Sunday, March 28, 2010

Geri Allen: Soaring Above the Sounds at Macalester

© 2010, Andrea Canter

Sometimes I am not as on top of all things jazz as I would like. One of my favorite jazz pianists—for over a decade—is Geri Allen. Yet I only learned that she would be in town to perform at Macalester College in St. Paul about 24 hours in advance. There was a nice article about the event in the Strib -- on Friday, the day before, not much time to rearrange weekend plans. Sometimes I hear about Macalester events through their jazz faculty. Not this time. I’ll have to get myself on the Mac press list. I would have been thoroughly distraught if I had missed this one.

Currently on the jazz faculty at the University of Michigan near her hometown of Detroit, Geri Allen’s career as performer/composer/educator has glistened from day one. A member of the famed M-Base Collective in the 80s, her collaborators have included Ornette Coleman, Betty Carter, Jimmy Cobb, Steve Coleman, Ron Carter, Andy Bey, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Charles Lloyd. That list alone is highly suggestive of Geri’s independent and spiritual bent, although it may be her interest in Mary Lou Williams that most reflects her musical nature as a free thinker whose art transcends classification and mere mortal interpretation. A pioneer on many levels, in 1996 she was the first woman to win the only international jazz award, the coveted Danish JazzPar Prize.

I had already enjoyed Geri Allen in a variety of contexts, from her work with Charles Lloyd’s quartet (at the old Dakota in St. Paul around the turn of the Millennium) to a couple iterations of her trio (with Buster Williams and Lenny White at the 2003 Iowa City Jazz Festival, with her current team of Kenny Davis and Kassa Overall at the Jazz Improv Conference in New York in 2007 and, augmented by tapdancer Maurice Chestnut, at the 2009 Detroit Jazz Festival), as well as additional appearances at the Detroit Festivals in 2008 (with Christian McBride and with Ravi Coltrane’s tribute to his mother Alice) and throughout the 2009 festival with Karreim Riggins, Marcus Belgrave, and the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra. It had been years since she had appeared in the Twin Cities.

Macalester College may not be well known for its jazz program, but each year the school brings in one or two guest artists for a short residency, working with the MacJazz Big Band led by local Brazilian maven and string specialist, Joan Griffith. Past artists have included Maria Schneider and Uri Caine. Allen’s appearance this week included work with both MacJazz and Concert Choir (directed by Eugene Rogers), culminating in last night’s long and varied program of big band, choral and trio works, centered around the birthday centennial of the great Mary Lou Williams. In addition to her vast book of swinging and bluesy compositions, Williams wrote sacred music, some of which inspired Allen’s recreating of The Zodiac Suite and original compositions for Geri’s Timeless Portraits and Dreams, both released in 2006. This latter recording includes works for voice, taking Allen back to her Cass Tech High School days when she sang with the madrigal ensemble.

The Macalester concert roused the same spirit of Timeless Portraits, adding big band charts to the first half of the program while also revisiting Allen’s reinterpretations of Mary Lou Williams (“Scorpio” from the Zodiac Suite; “Praise the Lord” from Mary Lou’s Mass). Joan Griffith led the MacJazz Band through its paces, tackling Don Menza’s “Groovin’” as a jubilant opener and a big band arrangement by Anita Ruth of Joan’s own “Home.” With the splendid Macalester Concert Choir, the student band did justice to Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and the always popular “Birdland,” and with the addition of the Geri Allen Trio, solicited high priests and sorcerers with Allen’s “Praise” and Williams” “Praise the Lord” from Mary Lou’s Mass. The choir exuded sheer elegance in the acapella “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” while Allen demonstrated why she tops the field of modern pianists with her sequences of intermodulations and backhanded ripples on William’s “Scorpio,” backed ably by MacJazz.

The second part of the program was a full set from the Geri Allen Trio, opening with her tribute to the late Alice Coltrane, “Swamini,” part of her Sacred Jazz Suite, For the Healing of Nations. Composed a few years ago to honor the victims and survivors of 9/11, what started as an incantation of harp-like piano passages flowed into a mallet solo bridge from the joyously expressive Kassa Overall, then bursting into a gloriously swinging post bop jaunt. Allen brought it to a more reverent closing, the last notes tinkling like garden chimes. The solemn beginning of Mary Lou Williams’ “Roll ‘Em” quickly gave way to a swaying blues, while Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” began with Kenny Davis sounding adjacent tones on bass and Allen executing a series of frenzied runs. A special treat in the trio’s performance of the other half of Allen’s For the Healing of Nations, “Timeless Portraits and Dreams” included savvy vocals from Macalester’s choir director, Eugene Rogers, once a doctoral student who worked with Allen at Michigan. The closing composition from another Allen cohort, Charles Lloyd, “Sweet Georgia Bright” highlighted the rapport among the three musicians and particularly between Allen and Overall, the young drummer making continuous eye contact with his leader as they traded patterns and grins, as if, said my friend Mike, two kids were playing the game of “Horse”—a respectful series of challenges, each round reaching a higher level of invention.

The trio has recorded a new CD with tapdancer Maurice Chestnut, due out midyear. Just a week or two ago, Allen released Flying Toward the Sound (Motema Records), her first solo recording of all original compositions, work supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship. The first 8 of 9 tracks form the “Refractions” suite, a celebration of three of her muses, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Cecil Taylor. Thus Allen, the prolific composer, continues in the soaring footsteps of not only these three giants, but along the trajectory lighted by Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams, the great architects of jazz’s sacred and profane.
Photos, top to bottom: Geri Allen, Kassa Overall, Kenny Davis (trio), and Geri Allen (with the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra), all at the 2009 Detroit Jazz Festival (photos by Andrea Canter)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Lead Sheet: Twin Cities Jazz, March 26-April 1

© Andrea Canter

It usually takes a special gig to get me to the Dakota’s Late Night Series. Which has nothing to do with the quality of the music. I am a night owl to a degree but that generally does not include starting my evening at 11:30 pm. But I will make the effort tonight (3/26) and I have a plan—start my evening earlier! That won’t be difficult, the Atlantis Quartet will be at the Artists Quarter this weekend, and there’s no better way to prepare your ears for four-way innovation. With Brandon Wozniak on sax, Zacc Harris on guitar, Chris Bates on bass and Pete Hennig on drums, there will be plenty of original compositions and arrangements. These are the guys who did the full Love Supreme for Halloween in 2008, and then tackled The Headhunters for trick or treats in 2009. They released an album of the year contender last summer, Animal Progress.

Friday night at the AQ will jump start an evening that will end across town at the Dakota for the Jake Baldwin Quartet’s late show. Jake who? Jake was the trumpeter with the Dakota Combo for his last two years of high school, one of the most artistically mature teens I have encountered. He’s been reinventing himself at the New England Conservatory of Music this year, and taking no vacation from music during spring break. His partners will be former Combo colleagues—pianist Joe Strachan (now at Lawrence University’s Conservatory), bassist Cory Grindberg (now at Northwestern) and drummer Cam LeCrone (finishing his senior year at Minnetonka High School). Given the exponential progress that such teens seem to make as they move into intense music school instruction and play more public gigs, I expect this show to be a multi-layered blow-out. (And I did get a preview in December when these guys played at the Rogue Buddha Gallery in varying combinations.) There’s no shortage of fire earlier in the evening during the Dakota’s prime time, with Nachito Herrera on stage for his monthly Bembé.

It’s the last Sunday of the month (3/29) which means an evening with the Minnesota Free Music Society at the Acadia Café. The triple bill this evening features tuba master Stefan Kac in two settings—with Joseph Damman and Dan Sutherland, and with Wendy Ultan and David Seru. In between, it’s Seru with John DeHaven and Jamie Paul Lamb.

One of the treasures of modern Brazilian jazz, Eliane Elias begins a two-night stand at the Dakota, Monday –Tuesday (3/30 -31). A pianist touched by Bill Evans and accomplished vocalist as well, Elias will perform with husband/bassist Marc Johnson, a long-time associate of Evans.

REEL Jazz presents is monthly screening at Bryant Lake Bowl on Thursday (4/1) with “Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends,” produced by Clint Eastwood and Bruce Ricker. Come early, order a plate of Pad Thai and a dark brew, and sit back and enjoy jazz at the movies. Should be over in plenty of time to get to the Artists Quarter for Pete Whitman’s incendiary X-Tet! More instrumentals of note – Chris Thomson Quartet at Café Maud on Friday (3/26), JoAnn Funk and Jeff Brueske at the St Paul Hotel Lobby Bar Friday and Saturday, Benny Weinbeck Trio at D’Amico in the Chambers Hotel, also Friday and Saturday (3/26-27), Zacc Harris Trio at Riverview Wine Bar Sunday night (3/28); James Buckley Trio at Barbette on Monday (3/29); Twin Cities Seven at Hell’s Kitchen on Wednesday (3/31); and Butch Thompson celebrates April Fool’s Day on Thursday with a live radio taping at McNally Smith College.

Looking for some cool vocals? It’s a Nancy Harms weekend, with the young and rapidly maturing singer on stage at Hell’s Kitchen on Friday (3/26) and Honey on Saturday (3/27). Charmin Michelle gets around this week (again), with a duet gig with Joel Shapira at Midtown Global Market midday Saturday (3/27). The pair have been in the recording studio and likely will give us a preview. And what better way to enjoy a Saturday at the market? Pick your lunch from the many bargains –Nepalese dumplings, Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Mexican tamales and seafood platters, African stews, and a long list of sweet treats, then grab a table in the Atrium for swinging duets with Charmin and Shapira. Charmin will also be on her usual gigs, Sunday brunch at Crave in the Galleria and later at Cinema Ballroom; Monday and Wednesday at Fireside Pizza with Denny Malmberg.

Another appealing vocal option for Friday—Bruce Henry’s in town and sitting in with the Laura Caviani Trio at Crave in the Galleria. It’s a combination I have never heard but fully anticipate it to be filled with soulful blues and swinging bop tunes. The noise level at Crave tends to wind down after 10.

Saturday night (3/27) brings another “Singers Jam” to the Sage Wine Bar in Mendota Heights, courtesy of the Jazz Vocalists of Minnesota. This evening features a handful of relatively new talents. It’s always fun and some of these vocalists will surprise you… and you’ll wonder “why have I not heard her before?” Soon enough, they will be gigging all around town. And as per weekly, Tuesday night (3/30) means Debbie Duncan and Mary Louise Knutson at Camp Bar.

Nights of jazz and cabaret at the Guthrie? From March 30-April 3, the Joe Dowling Lab space will become the den of “Coward’s Women,” a revue of the dual sides of the English playwright/songwriter/actor presented with panache and sensitivity by local songbirds Maud Hixson and Erin Schwab. With the Rick Carlson Trio in support, this show will be one of the gems of the spring theater season.

Coming soon: The anticipated return of Japanese gong master Tatsuya Nakatani with double the double bass with Chris Bates and Adam Linz at Rogue Buddha on 4/3; Brad Mehldau at the Dakota, 4/6-7; Danilo Perez and good company at Ted Mann on 4/10; Chick Corea and Gary Burton at the Dakota, 4/16-17; Jeremy Pelt at the AQ, 5/14-15; Christian McBride and Inside Straight at the Dakota, 5/16-17; Eric Alexander at the AQ, 5/28-30; Dave Holland Quintet at the Dakota, 6/1-2; Twin Cities Jazz Festival with Joe Lovano’s Us Five, Sean Jones, Bobby Watson and John Scofield’s Piety Street Band, 6/17-19.
Photos: (top to bottom) Jake Baldwin (spring 2009 at MacPhail); Zacc Harris with the Atlantis Quartet; "Coward's Women," Erin Schwab (left) and Maud Hixson (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Global Thread, From Bach to Baiao

© Andrea Canter

The past ten days has brought the United Nations of Music to the Twin Cities—and I am just referring to traditionally jazz venues and concert series. Appropriately it seems to have started with Regina Carter’s “Reverse Thread” project which was inspired by the violinist’s trip to Africa and particularly to her encounters with Mali musicians. Much of American music owes at least some of its foundation to African art forms, and during the concert at Ted Mann (March 15th), we were treated to what sometimes sounded a bit like American bluegrass, modern jazz, and a touch of Latin. In addition to the violin, our attention was drawn to the kora, skillfully manipulated in the hands of Mali magician Yocouba Sissoko. At a pre-concert presentation, he described the making of the instrument from a large gourd with 21 strings (ten on one side, 11 on the other). The sound is something akin to a dulcimer without the hammer strike, and watching each hand stroke and slide across its respective set of strings, one might think of a weaver as much as a string artist.

Two nights later, at the Dakota, I caught the late set of Larry Coryell’s Bombay Jazz. A native of Texas himself, fusion guitar idol Coryell has assembled another type of fusion, bringing native Indian traditions of tabla and bansuri (wood flute) together with Eastern-focused American saxophonist George Brooks and his own very American electric guitar. The result seems to be neither entirely East nor West but bits of each woven into a hybrid fabric of interesting sound. Ronu Majumdar surrounded himself with flutes of varying sizes, looking more like recorders but played horizontally like the Western metal flute; his style was flamboyant and virtuosic. Young tablist Aditya Kalyanpur would be a welcome addition to a Latin percussion ensemble. Some of the most interesting efforts of the set were on a blues composed by Brooks. Definitely not an Eastern groove.

Sunday brought an unusual opportunity to hear one of the most accomplished of modern Israeli jazz artists, pianist Anat Fort. Fort was in Minnesota to perform in Lanesboro—her second visit there while only her first to the Twin Cities. A classmate of bassist Adam Linz at William Patterson College in New Jersey some 15 years ago, Fort was invited to present a public workshop at MacPhail in the afternoon, followed by a trio concert and supported by jazz coordinator Linz and JT Bates. I don’t know if there is truly an “Israeli” approach to jazz or piano; Anat’s spacious lines and extended harmonies seem consistent with some of the pianists I associate with European jazz and ECM, yet there also seems to be a strong connection to the pioneers of the American avant garde, like Cecil Taylor, and an underlying affinity for blues and ensemble collaboration a la Keith Jarrett. The trio played but two tunes during two hours of frank and entertaining discussion of the art of composing, the confinement of formal instruction, the spiritual relationship between musician and instrument. The second composition, “Something About Camels,” was a showcase of that relationship, each musician using his or her instrument in somewhat atypical and creative ways—Anat reaching deep into the piano to coax an array of sound from the strings; Adam tapping his bow against the very top of the bass neck for muted percussive effects, then dragging the bow across the very bottom of the strings—below the bridge; JT sitting on the floor leaning over a large cymbal and drawing, scraping, sliding across to elicit a series of groans and growls. From this introduction, the trio then settled into a far more melodic, more traditionally rendered post bop reverie, only to return to their earlier antics to close it out. And it was hardly noise, but oddly beautiful.

Last night a sold-out crowd greeted Arturo Sandoval at the Dakota with nearly as much enthusiasm as the Cuban expatriate exuded throughout two sets. Not only does Sandoval bridge the duality of Latin and bebop (and a little hip-hop), he plays multiple roles within the band, on trumpet, flugelhorn, electronic keyboard, snare drum and acoustic piano. And, oh yes, vocals—he sang a tune in each set, including a pleasantly gritty “Estate” in his not-native Italian, sprinkled elegantly with flugelhorn snippets. The sets included the expected Latin fervor but also some straight readings of American standards from Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, and a lovely piano rendition of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Most of the evening, the piano belonged to Manuel Valera, also a Cuban musician now based in the U.S., also culturally ambidextrous.

Not a public performance but 100 seniors can’t be wrong: The cultural exchange continued this morning on the St. Thomas University campus, where Joan Griffith is again teaching about jazz in the “Senior College” spring semester. This is a second edition of her “Conversations About Jazz” – two-hour open-ended interviews and musical collaborations with a different artist each week. And not strictly limited to “jazz” artists, as today’s guest was recorder master Clea Galhano. A native of Brazil who studied in The Netherlands and at the New England Conservatory, Clea is internationally known as an expert in early and Baroque as well as modern music, and of course is well versed in the music of her homeland. Here in the Twin Cities, she has found a soulmate in Joan Griffith, who has never set foot in Brazil but has managed nevertheless to develop a Brazilian heart. Capping some years of joint musical efforts, the two recently joined multi-lingual vocalist Lucia Newell to record a luscious set of songs written by the grand masters of Brazil and our local grand dame of samba and baiao, Joan Griffith. This morning, they played some of that repertoire as well as some Bach and Telemann, making very clear that (in part) the origins of improvisation go back to 17th century Europe.

Sometimes I think that only in the melting pot of the Twin Cities could you find a Brazilian-born, Dutch and Boston-trained recorder player and a Nebraska-born guitarist who writes Brazilian music on the stage of a Catholic university lecture hall entertaining a hundred senior citizens with music born of a South American folk tradition linked to African tribal rituals and the 17th century slave trade.

Call it the universal nature of that Reverse Thread.

Joan Griffith, Clea Galhano and Lucia Newell will release "Circle of the Dance" on Sunday afternoon, April 25th at the Commodore Hotel in St. Paul.

Photos: (Top -bottom), Arturo Sandoval at the Dakota; Larry Coryell and Aditya Kalyanpur of Bombay Jazz at the Dakota; Clea Galhano and Joan Griffith recently at the Artists Quarter. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Lead Sheet: Twin Cities Jazz, March 19-25

© Andrea Canter

Maybe it is fitting that, after a week of international flavors, from Regina Carter’s “Reverse Thread” project featuring one of Africa’s premiere kora players to Larry Coryell’s “Bombay Jazz” with prominent Indian musicians on flutes and tablas, we have a weekend of our own “roots” music from big band to folk to post bop. But we’ll expand more globally again with a rare appearance by Israeli pianist Anat Fort and the return of Arturo Sandoval.

The JazzMN Big Band is always a treat, and whenever they are in concert, there’s definitely a shortage of great jazz artists available for any other venue that night. Think of the sax section alone, which normally boasts Dave Karr, Dave Milne, Pete Whitman, Dale Mendenhall and Kathy Jensen? This Saturday night (3/20), the JMBB brings on composer/bandleader/educator Fred Sturm, head of the music conservatory at Lawrence University, and special vocal guests Voice Trek. The charts are modern, the setting musically perfect at the Hopkins High School Performing Arts Center.

Also Saturday night, there is no more eclectic musician out there than Claudia Schmidt. Known to some only through her Prairie Home Companion stints and folk music releases, Claudia can swing through the Great American Songbook with ease and, on her new release (Promising Sky), also incorporates some traditional African rhythms as well as some more distinctively backroads Americana. She’s doing two solo sets at Gingko Coffeehouse in St. Paul.

Down at the Artists Quarter this weekend (3/19-20), one of our local jazz treasurers, drummer Eric Gravatt, takes the bandstand with his Source Code ensemble. Gravatt has been a long-time cohort of the great McCoy Tyner, and with Source Code he is in the driver’s seat. Going in a somewhat funkier direction, Pooch’s Playhouse will keep the AQ stage ablaze with a Sunday evening (3/21) gig sponsored by the Twin Cities Jazz Society’s “Jazz From J to Z” series. The Playhouse includes Pooch himself—Bruce Heine—on bass, with pals Joel Shapira, Mark Asche, Dave Brattain and Dave Schmalenberger.

Earlier on Sunday, the MacPhail Center for Music offers a public, free-of-charge workshop led by Israeli pianist Anat Fort at 3 pm. Fort, a former classmate of Adam Linz at William Paterson University, calls on Adam and JT Bates to help convey “The Art of the Piano Trio.” They will follow the workshop at 6 pm with a trio performance ($10 tickets) in the beautiful Antonello Hall.

One of the living legends of jazz and Latin trumpet, Grammy (and Emmy) winner Arturo Sandoval returns to the Dakota (3/22-23) where we might expect him to spend as much time at the piano as on the horn. Whatever instrument, it will be a virtuosic evening.

It seems to be Charmin Michelle week as the buttercream singer appears with the Laura Caviani Trio at Crave/Galleria on Friday (3/19); pulls a double header at Crave/West End Shops and Cinema Ballroom on Sunday (3/21); holds her regular gig at Fireside Pizza with Denny Malmberg on Monday (3/22); pairs with long-time cohort Joel Shapira at Hell’s Kitchen on Tuesday (3/23); goes back to Hell the next night (3/24) to front Doug Haining’s Twin Cities Seven, and seems to take off Thursday to rest!

Other vocalists in the spotlight: Nichola Miller at Honey on Friday (3/19) and Spoon River on Thursday (3/25); Erin Schwab at Hell’s Kitchen on Saturday (3/20); Debbie Duncan with Mary Louise Knutson at Camp Bar on Tuesday (3/23); Connie Evingson at the Dakota (3/25); Maud Hixson at Erte (3/25); Katie Gearty with Vital Organ at Honey (3/25).

And more jazz: The great New Orleans sounds of Jack Brass, Dakota Late Night on Saturday (3/20); Zacc Harris Trio at the Riverview on Sunday (3/21); Fat Kid Wednesdays on Monday at the Clown Lounge (3/22); the Cory Wong Quartet followed by the Tuesday Night Band at the AQ on Tuesday (3/23); great options in brass with the Adam Meckler Quintet at the Dakota; Joe Smith Quartet at the AQ, on Wednesday (3/24); and the always explosive Pete Whitman X-Tet at the AQ on Thursday (3/25).

Coming soon: the vibrant future of jazz with the Jake Baldwin Quartet (Dakota Late Night, 3/26); Brazilian breezes with Eliane Elias at the Dakota (3/29-30); Maud Hixson and Erin Schwab take on Noel Coward at the Guthrie (3/30-4/3); amazing gong and drum artist Nakatani at Rogue Buddha (4/3); Brad Mehldau at the Dakota (4/6-7).

Photos (top to bottom): Pooch's Playhouse takes no prisoners at the AQ Sunday night; Arturo Sandoval heats up the Dakota Monday/Tuesday; Charmin Michelle sings nearly every night this week, including her regular Fireside Pizza gig with Denny Malmberg. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Lead Sheete: Twin Cities Jazz, March 12-18

© Andrea Canter

It’s a big weekend and not much of a let down thereafter! Modern and experimental music comes in a big dose this weekend with the Dave King for Two Days extravaganza at the Walker. Seven projects associated with King, including two brand new bands, are showcased: The Bad Plus, Happy Apple, and combined Bad Apple, along with free improv band Buffalo Collision kickoff on Friday night (3/12), followed by the newly constituted Golden Valley Is Now and Dave King Trucking Company on Saturday night (3/13), bookending a reconfigured Gang Font. That means that for two nights, some of the most creative improvisors in the world converge on Minneapolis—Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson with the Bad Plus, Michael Lewis and Erik Fratzke with Happy Apple, Tim Bern, Hank Roberts and Iverson with Buffalo Collision; Craig Taborn and Anderson with Golden Valley Is Now; Chris Speed, Adam Linz and Fraztke with Trucking Company; Greg Norton, Fratzke, and Bryan Nichols with Gang Font. And oh yeah, every band features Dave King on percussion.

Less dissonance, more swing can be found Saturday night when the Laura Caviani Trio with Gordy Johnson and Phil Hey take the stage at St. Barnabus Church in Plymouth as part of the Jazz @ St. Barney’s series, and at the Hopkins Center for the Arts with the Ristroms (guitarist Reuben, vocalists Diane and Dan) and songbird Lee Engele present “Jazz American Style.” Meanwhile Jeremy Walker’s Small City Trio plays Late Night at the Dakota on Friday (3/12) and Patty Peterson brings her polished pizzazz to the Dakota for prime time Saturday night.

Sunday (3/14) is not a slow night either, with Jazz at Lincoln Center returning to Orchestra Hall, featuring a new extended work by saxophonist Ted Nash; and in St. Paul, Pavel Janey and Ticket to Brasil warm up the night with a CD release at the Artists Quarter.

More global trends emerge early in the week, with Regina Carter’s Reverse Thread ensemble at Ted Mann on Monday night (3/15), preceded by a live interview with Northrop director Ben Johnson and Bebopified/MinnPost writer and jazz hound Pamela Espeland. Reverse Thread features African kora player Yocouba Sissoko. For the following two nights at the Dakota (3/16-17), the fusion is Indian when guitar legend Larry Coryell brings his Bombay Jazz Project to town, featuring world saxman George Brooks and two of India’s star artists, Ronu Mojumdar on flute (bansuri) and Aditya Kalyanpur on tablas.

Two local songstresses have weekly gigs this month, both on Thursdays --Maud Hixson at Erte in northeast Minneapolis and Nichola Miller at Spoon River in the Arts District. More singers are featured Thursday (3/18) when the Jazz Vocalists of Minnesota present an all-star showcase at Hell’s Kitchen, with Lucia Newell, Vicky Mountain, Rhonda Laurie, Dorothy Doring, Lee Engele and Gregg Marquardt, and relative newcomers Barbara Bjork, Maxine Souse and Jackie Moen. The Phil Aaron Trio will ensure a swinging evening.

Thursday (3/18) also marks the Schubert Club’s celebration of Bach’s 325th birthday, with a party at the Dakota featuring cellist Matt Haimovitz and the avant Jello Slave. As an improviser himself, no doubt Johann Sebastian would find this evening intriguing.

Coming soon—JazzMN Big Band with Fred Sturm (3/20), Pooch’s Playhouse at the AQ (3/21), an open master class and performance by Israeli pianist Anat Fort at MacPhail (3/21), Arturo Sandoval at the Dakota (3/22-23).

There’s a lot more of course, so check out the Twin Cities calendar at .

Photos: (Top to bottom), Dave King; Wynton Marsalis and Ali Jackson of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; Larry Coryell (photos by Andrea Canter)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

With Hiromi, Solo is the Place to Be

© Andrea Canter

I saw her Friday night (March 5) in Chicago at the Jazz Showcase and was entranced. I saw her Monday night at the Dakota and was thoroughly dazzled and charmed. I saw her again Tuesday night, and by the end of the last set, I was convinced I had heard the most exciting night of piano jazz in my own history. The best? Probably not a fair question…. I’ve seen Jarrett, Peterson, Brubeck, McPartland, Hersch, Barron, Tyner, Jamal and more. Hiromi is only 30—it’s too early to burden her with “legend” status. But it is not too early to predict she will get there. For now, let’s say she may have few living peers in terms of her combination of virtuosity, ferocity, and even delicacy. It’s an exhilarating, and charming, package.

Hiromi burst on the scene about seven years ago, barely out of Berklee and creating a stir with technical wizardry that conjured Art Tatum and girlish pizzazz that charmed the coolest audience. She quickly recorded a series of albums with her Berklee-cohort trio (Tony Grey, Martin Valihora), then added wild guitarist David Fiuczynski to form her SonicBloom Quartet. Her chops still dazzled but her increasing use of electronics engaged new fans while somewhat alienating others. Nevertheless, her compositions repeatedly yielded a wide palette, from lyrical fusings of Eastern and Western harmonies to free-wheeling mélanges of ever-shifting rhythms and tempos. Tatum, Jarrett, Evans, Coleman—the entire history of jazz seemed tightly wound inside one small woman whose energy seemed endless.

Sometime in the past year, new layers of Hiromi emerged. Or rather, layers of Hiromi seemed to peel away as she engaged in projects away from her own quartet. First came the duet album with Chick Corea (Duets), reuniting her with a past mentor with whom she once shared the stage as a teen in her native Japan. The 2-disk set is gorgeously acoustic, and arguably Hiromi upstages one of her heroes. Next, Stanley Clarke formed his first all-acoustic recording project with Lenny White and Hiromi, yielding one of my favorites of the year, Jazz in the Garden, and initiating a tour that landed at the Dakota in October. It was, at the time, the most inspired and inspiring performance of Hiromi that I’d witnessed, as if freed from electronics and her “wild woman” expectations, she truly blossomed. Not that her performance was sedate or conservative—the explosive creativity, the inhuman speed, the quick shifts of direction were ever-present. But somehow it seemed more joyful and more personal.

And finally the last layer peeled away, and Hiromi released a solo acoustic recording early in 2010, Place to Be. Her liner notes explain the collection of mostly original compositions as reflecting her experiences as she traveled the world on tour, but one also wonders if the title also refers to a more “inner” place, a place where nothing stands between the musical mind and piano, no distractions, no responsibilities, just artist and instrument.

The more I hear Hiromi, and particularly the more I hear her in these new contexts, the more I hear Ahmad Jamal, one of her early mentors and producers. Beyond her titanic technical skills—she probably plays more notes at greater velocity than anyone in jazz history save (perhaps!) Art Tatum, Hiromi, like Jamal, is a master of surprise, a magician in use of time and space. Within a few bars she transforms the rhythm, the tempo, the mood. She can turn on a dime, a sudden halt and feint left or right, a thunderous arpeggio suddenly reconfigured as a delicate trill. Or simply a languorous pause. And with that pause, a look toward the audience with an impish glint—something new is coming next, and we are clueless. It’s that anticipation of the unknown that can sustain our interest through a dozen shifts in direction, through a story seemingly without end. It’s the journey that makes the destination both irrelevant and ultimately perfect.

This is the “Place to Be.”

Full review to be posted shortly on JazzINK. Photos of Hiromi by Andrea Canter, March 8, 2010 at the Dakota.

Saturday Night Live With Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts (and a Bottle of Fred)

© Andrea Canter

Matt Wilson is not just a virtuosic drummer. He’s a stand-up comic, storyteller, creator, and salesman for all things percussion. Or maybe all things music. He happened to be in the neighborhood (Duluth) with his all-star quartet, Arts and Crafts, and dropped in for a night of mayhem at the Artists Quarter Saturday night. The last time A&C came to town, it was a gig at the Dakota featuring Gary Versace, Terell Stafford, and late bassist Dennis Irwin, who died within the next year. The last time I saw A&C was at the 2008 Detroit Jazz Festival, with new bassist Martin Wind ably fitting himself into the swinging post bop excitement that Wilson and his cohorts can generate from a simple riff. This weekend, with Versace touring with Madeleine Peyroux, we were treated to the fleet-fingers and agile mind of pianist James Weidman, recently making waves as a member of Joe Lovano’s acclaimed Us Five ensemble.

The two sets offered a showcase of sophisticated yet playful interplay and engaging soloing, peppered throughout with commentary from Wilson that veered from relevant musical snippets to a full-blown Saturday Night Live episode. The latter found Wilson reveling in a newly discovered bottled water dubbed “Fred,” climaxing in a cell phone call (on speaker) to the company’s voice mail to deliver a congratulatory message.

But the music was the main event, mostly original fare with some well-chosen covers. Ornette Coleman’s “Rejoicing” featured Weidman moving magically from a single melodic line to a full symphony, and Wilson enchanting all with a cymbals solo that was equally songful. Hands-on percussion and a variety of odd objects augmented the trapset on Wilson’s “Scenic Route” while Weidman and Stafford entered into a surprise horn duet, Stafford on trumpet and Weidman picking up a small reed dubbed a xaphoon or bamboo pocket sax. (It sounds a bit like a soprano sax, but the tenor reed gives it a more mournful sound.) Ever versatile, Weidman also used a melodica on several tunes, including Wilson’s “Stolen Time;” combined with Stafford’s trumpet and the pulse of bass and drums, A&C briefly became a serious little mariachi band. Bassist Wind showed his compositional chops with “Cruise Blues,” featuring Stafford’s delicate flugelhorn.

This night boasted some of the most satisfying chamber jazz to come to town in recent years. It even drew Dakota owner Lowell Pickett across the river. There must be something special in that Fred water!

Photos: (top-bottom), Matt Wilson; James Weidman on melodica; Martin Wind; Terrel Stafford. (Photos by Andrea Canter at the AQ, March 6, 2010)

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Lead Sheet, Twin Cities Jazz March 5-11

© Andrea Canter

I’m hoping I can post this remotely… from Chicago. And I’ll keep it short, not because there is any shortage of great jazz in the Twin Cities this week, but because… I gotta back and get out of here. But before I go…

The long-anticipated return of Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts gets the week off to a flying start. The band is up in Duluth for the Head of the Lakes Jazz Festival at UMD on Friday night, coming down to the Artists Quarter for one glorious night on Saturday (3/5). I first heard Matt and this quartet about four years ago at the Dakota, then again at the club in early 2007. Bassist Dennis Irwin passed away before I saw them again, this time at the 2008 Detroit Jazz Festival with young German bassist Martin Wind ably taking over. Gary Versace is usually on organ/piano but for this tour, James Weidman takes over the keys while Versace tours with Madeleine Peyroux. I’ve never heard Weidman live but he is a major force on Joe Lovano’s Folk Art recording with the Us Five ensemble. And on trumpet we’ll hear Terell Stafford, a favorite at the Dakota (he recorded live a few years back). But the centerpiece is drums and Matt Wilson, one of the most animated, maniacal, musical drummers in modern jazz. He’s also one of the busiest, keeping up not only with Arts and Crafts but with his “out” quartet, his Carl Sandburg Project, numerous live and recording gigs with a raft of vocalists, and some new projects involving solo, trio and larger groups. The AQ is scheduling two ticketed sets.

Monday and Tuesday, the Dakota hosts a perennial favorite in a new context. Hiromi, the young pianist who stole the show at the 2004 Twin Cities Jazz Festival and has since captured global attention with her trio, Sonicbloom quartet, duets with Chick Corea and collaboration with the Stanley Clarke Trio, went into the studio alone and came out with one of the most stunning efforts of her career. She’s touring in support of Place to Be, and believe me, the Dakota will be the place to be early in the week. And Chicago is the place to be this weekend—I’ll catch Hiromi at the Jazz Showcase Friday night.

An interesting look at how young jazz musicians evolve will be on the menu at Honey, below the new Ginger Hop in northeast Minneapolis on Wednesday night (3/10). The high school ensemble, Dakota Combo, stretches as they support vocal students from MacPhail before taking off on their own set. Director Adam Linz says this will be a learning-by-doing activity—getting the charts and making music, an essential skill for aspiring jazz artists who want paid work. Hear some up-and-coming voices as well as seven outstanding young instrumentalists.

With the upcoming King for Two Days weekend at the Walker (March 12-13), you can get a preview and some insights from Dave King himself, speaking at a free presentation at the Walker on Thursday (3/11) at 8 pm. Plan ahead for the weekend extravaganza as King brings nearly all of his bands to the McGuire Theater—Buffalo Collision, Bad Plus, Happy Apple, and the combined Bad Apple all on Friday night, and new bands Golden Valley Is Now (with fellow Golden Valley natives Craig Taborn and Reid Anderson) and Dave King Trucking Company (with Erik Fratzke, Chris Speed and Adam Linz). There’s rumors of a surprise set….

This is the tip of the iceberg for the week, but it is a might spikey tip! Check Pamela’s blog for a longer list of what’s up at

Photos: Matt Wilson at the Detroit Jazz Festival; Hiromi at the Dakota in October; the Dakota Combo at their recent visit to Ramsey Junior High in St Paul (Photos by Andrea Canter)