Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dial M for Music: Mallinger, Monheit and Mulligan (Stew)

© Andrea Canter

I did not set out to contrive a list of recent performers with names beginning with “M” but my highlights of the past week just seemed to work out that way. One stunning vocalist sandwiched between two great bands led by saxophonists made for a very appetizing array of mainstream, but far reaching, jazz artists.

Pat Mallinger at the Artists Quarter (11/25, 11/27)
I’ve enjoyed Pat’s holiday visits to the AQ over the past five years or so. While we surely have one of the most vibrant jazz scenes in the country, the Twin Cities also seems to be a fine spawning ground for musicians who ultimately settle elsewhere. St. Paul native Pat Mallinger has been chewing up clubs in Chicago since the late 1980s, most notably on a regular rotation at the Green Mill with his organ band Sabertooth. Fortunately he has a lot of family and friends here and tried to plan his holiday visit around an opening in the AQ schedule. We were treated to three doses of Pat last week on either side of Thanksgiving. With Chris Lomheim on piano (and showing off the Yamaha’s new hammers), Graydon Peterson on bass, and Kenny Horst on drums, the opening set Wednesday night offered strong statements as the quartet covered such tunes as “Devil May Care,” “Poor Butterfly,” “Dedicated to You,” and Dexter Gordon’s rousing “Fried Bananas.” It was a sparkling, high energy set.

But I returned Saturday night to what seemed like one of the most perfect straight-ahead evenings of recent months. “Autumn Serenade” had an undercurrent of samba, and Pat barely kissed the low notes. The somewhat noisy crowd fell into rapt attention on Pat’s original “Hills Over Tuscany,” a soothing ballad featuring crystalline soloing from Lomheim. For me, the first set highlight was a seldom heard Charlie Parker beauty, “The Gypsy,” Pat’s alto sweet and tart in a dizzying display of ascents and descents, as if holding a perfect egg while doing somersaults and managing to leave the shell intact. The late set included an incredibly quiet and spacious reading of “I Concentrate on You” with Pat on tenor; his lovely “Madeline’s Lullaby” on alto (written for his daughter); and my favorite of the weekend, Pat’s evocation of both John Coltrane and Charles Lloyd, “Tetemetearri.” With an ongoing pairing of 7 and 5-bar phrases carried throughout by piano and bass, Pat’s wooden flute (and later tenor sax) fluttered and sang, suggesting at times an African or Asian folk melody. Pat noted that this tune has been very popular in Australia. It should have a similar response in Minnesota.

Jane Monheit at the Dakota (12/1).
Each time I hear Jane Monheit, I wonder what heights she would reach if she ever decided to let her improvisational instincts rule a live performance. Surely she has one of the finest vocal instruments in any genre, and she has very slowly added a bit more personal expression to each recording and each local visit. Speculation, for me, ended with Jane’s final set Tuesday night. Now the voice belongs to a jazz singer joining the ranks of Tierney Sutton, Dee Bridgewater, Diane Reeves, and Roberta Gambarini—purveyors of both standards and popular songs who become another instrument of interpretation and invention. Even Jane felt compelled to explain herself after scatting the solo on a particularly endearing rendition of “Stardust,” noting that “I wasn’t going to scat til I could to it like Ella... but that’s not happening!” But now, following the birth of her first child and crossing into her 30s, Jane finds herself more “fearless.” No, she does not scat (or sing) like Ella. She scats like Jane Monheit, and that is a joyous thing. And if “Stardust” was a grand revelation, each of her other songs offered varying degrees of improvisation, scatted intros, shifting dynamics and rhythms, creative phrasing that made even her most familiar selections (“Taking a Chance on Love,” “Waters of March,” and of course, “Over the Rainbow”) sound as if we had never heard her sing them before. This was a more relaxed and confident Jane Monheit. Maybe one key is not only the general joys of motherhood, but the proximity of her young son Jack, traveling at least this week with Mom and Dad (drummer Rick Montalbano). And she apologized before leaving the stage, noting that she would not be hanging out to sign CDs or chat, because she had to return to the hotel for a date to read “Where the Wild Things Are.” And I bet she gave Sendak a new sound, too.

Mulligan Stew, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Jazz Club (12/2).
Maybe I should not include a private gig here, but then, where else? For those of us who are willing to be defined as “seniors” (and AARP grants us that status when we hit 50), the University of Minnesota offers “lifelong” learning opportunities in the form of classes and special interest groups through OLLI. Some years back, there was a jazz appreciation course that dissolved into a jazz club under the stalwart leadership of Joan Delich. Each holiday season, the “Olli Cats” hold a musical evening open to the larger OLLI family, filled with great food and the sounds of a local jazz artist or ensemble. This year’s event drew 120 to hear Mulligan Stew, Dave Karr’s tribute to the great quartet of bari sax legend Gerry Mulligan. Dave described the band as akin to the car driven by the “little old lady” who only would go out for a drive on Sunday afternoons. “We’ve been playing together for ten years,” he said, “and we’ve only played maybe ten times—so we’re fresh and ready to go.” The last four or five times, the band was a quintet with Tanner Taylor on piano, but now Dave is back to Mulligan’s original piano-less quartet format, with Dave Graf on trombone, Gordy Johnson on bass and Phil Hey on drums. As much as I love Tanner’s virutosic piano, I discovered I did not miss a piano during the two sets in the unlikely setting of the city of Columbia Height’s community center—a large, surprisingly warm room with decent acoustics, the only electric chord connecting the bass to a small amp.

For drop dead serious bebop, you can’t beat Mulligan Stew or its playlist, featuring Mulligan compositions like “Soft Shoe,” “Line for Lyons,” “Festive Minor,” and “Blueport.” The two horns—bari and trombone-- are an unlikely pairing for swinging melodicism, yet with the Daves, we got exactly that, and more, including an accelerating dual on “Blueport.” Both were quick to point out that the piano-less efforts worked only because Gordy and Phil provided all the rhythmic feel necessary; the format opened up more space for the horns to fill. But it works well, too, because these musicians keep their ears open and their brains engaged so thoroughly. Graf can drop a musical pun in a blink, like quoting “If I Should Lose You” in the midst of “Love Me or Leave Me,” a play on the words as well as the music. The last public gig for Mulligan Stew was at the Artists Quarter some months ago. Hopefully Dave Karr will take his band out for a spin again soon.

Photos: (Top -bottom) Pat Mallinger at the Artists Quarter on 11/25; Jane Monheit press photo (she doesn't allow photos at the gig); Phil Hey, Dave Graf and Dave Karr with Mulligan Stew at MacPhail in 2008. (Mallinger and Mulligan Stew photos by Andrea Canter)