Sunday, April 11, 2010

JazzWeek, Twin Cities Style

© Andrea Canter

Sometimes, often in fact, it’s just one great night of music after another. This past week, for instance:

April 3, Nakatani with Linz and Bates at Rogue Buddha Gallery. Tatusya Nakatani is not exactly a jazz artist, he’s the ultimate improviser who mixes traditional Japanese percussion with a free jazz fervor. His Minneapolis debut at Rogue Buddha in early 2009 was one of my favorite music events of the year, and things were even more enjoyable the second time around. And around he goes, starting at one end of the apparatus (looks like a portable coat rack) from which he hangs two large gongs, and proceeding clockwise, engaging each gong separately and simultaneously with an array of bows and a mallets, then moving to face the audience as he takes position behind a stripped-down trapset. But it’s stripped down only in the number of drums, as Nakatani uses a smaller hanging gong, a variety of bowls and bows and other objects to create a wild array of sounds. Soon he’s in reverse, retracing his journey as he now moves counterclockwise, ending as he began with the most subtle reverberations from the first gong. From start to finish (about thirty minutes), there is a continuous wall of sound, building to thundering crescendos that mimic the near sonic assaults of industrial pounding. With bowls or even mouth on drum skins, he creates a very inhuman cacophony, his bows caressing or grating the edges of the hanging gongs, while his overgrown mallets make the most fleeting, gentle contact on the gong’s surface, setting up a final, lingering decay.

More complicated is the second act, a collaborative improvisation with bassists Adam Linz and Chris Bates stationed on either side of the percussion array. The first few minutes make a gong trio, Linz and Bates the apprentices flanking the master Nakatani perched above the small gong and trapset in the middle. Soon the bassists take their percussion antics to their big fiddles, whose hollow bodies make fine drums, and gradually Chris and Adam are upright with their instruments, but still in percussive mode. As we learned a year ago, almost anything can be pushed between the bass surface and strings to dampen sound, almost anything can strike the strings at any point from neck to bottom to create odd tones. With Nakatani between them and going off into his own percussion fantasies, it is more difficult than watching a ping-pong match if you want to keep track of each musician. And it is worth the effort. Hopefully this is an annual event.

April 7, Brad Mehldau Trio at the Dakota. I’ve been a Mehldau fan since his first Art of the Trio recordings in the 90s, although in recent years I have been less enamored with his original works that sometimes move beyond lyrical fantasies to self-indulgent noodling, like the best and worst of (mostly early) Keith Jarrett’s solo exploits. Of late I find myself enjoying his reconstructions of standards more than his own compositions. I only got to one of his four sets this time, but found this far more enjoyable regardless of the repertoire. Mehldau just released a suite of original work commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (Highway Rider), to be premiered in concert format with the SPCO and Josuha Redman next November at the Walker. Each set at the Dakota, he gave a preview of that work, here in trio format.

Whatever he plays, every Brad Mehldau note seems to have a defined space around it, giving his articulation precision, a single perfect sound in a sea of many such perfect sounds, regardless of tempo. Similarly, every musical idea has its own space, and on this occasion, those spaces were well connected, still mesmerizing but purposeful. Some compositions and arrangements have a deeply moving blues feel (e.g., Nick Drake’s “River Man”), another commonality with Jarrett; some are playful with a quirky urgency (Monk’s “Skippy”… I think, Monk was in definitely in the neighborhood). Perhaps oddly, given his reputation for both original and modern, even rock fare, my favorite of the set was a lush, spacious arrangement of “I Cover the Waterfront.” Mehldau, and his telepathic colleagues (Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard), cover the music front, caressing the melody, wrapping it in a warm blanket of just enough ornamentation.

April 7, Easy Company at the Artists Quarter. Yes, it was a bit of a mad dash from downtown to downtown but the late start at the AQ helped. I left the Dakota thinking half the musicians in town were there for Mehldau’s late set. Arriving at the AQ, I noted much of the other half of the local instrumental jazzers were on hand to welcome the return of Bill Carrothers and hometown cohorts Jay Epstein and Anthony Cox. Apparently there were few local gigs Wednesday night. The pros were out admiring their heroes. As was I. Any evening that starts with Brad Mehldah and ends with Bill Carrothers is a rare and life-sustaining experience.

“Easy Company” was the name of the trio’s CD, released about a year ago, and now the name of the ensemble of internationally acclaimed artists. Carrothers can be as melodic and lyrical as Mehldau but typically more playful, more upbeat, and less subtle. He stayed inside the piano during the first set but his tactics were nevertheless unfettered by convention. Same applies to Cox and Epstein, two of the most creative agents of their respective instruments. In particular Cox took bow in hand more often than most, lending a cello-ish tone to several tunes. The first set included originals (Jay’s “Giza”, Bill’s “Peg”), intriguing covers by Carla Bley (“Ida Lupino”) and Alec Wilder (“Moon and Sand”), a quirky take on a songbook standard (“You and the Night and the Music”), and the closing triumph from John Williams, “Imperial March.” The surprise was a multi-faceted “Bye Bye Blackbird” with special guest, singer Nancy Harms. More about her in a minute.

Mehldau appeared to a near sell-out on the other side of the river. In St. Paul, Easy Company had plenty of company, not close to sold out, but reasonably well attended not only by the local musicians but a larger group of what could be McNally Smith College students, young and mesmerized by three who serve as ideal role models for the collaborative spirit that defines jazz.

April 8, Bryan Nichols Trio with Nancy Harms at Barbette. One of the odd but true facts of jazz in the Twin Cities is that often the best music is booked into the least music-friendly spaces in town. Laura Caviani and her trio are nearly weekly performers at Crave in the Galleria, where the “stage” is a small (I mean, small) space across from the bar and the only time you will actually hear the music is when the crowd thins out after 10 pm and then, only if you are within ten feet of the musicians. Café Maude has become the Minneapolis scene of experimental music, presenting artists like Bryan Nichols, Chris Thomson, Fat Kid Wednesdays, and Ryan Olcott inside the din of a crowded southwest neighborhood restaurant. Add to the list Barbette, that hot and hip French bistro in Uptown where happy hour seems endless, where a weeknight at 11 pm can be as packed and boisterous as a sports bar at 6 pm. There is no stage, it seems they cleared out a table by a front window and strung a sound system. Actually it is a decent sound system…. If only you could hear the sound. With noisy table conversations surrounding you no matter where you perch, there is little chance to hear the magic from the band. Maybe if you sit right in front of the keyboard and mic? I was further back. Sometimes I could clearly hear Bryan and bassist Chris Bates. On occasion, I could also hear Nancy, as on “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” Sometimes I had to concentrate just to determine if the band was playing or on break. Tonight, Nancy Harms was testing out her recently recorded material in the more adventurous company of Nichols and Bates; now and then I could tell it was a very successful experiment that bears repeating in a more musically supportive setting. Like Carrothers, Bryan Nichols never met a note or a melody that he couldn’t effectively alter, and as an evolving vocalist, Nancy Harms is coming to the same conclusion—the lead sheet is a suggestion, not a blueprint.

April 9, Jay Young’s Lyric Factory at the Artists Quarter. Honestly, I would have promoted this one more if I had more information and more time to find it. But knowing it was a Jay Young project was enough to put it on my calendar and trek over to the AQ Friday night. This was the second or third time that master bassist Young has left his sideman hat in the closet and donned the cape of bandleader in tribute to two of his favorites, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. But somehow I missed the earlier presentations. Hopefully not again. With a McNally Smith tinged ensemble of Pete Whitman on sax, Kevin Washington on drums, Thom West on keys, son Ian Young on another bass, “Soul Testimony” (aka Lisa Washington) on spoken word, and vocalists Judi Donaghy, Sarah Greer and Michelle Michaels, the first set was devoted to Stevie Wonder.

If you questioned how well iconic pop covers would translate to jazz arrangements, be assured that the Lyric Factory made the transition seamlessly, infusing each tune with enough soul and blues to keep the music on the composer’s planet while an underlying jazz structure ensured a good fit to the expectations of the AQ’s audience. In a word, the music exploded, showering the room with a joyful exuberance usually reserved for dance halls and gospel services. And no one had more fun that Jay Young, switching among his bass guitars, sometimes standing and swaying, sometimes perched on a stool, overseeing the proceedings with a big grin. It was also a joy to see Thom West. I remember nights at the old Luxx when he would accompany Shirley Witherspoon, his giant hands covering the keyboard with authority and dexterity. I don’t see enough of him these days. Next time I’ll have to catch the Michael Jackson set. I’m sure it was a “thriller.”

April 10, Danilo Perez and 21st Century Dizzy at Ted Mann. The closing concert of the Northrop Jazz Season was one of the best of the last five seasons, full of energy, virtuoso musicianship and stellar ensemble playing. It’s been a long while since Perez performed in the Twin Cities—at the old Dakota, and it has been a while since we saw David Sanchez and Rudresh Mahanthappa brandish their saxophones here as well. I’ve seen Ben Street in New York, not locally, and this was my first opportunity to see the amazing percussionist Jamey Haddad, drummer Adam Cruz and trumpeter Amir ElSaffar. Brought together to pay homage to Dizzy Gillespie, for whom Perez worked as a young member of Diz’s last United Nations Orchestra, the band is playing only six cities this spring, and hopefully will find time to record their efforts. Whether playing new arrangements of Dizzy’s music (“Kush,” “Manteca”), standards like “Round Midnight” or their own, each piece highlighted the band’s use of space as well as individual and collective tactics.

“Kush” was a bit of “Night in Tunisia” meets “Afro Blue” and was distinguished by the tandem micro-stepped harmonies of the brass line; “Round Midnight” by the off-center rhythm that seemed to out-Monk Monk. Perez was a versatile leader, sometimes minimalist in his comping, sometimes playful. The focus of my attention was often Jamey Haddad. I can imagine him in a Las Vegas nightclub, asking patrons to provide whatever is in their pockets, turning ordinary “junk” into sonic artillery. Some of his tools appeared home-made or merely found, broomheads, rattles, little wooden structures as well as an assortment of sticks and mallets, used with discretion and surprise. Perez himself got into the percussion act, flipping the top of piano and even a simple cough to punctuate the closing “Manteca.” ElSaffar demonstrated a wide range of horn magic, from sharply defined solos to barely audible harmonizing. Dizzy would approve and eagerly join in.

Photos (top to bottom): Tatsuya Nakatani at Rogue Buddha; Easy Company (Bill Carrothers, Anthony Cox, Jay Epstein); Nancy Harms sitting in at the AQ; Jay Young with Lyric Factory. (Photos by Andrea Canter)