Coffman Memorial Union (U of M) on October 8th, as well as the second J From J to Z concert sponsored by the Twin Cities Jazz Society, this one featuring Count Basie Orchestra drummer Butch Miles and the St. Croix Jazz Orchestra in Stillwater. Miles will stick around next weekend for back to back gigs at the Bloomington Center for the Arts, with the Wolverines Orchestra (10/10) and Trio (10/11), both with guest vocalist Judi Donaghy.

Other good tips this week include Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg, back at Fireside Pizza Mondays and Wednesdays and a rare club night for pianist Benny Weinbeck, at the Dakota on Thursday (10/8).

Some special events include jazz this weekend – the Fall Color and Jazz Festival at Lowell Park in Stillwater—you can catch vocalist Nancy Harms around 4 pm; the Sight Unseen Film Festival includes some jazz-related screenings, including a film about drummer Ed Thigpen at 1 pm Sunday afternoon at Oak Street Cinema.

What’s on the jazz horizon? One of my annual favorite events, Laura Caviani’s Birthday Tribute to Thelonious Monk at the Artists Quarter (October 9-10).... and unfortunately I will be out of town. Everyone else should be sure to go! There will also be another benefit for Dean Magraw at the AQ on Sunday (10/11), and another don’t-miss gig at the Dakota with MacArthur grant-winning saxophonist Miguel Zenon (10/14).

Photos (top to bottom): Hiromi at the Dakota; Stanley Clarke at the Detroit Jazz Fest (photos by Andrea Canter)