Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Lead Sheet - Twin Cities Jazz, February 26-March 4

© Andrea Canter

I'll be in Chicago most of this week, and I think there is a lot more jazz going on in the Twin Cities. I am looking forward to finally seeing the relocated Jazz Showcase and Hiromi's solo piano gig there... although she will be coming to the Dakota the following week.

But I'll be around home this weekend, which means two nights with one of my favorite pianists, Rick Germanson (2/26-27). He's here so often he is almost a local act. He's been at the Dakota with the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band, but most often it's at the Artists' Quarter. This weekend he shares the stage with Adam Linz on bass and Kenny Horst on drums, two more reasons to head to St. Paul. Rick has a wide range of performance chops, but is also a serious composer.

Across the river at the Dakota, Nachito Herrera holds his monthly Havana-fest with his usual suspects. You can always count on at least two things with a Nachito gig--a large crowd and a fiesta atmosphere. And of course some flamethrowing piano as he covers the range of modern and traditional Cuban music. Stay late on Saturday night to catch the Atlantis Quartet, one of the most adventurous yet accessible bands in town.

Also on Friday (and an easy stop-by or dinner before heading to the AQ), it's the last night of music at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill on W. 7th in St. Paul. But they know how to end in style, with Maud Hixson and Dave Singley closing down the stage. (Sorry, says management, the ASCAP fees are too high.)

Jazz brunch comes in many forms, often Dixieland or swinging vocals... but Fat Kid Wednesdays? Here's an inspiring and provocative way to start you Sunday--at Hell's Kitchen (2/28). Definitely suggests moving away from pancakes as usual.

Mary Louise Knutson, one of the true masters of melody and trio interaction, will be on stage at the Bloomington Center for the Arts on Sunday afternoon (2/28), part of the Twin Cities Jazz Society's Jazz From J to Z series. Her partners in "Spotlight on Melody" include Chris Bates and Jay Epstein. Take a break from the Olympics and hear some new compositions from an award-winning composer/pianist.

It's been about five years since the amazing guitarist Charlie Hunter was on stage at the Dakota, and now he's back for one night Monday (3/1). Fat Kids have their usual slot at the Clown Lounge Monday night, while the double header on Tuesday (3/2) features the recently reunited Illicit Sextet and Atlantis Quartet. Enough to keep great jazz brains awake into the wee hours. For earlier and more relaxing sounds, Lee Engele sings Tuesday night at Hell's Kitchen.

Something a bit unusual at the Black Dog on Tuesday and Wednesday (3/2-3) with French free jazz cellist Didier Petit in varying combinations with Nathan Hanson, Adam Linz, JT Bates, Milo Fine and British vocalist Viv Corringham. And on Wednesday night, sample Didier's French cooking as well as his music when he prepares dinner!

A highlight I will miss is the debut of Bryan Nichols' nine-piece "We Are Many" ensemble as part of MacPhail's "Jazz Thursdays" series (3/4). Always seeking new ways to combine sounds and melodies, Bryan has written new compositions for multiple horns (Happy Apple's Michael Lewis on sax along side dad Greg Lewis on trumpet, Chris Thomson on sax, Stefan Kac on tuba) guitar (Jeremy Yslvisaker), two bassists (Adam Linz and James Buckley), drums (JT Bates) and the leader on piano. In addition to the new works, there will be collective improvisation--in this case, spontaneous combustion. There's a Q and A session with Bryan an hour before showtime.

There's always a lot more and more I should mention, but I am short on time this week and instead will steer you to Pamela Espeland's jazz calendar at And watch for coming attractions-- Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts at the AQ on March 6th; Hiromi's solo piano at the Dakota, March 8-9; Dave King for Two Days at the Walker (with Bad Plus, Happy Apple, Buffalo Collision, and more), March 12-13; Regina Carter at Ted Mann, March 15.

Photos (from top): Rick Germanson at his last AQ gig; Maud Hixson; Mary Louise Knutson (photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Lead Sheet -- Twin Cities Jazz, February 19-25

© Andrea Canter

Even without the three-day residency of Ahmad Jamal at the Dakota, this week would be jam-packed with special jazz events. But, we do get three nights of the Ahmad Jamal Trio to boot.

There are few pianists who have been held in such high esteem as Ahmad Jamal. Miles Davis wanted his pianists to play like Jamal. Most pianists who came of age from the 60s on count Jamal as one of their significant influences. Jamal, soon to celebrate 80, is ageless, timeless in his approach to the music, a leading practitioner of the orchestral approach to small ensemble jazz, one who caresses space, gives each note special treatment. His music of late seems even more adventurous--clearly he is at no loss for ideas even six decades into his career. He's enjoyed a long association with bassist James Cammack, who might otherwise be as well known as Dave Holland or Charlie Haden. New this time around is drummer Herlin Riley, although Riley worked with Jamal some years ago and has been to the Twin Cities in the company of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center on a number of occasions. This is a legend who is constantly evolving, and no matter place to hear him than in the intimacy and pristine sound enviroment of the Dakota, Sunday through Tuesday (2/21-23).

Even before we get to Jamal, there's a lot of win-win choices to make. At the Artists Quarter this weekend (2/19-20), young composer/drummer Matt Slocum returns to home territory with his trio of equally compelling young sidekicks, tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and bassist Joe Sanders. Slocum, born in St. Paul and raised nearby in New Richmond, WI, studied with Phil Hey before heading west to the Thornton School of Music at USC and the tuteledge of Peter Erskine, John Clayton and Shelly Berg. He returned to the Twin Cities with Sara Gazarek a few times and now celebrates his first CD as leader, Portraits. Matt here proves to be at least as talented as composer as timekeeper, creating some lovely, melodic works that defy identification as "drummer's tunes." Walter Smith III is one of the more exciting young tenorists on the scene today, last in town with Sean Jones. Sanders was runner up to Ben Williams in the recent Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition but no runner-up in his work with firebrand pianist Gerald Clayton and others. An exciting trio, sans piano, will let the compositions' framework shine.

Saturday afternoon (2/20) is the fifth annual Bands for Band fundraiser event for three south Minneapolis public school band programs. Held at the Eagles Club (3-9 pm), this is a parent-driven effort to rebuild and sustain school bands at Seward, Sanford and Sullivan public schools. So far it has been very successful, raising enough to keep part-time band instructors on payroll and enabling the schools to offer not only band in the regular curriculum but after-school jazz bands for middle school students. It's a fun day as well, with six area bands from across genres performing as well as the three jazz ensembles from the schools. You get a bit of everything from surf rock to R&B to jazz, including a chance to see vibes master Dave Hagedorn with old buddies as Shrewd Mammals. Plus raising funds for a great cause. There's food concessions, dancing, a raffle and all around family fun. So save a few bands, enjoy diverse music. Most of today's top musicians got their start in a school band.

If you don't go to the AQ Saturday evening, check out the Ginger Commodore Quartet at the Dakota (2/20). Together for a long time, this is a tight band supporting one of the finest vocalists you can hear today. Stick around for the Late Night gig with Frankhouse, a relatively new and high energy band led by trumpeter Dan Frankowski.

Another special event comes Sunday afternoon (2/21) when we celebrate the life and contributions of the late "Jazzy Jane" Donahue at the Bloomington Knights of Columbus Hall (1-4 pm). Jane passed away in December after a freakish car accident, leaving behind a lot of volunteer hours for the Twin Cities Jazz Society and empty chairs at her favorite venues. Three of her favorite bands, the Mouldy Figs, Laura Caviani Trio and Twin Cities Seven will perform and you can contribute to the new TCJS Jane Donahue Jazz Education Fund. You can continue your support of jazz education by heading over to Famous Dave's in Calhoun Square to hear the Minnesota Youth Jazz Band (3:30-5:30 pm, 2/21). These are Dave Mitchell's students who audition and perform throughout the school year. Or another student-focused alternative is the Martin Luther King celebration featuring Charmin Michelle and the Minneapolis South High Big Band at Ted Mann (4 pm).

And the AQ seldom opens on Sundays but you can be sure it is something special when they do. This weekend (2/21), Joan Griffith and Lucia Newell get together with pals Clea Galhano (recorder), Laura Caviani (piano), Gordy Johnson (bass) and Gary Gauger (drums) for a night of Brazilian music--some original compositions, some covers of famed Brazilians like Jobim.

One of the highlights of the coming week is the return of Snowblind, an inventive brass ensemble featuring virtuoso performers and composers (Shilad Sen, Adam Rossmiller, Scott Agster, Graydon Peterson and Reid Kennedy). They're on the late night circuit at the Clown Lounge Tuesday night (2/23). Also on Tuesday night, the Dave Schmalenberger Project blasts off at McNally Smith with such veterans as Pete Whitman, Laura Caviani, Chris Olson, Gary Raynor and of course drummer Dave Schmalenberger. These McNally Smith programs are free, start with a reception and end in great music. And speaking of brass, young trumpeter Adam Meckler brings his stellar quintet to Honey on Wednesday (2/24), with Brandon Wozniak, Adam Linz, Zacc Harris and Greg Schutte. At the AQ, two of the "old timers" prove jazz has no age limits, as Marv Dahlgren (2/24) and Gary Berg (2/25) bring their respective, and respectable, quartets to the stage.

Singers on area stages this week:
• 2/19, Lee Engele at Honey; Maud Hixson with Dave Singley at the Downtowner; Charmin Michelle and the Rick Carlson Trio at Redstone Grill; Erin Schwab at Hell's Kitchen; Nichola Miller and Tanner Taylor at Tickle's
• 2/20, Nichola Miller at Hell's Kitchen
• 2/21, Charmin Michelle and Rick Carlson at Crave in the West End Shops; Katie Gearty at the Loring Kitchen
• 2/22, Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg at Fireside Pizza
• 2/23, Lee Engele at Sage Wine Bar; Arne Fogel at Hell's Kitchen; Debbie Duncan and Mary Louise Knutson at Camp Bar
• 2/24 Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg at Fireside Pizza
• 2/25, Katie Gearty with Vital Organ at Honey

More instrumental jazz:
• 2/19, Fantastic Fridays at the Black Dog; Mary Louise Knutson at Ingredients Cafe; Larry McDonough Quartet at the Hat Trick; Jazz by Fosse at the Dakota (Happy Hour)
• 2/19-20, Joan Funk and Jeff Brueske at Lobby Bar in the St Paul Hotel; Benny Weinbeck Trio at D'Amico Kitchens in the Chambers Hotel
• 2/20, Mouldy Figs at St. Barnabus Church; Kristin Sponcia at Nicollet Island Inn
• 2/21, Zacc Harris Trio at Riverview Wine Bar
• 2/22, Zacc Harris Duo at Loring Kitchen; Fat Kid Wednesdays at the Clown Lounge
• 2/23, Dan Newton's Cafe Accordion at Loring Pasta Bar; Cory Wong Quartet and the Tuesday Night Band at the Artists Quarter
• 2/24, TEFSA jam at the AQ
• 2/25, Benny Weinbeck at the Dakota

Coming Soon!
• 2/26-27, Rick Germanson at the AQ
• 2/28, John Hammond at the Dakota
• 2/28, Mary Louise Knutson Trio with Randy Sabien at the Blooming Center for the Arts
• 3/1, Charlie Hunter at the Dakota
• 3/6 Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts at the AQ
• 3/8-9, Hiromi solo piano at the Dakota
• 3/12-13, Dave King for Two Nights (Happy Apple, Bad Plus, Buffalo Collision, new groups) at the Walker Art Center
Photos (top to bottom): Ahmad Jamal and James Cammack at the Dakota in November 2008; two young trombonists with the Seward Jazz Band at the 2009 Bands for Band fundraiser; Joan Griffith and Clea Galhano at the Artists Quarter, September 2008 (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Octo-Generator Marilyn Maye

© Andrea Canter
I lost count but I think Marilyn Maye sang about 50 different songs over her two sets Thursday night at the Dakota. That first set was well over 90 minutes and she took very brief pauses between tunes, just enough time to connect the song to its context and create audience anticipation. Just enough time to continue the thread of engagement with the crowd. Just enough time for a little banter with her beloved band.

She sang tunes we all know like "Lush Life" but with hidden stories we may have never noticed. She sang songs from some of the most popular songwriters of the 20th century (like Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter) but she included gems that at least some of us were discovering for the first time (like Porter's "Looking at You"). She sang songs we seldom hear in a club setting ("Paradise Cafe") or not often enough ("Something Cool," "Here's to Life") or hardly ever because the lyric is so difficult to deliver ("Take Five," lyrics by Iola Brubeck). She sang her own parody, "Estherville," a sideways tribute to the winter landscape of the northwest Iowa town near one of her favorite venues, Lake Okoboji. She put together a medley of Cole Porter tunes that went to seven, not the usual two or three choices.

Marilyn didn't merely sing with a voice as big as Ethel Merman (remember her?) but alternately tender and soaring as her story required. She didn't merely tell stories in song but seemed to rewrite each story along the way. And she sure didn't just stand there and sing. Marilyn Maye is one of the most physical singers to hit the Dakota stage. She sways, she kicks, she bends, she covers the expanse of the stage. And something magic happens, not just between the singer and the audience, but within the audience. Marilyn Maye is a portable generator, sending electric current that not only connects her to the crowd, but creates a camaraderie among strangers. We were all friends at a big party, enjoying vocal fireworks, all the time thinking "Here's to Life!"

That Marilyn Maye will soon celebrate her 82nd birthday just made it all the more exhilerating. That she was still on key, kicking like a Rockette, and grinning ear to ear at the close of her fourth set over two nights made me wonder if I am but a couple decades away from finding that fountain of youth?

(Marilyn was not alone. Her band was spot-on in support--Billy Stritch on piano and vocals, Jim Eklof on drums, and Marilyn's new favorite bassist, local hero Gary Raynor.)

Photo: Marilyn Maye brought down the house at the Dakota (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Lead Sheet - Twin Cities Jazz, February 12-13

© Andrea Canter

It's shaping up to be a very jazzy Valentine's Day weekend, And what could be more "Love, Love Me Do" that a night of the Beatles with Connie Evingson? Part of her Jazz at the Jungle series, Connie reprises favorites from her Let I Be Jazz recording and more. It's a sell out for both shows on Sunday (2/14) but another has been added for Monday night.

Another loving tribute is the 4th annual Bobby Peteson Memorial Piano Showcase at the Artists Quarter. Ask any local pianist over 40, they likely will tell you that Bobby was one of their big influences, mentors and/or teachers. He's been gone about 8 years now but his legacy lives on in the music of any area musicians (not just pianists) and annually in this showcase. Three pianists each hight will rotate through relatively short sets, playing two sets each with the "house band." Friday (2/12) hear Laura Caviani, Chris Lomheim and Tommy O'Donnell; come back Saturday night (2/13) to hear Mikkel Romstad, Peter Schimke and Jimmy Hamilton.

Exciting things are gong on this weekend at the Dakota (2/12-13) with the seemingly unlikely pairing of Debbie Duncan and Anthony Cox with the Regional Jazz Quartet. An ensemble of some of the most creative artists around, the band includes Bryan Nichols, JT Bates and Mike Lewis. Debbie of course can sing anything, so I don;t think these modernists will make her blink. She'll just be another instrument of invention.

For Friday (2/12) I am also plugging East Side on the west side--a swinging and rather unusual quartet playing at the 318 in Wayzata. Clint Hoover is our resident Toots Thielmans, blowing a wicked chromatic harmonica with cohorts Reynold Philipsek on guitar, Matt Senjum on bass (both veterans of Twin Cities Hot Club) and Michael Bissonette juggling a wild array of percussive devices, including ankel bracelets of pistachio shells.

Always worth seeing in a club setting, John Pizzarelli turns up at Orchestra Hall Friday night (2/12). It won't be the same as seeing him only a few feet away, but his voice and guitar wizardry are bound to make up fo rthe lack of intimacy and likely sound distortion of the big hall. And come over to the Dakota afterwards or stick around after Debbie and Anthony and catch the Aaron Hedenstrom Quartet at 11:30. Aaron has been playing around the area with John Raymond and more, and promises to be a great addition to the local sax scene. Not quite as late, a stellar modern jazz band turns up in a rather unlikely setting, as the Atlantis Quartet takes the stage for the late evening crowd at Honey. Check out the chocolate truffle menu!

A special pairing at Hell's Kitchen on Tuesday (2/16) brings Ray Charles' daughter Sheila Raye to a collaboratio wiht Vital Organ. Better make a reservation! And an unusual happening at the Dakota on Wednesday and Thursday (2/17-18) is the club debut of 82-year-old cabaret/pop veteran Marilyn Maye. She has the distinction of over 70 appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, a recording in the Smithsonian Institute's best of the 20th century collection, and a thriving career in Kansas City. Local songstress Maud Hixson literally sings her praises. Also on Thursday (2/18), the always energetic and inventive Phil Hey Quartet takes their monthy spot at the AQ.
Where can you fin dsongs to fill your heart for Valentine's Day or beyond? Singers to hear this week:
  • February 12, Davina and the Vagabonds at Hell's Kitchen (early show); Sophia Shorai piano and vocals at Honey

  • February 13, Lee Engele at Sage Wine Bar; Reginia Williams, T. Mychal Rambo and Thomasina Petrus at the Capri Theater ("They'll Say We're in Love"); Maud Hixson with Rick Carlson at the Redstone Grill; Sophia Shorai at the Dakota Late Night; Vicky Mountain and James Allen at First Course

  • February 14, Charmin Michelle and Rick Carlson at Crave in the West End Shops; Arne Fogel and Jennifer Eckes at Honey; Maxine Souse' and Reynold Philipsek at the Loring Kitchen

  • February 15, Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg at Fireside Pizza (and again on 2/17)

  • February 16, Debbie Duncan and Mary Louise Knutson at Camp Bar

Modern instrumental music, sometimes a total experiment, ca ben found throughout the week:

  • February 12-13, JoAnn Funk and Jeff Brueske at the Lobby Bar of the St Paul Hotel; Benny Weinbeck Trio at D'Amico Kitchen in the Chambers Hotel

  • February 14, Zacc Harris Trio at the Riverview Wine Bar

  • February 15, Jello Slave at Barbette; something will be cooking at the Clown Lounge

  • February 16, Cory Wong Quartet and Tuesday Night Band at the Artists Quarter; James Buckley Trio at the Kitty Kat Club

Coming soon!

  • February 19-20, Matt Slocum Trio, CD Release at the AQ (with Joe Sanders and Walter Smith III)

  • February 20, Ginger Commodore Quartet at the Dakota

  • Feburary 21, Memorial Tribute to Jane Donahue at the Knights of Columbus in Bloomington

  • February 21, Joan Griffith and Lucia Newell and friends at the AQ

  • February 21-23, Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Dakota

  • February 26-27, Rick Germanson at the AQ

  • March 6, Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts at the AQ

  • March 8-9, Hiromi solo piano at the Dakota

Photos: (Top to bottom) Chris Lomheim play in the Bobby Peterson Piano Showcase; Anthony Cox will be on stage with Debbie Duncan; John Pizzarelli will dazzle at Orchestra Hall (photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Lead Sheet -- Twin Cities Jazz, February 5-11

© Andrea Canter

I am trying to make Lead Sheet more user and creator-friendly! So for a more complete list day by day, I recommend Pamela’s blog at where she maintains a pretty extensive club/concert listing. And I’ll limit my recommendations for the week to those I consider “can’t miss” or unusual. Also listing this in chronological order!
  • Friday (2/5), Jay Young’s Lyric Factory at the Dakota. Popular on electric and acoustic bass, Young reprises his tribute to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, first performed at the Artists Quarter last fall. Jay can get downright funky and his music is never passive.

  • Friday (2/5), The Five at the Artists Quarter. The five veterans are led by composer and drummer Kenny Horst, with Steve Kenny and Dave Karr on horns, Tom Lewis on bass and Mikkel Romstad on keys. They play together about once per year so don’t miss them this time around.

  • Friday (2/5), Lucia Newell with the Laura Caviani Trio at Crave in the Galleria. If you have to hear music on a weak sound system in a crowded and often noisy bar/restaurant, at least let it be great music. And the food is good here too. Grab a later dinner and find a table right by the music after 10 pm and you can have a really good time.

  • Saturday (2/6): Jay Young at the Dakota, The Five at the AQ for second nights.

  • Saturday (2/6): Bill Frisell with Eyvind Kang and Rami AlHaj present “Baghdad/Seattle Suite” at the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Commissioned by the Walker, this promises to be one of the most compelling music events of the season. Guitar, viola and oud? Think Americana meets Middle East. I heard a preview and am eager for the rest. Accessible, elegant, exotic. Two shows so you can do something before or after.

  • Saturday (2/6). Competing with Frisell, for me, the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet with special guest, saxophonist Michael Attias at Studio Z in St. Paul. One of the top purveyors of local experimental music, pianist Lease, saxman Moriarty, bassist Chris Bates and drummer Dave Stanoch lost Kelly Rossum’s services last summer but seek compensation via saxophonist Attias, a former area resident who once studied with Pat at Children’s Theater.

  • Saturday (2/6), Keys Please at Janet Wallace Concert Hall on the Macalester Campus. One night per year, three area pianists (Paul Cantrell, Carei Thomas and Todd Harper) get together and jam on the keys, with a special guest, this year guitarist Bob Ockeden.

  • Saturday (2/6), West Bank School of Music ensembles at the Riverview Wine Bar, featuring the Old House Quintet along with Laughing Sweaters and Caterwaul. Paul Renz organizes and directs some really fun music.

  • Saturday (2/6), Bryan Nichols Trio (with James Buckely and Dave Seru) at the Dakota, Late Night series (11:30 pm). After hearing Bryan in several different contexts last week, I can honestly say there is never too much Bryan Nichols. Even at this late hour!

  • Sunday (2/7), Charmin Michelle at Crave in the West End Shops (St. Louis Park) is a great accompaniment to Sunday Brunch!

  • Sunday (2/7), the Zacc Harris Trio spins modern tales in their weekly slot at the Riverview Wine Bar.

  • Monday (2/8), one of the finest voices of our time, Roberta Gambarini appears for just one night at the Dakota. Her latest, So in Love, topped many best of the year lists, including mine.

  • Monday (2/8), hope I can handle a late night at the Clown Lounge with Trio Pica-- Bryan Nichols, Phil Hey and Adam Linz trolling through tunes by Wilder, Motian, Kimbrough, Captain Kangaroo and more! (Like I said, never too much Bryan Nichols, and the same goes for Adam and Phil!)

  • Tuesday (2/9): I was told not to miss Bob James and Keiko Matsui, 4-handed piano at the Dakota. So I’m going.

  • Tuesday (2/9), East Side at Hell’s Kitchen features a compelling assortment of local wizards, Reynold Philipsek, guitar; Clint Hoover, chromatic harmonica; Michael Bissonnette, percussion; Matt Senjem, bass.

  • Wednesday (2/10), The Dan Musselman Quartet at the AQ is always a heady, jazzy experience. Young pianist Musselman has the chops of a veteran performer and composer, and his sideman are hardly off to the side—Brandon Wozniak on sax, Adam Linz on bass, Jay Epstein on drums.

  • Wednesday (2/10), another night with Bob James and Keiko Matsui at the Dakota!

  • Thursday (2/11), MMEA Night with the Shell Lake Faculty Ensemble and Dakota Combo at the Dakota. Organized by Shell Lake Jazz Camp with support from the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education, this night was put together to entice area and visiting jazz band directors to the Dakota for a break from the MMEA Convention down the street. Faculty from Shell Lake (including Greg Keel, Michael Walk, Dave Schmalenberger and more) will perform the first two sets, with the high school wizkids of the Dakota Combo closing out the night. And if you heard them in December and thought they were pretty darn good, wait til you hear them now!

    The Regulars

    Remember the usual suspects—JoAnn Funk and Jeff Brueske at the Lobby Bar of the St Paul Hotel (Fridays and Saturdays); Benny Weinbeck Trio at the A’mico Kitchen of the Chambers Hotel (Fridays and Saturdays); Fantastic Merlins at the Black Dog (Fantastic Fridays); Charmin Michelle and Denny Malmberg at Fireside Pizza (Mondays and Wednesdays); the Tuesday Night Band at the AQ (Tuesdays); Debbie Duncan and Mary Louise Knutson at Camp Bar (Tuesdays). Check listings at Hell’s Kitchen and Honey for some of your favorite vocalists every week.

    Coming Soon
    Bobby Peterson Memorial Piano Showcase at the AQ (2/12-13); Debbie Duncan and Anthony Cox’s Regional Quartet at the Dakota (2/12-13); Connie Evingson’s Beatles show at the Jungle Theater (2/14); Matt Slocum Trio CD Release at the AQ (2/19-20); Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Dakota (2/21-23); Rick Germanson at the AQ (2/26-27); Mary Louise Knutson Trio at the Bloomington Center for the Arts (2/28); Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts at the AQ (3/6); Hiromi Solo Piano at the Dakota (3/8-9). And note that February 19 & 26 will be the last performances by Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill in St. Paul, which will discontinue live music at the end of the month. At least they are going out in style.

    Photos: Bill Frisell (top) at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in 2009; Robert Gambarini at the Dakota in 2008. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Defining Moments of Explosive Energy

© Andrea Canter

Guitarist and composer Bill Frisell has had so many projects that I am not uncomfortable admitting that I have not really enjoyed them all – I couldn’t always “get it” enough to hear that thread of meaning. But often I have been moved by the music and always intrigued by this one musician with so many voices, so many different collaborators, particularly his work with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano in recent years.

But the project coming to the Walker Art Center this weekend (February 6th) is perhaps the most intriguing yet—music for guitar, viola and oud with a cross-cultural ensemble that includes middle America native Frisell, American born Chinese violist Eyvind Kang, and oud master/ Iraqui native Rami AlHaj. They’ll be performing a Walker-commissioned work, Baghdad/Seattle Suite. This is Frisell’s second commission from the Walker—he composed Blue Dreams back in 1999.

I got a preview of the music and an opportunity to hear these musicians discuss the art of improvisation in the context of a small clinic with high school musicians at the MacPhail Center for Music. I “sat in” on the clinic, representing the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education, primary funder of the Dakota Combo. The Combo along with MacPhail’s Advanced Jazz Ensemble were the targets of the clinic, presented courtesy of the Walker. Frisell, Kang and AlHaj had arrived two days earlier to spend some relaxed time rehearsing for Saturday’s program. They loved the time here, off the merry-go-round of touring. No, it wasn’t too cold and they didn’t mind the snow. It was just good to be in a friendly, arts-centric city without the usual frenzy of their work.

Normally, Thursday night is rehearsal night for the Dakota Combo, our seven, 9-12th grade extremely talented jazz musicians, selected by audition in September. Their year so far has included biweekly rehearsals, a weekend performing and in clinic with saxophonist Tia Fuller, and preparing for the upcoming MMEA Night with the Shell Lake Faculty Ensemble. They’ve been working with director Adam Linz on very difficult music from the likes of Charles Mingus and Tim Hagans, and refining their own compositions. School visits, a concert at MacPhail, the summer jazz festival loom ahead. As well as all the activities that are normal to teenagers and many that are not—these students participate in multiple school and community ensembles, some gig on their own.

Tonight was special in many respects. Frisell and company started off with a long composition that the trio recorded shortly after their first meeting about a year ago. I told Bill later that periodically I thought I was hearing a variation on Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz”—it had a country feel despite the instrumentation and there were periods of intermodulating descents that Waller would have appreciated. But then the music would shift away from Americana to sand dunes of the Middle East. Sometimes the oud sounded like a bluegrass mandolin, sometimes like a lute, even banjo, while Kang’s viola took on horn-like lines. After they finished, someone asked how they were able to work out the music on these three instruments. Ramin quipped, “We’re crazy!” and then added “It’s an honor to play with Bill Frisell,” and noted that between the guitar and oud, Kang’s viola was the “translator.”

Frisell noted that despite the differences in their backgrounds, “music is’s not where you come from or what you know but if you just listen and are open to whatever happens.” So what is improvisation, how did these amazing improvisers come to be? Eyvind recalled his days studying classical violin and trying to improvise, then taking up the bass, discovering jazz, and one day, hitting that “moment... the sudden explosion of energy” that for him defines improvisation. Frisell recalled his young days playing clarinet in the school band and becoming a “delinquent,” bending the rules, particularly rules of the marching band, engaging in “subversive behavior”—the first moments of discovering improvisation, learning the rules and then wondering, what does it sound like if you go outside those rules? “The guitar gave me a chance to really break away from those restrictions of this band thing.... Improvisation is the fastest way for people to connect.” Bill then quoted Leonard Cohen’s line, “A crack is what lets the light come in.”

Ramin noted that “improvisation is part of our tradition... if you don’t improvise, you are not a musician.” He described the written works of classical music as “frozen compositions” and the traditional structures of the maqam (Arabic music structures of notes akin to modes) as naturally feeding improvisation—“like connecting towns by building bridges—town to bridge to the next town with millions of options... there’s a difference between playing notes and playing music.” Eyvind added “We are not computers... it is not possible to be exact, everyone will be different” in their musical choices, which is the essence of improvisation.

A final message, from Ramin, was “Love your instrument.” He told the story of his first encounter with the oud as a 7-year old. He happened to hear a man play the oud and was immediately fascinated by the physical beauty of the instrument. “I wanted to hold it.” When the man was amazed by Ramin’s affinity for the oud, he gave him one, which young Ramin took to bed with him. “My parents thought I was insane.” You develop a relationship with your instrument, he told the students. “We are cursed... or blessed!”

It was time to reverse roles, and the Dakota Combo took the stage to play for these internationally acclaimed artists. They started with “Drunken Monkey Framing Company,” written by pianist Quentin Tschofen. The music conjures images consistent with the title, Quentin reaching inside the piano to accompany Danny Hupp’s slippery, songful tenor sax solo. Zosha Warpeha’s violin solo was filled with glissando and double stops and, perhaps, the slithery sounds of drunken monkeys. The Combo picked Tim Hagans’ “Waking Iris” for its second tune, featuring John Cushing’s trombone calls, Anna Buchholz’s flowing alto, fine soloing from Quentin and bassist Caitlin Keliher, another strong effort from Danny, this time on alto. Cam LeCrone drove the beat with sophisticated punctuations throughout. Applause... and the ultimate compliment—Bill Frisell’s “You guys sound great.” From Eyvind: “My compliments on the sound of your instruments. I am amazed! The sound is so refined on every instrument.” Added Ramin, “You are really have distinctive voices. It is most important to speak your voice—always define your voice.” The MacPhail Advanced Combo followed with the last tune of the night, an original entitled “Sixth Sense,” featuring some hefty tenor soloing. And more compliments from the pros, directed not only at the students but to their instructors, Adam Linz (Dakota Combo) and Bryan Nichols (MacPhail Advanced Ensemble).

After an evening of artistic, cultural and generational exchange, we left looking forward to hearing Frisell and cohorts in concert. And to hearing more from the young musicians who spend nights at MacPhail defining their voices.

Photos: (top to bottom): Bill Frisell at the 2009 Iowa City Jazz Festival; Zosha Warpeha, Dakota Combo performance in December. Photos by Andrea Canter. The Walker did not allow photos except from their own photographer during the clinic.