Thursday, January 31, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Set in the California oil boom
of the late 1880s–early 1900s, Paul Thomas Anderson's movie is epic and grim, and Daniel Day Lewis's performance as Daniel Plainview is colossal. But it's the soundtrack that knocked me out. It's unbearably tense, and it never lets go. Think Bernard Hermann's score for Hitchcock's Psycho, only more modern and less melodic.

iTunes describes it as "...more primal than music. The rumble of a fault line. The ominousness of a dust storm. The terror of a thousand hissing asps.... Whether this soundtrack is a brilliant accomplishment because it intensifies the film's every moment or because it stands next to the film as its own work of devastating shock and excitement is a tough call."

Composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, it scared the living daylights out of me, even when nothing significant was happening on screen. I spent a lot of time hunkered down in my chair with my fingers in my ears. Fantastic. Its ineligibility for an Oscar nomination this year is a crime.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hats for Cats: Michael Lewis and his mom

Michael Lewis plays the saxophone
like no one else I've seen or heard. I've seen him perform live many times—with Happy Apple, Fat Kid Wednesdays, in various other configurations around town at the AQ, Cafe Maude, and more. At Fat Kid's performance with the Moroccan group B'net Houariyat during the 2006 Minnesota Sur Seine music festival, his hat kept falling down over his eyes while he played. He'd push it up during split-second breaks between flurries of notes, but would fall again when he moved, and he moves a lot.

It made me itch. It made me squirm. It made me want to make him a hat. So when I saw him at Maude in early January, standing outside smoking during a break, I offered and he said yes. His mom Mary was there so I made one for her, too.

Romeo and Juliet

Where: The Ordway
Who: The Minnesota Opera with James Valenti as Romeo and Ellie Dehn as Juliet

To sing opera requires the ability to sing opera, and if a singer is also attractive and not too old or fat, traditionally that has been a bonus. But today looks are everything, or almost everything, so it wasn't surprising when the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden sacked soprano Deborah Voigt from her signature role in Ariadne auf Naxos because she couldn't fit into a cocktail dress (and hired her back after she lost 150 pounds). And it's not unusual that the Minnesota Opera is promoting its own production of Romeo and Juliet as featuring "two of opera's hottest stars."

The posters (like the one above) are meant to be steamy, and in a video ad I saw on the Strib's Web site, the dishy Valenti looks into the camera and says "I'm your Romeo" while the words "Sexy," "Riveting," and "Spectacular" appear below. Rohan Preston's preview for the Strib (which I would link to if the Strib were the New York Times) is titled "Beauty over beast," and in a video on the Strib site, Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson's first words are "The cast is full of bee-yoo-ti-ful young American singers.... Valenti is a tall, dark, and handsome tenor."

So, how's the opera? Pretty good, kind of weird, too long. I wish they had trimmed some fat from the first two acts. I wasn't familiar with the music (usually I know at least one aria from an opera) so it all kind of ran together for me over three hours with two intermissions. The sets—buildings and parts of buildings that rumbled back and forth, with projections of statues, water, clouds, and candles—were initially interesting, ultimately distracting. I didn't get the dancers in their gauzy dresses and mannered poses.

Valenti and Dehn are both wonderful singers, but there isn't any chemistry between them. Dehn's costumes added random tension to the production; more than once it looked as if she might fall out of her dress, and if there's anyone who should not scamper across the stage wearing a low-cut gown, it's Dehn. The staging of the bedroom scene was in questionable taste. Dehn showed too much cleavage, Valenti wore a nightshirt over naked legs, they rolled around on rumpled sheets and pillows, and I'm sure the people sitting at stage right saw a lot more than we did at stage left, making me even more grateful for the seats we had.

But I liked it. I've liked opera since a distinguished visiting professor from Amsterdam took me to see the Metropolitan Opera perform the double bill of I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana at Northrop Auditorium back in the day when the Met came to town. As the final curtain fell, I turned to say thanks and saw he had tears streaming down his face. I knew then there must be something to this wildly excessive and histrionic art form. I hope I hear Valenti sing again someday, and Dehn too, in more flattering clothes.

Valenti and Dehn sing "Tou! Vous!" from Manon:

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jon Weber

When: 1/27/08
Where: The Artists' Quarter
Who: Jon Weber (piano), Gordy Johnson (bass), Kenny Horst (drums)

Weber is one of my favorite piano players. Self-taught, he can play anything, and he seems to know everything about music. He has perfect pitch and total recall; by age 6, he had memorized 2,000 standards from his grandmother's piano rolls. He's a riveting performer, a brilliant composer, and an imaginative improviser. Why he isn't more famous is a mystery. Maybe he's just too scary smart in a profession that requires more brains than most people realize.

Weber splits his time between New York and Chicago (six days a week in NYC, one day in the Windy City) and rarely comes to Minneapolis/St. Paul except for the annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival in June, where he's a beloved regular. This weekend, he played a private event in Minneapolis on Saturday, leaving Sunday free for the AQ.

Because Sunday was Jerome Kern's birthday (Weber appears to know—and quite possibly really does know—every composer's birthday, date and year, and when every song was written, and what movie or musical it came from, if it did), the first set at the AQ was devoted to the music of Jerome Kern: "Long Ago and Far Away" (from the 1944 musical Cover Girl), "Nobody Else But Me" (a tune Gordy Johnson recorded on his Trios Version 3.0 CD), "All the Things You Are," "The Song Is You," "I'm Old Fashioned" (from the movie You Were Never Lovelier), and "Old Man River" from the musical Showboat.

But that's not all we heard. Like most jazz artists, Weber never plays just one tune. Between statements of the melody (so we have some clue what we're hearing), he improvises. And Weber's improvisations are wild rides through pretty much everything musical. All jazz artists quote from other songs, but with Weber, the quotes are so diverse and they go by so fast you've barely figured one out before he's already three ahead. It's as if each improvisation is an opportunity for Weber to mine the vast and astonishing wealth of music in his head, and he does it at warp speed. I found myself holding my breath so I wouldn't miss a thing.

A lot of things I recognized but couldn't name flew by. A few I could: Bits of Mozart (Weber calls him "Zart;" the 27th was his birthday, too) from "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" and more. Snippets of "Hooray for Hollywood" and "Chicago" (that toddlin' town). John swears he heard a phrase from an old Woolite jingle ("You'd look better in a sweater washed in Woolite"). Nothing was off limits and it all fit.

Between tunes, Weber talked, filling us in on what he had just played and preparing us (sort of) for what was to come, peppering us with facts and stats and stories. "Here we are in the second century of jazz," he said, "and you don't know what you're going to get.... It's the flying trapeze jazz act without a net."

The second set left Kern behind and chased the rest of jazz: "Swanee" (stride style), James P. Johnson's "Worried and Lonesome Blues" (Weber: "Someday I'm going to dedicate a whole show to songs with 'and' in the title.... 'You and the Night and the Music' will be a double"), "I'm Beginning to See the Light," Oscar Peterson's "Riff Blues," "Alone Together," "Very Early" (written by a 19-year-old Bill Evans), Charlie Christian's "A Smooth One," and "Sonnymoon for Two" by Sonny Rollins.

Introducing "Sonnymoon," Weber mentioned that Rollins was one of seven surviving jazz artists in the famous "Great Day in Harlem" photograph taken by Art Kane in 1958, a copy of which hangs on a wall at the AQ. Weber named six survivors but couldn't come up with the seventh, so after the set he and Kenny Horst and Davis Wilson and a few others gathered around the photo to try to figure it out.

Photos: Top: Jon Weber by John Whiting. Bottom: L to R: "Great Day in Harlem," Kenny Horst, HH, unidentified man, Jon Weber, Davis Wilson.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Battleship Potemkin with the Minnesota Orchestra

Where: Orchestra Hall
Who: Esa Heikkilä and the Minnesota Orchestra

Because I prefer my music on a smaller scale—jazz trios, chamber music recitals (exceptions: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Maria Schneider Orchestra, Dave Holland Big Band)—I mostly ignore the Minnesota Orchestra. Although I know the occasional Beethoven symphony would do me good, and everyone says Osmo Vänskä is an amazing conductor, it's not on my radar. And since the sound at Orchestra Hall is hit-or-miss for almost anything but the orchestra, I rarely go to the big box with the giant sugar-cube ceiling.

But lately interesting things are happening there. Jazz is heard more frequently, with more to come; starting in April, there's a mini-series called "Jazz at Orchestra Hall" and it's not Doc Severinsen. Another small series, "Sounds of Cinema," began last week with a screening of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, with Vänskä and the orchestra performing Chaplin's original score. I didn't go but a friend did and she loved it.

"Sounds of Cinema" continued tonight with Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and a score compiled from portions of Shostakovich's symphonies. The movie was projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage, the orchestra filled the stage (I forget how large orchestras are), and we were in the second row, where we couldn't read the subtitles without craning a bit but we could see every move the bass players made. Conductor Esa Heikkilä is a protégé of Vänskä; this was his first appearance here.

I had never seen the film Roger Ebert calls "one of the fundamental landmarks of cinema" (my bad) but I recognized iconic scenes, like the baby carriage careering down the Odessa steps. The music—parts of Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, 8, 10, and 11, pieced together by Soviet musicologists in 1976—fit the film like 10-year-old Anastasia's white opera gloves. The performance was 90 minutes without an intermission, and the time raced by. It was entirely thrilling. It made me want to catch up on classic films (does that mean I have to stop watching Project Runway?) and buy season tickets to the orchestra.

The third and final "Sounds of Cinema" performance is called "To Boldly Go....," and it's hosted by George Takei, Star Trek's Dr. Sulu. Music from Star Wars, Close Encounters, Star Trek, and Holst's The Planets. That one I'll skip.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Christine Rosholt to record CD at the Dakota

One of the perks of living in the same town for a while is finding artists you enjoy and following them around. I'm not sure when I heard Christine Rosholtfor the first time, but it was probably soon after her local debut as a vocalist at La Bodega in October 2002.

Since then, I've seen her several times. In an especially memorable show in February 2005 at Macalester College, she sang jazz arrangements of works by Shakespeare while wearing a ruff.
Her theater background (she spent two years with the Children's Theatre Company and has performed at the Loring Playhouse and with Theatre de la Jeune Lune) serves her well; she's confident on stage, knows how to move and has impeccable diction. Through the years, her beautiful voice has become warmer and richer. She can do sensuous and sassy, and she can swing. Hear her sing here.

Rosholt (pronounced "ross-holt") released a demo CD of four songs in 2003 and her first full-length CD, "Detour Ahead," in 2006; the latter earned a Minnesota Music Awards nomination for Jazz Recording of the Year. On Jan. 30 and 31, she will record a new CD at the Dakota Jazz Club.

Perhaps the hardest-working jazz vocalist in the Twin Cities, with many gigs each month in all kinds of venues, Rosholt knows how to pick band members. Her Dakota recording will feature her regular trio of Tanner Taylor on piano, Graydon Peterson on bass, and Jay Epstein on drums, plus recent McKnight Artist Fellowship Award winner and beloved Twin Cities saxophonist/flutist/clarinetist Dave Karr.

I spoke with Rosholt Wednesday about what to expect at next week's recording sessions.

MinnPost: What songs will you perform and record?
Christine Rosholt: We'll do a mix of lesser-known and more common tunes. "Cheek to Cheek," "If I Were a Bell," "Down with Love," "Tea for Two." "Estate" by Bruno Martino, with lyrics by Susannah McCorkle. Bob Dorough's "Devil May Care." He wrote the "Schoolhouse Rock" music. The CD will have 16 songs, most from the 1930s and '40s.

MP: How did you choose the songs?
CR: It's hard because there are so many good ones, so I just try to mix it up — upbeat songs, some with a Latin feel, one or two in waltz time. Fun songs and serious ones, sexy songs, ballads. Not too many in the same key. I asked the band to tell me their favorites and took that into consideration.

MP: So in a time when everyone is buying singles from iTunes, you're still treating this as an album?
CR: Yes, it will be something you can listen to all the way through.

MP: Who does your arranging?
CR: All of us. I've been playing with these guys for years — Jay since the beginning, Graydon since our first gig together at Nochee's [now Harry's] on New Year's Eve 2004, Tanner since about 2003, Dave for about two years. Our ways of doing the songs have just evolved.

MP: After two nights in the club, will you follow up with studio work?
CR: I hope we won't have to. Steve Wiese from Creation Audio is our recording engineer, and he's so good I hope it can all be live. I don't really like going into the studio. You're alone in a little room and it's so cold. I hate the term "people person" but I guess that's what I am. I prefer an audience.

MP: Are you still happy with your previous CD, "Detour Ahead"?
CR: Yes and no. It was arduous for me, and I tweaked it too much. Also, I sing a lot of those songs lower now, so sometimes when I hear it, it sounds weird. But the other night I was driving home from a gig in Wisconsin and listening to Maryann's show ["The Jazz Connection with Maryann Sullivan" on Minnesota Public Radio] and she played "Early Autumn" and I thought, "Oh my god, that's pretty good."

MP: When you're not performing, what local singers do you like to hear live?
CR: Carole Martin. I love Lucia [Newell]. And Connie [Evingson]. I'm excited for her new CD with Dave Frishberg. ... We have such a good scene here. I was in Chicago recently, and there wasn't a lot going on.

What: Christine Rosholt: Live CD Recording
Where: The Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 30 and 31
How much: $5
Phone: 612-332-1010

Upcoming Picks

Chris Bates et al: Bassist Bates is another artist I follow around. He emailed this tantalizing description for an upcoming show at the 331 Club: "Improvised music from me, Wendy Ultan, Anthony Poretti and Stefan Kac plus 2 other bands." (This is the club that will host the First Annual Drunken Spelling Bee on Feb. 2. Sounds like a fun place.) 331 Club, 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25 ($3).

Jon Weber: A perennial favorite at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival (formerly the Hot Summer Jazz Festival), pianist Weber is inventive, sublimely entertaining, incredibly knowledgeable and very tall. The Artists' Quarter, 8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27 ($10).

Hugh Masekela and the Chissa All-Stars: The South African superstar is much more than "Grazing in the Grass." Expect a spicy stew of jazz, funk, and Afro-beat. He's bringing singers. The Dakota, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29 ($50 and $35).

Originally published on on January 25, 2008
Photo by Ann Marsden

MinnPost: Christine Rosholt CD Recording Preview

I like Christine Rosholt personally and as a singer.
We were trying to remember when we first met; she thinks it was when she was walking behind John and me in the skyway to Orchestra Hall for some event and she overheard us talking about Kurt Elling.

It was fun to interview her for this week's MinnPost article, a preview of her upcoming live CD recording at the Dakota. I learned a little of what she had done before she became a jazz vocalist:

"My degree is in performance art and photography [from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago].... I used to combine photography and theater in performance pieces, multimedia with photography projections; I did shows in New York, tons of show in Chicago, and a lot of independent hole-in-the-wall theaters.... I've done a lot of crazy ass performance art, and I'm so glad I got that out of my system."

Photo: Christine and bassist Tom Lewis at the Jazz Vocalists of Minnesota CD Release Party, the Artists' Quarter, July 15, 2007

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sophie Milman

Where: The Dakota
Who: Sophie Milman (voice), Cameron Wallis (saxophones, musical director), Paul Shrofel (piano), George Koller (bass), John Fraboni (drums)

She's young, she's smart, she's beautiful, and she can sing. Just 24, Sophie Milman is already being compared to Diana Krall, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. Her debut CD has sold more than 100,000 copies and her latest is winning raves. She's been called a "hottie" and a "doll-eyed blonde."

It must be hard to follow your own press onto a new stage in a new town; when expectations are that high, the pressure's on. But Milman exuded confidence and the only hint of her youth (other than her fresh and dewy looks) was a tendency to talk a bit too much about herself between songs.

Her band was terrific. Who are these guys? Where are they from? From the IAJE Web site, I learned that Wallis hails from Winnipeg, lives in Montreal, and earned his Master of Music and Bachelor of Music from McGill. Shrofel and Wallis have made a CD together called OneUpOneDown; brief bios on that site tell me that Shrofel "is a well trained and versatile musician comfortable in a variety of musical settings." Thanks for nothing. IAJE says that Shrofel is based in Montreal as well. It seems that George Koller is also a member of a Toronto band called the Shuffle Demons, though it's hard to be certain because his photo there shows him wearing a hat and a beard, and neither were in evidence last night. (Is Koller Milman's regular bass player? Recent articles name bassist Kieran Overs as the newest addition to Milman's band.) John Fraboni is part of the Montreal jazz scene, and that's all I can find about him.

We saw the second set on the final night of a two-day stay at the Dakota. The band opened and Millman came out for the second tune, jumping right into Jobim's "Agua De Beber" (ba-ba-du-da, baya-duba-duya). She sang songs from her self-titled debut CD: "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "My Baby Just Cares for Me," the Russian folk song "Ochi Chornye" (in Russian, which she still speaks at home with her parents; the family emigrated from Russia to Israel when Milman was six, and from Israel to Canada when she was 16). We also heard songs from her new CD, Make Someone Happy: "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "Undun." Her performance wasn't limited to her recordings; she performed a two-song tribute to Oscar Peterson, "Tenderly" and "Sweet Georgia Brown," and an interesting jazz arrangement (Wallis's?) of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire."

"Agua De Beber," was lovely, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" kittenish. I could have done without a jazz version of the song from Fiddler on the Roof. "I'm on Fire" has the potential to become the next "Fever." I can imagine a lot of jazz singers performing this song. When Kurt Elling sings "Undun" (the late '60s pop hit by Canadian rock supergroup The Guess Who), he slows it way down; Milman speeds it up, and I think I prefer Elling's reading. Which isn't fair to say since I prefer Elling's reading of almost anything, although I hope he never sings "MacArthur Park."

Previewing Milman's show for the Strib, the usually astute and perspicacious Jon Bream wrote, "You could easily mistake Sophie Milman for the daughter that Twin Cities jazz thrush Connie Evingson never had." I thought that was a boneheaded thing to write for at least two reasons, but having seen Milman, I can understand why he wrote it (although it was still boneheaded): She looks kind of like Connie, and she sings kind of like Connie. Who was not at the Dakota when we were, although Christine Rosholt was. I expected to see more singers in the house. Maybe they came to the earlier shows?

A close approximation of Millman's band (with Overs on bass instead of Koller).
Sophie sings "Agua De Beber."
Her MySpace page.

Photo: Koller, Milman. Sorry, Sophie, not the best photo. My card reader ate several images.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

When: 1/21/08
Where: Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis
Who: Wynton Marsalis (music director, trumpet), Sean Jones, Ryan Kisor, Marcus Printup (trumpet), Vincent R. Gardner, Christopher Crenshaw, Elliot Maxon (trombone), Walter Blanding (tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet), Victor Goines (tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet), Sherman Irby (saxophones), Ted Nash (alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet), Joe Temperley (baritone and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet), Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez) bass), Ali Jackson (drums)

They came, we saw, they conquered. On a snowy night of bad roads and big traffic delays, it seemed that almost every ticket holder in the sold-out house made it to Orchestra Hall to see the world-famous Wynton and his amazing ensemble: 15 musicians, each capable of leading his own group (which some already do).

The program, "Love Songs of Duke Ellington," began with a solo by Marsalis that slid smooth as silk into the whole band playing "Mood Indigo," which Marsalis dedicated to Manny Laureano, principal trumpet for the Minnesota Orchestra. From there, we were carried on a satisfying ride through Ellington's work, interspersed with anecdotes and banter from Marsalis.

We heard "Satin Doll" and "Lady Mac" from Such Sweet Thunder, Ellington's 12-part suite based on the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare ("Lady Mac" being Lady MacBeth). The Marsalis brothers are fond of both the Duke and the Bard. In June of last year, Delfeayo brought his octet to Orchestra Hall and performed Such Sweet Thunder in its entirety, the first time that had happened since 1956, when Ellington did it himself.

From there: "Prelude to a Kiss," "Moon Over Cuba," "In My Solitude," "Old Man Blues" ("a piece written for a movie called Check and Doublecheck," Marsalis explained. "It's a terrible movie, don't see it"), "Creole Love Call," "Dance in Love" from Ellington's Perfume Suite (performed on piano and bass, with the horn players snapping their fingers), "Warm Valley" and "Flaming Sword" (two sides of an Ellington 78 written about "the greatest duet, a man and a woman going steady," Marsalis said, and everyone laughed). The trombones used derby mutes, and it looked like choreography, a doo-wop group fancy-stepping.

The program was generous and easy on the ears: familiar melodies, rhythms you could tap your feet to, lots of opportunities for individual members of this great band to show off. (Sean Jones didn't solo much but when he did, it was blistering.) We heard "Self Portrait of the Bean," a song Ellington wrote for Coleman Hawkins; Marsalis asked Goines if he would "put some of his feeling on this tune," and Goines responded "I will, sir!" then gave us a sultry solo. Ted Nash took the spotlight on "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart." They gave us a movement of the Queen's Suite, "The Single Petal of a Rose," with haunting bass clarinet, then ended with "Rockin' in Rhythm."

Some people left but the rest of us wouldn't so the band returned for a "C-Jam Blues" that was a concert in itself. The rhythm section took their places and everyone else lined up loosely along the front of the stage, passing solos like talking sticks. The music was so fine and the band looked so stylish and elegant that I wished everyone who doesn't like jazz or only likes smooth jazz or thinks jazz is dead could have been there. Marsalis has been accused of being too traditional, too strict about what he will and won't play, too bent on building a jazz repertoire, but he's bringing real jazz to a wider audience than anyone has since the days of swing.

Jazz at Lincoln Center

Photo by John Whiting.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Valves Meet Slide: Back for More

When: 1/20/08
Where: The Artists' Quarter
Who: Brad Bellows (valve trombone), Dave Graf (slide trombone), Peter Schimke (piano), Gordy Johnson (bass), Mac Santiago (drums)

I can't imagine a better way to spend a cold Minnesota Sunday afternoon than in the warm embrace of the Artists' Quarter. There's something about parking on the St. Paul streets, walking through the lighted arch over the 7th Place Pedestrian Mall, passing the goofy drummer mannequin in the window of the Hamm Building (we call him "Dusty"), and heading downstairs to the basement jazz club that makes you think all jazz clubs should be in basements. Like the Vanguard, like the Iridium, like the Standard.

As promised, Brad Bellows brought appetizers: crab dip, chips, cheese and sausage. We sat and snacked and enjoyed almost four hours of music by a group that sounds better each time I hear them. We heard tunes by Freddie Hubbard and Dave Karr, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Jobim, Bob Brookmeyer, Tad Dameron, Horace Silver, and Fats Waller, almost all of which had been transcribed for the quintet's unusual configuration, and an original by Graf, "Going Away." Everyone sounded great, everyone looked happy and relaxed, and everyone had a chance to shine. Gordy Johnson in particular was about the best I've ever heard him; at one point, Graf said, "Gordy's on fire."

The event drew a sizable crowd for a Sunday afternoon that also featured big football games and a figure skating championship at nearby Excel Energy Center. I've heard this was something AQ owner Kenny Horst wanted to try to see if it would fly--would people come to the club on Sunday afternoon? Make it as good as this and they'll come.

Photo by John Whiting. L to R: Peter, Gordy, Mac, Dave, Brad.

Video by Don Berryman.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Music as Morning Ritual

Architect Daniel Libeskind starts each day by listening to music. "It's not...a luxury, it's almost a necessity," he told Weekend America's Gideon D'Arcangelo. "And it's not background.... I sit down, when I have time, and mostly I do have time early in the morning, just to listen to music."

He describes his morning music ritual as "the equivalent for the soul [of] what running and jogging would be for the body... [The] soul also needs to be fed. Otherwise it's empty. "

On one morning's playlist: Fugue #22 from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier played by Glen Gould, Cab Calloway's take on "Saint Louis Blues," and a free-jazz improvisation by pianist Keith Tippett.

For a while, I began each day with "Resolution," Kurt Elling's vocalese to the John Coltrane tune from A Love Supreme. It's mighty music with mighty lyrics, including prayers to God, Buddha, Allah, Lama, Jesus, and Vishnu. I've heard Kurt perform this live maybe three times, and each time it knocked me silly.

Read the whole Weekend America story and a list of songs listeners have submitted as their favorite day-starters.
Hear Elling sing "Resolution" and read his lyrics.
Hear Elling talk about "Resolution."

Photo: Kurt Elling and pianist Laurence Hobgood at the Dakota, March 2007

Friday, January 18, 2008

MinnPost: Children's Theatre Company Preview

To prepare for this week's MinnPost article about the music for Bud, Not Buddy, the new play at the Children's Theatre Company. I read the book on which the play is based, saw a preview performance of the play, and read articles online about the book, the author, the play, and the playwright. Victor Zupanc, CTC's resident composer, was generous with his time despite the fact this is preview week and he'd just come out of a long rehearsal. He told me how rare it is for a theater to have a resident composer and how important it is to him to be on staff at CTC:

"I like to be in rehearsals, all the rehearsals, from the first day—to be there with the director and develop [a play] together. That's not normal these days, unfortunately, because of economics. Most theaters can't afford to hire a composer to sit in rehearsals for six week. Usually they hire someone to write a score, maybe attend three to four days of rehearsal, then tech rehearsals. I have worked that way, and I am never fully satisfied when I do that.... I have worked at 40–50 theaters but haven't worked at another one with a full-time music director. It's a luxury, and it's great. It's crucial for the type of work we do and how rich and colorful all the shows are."

In the book Bud, Not Buddy, author Christopher Paul Curtis has a jazz singer perform the song "What's New?" In the play, she sings "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." That was director Marion McClinton's idea, something he was able to share with Zupanc because they were there together, and it works perfectly in a play about a boy in search of a family and a home.

Jazz 101: What Is Jazz?

In our final class (for now)
with Kelly Rossum at MacPhail, we returned to the question he asked at the start: What is jazz? We talked around it as people who hadn't been at last week's class described performances they had seen; the assignment for that class had been to go hear some jazz. Then we veered into a discussion about the future of jazz and what that might bring.

Not for the first time, Kelly said he feels jazz is tied to technology, and technology will be important for advancing the music. On the other hand, one of the problems of technology is "you can listen to a thousand songs and never hear any of them." As David Berkman and Scott Wendholt said during their master class at MacPhail, it's important to fixate: to listen in a focused, concentrated way if you really want to hear. Pick an album, a whole album, and listen to it again and again. Then do the same with another album. Kelly did this with Miles Davis's 'Round About Midnight, and Wynton Marsalis's J-Mood, and Donald Byrd's Live at the Half Note Cafe.

Meanwhile,, the major new jazz Web site that launched this week under the direction of Ted Gioia, author of The History of Jazz (and brother to NEA chair Dana Gioia), is publishing reviews of individual tracks, not whole albums/CDs. Each day, they publish a "Song for the Day" review of a track from a new CD. "A Classic Revisited" reviews a track from a classic jazz album. A section called "The Dozens" lists, for example, 12 essential Brad Mehldau performances, or 12 essential modern jazz trumpet solos, or 12 tracks by jazz organ trios. Click on BUY THIS TRACK in any section and you'll find yourself on, where you'll have to buy the whole CD after all. But it's very modern of to focus on tracks. As Chris Reimenschneider wrote last week in the Strib, "If we're to believe SoundScan, Apple, teenagers and Mark Wheat, the full-length album is a dying art form."

Yet people keep making them. Christine Rosholt will record a new CD next week at the Dakota. Mary Louise Knutson is writing songs for her next CD. And Kelly ended our class by previewing Family, his new quartet CD with Bryan Nichols, Chris Bates, and J.T. Bates, due out later this year. We heard "If I Were a Bell," Kelly's utterly charming original "Mr. Blueberry" (he calls it "my first country song," and it makes you want to dance, but not line dance), and "After the Snow," a tune that was almost wholly improvised in the studio and recorded on the first take. It began as an eight-note melody, the same two notes played four times, and opened wide into one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. How can two notes turn into something so exquisite? As Kelly said, "It's about the people." Which may be the real definition of jazz, and it's certainly the future of jazz.

Photo: The sign on the wall by the elevators at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Jazz takes the stage in CTC's 'Bud, Not Buddy'

Ten-year-old Bud Caldwell is a motherless child in search of his father during the Great Depression. Bud has pluck, hope and a battered suitcase full of clues to the family he longs to find: a handful of rocks with numbers written on them, a picture of his mama as a young girl, and a flyer advertising a performance by Herman E. Calloway and his jazz band — the Dusky Devastators of the Depression.

"Bud, Not Buddy," based on the award-winning book by Christopher Paul Curtis, opens this weekend at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Even though the play is not a musical, jazz runs through it as a theme and an original score by CTC resident composer and sound designer Victor Zupanc. (Reginald André Jackson adapted the Newbery Medal-winning book for stage.)
Zupanc, a three-time McKnight Fellow and a 2005 Bush Foundation Artist Fellow, has been the music director at CTC for 17 seasons. He worked closely with the play's director, Marion McClinton, an Obie winner, Tony nominee and renowned director of August Wilson's plays.

Jazz infuses music and cast

MinnPost spoke with Zupanc, winner of numerous awards, on his way home from a five-hour rehearsal.

Jazz informed more than the music — it also guided the cast. Zupanc explains: "Right off the bat, McClinton said, 'You guys need to figure out what instruments you are. This is a jazz play, and you are instruments. You need to learn about the characteristics of your instrument. That's how you do your lines. That's how you deliver. That's how you act.' It made sense to me. I was doing the same thing, literally, with the music."

For his research, Zupanc listened to music of the era: Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young. Familiar tunes emerge in his score: a swinging "No Place Like Home," bits of "God Bless the Child," Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo."

Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" brackets the play, during a tender mother-and-son dance near the beginning and as a complete performance by vocalist Regina Williams near the end.

Tuning into 'YouTube' for research

Were there any big discoveries during Zupanc's research and writing phase? "YouTube," he says. "I was able to go on YouTube and watch these people perform — Lester, Billie, Charlie Parker. I thought YouTube was all Hannah Montana and contemporary things, but there are thousands of clips of early recording sessions."

The video website also helped the actors. "I was able to tell them, 'Check out YouTube and watch this trumpet player and that sax player. Look at how they act, notice their mannerisms.' " There's a magical scene late in the play where Shawn Hamilton, Samuel G. Roberson, Namir Smallwood, Kevin D. West, and Payton Woodson lift "instruments" shaped from wire, the music begins, they strike a pose, and it's real.

Most of the music was prerecorded by Zupanc on keyboard and percussion and Brian Grivna on reeds (saxophones and clarinet).

Grivna's jazz pedigree includes years with the Buddy Rich band and many performances at local clubs. Grivna, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota and former staff woodwind performer for the Guthrie, also plays for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra. "He's the best," Zupanc says. "His wealth of experience is so deep, and he plays all the horns."

Regina Williams sings, acts

Performances by the luminous Regina Williams are live, not prerecorded. Like most other adults in the cast, Williams has multiple roles in "Bud, Not Buddy." In the first half of the play, she's an abusive mother in a foster home and a kind mother in a shantytown. In the second half, she's the singer for Calloway's band.

Williams, a local treasure, is a former Sounds of Blackness member and current company member of Penumbra Theatre. If you missed her brilliant star turn as Dinah Washington in Penumbra's musical drama "Dinah Was" in 2003, you can kick yourself now. "Working with her is a joy," says Zupanc. "She's a generous person and extremely talented."

Nathan Barlow, a junior at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, carries most of the play's weight on his 16-year-old shoulders as Bud. A gifted young actor who has appeared in 11 previous CTC productions, he also plays the saxophone in his school band, which comes in handy during the final scene.

Zupanc enjoyed working on "Bud, Not Buddy," immersing himself in the music and laying down tracks in his home studio. "I'm a big fan of music of that era, and of jazz."

Which local jazz musicians does he enjoy? He doesn't get out to clubs as often as he would like — a price one pays for working in theater. But when he does: "Brian Grivna, of course. Dennis Spears. Ginger Commodore. Debbie Duncan. And I think our resident genius is Adi Yeshaya. He's an amazing arranger and composer."

What: "Bud, Not Buddy" (for ages 9+)
Where: Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
When: Now through Saturday, Feb. 16; matinees and evening performances (call or go online for times)
How much: $22.50-$37.50
Phone: 612-874-0400

Upcoming picks

Valves Meet Slide: It's going to be c-c-c-cold this weekend. Warm up at the Artists' Quarter's first-ever Sunday Afternoon Jazz Party. Trombonists Dave Graf and Brad Bellows will perform with the always-hot rhythm section of Peter Schimke on piano, Gordy Johnson on bass and Mac Santiago on drums. Free hors d'oeuvres, too. Read a preview here. The Artists' Quarter, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20 ($7).

Soul Café: I almost hate to include this in the picks because if it sells out before I get there (after Valves Meet Slide), I'll be mad. But not including it would be a sin. Phil Aaron on piano (sitting in for Soul Café regular Laura Caviani), Brad Holden on alto sax, and Steve Blons on guitar play the music of Miles Davis; Robert Bly reads his own poetry. Minnesota will name a poet laureate sometime this month, and if Bly isn't it, I'll eat my sonnet. Save me a seat. The Art Gallery at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, I-94 at the Lyndale Exit, 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20 ($10 requested donation).

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: A very big gig. Remember when the Metropolitan Opera came to Northrop? This is the jazz equivalent, without the sets. The program: "Ellington Love Songs," which JALC will play in New York over Valentine's weekend. "Mood Indigo," "Satin Doll" and more. Orchestra Hall, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 21 ($12-$77).

Originally published on, January 18, 2008
Photo by Rob Levine

Sunday, January 13, 2008


One for Michael Lewis, and one for his mom Mary. Lovely hand-dyed washable merino wool.

Amateur Jazz

Where: Betsy's Back Porch Coffee Shop
Who: Paul Renz (guitar) and adult students from the West Bank School of Music

The word "amateur" is often used as an insult, and we've forgotten its true meanings: devotee; admirer; one who engages in a pursuit, study, science or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession. I studied piano for a few years in my 20s, and ever since I have admired adults who make time in their lives to learn an instrument—not because they have to, but because they want to.

On Friday night, Betsy's Back Porch Coffee Shop in south Minneapolis, which opened its doors in January 2002 and nearly had to close them a few months back until neighbors held a fund raiser, hosted a group of grown-ups who not only study jazz but also perform it in public, an act of commitment and raw courage. When I was studying piano, I couldn't bring myself to play from sheet music in public, much less improvise.

I learned of the event from Lisa Meyer, one of my fellow students in Kelly Rossum's Jazz 101 class at MacPhail. In her invitation email, she wrote, "This is an opportunity to hear what jazz sounds like in the hands of enthusiastic amateur adults with a wide range of experience, skill level and ambition. In other words, NOT the AQ." It was enjoyable from start to finish. Led by Renz, the only pro in the group (and a taskmaster, from the looks of it), the sextet also included Meyer on piano, another guitarist, a trumpet/flugelhorn player, a bass player, and a drummer. I didn't catch their names, but one is an OB-GYN by day. ("In case anyone here is enciente," Renz quipped.)

They began with a standard, "Night in Tunisia," but everything else was composed by Meyer and the trumpet/flugelhorn player, Todd (Tangey?). We heard Todd's laid-back "Get It Done" and mysteriously named "Dancing Cocktails," and Meyer's speedy, challenging "And Another Thing," along with her tune "Do Right" and lovely ballad "FAQ." The finale was Todd's uptempo "Rebound." Betsy's was SRO, with 30 or 40 people listening and applauding. I was glad to be there. It felt communal and hopeful; it was serious-minded and happy at the same time. And if this type of event is happening here, chances are it's happening in other towns and cities, too, in their coffee shops and churches, community centers and living rooms.

Photo: The back room at Betsy's. Renz is on the left, and there's a fire in the wood-burning stove.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Slide Huxtable

When: 1/10/08
Where: The Artists' Quarter
Who: Mark Miller (trombone), Dean Magraw (guitar), Chris Bates (bass), J.T. Bates (drums)

Brad Bellows says the trombone is not becoming more popular, but it seems that everywhere I turn these days, I run into a trombone (or one almost runs into me, if I sit too near the stage). Valves Meet Slide, the Dakota Combo with Delfeayo Marsalis, last year's Trombone Summit at the Dakota (Steve Turre, Fred Wesley, Wycliffe Gordon, guest Delfeayo...that was in June, a while back but so worth mentioning)...also in June, we went to the Stone in NYC and saw Chris McIntyre's 7X7 Trombone Band with (for real) 7 trombones and it was not too many.

Wisconsin native and founding member of the Motion Poets Mark Miller brought his trombone to town for three gigs with former bandmates the Bates Bros. and Dean Magraw standing in for regular Slide Huxtable guitarist Bill Bergmann.

We caught them at the AQ on a Thursday night. The crowd was sizable and appreciative, and the music was satisfying: "The Juggla," a straight-ahead piece by Ralph Peterson the group first heard on an Anthony Cox CD and have since made their own; Miller's "Salt of the Earth," the tune Kelly Rossum played for us during our Jazz 101 class and proclaimed his current favorite; a tongue-in-cheek, reggae-flavored "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets." And just when I thought I had them figured out (SH is all about fun!) they gave us a beautiful ballad by Miller. He wrote it in 2000, the year two people dear to him passed away: his father and his trombone hero J.J. Johnson. "For J.J." is a work of aching loss. I've never heard a trombone sound so sad.

From there we heard a Magraw tune, "Anarchy," and "I Hear a Rhapsody." The first set closed with something Miller called "Fantasy in A minor, for lack of a better title." A big, serious piece.

The next day, Chris Bates sent an email saying "I think you heard some of the best music that Slide has ever played."

Watch Don Berryman's video of Slide Huxtable playing "Salt of the Earth."

Photo by John Whiting. That's Miller in front, with Chris Bates at the left and J.T. at the right.

Friday, January 11, 2008

MinnPost: Valves Meet Slide Preview

The place to be on Sunday afternoon, January 20, is the Artists' Quarter. I previewed the upcoming Valves Meet Slide/Sunday Afternoon Jazz Party for MinnPost and look forward to going. The AQ is such a homey and welcoming place, and this is such a great band, that you can't go wrong.

I asked Dave Graf how he chose the trombone:

"It got chosen for me. It happened at school [Graf grew up in Roseville] during an introduction-to-the-band night, when they have all the instruments out on tables for kids to go and look at. Being practical minded, I wanted to play the flute, since it was the smallest and would be easiest to carry on the bus. But the band director said--this was a while back--'Boys don't really play the flute.' My mom was with me and volunteered that I had a toy slide whistle and could play it. So I ended up with the trombone."

How did he become a professional musician?

"My best friend in high school was Dave Jensen [a member of the Hornheads], who was a year ahead of me. We used to hang out a lot and he had a lot of records. We'd go to as many live concerts as we could find. We were crazy about it. During college, Dave started breaking into the playing scene; in a way, I rode his coattails. There used to be a number of big bands that got together for the fun of it to read charts. I kind of just fell into it."

I asked both Dave and Brad, "Do you feel the trombone is becoming more popular?" (The question came out of the fact that I'm seeing a lot of trombones lately.) Ask anyone who knows the two of them and they'll tell you Dave tends to be more talkative and Brad is a man of fewer words.

Dave said: "I don’t think the trombone will ever be what you call popular. A number of players are bringing it to higher profile…Slide Hampton, a great player in his 70s who seems to get better. Steve Turre is another favorite of mine, Wycliffe Gordon, Conrad Herwig, Steve Davis.... Trombonists kind of have to make their own opportunities. It’s not the first horn people think of in a jazz band; that’s saxophone, then trumpet. When I play with bands that use a horn section, trombone is always the first thing to be cut when they have to trim the budget."

Brad said: "No, I don't have any justification for agreeing that's true."

No worries; on Sunday the 20th, Brad will play just as many notes as Dave.

Photo of Brad Bellows.

Trombones help beat the winter blahs: Valves Meet Slide

Valves Meet Slide

Originally published on, January 11, 2008

The unhappiest day of the year is almost here. Thanks to Welsh psychologist Cliff Arnall, who developed an equation that factors in bleak weather, Christmas debt, failed New Year's resolutions and other glum variables, the first Monday of the last full week of January is designated Blue Monday. This year, it falls on Jan. 21.

Don't despair — prepare. Spend part of Sunday the 20th at the Artists' Quarter and stock up on bonhomie for Monday and beyond.

The AQ is hosting its first Sunday Afternoon Jazz Party starting at 3 p.m., complete with free hors d'oeuvres. On stage: Valves Meet Slide, a quintet with two trombones and a killer rhythm section.

I first heard this group last November and I liked them a lot. The music is upbeat and warm — jazz standards you've probably heard before, but on different instruments. You can see them perform here.

Not your typical jazz horn
The trombone is not the first horn people associate with jazz; that would be the saxophone or trumpet. But it's an instrument with a great range and mellow sound. Usually you're lucky to hear one in a jazz ensemble. Slide Hampton, Robin Eubanks, J.J. Johnson, Steve Turre and Delfeayo Marsalis have all helped to popularize the horn with the big reach. Hearing two at the same time is a rare treat.

In Valves Meet Slide, Dave Graf plays the trombone most people are used to seeing, the one with the slide. Brad Bellows plays valve trombone, which uses valves (like a trumpet) instead of a slide to lengthen or shorten the pipe and create the notes. (Trombone trivia: The late Maynard Ferguson played a trombone with both valves and a slide. He called it Superbone.)

Bellows is the founder of Locally Damaging Winds, the Midwest's preeminent jazz trombone septet; earlier this month, they played to a near capacity crowd at the Bloomington Arts Center. Graf can be heard with the Latin ensemble Salsa Del Soul every Thursday night at the Times Bar and Café in Northeast Minneapolis. His musically varied background includes big bands, Brazilian music, A Prairie Home Companion, and a long association with the late trumpeter Red Wolfe in his Port of Dixie Jazz Band and the Ellington Echoes. Graf has also performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton, Jack McDuff, and the Woody Herman Orchestra.

It was Bellows who suggested to Graf that they get together and jam. "We started doing that for the heck of it," Graf says. "I like to practice with someone else, give and take, bounce ideas around. After we'd done that a couple of times, Brad said, 'Let's try and get a gig.' Next thing I knew, we had a booking at the AQ." That was last summer. The Sunday Afternoon Jazz Party will be the fourth time Valves Meet Slide has performed in public.

Both men have fond memories of the Emporium of Jazz in Mendota, where the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band played for 25 years. "They had a Sunday afternoon show," Bellows says, "and it was fun." Bellows and Graf have day jobs, as do most of their family members and friends. "People with day gigs don't want to go out at night during the week," says Bellows. "A Sunday matinee will give more people a chance to see the band."

They will have a set list but don't yet know what will be on it. "We play what we like, a variety of stuff, and we try to sneak in a couple of new songs every time we play," Graf says. "We keep it pretty loose."

Back-up from a dream team
In addition to his valve trombone, Bellows will bring his euphonium — basically a small tuba. (Its name comes from the Greek word euphonos, meaning sweet-voiced.) Graf and Bellows will be backed by a local dream team: Peter Schimke on piano, Gordy Johnson on bass, Mac Santiago on drums.

Bellows will supply the hors d'oeuvres. He's thinking crackers and cheese, chips and dips, the sort of thing you'd eat anyway if you were at home in front of the TV. The bartender at the AQ (maybe Dan, maybe Dave) will pour the club's famously generous and reasonably priced drinks. And Davis Wilson the doorman will take your money, about what you'd pay for a movie.

The AQ's doors are seldom open on Sunday afternoons. An earlier exception was last July 15, when a singer's showcase for the Jazz Vocalists of Minnesota packed the house. Graf laughs when I remind him of that. "Those were singers, we're trombones," he says. But good music is good music, and that's what you'll hear if you go.

What: Valves Meet Slide
Where: The Artists' Quarter, 408 St. Peter Street, St. Paul
When: 3 p.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20
How much: $7
Phone: 651-292-1359

Upcoming picks

Slide Huxtable Quartet featuring Mark Miller: I've never heard of a jazz group playing three local clubs in the same week. Maybe one day Orchestra Hall and the Schubert Club could share a soprano? This very interesting quartet — all former members of the Motion Poets — includes Mark Miller on trombone, Chris Bates on bass, and J.T. Bates on drums, with guitar wizard Dean Magraw stepping in for regular group guitarist Bill Bergmann. Earlier this week, they played the Clown Lodge (in the basement of the Turf Club) and then the Artists' Quarter. Tonight they're on the Dakota's late-night bill. The Dakota, 11:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11 ($5).

Roseville Winter Jazz Blast: It's the 150th birthday of the state of Minnesota, and we're finally getting a state birthday song. The Roseville Winter Jazz Blast commissioned one by Dean Sorenson, director of jazz studies at the University of Minnesota; the song will have its premiere at this day-long festival for middle and high school jazz ensembles hosted by Northwestern College in Roseville. Come for the closing concert with the JazzMN Big Band, Judi Donaghy, and T. Mychael Rambo. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12 ($7-$17). Call 651-631-5151 or 866-821-5151.

Improvised Music at Homewood Studios: Every two months, this artists' workspace and community gallery in North Minneapolis hosts an evening of improvised music. In their words, "It's not your regular Lake Harriet Bandshell evening." That's for sure. This month features Milo Fine on drums and bowed cymbals, Davu Seru on drums, John O'Brien on trumpet and flugelhorn and Stefan Kac (of the Pan-Metropolitan Trio) on tuba. Homewood Studios, 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14 ($5).

Thursday, January 10, 2008

And the Band Played On

I'm not having the musical hallucinations
Oliver Sacks describes in Musicophilia. But I can't get the old song "The Band Played On" out of my head. Not the melody itself, but the lyrics of the chorus:

Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde,
And the band played on.
He'd glide cross the floor with the girl he adored,
And the band played on.
But his brain was so loaded it nearly exploded,
The poor girl would shake with alarm.
He'd ne'er leave the girl with the strawberry curls,
And the band played on.

Most recently, I heard this song when Bill Carrothers' Armistice Band performed it as an encore at the Artists' Quarter. It was written in 1895 (words by John F. Palmer, music by Charles B. Ward) and dedicated to the New York Sunday World newspaper.

The waltzing part I understand, and the band playing part. But what does "his brain was so loaded it nearly exploded" mean? What an odd phrase. Sometimes "loaded brain" is used to describe an intellectual, but the other lyrics don't give any hint of that meaning. Casey is a guy who forms a social club and hires a hall where he and his friends can dance with their sweethearts every Saturday night.

I sent an email to John Kenrick, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amateur Theatricals and webmaster of He replied:

As I've understood the lyric, it meant that dancing with his "strawberry blonde" gave Casey ideas -- so many ideas that his brain nearly exploded.

The song itself was a Tin Pan Alley creation that became famous in the early years of vaudeville. In fact, the inventor of vaudeville, Tony Pastor, made the song a trademark feature in his own stage appearances.

Thank you, John.

The music. Verses are in 2/4 time, the chorus is in 3/4 (waltz) time.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Serial Killers Read Garrison Keillor!

At least on TV they do. Here's a scene from last night’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. FBI Special Agent Lauren Cooper (Erika Christensen) is searching the NYC apartment of a serial killer known as “The Woodsman.” She finds this book on one of the shelves.

Thanks to TiVO for holding it nice and still.

Overheard... the open, airy, inviting and convivial public space/lobby just outside the Antonello Performance Hall at the new MacPhail Center for Music:

"If you have to tell people who you are, then who are you?"

David Berkman and Scott Wendholt

When: 1/8/08
Where: MacPhail Center for Music
Who: David Berkman (piano), Scott Wendholt (trumpet)

Following a short break after their master class/jazz clinic, Berkman and Wendholt returned to the stage of the Antonello Performance Hall for a program of richly layered, densely rhythmic, beautiful music. At times it felt more like classical music than jazz. Berkman rarely used the pedals and he seldom ventured above middle C; using only half the piano, a marvelous Steinway, he filled the hall with big, deep notes and chords. Wendholt's trumpet was the perfect partner—sometimes a bright fanfare, sometimes muted, sometimes a sighing breath.

After hearing the two musicians talk, it was interesting to sit back and watch the give-and-take, the jazzy interplay of one man asserting himself and the other backing off, then the other bringing his ideas to the foreground and being supported.

The tunes included Benny Golson's "Stablemates," the Berkman original "Not a Christmas Song," Herbie Hancock's "Toys" from Speak Like a Child, Wendholt's tribute to Woody Shaw, "Through the Shadows," and a few with names I didn't catch. I believe it was Hancock's "Toys" that Wendholt filled with scales...up, down, up, down, up, down, varying each one. Breathtaking.

Photo by John Whiting. Berkman at the piano, Wendholt standing. This photo is more about the space than the musicians, and what a great space it is. The floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the Ceresota Building sign.

Notes from a Master Class

When: 1/8/08
Where: MacPhail Center for Music
Who: David Berkman (piano), Scott Wendholt (trumpet)

Prior to their concert in the new Antonello Performance Hall at MacPhail, a jewelbox of a venue, pianist David Berkman and trumpeter Scott Wendholt gave an hour-long master class/jazz clinic. They began by playing a 12-bar blues, then spent most of the rest of the time telling stories and anecdotes, talking about how they play together, and discussing their influences. Here is some of what we heard. (I'm also including a few quotes from the concert, which became an extension of the clinic, only with more music.)

David Berkman: One of my goals as an improvisor is trying to play something really wrong against the form and seeing if anything good comes out of it.
Scott Wendholt: Jazz is entirely idiosyncratic music.
DB: Freedom and tradition are kind of the same thing.
SW: There's always more to [jazz] than I thought.... There is no end to it.
DB: You think you know it but there's always something else to hear and learn.... Everything you learn you can reuse.
SW: It's good to hear lots of music, but it's important to fixate. Give something hundreds of listenings. Take one record at a time and go crazy with it until you can sing along with the most important moments.
DB: What inspires me as a composer is trying to change the process.
SW: A really good way to write a song is to find a song you really like and write one a lot like it.

Berkman's influences: Oscar Peterson. "My father had 112 Oscar Peterson records. Canadiana Suite (1964) was the first jazz record I liked." Wynton Kelly. Kenny Kirkland. Monk. Bill Evans. Herbie Hancock. "My most lasting influence."

Scott's influences: Miles Davis. "The whole history of his music." And: "Trumpet players, check out any Art Blakey band."

The first record Wendholt listened to over and over again was Jean-Pierre Rampal and Claude Bolling's Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio (1975). I can still hum the opening notes to that album...and I still have the album, as in LP, which is pretty beat up by now.

Berkman told us how, during a tour of Japan that involved a lot of riding on trains, he gave drummer Nasheet Waits a Tony Williams CD and Waits listened to nothing else for three days. When he gave it back, Berkman said he could keep it, and Waits said no thanks; he had learned everything he could from it.

I'm inspired to choose a few CDs and listen to them very carefully, and I think I'll begin with the Berkman CD we bought last night, which just happens to be titled Start Here, Finish There (2003).

Photo of Berkman from his Web site gallery.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Return of Slide Huxtable

Kelly Rossum's current favorite CD: The Return of Slide Huxtable. Named for the episode of The Cosby Show in which character Cliff's dad Russell plays at a jam session (with the real Slide Hampton performing off camera), the quartet includes trombonist Mark Miller of the Motion Poets, guitarist Bill Bergmann, and the fabulous Bates brothers, Chris and J.T. With Dean Magraw stepping in for Bergmann, they are performing in three local clubs this week: the Clown Lodge (a.k.a. Clown Lounge, a.k.a. the basement of the Turf Club) on Monday, the Artists' Quarter on Thursday, and the Dakota on Friday (the late-night show).

If ever a club needed to update its Web site, it's the Clown Lounge/Lodge/whatever. (Clown Luge?) I checked and the last calendar update was 3/2/05.

Read a preview on Jazz Police.
Hear Slide Huxtable on MySpace.
The CD.

Jazz 101: Homework: Go Hear Some Jazz

Our teacher at MacPhail, Kelly Rossum, spent most of December in New York City on a grant from the American Composers Forum. Our assignment in his absence was to attend a live jazz performance and think about what we were hearing.

As Brer Rabbit told Brer Fox: "Hang me! Roast me! Skin me! Eat me! Just don't throw me into that briar patch."

No surprise, we all had heard a lot of music in the interim: Bill Carrothers, the Bad Plus, Tierney Sutton (in Los Angeles), Chris Bates, Chris Thomson, Mike Lewis, Irv Williams, Red Planet, Rhonda Laurie, Mary Louise Knutson, Happy Apple, the Enormous Quartet. Etc. We had a lively discussion about what we liked and didn't, the threads and traditions we heard in the music.

We asked Kelly about his stay in New York. It was good, he enjoyed it, he played a lot, he heard a lot of music (including Craig Taborn solo at the Stone)—and he was glad to come home to one of the healthiest, most interesting and active jazz and arts communities in the US. "The Twin Cities music environment is unique," he said. "Large enough to have great musicians, small enough that everybody has to play with everybody, crossing from traditional to avant garde."

Now that Jazz 101 is almost over (one class left), we've been after Kelly to teach Jazz 201, whatever that may be; he's considering it for the fall. Meanwhile, he'll be teaching a Jazz Book Club starting in February. Here's the description from the MacPhail course catalog:

Winter and Spring in Minnesota are the perfect seasons to sit by a warm fire and read about jazz. This course will dive into four books covering different aspects of our American art form. While the book discussions will occur once a month, the other class sessions will explore the music and issues surrounding each primary story. This year’s course will cover: Stomping the Blues, by Albert Murray; Kind of Blue – The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, by Ashley Kahn; Beneath the Underdog, by Charles Mingus; and Lush Life – A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, by David Hajdu.

Another 12 weeks with Kelly, plus we learned last night that Matty B's, a nearby bar, has half-off-everything happy hour all night every Monday, the night of our class.

Thanks to Lisa Meyer, MacPhail board member and member of our class, for her tour of the new MacPhail Center for Music. One word: Awesome.

About the new MacPhail.

Rendering of the new MacPhail by architects James Dayton Design.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Irv Williams

When: 1/6/08
Where: The Dakota
Who: Irv Williams (saxophone), Peter Schimke (piano), Gordy Johnson (bass), Phil Hey (drums)

At 88, Irv Williams (a.k.a. "Mr. Smooth," but certainly not because he plays smooth jazz) has released a new CD. He called it Finality which just makes people roll their eyes. Williams is the Energizer Bunny of jazz without the dorky drum. We caught the first set of his CD release at the Dakota, where he and his trio celebrated with standards: "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" (a melody that makes me vow never to travel anywhere without my husband again), a spry, snappy reading of "I Thought About You," "Old Folks" (what Irv calls "my theme song"), "Come Rain or Come Shine." The downstairs was full, the crowd was devoted, and Williams' sax was warm and velvety.

Introducing his new CD, Williams pointed out the image on the cover: himself as a six-year-old child. Due to the age of the photo, it needed some restoring. He also mentioned he'd been born prematurely, a much bigger problem in 1919 than it is today. Then he told us he had his pen out and was ready to sign. He stayed on stage during the break and people got in line.

Read about Finality, listen to bits of each track, and maybe order yourself a copy.

Still my favorite Irv CD.

Photos: Irv then, Irv now.

Bill Carrothers' Armistice Band U.S. Premiere

When: 1/5/08
Where: The Artists' Quarter
Who: Bill Carrothers (piano), Peg Carrothers (voice), Jean-Marc Foltz (clarinets), Matt Turner (cello), Gordy Johnson (bass), Dre Pallemaerts (drums), Jay Epstein (percussion)

After previewing this show for MinnPost and reading Britt Robson's glowing article about in the Strib (which I would gladly link to here, except you'd have to pay to read it after three weeks) and Andrea Canter's piece on Jazz Police, I expected a crowd. In fact, it was SRO at the AQ, something that doesn't happen nearly often enough. Much of the audience was other musicians. Laura Caviani, Pete Whitman, Mary Louise Knutson, Phil Aaron, Chris Lomheim and his wife, Emily, Lucia Newell, James Buckley, Michael Lewis, Chris Olson, Mac Santiago, Miguel Hurtado, and Javier Santiago were all there—and those are just the ones I saw. We tried to imagine who was left to play piano gigs around the Twin Cities that night. Peter Schimke was at the Dakota; he came to the AQ after. Tanner Taylor must have been all over town.

Carrothers' Armistice 1918 suite was even more powerful in person than on the recording. We journeyed through optimism, death, and despair. While I love the more traditional piano-bass-drums trio, the other instruments—Turner's eloquent cello, Foltz's expressive clarinets, Epstein's limitless percussion array (which included a tart pan, beans in a bowl, goats' toenails, what looked like vacuum cleaner hoses, and something he later told me is called a Remo Spring Drum)—added great texture and dimension. And Peg's voice rose pure and clear above the music, even when it was buzzy and dark. Her version of "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" was devastating.

As an encore, they gave us "And the Band Played On" in a spooky David Lynch version. It was perfect, and in response, we gave them a standing ovation. Which was small thanks for a concert so epic and virtuosic and satisfying that it should have commanded and filled a much larger space. I heard the band had approached other venues and been rejected; Armistice 1918 was judged too old-fashioned, too anti-war, irrelevant. I heard the Walker turned them down. I recently read an article about a dance series at the Walker (again in the Strib, sorry, no link) in which performing arts curator Philip Bither said, "We consciously did not want to go back. These are the artists you see in the future." Maybe to Bither, programming Armistice 1918 would have meant "going back," but to those of us who sat still and silent, taking in as much as we could, it was about as modern and immediate and forward-looking as music can be.

Bill Carrothers' Web site is the only place you can buy much of his music including Armistice 1918.

Photos, top to bottom: Carrothers, Foltz, Turner. Photo of Matt Turner by John Whiting.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

More Maude

When: 1/4/08
Where: Cafe Maude
Who: Michael Lewis (saxophone), Anthony Cox (bass), J.T. Bates (drums)

I really like Maude on Friday nights. It's open late, it's in my neighborhood, and the music is the kind that makes you do the Jon Stewart Headshake of Pure Amazement, where he flaps his lips and cheeks and goes "Huh?" I mean, seriously: Lewis, Cox, and Bates playing in a restaurant? Some people come for the food and end up getting slapped around by the jazz. By now Maude's antics are well enough known that others come because of the music. Tonight Lucia Newell wanders in, and James Buckley, and Scott Anderson, the manager of the Dakota, and Bryan Aaker, staff photographer for the Cedar Cultural Center. We sit with Mike's mom, Mary. I recognize some of the music but the only standard the trio plays (as far as I can tell) is "Alone Together," and I'm reminded that as much as Lewis blows sparks and fire, he can also play ballads that will break your heart.

Photo, L to R: Cox, Bates, Lewis. Taken with a flash near the end of the evening; it is not that bright in the restaurant.

P.S. Michael Lewis is next on my handmade hats list. Chris Bates, I need your cranial stats if you want a hat before the spring thaw.