Monday, March 31, 2008

!@#$%^ Minnesota Weather

I took this picture from my own front porch just five minutes ago. It's March 31 and we had a blizzard today. Had this happened 22 years ago, I would not have met my HH. It is seriously time for winter to be over and spring to arrive. I am, in fact, SICK OF WINTER. It is time for SPRING TO ARRIVE. GO AWAY SNOW.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

For Kurt Elling Fans

UPDATED 09/10/09

Since March has been a month for male jazz singers (Bruce Henry, J.D. Steele, Kevin Mahogany), I thought I’d share a work-in-progress. Either it's a labor of love or a sign of OCD.

I’m a longtime Kurt Elling fan. In addition to buying his CDs, I watch for tracks by him on CDs by other artists.

Here’s what I have so far, in order of release date starting with most recent. Corrections and additions are welcome. I found a few more than Kurt lists on his Collaborations page.


—2009 • Laurence Hobgood: When the Heart Dances • NAIM • B001W2OVUA • Kurt sings "First Song," "Stairway to the Stars," and "Daydream." With Charlie Haden on bass.
—2008: Till Bronner: Rio • Uni Classics Jazz UK • B001CRB9DM • Kurt is one of several guest artists. He sings "Sim Ou Nao."
—2006 • Bob Mintzer Big Band: Old School: New Lessons • MCG Jazz • B000E6EHRC • Kurt sings “My One and Only Love,” “Resolution.”
—2006 • Charley Harrison with Jeff Lindberg’s Chicago Jazz Orchestra: Keeping My Composure • C3 Records • B000EOTRY2 • Kurt sings “Jeannine.”
—2006 • Jim Gailloreto • Jim Gailloreto’s Jazz String Quintet • NAIM • B000E1NVI8 • Kurt sings “Fair Weather,” “Universal Soul.”
—2006 • Fred Hersch Ensemble: Leaves of Grass • Palmetto • B0007GADW2 • Kurt sings 15 selections including “The Sleepers.” When Hersch set out to compose this music, he had Elling in mind as the main singer.
—2006 • Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis: Showcase (DVD/CD) • LRS Media • B000EXZKQM • Kurt sings “Take Five” with Al Jarreau.
—2006 • Up on the Roof: The Best of Kennedy Center Jazz on Jazzset, Vol. 1 • Label? • ASIN? • A collection of live recordings from Kennedy Center performances, broadcast on the WBGO radio program JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater. Kurt sings “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
—2005 • Laurence Hobgood Trio: Crazy World • NAIM • B0009LNRFU • Kurt sings “More Than You Know,” “Endless Stars.” NB: I found this at
—2005/2007 (reissue) • Ralph Covert: Ralph’s World • Disney • B000VDDCEM • Kurt sings background vocals on “Tickle a Tiger.”
—2005/2007 (reissue) • Ralph Covert: Ralph’s World at the Bottom of the Sea • Mini Fresh (a division of Minty Fresh Inc.)• B000VDDCDS • Kurt sings background vocals on “Many Things to Know.”
—2004 • Bob Minzter Big Band: Live at MCG • MCG Jazz • B0002IQHFC • Kurt sings “My Foolish Heart,” “Eye of the Hurricane,” “All Is Quiet.”
—2004 • Jon Weber: Simple Complex • The Orchard • B0001NBMNK • Kurt sings “Is It Only Me?”
—2003 • Jackie Allen: The Men in My Life • A440 Records • B000094Q1U • Kurt sings “The Bad and the Beautiful.”
—2002 (released 2005) • Retrospective • Released in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of the University of Southern California. Kurt sings "Close Your Eyes" by Bernice Petkere, arranged by USC faculty member Shelly Berg. Recorded at Capitol Studios with the USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra.
—2001 • Orbert Davis: Priority • 3Sixteen Records • B0000648BP • Kurt sings “The Double Blues,” “Midnight in Bahia.”
—2001 • George Freeman: At Long Last George • Savant • B0000589CR • Kurt sings “At Long Last Love,” “Sugar.”
—2001 • Charlie Hunter: Songs from the Analog Playground • Blue Note • B00005NU6A • Kurt sings “Desert Way,” “Close Your Eyes.”
—2001 • Laurence Hobgood: Left to My Own Devices • NAIM • B00005A7PS • Kurt sings “The Waltz,” “Going Back to Joe’s,” “The Masquerade Is Over.”
—1999 • Joanne Brackeen: Pink Elephant Magic • Arkadia Jazz • B00000I89T • Kurt sings “What’s Your Choice, Rolls Royce?”
—1999 • Rhythm & Brass: More Money Jungle: Ellington Explorations • Koch • B00000I0DY • Kurt sings “Ellington Indigos.”
—1998 • Yellowjackets: Club Nocturne • Warner Bros. UK • B00000AG9M • Kurt sings “Up from New Orleans,” “All Is Quiet.”
—1998/2000 (reissue) • Liquid Soul: Make Some Noise • Ark 21 • B0000061TM • Kurt sings “Salt Peanuts/Chocolate Covered Nut.”
—1997 • Rex Richardson: Pandora’s Pocket • Igmod Records • B0000031NQ • Kurt sings “Hymn to the Mother of the World” and the title track.
—1997 • Yule Be Boppin’ • Blue Note • B000002ULY • Kurt sings “Cool Yule.”
—1996 • Bob Belden’s Shades of Blue • Blue Note • B000005GZU • Kurt sings “Tanganyika Dance.”

A stray: I found (on iTunes) a version of "Close Your Eyes" sung by Kurt with the USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Shelly Berg. It is (I believe) from a CD called Retrospective, released in October 2005 in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of the University of Southern California.

Want more Kurt? Find several sound files on his Web site.

Watch Kurt Elling and Al Jarreau sing "Take 5."

—2007 • Playboy Jazz Love Songs After Dark • Pablo • B000NJL0CK • Includes “Change Partners/If You Never Come to Me” from Nightmoves.
—2005 • Blue Note Plays Sting • Blue Note • B00074CC7I • “Oh My God” from Live in Chicago.
—2002 • Kei Kobayashi: Routine Jazz: Blue Note DJ Mix • Toshiba EMI Japan • ???? • “My Love, Effendi” from This Time It’s Love.
—2001 • The New Young Lions of Jazz • Arkadia Jazz • B000056IDK • “What’s Your Choice, Rolls Royce?” from Joanne Brackeen’s Pink Elephant Magic.
—1999 • The Blue Note Years Vol. 7: Blue Note Now & Then • Blue Note • B00000IP3I • “Tanganyika Dance” from Bob Belden’s Shades of Blue.
—1998 • Blue Box 2: The Finest in Jazz Vocalists • EMI International • B00005Y9UY • “Ballad of a Sad Young Man” from Close Your Eyes, “Time of the Season” from The Messenger; with Cassandra Wilson.
—1997 • A Chicago Jazz Tour • Big Chicago Records • B00000G279 • “Dolores Dream” from Close Your Eyes.
—1995 • Esquire Jazz Collection: Crossover Stars: Crosstown Traffic • Blue Note • B000005H1F • “Never Say Goodbye (For Jodi)” from Close Your Eyes.

Are other people performing and recording Kurt’s lyrics? So far I know just these two examples.
—2007 • Sean Jones: Kaleidoscope • Mack Avenue • B000SQKYOS • Carolyn Perteete sings Kurt’s song “Esperanto,” with lyrics he wrote to Vince Mendoza’s tune titled “Esperanca.” Hear Kurt’s version on Live in Chicago.
—1997 • Manhattan Transfer: Swing • Atlantic/WEA • B000002JD8 • Vocalese lyric for “Sing You Sinners” by Kurt; additional lyrics and vocal arrangements by Janis Siegel.

Read Kurt’s lyrics online.
Buy a signed copy of his book, Lyrics.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Coming Soon

Three nights with Irvin Mayfield (shown here reading Pablo Neruda), guerrilla tap dancers, crazy stuff at the Walker, a Dakota late night, a list for Kurt Elling fans, another hat or two, and pots.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bruce Henry with the Tuesday Night Band

When: 3/25/08
Where: Artists' Quarter
Who: Bruce Henry (vocals), "Downtown" Bill Brown (Hammond B-3), Billy Franze (guitar), Kenny Horst (drums); surprise guest Reuben Ristrom (guitar)

After Blues in the Night, we walk a few blocks to the Hamm Building to hear Bruce Henry in his first-ever appearance with the AQ's Tuesday Night Band. Henry is a singer I never tire of hearing. He's moving to Chicago soon and breaking my heart. I'll just have to hear him as often as I can before then.

He starts his set with Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," a tune I didn't know had lyrics until now. Then something Henry describes as "a little bebop skebop," followed by a passionate "House of the Rising Sun." Debbie Duncan comes in from the Ordway and Henry joins her at the bar; she calls him "my brother." Meanwhile (apparently Tuesday night is a rapidly changing scene here) Reuben Ristrom gets called up out of the audience to join the band for "Bye Bye Blackbird" and (unless I misremember) "So What."

I haven't seen Ristrom play in years. He's the first guitarist I actually paid attention to, during a long-ago KBEM Winter Jazz Fest event. Until then, jazz to me had been all about piano and brass.

Taking pictures, I quickly learn that Ristrom plays with his eyes closed. He never, ever opens his eyes.

Henry returns for a soulful "What's Going On" (the second time in a week I've heard this performed live; J.D. Steele opened with it on Sunday), followed by "Summertime" and "Nature Boy." He's pulling out all the stops tonight, swinging and scatting and making trumpet sounds with his voice. The band can't stop smiling.

A break for Henry and up comes someone AQ doorman Davis Wilson only knows as "Chaco." He recently had a heart attack and now has a pacemaker. Dressed in gray leather, he sings "When I Fall in Love."

Blues in the Night

Where: Ordway
Who: Jamecia Bennett, Julius C. Collins III, Debbie Duncan, Regina Marie Williams (vocals); Raymond Berg (keyboards), Mark Lenander (guitar), Jay Young (bass), Joe Pulice (drums)

I'm previewing Blues in the Night for MinnPost this week and went to see it last night. Great classic songs (blues, torch songs, jazz), fantastic singers (any one of the four cast members could knock down the walls of Jericho), wonderful set and staging, sparse crowd. The show deserves better.

Debbie Duncan granted me an interview this morning, during which she said, "As you live and breathe and walk this Earth at some point in time, you will experience the blues." Yes, but when you experience them like this, you go away happy.

My MinnPost column is a preview, not a review, so I couldn't mention the songs that were high points for me: Debbie's "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues," Jamecia's "Taking a Chance on Love" and "Willow Weep for Me" (wrenching and emotional), "Kitchen Man," a song mined with double entendres which Debbie sang with considerable relish, Bessie Smith's "Dirty No-Gooder's Blues," which Debbie nailed, and Alberta Hunter's "Rough and Ready Man," magnificently sung by Regina Williams. Good stuff.

Photo of Debbie Duncan taken at the Artists' Quarter in March 2007.

Christine Rosholt

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

Christine has become a regular at the Dakota, I'm happy to say, and she always draws a good crowd. Tonight she premieres several new songs: Jobim's "Waters of March," Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," "Something Cool" by Billy Barnes. We also hear old favorites: "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Blues in the Night," "Savoy."

"Waters of March" is a mouthful with challenging, nonsensical lyrics ("A stick, a stone/It's the end of the road/It's the rest of a stump/It's a little alone.... The plan of the house/The body in bed/And the car that got stuck/It's the mud, it's the mud"). Say what? The only singer I've heard pull it off in live performance without a hitch is Jane Monheit. I credit Christine with taking it on.

Her band, as always, is wonderful. I like the addition of guitarist Rose, a college friend of bassist Peterson. Read what Andrea Canter says about Christine's band.

Photos by John Whiting.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Irvin Mayfield's Trumpet

A month or so after his appearance at Orchestra Hall with his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Irvin Mayfield is returning to Minneapolis, this time with his quintet, to play the Dakota. It's not quite clear yet who the other four musicians will be, but if they're drawn from NOJO, I'm guessing the rhythm section will be Victor Atkins (piano), David Pulphus (bass), and Adonis Rose (drums), though some people think Jason Marsalis will be the drummer. Then what, saxophone? Trombone? Or clarinet?

I've been hearing a lot on the radio about a $3.5-million violin (a 1741 Guarneri) recently purchased by Russian businessman Maxim Viktorov and played in a private concert by Pinchas Zukerman. Mayfield may play the world's most valuable trumpet. Hand-built by David Monette, commissioned in memory of all those who perished in Hurricane Katrina (including Mayfield's father, whose body was found on Elysian Fields Street), the Elysian Trumpet is a one-of-a-kind work of art insured for $1 million.

YouTube Trick: Add "&fmt=6" (minus the quotes) to the end of any YouTube URL and get the hi-def version of that video. (Thanks, Don Berryman!)

An article from about the Guarneri.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hats for Cats: Chris Bates

One-half of the fabulous Bates Brothers (the other is drummer J.T.), bassist Chris is a musician I follow around town. When I learn that he'll be playing somewhere with someone (Ellen Lease and Pat Moriarty, the Kelly Rossum Quartet, Slide Huxtable, Red Planet, Poutums Jazz Trio, the Enormous Quartet, at the Guthrie in a show about the music of Tom Waits) or even with no one (his solo set at the Rogue Buddha gallery last December was amazing), I try to go. I have yet to catch him at the Kitty Cat Club but that's in my future.

So, Chris, this hat's for you. It's cashmere so don't throw it in the washing machine unless you want a baby hat.

Bassists tend to stand at the back of the stage where there isn't much light, plus they move around a lot. Someday I'll get a better photo.


J.D. Steele

When: 3/23/08
Where: Dakota
Who: J.D. Steele (vocals), Peter Schimke (piano), Serge Akou (bass), Daryl Boudreaux (percussion), Larry Robinson (drums), ???? (trumpet); Billy, Fred, Jearlyn, and Jevetta Steele (vocals)

The band warms up and suddenly J.D. rockets through the curtain and launches into Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" before a crowd of family, friends, and admirers. He's dancing and smiling and we're right there with him. No need to warm us up. From the moment he opens his mouth until his final goodbye, this will be a high-energy show.

I've seen the Steeles several times but never J.D. on his own. I wasn't expecting to be handed so much joy. J.D. is effervescent. This night is a CD release for an album he's been recording for the past decade ("Whenever I started working on the record I'd end up doing something for my family instead"), a celebration of 25 years in the music business ("I left the corporate world in 1983"), an introduction to the new love of his life (Shangilia, a choir of former street children from Kenya), and a family reunion ("My brothers and sisters will join me later and I hope you don't mind?"). The band is splendid. If you weren't in the audience, you can be sorry now.

We hear several songs from the CD, all originals: "I Wonder," "Don't Give Up" ("I wrote this song when a friend of mine was having some problems; I just wanted him to be encouraged"). We see a short film about J.D. and Shangilia, learn to say "Every burden shall be rolled away" in Swahili, and hear J.D. sing "Save the Children," another song I associate with Marvin Gaye though it's been recorded by a lot of people.

Jevetta, Billy, Jearlyn, and Fred join their brother for the final songs: J.D.'s "Starting All Over," "All Because of You," a rousing gospel tune ("I never shall forget what he's done for me..."), and "Better Love." Now the energy is incandescent. Have we just heard more than two hours of soulful, beautiful music? The time has telescoped. The evening could not have been better.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

John made this.

Lily, the black-and-tan bunny, is 17 going on 18.

Kevin Mahogany and the JazzMN Big Band

When: 3/22/08
Where: Hopkins High School Performing Arts Center
Who: JazzMN Big Band, Douglas Snapp, artistic director; Jimmy Hamilton, guest pianist; Kevin Mahogany, guest vocalist

A very enjoyable show from start to finish. JazzMN played the first half: "Greetings and Salutations" (Thad Jones), "7th Heaven" (Steve Huffsteter; a tune Snapp heard in LA last year and enjoyed), Chick Corea's "La Fiesta," "Come Rain or Come Shine." Jimmy Hamilton (a local pianist Snapp thinks we should know but a lot of us don't because he performs mainly at the Lafayette Country Club, and who belongs to that?) took over for Mary Louise Knutson at the piano for three tunes including Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

Following intermission, Kevin Mahogany gave us several songs of his choosing. I learned only recently that when a big band features a guest vocalist, he or she provides the charts, and the arrangements depend on how skilled the band is. We heard "Satin Doll," "Everything I Have Is Yours," "In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)," "Yardbird Suite," and a song by Mahogany, "Three Little Words." I came to hear his smooth, rich baritone and his scatting; Mahogany is a terrific scat singer. Surprising many in the audience, Snapp scatted with him on one song.

Mahogany was warm and generous and funny. He's a big man who's been dieting, and his custom-made suit was a few sizes too large for him. He told us after the show that he hasn't had time to have it taken in.

Near the end, Snapp announced JazzMn's next season, which will be its tenth (a considerable achievement for a big band these days):

October 18: The Latin Side of Conrad Herwig
December 20: A JazzMn Christmas (their first Christmas concert)
February 14: Nicholas Payton's Gumbo Nouveau
April 4: Ken Peplowski: Benny Goodman Protege

My MinnPost preview of this show.
More from my interview with Kevin Mahogany.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Christine Rosholt, pictured here
with her regular bassist Graydon Peterson, performs at the Dakota on Monday. She's one of the artists featured in my MinnPost column this week, which didn't start out to be all about singers but turned out that way.

Bruce Henry called from Chicago and we talked briefly about the Tuesday Night Band, the group he'll perform with on Tuesday (duh) at the AQ. He hasn't sung with them before and wanted to know what to expect.

"Are they jazz? Soul? R and B?" Bruce asked.

"Funky jazz soul, I guess," I told him. "I haven't heard them except on Don Berryman's YouTube videos."

"Whatever they play is fine," he replied. "I know a million songs, and whatever they want, I can do."

So it's going to be new for everyone including the artists. Can't wait.

Hats for Cats: Joe Doermann

My inexplicable urge to knit hats, especially hats for jazz musicians and people related to jazz in some way, led my punster husband John to coin the term "Hats for Cats."

New: a blue hat for Joe Doermann, one of our favorite Dakota staff persons, a young man of considerable charm, impeccable behavior, and handsome tattoos.

I designed this pattern after John saw singer/guitarist Raul Midon wearing a ribbed hat on a Herbie Hancock special. I like how the decreases at the top (the decreases are the stitches that turn a tube into a hat) overlap like petals. The shape of the hat on the head is sleek and close-fitting. John wears his a lot.

The first hat for a cat.

Smooth Jazz

I know a lot of people like smooth jazz, and for some it's the only jazz they will listen to or even try, but to me, it's elevator music. The jazz pianist Bobby Lyle made a double CD a few years back called Straight and Smooth: one CD is straight-ahead and the other is smooth. As much as I enjoy Bobby, I could not tolerate the smooth CD.

An article the Onion published last year, "No One Sets Out to Be a Smooth Jazz Musician," has been making the rounds again. It's a fun read if you're not a smooth jazz fan (or even if you are).

Image from the Beavis Blog.

Vinicius Cantuaria

When: 3/19/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Vinicius Cantuaria (guitar, vocals), Michael Leonhart (trumpet, synthesizer, percussion), Nanny Assis (percussion), Dende (percussion), ??? (drums; not his usual drummer, Adriano Santos, but I didn't catch the name)

Music of delicacy and understatement and moonlight. More percussion than I've seen on stage since the Global Drum Project, but handled softly, with palms and fingertips and brushes. Brazilian singer/songwriter/guitarist Cantuaria moves from song to song with no chatter or introduction: "The Bridge," "Cubanos Postizos" (featuring Leonhart's trumpet), an exquisite "Corcovado." The audience is rapt and relaxed.

We think they're singing/saying goodnight in Portuguese (boa noite) but they keep playing; they're enjoying this as much as we are. Which often happens at the final set on the final night, my favorite time to go.

Photos by John Whiting.

Javier Santiago/Chris Smith Quartet

When: 3/14/08
Where: Artists' Quarter
Who: Ben Flocks (saxophones), Javier Santiago (piano), Chris Smith (bass), Cory Cox (drums)

Flocks and Santiago are 18, Smith is 19, Cox is 20. All attend the Brubeck Institute in Stockton, California, as Brubeck Fellows; currently there are five Fellows and we're looking at four. Santiago and Smith attended South High School here.

Davis Wilson introduces the group to the crowd (which starts out sparse but fills up fast) by exclaiming "Welcome to the future!"

There's a Who rockumentary called The Kids Are Alright and that phrase goes through my head as I see and hear these teenagers (and one just barely out of his teens) play solid, straight-ahead standards and original compositions: Wayne Shorter's "Yes or No," "Body and Soul," Smith's "Left Behind," an untitled piece by Cox, Santiago's "The Grip," Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan," Horace Silver's "Nutville," Shorter's "JuJu," Santiago's "Gravity."

We stay for both sets. I forget they're kids. Next month they play Yoshi's. More than alright.

Photos by John Whiting.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kevin Mahogany

Kevin Mahogany sounds as yummy on the phone as he does when he sings. When I interviewed him for MinnPost about his upcoming performance with the JazzMN Big Band, I probably kept him on the line longer than I should have.

I mentioned how much I liked one of the songs on Another Time Another Place, his 1997 release on Warner Bros. It's a sassy, light-hearted banter between two men about the same woman. Mahogany wrote it and recorded it as a duet with country singer Randy Travis, which seems an unlikely choice but makes sense when you listen. It's all about the voices. Mahogany told me more:

It surprised a lot of people when we did that. I always thought [Travis] had a wonderful voice. When you hear that combination, it worked great. I was writing a duet for two men and didn't want to split a standard tune in half. [Travis] agreed to do it with me. We were both on Warner Bros. We had such a great time. As much fun as you hear on the record, that's how much we had in the studio, if not more so. What makes it exciting is that [Travis] has less twang [in his voice] than in his country music. And jazz people had the chance to hear an incredible singer who sings country.

On the recording, Travis doesn't scat (Mahogany does), but he swings.

Photo of Kevin Mahogany from his MySpace page.

Lang Lang

When: 3/13/08
Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Who: Lang Lang, piano

This was the second time in four years that young Chinese pianist Lang Lang appeared in the Schubert Club’s International Artist Series. We also saw him the first time, in October 2004. He was 22 years old.

That night, he played Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 10, a Chopin piano sonata, some Schumann, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt, and three encores, including one accompanied by his father on the er-hu, a Chinese instrument. When he walked through the door leading offstage after his final encore, he leaped into the air.

Tonight he seemed more serious, less ebullient. Between then and now, he has performed before royalty and presidents, to crowds of tens of thousands, and to an audience of who knows how many millions during the most recent Grammys, where he and Herbie Hancock played Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” He’s the global brand ambassador for Audi and Montblanc, and Steinway has named pianos after him. He’s huge.

He opened with a Mozart piano sonata, this time No. 13. Thoughtful and beautiful. His reading of Schumann’s C-major Fantasy lost me. His performance of Chinese works transcribed for piano—he described them as “an impressionist Chinese piece,” “Chinese Bach,” “a Chinese tango,” “a very traditional tune,” and “Happy Holidays”—was lovely and warm. His soft notes are so soft it’s as if moths are landing on the keys, yet managing to sound them.

During Granados’s “Los Requiebros,” I kept thinking about how poor Granados had died: crossing the Atlantic during WWI, his ship the SS Sussex was torpedoed by a German U-boat. He was safe in a lifeboat when he saw his wife in the water. He tried to save her and both were lost.

Two Liszts followed, including the grand finale, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. (In 2004, it was Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.) This was the flashy, fiery Lang Lang I remembered from before.

But no Chopin. And no leap following his single encore, a classical piece I recognized but can’t name.

I enjoyed the concert—Lang Lang is an amazing artist, an alien creature born with a great gift to parents who sacrificed everything to it—but I also wondered how things were going at the Jazz is NOW! NOWnet preview performance, which was happening concurrently across the river. I wished I could be in two places at once.

Photo by John Whiting.

August Wilson: The Piano Lesson

Where: Penumbra Theatre

August Wilson "considered Penumbra the place to hang up his hat," his widow Constanza Romero Wilson told the Pi Press last week. She was in town to see Penumbra's most recent production of The Piano Lesson, one of two Pulitzer Prize winners that Wilson wrote while living in St. Paul.

Penumbra has had a long and close relationship with Wilson's plays, a cycle that traces black American life decade by decade from 1900 to 2000. Over the next five years, the theatre will produce all ten. The Piano Lesson is first, to be followed by Gem of the Ocean, which will be hosted by the Guthrie Theater.

When Penumbra stages an August Wilson play, we go. To date, we've seen everything but Gem of the Ocean, most at Penumbra. (We saw Radio Golf last June at Broadway's Cort Theatre, thanks to an email from Penumbra announcing a half-price ticket offer. The email arrived the same day we checked into our hotel, which happened to be about three blocks from the Cort. It was as if God had leaned down to say SEE THE PLAY.)

I hadn't seen The Piano Lesson before tonight. It's a long play—three hours—with a lot going on: history, ghosts, drama, comedy, fear, resentment, family tension, hopes, dreams, disappointment. Here's the summary Penumbra provides on its Web site (but, oddly, not in the printed program):

The piano that sits in the salon of the Charles home is very valuable. For Berniece, it holds the spirit of her grandparents, sold away in exchange for it during slavery. For her brother, Boy Willie, it holds the key to his freedom from the burden of sharecropping for a meager wage. The struggle between the siblings over the symbolic and literal value of the piano escalates into a conflict that threatens to tear the family apart. A Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, The Piano Lesson is the story of a family haunted by the living legacy of American slavery.

Penumbra's set is utterly convincing and complete with a working kitchen; stove burners light and water comes out of the faucet. Greta Oglesby and James Craven are strong as Berniece and her uncle, Doaker Charles. (Oglesby can sing. More, please.)

Recent Howard University graduate Ashford Thomas is amazing as Lymon in his Penumbra debut. And Dennis Spears inhabits the role of Wining Boy. Most people in these parts know Spears as a jazz singer. He's also a wonderful actor.

T. Mychael Rambo was cast as preacher Avery Brown; the night we saw the play, Terry Bellamy stepped into the role and did just fine.

As key character Boy Willie, Anska Akyea dominated most of the scenes he was in. Strib writer Rohan Preston described him as "incendiary and tempestuous.... Loud, rude, he is a metaphor for a restless, impatient future." He pounded, bounded, and slammed his way through the play.

Near the end, when Boy Willie speaks several lengthy passages, Akyea's delivery was so loud and rapid-fire that I lost much of what he was saying. I wish he had slowed down and ramped down a bit.

Other than that, the play was perfect. And I loved the woman sitting by herself right in front of us who told us during intermission that Spears goes to her church, then punctuated Act II with over-the-shoulder comments and asides.

Piano photo from Penumbra's Web site.

A box set of all 10 August Wilson plays is available from Theatre Communications Group.

Maria Schneider and MacJazz

When: 3/11/08
Where: Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center, Macalester College
Who: Maria Schneider and MacJazz

This tantalizing item recently appeared on the Macalester College Arts and Events calendar:

Mar 12 Wednesday 8:00 PM Macalester New Music Series: Maria Schneider, Composer Concert Hall, Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center Composer Maria Schneider will conduct her music for big band. MacJazz, directed by Joan Griffith, will perform Schneider’s music along with additional selections. The concert is free. Schneider won this year’s Grammy in the category of Best Instrumental Composition for 'Cerulean Skies'; in 2004 she won her first Grammy as Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, for "Concert in the Garden.”

Maria Schneider in a free concert at Macalester? We had tickets for a play that night. Then I learned that Joan Griffith would allow us to attend the rehearsal on Tuesday.

From start to finish, it was fascinating, a rare opportunity to see and hear Schneider as her band members do.

Lit from above, she was luminous, lithe, and light on her feet. The band rehearsed three of her pieces: "Lately," "Choro Dancado," "Dance You Monster to My Soft Song." A fourth Schneider composition, "Tork's Cafe," was also on the concert program but wasn't part of the rehearsal.

Schneider spent most of the time dancing across the stage, singing the phrases and rhythms she wanted to hear (wamp oo dah doo dee dah), gesturing, applauding, exhorting, instructing: "Paint a picture." "Deep breath." "Think Doppler effect." "Lay back." "More air." "Don't breathe in the four-bar space. Breathe somewhere in between."

She encouraged MacJazz, the Macalester student jazz band led by Joan Griffith, with anecdotes about her own band: "They experiment all the time, so don't be afraid to try new things." And she told them how to learn to swing: "Listen to the Mel Lewis band, the Basie band.... Get it in your ear and start playing that way. Those guys didn't learn to play by talking about it."

At the end, everyone sat on the floor around a boombox Griffith found somewhere and brought in, listening to "Lately" from Schneider's recording Days of Wine and Roses: Live at the Jazz Standard (2005).

Thanks to Joan Griffith for letting us in.

Photos: Maria Schneider; Joan Griffith on mandolin with some of her students; Maria Schneider with the band. Top photo by John Whiting.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Kelly Rossum Quintet Featuring Woody Witt and Joe LoCascio

When: 3/8/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Kelly Rossum (trumpet), Woody Witt (tenor sax), Joe LoCascio (piano), Adam Linz (bass), J.T. Bates (drums)

As much as I love late-night jazz, and as much as I love the Dakota, I don't go to Late Night at the Dakota shows as much as I would like. I've learned from experience that they draw noisy crowds. And while I know jazz will never command the pin-drop silence of a concert at Orchestra Hall or the Ordway, I'm still surprised when, for example, people seated at a table immediately beside the stage shout at one another to be heard above the music.

When the crowd is louder than the musicians, I'm not having a good time.

But I tried at this particular Late Night because the musicians were so stellar: a core Kelly Rossum group with guests from Texas, LoCascio and Witt. I've heard Witt before, but not LoCascio. They began with "Warm Butter," a Rossum tune, then played LoCascio's "A Widow's Tale" before performing three pieces from Witt's new CD, Live at Cezanne's: "Afterthought," "Renewal," and Wayne Shorter's "Footprints."

I had heard raves about the recorded "Footprints" from my friend and fellow jazz blogger Andrea Canter, who wrote for Jazz Police:

"Footprints" is the CD's centerpiece on multiple levels, a 16-minute mini-suite of its own that evolved with no prior arrangement, simply spontaneous combustion.... Everything shines on this track, and "Footprints" has never sounded as fresh and exciting since Miles Davis.

The "Footprints" we heard was another spontaneous combustion—entirely invented before our eyes and ears. Linz led into it on bass, LoCascio plucked the piano strings as if the Dakota's Yamaha were a harp, and Bates laid down a rhythm. It looked for a moment as if Rossum and Witt would start to play—both raised their horns—but then the rhythm section took off at such a pace that Rossum and Witt actually left the stage temporarily, making room for LoCascio, Linz, and Bates to explode, which they did. Then Rossum and Witt returned and the quintet gave us a "Footprints" I had never heard before—nor had anyone else. Brand new, created on the spot, utterly unlike (said Andrea) the version on the recording.

Photos by John Whiting.

See and hear Witt play a tune from his new CD, Live at Cezanne's. Beautiful saxophone.

Jazz is NOW!

The Jazz is NOW! NOWnet, the composers' ensemble created by Jeremy Walker in 2004, is back and I'm glad. I wrote about its return and briefly about its history for MinnPost. Meanwhile, Marsha Walker sent me this picture of Jeremy relaxing in the sun during their recent trip to New Orleans.

Here's part of my conversation with Jeremy that didn't make it into MinnPost:

When I started in music, CDs had a lot of value. I had a conversation with my brother, Tom, a guitar player, and said, 'If you digitize this music, pretty soon recordings will have no value, and the real value, the only value, will be live performance.' That was probably 15 years ago. A few years later, I had a conversation with Wynton [Marsalis], who said 'If you can't sell your CD for seven or eight dollars, there will be a time when you can't sell it.' With Jazz is NOW!, we decided let's just record everything and people can have it. They can download it for a nominal fee, and if they want a pressed copy, we'll charge five dollars. Since it has no monetary value but it has artistic value, let's just share it.

During Ravi Coltrane's performance the other night at the Ted Mann, he mentioned he'd have CDs for sale in the lobby during intermission. "The music business is going down the toilet," he said, "so we'd better sell them when we can."

Where will the music business be in five years or ten? For an article related to this topic, see "The Music Man" (New York Times Magazine, 9/2/07) about producer and Columbia Records co-head Rick Rubin. You may need to log in to read it. It's lengthy but interesting.

Photo of Jeremy Walker by Marsha Walker.

Visit the Jazz is NOW! Web site and hear the NOWnet.

Jaleel Shaw

When: 3/7 and 3/8/08
Where: Artists’ Quarter
Who: Jaleel Shaw (alto saxophone), Chris Lomheim (piano), Billy Peterson (bass), Kenny Horst (drums)

After a blistering performance on Thursday 3/6 with the Roy Haynes Quartet, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw moved to the Artists’ Quarter for the weekend. I previewed his Twin Cities shows for MinnPost last week and had the chance to interview him by phone when he was still in NYC.

When he told me one of his goals for his own playing was to stay rooted, like Roy Haynes has, I asked him, “Who are your roots?”

Charlie Parker, Bobby Watson, Grover Washington, Johnny Hodges, Sonny Stitt. Right now I’m listening to a lot of tenor players, like Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Von Freeman, Dewey Redman, Joe Lovano, Joe Henderson. I always try to keep my ear open, to keep everything open. I’m listening to a lot of piano players lately, like Lenny Tristano, Herbie Hancock, McCoy, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau.

Shaw has been to the AQ before, both with Haynes and on his own. He has played with Kenny Horst but never with Lomheim or Peterson (whom he introduces as “Bill” on both evenings). The music is as fine as what Shaw has taught us to expect in his previous appearances: fresh, imaginative straight-ahead standards and original compositions, played with confidence and a clear, strong tone. Tunes include “I Remember April,” “Bemsha Swing,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Darn This Dream,” Cannonball Adderley’s “Nardis,” Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” and selections from Shaw's new CD, Optimism.

Shaw brings out the best in the other members of the quartet. Everyone seems to be enjoying himself, and Billy Peterson draws my attention again and again; each bass solo tells its own story. As does each of the shirts he wears, but that’s another topic.

Davis Wilson, beloved AQ doorman, introduces the second night by inviting us all to share in “the precarious beauty of producing beauty on demand, which is what jazz is!”

Photos by John Whiting.

Ravi Coltrane Quartet and Roy Haynes Quartet

When: 3/6/08
Where: Ted Mann Concert Hall
Who: Ravi Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Luis Perdomo (piano), Drew Gress (bass), E.J. Strickland (drums); Roy Haynes (drums), Jaleel Shaw (saxophone), Martin Bejerano (piano), David Wong (bass)

One night, one hall, two fine quartets. I know NYC is supposedly the place to live if you love jazz, but tonight you’d have a tough time convincing me that anywhere is better than Minneapolis.

Coltrane, second son of John and Alice, named for sitar legend Shankar, begins with a tune Ralph Alessi wrote for William, Ravi’s young son, called “One Wheeler Will.” It’s a high-energy tune right out of the gate that gives everyone a chance to shine. This is the second time I’ve seen this quartet (the first was at the Dakota in March 2005) and I wonder if Ravi ever plays his father’s music.

Next, “For Zoe,” written by Ravi, serious and dark. Bowed bass, slow sax, and soft percussion over a thick carpet of piano arpeggios. The piece grows in passion and intensity and the saxophone is increasingly pleading. Transition into Ornette Coleman’s “Little Symphony,” then a mellow tune by bassist Gress called “Away.”

Ravi looks beautiful. His hair is cropped short, his glasses are cool, and he’s wearing a shirt of something black and drapey—silk or cashmere. I’m musing on his elegance, enjoying the music, when I hear a brief but familiar phrase on the piano. Ravi’s horn is fierce and Perdomo is packing as many notes as possible into each measure. That phrase again. Either the quartet is playing “Giant Steps,” the most iconic of John Coltrane compositions, or Perdomo is teasing us with quotes. In fact, they are playing it. Ravi has turned his father’s most recognizable tune—and one that’s famously hard to play—into a personal statement.

Side note: Although Ravi’s soprano saxophone is on stage with him, he never picks it up. This is a tenor-only night.

During intermission, Utne Reader editor and jazz lover David Schimke tells us that Roy Haynes has made more recordings than any other jazz artist. Over the 60-plus years Haynes has been out there beating his drums (on the night of this show, he’s a week away from turning 83), he’s played with everyone: Lester Young, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Roland Kirk.... His label, Dreyfus, recently released a box set that spans his career.

Tonight he’s ferocious. Between songs, he sometimes stands up, backs away from his drums, and bounces on the balls of his feet like a boxer between rounds. His quartet is superb; everyone is much younger than Haynes (it’s possible all their ages barely add up to his) but youth is not necessarily a benefit in this band, where rule #1 is probably “Keep Up with Roy.”

For those of us who have seen Haynes at his most recent Artists’ Quarter appearances and heard his latest CDs (including Whereas, recorded live at the AQ), the set list is familiar: “Green Chimneys,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” Monk’s “Twinkle Trinkle,” Pat Metheny’s “James.” (Shaw tells us later that the cue for “James” came sooner than he expected. He’s standing at stage right when Haynes begins the tune and literally sprints to center stage with his alto sax and starts blowing.) As an encore, they give us “Summer Nights.” No surprises, but no complaints.

What does Roy Haynes hear in his head as he goes about his day? Does everything he encounters have a pulse?

Photo of the Ravi Coltrane Quartet from his Web site, (C) Darlene DeVita. Photos of Roy Haynes and his quartet by John Whiting.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Jeremy Walker bounces back, brings back Jazz is NOW!

Jeremy Walker tries out a piano during a recent trip to New York City.
Photo by Marsha Walker
In 2003, not that long ago, Jeremy Walker ran a jazz club, led the house band and played the saxophone.

Brilliant Corners, named for a Thelonious Monk tune, was an understated street-level room in downtown St. Paul. The club was beset with problems, but big names came to play — Wynton Marsalis, Matt Wilson — and all ages came to listen because it had no liquor license.

"DownBeat" magazine named Brilliant Corners one of the 100 best jazz clubs in the country, and one night Itzhak Perlman stopped by after his own gig at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts to jam with Marsalis before a sold-out crowd. Having just come from the Ordway and unable to talk my way in, I stood outside with my nose pressed against the glass, kicking myself.

The club closed in 2004. The band played on as the Jazz is NOW! Orchestra until early 2006, when it went on hiatus. You can listen to recordings here.  

Also in 2006, Walker's personal struggles with nerve and joint problems forced him to slow down, regroup and abandon the saxophone, his instrument since childhood.

Someone less resilient might have given up on the whole jazz thing. Instead, Walker has reshaped the orchestra into the NOWnet, a hard-swinging, flexibly sized composers' ensemble that will perform on Thursday, March 13, at the Minnesota Opera Center in Minneapolis. And he has spent the past two years becoming proficient on the piano and composing new music.

Since returning from New York and New Orleans, where he spent three weeks studying with pianists including Frank Kimbrough and David Berkman on a Jerome Foundation grant, he's now busy orchestrating the music for next week's concert. 

All original music on the menu

NOWnet will play all original music, mostly Walker's. Thursday's band will include Walker on piano; Kelly Rossum on trumpet; Chris Thomson and Scott Fultz on saxophones, flutes, and clarinets; Jeff Bailey on bass and Kevin Washington on drums.

"This will be a preview performance," Walker tells me in a phone interview, "something that lets people in on the process. It's been two years since we last performed, and it's kind of like trying to start an old lawnmower. But there's a really good atmosphere around it, and a lot of excitement about what can happen this time. We want to bring in as much community spirit as possible."

He's serious about the community focus. NOWnet and its support organization, the nonprofit Jazz is NOW!, will be inviting and transparent in ways unusual for arts organizations, he says.

Rehearsals will be open to the public. Performances will be filmed and available to view on the revamped and interactive Jazz is NOW! website, funded by a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council grant, which will go live soon (maybe as early as next week). Visitors to the site will be able to download songs, read blogs, even print out scores and charts. Everything will be free or very low-cost.

"We decided to record everything and let people have it," Walker explains. "Nobody's making any money on music anyway. We want to get the music out as much as possible, just give it away. You can pay us when we come out to play."

NOWnet is in the tradition of performing ensembles like Charles Mingus's Jazz Workshop and the old Midwest territory bands: fluid, adventurous, ever-evolving.

Regional showcase

Walker is passionate about keeping it regional. "The artistic concept behind the band is to celebrate and showcase regionalism. New York is its own thing, New Orleans is its own thing, and so are we. We live on the prairies, so a certain spaciousness is called for.

"Scott [Fultz] writes that way. I don't explicitly write that way, but we are products of where we're from. I recently finished an orchestration that brings acoustic guitar into the NOWnet. As Scott said, 'Let's be ourselves. Let's offer something that isn't New York.' " 

The full band (currently nine members) returns later this year, perhaps for the Twin Cities Summer Jazz Festival and again in October. Plans call for two performance series, one with national guest artists and one spotlighting area artists and ensembles. Trumpeter Ron Miles and saxophonist Wessell "Warmdaddy" Anderson are on the guest list. Walker has a personal dream of playing with local legend Irv Williams.

"We're looking at our place in the community as musicians," Walker says "I was profoundly influenced by how central music is to people in New Orleans. Whether the music is good or bad, it's right there and it's central to their community. I think music is very important here and we don't always affirm that as much as we should."

Walker thinks he can do that with jazz? "I believe in jazz, so yeah."

What: The Jazz is NOW! NOWnet

Where: The Minnesota Opera Center, 620 N. First St., Minneapolis (North Loop)

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, March 13

How much: $10 regular admission/$7 students at the door. No presale.

Upcoming picks

Jaleel Shaw Group: Read a preview here. The Artists' Quarter, 9 p.m. Friday, March 7 and Saturday, March 8 ($15).

Woody Witt and the Kelly Rossum Quartet: Stay up late with Texas-based saxophonist Woody Witt, visiting pianist Joe LoCascio, and area stars Rossum (trumpet), Adam Linz (bass) and J.T. Bates (drums). Late Night at the Dakota, 11:30 p.m. Friday, March 7 and Saturday, March 8 ($5).

Minneapolis Trombone Choir 35th Annual Concert: 31 trombones, with help (as if they need it) from euphoniums and tubas. The featured soloist is Douglas Wright, principal trombone of the Minnesota Orchestra. The program is mostly classical and contemporary, with works by Minnesota composers and a little jazz near the end. Judson Church, 7 p.m. Sunday, March 9 ($15 suggested donation; proceeds benefit the Music Fund at Judson Church).

Originally published on, March 7, 2008

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Maceo Parker

When: 3/3/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Maceo Parker (saxophone and flute), Bruno Speight (guitar), Dennis Rollins (trombone), Ron Tooley (trumpet), Will Boulware (keyboards), Rodney Curtis (bass), Jamal Thomas (drums), Martha High (vocals), Corey Parker (vocals)

James Brown’s former saxophonist and funk master Maceo Parker brought his nine-piece band to the Dakota for two nights and four shows. They filled the house and caused widespread hearing loss. At the final set on Monday, club owner Lowell Pickett handed out earplugs.

The small stage was a roiling, constantly changing crowd of usually nine and sometimes ten. Minneapolis’s own Stanley “Chance” Howard came up out of the audience to sing. Parker’s manager, Natasha Maddison, entered through the curtain at the back of the stage to recite Hamlet’s soliloquy “To Be or Not to Be” in her plummy British accent.

Parker explained, “In high school, I heard funky rhythms in my head. When I was told to memorize some Shakespeare, I chose ‘To be or not to be’ because I thought it meant ‘to be…or not to be…funky.’” Everyone laughed.

This was a line he had used before. (So was “When you hear this rumble, you feel your conscience grumble, hit me!”) Much of what he said and did seemed less than spontaneous, which isn’t that surprising since he’s almost always on tour. Just reading his schedule is exhausting.

Parker’s most recent CD is a double called Roots & Grooves. The first disc is a tribute to Ray Charles, and a lot of people probably showed up expecting to hear that. But it was only near the end that Parker donned a pair of shades and gave us a few bars of “Georgia.” The rest was funk: “To Be or Not to Be” (introduced by Maddison), “Pass the Peas,” “Funky Fiesta.”

Parker’s son Corey took a solo turn at the mike. So did Martha High, Brown’s former backup vocalist, bus driver, sometime hairdresser, and onetime stand-in when the Godfather of Soul was indisposed and the show had to go on. At least, that's the story Parker told.

Some people enjoyed the show and some didn’t. The music was too loud and the crowd was too inebriated. But I’m glad I went; Parker is Parker and funk is funk. Worth noting: During all of his strutting, posturing, dancing, playing, and flirting with the audience ("We might be on stage but we're checkin' y'all out"), Parker never once grabbed his crotch, and yet, how sexy he was.

Photo of Parker as Brother Ray by John Whiting.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Winter Jazz Fest: Sonny Fortune

Where: MacPhail Center for Music
Who: Sonny Fortune (alto saxophone and flute), Michael Cochrane (piano), Cecil McBee (bass), Steve Johns (drums)

Jazz history came alive in Minneapolis near the river when Sonny Fortune closed the Winter Jazz Fest. Performing in MacPhail’s splendid Antonello Hall, the man who has played with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie (he’s 78 but you wouldn’t know by looking at him) led his quartet in a program of mostly standards: a driving, exciting “Charade,” “Besame Mucho,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and two originals including “Awakening.” He alternated between alto sax and flute, an instrument that sounds wimpy when some people play it, robust and beefy when he does. He blows like he has all the air in the world.

The second set (the one we saw) was completely different from the first, as described the next morning by Dan Emerson in the Pioneer Press. Too bad more people didn’t stay over from the first set; there would have been no repetition (as if there ever is in jazz) and the audience would have numbered more than the 50 I saw. So it was a Sunday night, it was cold, it was dark, and Monday loomed, but Fortune deserved a larger audience.

We gave McBee a ride to the Dakota afterward. What a charming man. He told us he had recently married again, to a German woman whose family had traveled to the US for the big day. We talked about taking happiness when and where we find it and being glad for the chance. McBee was born in 1935, making him 73.

Photos by John Whiting: The man with the horn; Mr. McBee.
Bottom: The quartet.

Winter Jazz Fest: Chris Thomson's Bells + Whistles

Where: MacPhail Center for Music
Who: Chris Thomson (saxophones), Bryan Nichols (piano), Adam Linz (bass), Alden Ikeda (drums)

At 5 p.m. on the day of the Winter Jazz Fest,
I left the Dakota Foundation table in good hands and went back up to MacPhail's sixth floor to see Bells + Whistles, one of Chris Thomson's many groups. Knowing who was in it, I expected it to be wild. But every time I see Thomson, he surprises me, and this was no different. Bells + Whistles plays lyrical, dreamy straight-ahead jazz. Beautiful!

Top to bottom: Thomson, Nichols, Linz, Ikeda