Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jazz in 2012: Alive and Well, Locally and Beyond

Dave King: He's "Ringing Us"

© Andrea Canter

Sunday’s Strib carried its annual Twin Cities Critics Tally – a set of critics’ “best ofs” celebrating  local musicians, local songs, live acts and recordings. And as usual, jazz is barely visible, with only Chris Bates’ Red Five debut album, New Hope, carrying the banner for America’s much ignored native art form. Not that there was a better example of what’s great in local music, jazz or otherwise.

But we who actually value and support jazz had no reason to expect more notice by mainstream media, which is why we have bloggers, online sites and a few print media hold-outs. Jazz in 2012, however, was noticed by Benjamin Schwarz, the national editor of the Atlantic Monthly, in what at first seems to be a review of Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards, but ends up as yet another declaration that “Jazz Is Dead” (November 2012).  Not long after, Scott Timberg, in the e-zine Salon, picks up where Schwarz left off, reiterating the theory that the American songbook “killed jazz..” (I must have missed the obituary.) The gist of the observation is that because jazz repertoire holds on to the songs that made jazz popular through the mid-20th century (you know, all that old stuff from Gershwin to Rodgers and Hart, from Crosby to Sinatra, from Billie to Ella), it’s become stagnant, a “relic” to use Timberg’s term. How can such claptrap as “Summer Time” and “A Child Is Born” keep pace with the new music of the 21st century?

I wonder if the downturn in audiences and CD sales in classical music is similarly a natural consequence of the American orchestra’s reliance on Bach and Beethoven? Perhaps the current battles between musicians and management that plague SPCO and MO could be remedied by purging the 17th and 18th century “relics” of their repertoire? Surely this is a much bigger problem in the realm of classical music, where 21st century audiences continue to be pelted not only with music going back to the Renaissance, but with performances that rather tightly adhere to the original score. At least a new recording of “Body and Soul” is likely to offer new interpretations via improvisation.

Esperanza Spalding
But I digress. In the world of jazz in 2012, there are daily signs that jazz “is alive and well,” borrowing the optimism from the Strib’s roundup of musical highlights. Not just the latest accolade or honor paid (deservingly) to current icon Esperanza Spalding or even (deservingly) to one of her golden predecessors, Diana Krall. In New York, consider the body of work coming from the Brooklyn Underground. The Festival of New Trumpet. The vitality of clubs like Cornelia Street Café and Small’s, as well as the survival of legendary haunts like the Village Vanguard and Birdland. On the West Coast, consider the forward movement of institutions such as the Thelonious Monk Institute, Thornton School of Music, UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, and the ongoing success of the Monterrey Jazz Festival. In the Midwest, consider the rise from the ashes and continuing growth of the Detroit Jazz Festival and its annual one million attendees.

Signs That Jazz Is Alive and Well in Minnesota

So let’s keep the focus on our local jazz scene. In 2012, there were many signs of the vitality of jazz, across generations, across venues. These are just my personal high points:

Tanner Taylor at Jazz Central
Jazz Central. If I had to pick out only one symbol of the present and hopefully future strength of jazz in our community, this underground (literally) studio run by a pair of musicians generally regarded as “mainstream” practitioners reflects all that is keeping Twin Cities jazz alive and well. Drummer Mac Santiago has long been associated with pureveyors of the Great American Songbook, while another generation removed, pianist Tanner Taylor similarly is known as a hard-swinging performer and arranger for small and large ensembles, and particularly vocalists. But if a conservative line-up was what we expected when they took over a basement-level studio space two years ago, we soon knew otherwise. Currently, Monday nights highlight an often-underappreciated artist, perhaps someone rarely in a leader role or someone in a new configuration. There’s no push to play the music everyone expects—no club owner or benefactor to please. Monday nights are often a golden opportunity to try out new music or new approaches to old music, to hear unique pairings of artists. About a year ago, JC added Big Band Tuesdays. And you might hear new arrangements of those great standards, but you are also likely to hear new compositions that bear little or no resemblance to the charts of Basie and Kenton. Now, JC has added a vocalists series on Thursdays, and while the voices might be familiar, often the repertoire is brand new. Again, it’s music that might raise eyebrows at established clubs where tickets and drinks sold define success. If you hear it first, you probably hear it at Jazz Central.

Fat Kid Wednesdays at the Icehouse
Icehouse. Adjacent to Vertical Endeavors in South Minneapolis, one might consider Icehouse a musical vertical endeavor. In addition to a well-executed, mostly light menu and busy bar, Icehouse sports a rather large stage and a wide ranging series of nightly music. JT Bates curates his “Implosion” series on Mondays, right out of the old Clown Lounge scene and featuring music largely drawn from the local 30+/40+ generation of improvisers, both established ensembles like Fat Kid Wednesdays and the Atlantis Quartet and new bands (Red 5, Gravatt/Linz/Wozniak). If you’re a Baby Boomer, you might notice that most of the Implosion audience is barely out of school, but talk about ensuring the future of the music! Jazz is featured during dinner sets on weekends, usually piano/bass duos with some of the area’s best (Bryan Nichols, Peter Schimke, James Buckley, Chris Bates), and other nights might bring in a monster veteran like Anthony Cox or an up-and-coming ensemble like Koplant NO (an Iowa-based quartet on the early January schedule). In some ways, this is how that Late Night series at the Dakota started out when Jeremy Walker was curator.

Babatunde Lea at Studio Z
Jazz at Studio Z.  Guitarist/impresario Zacc Harris is armed with a second MRAC grant (Metropolitan Regional Arts Council) and is in the midst of a second season of monthly events pairing a free workshop with a performance in this intimate Lowertown space.  The featured musicians range from beloved veterans like Dave Karr to nationally known area newcomers like Babatunde Lea to local innovators like Dave King, Chris Bates and Harris himself.

2012 TCJF at Mears Park

Twin Cities Jazz Festival. Producer Steve Heckler keeps finding grants, sponsors, and top jazz acts that maintain the festival in Mears Park each summer, without transforming the event into a more generic music fest or charging admission. It’s become a mini Detroit Jazz Festival, and, like Detroit, is dangerously close to outgrowing its perfect location. And you have to admire Heckler for effectively balancing local and national talents, which of course can never be done to anyone’s satisfaction, given two large stages and only 16 or so hours of schedule time. The 2012 melding of Francisco Mela, Delfeayo Marsalis and Joshua Redman/Bad Plus with the likes of  A Love Electric, Connie Evingson, Twin Cities Seven and Phil Hey, plus a Youth Stage, among many others, was as good as one can imagine for a free festival in this area, and the overflow crowds Friday and Saturday night confirmed the level of interest in jazz locally.

Zosha Warpeha and Freeman Ryan, PipJazz Youth
Pipjazz Sundays/PipJazz Youth. Vocalist Pippi Ardennia came to the Twin Cities a few years ago with a vision for bringing jazz to new audiences and creating opportunities for young musicians to learn their craft from their elders—the way Pippi learned in her native Chicago. Now after two seasons of PipJazz Sundays at Landmark Center, Pippi has collaborated with a long list of area stars and legends, from Irv Williams and Barbara Leshoure to Debbie Duncan and Dennis Spears, to rising stars Jason DeLaire and Solomon Parham. More important to the future of jazz, Pippi introduced a youth artist program that puts at least one student (college age or younger) on stage with the veteran house band at each monthly concert, and has recently added her third “Youth Artist in Residence” to that house band. The opportunity for such young artists to rehearse and perform with a pro band is unique here. And there is no doubt that jazz is alive and well for every student touched by this program, now supported by the new PipJazz Foundation.

Chris Bates
Chris Bates. 2012 was a break-out year for Bates as he jumped to the front as bandleader, finally. A lauded composer dating back to his years with the Motion Poets, Chris now has outlets for those compositions in bands of his own direction, including the Good Vibes Trio with Phil Hey and Dave Hagedorn and his stellar quintet Red 5, responsible for one of the top local recordings of the year (New Hope) – recognized well beyond the jazz community. Chris brought the magic of improvisation and composition to a wider audience, holding three “open sessions” in preparation for the Red 5 recording last spring. And as long as he holds bass duties in some of the area’s most exciting bands (Atlantis Quartet, Framework, How Birds Work, Red Planet, and the Minnesota edition of A Love Electric), we can count on a long and happy reign of forward-moving compositions and performances.

Adam Meckler
Adam Meckler. This still “under 30” trumpeter is fast becoming one of the top horn artists in town and beyond, as well as one of our most creative composers and bandleaders. He leads his quintet; he leads one of the most intriguing quartets in the area—Lulu’s Playground (trumpet, guitar, accordion and cello); his performance magic helps push wife Jana Nyberg’s “Group” far beyond most vocalist-led projects; and his Adam Meckler Orchestra, a monthly fixture at Jazz Central, offers an open palette for his composition and arranging chops. If that’s not enough to keep him busy, he also lends his horn to such popular bands as Jack Brass Band and Todd Clouser’s A Love Electric. Not sure how he manages it all (along with teaching), but as long as Adam is alive and well, so is local music.

Miguel Hurtado
Miguel Hurtado. Drummer Miguel graduated just a couple years ago from the Manhattan School of Music, but by then he was a veteran Twin Cities performer, starting out in teen bands (with Owen Nelson, Javier Santiago, Chris Smith) and progressing to utility drummer with the Twin Cities Jazz Festival before graduating from South High. Back home after MSM, Miguel in two short years has become a first call drummer, bandleader, composer and arranger, bringing ensembles to the Artists Quarter and summer jazz festival, and managing the trapset for a long list of top musicians, including homecoming visits from John Raymond and tonight’s debut with Jeremy Walker’s Boot Camp. There’s a vital legacy of jazz drumming in the Twin Cities and now there’s ample evidence it will flourish for decades to come.

Maud Hixson
Songs for All. From new releases from area veteran singers to new performance venues to keep the songs in front of live audiences, 2012 was a good year for jazz songs. Arne Fogel initiated a series to complement the traditional vibe of The Lexington, and presented a wide range of fellow vocalists; as noted above, Jazz Central started a vocalist series on Thursday nights, offering the intimacy of a cabaret experience with the open experimentation of a house party; a number of songbirds released (or prepared to release) fine recordings, from Connie Evingson's golden ninth (Sweet Happy Life) to Maryann Sullivan’s debut (Coffee Time) to Patty Peterson's long-awaited fourth (The Very Thought of You), with upcoming releases from Connie Dussl, Dorothy Doring and more. And one who always assures us that jazz, including or perhaps especially the jazz from earlier times, never loses its charm, Maud Hixson successfully launched a Kickstarter project that will take her to New York to record long-neglected and newly-discovered songs of Mickey Leonard.

Todd Clouser
Minnesota Exports. Perhaps one of the best reasons for optimism regarding the local jazz scene is the impact of Minnesotans on the larger world of music. In 2012, former resident, guitarist/composer Todd Clouser recorded three times with his A Love Electric Band. That’s one ensemble, three distinctly different projects, the first two riding on a tide of critical acclaim as he prepares to formally release the third in February. Trumpeter John Raymond, now settled in Brooklyn, continues to light up stages from Dizzy’s to Small’s, celebrating his debut full-length recording last spring, participating in the famed Festival of New Trumpet, bringing trio and quartet groups to Manhattan stages, and returning home throughout the year for gigs at the Dakota, Artists Quarter and Jazz Central. Recently back in town for a vacation gig at Jazz Central, Minnesotan Aaron Hedenstrom is working on a graduate degree at the University of North Texas. But even before classes were underway, he was named winner of the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival's Large Ensemble Composition Award.  And vocalist Nancy Harms seems to grow by leaps and bounds, finding perfect companions in the Big Apple and bringing the music back home, including her collaboration with pianist/composer Jeremy Siskind on the remarkable Fingersongwriter project, and with bassist Steve Whipple and vocalist Emily Braden for Double Bass/Double Voice. (Yes, the world can appreciate yet another version of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” if sung with Nancy’s interpretative inventions.)

Beyond the Bad Plus

In his Salon commentary, Timberg finally gets around to noting some of the leaders in contemporary jazz who are keeping jazz alive, even when standards/pop hits enter their playlists – Brad Mehldau, Vijay Iyer, Fred Hersch, and The Bad Plus are specifically and appropriately noted. But for each of these high profile artists, there are dozens more moving in the same directions, as has been true since the early days of bebop when such jazzers as Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell drew critical ire for messing with “standards” – not because critics were tired of the Great American Songbook, but because they revered it. Sometimes I wonder if one thing keeping jazz alive, rather than putting it in its grave, is the fact that the music is so diverse that it draws both praise (always evolving, respecting its history) and condemnation (stuck in the past, too removed from its roots) – can an art form be dead if it keeps generating controversy?

Dave King
Maybe Dave King, the Bad Plus drummer based in the Twin Cities, deserves the “keeping jazz alive” crown for 2012. In addition to his ongoing contributions to one of the most controversial and successful jazz bands of the new millennium (one that seldom covers a “songbook standard” yet built its credentials on both original compositions and reinventions of modern pop/rock), this summer Dave released his debut trio recording, I’ve Been Ringing You. And except for the spontaneously recorded title track, the album is all standards. Working with Bill Carrothers and Billy Peterson, King makes those “relics” all the evidence I need to confirm jazz as both timeless and futuristic.

Apologies to all artists, bands, venues, presenters, commentators who contribute to the vitality of jazz in the Twin Cities, who are not mentioned here.... because the list would go on and on.