Friday, February 29, 2008

Jaleel Shaw to bring his sax appeal to both sides of river

The alto saxophone can be smooth or strident, cool or funky. It can whisper or wail, honk or caress the senses. Legendary Charlie Parker played the alto sax. Counting Parker among his influences, young lion Jaleel Shaw plays it these days.

Next week, Shaw brings his horn and his considerable chops to the Twin Cities for three nights of smart, joyous jazz. On Thursday, March 6, he'll perform with the Roy Haynes Quartet at the Ted Mann Concert Hall as part of the Northrop Jazz Season. (Also on the menu that night is the Ravi Coltrane Quartet.)

On Friday and Saturday, March 7 and 8, Shaw will have top billing at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul. These dates fall midway between his 30th birthday (Feb. 11) and the release of his second CD as a leader (March 18).

Shaw says he's happy to return to the AQ, a club he has played twice before.

"The thing that's great about the AQ is the fact they were willing to bring me in as a young artist," he tells me in a phone interview. "Not many clubs are doing that anymore — bringing in musicians from New York, giving us opportunities to play."

Philly influences
Born in Philadelphia, Shaw grew up hearing jazz records played by his mother, Olivia. He started playing the alto sax at age 9 when she nixed his first two choices — trumpet and drums. His education as a jazz cub included music schools, jazz camps, mentoring by local musicians like Grover Washington Jr., and playing in a youth jazz band led by Lovett Hines, who counts Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco among his former students.

He won a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he earned dual degrees in music education and performance and a trunk full of awards. From there he went to the Manhattan School of Music, again on scholarship, and graduated with a master's in performance in 2002, the same year he was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition. He taught at Temple University for three years.

Today, Shaw calls himself a freelance jazz musician, but he has gigs that are probably the envy of many young artists. He's a member of both the Mingus Big Band and, since 2005, the Roy Haynes Quartet, with whom he will play at the Ted Mann.

Playing with royalty and who's ready to riff
Arguably the greatest living drummer, Haynes is jazz royalty. For more than 50 years, he has shaped some of the genre's greatest recordings, and he still has plenty to say as a musician, an innovator, and an improviser. A track on his most recent CD, "Whereas" (2006), was a Grammy nominee. (Jazz trivia: "Whereas" was recorded at the Artists' Quarter. Haynes and AQ owner and resident drummer Kenny Horst go way back. You can hear Shaw on that recording as well.)

What is it like to play with Roy Haynes? "Amazing," Shaw says. "It's an honor and a blessing to play with one of the masters of the music. He's played with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to John Coltrane. Those styles are ingrained in his style, and he continues to grow. He doesn't let those styles hold him back, but you can hear that he's rooted. That's one thing I want to incorporate into my playing. Stay rooted, always have that tradition, always have that sense of future."

At the AQ, Shaw will be backed by a trio of top area musicians and AQ stalwarts: pianist Chris Lomheim, bassist Billy Peterson and Horst. Shaw didn't know who would be joining him on the AQ stage until I told him. It's not uncommon for jazz musicians to perform with complete strangers.

"Usually when I go on the road and play different cities," Shaw says, "I play with whoever's in town. Honestly, even in New York [where Shaw now lives] I'm not always able to have the cats I want." This is one reason live jazz is so exciting — the fact that the music is truly in the moment and you never really know what you will hear until you hear it.

Shaw and his AQ trio will likely play songs from his new CD, the aptly named "Optimism." Its predecessor, "Perspective" (2005), was voted one of the top five debut jazz albums of 2005 by the All About Jazz website and "Jazzwise" magazine. The opening track won Shaw the ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Award. Shaw recently learned that the opening track of "Optimism" has received the same honor.

The new CD features nine originals and two standards including Cole Porter's "Love for Sale." Although it's not officially out yet, copies will be available at the Ted Mann and the AQ. Shaw is especially proud of this CD, the first release on his new label, Changu Records. He wrote most of the music, including a couple of tunes the night before going into the studio.

What: Ravi Coltrane Quartet/Roy Haynes Quartet ( Jaleel Shaw plays with Haynes)
Where: Ted Mann Concert Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 6
How much: $29 and $37.
Ticketing information
To buy tickets online

What: Jaleel Shaw Group
Where: The Artists' Quarter
When: 9 p.m. Friday, March 7 and Saturday, March 8
How much: $15

Upcoming picks

Irv Williams CD Release: The sounds of Mr. Smooth, the fun of a CD release for a disc he called "Finality." Yeah, right, Irv. The Artists' Quarter, 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 29 and Saturday, March 1 ($10).

Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Jazz Quintet CD Release: I've never heard this group but there are at least five good reasons to go: 1) Their CD, "Chance, Love & Logic," is on the Innova label. 2) The CD release will be held at Studio Z in Lowertown. 3) Kelly Rossum will play his trumpet. 4) Chris Bates will play his bass. 5) Brains will be engaged. 8 p.m. Saturday, March 1 ($10).

Twin Cities Winter Jazz Fest. A whole day of jazz in the sparkly new MacPhail Center for Music. Read all about it. Noon to 8:30 p.m. Sunday, March 2 ($15/$25).

Originally published on on February 29, 2008

Saturday, February 23, 2008

MinnPost: Winter Jazz Fest Preview

Preparing to write about the upcoming Twin Cities Winter Jazz Fest for MinnPost, I thought, "This should be fairly easy. I'll call [executive director and festival poobah] Steve Heckler and get the whole story."

Nice try. Heckler knows the big picture, but Jerry Swanberg is the big-bands guy, Vicky Mountain is organizing the vocalists, Kelly Rossum is wrangling the acts for the youth stages, and Kevin Barnes has the skinny on the food. So I did more calling and emailing and chasing around than I thought. The results: I was able to post more details on the festival than available anywhere else. A minor scoop but it made me happy.

Information about the Youth/Clinic stages arrived after my deadline, so here's what Kelly says:

I don’t have times yet, but… Dakota Combo. Walker West jazz combo. Spring Lake Park High School jazz ensemble. Judson School jazz combo. MacPhail Teaching Artist Greg Keel will also be giving clinics with a couple of the bands.

Photo: Sonny Fortune, the festival headliner.

Twin Cities Winter Jazz Festival Web site.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Randy Weston's African Rhythms Trio at the Dakota: Concert review

Where: Dakota
Who: Randy Weston (piano), Alex Blake (bass), Neil Clarke (African hand percussion)

Randy Weston is a giant of jazz, and not just because he stands 6'8" and has hands the size of hams. Nearly 82 years old, he still has a lot to say when he walks onstage and folds his frame onto a comparatively teensy piano bench.

I’ve heard Weston play just once before, at the Dakota in January 2005. I took briefer notes back then: “Two sublime nights…. Music that draws from a deep well of tradition and spirituality, warmth and generosity…. Near-tears music for me.” I was supposed to hear him play at 651 Arts in Brooklyn in 2006 but our taxi driver couldn’t find the venue; after driving around for nearly an hour, we reluctantly headed back to the hotel. (This was also the year when Weston was not allowed into the IAJE’s NEA Jazz Masters event because he forgot his IAJE badge. He is a Jazz Master and was turned away at the door.)

Weston begins the final set of his two-night stay at the Dakota with a Monk mélange; the frame is “Well You Needn’t” but we hear bits of “Bemsha Swing” and “Misterioso.” It starts as solo piano, then Blake and Clarke join in.

Blake’s style of playing the bass is unique and unforgettable. He sits behind his instrument and draws it toward him. He presses the strings on the fingerboard with his left hand, as is customary, but his right hand is anything goes: strumming, slapping, and yanking the strings, sometimes rapping on the body, often while Blake hums the melody of the tune he’s playing. It’s an amazing style and sound, fascinating to watch and exciting to hear. Meanwhile, Clarke gives Monk a distinctly African sound on his conga array. We’re off and running.

Up next, “Blue Moses” is a Weston original, a bow to the Ganawa people of Morocco, with whom Weston lived and worked for many years. On some recordings, this song is titled “Ganawa (Blue Moses).” The big, dense chords he plays are reminiscent of McCoy Tyner. During his energetic solo, Clarke nearly loses a conga.

“High Fly,” another Weston original, is the tune you first hear when you visit Weston’s excellent Web site. It’s loose, languid, and gently swinging. Weston has recorded it twice, most recently a just-over-two-minutes version on his latest CD, Zep Tepi (2006). Why so short there? Left longer, as in live performance, it becomes meditative and mantra-like.

Weston introduces Duke Ellington's “Caravan” as “one of the first songs I ever heard written about the continent of Africa.” With his eyes turned east since childhood (his father always told him he was “an African born in America”), this must have been a pivotal moment for him. During the Dakota performance, he tosses in a handful of “Salt Peanuts.”

“Love, the Mystery Of” was composed by Ghanaian percussionist Koffi Ghanaba, one of the first to bring the African drum to the United States. It’s a showcase for Clarke’s talents as well. Throughout, this has been a true trio event, not a star turn for Weston. In retrospect, I think we heard more from Blake and Clarke than from Weston himself, who often sat back on the bench, without comping, smiling while they soloed.

The Dakota audience is rapt and respectful throughout the performance, which ends with “Love, the Mystery Of” and no encore. Weston wishes us all “Peace and love and more music” and exits the stage. It’s enough.

To repeat, Weston’s Web site is excellent and worth a visit.

Photos, top to bottom: Randy Weston, Alex Blake, Neil Clarke. Blake and Clarke photos by John Whiting.

View Don Berryman's video of "Blue Moses." Good news: Some YouTube videos, including this one, have recently been converted to high-definition.

Winter fest has plenty of reasons to be jazzed this year

Need a reason to attend this year's Twin Cities Winter Jazz Fest on March 2? Try five: music, food, location, location, location.

The 16th-annual Winter Jazz Fest will be held at the brand new, state-of-the-art MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis. It's an opportunity for MacPhail to strut its stuff and for festival director Steve Heckler to breathe easy, or at least a bit easier. The new venue was literally made for music, all of the events will be under one roof, and there's plenty of parking at nearby ramps.

It's a fresh start for an event that has occupied many homes and faced many challenges. The festival began at the old Dakota Jazz Club at Bandana Square in St. Paul, moved to the Millennium Hotel in Minneapolis (where there were parking issues) and then to the Doubletree west of the city (plenty of parking but turnout was poor). In 2007, it was held in a heated tent in Landmark Plaza in downtown St. Paul. When plumbing in the tent failed, the festival fizzled.

No such problems are anticipated this year, and the lineup offers something for everyone who enjoys jazz.

The lineup

From noon until 8 p.m., members of the Jazz Vocalists of Minnesota will perform on the Atrium Stage just inside MacPhail's doors. Area singers including Dorothy Doring, Rhonda Laurie, Lucia Newell, Vicky Mountain and Tommy Bruce will be backed by fine musicians including pianist Phil Aaron, bassist Graydon Peterson and drummer Michael Pilhofer.

Big-band fans can head to the exquisite Antonello Performance Hall at 1 p.m. for Southern Minnesota's Real Big Band and at 2:30 p.m. for the Bellagala Big Band. MinnPost asked Jerry Swanberg, host of KBEM's "Big Band Scene," to tell us more about these bands.

"Southern Minnesota's Real Big Band is mostly music educators from southeast Minnesota," Swanberg said. "They're very good. ... Bellagala plays a lot of weddings, dances, and private parties. The band is loaded with some of the top pros in town — Larry Foyin, who worked with Maynard Ferguson and Ray Charles; Dave Graf; Jeff Rinear, director of jazz studies at the University of St. Thomas; Doug Haining; Jim Ten Bensel."

The Upper Stage on MacPhail's sixth floor will host three wildly diverse groups. At 1 p.m., it's the horn-driven bop quintet Snowblind. The group's second CD, "Taking Shape," was released in 2007 to critical acclaim. Listen to tracks here.

At 3 p.m., the mood shifts to the traditional New Orleans jazz sounds of the Southside Aces. Formed in a foyer in South Minneapolis in 2003, this six-man band was the brainchild of clarinetist Tony Balluff and sousaphone player Erik Jacobson. Hear tracks from their 2006 release, "Bucktown Bounce," here.

Starting at 5 p.m., Chris Thomson's Bells + Whistles takes the Upper Stage. My most recent Thomson sighting was at the Guthrie's sold-out "Warm Beer, Cold Women." Bells + Whistles is Thomson on saxophone, Bryan Nichols on piano, Adam Linz on bass and Alden Ikeda on drums. A sure thing. Sample tracks from Thomson's latest one-man CD, "The Three Elements," are here.

Beginning at noon, you can hear future jazz greats perform on two Youth/Clinic stages led by MacPhail faculty members. Watch for the Dakota Combo, six high-school musicians chosen by audition and directed by jazz artist Kelly Rossum. Last December, they played to a full house at the Dakota with guest Delfeayo Marsalis. 

Every jazz festival worth its salt peanuts (as Dizzy Gillespie might have said) has a big-name headliner, and the Winter Jazz Fest is no exception. Saxophonist Sonny Fortune is scheduled for two sets in the Antonello, at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Fortune has played and recorded with some of the biggest names in jazz: Gillespie, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Buddy Rich. He's bringing his own trio. Expect great things.

From noon to 8:30 p.m. is a long day, and you will get hungry. Don't think you'll have to leave MacPhail to find food. KBEM's Kevin Barnes has cultivated relationships with top chefs over several years of monthly RestauranTours benefiting the radio station. Two of his favorites, Rachel Rubin (Bobino, Chino Latino) and Scott Pampuch (Corner Table), are collaborating to provide an array of local food creations. Beer and wine will be available.

Heckler promises raffles and prizes including Caribou Coffee, Caribou cards and CDs. Caribou is sponsoring the main stage for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival to be held this summer from June 20-29. The Winter Jazz Fest is a fund-raiser for the summer event, and Heckler gave MinnPost a few hints about what to expect then. The entire lineup is not yet booked, but these artists are in the mix: organist Joey De Francesco, Latin sensation Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, New Orleans singer Charmaine Neville. You might want to make a note on your calendar now.

What: Twin Cities Winter Jazz Fest
Where: MacPhail Center for Music, Second Street and Fifth Avenue South in downtown Minneapolis
When: Noon to 8:30 p.m. Sunday, March 2
How much: $25 including Sonny Fortune; $15 day pass (no Sonny Fortune). Tickets at Ticketworks and at the door.
Jazz Fest website
MacPhail website

Upcoming picks for this weekend

Irvin Mayfield & the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra: I first heard trumpeter Irvin Mayfield play with Los Hombres Calientes, a group that may not have survived Katrina. He brings his 16-piece orchestra and the sounds of authentic New Orleans jazz to Minneapolis, a city that welcomes NOLA musicians with open arms. He'll play the Elysian Trumpet, a work of art commissioned to honor his father, who was killed in the storm. Orchestra Hall, 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22 ($21–$40).

Kelly Rossum Quartet: Trumpeter, composer and coordinator of MacPhail's jazz program, Rossum has his own distinct sound; you never know where he'll go, but you're glad for the ride. He's joined by pianist Bryan Nichols and the fabulous Bates brothers, Chris on bass and J.T. on drums. The Artists' Quarter, 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22 and Saturday, Feb. 23 ($10).

Jim Ryan and Forward Energy:
Free jazz, spoken word, and saxophonist Ryan's watercolors and monotype prints. Ryan describes his performances as "sounds you have not yet heard." Playing alongside the St. Paul native will be Dan Godston on trumpet, Joel Wanek on bass, Steve Hirsh on drums and Alicia Mangan on tenor sax. Get a taste here. Center for Independent Artists, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24 ($8).

Originally published on on Friday, February 22, 2008
Photo of Sonny Fortune

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kurt Elling and Nancy King at the Allen Room: Concert review

Where: Jazz at Lincoln Center, Allen Room
Who: Kurt Elling (vocals), Nancy King (vocals), Laurence Hobgood (piano), Rob Amster (bass), Greg Hutchinson (drums)

This concert is the real reason we’re in New York. That it falls on Valentine’s Day weekend is a happy accident. I’ve been a Kurt Elling fan since I first heard him sing at the old Dakota in Bandana Square, whenever that was. Over the years, I’ve seen him in Minneapolis, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, the IAJE stage in New York, the Monterey Jazz Festival, and Birdland. Tonight’s show is in the elegant Allen Room, part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex.

We’re at the 9:30 p.m. set, so it’s dark outside and the city lights shine through the wall of glass behind the stage. (The wall measures 90' wide x 50' high and tilts out.) The traffic along Central Park South is a slow lava flow. We’re sitting in the second row to the left of the stage and can see people moving around their homes in the high-rise buildings across the way.

Nancy King shares the bill, but Kurt comes out alone with his band to open with “Beware My Foolish Heart.” I love this song, and I love how he sings it, but I don’t love the particular verse he adds.

Elling arcanum: He has used two different verses in this song. On the Live in Chicago CD (1999), he sings his version of “The Dark Night,” a poem by 16th-century Christian mystic St. John of the Cross. Elling’s lyrics: “One dark night/Fired with love’s urgent longings/Clothed in sheer grace/I went out unseen…to where she waited for me….” He turns a passionate poem about a soul seeking union with God into a passionate poem about a man seeking union with his lover. Not much of a stretch and it works.

Tonight he sings his version of “The Moon Was Once a Moth,” a poem by 8th century Sufi saint Rabia of Basra. From what I can tell, Elling expands on the original (about a moth who runs to God, they embrace, she dies, and “now just her luminous soul remains”). In Elling’s version, “they embraced and she passed into death/with ecstasy dissolving her body in a thousand signing smiles/her limbs fell softly to earth to sanctify the night meadows….” I can’t get past the self-immolating moth and the little legs drifting down. To me, it’s a big ewwww.

Musically, it’s gorgeous: just Elling and his collaborator Hobgood on piano, so beautiful, with Elling ending the moth tale (“and again/and again/and again”) on a high note that won’t let go, then it’s back to “Beware My Foolish Heart” and the bass and drums return. Afterward, Elling quips “Thank you, good night!”

Next up: “Change Partners,” with a solo by Amster. Then Betty Carter’s “Tight,” which Elling begins by finger-snapping the rhythm for drummer Hutchinson, who starts off on brushes. This is my first time seeing Hutchinson. Elling changes drummers. It seemed for a time that Willie Jones would be the fourth member of the quartet, but Elling’s Web site names Kobie Watkins as drummer, and we saw Hutchinson, so who knows? (BTW, tonight Jones is performing with Ernestine Anderson at the Iridium.)

On “Tight,” Elling scats, something I’ve been waiting for. He’s a bit more hammy tonight than other times I’ve seen him. Maybe it’s the occasion, maybe the venue, maybe the crowd.

Afterward, Nancy King enters on her new hip and a cane. Their first song, “What’s New,” is a perfect segue into the rest of the evening, a mutual admiration society of two powerful singers. Their scatting is playful stream-of-consciousness, blending in bits from other songs (“In this world of overrated pleasures and underrated treasures, I’m glad there is you….” “You are too beautiful and I’m a fool for beauty”).

Elling steps back, leaving King and Hobgood alone for a ballad, “La Valse des Lilas (Once Upon a Summertime),” with English lyrics by Johnny Mercer (“Once upon a summertime/if you recall/we stopped beside a little flower stall/A bunch of bright forget-me-nots was all I’d let you buy me”). Wistful and delicate.

King is an expressive, emotional singer, and we should all be ashamed of ourselves for not buying every one of her CDs (now hard to find) and traveling to her home town of Portland to hear her sing. King decided “to do singing for my life” at age 14, after hearing Ella Fitzgerald scat at a 1954 concert. She has turned down lucrative contracts that stipulate no scatting. When you hear King scat, it’s evident this is her natural language, as effortless as breath.

Next, Monk’s “Misterioso,” vocalese version, with Elling and King trading syllables, backed only by Amster on bass. Their voices are perfect together, and Amster’s accompaniment is flawless. After, Elling says, “And that’s why I’ve kept him in the band for 13 years.”

Elling follows with his own lyric to Dexter Gordon’s “Where Are You,” a song he introduces as a “torn Valentine” (“Where is your heart, my love?…. I need you baby, but darling where, baby, where are you?”) Hobgood plays an exquisite solo. While Elling’s name is the reason I buy tickets (and hop on planes), Hobgood is every bit as good, an intelligent and eloquent performer. I’ve read several writers who bemoan the fact that he isn’t better known on his own merits. When you see Elling and Hobgood together, it’s clear that this partnership is greater than the sum of its parts. Any time a group includes a singer, the singer takes the spotlight, something Hobgood seems to accept without feeling diminished.

The penultimate song of the evening: “Nature Boy.” This is mostly Elling’s tune; King contributes a few side notes. Because the show is nearing the end (a bit too soon for me and the $61.50 per ticket price), Hutchinson takes a lengthy solo. It’s over, everyone exits the stage, then returns for a “Stardust” encore.

It’s been an evening of standards, of Elling’s resonant mahogany and King’s rich cherry wood. Earlier, Elling told us that he’ll travel to Portland next week to perform with King there. Is a recording in their future? We can hope.

Photos: Jazz at Lincoln Center does not allow photos, not even snaps of the view out the window once the show is over and the artists are gone. Geez, lighten up, this isn't the Federal Reserve. Luckily Elling wore the same suit when he performed at the Dakota in March 2007, when this photo was taken. King sang at the Jazz Standard in January 2007. Here she is with bassist Reuben Rogers.

See a view of the Allen Room here. For the Elling/King concert, seats filled the room.

Johannes Enders

Where: The Kitano
Who: Johannes Enders (saxophone), Don Friedman (piano), Martin Wind (bass), Tony Jefferson (drums)

I didn't know these musicians before tonight, but I'll use almost any excuse to go to the jazz club at the Kitano New York Hotel. Stroll through the lobby, past the plump Botero sculpture (what's with Boteros and jazz? There are several Boteros in Time Warner Center, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center), up the stairs to the left, down the walkway, and you're in a jewelbox of a venue: low ceilings, comfy chairs, wood paneling, lighted glass cabinets with crystal on the shelves, and a corner with floor to ceiling windows.

It's like hearing jazz in your living room, if your living room overlooks Park Avenue.

The schedule online said that Billy Hart would be the drummer, and that's a name I do know; I've seen Hart play several times, most recently in August last year at the Vanguard with Ethan Iverson, Ben Street, and Mark Turner. Turns out Hart was sick and Tony Jefferson stepped up, which may have caused some anxiety for Enders, who was doing a live CD recording (and who had played with Hart before; we're not sure about Jefferson). But everything sounded fine from where we sat at the bar drinking bourbon and sharing crepe cake (layers and layers of crepes with something sweet and creamy in between).

Born in Bavaria, Enders was billed as the "German sensation," and he played a good horn, surprisingly straight-ahead given his most recent CD, Ender's Room, a far more pop/electronic outing. The room was full, which I wasn't expecting given the night (Thursday) and the temperature (cold). Gino Moratti, who does the booking, told me that Kitano is finally catching on and you have to arrive early to get a table. That's good news. The other times I've been there (to see Tom Harrell, for example, and Lewis Nash) the crowd has been thin.

Photos: Anders and Wind. The band and the room.

Rick Germanson

When: 2/14/08
Where: Ruth's Chris, New York City
Who: Rick Germanson, piano

Rick Germanson is a fine jazz pianist and a genuinely nice guy. In addition to playing Manhattan clubs including Sweet Rhythm, Birdland, the Iridium, and Smalls, he tours Europe with people like Pat Martino, Wayne Escoffrey, and Regina Carter. Occasionally he comes our way for a weekend at the Artists' Quarter and to visit his parents in Milwaukee. He has a regular gig at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse on W. 51st street off 7th Ave. We're in the habit of finding out if he's there, then going to see him and having dinner at the bar. This time we heard some lovely Monk.

Rick has released two fine CDs as a leader, You Tell Me (2005) and Heights (2003), and has recorded as a sideman with Louis Hayes, Jeremy Pelt, Escoffrey, and others. He played piano for Carole Martin's Songs from My Heart, recorded live at the AQ. A CD of torch songs—"Going Back to Joe's," "Canadian Sunset," "Cry Me a River"—it's one of my favorites.

Photo from Rick Germanson's Web site.

New York, New York

2/14/08: We're here for Valentine's Day, and to see Kurt Elling and Nancy King perform at the Allen Room. Thanks to my leetle sister, a Hyatt mogul, this is the view from our 21st-floor window at the Grand Hyatt New York in midtown Manhattan, adjacent to Grand Central Station. We're looking south down Lexington Avenue. If there was a window above our bed, we'd see the Chrysler Building next door.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Warm Beer Cold Women: Celebrating the Music of Tom Waits

Where: Dowling Studio at the Guthrie
Who: Singers: Katy Hays, Dennis Curley, Robert O. Berdahl. Band: Dan Chouinard (piano, organ, tuba), Gary Rue (guitars, banjo), Chris Bates (bass), Matt Weaver (drums, percussion), Mark Stillman (accordion), Chris Thomson (saxophones, clarinet)

Friends are big fans of Tom Waits
but I've never gotten into his music. I can't understand most of what he's saying/singing, and the tunes seem a bit too theatrical to me. (If it looks like a musical and walks like a musical, I usually run the other way.) But I realize Waits is a big singer/songwriter deal and I want to know more about him, so I keep trying.

In 2001 (so long ago?), we went to see John Hammond at the Cedar when he was on tour for "Wicked Grin," his CD of Tom Waits songs. Liked it! So when I heard about "Warm Beer Cold Women" (from an email sent by bass player Chris Bates) we decided to see that, too.

It would not have killed the Dowling to shine a little more light on the stage; band members Bates et al. labored in the shadows for most of the show. But the music was interesting and there was a lot of it: 31 Waits songs, performed more-or-less chronologically, from beat-poet jazz to torch songs, circus songs, street songs, love songs. I was surprised at how beautiful some of the songs were; it helps when you can understand the words.

I liked the singers—Hays, Curley, and Berdahl—very much. For some of the songs, they acted out mini-stories; for others, they stood there and sang; for one, Berdahl (who recently tore his Achilles tendon and had surgery to repair it) waved a crutch wound with Christmas lights. Chouinard played a greasy tango with a long-stemmed red rose between his teeth; when accordionist Mark Stillman first came on stage, he entered through a cloud of smoke and a rumble of thunder. It was the first time I'd seen an accordionist look menacing, and not, I hope, the last.

Warm Beer Cold Women Web site.

Three CD release events to cure those February blues

You can count on having a good time at a CD release event. The months and sometimes years of work that go into creating a CD are over, and the artist has shiny new music to share. Friends and relatives show up. (They're fairly easy to spot because they're the ones who make most of the crowd noise and pay the least attention to the performance.)

If you like, you can meet the artist and "take the band home in a box," as Craig Eichhorn will suggest at the Dakota.

February brings three CD releases by three area artists, each a unique talent and a major presence on our music scene. The first happens tonight (Wednesday).

Dan (Daddy Squeeze) Newton: 'Hi-Top Sneakers'

8 tonight, Feb. 13
Where: The Varsity Theater
How much: $12

This is a jazz column, and "Hi-Top Sneakers" is not a jazz CD, but I've been a Daddy Squeeze fan since he came to my house several years ago and played for a bowling party. He's so busy with his other bands (Café Accordion Orchestra, the Rockin' Pinecones) and gigs (he's a frequent guest of the Guy's All-Star Show Band on "A Prairie Home Companion") that I'm surprised he had time for a solo CD, especially one with all-original tunes.

It's a rollicking mix of roots music and Western swing, jug band, Latin jazz, Colombian cumbia, gospel polka, Parisian romance and kitchen sink. If you can sit still while hearing it, you're probably dead.

Newton's CD releases often include dancing, and although the Varsity is not a dance hall, "people can feel free to make their own space to dance," Newton says. "Almost all the music I play is dancer-friendly."

A self-taught musician who began on piano, Newton earned his name and fame playing the accordion, an instrument widely considered uncool. By mastering a variety of musical styles and surrounding himself with other fine musicians, he made it cool.

"I guess I've never been too concerned about being a part of the accordion world," he says. "One of the things that sets me apart from the stereotypical accordionist is the music I choose to play. Fortunately, most musical traditions before rock had a history of accordion. So it was easy to find recordings of accordions in Jazz, Western Swing, Country, Tex-Mex, Blues, Cajun, Latin, Scandinavian, Irish, et cetera … all the music that I liked to play. Or maybe it's because I'm just an old hippie at heart."

For the Varsity gig, Newton will sing and play accordion and piano, maybe tambourine and kazoo. He'll bring the musicians who joined him on the CD, including Pat Donahue, Gary Raynor, Bob Ekstrand, Tom Lewis and Steve Kaul.

Apologies for the late notice, but imagine what this music can do to lift the "it's-too-cold-for-February-won't-winter-ever-end?" blues. See him perform here.
Connie Evingson: 'Little Did I Dream'

7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25
The Dakota
How much: $20

"My Attorney Bernie," "Zoot Walks In" and "Peel Me a Grape" ("Pop me a cork/French me a fry") are a few of the smart and witty tunes on Evingson's latest CD, her eighth. Earlier releases spotlight gypsy jazz, the Beatles and Peggy Lee. This time it's songs by St. Paul native and jazz great Dave Frishberg, a four-time Grammy nominee the New York Times described as "the Stephen Sondheim of jazz songwriting."

"I've been in love with Dave Frishberg's work forever," Evingson says. When she discovered that Frishberg and Twin Cities saxophonist Dave Karr had been classmates and friends at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s, she thought it would be fun to bring them together in the studio. (Karr also provides the hipster spoken introduction to "Zoot Walks In.")

The songs are first-class, including better-known and lesser-known Frishberg gems. Some are wry and others are romantic, giving Evingson ample room to display her impeccable interpretative skills. She's in beautiful voice on the CD and you can expect the same at the Dakota, where her band will include Karr, Gordy Johnson, Phil Hey, and Mark Henderson — everyone who appears on the CD except Frishberg. His place at the piano will be taken by Phil Aaron, and you won't mind a bit. It will all be very classy.

Irv Williams: 'Finality'

9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 29 and March 1
Where: The Artists' Quarter
How much: $10 

True, Williams already had a CD release event at the Dakota in early January. But if he wants another one across the river, who's going to stop him? There will probably be at least one table full of his grandchildren, and plenty of the AQ's regulars will come out to celebrate "Mr. Smooth," who's "88 and playing great."

Some of the songs on "Finality" are wistful and nostalgic — "Wee Small Hours," "Old Folks" (he'll try to tell you this is his theme song), "Too Late Now." Others, like "Come Rain or Come Shine," swing hard. His tone is sublime. For the CD release, it's likely he'll be joined by Peter Schimke, Gordy Johnson and Kenny Horst.

I waited too long to start listening to Williams and I've been trying to catch up ever since. This is jazz everyone can enjoy, full of emotion, wisdom, experience, and soul. View a video of Williams performing at his own 88th birthday party at the AQ here.

Originally published on on February 13, 2008

MinnPost: Three CD Releases

Dan "Daddy Squeeze" Newton, Connie Evingson, and Irv Williams all have new CDs and they're all having CD release events this month. Good news for local music and worth writing about for MinnPost. My column is short and so was my time so I interviewed just one of the three, Daddy Squeeze, who celebrates the release of Hi-Top Sneakers at the Varsity tonight. I asked him, "When did you start playing accordion? Did you choose it or did your parents make you play?"

Dan: I started on piano. I was "self-taught" or learned by ear. I also played some guitar, dulcimer, harmonica, recorder, mandolin, ukulele, and other odd instruments. In 1978 I was playing piano in a country band in my home town of Lincoln, NE. We got booked in a bunch of bars that didn't have pianos. I was complaining to a friend that I wouldn't be able to do the gigs. She said she had an instrument with piano-shaped keys in her attic that her uncle used to play. I brought it to the band's next rehearsal and the leader, who had just returned from a trip to Texas and Louisiana, said if I was going to play accordion we had to learn some Cajun, Zydeco and Tex-Mex tunes. It got quite a reaction from the hippies and cowboys that hung out in the Nebraska clubs back then. By 1987 I was living in the Twin Cities, playing only accordion.

Photo of Dan Newton from his Web site.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Chris Potter's Underground rocks the Dakota: Concert review

When: 2/7/08 
Where: The Dakota
Who: Chris Potter (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), Adam Rogers (guitar), Craig Taborn (Fender Rhodes), Nate Smith (drums)

One night, two sets. We stay for both because local appearances by Underground are rare; the last time they played the Dakota was February 2006. The first set is open curtain and both sets are packed, the second with more twentysomethings than I’ve seen at the Dakota in a long time. I hear talk that a bus came in from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

The two sets are completely different—no crossovers, no repeats. Although they’re supposedly on tour for their new CD, Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard, that is not the focus of the evening, and I don’t think Potter mentions the CD even once in a buy-one-before-you-leave way. The focus is music, including tunes from the new CD, at least one from the original Underground (2006), a couple of covers, and several new tunes as yet unnamed. Potter describes the latter as “songs we’re introducing into the book” and explains that “naming these tunes is the last thing I get around to.” In 2006, they played something Potter called “Pop Tune #1” because it didn’t yet have an official title. On Follow the Red Line, it’s “Pop Tune #1.”

Underground is not your typical jazz quartet (if there is such a thing, on second thought). Its sound is big, room-filling. Sometimes it seems more like a rock band. A funk band. A band that has heads bobbing and feet tapping and white people getting wiggy in their seats. Tunes open with solos, add instruments and layers, and resolve into steady grooves that provide a solid foundation for all sorts of antics overhead.

Set 1 begins with “Facing East,” a new piece. Next up is “Pop Tune #1,” which starts as a lovely ballad in which Potter’s saxophone and Rogers’s guitar do a pas de deux. You can almost feel the tension between the notes, like elastic stretching. Then “Arjuna” from the new CD, during which Smith pats and rubs the drums with his hands while the trio lays down a strong, dark beat. Taborn plays the Fender Rhodes like the old-fashioned electric piano it is, with a high and beepy sound. For “Zea,” a love song from Follow the Red Line, Potter switches to bass clarinet and starts with a tender solo. Over the course of the evening, he plays bass clarinet for two, maybe three songs, but he always ends on the saxophone, which seems like where he most wants to be.

“The Wheel” from Underground is a wild ride. I’ve heard this song several times (they played it in 2006 and I’ve listened to it often on the CD) but it’s still impossible to predict where this group will take it, especially during their solos. You have to follow them into the woods and trust them to lead you back out again. This time, the rhythm repeats, Chris steps back, Adam and Craig keep the beat, and Nate takes off. The melody returns, the song ends, and so does the first set.

Set 2 opens with a new Adam Rogers composition called “Rumples.” (“We’re doing a set of music not recorded yet,” Potter explains. “A sneak peek.”) Rogers plays a low guitar solo, and Taborn’s Fender Rhodes growls along beside him. The groove on this tune is very deep. The Fender Rhodes sounds like a bass, then a horn. This is followed by another yet-unnamed new tune, fiery and daring. Potter plays a big, muscular solo, one of the single most amazing saxophone solos I’ve ever heard. Then “another new one,” more mellow than the last.

The second set is turning out to be higher energy, more out there. The crowd is different, too, maybe more demanding? Even the air seems electric.

Potter’s playing is fierce but I don’t detect any anger in it. (Some horn players seem full of anger, but I hesitate to name names because I could be totally off about this.) There’s no strutting or machismo. The music is the message, and the joy of making the saxophone go everywhere and do everything, supported by that underlying groove. It’s fun to hear and very stimulating, a workout for your head and your ears.

A new cover: Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.” At first it comes across as pretty straight. I'm suspicious. Taborn and Rogers lay down chords, Smith keeps time, Potter goes crazy, but you can actually hear the melody. Rogers’s guitar has a sweet, strummy 1960s sound. The whole thing has a jingle-jangle feel and it's lovely.

Another as yet unrecorded Potter tune, "Boots" opens on bass clarinet. (They played this one in 2006, too.) Potter takes a very fast solo and dances with the guitar again. Rogers shows off on an arena-style rock-star solo. Then Smith makes the walls come tumbling down. How does he have any energy left?

We suspect it’s probably over—they have played two lengthy, no-holds-barred sets—but we keep clapping and they return for an encore, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon.” Joni’s music is being rediscovered by everyone. Potter plays an exquisitely beautiful solo, and the band rises up around him. Perfection. And now the music is over for real.

Read more about Craig Taborn in my MinnPost preview

Photos, top to bottom: Chris Potter, Adam Rogers.

VocalEssence pays tribute to Duke Ellington this month

Starting in 1991, Philip Brunelle and VocalEssence have celebrated Black History Month each year by recognizing African-Americans' contributions to the fine arts and our cultural heritage. They commission new works, program rarely heard works by black composers and send African-American artists into Minnesota schools.

The crown jewel is the annual WITNESS concert held at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts. In 2005, the concert explored the life of photographer Gordon Parks. In 2006, the centerpiece was an oratorio written by Hannibal Lokumbe to honor Rosa Parks.

Friends urged me to attend the 2006 concert, which I did, but I would have gone anyway the moment I learned Jevetta Steele would sing. The Ordway was filled with a diverse crowd — all ages, all hues. (The concert is held on a Sunday afternoon so kids can attend.) The whole house sang along to "Amazing Grace" and it was thrilling.

This year's WITNESS program on Feb. 17 pays tribute to Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974), arguably America's greatest jazz composer. The concert will feature a big band-style orchestra, the 120-voice VocalEssence Chorus and 32-voice Ensemble Singers, baritone and local favorite Dennis Spears, Moore By Four founder and pianist Sanford Moore, and sound effects wizard Tom Keith of "A Prairie Home Companion."

From present to past
The first half will explore the "Ellington Effect" — how contemporary black composers have been influenced by Ellington's music. It will include works by six composers, several never before heard in Minnesota. William L. Banfield's "Deep Like the Rivers" was commissioned by VocalEssence and will have its world premiere here.

The second half will be staged as an old-time radio show devoted to music of the Duke.
Why Ellington, and why a radio show? "There's no question that Duke Ellington is THE great jazz musician, both composer and performer, but people don't often think of him as being a composer of choral music," explained Brunelle, VocalEssence's founder and artistic director. "I wanted to bring that aspect of him to the community. I also wanted to tie it in with how he became well-known. That was, of course, through the radio." 

Radio made Ellington a household name. Broadcasting from the Cotton Club in New York City from 1927–31, he brought his music into homes throughout the country. You can hear recordings from original radio broadcasts here.

'Timeless treasures in time-warp format'
Local opera legend Vern Sutton is writing the script, and Keith will provide the sound effects. The show will have commercials based on contributions by local high school students. Moore will play the role of "Dr. Jazz" and command the piano. Spears will sing, which is always a good thing. The band will feature many faces familiar to area jazz fans: Brian Grivna, Dave Graf, Mark Henderson, Gary Raynor, Kathy Jensen and Dave Jensen.

Sutton describes the radio show as "timeless treasures in a time-warp format." It will incorporate part of a historic live interview that Leigh Kamman, former host of Minnesota Public Radio's "The Jazz Image," did with Ellington. (Kamman spoke with Ellington several times throughout his career.)

The music will be different from what radio listeners heard back then. "Those radio shows didn't include his choral music," Brunelle said. "That happened in different venues. So it's obviously a created show, but it will bring that sense of how [Ellington] affected the community and engaged the community through radio." 

Several selections will be drawn from Ellington's sacred concerts: "In the Beginning God," "Come Sunday," "It's Freedom," "David Danced Before the Lord with All His Might." Ellington wrote "David Danced" as a work for chorus and tap dancer. For the WITNESS concert, Kaleena Miller, a 2007 Minnesota Sage Dance Award Winner, will put on her dancing shoes and perform live on stage, a first for VocalEssence.

And don't worry, Ellington devotees: You'll also hear "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Take the 'A' Train."

"Vern's script is charming," Brunelle said. "Vern is the master at this kind of thing."

I had the opportunity to read a note Sutton wrote about his script. In part: "We lived in the middle of the country so the radio and the weekly double-feature at the neighborhood movie palace were our lifelines to the rest of the world. Though the society we lived in was racially segregated, we had no trouble embracing the music of our African-American neighbors: the weekly jazz radio shows that featured the music of Ellington and his peers were our aural windows into something distinctly American." 

What: WITNESS: The Duke Ellington Effect
Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17
How much: $13-$35
Phone: 651-224-4222
VocalEssence website
Ordway website

Upcoming picks

WITNESS Community Concert: If you can't get to the Ordway on Feb. 17, you have a second chance to hear VocalEssence perform Duke Ellington's music. This time, the orchestra will consist of students from Minneapolis public high schools and Augsburg College. Hopkins High School Auditorium, 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24 ($8 students 18 and under; $12 adults).

The Core Ensemble's "Ain't I a Woman": A chamber music theater work for actress and trio (cello, piano, percussion) celebrating four African-American women: Sojourner Truth, Zora Neale Hurston, Clementine Hunter and Fannie Lou Hamer. The score is drawn from the spirituals of the Deep South, the Jazz Age, and contemporary concert music by black composers. Part of the Women of Substance series. The O'Shaughnessy at the College of St. Catherine, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21 ($16-$25).

Randy Weston: Close on the heels of Ramsey Lewis, who performed at the Ted Mann last Saturday, comes another National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. A jazz giant in more ways than one (he's 6-foot-8 and his hands are enormous), Weston has spent most of his life in Africa. The last time he played the Dakota was in January 2005, and that was his first local appearance in more than two decades. His music draws from a deep well of traditional and spiritual, warmth and generosity. The Dakota, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 17 and Monday, Feb. 18 ($30/$20).

Originally published on on February 8, 2008

MinnPost: VocalEssence WITNESS Preview

Although I can't attend this year's WITNESS concert, "The Duke Ellington Effect," my editor at MinnPost asked me to preview it. Thanks to VocalEssence communications manager (and big U2 fan) Katryn Conlin, I was able to interview Philip Brunelle, the group's founder and artistic director and someone I have admired for a long time. Someone should give him one of those MacArthur Genius awards.

Written for the Pi Press in 2000, Matt Peiken's profile of Brunelle is colorful and full of details—a bit old but still worth reading.

Duke Ellington photo from VocalEssence Web site.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Monty Alexander

Where: The Dakota
Who: Monty Alexander (piano), Hassan Shakur (bass), George Fludas (drums)

An all-acoustic, thoroughly satisfying show. This was my first time hearing Alexander live, though I often enjoy his CDs (Concrete Jungle, Impressions in Blue, Rocksteady, My America). The trio began with an original composition called (I think, but I'd rather be wrong) "Grub," then a gentle ballad called "Don't Go" before playing what many had come to hear: Alexander's jazz takes on tunes by his compatriot Bob Marley.

We heard "Running Away" and a beautiful "No Woman No Cry," both from Stir It Up, Alexander's first Marley collection (1999). (Concrete Jungle came out in 2006.) "No Woman" began as solo piano, tender and comforting (baby, please don't cry), after which the bass picked up the melody. Later, a loose and easy "Little Darlin'" took an unexpected turn when Shakur's bass went pit-deep and growled. The encore was a little bit of everything that finally settled down into "Fly Me to the Moon."

It was an evening of effortless swing, three fine musicians playing as one, three happy men on stage before a happy crowd. Don Berryman later said, "One word: Groovy. Okay, three more: In the pocket."

Jazz trivia: Hassan Shakur is the son of pianist Gerry Wiggins. Shakur also goes by (or has gone by) J.J. Wiggins, J.J. Hassan Shakur, and J.J. Hassan Shakur Wiggins.

Photo by John Whiting. L to R: Fludas, Alexander, Shakur.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Gospel According to Ramsey Lewis: Concert review

Where: Ted Mann Concert Hall
Who: Ramsey Lewis (piano), Larry Gray (bass), Leon Joyce (drums), William Kilgore (organ), Eleanor Hampton (voice)

Back when jazz had a chance at cracking the Top 40, Ramsey Lewis had a string of radio hits ("The In Crowd," "Wade in the Water," "Hang On Sloopy," "A Hard Day's Night"). With very few exceptions, he hasn't played clubs in decades, and I had never seen him perform live until he came to the Ted Mann.

Lewis has been on tour since January 2007, appearing solo, with his trio, with Dave Brubeck, Nancy Wilson, and the Joffrey Ballet Company in various venues from New York to California. Minneapolis and Wisconsin appear to be the only places he brought his gospel show, although he also performed with a gospel choir in Strathmore, Maryland.

The first half of the performance featured the trio and music from "To Know Her...," Lewis's collaboration with the Joffrey. They did a beautiful cover of the Beatles' "In My Life," with bowed bass from Gray and big drums from Royce. After a lengthy solo of music from the Joffrey work, Lewis announced, "It's time to go to church."

Hampton came out singing "Amazing Grace," and Kilgore took his place behind a tiny keyboard. He was supposed to have a Hammond B-3, "but someone didn't get the memo," Lewis explained. Kilgore was robbed and so were we. After a few robust organ-like chords, the keyboard seemed to fail entirely, and Kilgore's considerable talents (he plays organ on Lewis's award-winning gospel album With One Voice) were wasted.

We heard "Precious Lord," Ellington's "Come Sunday," "Wade in the Water," "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior" (one I didn't know; maybe Lutherans don't sing it?), and "This Little Light of Mine," some sung, some instrumental. This wasn't pure gospel, it was jazz gospel, with quotes and improvisation. And it wasn't a gospel revival show like the Blind Boys deliver, although Hampton tried more than once to get us clapping along with the music. For encores, they gave us "The In Crowd" (still a good tune) and "Oh Happy Day."

I'm glad I had the opportunity to see Ramsey Lewis live (this concert was part of the 2007-2008 Northrop Jazz Season, to which we subscribe), but the evening seemed like two separate performances with an awkward segue. There was no intermission, which would have helped effect a transition. We wondered later if the whole program might have been gospel, or included more gospel, had it not been for the organ failure.

Subscribers were invited to a meet-and-greet reception following the show. We spoke with Kilgore, who was wearing a very fine suit, with Hampton, who was charming, and with Joyce, who spent much of his music career with Marine Corps bands.

Photo of Ramsey Lewis from Narada.

Jazz Is World Music

Jean-Michel Pilc was born in Paris and moved to New York City in 1995. Glawischnig was born in Graz, Austria. He played with Ray Barretto, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, and then with David Sanchez, who grew up in Puerto Rico. Glawischnig's exceptional new CD, Panorama, features Sanchez, Puerto Rican native Miguel Zenon, Luis Perdomo (born in Caracas, Venezuela), and Antonio Sanchez (Mexico City). Hoenig has also been a member of Kenny Werner's trio with bassist Johannes Weidenmueller (Heidelberg, Germany).

Tonight and tomorrow at the Dakota: Monty Alexander, born in Kingston, Jamaica. Last week: Toumani Diabate (Mali), Hugh Masakela (Johannesburg, South Africa). Coming up: NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston, who has spent much of his life in Africa.

Photo: NASA's "Blue Marble."

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Ari Hoenig and Jean-Michel Pilc Project

Where: The Artists' Quarter
Who: Ari Hoenig (drums), Jean-Michel Pilc (piano), Hans Glawischnig (bass)

Pilc would not allow photographs, even by those of us with stealthy, silent cameras who never use flash, but that turned out not to be a problem. The Vulcan Mind Meld more than adequately describes the extraordinary mental communication that must exist between Hoenig and Pilc, given the way they play.

I missed Hoenig and Pilc last year when they came to the AQ and have heard raves about them ever since. Still, I wasn't prepared for the experience of seeing them live. Hoenig plays the drum set as if it's a keyboard; using his elbows to tune the drums, he exacts actual notes from them, heard most clearly in their version of Nat Adderley's "Work Song." Pilc is a piano monster. He plays faster and larger (dense runs, thundering chords), with more imagination and wit, than many I've heard in a long while, and I hear a lot of pianists.

They began with Pilc's arrangement of a Robert Schumann melody (lyrical, lush), then a Hoenig composition, "The Painter." After that came "Work Song" and Hoenig's astonishing performance, which framed fireworks and crashes from Pilc's piano. Glawischnig is a terrific bassist (I've seen him before with David Sanchez), but he seemed a bit conservative in the company of Pilc and Hoenig. I imagined our own Adam Linz on stage with those two. He'd fit right in.

Next up, a version of "Giant Steps" that began with quotes from "Mission: Impossible," "The Pink Panther," and Mozart—red herrings all. It was during this piece (the single most interesting arrangement of the Coltrane classic I've ever heard) that I'm certain I saw brain waves pass between Pilc and Hoenig. Every move they made—changing keys, meters, moods—was made precisely together. It was uncanny.

For the second set, we heard "Farewell," a composition by Hoenig, which Pilc began by plucking the strings of the piano. It could have been a Bad Plus piece written by Reid Anderson. We might have heard a quote from Monk, though with Pilc, a quote can be a gesture or a raised eyebrow. I was listening so intently I wished two of them would step back for while so I had the luxury of focusing on just one.

The second set brought two lengthy pieces by Pilc: "Golden Key" and "Cardinal Points." Pilc whistled through much of the first tune. By this time, he could have done anything—burst into song, danced the tango, stood on his head and juggled pies with his feet—and I would have been happy. What a playful, brilliant, surprising night it was.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Christine Rosholt

Where: The Dakota
Who: Christine Rosholt (vocals), Dave Karr (saxophone and flute), Tanner Taylor (piano), Graydon Peterson (bass), Jay Epstein (drums)

Christine recorded her next CD over two nights at the Dakota. We were there for the second night, and so were many of Christine's friends and family members, and a table full of people celebrating the birthday of someone named Ginger.

Did Ginger et al. realize a live CD was being recorded? Did they care? Might someone have announced this from the stage at the start and respectfully requested the whole audience hold it down a bit under the circumstances? Might a manager have gone to the table to politely suggest they modulate their voices or at least not shriek with laughter and hiccup loudly?

(deep breath)

Christine sang beautifully, and her band was right there with her. I liked their Latin arrangement of "If I Were a Bell," and their speedy (maybe a little too speedy?) "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," and the lovely "Estate" (where Christine's voice became lower, more resonant and emotional), and the Harold Arlen tunes; someday I hope she will do an all-Arlen CD, because it's clear she loves his music and it's a good fit for her voice. Dave Karr's flute on the "Tea for Two" cha-cha was charming. I enjoyed "Alone Together" arranged for bass, drums, and voice, "One More for the Road" for piano and voice, and their fresh take on "Summertime," one of the world's most recorded songs. Christine looked happy and relaxed. I look forward to the CD.

Read a brief interview with Christine on MinnPost.

Photo of Christine Rosholt and Graydon Peterson by John Whiting.

Keyboardist Craig Taborn surfaces with Underground

Saxophonist Chris Potter is the star of February's "DownBeat" and the headliner at the Dakota next Thursday (Feb. 7), where his Underground quartet will play a one-night stand. Potter is always exciting and I look forward to seeing him again. But I'm just as eager to see his keyboardist, Craig Taborn.

Since leaving his hometown of Golden Valley, where he went to Breck and held basement jam sessions with his friends bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King (both now of the Bad Plus), Taborn has covered a lot of ground geographically and stylistically.

He lives in New York, where he plays with the cream of the contemporary jazz scene, but tours frequently throughout Europe. He plays all kinds of keyboards — piano, Hammond B-3 organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano, synthesizers — and he composes. You can see Taborn here in a performance from last year's Sur Seine festival in St. Paul.  

So far he has made three albums as a leader. "Craig Taborn Trio" (1994) came out on the indie label DIW, "Light Made Lighter" (2001) and "Junk Magic" (2004) on Thirsty Ear. His many recordings as a sideman include work with Potter, violist Mat Maneri, bassists Drew Gress and Scott Colley, saxophonist Tim Berne and percussionist Susie Ibarra -- iconoclasts all. In 2007, he recorded "Gang Font Featuring Interloper" with local heroes Greg Norton (Hüsker Dü), Erik Fratzke (Happy Apple) and King. Norton calls it "punkprogfreefunkmathmetal."

Recording started in college
Taborn began recording when he was still a sophomore at the University of Michigan. He met the adventurous saxophonist James Carter at a restaurant gig. They hit it off and eventually made five albums together.

I recently listened to tracks from Carter's first CD as a leader, "JC on the Set" (1993). Taborn's piano is impeccable, intelligent and fairly straight-ahead. Scott Yanow of the All Music Guide called it "supportive." Then I played some "Gang Font," "Junk Magic," "Prezens" (Taborn's 2007 recording with guitarist David Torn), "Architect of the Silent Moment" (2007, with Colley) and Underground's latest, "Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard" (2008).

While Taborn's travels can be measured in miles, his musical journeys are better expressed in light years. He does it all: jazz, pop, rock, funk, hip-hop, trance, techno, free, forms, gorgeous melodies, moody minimalism, noise.

It's said that the music we hear as teenagers shapes our preferences for life. While other kids were glued to the Top 40 — in the 1980s, that meant Foreigner, Michael Jackson, Hall & Oates, Phil Collins, Journey and Wham! — Taborn checked out records from the library and listened to public radio. He discovered the artists of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in Chicago, whose influence on contemporary music is incalculable, and Sun Ra, the cosmic philosopher of jazz. He went to the Walker Art Center and heard master improviser Tim Berne, who thinks Taborn is "insanely brilliant."

Taborn's parents, psychologist John and social worker Marjorie, knew to nurture without pushing. "It's about being a good parent," Marjorie told Jazz Police and JazzInk writer and photographer Andrea Canter, who has known the Taborn family for years. "Don't make your goals theirs. It's their passion." They provided the resources he needed: lessons, transportation, a piano, a Moog synthesizer for Christmas when Taborn was 12. He grew up playing acoustic and electronic keyboards. Sometimes in performance he'll play both at the same time, one hand on each.

I know why I'll go to see Taborn: because I like his music. Canter offers more reasons why music fans should catch him whenever he's in town. "There's a lot of talent in the Twin Cities, and Craig is a good example of someone who came out of this environment. It's a chance to see one of our hometown musicians who's made quite a reputation for himself. Plus he's a fabulous musician who does all sorts of interesting things with sound."

Taborn will return March 28 to perform at the Walker with Berne and Gress. Those will be wild shows. Underground is modern jazz but still accessible. Wet your feet at the Dakota, then get tickets for the Walker show and jump into the deep end of jazz.

What: Chris Potter Underground (Chris Potter, saxophone; Adam Rogers, guitar; Craig Taborn, Fender Rhodes; Nate Smith, drums)
Where: The Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
When: 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7
How much: $25 (7 p.m.) and $18 (9 p.m.)
Phone: 612-332-1010

Upcoming picks

Happy Apple with the James Buckley Trio: You can fly to New York City, dress in black and go to the Stone to hear free jazz, or you can stay home, don your North Face jacket and head to the Cedar for Happy Apple. Erik Fratzke, Dave King and Michael Lewis will make you forget you're getting Cedar butt from the metal folding chairs. James Buckley, J.T. Bates and Bryan Nichols open. The Cedar, 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1 ($15).

Ari Hoenig & Jean-Michel Pilc Project: Drummer Hoenig and pianist Pilc came to the Artists' Quarter in March of last year and blew people away. I missed them then but won't repeat that mistake. The Artists' Quarter, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 1–2, ($20).

The Gospel According to Ramsey Lewis: The 2007–08 Northrop Jazz Season continues with Ramsey Lewis, three-time Grammy winner and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. His most recent honor was the 2006 Stellar Award for Best Gospel Instrumental Album, and it's gospel he'll bring to our frozen little souls. Ted Mann Concert Hall 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2 ($35 and $45). Call 612-624-2345 or check one of the ticket offices listed here.

Originally published on on February 1, 2008
Photo of Craig Taborn at the Monterey Jazz Festival, September 2007

MinnPost: Craig Taborn

Maybe because I studied piano, I have a special affection for keyboard players: Bill Carrothers, Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett, Benny Green, Dave Brubeck, Bill Charlap, Herbie Hancock, Chucho Valdes, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Danilo Perez, Cyrus Chestnut, Eliane Elias, Fred Hersch, McCoy Tyner, Geoff Keezer, Jason Moran, Jon Weber, Marcus Roberts, Rene Rosnes, Ethan Iverson.... These are all artists I've been privileged to see live, and I could go on. Around Minneapolis-St. Paul we have several superb pianists I enjoy: Phil Aaron, Tanner Taylor, Peter Schimke, Mary Louise Knutson, Laura Caviani, Chris Lomheim, Bryan Nichols, and I know I'm omitting more I should mention.

Craig Taborn, who grew up here but now makes the world his home, plays all the keyboards and spends most of his time on the outer edges of jazz. I find him endlessly interesting live and on recording. He's the topic of my MinnPost column this week. I did not interview Taborn for the article, but you can read a fairly recent interview on Splendid and hear clips from Junk Magic, his latest CD as a leader.

We last saw Taborn at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and this is what it was like:

Taborn tells the audience that Potter [saxophonist Chris Potter, who's in the audience] wants to hear “Little Red Machine,” so that’s where they begin. The music is complex, smart, and concentrated. Long passages become trancelike and hypnotic; there’s repetition, but repetition like a heartbeat; you don’t want it to stop. Taborn plays with a sense of fun (as the set winds down, he smiles frequently at the other members of his trio) and fierce intelligence. Following the tune he announces as their final piece, he nods and they segue into a lush, melodic, chord-filled version of Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space.” It’s breathtakingly beautiful and the perfect end to a music-filled night.

Photo: Craig Taborn at the Monterey Jazz Festival, September, 2007.
Monterey performance description from Jazz Police.