Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Somewhere There's Music: Sometimes There's a Lot!

© Andrea Canter

The weather was unusually wet and cold, the colors rather blah, but the music was hot and bright at every turn.

Eric Alexander (10/24) played two nights at the Artists Quarter, and his beefy tenor sax has never sounded better. With his mom in the audience, perhaps he was just that much more inspired, and his local cohorts (Chris Lomheim, Tom Lewis and Kenny Horst) were perfect foils from the first notes of “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” to the last blistering chorus of “Lover.” Generally Eric gives us familiar tunes, even what normally might be worn out standard like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” but he makes us fall in love with the melody as if for the first time.

Joan Griffith/Laura Caviani (10/25). Free Brazilian and related music on a gray Sunday afternoon is at least as good as light therapy to elevate mood. Particularly if the music comes from Joan Griffith and Laura Caviani. In the acoustic gem of Janet Wallace Auditorium on the Macalester College campus, Joan and Laura revisited compositions from their SambaNova! recording and related works, showcasing some of the legendary Brazilian writers as well as Joan’s own originals incorporating Brazilian traditions. Between their two sets, Joan gathered three of her students from the St. Thomas Guitar Ensemble, featuring each young man in turn. St. Paul might pride itself in its Irish heritage but on this afternoon, the festivals and villages of Brazil were a greater presence than fields of heather.

Evan Christopher (10/25) was the special guest at the annual A-Train Party at the Dakota, and his flight from New Orleans was made all the more worthwhile with support from Tanner Taylor, Reuben Ristrom, Gary Raynor and Joe Pulice. Was this quintet really together for the first time? Each of the locals has a reputation for unreserved swing and that fit perfectly with Christopher’s energetic clarinet. He traded it briefly (and magnificently) for soprano sax on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and closed the set with the unfamiliar (to me) “For Juanita Brooks.” This was Evan’s first gig at the Dakota and it won’t be his last--- Lowell Pickett immediately booked him for an open date in mid-November, with fellow New Orleanian Henry Butler on piano. All I know is that there isn’t enough clarinet in modern jazz, and Evan Christopher makes you wonder why. Don Byron and Anat Cohen aside, the instrument seems far more versatile than just trad and Dixieland. Maybe Evan can help change that.

Sophie Milman (10/27) has now appeared three times in two years at the Dakota, and each time the audience is larger and the applause more spontaneous. And each time, Sophie seems to have taken another leap in confidence. Playing at the club she described as “my favorite place in the U.S.,” the hottest commodity in Canada since Diana Krall enthralled a nearly full club and dining room with songs from her highly regarded 2009 release, Take Love Easy, her slightly dusky vibrato and right-on pitch gliding as smoothly through Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen as Rogers and Hammerstein. Earlier this fall, Sophie had canceled a chunk of her American tour due to voice strain (which she candidly discussed on her website), but there was no trace of any negative effects in her second-night opening set. And as usual, her band was supportive and thoroughly capable of carrying the music on their own, led by pianist/composer/arranger Paul Shrofel. Diego Rivera, whom I saw recently in Detroit with several large ensembles, blew bold solos on tenor sax, and it was great to see our own Gordy Johnson on bass.

Matt Haimovitz & Du Yun (10/28). I grew up on classical music and the chance to see a solo cello in the environs of a jazz club was irresistible when Matt Haimovitz first came to the Dakota a few years ago. This visit was over the edge, even for Matt, as he has teamed up with Japanese pianist/electronics artist Du Yun on a suite of simply intriguingly odd music, recorded recently as Figment. Spoken word—provocative and at times way off quadrant lyrics—invaded the music on several segments; long solo passages on cello sustained Haimovitz’s reputation for making dissonance beautiful; Du Yun’s unique voicings on acoustic piano and her laptop-directed electronics often countered the beauty but if anything, added to the mystery and forced careful attention. The single set was played (for nearly 90 minutes) without a real pause, like a classical suite, and with a pre-set program which was provided to the audience. It’s possible some was improvised, more likely not. It was as visually arresting as aurally spellbinding.

Joel Vanderheyden and Koplant No (10/28). Thirty minutes after the last notes of Figment, I found myself across the river in St. Paul, at the Artists Quarter for the local debut of Koplant No, a very young (it seemed) quintet led by native Twin Citian and now Iowa resident Joel Vanderheyden. Joel finished a doctorate in classical saxophone at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and has stayed on, leading Koplant No (he says the name comes from a bumper sticker, “Coal Plants – No!”) and recording his first CD (Complete Life) with the quintet and a few additions including veteran Iowa guitarist Steve Grismore. Koplant No plays all original music, much of it contributed by Vanderheyden, much of it integrating acoustic and electronic elements (and some vocalization) into generally melodic wholes. There’s injections of humor everywhere, particularly in the titles that are somewhat reminiscent of Bad Plus monikers, “Stubby McGhee is Somewhat Less Than Confrontational” being my favorite title. Often the music has an ECM ambience but there’s also that Midwest down-home comfort feel in the midst of the loops and pedals and tonal eccentricities. Koplant No will be on the main stage of the Iowa City Jazz Festival next summer.

I know there was a lot of good music around town this weekend, but after the whirlwind of the preceding week, I observed a few moments of silence. I wanted my ears ready for Dave Brubeck!
Photos: (Top to bottom) Eric Alexander at the AQ; Joan Griffith and Laura Caviani at Macalester; Evan Christopher at the Dakota; Sophie Milman at the Dakota; Matt Haimovitz at the Dakota; Joel Vanderheyden at the AQ. (Photos by Andrea Canter)