Monday, December 31, 2007

Red Planet

When: 12/29/07
Where: The Artists' Quarter
Who: Dean Magraw (guitar), Chris Bates (bass), Jay Epstein (drums); second set: Gary Schulte (violin)

Strings and sticks, cymbals, skins, and gongs: no horns, no keys. Magraw, Bates, and Epstein play all over the Twin Cities in all kinds of configurations, but when they come together as Red Planet, it's a unique and wonderful sound. Much of what they play at the AQ is mellow and melodic, with the focus shifting from Magraw's solos to Bates and Epstein and back again, circling the stage. When they play a series of Coltrane tunes back-to-back, the only one I recognize by name is "Revolution." Schulte guests for most of the second set, and it's a glorious concentration of strings. Toward the end of the evening, when many people have already left (it's almost 1 a.m.), I realize the music stopped being about the audience long ago; not that we don't matter (we do) but Magraw, Bates, Epstein and Schulte have gone to that place where music has its own life and purpose in that particular moment, and it's pure creativity. They're four cooks in a kitchen, and we're lucky to be at the table.

Photograph, L to R: Magraw, Bates, Schulte, Epstein.

The Bad Plus

When: 12/27/07
Where: The Dakota
Who: Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (bass), Dave King (drums)

There's a CD called The Bad Plus authorized bootleg new york 12/16/01. Mine is signed by Iverson, Anderson, and King and dated 2002, which may be the first time I saw them, at the old Dakota in Bandanna Square. I've tried to catch them every time they've come into town since then (King still lives here, but Iverson and Anderson don't) because they are always stimulating and thought-provoking. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, recently saw them at Carnegie Hall and dubbed them "the Coen brothers of jazz."

Back at the Dakota for their now-traditional series of holiday shows, playing for four nights of sold-out, open-curtain crowds (meaning the supposedly sound-deadening curtain between the club side and the restaurant side is open and the whole place becomes a club), they were in fine form, playing a selection of songs old and new: "Prehensile Dream," "My Friend Meditron," "Beryl Loves to Dance," "Cheny Pinata," "Old Money," "Lost of Love," Rush's "Tom Sawyer."

I was amazed as always by their ability to all move in different rhythmic and melodic directions, then mysteriously meet up again at precisely the same moment. The chords never go where you expect them to go. Iverson seemed to have four hands instead of his usual three; his playing was even more complex and layered. Anderson's compositions still remind me of "Bolero" (slow start, gradual crescendo, big finish), but not in a bad way because they're beautiful. King was all over his drums and toys, grinning through most of the evening. Every second or third song, Iverson stood up, reached for the microphone, faced the crowd, and told us about the music, embroidered with stories delivered in his deadpan style. ("This is a song about a girl named Beryl. She's a little shy, a little awkward...she wears glasses...but when she's alone in her room, she turns up her stereo and takes it to a good place.")

I enjoyed the whole night but their first encore was especially exciting to me: a short piece called "Semi-Simple Variations" by American composer Milton Babbitt. I learned from reading the Bad Plus blog that Iverson performed this in 2007 in "an evening of spooky modern music" at the Paris Bar at the National Arts Club in New York. On the bill: music by Babbitt, Charlie Parker, Shostakovich, Schoenberg, Ives, Bartok, Stravinsky, etc. Wish I'd been there. I'd love it if the Bad Plus took on classical music the way they have pop music.

The set we saw ended with "Heart of Gold," with Anderson and King softly singing the words. A few people laughed when they recognized the Neil Young tune, but to me, it wasn't funny at all. It was tender and reflective and melancholy. I may need to revise my opinion of the Bad Plus from "mostly ironic" (9 on a scale of 10) to "sometimes ironic" (maybe 4 on a scale of 10).

Photograph by John Whiting. L to R: Iverson, Anderson, King.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Loot: Ask Me Now

Indiana University Press, the publishing arm of the school I was supposed to attend to pursue a doctorate in Victorian Studies except I never showed up, publishes several books on jazz. Two titles I've bought in the past year—The Jazz Poetry Anthology and The Second Set (both collections of jazz poetry)—have come out of IU Press, as did Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz & Literature. The latter was a gift from my friend Andrea, whose article "Jazz in Print for Readers, Writers and Photographers" makes good reading. Also on my bookshelf: Quintet of the Year by Geoffrey Haydon, published in London, and two thick volumes out of Columbia University Press, Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies and The Jazz Cadence of American Culture.

Rhonda Laurie

When: 12/26/07
Where: Cave Vin
Who: Rhonda Laurie (voice), Reynold Philipsek (guitar), Matt Senjem (bass)

Cave Vin owner Ken Wills
has wanted to feature live music at his restaurant since it opened, and now he can. City regulations have changed and nearby hot spot Cafe Maude is putting the pressure on with music every Friday and Saturday including some of the Twin Cities' best jazz artists. So we can enjoy the lovely sounds of Rhonda Laurie, who has a regular 6:30–9:30 on Wednesday night gig at the bistro on Xerxes through at least February 13. The food is excellent and reasonably priced, the music a perfect accompaniment.

Rhonda usually sings with Jeff Brueske on bass; we heard Matt Senjem instead and liked him a lot. Classic jazz tunes with a hot club feel. Very nice for the night after Christmas.

Philipsek is a busy guy. He plays with the Twin Cities Hot Club (as does Senjem) and other artists around town, and he has made more than 25 recordings. He's currently reading Horace Silver's autobiography.

Christmas Loot: Pet Lamp

John got the Hohner and I got this. When I saw the picture on the Target Web site, I thought it was a cute little desk or shelf lamp. In fact, it's about a foot high and just under two feet long, about the size of a real dachshund.

Another view of the Hohner

Go figure.

Christmas Loot: John's Hohner

This unusual harmonica has a name: Trumpet Call. It was introduced in 1906 and recently reissued as part of a historic Hohner series. My husband saw it on the cover of the Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog a few months back and fell in love. I tracked it down for Christmas and it was not an easy task; it was on back order everywhere (because of a flood at the Hohner factory?) and not available until February or later. I found one on of all places, ordered it, and received a confirmation from the seller, The Instrument Store. Skeptical, I replied with an email: "I would be grateful if you would confirm this item is in stock and will be sent soon. I understand these Hohners are in short supply and I hope to give this to my husband for Christmas, since he finds it fascinating (which is strange, since he doesn’t even play the harmonica)." And received this response: "Yes, we have a few in stock (probably the only ones in the country). We will ship either today or tomorrow and you should have the item within 5 days." Which I did. John was surprised. It came in a nice wood box and sounds pretty good.

Photograph by Jonah Klevesahl and his iPhone.

Christmas Loot: Jonah's Scarf, Chelsea's Hat

Scarf: Vintage Velvet pattern from Pam Allen's Scarf Style book. Made from Touch Me, knitted and felted. Reversible—no right or wrong side. Hat: The Cable Hat pattern from "Mittens and Hats to Knit," Leisure Arts leaflet 391. Soft Debbie Bliss Cotton DK. Both finished in time for Christmas. Whew.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

MinnPost: Bill Carrothers's Armistice Band Preview

Minnesota native turned Michigan resident and world traveler Bill Carrothers brings his Armistice 1918 project to the Artists' Quarter on January 4–5.

I previewed this show for MinnPost, before which I spent a lot of time listening to the double CD (thanks to Don Berryman for loaning it to me). I'm glad my editor let me write about it because it's not exactly a ho-ho-holiday program or theme.

In an email interview, Carrothers (who was in Italy at the time) told me about the band he's bringing to the AQ:

"The bass chair is being played by Gordy Johnson.... The European musicians [Jean-Marc Foltz on bass clarinet, Dre Pallemaerts on drums] are coming to the USA to record a CD of children's music with Peg and I. We thought it would be nice to play the AD1918 music since everyone will be there. It will be the US premiere.

"Dre Pallemaerts and I have been playing together for over 10 years, in trio, with AD1918, and in other people's groups. Matt Turner lives in Appleton so it's not that big a stretch for him to come. He was on the original CDs (as a blind date, I had never played with him before) and I loved his playing from the moment he picked up the bow. Jean-Marc Foltz was recruited for the AD1918 project when we started touring in Europe. I had heard him play before and he's incredible. Jay was on the recording and I picked him because I knew he would provide the perfect sound effect backdrop for the music, which he did. I knew Jay would be committed to the emotional content of the music and his participation was, and has been, vital to the success of the music.

"Peg was the logical choice for the vocal part because she sings great, and she understood the material and how to float over it as the Angel of the Battlefield. I had to be on it because they needed someone to look sexy on the cover and to make the sandwiches and beer for the session."

On the recording, the track called "Christmas 1914 (Silent Night)" (about the brief truce that took place between British and French troops and the Germans on Christmas Eve) was performed by the Knob Creek Choir, which consisted of the musicians who made the album (Carrothers, his father, Jay Epstein, etc.), the engineer at the studio, and several of Carrothers's friends including Davis Wilson, the longtime doorman at the Artists' Quarter. Carrothers explained that the choir was "named for the bourbon we were drinking the night we sang."

Chris Bates and Poutums Jazz Trio

When: 12/20/07
Rogue Buddha Gallery
Who: Set 1: Chris Bates (solo bass); Set 2: Poutums Jazz Trio: Chris Thomson (saxophone), Adam Linz (bass), Alden Ikeda (drums); Jon Pemberton (trumpet)

Live jazz in an art gallery on a winter night. No, no, don't make me go. Surrounded by gallery owner Nicholas Harper's paintings (some of which I liked, some of which I didn't), we sat in folding chairs sipping red wine from plastic glasses hearing fine music for a suggested donation of $5. The crowd was SRO and not the usual jazz club group, more the art gallery group, with ones and twos sneaking outdoors to smoke throughout the evening.

I'm always happy to hear Chris Bates. His set ranged from solo improvisation to songs where he accompanied himself (on electronic loops, some prepared ahead of time and some recorded on the spot) to bowing that made me think of Edgar Meyer's recording of Bach's cello suites on double bass. We often think of bass as needing something else—piano, horns, percussion—to be meaningful, but in the right hands it stands alone.

I like the big, low instruments: bass, baritone saxophone, bari clarinet, tuba (as played by Stefan Kac). To me, these are solar plexus instruments; the sound (especially the sound of the bass) stays in the center of the body and hums. I also like the bass because it's an instrument you embrace to play, like a dancing partner.

If I could wake up tomorrow knowing how to play any instrument, it would be the bass. I once thought about studying with Herbie Lewis, who said he'd be willing to take me on. He passed away in May of this year. If you follow this link and read the obituary Don Berryman wrote for Jazz Police, you'll also see a photograph Andrea Canter took of Lewis with Frank Morgan, who died a little over a week ago.

After Bates's set, it takes a few moments for the Poutums trio to set up, and the second they start to play, the whole gallery fills with music, like water rushing in. We're sitting right in front of Linz's bass, so again it's the bass that gets my attention. Linz plays like he could pull the strings right off the neck, tugging and yanking and grabbing great fistsful. He strums and plucks and pats the instrument, pulls it close and pushes it away, twirls and dips it—like a dancing partner.

At first, Thomson and Pemberton stand at opposite ends of the group, having a warm, brassy dialogue; at the end of the set, they're beside each other, weaving in and out of each other's notes. Ikeda drums with sticks and hands; it's my second time seeing him perform and I like him. The music is tuneful and beautiful.

Bates, Linz, and Thomson are frequent participants in the Rogue Buddha's iQuit Music Series, of which this evening was a part. The space is interesting, there's parking nearby, the music is good, and the price is right.

Meanwhile I wonder what Poutums means.

Photographs: Chris Bates; Chris Thomson and Adam Linz being observed by a sourpuss Nicholas Harper painting. All shot in a dark gallery at ISO 1600.

Bruce Henry

When: 12/20/07
Where: The Dakota
Who: Bruce Henry (voice), Scott Fultz (saxophone), Jason Craft (keyboards), Serge Akou of Joto (bass), Wendell Henry (drums)

I previewed Bruce Henry's holiday show for MinnPost and arrived to find a slightly different band than I thought I'd see, which is not at all unusual for jazz. I was expecting Gary Raynor on bass and Daryl Boudreaux on percussion; we got Akou on bass and Fultz on saxophone. No problem. They played a couple of tunes before Bruce came on stage with Al Jarreau's "Spain (I Can Recall)," a song that demands immediate verbal gymnastics. From there, because it was a holiday show, they gave us "A Child Is Born" and another Christmas tune, after which Bruce asked the crowd what else they were celebrating. Birthdays, anniversaries, retirement...and one man said "Her," beaming at the woman seated across from him, who beamed back. Bruce was singing Earth, Wind & Fire's "Mighty Mighty" when we had to leave for another place we'd promised to be that night.

I liked the drummer very much and will watch for him.

On my calendar for April 19: Bruce Henry's Freedom Train at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church.

Photos: Bruce; Serge looking snappy; Scott and Wendell

Friday, December 21, 2007

First must-see of 2008: Bill Carrothers' "Armistice 1918"

Bill Carrothers

Originally published on on December 21, 2007

Jazz pianist and composer Bill Carrothers has been a history buff since childhood. At age 10, he spent time with a World War I veteran and friend of his grandfather, taking in the old man's stories. As a boy growing up in Excelsior, he was fascinated by World War II. His interest in the Civil War was piqued by the Ken Burns documentary that first aired in 1990, and the fact that his great-grandfather was a lieutenant in Robert E. Lee's Army.

Meanwhile, Carrothers became a musician, taking piano lessons from the family's church organist, studying with Twin Cities legend Bobby Peterson, spending a year in the jazz program at North Texas State, moving to New York to try out the jazz scene there, then returning to the Midwest to settle in Michigan. (Listen to some of his work here.)

Today he makes his home in the Upper Peninsula but plays most of his music in Europe, where he tours frequently. (MinnPost caught up with him while he was in Messina, Italy.) Like many American jazz artists, Carrothers has found European audiences more accepting and supportive.

His early recordings include "The Blues and the Greys" (1993), a collection of Civil War-era songs. "One might think that Civil War music would be a rather abrupt change (from jazz), but it's not," Carrothers explains. "One of the things that makes jazz standards so appealing is their open-endedness and malleability. The same can be said of Civil War music."

Raves from the French

And for World War I music. In June 2003, Carrothers brought a group of musicians to Creation Audio in Minneapolis to record a two-CD set for release on the now-defunct French label Sketch. Supported in part by funding from a war museum in France's Somme region, Armistice 1918 won raves and the 2004 Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros, France's Grammy. Writing for The New York Times, Ben Ratliff called it "an ambitious work of repertory and imagination." Jazz magazines around the world included it in their Top 10 lists.

Armistice 1918 will be performed in the United States for the first time on Friday, Jan. 4 and Saturday, Jan. 5 at the Artists' Quarter. Forgive me; it's not exactly holiday cheer we're spreading here. But MinnPost goes on break the week between Christmas and New Year's, so this is my first chance to alert you to the first must-see jazz event of 2008.

Inspired by the work of Great War poets including Wilfred Owen (killed in action in Belgium at age 25), Armistice 1918 is a two-disc tone poem to World War I, poignant and deeply moving. It begins with the relative innocence of 1914 and songs of a man and woman in love ("Hello Ma Baby," "Cuddle Up a Little Closer"). The sweetness ends with the call to arms, separation ("Say Au Revoir"), and a sense of hope and purpose ("America, I Love You") that turns quickly to foreboding.

Disc 2 takes us to the front with popular tunes ("Roses of Picardy") and haunting, jarring originals and group improvisations ("Trench Raid," "No-Man's Land," "Funk Hole"). We hear death, disillusionment, devastation and despair. The closing track, "Armistice Day," is the sound of distant bells and, finally, silence.

A family affair

The recording features Carrothers on piano and his wife, Peg Carrothers, on voice. She sings on several tracks; her pure, clear soprano floats and soars. Bill calls her "the Angel of the Battlefield," and I couldn't imagine Armistice 1918 without her. Also on the recording: Matt Turner (cello), Drew Gress (double bass), Bill Stewart (drums), Jay Epstein (percussion), and Mark Henderson (bass clarinet).

For the Artists' Quarter engagement, Peg Carrothers, Turner and Epstein will return. Gordy Johnson will play bass, and the other two musicians — Jean-Marc Foltz (bass clarinet), Dre Pallemaerts (drums) — are coming from Europe. They'll record a children's CD with Bill and Peg during their stay in the States.

Plans are to play Armistice 1918 straight through in two sets, just like the CDs. With apologies to Artists' Quarter owner Kenny Horst, who's trying to make a living while keeping covers low, this may not be for you if what you want is a night of jazz as entertainment and background music. But if you're willing to listen quietly and intently — and if, as Carrothers hopes, you "come with an open mind and heart" — you'll experience the musical equivalent of a great war movie: moments of tender nostalgia, horror, irony, loss and regret, exhaustion and grief.

Armistice 1918 is about then, and of course it's about now, as increasing numbers of Americans and people around the world speak out against the war in Iraq. "I think if people studied history a bit more," Carrothers told MinnPost, "we wouldn't be so shocked by the events of today, and might be able to have a bit more perspective about our modern problems."

What: Bill Carrothers' Armistice Band U.S. premiere
Where: The Artists' Quarter, 408 St. Peter St., St. Paul
When: 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4, and Saturday, Jan. 5
How much: $15
Phone: 651-292-1359

Upcoming picks

Sisters in Song: A holiday show by three terrific local singers: Vicky Mountain, Dorothy Doring, and Lila Ammons. Proof that you don't have to go downtown for jazz, they will perform at the Dakota County Music Café at the Holiday Inn in Burnsville. Friday, Dec. 21, and Saturday, Dec. 22, 7:30 p.m. No cover.

Frank Morgan Memorial: The great alto saxophonist Frank Morgan died on Friday, Dec. 14, not long after returning home from a European tour. Expect a brief service followed by music from those who knew and loved him. The Artists' Quarter, 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 23. No cover, but donations will be accepted.

The Bad Plus: Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King have made an annual tradition of performing here at Christmas time. Do not expect a holiday show. Then again, you never know what to expect from this iconoclastic trio. The Dakota, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 26-29 ($28—$40).

Monday, December 17, 2007


Some people have told me they occasionally want to comment on a blog post but they don't want to register with Google. Registration is harmless and helps prevent rude flaming comments people make when they think they're anonymous (you know: "You suck!" "No, you suck!" "You're a $%^&*!!!" "No, you're a #$%^&*!!!!"). Not that the kind of person who reads this blog would ever say such things. But I've changed my settings so anyone can comment. Let's see what happens.

Robert Robinson

When: 12/16/07
Where: The Dakota
Who: Robert Robinson (voice), Lee Blaske (piano), Holly Collinson (voice), ?? (electric bass), Dan Collinson (drums); backup singers Annette Hardy, Sandy Hodges, Jeanne Lee, Valerie Robinson

Robert Robinson spent 15 years touring with Lorie Line, and his show at the Dakota was a holiday show. Two reasons for me not to go, but I've heard about Robinson for years without ever hearing him sing, so we went. When I saw Debbie Duncan in the house, I knew everything would be all right. If you must hear holiday music, it might as well be the kind that makes your hair stand up.

Around these parts, where he's a beloved institution, Robinson is called the "Pavarotti of gospel," and the label fits. He has a big, beautiful voice and he knows how to use it. The playlist was standard Christmas fare, but some songs left room for gospel-tinged improvisation, and there Robinson and his singers stretched out. Singer Holly Collinson, wife of Wooddale mega-church Worship Arts Pastor (and Robinson's drummer for the evening) Dan Collison, brought her soprano to the stage for several tunes including "The Prayer," a hit for Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli. It was all very professional, very smooth, and very held together by Lee Blaske's piano.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Frank Morgan 1933–2007

Alto saxophonist Frank Morgan has died. We read in the Strib on Friday the 16th that he had been diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer soon after completing a month-long European tour and was in the hospital, listening to Charlie Parker and autographing his CDs for staffers. He died later that day.

We last heard Morgan at the Dakota in July, during the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. He played the Dakota with Irv Williams on tenor sax and Grace Kelly on alto sax. On that stage, Morgan was the middle child, 74 years old compared to Williams's 87 and Kelly's 15. Earlier, in February, he had played the Dakota with pianist Joanne Brackeen. Both times, I was drawn in by his artistry and his quiet humility. I thought, since he now lived here and was only in his seventies, that I would have more chances to see him.

Frank Morgan's obituary on Jazz Police.

Photo by Andrea Canter.

More Holiday Lights

Because my husband loves dumb puns.

Holiday Lights

Rent a limo, bring champagne, and eat dinner ahead of time so you're not hung over the next day. Seven of us spent Friday night that way and it was fun. Our driver, Gary, was perfect; we'd talk and pop corks and laugh and he'd slow down and we'd lower the windows and there would be a yard full of lights, Santas popping in and out of chimneys, and giant blow-up snowman snow globes.

One of the places we stopped.
Broadway Limousine Service.

Photo by John Whiting.

Friday, December 14, 2007

MinnPost: Bruce Henry

Leigh Kamman called him "an international voice...the Jazz Messenger Supreme." The manager of a Paris nightclub where he performed called him "astounding and unclassifiable" (probably in French). Bruce Henry knocks my socks off. Hear him sing "Afro Blue" and read about his upcoming holiday show at the Dakota.

Photo by Andrea Canter.

Bruce Henry brings that candlelight feeling to the Dakota

Bruce A. Henry

Originally published on, December 14, 2007

The first time I heard Bruce Henry sing was in May 2003 at the Fitzgerald during a Leigh Kamman tribute concert. Even though it was a star-studded event — Karrin Allyson and Bill McLaughlin were co-hosts, Debbie Duncan sang, Percy Hughes played sax — I came away with a head full of Henry's big, beautiful baritone, a passionate instrument with a 3½-octave range.

I've heard him several times since, and his most recent CD, Connections (2003), is a permanent part of my playlist.

Early influences

Born in West Point, Miss., home of Howling Wolf, Henry grew up in Chicago and was singing publicly by age 5 in his family's Baptist church. His pianist father surrounded him with the music of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Henry was classically trained, but the siren call of improvisation (Nina Simone, Al Jarreau, John Coltrane) won out. Today he maintains a busy schedule of performing here and abroad, teaching (privately and at the FAIR magnet school in Crystal), and leading his ensemble Freedom Train, a performance group with a 15-voice choir, five-person dance troupe, seven-piece band, and a spoken word component with a mission of sharing African American music and history with all people. He also serves as music director for the Bridge worship service at 11 a.m. each Sunday at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis.

Henry brings a rare and not-to-be-missed holiday show to the Dakota on Thursday, Dec. 20. His band will include Jason Craft on piano, Gary Raynor on bass, Daryl Boudreaux on percussion, and Wendell Henry (no relation) on drums. I talked with him about what to expect and more.

MinnPost: Will you perform only holiday music, or can we hope for "Afro Blue," "House of the Rising Sun" and "The Sound of Music"?

Bruce Henry: You'll get a mixture of holiday songs, favorites and originals. I'm still working on a new piece that needs to be finished by Monday. If the washboard is there (at the Dakota), you'll hear Aaron Neville's "Louisiana Christmas Day." We'll also do a jazzy arrangement of "A Child Is Born" and "Winter Wonderland" as an ode to Ray Charles.

MP: These days, we start hearing holiday music at Halloween, and we're sick of it by Christmas. How do you keep holiday songs fresh for yourself and the audience?

BH: I went years without doing holiday music. I heard it too much. When I did private and corporate shows, I got by without doing holiday songs — I gave them to the band. And then, somehow, I got the spirit of Christmas again. I've found some nice arrangements that freshen up the music, very jazzy. ... I might not catch the Christmas spirit on Halloween, but sooner or later that candlelight feeling is gonna come.

MP: What else are you up to these days?

BH: I'm writing a business plan for the Jazz Vocalists of Minnesota [Henry is one of the founding members]. And I'm in rehearsals with Freedom Train. That's my baby, and we are a tribe. The idea is to combine our love of African American culture with activism. Our next public performance is April 19th at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. It's a fundraiser for their Dignity Center and right up our alley, trying to raise money for the good work they do for homeless people. ... I'm also doing the school thing, finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota in Afro studies with an emphasis on black music history. I've been a college senior since 1975. I've taught, written curriculum, done workshops, but it's all been self-taught. Now I'll get that piece of paper. I'm shooting for graduating by Christmas 2008.

MP: Your latest CD, Connections, came out in 2003. Is there a new recording on the horizon?

BH: We recorded a live CD at the Dakota 2½ years ago. I don't know why they haven't released it.

MP: Last week, we asked local jazz artists which CDs by other local jazz artists they would give as holiday gifts. What would you give?

BH: Can I only say one? No? OK, then. ... Lucia Newell's Steeped in Strayhorn. Something by Moveable Feast. And I'd give Debbie Duncan's holiday CD, It Must Be Christmas.

MP: What do you want for Christmas?

BH: That's a heavy question. What I really want is all of my family together in peace and good health. We're having everybody over this year [to Henry's home], and my mom and dad aren't coming [from Chicago]. But I haven't given up on them yet.

MP: The Dakota calendar says your show starts at 8 p.m.; your website says 7:30. What time does it really start?

BH (laughing): I guess we'll have to find that out together. Weeknight shows at the Dakota usually start at 7. But if the calendar says 8, I'm going with 8.

What: Bruce Henry's Holiday Show
Where: The Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20
How much: $5
Phone: 612-332-1010

Upcoming Picks

George Avaloz: In last week's post, drummer Phil Hey named Avaloz's "The Highest Mountain" (2004) as his holiday gift pick. Avaloz began his career as a young Mexican hat dancer at community celebrations on St. Paul's West Side. He has since played drums with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Quincy Jones and Billy Eckstine. The Artists' Quarter, 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14 and Saturday, Dec. 15 ($10).

Ginger Commodore: Between performances of "Black Nativity: Twenty Years of Holiday Cheer!" at the Penumbra, the Moore by Four member and former Sounds of Blackness singer brings her holiday show to the Dakota. It's probably safe to expect selections from her 2002 holiday release "Merry Christmas...With Love." The Dakota, 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 18 ($5).

iQuit Experimental Music Series: Chris Bates performs the first set on solo bass, layered with loops and electronic effects. The second set features Poutums Jazz Trio + 1 (Chris Thomson, Adam Linz, Alden Ikeda, Jon Pemberton; Thomson, Linz and Ikeda are the trio, Pemberton the plus). Rogue Buddha Gallery, 9 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 20. ($5 donation).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cesar's Way

When it's cold outside, and windy, and the snow is deeper than the dog is tall, and the streets and sidewalks are full of salt and grit.... We never would have thought of doing this on our own, so thanks to Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mary Louise Knutson

When: 12/11/07
Where: The Dakota
Who: Mary Louise Knutson (piano), Gary Raynor (bass), Greg Schutte (drums); guest Sue Orfield (saxophone)

Previewing this show for Jazz Police, Andrea Canter wrote: "The Twin Cities is blessed with a large handful of pianists who could easily match keys with the best in any other city. Count Mary Louise among them." I have a piano jazz playlist of over 1,000 tunes that I often play while I'm working; when Knutson's "Meridian" and "Merle the Pearl" come around, I stop what I'm doing and listen. Both are original Knutson tunes; she's a composer as well as a performer.

At the Dakota, we heard a stride-style "Santa Baby," Sonny Rollins's "Pent-Up House," Toots Thielemans's lovely "Bluesette," and a new Knutson original based on her cell phone number. Orfield gave us some assertive, bluesy sax on "Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland" and "The Meaning of the Blues." I'd like to see her again. The set ended with "Meridian."

So far, Knutson has just one CD: Call Me When You Get There (2001). She's working on her second. 2008? Fingers crossed.

Mary Louise keeps her Web site calendar up to date.

Photo in the dark light of the Dakota by John Whiting.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Happy Apple

When: 12/10/07
Where: The Artists' Quarter
Who: Michael Lewis (saxophones), Erik Fratzke (electric bass), Dave King (drums)

On the final night of a three-day stay at the AQ, Happy Apple was mellow. I often hear Lewis when his horn is on fire, so I sometimes forget he's equally capable of thoughtful, tender, lyrical music and a velvety tone. This wasn't straight-ahead jazz—Happy Apple doesn't go there—but it was beautiful and very accessible.

As always, the show was punctuated by King's between-songs tall tales. Something about royalties earned from Hooters. A fictitious gig with the comedian Gallagher and the Insane Clown Posse. A Who-Can-Hold-the-Longest-Note-on-the-Soprano-Sax competition between Lewis and Kenny G; Kenny G cheated and won.

Their song titles are equally wacky: "Still Life for the Study of Sibling Rivalry," "Lefse Los Cubanos" (King: "A cinematic exploration of the historical union between ancient Scandinavians and the Cuban people—the Scando-Cuban connection—based on 1,000-year-old recordings from the Smithsonian of Vikings jamming with Cubans"), "Freelance Robotics" ("A panorama of a future where artificial intelligence is used for things like painting garages"), "The 1976 Aquatennial Parade," "Calgon for Hetfield" (I'm guessing James Hetfield of Metallica? What's the connection with Calgon? Oh never mind). King introduced "Back on Top," the title track of their latest CD (2007), by explaining "We're back on top of the Worst-Selling Jazz Records list."

Happy Apple has been together for 12 years, and they have their act down. When they play, Lewis throws his whole body into it; when he's not blowing, he paces like a caged cat. His lyrical phrases stitch the music together. Fratzke's big, deep bass provides the supports that allow for Lewis's and King's cantilevered excesses. And King's drum punches holes in everything.

P.S. Dave likes his hat.

Happy Apple on MySpace.

Photo by John Whiting.

Nortec Collective

When: 12/8/07
Where: Walker Art Center
Who: Panoptica, Fussible, Bostitch, Clorofila, Hiperboreal

Tijuana techno came to Minneapolis and the usually staid McGuire Theater became a nightclub, with dancers crowding the aisles and the front of the stage. Presented as a related event to the Walker's exhibition Frida Kahlo, Nortec drew a young and diverse audience. Band members Robert Mendoza (a.k.a. Panoptica), Pepe Mogt (Fussible), Ramon Amezcua (Bostitch), Jorge Verdin (Clorofila), and Pedro Gabriel Beas (Hiperboreal) stood behind their laptops, playing sounds sampled from dusty audition and rehearsal tapes, indigenous and street Mexican music, and driving dance beats; on either side were a trumpeter and an accordion player who added real-time improvisations. Behind the band, two video screens flickered and glowed; the lights on the stage and in the theater pulsed on and off. It was two hours of party music, and I liked it a lot. I made a short film (like lots of other people) with my digital camera, and if I can ever figure out how to get it onto YouTube, I'll link to it here.

Nortec Collective's Web site.
Nortec Collective on MySpace.
Nortec Collective on YouTube.

The Enormous Quartet

When: 12/7/07
Where: Cafe Maude
Who: Chris Thomson (saxophones), Park Evans (guitar), Chris Bates (bass), Joey Van Phillips (drums)

Once a week on Fridays, this small neighborhood bistro in southwest Minneapolis turns into a cool jazz hang. The din is ear-splitting in the earlier hours; if you go when all the tables are full and people are stacked three deep around the bar hoping for a spot to open up, forget about hearing the music. But if you can wait until around 11, you'll be rewarded with excellent late-night jazz from some of the Twin Cities' finest musicians. Last week we heard Michael Lewis and Bryan Nichols; this time it was the Enormous Quartet. Other musicians were in the house (Jay Epstein, Bryan Nichols), and Jeremy Walker and Marsha Walker of Jazz is NOW! brought Matt Wilson and his band from the Minnesota Opera Center, where they had just performed Matt Wilson's Carl Sandburg Project. We had a drink, heard some music, and knew once more that life is good.

Chris Thomson on MySpace.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Matt Wilson's Carl Sandburg Project

When: 12/7/07
Where: Minnesota Opera Center
Who: Matt Wilson (drums), Jeff Lederer (saxophones, reeds, maracas), Ben Allison (bass), Dawn Thomson (voice, guitar); opening act Christopher Job (voice) and Bryan Lemke (piano)

I previewed this Jazz is NOW! event for MinnPost and arrived at the venue on a cold Minnesota night. The Minnesota Opera Center is a big square box in the basement of a former warehouse; normally used for opera rehearsals, it turns out to be perfect for music: high-ceilinged, airy, bright-sounding, and the stage was well-lit. Because the evening is co-sponsored by the Minnesota Opera, it begins with a nod to that great art form; accompanied by pianist Bryan Lemke, dishy young bass Christopher Job sings a couple of upbeat arias. Then the headliners come on stage: leader and drummer Matt Wilson, Jeff Lederer on saxophones and reeds, bassist Ben Allison, and Dawn Thomson on voice and guitar.

Wilson has more up-front, out-there personality than any drummer I've ever seen. He's animated, expressive, and vocal; he punctuates his own performances and those of other musicians with enthusiastic "Woooos!" He reaches out to the audience and connects; you'd have to be dead to resist his charms. The Carl Sandburg Project is a treat, if hard to define. It's not a jazz gig, not a concert, sort of a theater piece, kind of an art piece, and an ever-evolving work in progress. When I interviewed Wilson for MinnPost, he said, "It is always changing. We never play it the same way once."

Wilson, a relative of Sandburg's by marriage (his great-aunt was wed to Sandburg's first cousin Charlie Krans), uses Sandburg's poems in four ways: translating a poem directly into a song; reciting a poem as part of a separate composition; composing music influenced by a poem; or freely improvising, using a poem as inspiration. This approach adds variety to a program that might otherwise be just another collection of art songs.

We hear "Choose" ("The single clenched fist lifted and ready/Or the open asking hand held out and waiting/Choose! For we meet by one or the other"), a march with a lot of snare and a rousing start to the evening. From there, an improvisation to a poem about a prairie barn from Sandburg's The People, Yes! It's Charlie Krans's barn that Sandburg writes about: "That old barn on your place, Charlie, was nearly falling down last time I saw it, how is it now?" Lederer reads the text. Next up, a countrified "Cover Me Over" ("in dusk and dust and dreams"), the dark "Trafficker" (one of Sandburg's Chicago poems; Ben Allison reads, accompanied only by Lederer on sax), "As Wave Follows Wave" (the title track of Wilson's 1996 release on Palmetto; operatic bass Chris Job returns to the stage to recite this one), "Past Friend" (in which Thomson's electrified hollow-body guitar sounds like a steel drum, Lederer makes his saxophone chirp like a bird, and Matt squeals his cymbals), a poem about a bubble with rainbows (with a taste of the Beatles' "I Will" tossed in), and a poem about how the moon is a woman in a silver dress, in which Lederer's soprano sax is lovely nighttime music, even on a cold night like ours.

After a short break, during which the crowd thins only slightly, the band returns to try out some new pieces. "We Must Be Polite" is from Wind Song, a book of children's poems by Sandburg that Wilson discovered in a used books store. The poem tells children tongue-in-cheek what to do if an elephant knocks at your door, and what to say if you meet a gorilla. Job reads the text and he's wonderfully hammy; Lederer plays the maracas and later the clarinet.

Wilson becomes DJ Matt in a sampled version of Sandburg reading "Fog" ("The fog comes in/on little cat feet..."). His drums and Allison's bass weave through and around Sandburg's looped, layered, beat-filled voice: the fog/fuh-fog/fuh-fuh-fuh-fog. It's fun. The program takes a serious turn once more, this time into "To Know Silence Perfectly" ("To know silence perfectly is to know music"), a piece with its own pauses and silences built in. The penultimate work of the evening, "Offering and Rebuff," a love poem ("I could love you as dry roots love rain, I could hold you as branches in the wind"), is interpreted as a country dance.

At the end, Wilson invites us all to read Sandburg's "Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz" ("Are you happy? It's the only/Way to be, kid.... Be happy, kid, go to it, but not too/Doggone happy") while the band improvises. It's cacophonous and joyous, with Lederer wild on the soprano sax; an energetic finale and one that sends us into the night pretty doggone happy.

Photos, top to bottom: Matt digs Carl; Dawn, Jeff, and Ben; Jeff and Chris


I just ordered another dozen Moleskine Pocket Size Ruled Reporter notebooks, having scribbled my way through the second-to-last one I have on hand. I discovered this wonderful tool a few years ago and it instantly became my paper crack. I never go anywhere without one. Sometimes I forget my phone but never my Moleskine. I once had a dream in which someone snatched my purse. I ran after him shouting "Keep the wallet, keep the phone, keep the iPod, but drop the Moleskine!" The only irreplaceable thing.

The mothership Web site.
A Moleskine blog.
Moleskine on YouTube.
The best prices online.

P.S. How to pronounce "moleskine" (from Interesting Thing of the Day):
In Italian, it’s “mo-leh-SKEE-neh”; in French, it’s “mo-lə-SKEEN”; and in English, it’s “those little notebooks with the oilcloth covers.”

MinnPost: Jazzy Holiday Treats

What to give the jazz-loving friend, or the friend who might grow to like jazz with a little encouragement? For this week's MinnPost piece, I asked local jazz artists to recommend CDs by other local jazz artists. A dozen responded within 24 hours.

To fit everyone's recommendations into an article that was supposed to be around 500 words (and ended up around 800), I had to edit down what people wrote. Here are a few comments I would have liked to include in their entirety:

Singer and KBEM radio personality Arne Fogel on Maud Hixson's Love's Refrain and the Wolverines' Voracious: Live at the Times: "Both of these CDs sport a great deal of musical integrity. These discs feature people who know what they're doing and they just nail it, with no pretense. I admire that, and I enjoy hearing that sort of musical declaration."

Trombonist Dave Graf on the Hornheads' Fat Lip: "For someone who would dig some fun and funky a capella horn work, the Hornheads is probably the slickest horn section on the planet. Their 2004 release Fat Lip is an incredible display of chops and finesse, imbued with a wicked sense of humor. Michael B. Nelson's inventive writing, and the group's astonishingly tight execution of it, just makes you gape in wonderment. And lest you think it's accomplished by some sort of studio magic, they sound just as amazing live."

Bassist Gordy Johnson on Maud Hixson's Love's Refrain (a CD a lot of people like): "Wow, at first I thought of just ignoring this, or bowing out. It's a tricky question. Then I remembered driving home from a gig and hearing a track from Maud Hixson's new disc Love's Refrain, featuring just her with Rick Carlson at the piano. I would give that disc to anyone and everyone. I got goose bumps as I was listening on the way home that night. Everything about it is so absolutely right on, it's amazing! The piano is perfect and beautifully recorded. The piano playing is classic Rick Carlson: Swinging and casual, understated and perfect. Maud sounds relaxed and has such command of her art. Her intonation and phrasing are immaculate. It's in the groove and polished, totally first class."

Friday, December 7, 2007

Bettye Lavette

Where: The Dakota
Who: Bettye Lavette (voice), Alan Hill (keyboards and vocals), Brett Lucas (guitar and vocals), Chuck Bartels (bass and vocals), Darryl Pierce (drums)

In the worst snowstorm of the winter (so far), traffic was a tale of spin-outs, turnovers, and hours-long gridlock. But Miss Bettye Lavette was in town and we're fools for music. If she could show up, so could we.

Lavette is better every time we see her. After 40 years of relative obscurity (she had an R&B Top 10 hit at 16, not much after that), she's performing, recording (she just released her third CD in four years), and touring. At 61, she looks fabulous, sexy and fit. And she loves the Dakota, crediting owner Lowell Pickett with booking the first gig of her comeback.

Backed by a fine band--music director Alan Hill on keyboards and vocals, Brett Lucas on guitar and vocals, Chuck Bartels on bass and vocals, Darryl Pierce on drums--she gave us classic Bettye cuts ("He Made a Woman Out of Me," "Falling in Love") and new songs from her latest, The Scene of the Crime, recorded at Muscle Shoals with the Drive-By Truckers: a John Hiatt tune, "The Last Time," Willie Nelson's "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces," and a searing interpretation of Scottish R&B singer Frankie Miller's "Jealousy." For "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces," she sat on the floor, but for the rest of the time, she was a dancing, prancing blur on the stage, expressive and deeply emotional.

During her final song, "Close as I'll Get to Heaven," she walked through the audience, singing to people and touching them. She was letting us know that performing for us is heaven for her. For her encore, her band left the stage and she sang Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got" a capella and all alone. I've heard her do this before; this song is becoming for her what "Amazing Grace" is for Aaron Neville, something people are going to demand if she ever stops doing it. Which she probably won't because it works so well, and as she told us midway through the evening, "I'm just doing whatever the hell I want to do."

Jazz 101: Fusion

"Fusion in its original form was a good thing," Kelly Rossum tells us in our weekly class at MacPhail. What came out of it (smooth jazz), not so much. People are as divided about smooth jazz as they are about avant garde/free jazz: they love it or hate it. I'm in the latter camp myself. I simply cannot listen to smooth jazz. In 2004, pianist Bobby Lyle released a two-CD set called Straight and Smooth. One disc is straight-ahead jazz, the other smooth. Five minutes into the second disc, I was through, and I like Bobby Lyle a lot.

Because fusion (loosely defined as jazz-meets-rock) evolved around the same time as electronic instruments (electric guitars and basses, electronic keyboard synthesizers), it can be hard to separate the music from the sometimes strange, fuzzy and buzzy sounds of the instruments it's being played on. Kelly suggests we try, because the musical ideas are worth exploring.

We listen to "Frelon Brun (Brown Hornet)" from Miles Davis's Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), where Tony Williams singlehandedly (okay, he uses both hands, and his feet, and maybe his nose and chin) takes the drums to a new planet. (Kelly's aside: "Fusion is all Tony Williams's fault.") From there, some Sly and the Family Stone ("There's a Riot Goin' On"), a big influence on Miles. Then "What I Say" from Miles's Live-Evil, which Kelly proclaims "way better than Bitches Brew." Miles, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, Jack de Johnette, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin...what a lineup. "That's what fusion should be," Kelly says. "Musicality, groove, harmonics, and Miles playing in a whole different way."

Next, "Teen Town" from Weather Report's seminal Heavy Weather. "Birdland" is the best-known track from that album; Kelly says it's the worst song and asks us to listen closely to Pastorius's bass on "Teen Town." We pause the music and talk about what we've heard so far. Fusion seems like a museum piece; it sounds dated because of the instruments used. But many of the ideas carried forward.

Kelly plays the driving title cut from Miles's Grammy-winning Tutu (1986). We learn that bassist Marcus Miller created most of it in the studio, then invited Miles in to play over his recorded and overdubbed tracks, which Miles did--impromptu, extemporaneous, unrehearsed. What we hear on the CD are first takes. The iconic photos on the album cover (now booklet) are by fashion photographer Irving Penn.

We end with "We're Y'all At?" from Wynton Marsalis's From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (2007). Wynton raps (yes, raps) about the sorry state of American culture...and we thought he was a traditionalist. Here at least, he's fusin'.

MinnPost: Matt Wilson's Carl Sandburg Project Preview

Matt Wilson brings his Carl Sandburg Project to the Minnesota Opera Center on Friday, December 7. I wrote about this very interesting project—jazz improvisation plus poetry—for MinnPost this week. I've seen Matt play several times: at the Dakota with Denny Zeitlin, and also with his Arts & Crafts group (a couple of times); and at IAJE in New York earlier this year, where he gave a drum clinic and showed a student drummer how to get 10,000 different sounds out of the same cymbal. Matt is a high-energy guy who clearly loves what he does and often interjects humor into his performances; the last time we saw him at the Dakota, he played one of his drums with his foot, and he was wearing a striped sock.

Hear bits of the Carl Sandburg Project.

Local jazz artists recommend gift-worthy favorites: Holiday jazz CDs

Originally published on on December 7, 2007

Pianist Michel Legrand once observed, "Jazz is the best of all nourishments." Jazz also makes a great gift, says someone who hopes to get some. (Hint to husband: We don't yet have all of these.) Jazz CDs are small enough to tuck into stockings, varied enough for the eight nights of Hanukkah.

But where to start and what to buy?

MinnPost turned to experts: local jazz artists. What do they consider gift-worthy and why? We asked them to recommend CDs by other local artists and suggested they not be holiday CDs, the better for year-round listening. We also said the CDs did not have to be new or recent. The best-selling CD of all time, Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue," was released 40 years ago and is sure to end up under a tree or two. So why not Jay Epstein's "Long Ago" or Gordy Johnson's original "Trios"?

Pianist Bryan Nichols calls "Long Ago" (1997) "a great piece of music from three great musicians, and still one of my favorite Minnesota jazz releases ever." Drummer Epstein is joined by Bill Carrothers on piano and Anthony Cox on bass. (Carrothers lives in Michigan but grew up here so we still claim him as ours.) Nichols would also give saxophonist Chris Thomson's new electro/acoustic "The Three Elements" (2007): "Easily my favorite local record of the year. Plus, for the holidays, it has lots of bell sounds."

Lauds for Maud

Singer and radio personality Arne Fogel loves Maud Hixson's just-released "Love's Refrain" (2007). Backed by her husband, Rick Carlson, on piano, "she sounds like nobody else, and the record is a definitive document of that unique sound." He also recommends "Voracious: Live at the Times" (2007) by the Wolverines Big Band. "An absolute killer."

Bassist Gordy Johnson was driving home from a gig when he heard a track from Hixson's "Love's Refrain." "I got goose bumps as I was listening. ... It's in the groove and polished, totally first class. I would give that disc to anyone and everyone."

Singer Maud Hixson joins Fogel in recommending "Voracious: Live at the Times." And she likes Erin Schwab's "Martinis and Cleavage" (2007), recorded live at Jitters downstairs from the Times. "Erin was taking requests on cocktail napkins during her live recording." Another Hixson pick: Twin Cities Hot Club guitarist Reynold Philipsek's latest solo acoustic release, "What It Is" (2007).

Tailoring for tastes

Trombonist Dave Graf customizes his choices. "For someone whose taste in jazz runs to mellow yet sophisticated: 'Duo' (2006) by Irv Williams and Peter Schimke. For someone who likes a larger ensemble and adventurous-yet-accessible original composition: Snowblind's 'Taking Shape' (2007). For someone who would dig some fun and funky a capella horn work: The Hornheads' 'Fat Lip' (2004). For a wide range of jazz listeners: 'Call Me When You Get There' (2001) by Mary Louise Knutson. Hey, it's a delight."

Like Graf, pianist Mary Louise Knutson considers the recipient. "If I don't know someone's musical tastes, I'd say 'Some Cats Know' (1999) by Connie Evingson. Connie's voice is always easy on the ears. ... For a Doris Day fan, 'Daydreaming' (2004) by Connie Olson. If it's a horn player, 'Fat Lip' by The Hornheads. For a piano trio lover, 'I Love Paris' (2005) by Bill Carrothers. Accessible to all."

Singer Christine Rosholt has "always loved Connie Evingson's 'Some Cats Know.' As I was just getting going in the biz, I would listen to that CD all the time. I also love Lucia Newell and Departure Point's 'Steeped in Strayhorn' (2004). Lucia's rich voice and unique phrasing, paired with Pete Whitman's band, is close to perfect."

Pianist Laura Caviani is another Lucia Newell fan. Her pick: an older disc, "Enter You, Enter Love" (1995) by guitarist Joan Griffith and Newell. "It's a very romantic CD, with warmth and genuine joy. Perfect for the holiday season."

Phil Hey digs fellow drummer George Avaloz's "The Highest Mountain" (2004). "Great solos and arrangements of really cool tunes, including the title track. George swings his ass off." Listen for soulful Twin Cities singer Debbie Duncan on "A Beautiful Friendship."

Seduced by 'Subduction'

Guitarist Joel Shapira gives the thumbs-up to "Subduction: Live at the Artists' Quarter" (2005) by the Phil Hey Quartet. "Great players, great club, adventurous tunes, great arrangements. A jazz lover's delight."

Singer Vicky Mountain mined her home play list for favorites she'd share. " 'The Bridge' (2002) by the Chris Lomheim Trio. Beautiful, lyrical playing. 'Steeped in Strayhorn' by Lucia Newell and Departure Point. Mary Louise Knutson's 'Call Me When You Get There.' Very relaxing. And all of the Gordon Johnson 'Trios' CDs." There are three: "Trios" (1996), "Trios V. 2" (2002), and "Trios Version 3.0" (2004), and those of us who know them want Gordy to hurry up and make more.

Accordionist Dan Newton would give the recording by Dick & Jane's Big Brass Band, a local band that plays New Orleans street music. "Festive and celebratory, it fits the holiday season and can be enjoyed any time of the year." Good luck finding it, but if Daddy Squeeze likes it, it must be good and worthy of sleuthing out. Check the band's website and try one of the phone numbers there. I left a message.

Where to find CDs mentioned above: Check the Electric Fetus, a strong supporter of local artists (2000 Fourth Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-870-9300). Try the CD Baby website. Visit the artists' websites (many have their own). Best of all, ask the artists themselves; they live here, they play here, and many have holiday shows scheduled around town. That way, you can have your CDs signed.

Upcoming picks

Matt Wilson's Carl Sandburg Project: Poems, improvisation, and wacky hats. The Minnesota Opera Center, 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, $15. See this week's MinnPost story, "Rhyme, rhythm and riffin': Jazz meets poetry in drummer Matt Wilson's Carl Sandburg Project."

Happy Apple: The locally grown jazz/improv/indie/whatever trio of Michael Lewis (saxophones), Erik Fratzke (electric bass) and Dave King (drums; King also plays with The Bad Plus) is the most fun you can have sitting down, if you can find a seat. (If not, check them out here.) The Artists' Quarter, Friday through Sunday, Dec. 7-9, 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday ($12).

Rhonda Laurie: At last, live music comes to one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants. Vocalist Laurie has a regular weekly gig with guitarist Reynold Philipsek and bassist Jeff Brueske. Cavé Vin, Wednesdays, 6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., no cover.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Rhyme, rhythm and riffin': Jazz meets poetry in drummer Matt Wilson's Carl Sandburg Project

Originally published on on Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Poetry and jazz are natural partners. Poets write poems about jazz, poems shaped by the sound and feel of jazz, and poems meant to be read aloud to jazz accompaniment. Lawrence Ferlinghetti collaborated with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz.

Jazz artists write music for poetry.

Pianist and composer Fred Hersch set parts of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass to elegant, beautiful music, and trombonist Craig Harris has written a musical interpretation of James Weldon Johnson's poetry collection titled God's Trombones.

Poetry and jazz met in the proto-rap recordings of Gil Scott-Heron ("The revolution will not be televised"), and they meet every Monday at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul for Open Poetry night. Some jazz singers (Jon Hendricks, Kurt Elling) write poetic lyrics to instrumental jazz tunes.

Personal ties to poet

As a child, jazz drummer Matt Wilson discovered he had personal ties to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg. Both have roots in west-central Illinois. Wilson's great aunt was married to Sandburg's first cousin, Charlie Krans; Sandburg stopped by the Krans farm in Galesburg, his own hometown, in 1953 and documented his visit for Life magazine ("I Went Back to Galesburg," Feb. 23, 1953).

Studying to be a musician, Wilson discovered a poem by Sandburg called "Jazz Fantasia" that reads in part:

Go to it, O jazzmen...bang altogether drums, traps, banjoes, horns, tin cans—make two people fight on top of a stairway and scratch each other's eyes in a clinch tumbling down the stairs.

Those words could get a young jazz artist's blood going. To Wilson, the poem "solidified my notions that Carl was indeed a serious hipster. I mean, he had the best hair. I feel he has not been given the recognition he so deserves. Whitman was cool, but Carl rocked! Plus he dug jazz."

Liberated from limitations

Something else jazz artists appreciate is freedom. Wilson liked that Sandburg's style was "free of rhyme, free of meter, and free from the governing rules of verse." It is also free of pompous or arcane verbiage. Sandburg used the ordinary language he heard every day, what he termed the "American lingo."

He often mixed poetry and music in his public performances, and so does Wilson. The Carl Sandburg Project, which comes to the Minnesota Opera Center on Friday, Dec. 7, is both homage and opportunity for Wilson to stretch his own considerable limits of performance, composition and improvisation.

Commissioned by Chamber Music America, presented here by Jazz is NOW! with the Minnesota Opera, the project has toured on and off since 2002. You can listen to some of the Sandburg project here. Writing for, Bill Ribas described it as "eccentric, full of laughs and good-spirited fun."

I asked Wilson what that meant, since most people don't equate jazz with laughs or poetry with fun, or the other way around.

"It will make you laugh as well as cry," he explained. "It rocks, it soothes. It is a multisensory production. Music should be fun, right? We'll have fun and you'll have fun."

Carl Sandburg

Embracing the poetry

The project features Jeff Lederer on saxophone, Ben Allison on bass, Dawn Thomson on voice and guitar, and Wilson on drums. "We move through a wide range of sonic landscapes and embrace the poetry through song, readings and as inspiration for the pieces," Wilson said. "I have some new pieces that I am anxious to debut, including a groovy song set to 'We Must Be Polite,' a poem instructing children on how to behave when they meet a gorilla or if an elephant knocks on their door."

Will we hear Carl Sandburg read his poetry? "I do a piece with Mr. Sandburg reading 'Fog,' " he replied. That's the Sandburg poem most of us learned in grade school because it's short. Will the music be dense and humid, or lithe and catlike? With Wilson, you never know until it happens. Even he isn't sure. "It is improvised music, so it is always changing. We never play it the same way once."

Wilson was smitten by the drums in third grade, when he saw Buddy Rich on an episode of Here's Lucy. Today Wilson is "easily one of the best drummers of his generation," according to a New York Times review. The DownBeat critics' poll named him Rising Star Drummer four years in a row. He's been called smart, wacky and weird. He wears goofy hats and wigs.

A Matt Wilson performance is always entertaining and musically enlightening. His most recent Twin Cities gig was a two-night stay at the Dakota in January of this year, where he had us singing along to "Feel the Sway." It's a catchy tune from Scenic Route, his latest CD with his Arts and Crafts group and his seventh as a leader; he has recorded dozens more as a sideman. There are plans to record the Project's performance in Minneapolis and perhaps release it later.

Because this is a joint presentation with the Minnesota Opera, the Project will have an opening act: singer Christopher Job, a bass in residence during the Opera's 2007-08 season with upcoming roles in Romeo and Juliet and The Fortunes of King Croesus. When Job sang in L'Orfeo ed Euridice with the Glimmerglass Opera of New York, he was praised for his "nifty comic work." Sounds like he'll fit right in. Another bonus from the Opera: Come to the Sandburg Project, get a special ticket offer to Romeo and Juliet starring the fantastically handsome James Valenti.

The nonprofit Jazz is NOW! originated at the former for-profit jazz club Brilliant Corners in downtown St. Paul. When the club folded, saxophonist and owner Jeremy Walker turned to composing and leading the Jazz is NOW! NOWnet, a composers' ensemble of artists from the Twin Cities and New York featuring original compositions.

The Carl Sandburg Project kicks off a new performance series that will pick up steam in 2008 with a performance of the NOWnet on March 13. I'm marking my calendar now. Meanwhile, Walker has put down his horn and pulled up a piano bench, and he's practicing five hours a day. At the moment, he's immersed in Bach.

Curious about jazz poetry? Look in your local library (if it's still open) for The Jazz Poetry Anthology, edited by Sascha Feinstein & Yusef Komunyakaa. Feinstein is also the founding editor of a jazz and literature journal called Brilliant Corners.

Photo of Matt Wilson by Jimmy Katz.

Photo of Carl Sandburg from the Library of Congress.