Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Bad Plus: Bringing it home

When: Sunday and Monday, Dec. 28–29, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums

Continuing a holiday tradition begun eight years ago, The Bad Plus returns to the Dakota for four nights and eight shows. (Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson are from around here but now live in NYC; Dave King still makes his home near Minneapolis.) We hear the final two late sets. Club owner Lowell Picket introduces the group with “They just play music; genres don’t matter.”

Iverson is all business at the piano, except when he rises from the bench to tell us what the group has just played or is about to play. Anderson is the sensitive, serious poet of the bass. King attacks his drums with sticks and mallets, hands and toys; he’s a blur of action with a big smile at its center.

The sets on both nights are similar, but that doesn’t mean they sound the same. With TBP, it helps to hear their songs played several times, especially their original compositions, so you can get past the surprise and really listen.

The first night begins with Milton Babbit’s “Semi-Simple Variations,” a short piece they played last year and have included on their new CD, For All I Care, to be released stateside in February. It’s one of several 20th-century classical tracks on the new CD, which also features vocals by Wendy Lewis.

Babbit leads into Iverson’s original “Let Our Garden Grow,” then a tune Iverson sets up as “a famous national anthem,” full of fat chords and bashy drums. "Fem" ("Metal"), a piece by Romanian (actually Transylvanian) composer Gyorgi Ligeti. Anderson’s “Beryl Loves to Dance,” a not-yet-recorded tune of wild abandon. Ornette Coleman’s explosive “Song X,” with a long bass intro. King’s composition “My Friend Meditron,” about (says Iverson) an angel who protects shoppers and has a complete collection of Lee Marvin DVDs. A swinging “Have You Met Miss Jones” from a group that seldom swings. Just last week I interviewed Dave King for a MinnPost piece in which I wrote “They don’t swing.” Shows what I know.

Anderson’s “Silence Is the Question,” a long crescendo, rises to fill the room and ends with the distant sound of thunder on the drums. Two encores: the lovely and delicate “Flim” and (unless I’m mistaken) “Big Eater.”

On the second night they mix it up with King’s “Anthem for the Earnest” and Anderson’s “Dirty Blonde.” The encores: “Flim” and Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love with You.”

For a group that made its name deconstructing pop and rock covers (“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Heart of Glass,” “Knowing Me Knowing You”), the only one they play (in the shows I’m at) is the Bacharach. I generally leave TBP with more questions than answers, and these are this year’s:

—Their not-yet-released CD, For All I Care, is entirely covers. Have they already moved beyond it? (King told me in our interview that their next CD would be all original compositions, zero covers.)
—If their new CD is (as a friend described it) the ultimate prog-rock-pop album, is it also their prog-rock-pop swan song?
—How do they keep up with themselves?
—Some of their own tunes are now anthemic. Is anyone else playing them?

Another fact from the interview: The new album has two bonus tracks that will only be available on the vinyl release and on iTunes: “Blue Velvet” and U2’s “New Year’s Day.” Personally I can’t wait to hear TBP’s take on “Blue Velvet.” I loved the original Bobby Vinton version of that song, hated how David Lynch made it weird and creepy in his film by the same name. Will TBP restore its innocence, make it even creepier, or take it somewhere else entirely? (More questions.)

Interesting reading:
Do the Math, TBP blog and webzine
Wild Blue Yonder, Wendy Lewis's blog about "singing around the globe with The Bad Plus"

Photos by John Whiting.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bill Carrothers: One of a kind

When: Friday and Saturday, Dec. 26–27, 2008 • Where: Artists’ QuarterWho: Bill Carrothers, piano; Gordy Johnson, bass; Kenny Horst, drums

Maybe it’s because he makes his home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he rides snowmobiles and goes blueberry picking with a shotgun in case he and a bear meet at the same bush, that Bill Carrothers’ playing is full of space, even when his notes are stacked in chords and linked in long glissandos. Maybe it’s because he lives outside an old copper mining town called Mass City (population around 600, one general store, one blinker light) and plays mostly in Europe that it doesn’t feel tied to a particular place or time.

Hearing him over a weekend at the end of December at the AQ, I’m reminded again of how unique Bill Carrothers is. He’s avant-garde and traditional, serious and playful, free-flying and grounded in history (maybe because his full name is William Gaylord Carrothers III—thanks for that fact, jazz.com). You never know where he’ll go next, whether within a live set or on his recordings.

This weekend he has three new CDs available for sale, which he mentions only in passing but Davis will gladly tell you about at the door. The Voices That Are Gone: The Music of Stephen Foster is an art-songs collaboration with cellist Matt Turner and Carrothers’ wife, Peg, a vocalist. Play Day is a children’s CD that includes a loving ballad arrangement of the old Oscar Mayer song (“Wiener Mood”). Home Row is straight-ahead piano trio goodness; recorded in 1992, it features Gary Peacock on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. Writing for the New York Times, Nate Chinen suggests we treat Home Row like a modern recording and forget that it sat on a shelf somewhere for 15 years.

On both nights we hear standards transformed into originals by Carrothers’ passion, improvisational skills, vast musical knowledge, far-ranging intelligence, and sly wit. “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” “Billie’s Bounce” (which ends with a quote from “In Walked Bud,” played fast and loose), “Blue Evening,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and a delightful “All of Me”—dusted off, reinterpreted, and kicked in the pants.

Then “Nature Boy.” Carrothers thinks about this one before he begins, fingers poised, head bowed. He becomes very quiet. It starts as a solo piano piece, a beautiful rumination. Kenny Horst comes in with mallets and a soft, persistent beat; Gordy picks up the melody on his bass. It’s breathtaking—a song everyone has heard countless times yet it feels like the first time, yet it’s suffused with the past and tradition and all who have gone before. Played with reverence and grandness, it ends with a wordless poem. No disrespect to the AQ’s piano but I’d love to hear Carrothers on a Steinway someday.

“Just You Just Me.” “Call Me Irresponsible” (with lots of notes). “This Is Worth Fighting For,” a WWII recruiting song that blends “America the Beautiful” with “Amazing Grace” and “The Christmas Song.” “So in Love.” A lush and lengthy series of chords that seems headed toward “When I Fall in Love” but ends up somewhere else. Gordy and Kenny are hyper-watchful; it’s clear this night is going wherever Carrothers wants to take it, not by a set list. “Con Alma.” “Rhythm-a-ning.” “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story.

Sometimes Carrothers seems to forget he’s part of a trio and plays like he’s alone. Perhaps he forgets us, the audience, as well. Maybe it's because he takes off his shoes and performs in his stocking feet that he seems so comfortable, so at home. The night ends with “Thanks for the Memories,” and I think of Bob Hope and his USO Christmas shows and our service men and women still overseas and I’m pretty sure that’s where my mind is supposed to go.

We can stay for only the first set on Saturday, long enough to hear “You and the Night and the Music” (tender, reflective, tinged with sadness), more “Moonlight Serenade,” a not at all wistful version of “Autumn Leaves,” “My Old Kentucky Home” (a tune from his new CD with Matt Turner), a “Let It Snow” that morphs into “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Whatever Carrothers wants to play. A phrase from Kenny Werner pops into my head: Effortless mastery.

Watch Don Berryman's video of "Blood Count" from Friday night.

Photos to come.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Back in town: The Bad Plus still defy easy definition

The Bad Plus plus Wendy Lewis by Mike Dvorak
Christmastime in the twin towns means "The Nutcracker," "Black Nativity," "A Christmas Carol"—and The Bad Plus. Since 2000, TBP have closed out their year by playing several nights at the Dakota. This year’s dates are Friday through Monday, Dec. 26-29.

Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King all grew up in the Midwest (Iverson in Wisconsin, Anderson and King in Minneapolis). King is the only one who still lives here.

Most years they have a new CD to play from. Last year it was Prog, which Billboard called “easily the most likable and listenable jazz album of 2007,” infuriating jazz critics and not for the first time. Whether TBP is a jazz trio, whether they represent a new direction in jazz, or whether they’re jazz assassins has been widely debated.

"We like being hard to classify," says King in a Q&A (see below). "All of our heroes were hard to classify."

From their first major release on Columbia, These Are the Vistas (2003), TBP has been controversial. They play original tunes and covers—of Nirvana (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”), Black Sabbath (“Iron Man”), Burt Bacharach (“This Guy’s in Love with You”). They pull tunes apart and smash them back together. They don’t swing.

Their new CD, the cryptically named For All I Care (apathy or passion?), features a vocalist, alt-rocker Wendy Lewis. And it’s all covers, this time of rock tunes and contemporary classical music. It won’t be released in the states until February but will be previewed at the Dakota. There will be a CD release show in Minneapolis, probably in March, venue TBD. 

See a making-of video on YouTube

MinnPost caught up with King last Sunday at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul, where he was playing with Happy Apple, one of his numerous other bands. (Happy Apple saxophonist Michael Lewis is Wendy Lewis’s nephew.)

MinnPost: Why a singer? Why Wendy Lewis?

Dave King: We felt like it was time to collaborate with someone, and we thought we might as well go all the way and make a record with vocals. We were looking at singers and thinking about asking some star-type people but then we decided we’d end up being the backing band, and the whole idea was, this is a guest for us. We talked about Tom Jones…we talked about Darryl Hall. Then we thought, we’ve gotta get someone who can deal with this kind of crazy music. I had played with Wendy years ago. Reid was a fan of her music. She ended up working beautifully.

MP: So this isn’t a response to “is the Bad Plus jazz or not”?

DK: We’re not concerned about that. We just believe in what we’re doing. You’re into it or your not. We like being hard to classify. All of our heroes were hard to classify.

MP: How did you choose the songs for the new CD?

DK: We all chimed in with different ideas from different genres and decades…. I picked “Barracuda” [by the rock band Heart] and also “New Year’s Day” [U2] and “Blue Velvet” [Bobby Vinton], two extra tracks that will be released on iTunes and on vinyl.

MP: Since you’re not releasing the CD until February, what will you do at the Dakota?

DK: Wendy’s going to come up and sing one song on Friday and Saturday. We’ll be doing new music, stuff we haven’t played in a while, and the classical music. New stuff that’s not on this record but will be on the next one. Our next record will be all original instrumental recordings, no covers.

MP: What, no Wendy on Sunday and Monday?

DK: You’ll be more surprised then. We’ll definitely put on a show.

MP: What keeps you in Minneapolis?

DK: My wife and I were raised here. We were living in LA for a while and came back—we have family here. We love Minneapolis/St. Paul…. This city is one that people watch. If you say you’re from Minneapolis, people go, “Yeah, that’s a great music city.”

Originally published at MinnPost.com, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Peace, love and Marcia Ball

When: Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Marcia Ball, keyboard and vocals; Thad Scott, tenor sax; Andrew Nafziger, guitar; Don Bennett, electric bass; Corey Keller, drums

On the first real winter night of 2008,
as snow falls and the temperature plummets and icy winds blow the Holidizzle parade down Nicollet Mall, Marcia Ball brings some New Orleans heat to the Dakota. She and her band give us 90 minutes of bluesy, rollicking, good-times music and touching songs including “Louisiana” (“six feet of water in Evangeline….”). Heads nod all around. It’s an open-curtain crowd, what looks like a full house, mostly people I haven’t seen here before—not the jazz audience.

We hear several tunes from her latest CD, Peace, Love & BBQ: the title track, “Married Life,” “Falling Back in Love with You” (“squeezing tight, kissing slow, Ray Charles on the stereo…”), “Party Town,” “Where Do You Go.” Also songs from the Marcia Ball catalog: “Red Beans,” “Down the Road,” the boogie-woogie rouser “Crawfishin’.”

She has a voice like a male blues shouter; nothing fancy but it gets the job done. She can whistle through her teeth. The Dakota’s Yamaha grand has been pushed to the back of the stage and she’s playing a Roland at the front. Wonder why? To be nearer the audience? She fits her long tall self behind the keyboard and plays like she means it.

Her banter is easy and warm. In brief bursts between songs she tells us how certain tunes came to be, and about her hometown on the Texas/Louisiana border (“on the easy-drinking side, the ‘Loose-iana’ side; on Saturday night all the Baptists would come and act like Catholics”). She explains that before Peace, Love & BBQ there was a time when she couldn’t write: “I was kind of angry. Then my friend Tracy Nelson sent me a song about homelessness and poverty [‘Where Do You Go’] and once I did that I could write my silly stuff.” She says she and her band never used to come north in the winter and “now I know what snow tires are for.” She’s been watching Holidizzle pass (she can catch glimpses through the windows onto the mall) and notes she has never seen a parade go by so fast. She thinks we’re crazy for having parades in the winter.

The set officially ends with the delightful “I Want to Play with Your Poodle,” they exit, and Ball returns for a powerful solo encore: “Ride It Out,” the tale of a house in Mississippi that was carried away by Katrina’s flooding and survived intact. Then the band reconvenes for “I Wish You Well,” one of the best end-the-set, say-goodbye tunes ever written, a sweet benediction: “I wish you sunshine, flowers, and smiles/I wish you ribbons tied up in your hair.”

Apologies for the pitiful photos (which are not by John Whiting).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Ahmad Jamal: Live at the Dakota

When: Monday-Wednesday, Nov. 24-26, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Ahmad Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; James Johnson III, drums; Manolo Badrena, percussion

It’s rare to see a jazz artist and his or her band perform several nights in a row, at least in Minneapolis. Most out-of-towners come in for one night, maybe two, and those who live here play around town in different configurations. Provided the artist doesn’t repeat the same sets every night with the identical patter in between (some do), even a brief artist-in-residency is a chance for the audience to settle in and really listen.

We were able to attend the late sets on all three nights of Jamal’s most recent stay at the Dakota. We’d seen him several times before but never three nights in a row. He didn’t play the same sets, although he did play some of the same songs (not in the same way), and he’s not much of a talker; he might announce the first three or four tunes, call attention to one or more from his latest CD, It’s Magic, then not say another word for the rest of the set. It’s all about the music, and if you’re smart you sit quietly and open your ears as wide as you can.

You can’t compare Jamal to anyone else because he’s not like anyone else, so if you’ve never heard him, all I can suggest is that you buy a CD or two or ten. He is an absolute master of dynamics. Within the same tune, he combines great delicacy with thunder. He makes the Steinway whisper and roar. He uses the whole keyboard and plays more high notes than anyone I know. Single notes of enormous import, big fat chords, and glittering glissandos pour out of the piano. Rhythms pile up in translucent layers. Melodies surface and combine. Spaces open and close.

It’s transfixing to hear and see it all happen in front of you. He signals to the other members of his ensemble like an orchestra conductor, with a lift of the hand, a gesture, a wave. He beckons and points. He sometimes rises for applause, then starts playing again before he is seated. The other musicians watch him like hawks. They barely blink. Cammack explains later that there isn’t a set list and they never know in advance what they will play on a particular evening. They have to know everything and be prepared. Then, he says, “We just react.”

Here is some of what we heard over three nights—a combination of originals and standards, chosen who knows how from a lifetime of possibilities. This list is by no means complete and, in fact, is pretty pitiful; if a song doesn’t have lyrics, I may recognize the tune but usually don’t know the name. So this is the best I can do.

“Spanish Interlude”
“Topsy Turvy”
“Fran’s Tune”
“The Devil’s in My Den”
“High Fly”
“Someone to Watch Over Me”
“In Search Of”
“My Romance”
“So Good to Have You Home Again”
“My Foolish Heart”
“Island Fever”
“It’s Magic”

And “Poinciana,” of course. Jamal ended every late set with this, a runaway hit when he first recorded it in 1958 and still fresh and lovely after 50 years. I think if he didn't play it the audience might riot.

Badrena added much to the overall sound, and it was fun to watch him move from instrument to instrument—shaking this, ringing or tapping that, playing the mighty congas. A Latin percussion array is a candy store.

So many high points. The effervescent “Poinciana” and grand “Swahililand” with its opening proclamation. The gradual emergence of "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "My Romance" from sparkling showers of notes. Randy Weston's lilting "High Fly" (a special thank-you for that one, Mr. Jamal). As I heard “My Romance,” I thought: This song is a field of flowers.

Photos by John Whiting.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ahmad Jamal: A national treasure speaks

Ahmad Jamal by Frank Capri
Pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal is a man of letters. He has one from President Bill Clinton congratulating him on being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1994. In 2007, the French government made him an Officier de L'ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Officer, Order of Arts and Letters) and the Kennedy Center dubbed him a Living Jazz Legend. He holds a Duke Ellington Fellowship at Yale.

Earlier this year, he brought home a Best International Album award from les Victoires du Jazz, France's Grammys, for his latest release, "It's Magic" (2008). Here's the title track.

Home for Jamal is Salisbury, Conn., where I reached him earlier this week by phone. On Monday-Wednesday, Nov. 24-26, he will perform six sets at the Dakota. Expectations are high, and rightly so. Profoundly influential, endlessly innovative, majestic and gracious, Jamal is a national treasure.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1930, he started playing piano at 3, studying seriously at 7, performing professionally at 14 and touring nationally at 17. At 21 he formed his first trio, the Three Strings. Producer John Hammond heard them play in New York and signed them to Okeh Records.

'Poinciana' a jukebox hit
At 28, Jamal, bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier recorded Jamal's arrangement of the song "Poinciana" at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago. It became a jukebox hit, charting for more than two years and allowing Jamal to open his own restaurant/club in Chicago, the Alhambra. How long was it open? "One day too long," he laughs.

Miles Davis recorded many of Jamal's songs and arrangements and instructed his pianist, Red Garland, to play like Jamal, with spacious phrasing. Even if you don't know Jamal, you have probably heard him play — on the soundtracks of the films "M*A*S*H" and "The Bridges of Madison County."

Vibrant and elegant at 78, Jamal is traveling the world, writing new music, performing to sold-out audiences, and planning his next CD on the French label Birdology (distributed in the US by Dreyfus). He's a man of strong opinions and thought-provoking views. For the rest of this post, he has the floor.

Ahmad Jamal on why he chose jazz, which he calls American classical music:
I don't have that separation of music [classical vs. jazz]. It's either good music or bad music. I was playing Lizst when I was 10 years old, Duke Ellington when I was 10 years old. Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson — we have to know the best of both worlds. I have been playing good music all of my life — the body of European work, the body of American classical music. … When you're 3, you don't make choices. Music chose me. That's the way it has been all my life, even now.

On creativity:
We can only reflect creativity. We're not creative people. When I write something, it comes to me. What we have to do is make ourselves available. We're receiving vessels. We can't make a raindrop or a snowflake; those are the articles of creation. All we can do is reflect on the beauty of the raindrop or snowflake.

On distractions:
If you fill your life with too many distractions, you're going to dull your senses. People who have dulled their senses are walking around dead. When you dull your senses, you're not being receptive. A great artist doesn't allow himself to be distracted. As Duke Ellington said, "Music is my mistress."

On silence:
I spend time every day away from all of this flurry of activity. I have moments when I steal away, get away from the chaos that we bring upon ourselves: cell phones, Blackberries, strawberries, TVs, DVDs. If you want to call it silence, I'll accept that word. But it's more than silence. These are very profound moments, a very profound series of things I do when I steal away from this world.

On 'American classical music' vs. 'jazz':
It's a culmination of thinking about what this music is, and the terminology that is used to refer to it. … What happened was we sophisticated a very unsophisticated term ["jazz"], which now has many definitions that have nothing to do with the music. The word is used very loosely. … We all play classical music. The best of both worlds. It's an affront to go up to Wynton [Marsalis] or me and say, "I play classical music." We are the superior practitioners. Nine times out of ten, a man who's playing first chair in a symphony can't play "Happy Birthday."

On the space he brings into his music:
I never called it space. I call it discipline. … If you don't have discipline you can't have freedom. People say they're completely free, but when you see a stop sign, you have to stop or you'll crash. There's no such thing as complete freedom. You have to practice the rules that govern this earth and govern living. When you don't have discipline you have disorder.

On free jazz:
Free jazz, unfree jazz, this jazz, that jazz … Ballet, opera, hip-hop, rap … There's good and bad in everything. We have a wonderful mechanism called the human brain. It's the best tool you'll ever have, whether you're reading a book, looking at a painting, or listening to Mr. Jamal. The human brain can siphon good from bad. Just reflect a little and your mind will tell you.

On Jazz at Lincoln Center, for which Jamal opened the 2008-09 season in September:
It has one of the best orchestras in the world. What makes that orchestra so good is it's laced with the proper humility, the proper philosophical outlook. They're all gentlemen. You can't play music if you're arrogant. … Wynton [Marsalis] is a gentleman and one of the great American classical musicians. … The new Lincoln Center structure, this place that Wynton helped put together, is what is proper for housing this music. This is what it should be, in keeping with the cultural contribution this music has given to the world.

On his own recordings:
What's my favorite record? The next one. My best record? The next one.

On his hit "Poinciana" — does Jamal ever tire of playing it?
Not ever.

What: Ahmad Jamal with bassist James Cammack, drummer James Johnson III, and percussionist Manolo Badrena (some might call this a quartet; Jamal prefers "small ensemble")
Where: The Dakota
When: Monday-Wednesday, Nov. 24-26, 7 and 9:30 p.m. ($20-$40)

Originally published at MinnPost.com, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008

Sean Jones rules

The Dakota threw a party for A-Trainers last Sunday and trumpeter Sean Jones flew in from Pittsburgh to play. He was joined by a "local" (hah!) rhythm section: Tanner Taylor (piano), Gordy Johnson (bass), Phil Hey (drums). This video by Don Berryman says it all. Please keep in mind it was a party, therefore more talking/ambient noise than usual.

Ahmad Jamal: More from the MinnPost interview

• Main article: Ahmad Jamal: A national treasure speaks

Earlier this week
I had the privilege and opportunity to interview Ahmad Jamal, an artist I have long admired. I was more than a little starstruck when I picked up the phone and dialed his number (he’s in CT, I’m in MN). He was enormously gracious and behaved as though he had all the time in the world to speak with me.

The main interview appears on MinnPost. Here are a few more moments from our conversation.

Ahmad Jamal on camaraderie between musicians:
An endangered species…. Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City, East St. Louis, Detroit: These are cities where camaraderie existed when we were growing up. We had wonderful memorable jam sessions then. There were rooms where you could stay and become artist-in-residence.

On mentoring young musicians:
Today you don’t have anybody, or very few people, launching young careers. Record companies don’t want to do it. Too much money. [I’m mentoring Venezuelan pianist] José Manuel García of the International Groove Conspiracy. [Korean pianist and composer] JooWan Kim. [Japanese-born pianist and composer] Hiromi, one of the most spectacular talents in the world. [French jazz singer] Mina Agossi. It’s quite a load. [Note: All share the same manager, Ellora Management in Lakeville, CT.]

On “American classical music” vs. “jazz”:
For clarity, I’m not paranoid about the word “jazz”…. If you want to change the lingo, the language, in any direction, it should be done by the practitioners. If you want to change the language of the music business, it should be a musician…. This business of wrong terminology irks me sometimes. It’s up to us musicians to define and sophisticate, to form a language that interprets and gives proper meaning [to what we do].

On the rules of music (and life):
Observe rests. Observe dynamics. You can’t just play loud all the time, you can’t just play soft all the time. That’s a violation of the rules if you have one dynamic all the time. You can’t do that. Life is like that…soft, loud, crescendo, diminuendo, rest. Without these rules you have chaos.

On Randy Weston:
Randy Weston is one of my favorite Martians. His son, Azzedin Weston, is on Jamal Plays Jamal, which came out on 20th Century. One of my favorite recordings.

Randy is coming to his own finally, after going to Morocco, living in Africa, going overseas for years. He is finally been given some of the recognition that he deserves. We share the same agent…. I went to his nightclub in Morocco. That’s when I met Azzedin. The rest is history….

Not all of us have million sellers. Dave Brubeck, “Take Five.” [Jamal's] “Poinciana.” Herbie Hancock. Miles Davis. All of us have had big hits or a cumulative amount of records sold. Horace [Silver] has had a lot of exposure. Not like Elton John, the Beatles, a different genre altogether. When it comes to instrumental music, there are very few of us who have the recognition of Henry Mancini, Burt Bachrach, George Shearing, “Lullabye of Birdland,” Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland,” another big hit.... Randy didn’t have a million seller.... [I mention how much I like “High Fly.”] “High Fly”! That’s not Randy’s anymore. He gave it to me. Like Jimmy Heath gave “Melodrama” to me. That tune is the essence of Randy.

On what’s next for him:
Only the Creator knows what’s next. That’s as accurate as any human being can get. We plan, but God is the best of planners. Sometimes we overthink ourselves. We think ourselves into trouble. If we do the right things, life takes care of us. If we’re snoozing, we’re gonna lose….

I’m thinking now of going into the studio, taking my time, doing another record next year I’m looking forward to being my best. “Paris After Dark.” Maybe we can play that finally correctly. A section piece, “After JALC.” [Jazz at Lincoln Center.]

On his “proposed autobiography” (mentioned on his Web site):
No news! I don’t think that’s going to happen. Too personal. I don’t want to sell books. I want to live a life that’s not based on selling books.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Skirts, corsets, tighty whities: The Royal Winnipeg Ballet does Orff

When: Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008 • Where: Northrop AuditoriumWho: Royal Winnipeg Ballet

High in Northrop Auditorium’s vast balcony, where the air is thin, I held my breath for nearly two hours last night. A metaphor for the awe I felt watching the Royal Winnipeg Ballet perform Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco (to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor), choreographer Shawn Hounsell’s led (a pas de deux set to Arvo Pärt’s Für Elina), and RWB's resident choreographer Mauricio Wainrot’s Carmina Burana (to music by Carl Orff).

I don’t know much about ballet but do recall a Swan Lake when I dozed off as the corps de ballet was making its way onto the stage (one ballerina at a time, one step at a time, step...step...step...step...zzzzzzz). We had tickets to this performance because Orff’s Carmina Burana, like Mussorgsky-Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition, is a big old crowd-pleaser. (Also because, for the first time, Northrop made it easy to order tickets to events in their dance series at the same time I ordered the jazz series.) But mostly because I thought HH would like it.

The Balanchine, originally written as a ballet exercise, was gorgeous. Ten women, one man, all dressed in simple practice clothes, interweaving and posing, leaping and twirling on tippy-toes. What is more lovely than a line of ballerinas dressed in white and fluttering en pointe? The Toronto Sun said “It was a little like watching a snowfall through a kaleidoscope.”

The six-minute led was choreographed for RWB Principal Dancer Tara Birtwhistle and soloist Dmitri Dovgoselets. The music—piano and the sound of human breath—was fascinating, the dancing exquisite.

So I was already happy by the time the curtain opened on Carmina Burana and “O Fortuna” blasted up to the Northrop’s dusty rafters. For part of the time, everyone in the company, including the men, wore long jewel-toned taffeta skirts. At first they looked silly. Then the dancers spun and the skirts lifted and bloomed into sculptures, like inverted bowls with deep vertical edges. Fabulous.

There was a rather silly part—dancers brought out music stands bearing what looked like small patches of grass instead of music (representing spring, I suppose)—but other than that, it was an hour of ravishing beauty. Some of it was danced in corsets (the women) and tighty whities (men), distracting at first, then not. The hour seemed over almost as soon as it began. I wanted them to come back and dance it all again.

Skirts photo from Danza Ballet. Corsets photo from Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine Online.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Poncho Sanchez: More from the MinnPost interview

• Main article: Pancho Sanchez: Latin jazz con soul

Master conguero and Latin jazz bandleader Poncho Sanchez
brings his Latin Jazz Band to the Ordway next Wednesday, Nov. 12. I spoke with him earlier this week for MinnPost and he was one of the most enjoyable interviews ever, full of stories and enthusiasm. I had listened to an earlier interview with him on KFAI Radio and learned that all I had to do was stay out of the way and let him talk.

His latest CD, Raise Your Hand (2007), features guest artists Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper (among others). Sanchez told me how they first met:

“We were in Italy, on a tour in Europe of major jazz festivals. We got on a bus and the driver told me, ‘I have to stop at another hotel and pick up four musicians playing the same festival you’re playing, okay?’ I said sure, we have a big bus. I had no idea who they were.

“We pull up at a hotel and here’s four guys. I say, ‘Wait a minute! That’s Booker T and the MGs!’ They didn’t know who we were, they just knew some bus was coming. They didn’t know too much about me, or Latin jazz—that was about 22 years ago. It was a four-hour bus trip. We talked to them and got to know them.

"Many years later, a year and a half ago, I was talking to the VP of Concord, John Burk. He said, ‘Concord owns Stax now, is there stuff in the old library you want to look through?’ I said, ‘I got all that stuff.’ ‘Want to do a record with Booker T and those guys?’ ‘Sure, I met them in Italy on a bus.’ When they came to the [recording] session, we were like brothers.”

Although the story of how Cal Tjader discovered Sanchez is Latin jazz legend by now, it’s still a treat to hear Sanchez tell it:

“My older brothers and sisters had all of his records. I used to look at the album covers, at this white guy who played Latin music. He sure played good. My brothers and sisters would see him play in L.A. from time to time. I thought, when I grow up, I want to see him. As soon as I grew up, I went to the old Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California, a famous jazz club for many years. I would see Cal play there. Howard Rumsey used to own that club. He was a jazz bass player. He ended up leaving that club and opening another in Redondo Beach called Concerts by the Sea. A nice club downstairs, underneath the pier. We started going there to see concerts—Mongo [Santamaria], Willie Bobo.

“What happened is, I was playing with a local band here in L.A., married, out of high school, my [first] son was two years old. I was playing with a local band at a predominantly Latin club, mostly Latinos. We played top 40s stuff, Tower of Power, Chicago. One night a white guy walked in with a hat and cigar. He stood out like sore thumb. Just a little odd. The guy sat at the bar. When I took my break, I went up to the bar and the white guy said, ‘You sound really good. Want a drink?’ ‘You buy it, I’ll take it.’ He told me he’s a personal friend of Cal Tjader’s. I thought, yeah, right. We made small talk. I said, ‘Don’t forget to tell Cal Tjader about me.’ I told the band and everybody’s making fun.

“One week later, I went to Concerts to see Cal Tjader. I’m walking down the stairs and that guy is standing next to Cal at the front door. I put on the brakes and told my wife, ‘Remember? There he is!’ He looked up at me and told Cal, ‘There he is. There’s the guy.’ Now I was nervous. I thought, this guy isn’t lying. I went down and he said, ‘Poncho, this is Cal. Cal, this is Poncho.’ Then I was shaking. I met Cal Tjader! I had seen him play many times but hadn’t talked to him.

“He asked if I would sit in. When? ‘Tonight! I’ll call you up.’ I’m not a professional musician yet, I’m just 24 years old. In the middle of the set, he called me up, I sat in, played a number, the crowd exploded. He liked me. After the set, he wanted my name, address, and phone number. ‘Maybe I can use you when I come down to L.A.’ "

Two weeks later, Tjader called Sanchez to play a gig at the Coconut Grove on New Year’s Eve. He became a member of Tjader’s band on the first night and stayed with him for 7 1/2 years until Tjader’s untimely death in 1982. He still calls Tjader “my musical father.”

Sanchez named his first son Mongo, for Mongo Santamaria. He named his second son Tito, for Tito Puente. I asked, “No Cal?” He said, “I should have had one more boy.”

Photo from the Poncho Sanchez MySpace page.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

MinnPost's First Birthday

Several reviews need writing--Dennis Spears on Halloween, Rick Germanson, and shows from even earlier--but those will have to wait. For now I want to mention that it's MinnPost's first birthday. There's a party on Sunday, Nov. 9 from 4–7, at the St. Anthony Main Event Centre (219 SE Main St., Minneapolis), open to members only (new members can join at the door, or online). MinnPost, as many people don't yet know, is a nonprofit. There are annual membership categories but the truth is almost any amount will make you a member. For nonprofits, numbers of members count almost as much as the amounts they give.

What the one-year marker means to me (apologies for being self-indulgently self-referential here) is I have now written about jazz every week for a year. During the planning stages, someone (Joel Kramer?) at MinnPost decided that jazz was worth reporting on regularly. Fellow MinnPost writer Susan Perry recommended me for the job. I said yes without knowing what I was getting into; I had never written a weekly column before. I've had the benefit of an excellent editor (Casey Selix) and the privilege of interviewing many jazz artists I admire. (I spent 45 minutes on the phone just yesterday with Poncho Sanchez, and who wouldn't want to do that?) It's a learning curve, a lot of work, and a pleasure.

And that's all I'm going to say about that. Happy Birthday, MinnPost! Here's to many more.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Here's a Halloween song from the great Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Too bad there's no video of them performing, but you can still enjoy their swinging excellence. "Halloween Spooks" is from their Columbia double LP from 1960, The Hottest New Group in Jazz. Scott Yanow at All Music Guide calls it "essential music for all serious jazz collections."

Janis Lane-Ewart and I did a Halloween radio show last night (10/30/2008) on KFAI. We had a lot of fun. The show will be available in the archive for two weeks.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Boo! Ribbet! Carmen in costume

She tried it on but she didn't buy it.

Eldar zooms in a new direction

When: Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Eldar Djangirov, piano; Armando Gola, electric bass; Ludwig Alfonso, drums

The trio is already into its first tune when we arrive. There's a vibe in the room that tells me this is not the music people came to hear. Some of the regulars look cranky. Eldar, the former child prodigy who was born in Kyrgyzstan, played Oscar Peterson note-by-note at age 3, started piano lessons at 5 (and performed for the first time in public soon after), was discovered at a Siberian jazz festival at 9, and has been compared countless times to Peterson and Art Tatum, is acting like a 21-year-old. He's pounding an acoustic piano with his left hand, tearing into an electronic keyboard with his right.

I've heard Eldar play standards and (to quote Spaceballs) these are not them. Reviews of his new CD, re-imagination, for which he's currently on tour, have been whiney: "I wasn't too impressed.... and would rather listen to a blindingly fast 'Sweet Georgia Brown' to marvel at his speeds than listen to any of the tracks on this record."

DJ Logic plays turntables on the CD and I wish he was in the room tonight. Bassist Armando Gola has played with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Arturo Sandoval, and Martin Bejerano (pianist with the Roy Haynes Quartet), drummer Ludwig Alfonso with Spyro Gyra. Gola has gigged with Eldar before (recently at the Blue Note on a double bill with singer Sophie Milman, which must have been an interesting juxtaposition). Someone at the Dakota tells us this is Alfonso's first engagement with Eldar. Gola is a good match for Eldar; Alfonso seems tentative at times, but not all the time, and shows flashes of ferocity. He holds his own.

Much of the music is incredibly fast, full of fireworks and sparklers. There's a reason Eldar is known for his superhuman velocity. Like a hummingbird, he probably has to eat his weight in food every day or starve. He's also strong and he hits the notes crisply and cleanly. He may have two brains. One piano solo has several rhythms going at the same time, rapid and halting and sprung.

I don't know the new CD and have no idea what I'm hearing. (The CD is mostly original compositions and a few standards: Johnny Green's "Out of Nowhere," Peterson's "Place St. Henri," "Blackbird" as a bonus track. Go here to see and hear Eldar play "Place St. Henri" at the 2008 NAMM show.) Eldar doesn't talk much but occasionally, in between hundred-yard dashes, he gives us the name of a tune they have just performed; Gola's "Blues Sketch in Clave," his own "Insensitive," a ballad, sort of, but with a bazillion notes and classical-sounding phrases popping up like bubbles in a rolling boil. Something called "Passage."

At the end, he announces, "Now I'll play a standard. You guess what standard it is." Afterward, several people try to guess. I go to the green room and ask. It's "Donna Lee."

The set gets mixed reviews from people we hear on the way out. What, Eldar is supposed to play Oscar Peterson forever?

All photos but the first by John Whiting.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stanley Jordan again/not again

When: Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Stanley Jordan, guitars and piano; Charnett Moffett, electric bass; Eddie Barattini, drums

We're so blown away by Stanley Jordan's first night that we're back again. So are many people we saw here last night. Is it possible he'll be as good as he was?

He's better. More relaxed, more expressive. You see it in his face, his hands, and his body: he twists, turns, bows, bends, and reaches for the sky. He moves from guitar to guitar and piano and back again to guitar, and if he did in fact have more than two hands he would probably play more than two instruments simultaneously.

Much of the music is the same as last night--in name, in chord structure, in melody, but not in how they play it. "El Condor Pasa." "Eleanor Rigby" (I think; this time it's the trio, not Jordan alone). A joyous interpretation of Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" is added to tonight's playlist (it's on the new CD as well). Moffett is even more fiery than last night; his "Star Spangled Banner" (which begins as "America the Beautiful") screams and wails, loops and buzzes. At times his bass sounds like a steel drum. Barattini is terrific on the drums.

"How Insensitive." The Mozart again but not again, with ten thousand new notes. One encore only, "O Holy Night." After the concert, Moffett sits at the bar and I bring him a big bushel of adoring fan talk. I stand before him and babble about how wonderful he is. I can't help myself. Out in the lobby, Jordan is surrounded by fans and CD buyers. I wait until the end of the line, then take his picture with the lovely Deborah.

I thank him for his music. He stands very still and talks very, very quietly. After the sound and fury and virtuosity of his performance, he exudes silence and calm.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How many hands does Stanley Jordan have?

When: Monday, Oct. 27, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Stanley Jordan, guitars and piano; Charnett Moffett, electric bass; Eddie Barattini, drums

My only Stanley Jordan CD is Cornucopia (1986). Before that, not even vinyl. I’m drawn to this show because Charnett Moffett is on bass, and to me, Moffett is like Zakir Hussein: someone not to miss when he comes to town.

I know a little about Jordan’s signature guitar-playing technique: he taps (not holds and strums or plucks) the strings so he can play two lines (melody and chords) at the same time. But until tonight, I don’t really care.

Because until tonight, I haven’t seen him live.

Two guitar solos to start: “My One and Only Love,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” (“I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail/Yes I would, if I could/I surely would”). I’m hooked and Moffett isn’t even on stage yet. How is it possible Jordan is playing just one guitar? How many hands does he have? Boosted by amps, layered, swirling sounds fill the room.

Moffett and Barattini come through the curtain for “All Blues,” a track from State of Nature, Jordan’s most recent CD and the reason for the current tour. On this tune, Jordan plays guitar and piano simultaneously. It’s not a parlor trick, it’s amazing.

He told Guitar Player magazine: “My original instrument was piano, and when I switched to guitar, I still had this piano thing in me, so I developed the whole two-handed tapping technique in order to play the guitar more like a piano. When I did this album, I decided there was still a part of my music that lives in the piano…. I am thinking of them together like a single instrument. If you were using two hands on the guitar, or two hands on the piano, you would think of what you were doing as playing one instrument.”

Another track from State of Nature, which Jordan introduces as "a celebration of nature"; the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21, a.k.a. “Elvira Madigan.” Jordan is solo but sounds like a chamber orchestra. He plays the notes and all the notes around the notes.

More guitar and piano simultaneously; this time Jordan sweeps his right hand up and down the keyboard in spacious glissandos. Then he plays the guitar with his right hand and the piano with his left.

Moffett solos on “Star Spangled Banner” a la Jimi Hendrix. This is something he has played for a while (and recorded), most often (to the best of my knowledge) on his big upright bass. Tonight it’s on electric bass, deep and dark and searing. He weaves in “Amazing Grace” and “Frere Jacques.” “Star Spangled Banner” is always a political tune, so I guess Moffett is saying something by playing “Are you sleeping, Brother John?” this close to the election.

The announced final tune is “A Place in Space,” also from the new CD. It’s music that makes you want to strap yourself down or at least hold onto something. The audience brings Jordan back for two solo encores, “O Holy Night” and “Eleanor Rigby.”

For some artists, an instrument and all its history and mastery is just the beginning, the jumping-off point, the starting block, the launching pad for a whole new thing. What Jordan does with the guitar is beyond imagining, best (like most jazz) experienced live.

Here’s “Eleanor Rigby” from a 2006 concert. More rock-and-roll than tonight's version but a decent video with many views of Jordan’s hands, proof that he has only two after all.

Photo by John Whiting.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Charmin Michelle at Cue

When: Saturday, Oct. 25, 2008 • Where: Cue at the Guthrie • Who: Charmin Michelle, voice; Doug Haining, saxophones and clarinet; Rick Carlson, piano; Keith Boyles, bass; Nathan Norman, drums

Taking pictures at Cue is almost impossible; the combination of floor-to-ceiling windows, candlelit tables, and low overhead lighting creates a wonderfully romantic ambience and challenging conditions for photographers. But Cue is all about food and wine and atmosphere—and, on the weekends, live music. So I'm not complaining, just saying. It's a gorgeous room and I love going there to hear some of my favorite area talent: Arne Fogel, Maud Hixson, Dean Brewington, and tonight the exquisitely lovely and charming Charmin Michelle.

People were seated all around when we arrived, and many more came in when the Guthrie's current production, Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, let out. I had a delicious stuffed trout and discovered my new favorite cocktail: a pomegranate Manhattan. Restaurant manager Jeffrey Fisher and wine manager Jessica Nielsen came by to say hello and introduce the new sommelier.

Fisher has booked Cue's live music calendar through New Year's Eve, which is further ahead than many clubs attempt. Let's hope the music continues into next year and beyond. To me, it's now an integral part of the experience. A great room with great food deserves great music. I'm hoping that someday they'll have a real piano.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sublime Stories: Maria Schneider and the SPCO

When: Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008 • Where: OrdwayWho: Maria Schneider, composer and conductor; Scott Yoo, conductor; Dawn Upshaw, soprano; The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Last night Maria Schneider showed that she can write classical music as colorful and descriptive and satisfying as her jazz compositions, and lead a classical orchestra she has known for a few days as adeptly as her own jazz orchestra, which includes a core group of musicians who have been with her for years.

Schneider's first public performance of "Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories," based on poems translated by Mark Strand, was sublime. I didn't take notes; I just listened. Minnesota Public Radio will broadcast the performance sometime in November.

The complete program:
1 Ravel: Pavane for a Dead Princess
2 Hindemith: Kammermusik No. 3, Op. 36, No. 2: Ronald Thomas, cello
3 Delage: Four Hindu Poems for Soprano and Ensemble: Dawn Upshaw, soprano
4 Bach/Webern: Ricercare from The Musical Offering
5 Schneider: Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories: Dawn Upshaw, soprano

The original program included Ravel's Chansons madecasses, to be sung by Upshaw. We heard that Upshaw was ill last weekend and this probably accounts for the switch to the Pavane.

There was a moment of transporting magic during the Delage (also noted by Pi Press reviewer Rob Hubbard). It happened in the second of the Four Hindu Poems, "Lahore," when Upshaw sang a lengthy passage of vocalise (wordless singing--not the same as jazz vocalese, where lyrics are written for instrumental melodies). You can hear something similar on Upshaw's recording of these songs, which appears on The Girl with Orange Lips (1991). Last night's live performance may have been longer, more elaborate and daring--perhaps higher in some parts. I held my breath.

During Schneider's piece, I found myself wondering what might have happened had Frank Kimbrough been at the piano instead of the SPCO's Layton James. This is not to disparage James in the least; he's a wonderful artist and has been a SPCO mainstay for decades. But Kimbrough has held the piano chair in Schneider's orchestra and worked closely with her since 1993.

This will be the last thing I write about Maria Schneider—until the next interesting thing she does. Earlier this year I went to see her rehearse with the MacJazz band. That's when I learned she was working on two new commissions: one for the Monterey Jazz Festival in September and one for soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in October. Over the next several months, I ended up reporting on and attending both world premieres, leaving a trail of verbal crumbs:

• For Maria Schneider, there's no place like home
• MFJ/51: Maria Schneider
• MJF/51: Saturday
• The 51st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival: So much music, never enough time (see Monterey Day-by-Day: Saturday, September 20)
• Maria Schneider comes home—for the SPCO

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

Thirteen Candles: The AQ’s “Lucky 13” Anniversary Party

When: Sunday, Oct. 20, 2008 • Where: Artists’ QuarterWho: Lots of people

In October 1995, the Artists’ Quarter moved from Minneapolis to St. Paul, a city not known for its nightlife. Yet there it has remained, drawing jazz lovers down the stairs of the Historic Hamm Building for real jazz six or seven nights each week, every month, all year long.

Sometimes it's jam-packed, SRO, and sometimes there are maybe 10 or 12 people in the audience. We've heard amazing music in that small basement club lined with posters and photos and album covers: Roy Haynes, Bill Carrothers, Lee Konitz, Jaleel Shaw, Ari Hoenig, Kenny Werner, Mose Allison, Craig Taborn, Greg Tardy, Eric Alexander, Bob Rockwell, Lew Tabackin, Ira Sullivan, Stephanie Nakasian, Rick Germanson, Jim Rotondi, Jon Weber, Dewey Redman, David Hazeltine, and on and on...and, of course, the countless area musicians who have made the AQ their second home, thanks to owner and resident drummer Kenny Horst.

Tonight, many are here to celebrate and perform: George Avaloz, the Tuesday Night Band, Phil Hey, Gordy Johnson, Dave Karr, Carole Martin, Debbie Duncan, Phil Aaron, Chris and JT Bates, Chris Thomson, Dean Magraw, Dean Granros, Peter Schimke, Tom Lewis, and I know I’m missing some because we aren’t able to come for the whole thing; it starts at 5, we arrive around 9. Just in time to hear Debbie Duncan sing “But Beautiful,” then Carole Martin rejoins her for “The End of a Beautiful Friendship.” Then the wonderful quartet How Birds Work, led by Peter Schimke, now with Chris Bates on bass. Even when Chris is standing still, he’s not standing still; he’s up and down on the balls of his feet, swaying, smiling, nodding his head, dancing with his bass.

The evening ends with a group called Shovel: Anthony Cox, Chris Thomson, Dean Magraw, JT Bates. Fine fine stuff. A tune called “Mr. Cox, High School Band Director.” Another: “Boulder Car.” Something about a car that runs on spring water and rocks? A brilliant back-and-forth between JT and Anthony on electric bass. Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane,” Anthony’s “Interracial Walk-by,” then “Verk in Progress,” a title that leads into a brief riff on Hogan’s Heroes and the number of bridges blown up on that show (Anthony: “I don’t know how the Allies got into Germany.”)

As the AQ's venerable doorman Davis says, "Dig Shovel!"

There’s supposed to be a jam session but it's already past midnight. Finish drink, pay bill, say thank-you and goodnight to Kenny, walk Jennifer to her car, go home, plan to return next weekend if not before.

Photos by John Whiting. Top to bottom: Lord Davis riles the crowd; How Birds Work; three-quarters of Shovel.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hit me again: The return of Global Drum Project

When: Friday, Oct. 17, 2008 • Where: O’ShaughnessyWho: Global Drum Project: Mickey Hart, Zakir Hussain, Giovanni Hidalgo, Sikiru Adepoju: drums, percussion, electronics; Jonah Sharp, computers, processors

Why go to see Global Drum Project twice in one year? Because it’s Global Drum Project, the reunion of four great percussionists, each worthy of the overused descriptor “world class.” Because opportunities to see any of the four individually are rare, and the chance to see them together is a lightning strike. Because the CDs [Planet Drum (1991), Global Drum Project (2007)] are amazing but nothing compares to live music. Because unless the power fails or someone breaks a hand it’s a sure thing.

We have good seats to start with, then meet our friend Rich Solomon in the lobby, who moves us up to the orchestra pit. For well over two hours, allowing for a nine-minute intermission, the music is transporting, transcendent, detonating, tranced-out. We hear tunes from the 2007 CD (“Baba,” “Kalilu Groove,” “I Can Tell You More”) and probably also from Planet Drum and perhaps even Diga, the album Hart and Hussain released 15 years before Planet Drum, before world music was a category, when they called themselves Diga Rhythm Band.

Dense textures, complex rhythms, hypnotic grooves, soaring vocals, lengthy and spectacular solos, blurred hands and sticks and mallets, calls-and-responses (Hussain does his rapid-fire ticka ticka ticka vocalizations, Hidalgo responds, or Adepoju responds on his talking drum). It seems that any instrument that can be beaten, banged, shaken, pounded, stroked, or hit is on that stage: drums, bells, gourds, chimes, rattles, shakers, skins, goats’ toes, tambourines, things with feathers, vegetables in a bowl (more rattles).

The audience is happy, the performers are happy—the balcony at O’Shaughnessy didn’t sell, so this is the intimate main-floor crowd, seated in long rows without aisles that curve toward the stage. (For the curious, seating charts are available at the O’Shaughnessy site. We were in the first row B, seats 7–10.)

Words from “I Can Tell You More,” spoken by Hart over deep drumming:

Rhythm is the soul of life…
Realize your rhythm in life…

The sea, the heavens, the stars, they dance…

Rhythm vibrates within my dreams

It vibrates within us
It’s us. How cool.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lura's allure

When: Wednesday, Oct. 15 • Where: DakotaWho: Lura (voice and occasional percussion), Guillaume Singer (violin), Osvaldo “Vaiss” Dias (guitar), Toy Vieira (piano), Russo Figueiredo (electric bass), Jair Pina (percussion), Kau Morais (drums)

Born in Lisbon to parents from Cape Verde, an Atlantic archipelago 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, Lura considers herself a Cape Verdean. Mentored by Cesaria Evora, she sings in Cape Verdean Creole, a mélange of Portuguese and African dialects. Her songs draw on the music traditions of Santiago, the island where her father was born. It’s ready-made world music—batuku, funana, mazurka, and tabanka touched with samba, jazz, flamenco, and R&B. Rhythmic and irresistible.

This was the second time I had seen her; the first was at the Cedar in 2006, when she was barely in her 30s. Tonight, once again, she promised to take us to Cape Verde and did, in songs and stories and ecstatic barefoot dances. She’s a wonderful entertainer with a gigawatt smile, lovely to look at and very engaged with the audience—at least she tries her best to be. She had most of us staid and repressed Minnesotans clapping and singing along (sort of), but when she said she was going to make us dance, she quickly realized that wasn't going to happen.

I’m not that familiar with her music, especially the song titles, but I know we heard “Ponciana,” “Na Ri Na,” “Vazulina” (a song about Vaseline, which she explains is a popular hair treatment among African people), and a lullabye by Cape Verdean composer Orlando Pantera. Her voice is strong and beautiful. At one point she tied a scarf around her waist and danced the torno.

Her band is very fine. I especially enjoyed the violinist, Guillaume Singer, and was fascinated by Vaiss Dias’s guitar, which looks like a mother guitar carrying a baby guitar on her back, swimming across a stream.

Here's a little love story, a video of "Ponciana." It's a song about a Cape Verdean girl promised in marriage to a wealthy immigrant who chooses differently.

Lura's Web site (not in English).

Monday, October 13, 2008

Roberta Gambarini: Jazz without a net

When: Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Roberta Gambarini, voice; Eric Gunnison, piano; Neil Swainson, bass; Montez Coleman, drums

We’re at the second set on the first night of Roberta’s two-night engagement at the Dakota. The crowd is light for what is arguably one of the finest singers working today. Afterward I know I’ll hear comments like “another Ella,” “today’s Ella,” “the best singer since Ella,” and I do from the jazz aficionados in the house, people like Bevyn and Ron and Mike and Ray.

For “Easy to Love,” the title song from her first CD, she sings the verse (“I know too well that I’m/just wasting precious time/in thinking such a thing could be/that you could ever care for me…”) a cappella. It’s a good 45 seconds of being entirely on her own. Forty-five seconds is a long time. Count it out: one-one-thousand, two-two-thousand…. The piano comes in on “You’d be so easy to love” and it’s a perfect pitch match.

A song I haven’t heard her sing before, a ballad by Harry Warren, “This Is Always.” In the line “How can I forget you,” the second syllable of “forget” turns into a verse. In the line “This isn’t just midsummer madness,” the “ness” in “madness” is six or seven stops on the scale. The end (“With every kiss I know that this is always”) is almost a whisper, but an in-tune whisper.

Her singing is a high-wire act. She often ventures out without the net of her band—for measures and phrases, song beginnings and endings. The trio is playing and suddenly everyone stops and she keeps singing and then they return. Sometimes when a singer does a cappella passages and the musicians start in again it seems as if the singer grabs onto the music with combined desperation and relief. Not Roberta. She's cool.

And she scats, joyfully and frequently. “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is almost entirely scatted. I read something recently in DownBeat where a writer referred to Roberta’s “gratuitous scat.” I don’t think scatting is gratuitous unless you don’t know how to do it. Clumsy scatting, unimaginative scatting, repetitive scatting, scatting full of goofy syllables—those give scatting a bad name. But how can one argue against the voice as an instrument, and scatting as improvisation using that instrument, when jazz is so much about improvisation?

When I spoke with Roberta for MinnPost, I asked how she might explain scatting to someone who had never heard it before. “It’s part of the jazz spirit,” she said. “The way it was born, they say, was when Louis Armstrong was recording a song in the studio and the sheet for the lyrics fell. That's a very good picture of what we do, because that’s what we do. [Scatting is] a reaction to something unpredictable. It’s another way to react to the music in an unpredictable way.”

Set List
1. An instrumental by the band
2. That Old Black Magic
3. Easy to Love
4. This Is Always
5. Nobody Else but Me
6. Misty
7. Centerpiece
8. Lush Life
9. It Don’t Mean a Thing
10. Cinema Paradiso medley
11. On the Sunny Side of the Street
12. Body and Soul
13. When Lights Are Low
14. A scatting finale

Random thoughts on “Lush Life”: How can anyone sing this song? It’s hard. (Frank Sinatra gave up on it when he tried to record it in the late 1950s.) How could Billy Strayhorn have started writing it when he was just 16? How could he have known about “those come what may places/where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life” or girls with “sad and sullen grey faces/with distingue traces”? How could a teenager have written a song full of so many agains? (“Again I was wrong…. Life is lonely again…. Life is awful again.”) Doesn’t a knowledge of again and its grief, regret, and hopelessness take years of living? The more I hear this song, the higher it climbs toward the Best Song Ever pinnacle.

Photos by John Whiting.