On a Friday night in early December, I stood at the bar at Café Maude waiting for a table. People were crammed three-deep around it, clutching their cocktails and jostling each other and eyeing those lucky enough to be seated.
Across the room on a small stage beneath a large painting by local artist Stuart Loughridge, two musicians were playing some serious jazz. I could barely hear them through the din. They weren't just any two musicians or the kind whose names you'd normally read on a restaurant chalkboard.
By the time we scored a table, the crowd had thinned enough that we could follow Michael Lewis on the tenor saxophone and pianist Bryan Nichols in their complex, rhythmic dance of melody and improvisation.
Lewis's other bands include Happy Apple and Fat Kid Wednesdays, among the most innovative jazz groups around. Nichols teaches at MacPhail, has performed at the Kennedy Center and is part of Kelly Rossum's working quartet. Neither is background music material. And their performance was about as far from smooth jazz as you can get without a passport.
Jazz on the menu
Since the doors opened last summer at this hot new bistro in southwest Minneapolis, owner Kevin Sheehy has been committed to serving good music along with very good food. Stroll in almost any night and you'll hear something interesting: music played or selected by DJ Howard Hamilton III, international music, experimental music, solo piano, soul-dub-Afro-beat.
But Fridays belong to jazz, and the lineup so far has been stellar: Lewis and Nichols, Adam Linz, Alden Ikeda, Chris Thomson, Dean Granros, James Buckley, Park Evans, Chris Bates, J.T. Bates, Anthony Cox, Gordy Johnson, Laura Caviani, Joey Van Phillips, Peter Schimke, and other top area talent who also play the Artists' Quarter, the Dakota, the Cedar and the Clown Lounge. Even Kenny Horst, who owns the Artists' Quarter and rarely plays elsewhere, packed up his drums and brought them to Maude.
As well as drawing hordes of diners, Maude has become a musicians' hang. After Matt Wilson and his Carl Sandburg Project performed recently at the Minnesota Opera Center, everyone went to Maude. Nichols and drummer Jay Epstein were already there, listening to the Enormous Quartet (Thomson, Evans, Bates, Van Phillips). Dave King and Reid Anderson of the Bad Plus showed up for a party on the Sunday after Christmas.
The woman behind the programming
The demographic on stage tends to be young and cutting-edge; at the booths and tables, it's more conservative and better heeled. Which is precisely the mix Sheehy and music programmer "Maude" have in mind. "Maude" prefers to keep her real name anonymous so that she isn't inundated with requests for bookings. She had such interesting things to say about how she works that I agreed to let her keep her anonymity.
People may come to Café Maude for the crab cakes, roasted corn chowder and quail with squash cheddar gratin, but they'll also get an earful of sounds that push the boundaries of what they're used to.
Some may find this uncomfortable. Others feel happy without knowing why. "Our mission is a bit subversive," says "Maude." "We're bringing strange music to a fairly straight crowd. This is our way of inspiring people."
It's entertainment, but it's also an education, she says. "When musicians give you something you haven't heard before, it makes your ear stronger for the future."
For a new restaurant to do a build-out, hire a creative and experienced chef, develop a menu that consistently wins raves, staff up, and win a liquor license in a neighborhood that initially opposed it, live music may seem like reckless splurge.
"Obviously it's one of those expenses we could cut," Sheehy says, "like our flower budget or some other thing if we were desperate, but thank God we're not. We'll do it as long as I can afford it."
Between now and April, during which Sheehy and "Maude" will both be traveling, the roster will feature artists that regulars have come to know: Tasha Baron and Liz Draper, Van Phillips, Lewis, a night with Linz and Ikeda and Tommy O'Donnell, an evening with Granros and Schimke.
Call in advance to get a reservation, or take your chances and just drop by. To avoid the biggest, noisiest crush, arrive late; the kitchen stays open until midnight, and last call is 11:50 p.m. The music lasts until midnight, too. "It's free," Sheehy says. "Come and see it."
Originally published at MinnPost.com, Friday, January 4, 2008