Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Stitch, Bitch n' Die!

Where: Bryant Lake Bowl
Who: Kevin McLaughlin, Valerie Rigsbee, Laurie Salveson, Jen Scott, and Joseph Scrimshaw

My friend Beverly and I saw this very silly play together and we both brought our knitting, though once the lights went out all we could manage were our vodka tonics. It was the second-to-last night and the small theater at the Bryant Lake Bowl was totally sold out. Chris and Susan arrived early and got better seats than we did. Anyone who thinks that knitting is the pastime of little old ladies would have been surprised by the size and age(s) of the crowd, and the fact that it included both women and men. It's like when the Yarn Harlot comes to town and hundreds of people show up to see her. Stop knitting? Never. You'll have to pry my Addi Turbos out of my cold, dead hands.

Hats for Cats: Phil Palombi in his hat

Bassist Phil Palombi sent these pictures. He looks great in his hat and his Dakota t-shirt.

Photos courtesy Phil Palombi.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

August Wilson: Gem of the Ocean

Where: McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie

Writing for the Strib, Rohan Preston called
Gem of the Ocean "coruscating." I had to look it up. The word means "to gleam with intermittent flashes: glitter, sparkle." It fits this production of the first play in August Wilson's Century Cycle—not the first he wrote, but the first chronologically in his series of ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th century.

Set in 1904, Gem is moving, mysterious, and profound. Is Aunt Ester really 287 years old? What happens to make Caesar treat his own people with such brutality? Can Citizen Barlow's soul be washed? Will Black Mary follow in Ester's footsteps? This is a Penumbra production, but it would have been too big for its home stage in the Halle Q. Brown/Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center; it needs the room it gets on the proscenium stage in the blood-red McGuire theater. (This is the reddest room I have ever been in. The walls are red, the seats are red--are the floors red? I think they are.)

There is one scene in particular, during which Ester leads Citizen and the other characters to the City of Bones, built from the bodies of slaves who died during the Middle Passage, where the action and the lighting would not have worked in a smaller space. During this wrenching and powerful scene, a woman seated in front of us quietly sobbed.

Austene Van plays the role of Black Mary, Aunt Ester's assistant. I'm convinced Van is really triplets, or at least twins; she's also director of two more shows still playing in St. Paul, Blues in the Night and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, and she's understudy for Aunt Ester.

When I interviewed Van for my MinnPost column on Lady Day, I asked her how she ended up doing all of these things at once:

It's what we do as actors. We usually take on a few things, and I can kind of sum it up like this: "Being a woman is hard work. Not without joy or even ecstasy, but relentless, unending work." Maya Angelou said that. Yeah, I'm tired, and yeah, this is not easy, but I love it, I love going to work, and I budget my time and try to take care of myself and focus. You make time for what you love.

Many of the plays Van is involved with (including, previously, Ain't Misbehavin', Dinah Was, Blue, and Black Nativity) have music at their core. I asked if she sought that out or it just happened:

People seek me out to direct them or be in them or choreograph them.... I'm in half and half, half straight plays, half musical, but I always find rhythm. I'm always in something that has rhythm. Culturally, everything we do stems out of some kind of rhythm, how we walk and talk, how we communicate. It's jazz.

She noted that Gem is full of the rhythm of Wilson's language:

We try to be mindful about being spot-on with our words. Change one word and the rhythm is off.

I read the play before I saw it (truthfully, I finished the final act during intermission). That and talking with Van made me more conscious of the rhythm of the words.

Coincidence: My friend Jennifer Nelson, who led the African Continuum Theatre Company in Washington, DC for many years, is currently directing Gem of the Ocean at Everyman Theater in Baltimore. Read about it in the Baltimore Sun.

Ray Brown Tribute

When: 4/21–22/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Benny Green, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Gregory Hutchinson, drums

The great bassist Ray Brown died on July 2, 2002, after playing a round of golf. He was due at the Dakota a few days later to headline a benefit for the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education, then play a couple of nights in the club. We had made our reservations well in advance; we knew not to miss Brown when he came to the Twin Cities. His shows were always satisfying and he never played an encore.

Green, McBride, and Hutchinson do play encores, perhaps because they are in a festive mood. "We're here," Green explains, "to celebrate the beautiful music and trio arrangements of our friend, mentor and hero Ray Brown." All three knew and played with Brown. Green and Hutchinson were part of his working trio; McBride played with Brown and John Clayton in Brown's SuperBass trio.

The tribute runs for three nights. We're there for the last two, including the final set on the final night, always my favorite show.

On the first night we hear a tune Brown wrote for Art Blakey, "Buhaina Buhaina" (Abdullah Ibn Buhaina was Blakey's Islamic name), followed by "Billy Boy," a standard Brown played when he was part of Oscar Peterson's trio.

It's so good to hear Green play piano again. The last time he came to the Dakota, in August 2007, he performed with Belinda Underwood, a jazz bassist and vocalist. She even had top billing ("Belinda Underwood with Benny Green"). It was not a successful evening. Most people were there to hear Green, and not a lot enjoyed Underwood's singing. She didn't bring her bass and she should have and that's all I have to say.

(In his Jazz Beyond Jazz blog, Howard Mandel wrote, "I seldom write anything very toxic even about the most insufferable b.s. That's just the kind of critic I am, the kind kind.")

"In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" begins with a sweet and achey solo by Green. McBride introduces the melody on his bass, and Hutchinson caresses his drums with his brushes. Beautiful.

On both nights, they pass the mike and take turns talking about Brown, about each other, about what they've just played and what's up next. They're comfortable, easy, doing what they love for an appreciative audience. It's straight-ahead jazz heaven.

We hear "Bass Face" and the Monday show ends with "How Could You Do a Thing Like That to Me" and "Captain Bill," a tune written by Gene Harris for Count Basie.

The Tuesday night set list isn't that different—"Buhaina Buhaina," "Billy Boy," "How Could You Do a Thing Like That to Me," "Bass Face," "Captain Bill." Instead of "Wee Hours," they play "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," which begins with a bass solo. And we hear "The Summer Wind," a song Frank Sinatra made famous.

But while the set list is similar and the melodies are familiar, the music is not the same. Plus everyone seems a bit more gregarious tonight. McBride tells a favorite Ray Brown story about Brown's days in Hollywood, playing for movies and television. Toward the end of the evening, Hutchinson says they're here "in the spirit of Ray Brown and also in the spirit of Benny Green, Christian McBride, and Greg Hutchinson. We play his tunes and we make them our own."

Afterward, Green and Hutchinson hang out at the bar. I mention to Hutchinson that I never heard Brown play an encore. He laughs. "Yeah, when Ray was done, he was done."

Photos of the trio and McBride by John Whiting.

Andrea Canter saw early sets and writes about them here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Park Evans

Who: Park Evans (guitars and electronics), Brian Roessler (bass), Tim Glenn (drums)
Where: Cafe Maude

One of us says no to cake at the dessert reception
following Bruce Henry's Freedom Train performance (hint: not HH) so it's off to Maude after. So far we've been there only on Friday nights for jazz. Saturday is their ambient night, whatever that means.

Tonight it means Park Evans and a mellow groove. We have grilled brussels sprouts (they're delicious) and what I seriously believe are the best hamburgers in town while enjoying really nice late-night music.

The trio plays a tune I know but can't figure out for the longest time. A beautiful melody, like a Gregorian chant, repeated and played with, drawn out, returned to. What is it? It's making me crazy. Then I start hearing words in my head. It's the Advent carol "O Come, O Come Emanuel."

If Evans wants to do a holiday CD, I'm for it.

I have to pay more attention to Maude's music schedule. While looking up the names of the people who played with Evans, I learn that Douglas Ewart was here last Saturday, with cellist Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan (of Jelloslave) and percussionist Stephen Goldstein. That was the night we saw Peter Lang at the Dakota (and before then, Beyond Category), but still, it would have been tempting to try for three.

Photo by John Whiting. It's dark at Maude.

Bruce Henry and Freedom Train Ensemble

When: 4/18/08
Where: Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church
Who: Bruce Henry and special guest Jevetta Steele (voice), the Freedom Voices (singers including Leon Dillon, Katie Gearty, and Sandra Henry), the Freedom Dancers, and the Freedom Train Band: Daryl Boudreaux (percussion), Marcus Dillon (percussion), Jason Craft (keyboard), Wendell Craft (drums), Ian Young (bass)

Bruce Henry is one of the good guys. He's been working for months on tonight's show, a benefit performance for The Dignity Center, an outreach ministry of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church that offers help, support and hope for homeless, poor and disenfranchised people. It's a festive and joyous occasion, deeply felt and genuine.

The theme: "Sheroes and Heroes: The Women and Men Who Risked All to Make This a Better World." Songs include "The Ballad of Harry Moore" by Bernice Reagon (founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock), about the first NAACP official killed in the civil rights movement; "Jump Dat Broom," Henry's song about his great-great grandfather; "Grandma's Hands" by Bill Withers; and Stevie Wonder's "A Time to Love."

The splendid Jevetta Steele sings "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," "This Little Light," and "Go to the Rock," prefacing some serious gospel by saying that even though this is a Methodist church, we're all about to become Pentacostals and Baptists.

The live performance doesn't follow the printed program to the letter, the multimedia presentation (slides on a screen) has glitches, we can't see the dancers from where we're sitting, and the acoustics—the stone vault of the church sanctuary—are big and bouncy, but who cares. Bruce is Bruce and Jevetta is Jevetta and you can't ask for more. Because the printed program is mainly a formality, Henry adds his own "Africa Cries" and "Freedom Party," both perfect for the occasion. After the concert, there's a dessert reception in the lobby, with sheet cakes and cookies and brownies.

For more information about the Dignity Center, contact Ann Carlson, Director, 612-435-1336 or carlsonaj99@msn.com.

Eric Bibb

When: 4/18/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Eric Bibb

Sometimes all you need is a man and his acoustic guitar.
It was enough, it was ample and beneficent, when blues singer/songwriter Eric Bibb came to the Dakota for one night before a sold-out crowd at an open curtain show. He seemed a bit hesitant at first--he had to start one song over a few times because he kept skipping a verse--but we were with him and he knew it and it was magical.

Godson of Paul Robeson, nephew of John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet), son of folk singer Leon Bibb, Eric has an impeccable pedigree and a quietly powerful stage presence; you can't take your eyes off him. His voice is rich and husky; hear for yourself, and remember as you listen to these songs from his new CD, Get On Board, that at the Dakota there were no backup singers, no other instruments, no studio arrangements. Just a man and his acoustic guitar.

He's on tour with his new CD but sings and plays songs from earlier albums; he's been recording since 1980 and has made several. We hear "The Cape," a song by Guy Clark with wonderful lyrics: "He did not know he could not fly, so he did.... Spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape." And "Stagolee," aka "Staggerlee," which Peter Lang called "Stackolee" when he played it at the Dakota six days ago. We hear "River Blues" and "Connected." Telarc, Bibb's label, has posted a video on YouTube of Bibb singing this song.

"Still Livin' On" is about Bibb's heroes: Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton. "Water" was inspired by Spike Lee's documentary film about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke. "Diamond Days" is "a song from my life as a troubador," and it's also a theme of the evening; Bibb says more than once that "this has been a diamond day."

He explains that "Kokomo" came to him in a personal crisis, and that "a truly inspired song is a mysterious entity...a blessing, a gift." "For You" is a love song: "Give me the pieces of your heart when it's broken/I'll mend it for you." "Shingle by Shingle" is about "putting your life together when you've trashed it." He's telling stories, singing songs (both originals and blues standards), holding us all in the palm of his hand. There's no club chit-chat tonight. This is church.

It seems like many of his songs are love songs, tender and sweet. He's singing the blues, but not the poor-me, I'm-a-loser blues. Bibb's blues are illuminated with rays of light: hope, belief in love, spirituality, sincerity. The final two songs of his last set are "I Heard the Angels Sing" and "Love Train:" "Make sure you're waiting at the station with your heart open wide." After all this, he gives us an encore: "In My Father's House." We don't want to let him go.

The Dakota has long been mostly a jazz club, and it's booking more blues lately, and there's talk among the regulars about whether that's a good idea or not. Some of the blues I don't care to see (some of the jazz, too, for that matter), but tonight I feel lucky to have heard this man and this guitar in such an intimate setting. Bring him back, please.

Top photo of Eric Bibb by John Whiting. Bottom: Bibb and the Dakota's lovely Deborah after the show.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Tribute to Louis Armstrong

When: 4/17/08
Where: Orchestra Hall
Who: Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone), Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Kermit Ruffins (trumpet and voice), Victor Goines (saxophone), Bill Charlap (piano), Reginald Veal (bass), Herlin Riley (drums); guest vocalist Charmin Michelle; narrator Phil Schaap

Go to a concert by a visiting jazz group or artist at Orchestra Hall these days and you're likely to see local musicians, even students, on the stage.

Before Marsalis and his band began to play, jazz historian and NYC deejay Phil Schaap introduced the High School of Performing Arts Jazz Band. Teen trumpeter Caleb Lockwood slicked down his pink Mohawk for the occasion and they all sounded great on "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Savoy." A terrific opportunity for kids from an area charter school to play before a large crowd and meet an all-star band.

Maybe because this was my second narrated show within the same week (Beyond Category was the first), the Louis Armstrong tribute never quite clicked for me. Normally I enjoy hearing Schaap talk about jazz, but putting him to one side of the stage beside a big "Dr. Phil" sign and having him introduce each tune while pretending that Ruffins was Armstrong got old fast. (Ruffins didn't want to play along and eventually wandered off stage.) I understand that Ruffins was part of the show because he's a New Orleans legend and blows and sings Armstrong-style, but the band already had a great trumpeter, Nicholas Payton, and I wanted to see and hear more of him.

No complaints about the music—"Dippermouth Blues," "West End Blues," "The Sunny Side of the Street," Fats Waller's "Black and Blue," "Mack the Knife." Charmin Michelle did very well with "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "That's My Desire," and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans." She looked and sounded beautiful. (Marsalis called "Do You Know" the group's theme song.)

Throughout, the piano sounded muddy, which was too bad; I haven't heard Charlap play this style of music before and now I still haven't. People have said the Orchestra Hall Steinway is not a particularly good one. Dave Brubeck comes to play in May.

The high point of the evening arrived late in the second half, when Marsalis and Charlap played "What a Wonderful World" as a duo. Like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," this song borders on the hackneyed. It seemed as though I was hearing it for the first time. Both musicians approached it with tenderness and affection.

The final tune was a Kermit Ruffins standard, "Skokiaan." There was an encore but we didn't stay for it.

High School of Performing Arts photo by John Whiting.

Tatsuya Nakatani

When: 4/14/08
Where: Clown Lounge/Lodge/Luge/whatever
Who: Tatsuya Nakatani (percussion), Luke Polipnick (guitar), Chris Bates (bass)

The email invite comes from Chris Bates:

> Please come and check out Tatsuya. He is on a solo performance tour around the US.
> www.hhproduction.org is his website if you want more info.

> but really have I ever led you astray? trust me

> chris

Bates has never once led me astray so off we go to the Luge. It's my first time there, I'm ashamed to admit, and while I'm expecting a tiny, grungy basement jazz room, it's actually more spacious than that, and more comfortable.

Nakatani, who's currently on a six-month solo tour of the US, crossing the country in a van and playing wherever, begins at 11 p.m. with a solo improvisation, bowing a giant gong (one bow, then two), then bringing in the big bass drum like distant thunder.

This is the kind of free jazz that many people would not want to hear. There's no melody, no tune, no discernible rhythm (maybe no rhythm at all). It's pure sound or, if you will, pure noise, cacophony, pandemonium.

I can't begin to describe it in any kind of literal way. But I can try to describe some of the sounds I hear: A chant, a drone, the crying of beasts and the chirping of birds. Banshees and angels. A giant door opening into a vast corridor; footsteps, echoes. (Occasionally Nakatani blows on a cymbal that rests on one of his drum; the cymbal wails.) Windchimes in a heavy rain. Glass breaking, and laughter. A needle stuck on a record. Seals barking. Things falling down and being lifted up again. The sounds a giant ship might make when hitting an iceberg.

For the second set, Polipnick and Bates join Nakatani and they all just start playing. Chris gives us loops and buzzy feedback; Polipnick looks like a stop-motion animation, making a series of jerky moves that generate strange sounds. I don't have the vaguest idea how this happens but at various points they become an ensemble, traveling to similar places and from there to other places. They're not looking at each other, gesturing, or negotiating in any way I can see, but somehow they are together, rising to a fierce crescendo and suddenly pulling back at the same time, and how did that happen? Tornadic winds and traffic jams and it's over.

I wouldn't want a daily diet of free jazz, but sometimes, as tonight, it makes me glad to be alive.

Photos by John Whiting.

Peter Lang

When: 4/12/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Peter Lang, guitar and voice; Joe Lang, electric guitar; Michael Tanner, harmonica; James Hauck, harmonica; Jonathan Thomas, bass; Dave King, drums

I first heard fingerstyle guitarist Peter Lang in the 1970s, when I was also listening to Koerner, Ray & Glover, Leo Kottke, and John Fahey. I last heard Lang in the 1970s, distracted from folk music and never to return.

I decide to go to the Dakota show when I learn Dave King will be Lang's drummer.

"If you came here to hear my tunes," Lang tells us, "you're out of luck. These are tunes that mentored me." His new CD, Testament, is old-time blues, what he calls "the DNA of American music."

One of his guitars is a deep, brilliant blue. It reminds me of Raphael Fraisse's violin. Fraisse was a gifted violinist who played with the Parisota Hot Club. He died of leukemia in 2006 at the criminally young age of 31, and we miss him.

Lang links his songs with stories; he likes to talk. His singing voice is gruff and growly, but his playing is ethereal. This is a CD release show, and we mostly hear songs from the new CD: "Freight Train," Leadbelly's "Keep Your Hands Off Her," "Brownsville Road," "Nobody's Business But My Own," the John Hurt tune "I'm Satisfied" ("I'm old enough to marry you/I'm satisfied/Tickled too...."), "Stackolee" (better known as "Staggerlee"), "Delia," "That''ll Never Happen No More," "Guitar Rag."

He prefaces many of the songs with information about where they came from, who wrote them, what they're about. It's a music history lesson as well as a performance. Not all musicians are comfortable talking to their audiences, or they may not be in the mood to talk, but I wish more would tell us a little about what they're playing. Some of us aren't there just to be entertained. We're there to learn.


"The blues," Lang says at some point during the evening, "is nothing but a good man feeling bad."

Harmonica player Michael Tanner is the man who convinced Lang to make this new CD. "He lured me into the studio with a good bottle of California wine," Lang explains. Joe is Lang's son; when asked how it feels to play with him, Lang says, "I could die happy." Steve Larkin, who plays bass on the CD, is replaced here by Jonathan Thomas, who does just fine. James Hauck, whom Lang introduces as "one of my oldest friends...we are brothers of different mothers," joins the band for "Brownsville Road."

Turns out Dave King is a blues and roots drummer. I'm surprised for about two seconds; he can probably play anything. This is a different side than I've seen with the Bad Plus or Happy Apple or any of his numerous other bands. Renewed admiration.

Lang ends the set with an original and sounds like he's playing a 10,000 string guitar.

Hear Dale Connelly interview Lang on MPR.

Photos, top to bottom: Peter Lang, Dave King, Joe Lang, Jonathan Thomas. All but King by John Whiting.

Beyond Category: The Ellington and Strayhorn Songbook: Concert Review

When: 4/12/08
Where: Bloomington Art Center
Who: Maud Hixson, Dennis Spears, Lucia Newell (voice) and the Rick Carlson Quartet: Rick Carlson (piano), Keith Boyles (bass), Mac Santiago (drums), Gary Schulte (violin)

It's my first time at the Bloomington Center, a slick new facility that shares a building (Bloomington Civic Plaza) with the city's police station. I imagine a Dick Wolf franchise: "Arts & Order."

"Beyond Category" promises to be an evening of wonderful tunes performed by some of the finest singers and musicians in the Twin Cities area. It turns out to be a very good program but not a great one.

Carlson gives the introduction and serves as narrator throughout. He's animated and knowledgeable, with interesting stories about both Ellington and Strayhorn. He tells us, for example, that “Beyond Category” was a term Ellington use to describe people he admired.

The program begins with an instrumental medley—bits of “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Satin Doll, “Just Squeeze Me,” “Solitude,” and more. It’s basically the melody from each and pretty speedy. I might have preferred fuller treatments of fewer songs.

Schulte's violin immediately adds a whole new flavor to the music—a fourth voice. I like it, but it sometimes competes with the singers. It might have been more effective, and more special, had it been heard less often.

Hixson is the first singer up, with a silky-smooth “Don’t You Know I Care” followed by “Something to Live For.” Lovely, relaxed, and pure.

Spears bounds to the mike with “Whoo! Let’s see what we got here!” and delivers an uptempo “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” with scatting. He ends by leaping into the air, then tells us he won’t be doing that again this evening. It proves to be the most energetic part of the program.

Everyone is singing Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” these days: Christine Rosholt at the Dakota, Regina Marie Williams in Blues in the Night. Jazz historian and writer Ashley Kahn did a piece for NPR in which he noted that "more than 500 musicians have explored it.” I think I like it best when a man sings it—like Andy Bey on American Song, or Spears tonight. Dennis nails this difficult Strayhorn masterpiece with the complex message and odd structure (what’s the verse? Where’s the refrain?). When he sings the part that begins “Life is lonely,” I get music goose bumps—the frisson that starts in the lower back and moves up and into the shoulder blades, like wings.

It's Newell’s turn, and she gives us “Day Dream” and “Prelude to a Kiss.” (The first is on her excellent CD, Steeped in Strayhorn.) Lucia was born to swing, and her horn-like voice (that’s a good thing BTW) and impeccable phrasing illuminate this music. Every syllable is delicious, and Schulte ices the cake with an expressive violin solo.

For the final song in Part One of the program, Hixson, Spears, and Newell together sing “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” It’s the least successful number so far and overpowered by the quartet.

Part Two is billed as a vocal medley; the three singers alternate. Hixson sings “In a Mellow Tone,” followed by Spears on “In a Sentimental Mood.” Newell sings and scats “Your Love Has Faded” and follows up with “Caravan.”

Carlson’s narration continues to thread the songs together, and the mood is getting darker, more focused on Strayhorn, his illness and final years. The music slows. Spears sings “Come Sunday” (“Lord, dear Lord above!”), Newell “Passion Flower,” with a second lyric in Portuguese, and Hixson “Lotus Blossom,” about regret and days forever gone.

For the penultimate song, Spears sits beside Carlson at the piano for the emotional “Blood Count,” one of Strayhorn’s last melodies, written while he was dying, with lyrics added later by Mark Murphy (“Why? Why me?/No answers I see/Don’t cry, Sweet Pea”).

Carlson speculates on what tune might have been dragging through Strayhorn’s head when he died. “Musicians always have tunes dragging through their heads,” he says. “I wonder if Strayhorn maybe didn’t play himself off with something like this….” That's the cue for the final tune, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” begun on Schulte’s violin and sung by Hixson, Spears, and Newell. What could have been a joyous ending, a celebration of Strayhorn’s life and the music he left behind, is a downer.

As on “I’m Beginning to See the Light” at the end of the Part One, the three singers never quite fit together. They all seem to be holding back. I would have liked to see each one let loose in her or his own way. Hixson doesn’t scat, but Spears and Newell do, and they could have traded. I wanted a bigger finish.

There were glorious and beautiful moments; the program was entertaining and informative. For whatever reason, it never reached its full potential, not from where I was sitting.

All photos except Ellington and Strayhorn 1960 by John Whiting. Top to bottom: Schulte and Carlson; Hixson; Spears with Boyles and Santiago; Newell.

Jon Pemberton Tribute to Lee Morgan

When: 4/11/08
Where: Artists' Quarter
Who: Jon Pemberton (trumpet and flugelhorn), Jim Marentic (tenor sax), Chris Lomheim (piano), Tom Lewis (bass), Kenny Horst (drums)

I've seen Pemberton play at least once before, with Chris Thomson at Rogue Buddha, but never as a leader. And I like the little I know about Lee Morgan's music. His CD The Sidewinder, recorded for Blue Note in 1963 with Billy Higgins on drums, is one of my faves.

Charles Lloyd always called Billy Higgins "Master Higgins" and I can't see his name without hearing "Master."

Since this is a Morgan tribute, all of the music we hear tonight was either written by him or associated with him in some way. It's an evening of solid hard bop (soulful, bluesy, muscular jazz with fairly simple melodies; I've probably put my foot in it with such a minimalist definition, but there it is and comments are welcome). We hear "Something Cute," "Afreaka" (which Cedar Walton wrote for Morgan), and "The Double Up." Lewis is the Zen timekeeper, the Buddha of the bass, a picture of serenity yet completely in the groove.

Several of us request "Sidewinder" and get it in the second set. It's a tune that seems very similar to Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man," relaxed and easy. "Sidewinder" is a 10-minute track on the original CD and that has never been too long for me. I could put "Sidewinder" and "Watermelon Man" and Horace Silver's "Song for my Father" and Jimmy Smith's "The Sermon" on one CD and play it over and over again and be happy. All hard bop.

Throughout the night, Lomheim, Lewis and Horst look often at each other, as jazz musicians do. Pemberton communicates with his band but he also watches the crowd, makes eye contact, checks us out. Marentic seems both part of the group and off on a planet of his own. At one point, Pemberton nods and gestures to Lomheim, which looks a lot like "Your turn for a solo." Lomheim bends over the keys and Marentic takes off on his saxophone. No problem, Lomheim comps, but it's interesting to see.

Good band, good music, good night overall. Here's "Sidewinder" live courtesy of Don Berryman.

Photos by John Whiting.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris

When: 4/10/08
Where: Bryant Lake Bowl
What: Jazz88 Reel Jazz Film Series

A solid start to Kevin Barnes's new jazz film series. As promised, the evening begins with live music by the Preston Haining Quartet, all of whom are still in high school.

The weather is nasty, Lake Street is torn up, and parking is a challenge but people still show, the quartet plays well, Barnes introduces the film, and we enjoy beer, burritos, and Pad Thai while learning about the life and music of Jackie Paris.

My MinnPost preview was going to include a link to the trailer but server problems intervened. Watch it here and see the film if it ever comes your way.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

Where: Park Square Theatre
Who: Thomasina Petrus as Billie Holiday; Thomas West as Jimmy Powers

Because I'm writing about Lady Day
for MinnPost, I go to see it ASAP—on the first night of previews. I saw Bud, Not Buddy in previews, and Blues in the Night. Not sure I'd want to see a Shakespeare play in previews. It seems best to let them work out the bugs before seeing a three-hour production.

Lady Day is a musical play about the life of Billie Holiday. Songs she sang and recorded are stitched together by scenes in which she talks about her life. Although there are two characters—Holiday and her piano player/accompanist, Jimmy Powers—it's really a one-woman play, with the actor playing Powers required to do very little acting. In its original version, it's also a one-act play. The version we see has two, a longer first act and a very short and powerful second act.

Just before the lights go down, we hear a recorded message: "Please turn off all cell phones, as they did not exist in 1959." Clever but unfortunately not completely effective.

Thomasina Petrus plays Holiday, as she did four years ago when Lady Day ran at the Old Arizona in Minneapolis. (I met Petrus in the lobby of the Artists' Quarter last week; she had come down after a tech rehearsal—the Park Square is just upstairs from the AQ—to say hi to Davis Wilson, and I happened to be passing by.) The first song gives me goosebumps. Petrus's voice and phrasing sound so close to the Billie Holiday I've heard on recordings that it's uncanny.

We learn that Holiday wrote "God Bless the Child" for her mother (who was barely older than she was); that she spent time in prison; that when she was singing in the South with Artie Shaw's band, they all ate in the kitchen. We hear tales of suffering, insults, and indignities, and we hear songs: "Where Our Love Has Gone," "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," and, of course, "Strange Fruit," after which the audience does not clap. The only appropriate response to this song—whenever it is sung, whoever sings it—is stunned silence.

Petrus is amazing. Thomas West (who plays Jimmy Powers) isn't an actor, but he is a fine piano player, and that's what matters most in this setting. The ending is a knockout.

As we get up to leave, HH notices director Austene Van sitting at the back, talking with people from the crew, taking their comments about the preview. He says "Go meet her" because he knows I want to interview her. I hesitate because I'm so moved by the play's ending that I'm not sure what will come out of my mouth. Will I calmly introduce myself or boo-hoo? I'm okay, we meet, and we exchange contact information. I look forward to learning more about this play from the director and the star.

Photo: Thomasina Petrus as Billie Holiday. Courtesy Park Square Theatre.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Arne Fogel

When: 4/9/08
Where: The Times
Who: Arne Fogel (vocals), Tanner Taylor (piano), Keith Boyles (bass), Jendeen Forberg (drums)

Singer Arne Fogel is the topic of this week's MinnPost jazz column. We go to see him at the Times on Wednesday night and meet practically his whole family, including his 91-year-old father and his daughter, Rebecca, who are all seated near the stage. Between verses of songs he is singing, while the band is doing its thing, Fogel often bounds off the stage and runs over to say something to his family. During "Ring-a-Ding-Ding," he brings his daughter up to sing with him.

We hear two wonderful sets and several classic songs: "Old Man River," "Here's to the Losers," "Do I," "The Tender Trap," "Take My Sugar to Tea," "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone." Fogel is as fun to watch as he is to hear. His performance is loaded with personality, energy, and grand gestures. Taylor, whom we most often hear backing singer Christine Rosholt or fronting his own trio, plays big stridy chords. Forberg wears a tank shirt printed with "Pink Is the New Black" in metallic ink.

Fogel mentors young singers, and lately it's Nancy Harms, who's in the house and takes a solo turn on stage with "It's Almost Like Being in Love" from Brigadoon. Perhaps in a musicals mood, Taylor tosses in a little "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" from Oklahoma. I like Nancy's voice and her broad, open vowels, and her red hat.

Fogel talks a bit about his latest CD, Transistor, a reissue of recordings he made in his 20s with a rock band called Batch. The word "transistor" recalls my phone interview with him earlier this week. What I thought would take maybe ten minutes turned into nearly two hours of conversation. We discovered something we had in common as kids with enforced early bedtimes: We both tucked transistor radios under our pillows and listened into the night through earbuds the size and shape (and hardness) of little acorns.

Fogel has made a career of radio as well as singing (and advertising, and other things). He reflected on this during the interview:

I've always been the vaudeville guy spinning plates. Get one going, tend to another one. I find myself talking to younger singers an awful lot now—a sign of venerability—and one of the main things I tell them is to stay focused. I spent so much time trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up that I grew up before I figured it out.

Photos by John Whiting.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Where: Dakota
Who: Shilad Sen (tenor saxophone), Adam Rossmiller (trumpet), Scott Agster (trombone), Graydon Peterson (bass), Reid Kennedy (drums)

I caught Snowblind only briefly at the Winter Jazz Fest and was overdue to hear more. All brass, drums, and bass, no keyboards of any kind, they have a sound all their own. Listen on MySpace or on their Web site.

We hear "Night and Day," trombonist Agster's "Entre'acte," and a new composition by Sen called "Journey." Sen tells us they're recording tonight's show for a possible third CD. Kennedy's arrangement of "Pajamas" starts by quoting the Brahms Lullabye.

I like the tight, bright and airy sound of all that brass. And I like how SnowBlind is dressed to the nines in suits and ties. Of course good music does not depend on what the musicians wear, blah blah, but I appreciate it anyway. It makes me think they're serious.

They play "Sleepers," a tune by bassist Peterson, whom I rarely see when he's not backing a singer (usually Christine Rosholt). When there's a singer, that's where the spotlight goes, and it's good to hear what Peterson can do in this type of setting.

The first set (the only one we can stay for—we're on the way to the Times for Arne Fogel) continues with "Country Drive," which Sen introduces as another original and the band's favorite ballad. "This has been our dinner music set--mellower," he explains. They end with the not-so-mellow "Shake It."

If Snowblind had an email list, I'd sign up for it. I like this group. Does anyone else think Reid Kennedy looks like Ed Norton?

Photo by John Whiting.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Kevin Kling

If I were in Seattle, I'd go to see this play by Kevin Kling.

As one columnist noted, it's not as much about dogs as she thought it would be, given the poster, "but it does have some wonderful animal moments including a funny cat-and-dog story that directly relates to the show's odd title; images that stick in your head like the quirky uncle sitting with his dogs in the front seat of an abandoned car--the doors removed to create a doghouse any pup would love; and a few heartfelt tributes to Dachshunds (with whom Kling lives)."

I've seen Kling perform several times and have always loved his description of the wiener dog: "A can-do attitude in a can't-do body."

It seems safe to assume that the photo on the poster is by Mary Ludington, Kling's partner and author of The Nature of Dogs.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hats for Cats: Marsha Walker

To date, all of my Hats for Cats have been for men, a trend that ends now. This is for Marsha Walker, friend, marketing wiz, jazz fan, wife of Jeremy, stylish and effortless wearer of hats.

The yarn: Classic Elite Cotton Bamboo, made in Italy. The pattern: Fountain Hat by Katie Himmelberg. Turns out it's a hat that was inspired by a movie called The Fountain. Himmelberg explains: "The three different pattern areas on the hat represent the three eras of the love story in the movie." Next time I make this hat, it will have two different pattern areas, movie be damned.

Message to Marsha:
Since I forgot to give you a yarn label, here are care instructions: Hand wash cold, dry flat. Also: My friend and knitting guru Chris Rieffer modeled your hat for the photo at the top of this post. Click here for a surprise. And please tell Jeremy his hat is on the needles.

Top photo borrowed from Chris Rieffer's blog.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nellie McKay

When: 4/6/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Nellie McKay (piano, voice, ukelele)

I almost didn't go to see Nellie McKay. I had heard her debut recording, Get Away from Me, and stories about its inception: She wanted a double disc, Columbia wanted a single, so she paid for the second CD herself; the title is a poke in the eye to Nora Jones's Come Away with Me and Jane Monheit's Come Dream with Me; the songs are all over the map. Since then, Columbia has dropped McKay, who has released two more CDs on her own label, Hungry Mouse.

McKay's opening act, The Tropicals, paved the way for oddball tunes, and I listened to Get Away earlier in the day, but nothing could have prepared me for the musical mayhem of the live show.

McKay is the Sybil of contemporary music, changing personalities, moods, and voices so often you can't keep up. She's utterly self-confident, incredibly quick, eclectic, ironic, and enormously entertaining.

Ours was a sold-out, open-curtain show, yet everyone was focused on the stage, where a small woman sat behind a large piano and occasionally plinked a ukelele Tiny Tim-style.

There was a private party in the mezzanine, a group of people who were out for a night and a show, pretty much any old show. They would have talked through a performance by most other singers, making some of us on the main floor want to run upstairs and beat them senseless with warm baguettes. Instead, about two songs into McKay's set, they were as enthralled as the rest of us. Enthralled and speechless.

McKay sang songs from her three CDs and songs she's writing for a musical version of Election, the 1999 movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. During the latter, she acted out scenes, playing all the roles, miming (badly) and gesturing. Her face is rubber. In fact, it's hard to take a picture of her where she isn't mugging or grimacing.

She pretended the Dakota had a revolving stage and walked around the piano. She explained why her nose was shiny (it wasn't): earlier in the day she planned to go to WalMart for a powder compact, but this being Minneapolis, people insisted she shop at Target, which she thought was too expensive so she bought the compact but didn't spring for the powder puff.

She told us about growing up in Harlem, where Peter Lawton (of the Tropicals/Kangaroo) roomed with her and her mother. It was a dodgy neighborhood. To walk through it safely, Lawton would push a shopping cart, talk to himself, and pee in his pants. "He taught me everything," she said.

She sang a touching and beautiful version of the standard "If I Had You" ("If I had you/I could show the world how to smile/I could be glad all of the while/I could turn the gray skies to blue/If I had you"), accompanying herself on the uke. In an homage to Ella Fitzgerald, she sang "A Tisket, A Tasket."

She sang the man-hating "Mother of Pearl" and the puppy-loving "Dog Song," the mocking "I Want to Get Married," and the bayou-infused "Zombie," which is now my favorite song in the world. On the recorded version (which appears on her CD Obligatory Villagers), other people do the zombie voices; at the Dakota, McKay did them all herself. "Do the Zombie, arggh rarghh rarhhh arhhh!" She did the Bill Clinton zombie, the Bob Dylan zombie, the Obama zombie, the John McCain zombie, the Dinah Shore zombie (who remembers Shore singing "See the USA in your Chevrolet"? I do but I'm not telling.) It was a big, sticky musical web and we were helpless little flies.

Sometimes she sang flat and vibrato-free. Sometimes she trilled like Jeanette McDonald. She rapped and crooned. She was off key, on key, Broadway and coffee house. Her white suit and Goldilocks hair said old Hollywood until she opened her mouth and screamed "M*****f*****!"

"I often forget that I have to perform," she told us midway through the show. "So if I seem unprofessional, I'm just forgetful." I came away thinking she's an old-fashioned, punk and fey cabaret singer. She seems like someone who could entertain herself for long periods of time. She takes a zillion chances and doesn't seem to care. In his review for the Strib, Jon Bream called her a "free-wheeling genius." She just turned 26. What's next, Nellie?

Photos by John Whiting.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Tropicals

When: 4/6/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Peter Lawton and Craig Wright

The Tropicals were a Twin Cities acoustic folk duo
in the 1990s. They have reunited to open for Nellie McKay. I totally missed them the first time around. Today Lawton teaches sixth grade at the City of Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis and fronts a group called Kangaroo. Wright is a Hollywood screenwriter (Six Feet Under, Dirty Sexy Money).

Wright comes out and immediately starts telling a story that goes something like this: "I went out with a girl named Andrea. We broke up in New York City. Soon after I walked across Central Park, came over a hill, and saw a Komodo dragon. A huge crowd had gathered around it.... That never happened but that's how I feel tonight, like an ancient dinosaur in a city full of people on their way to somewhere else."

I think, okay, this is going to be odd.

It is odd, and also charming. The Tropicals' songs are (at least on the surface) about young love and blue skies and butterflies. Lawton plays guitar, Craig occasionally plays a melodica, a free-reed wind instrument that looks like this.

They're sort of a twisted, tongue-in-cheek Simon and Garfunkel. Wright (the talker of the pair) introduces one song as being about "politics and math and homework and the virtues of doing your homework." Sample lyrics: "You be the bee and I'll be the sting/You be the center of the earth so hot and I'll be the drillin' thing."

Their music is more complex than it first appears, with surprising shifts and chord changes and high harmonies. I like it.

I like Wright's patter, too. He promises early on he'll say something about Vachel Linsdsay. Introducing a song based on Lindsay's poem "The King of Yellow Butterflies," he says, "Like many people who write poetry for children, [Lindsay] drank a bottle of bleach and killed himself."

We hear "I Bicycle Miles" ("I sold my gun just to buy you yellow roses because you said they looked like fun") and "Numberless Wonders," "Lake Adelaide" (supposedly based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow), "Sara Orange Tip" (about a particular kind of butterfly), and "You've Drawn Me" ("where there was once just a plan now there's a man because you've drawn me").

Wright tells us that "the Tropicals are a terrible mix of things—the most foul things about male culture coupled with a terrible twee cuteness." They are also the perfect lead-in to McKay.

Photo of Wright and Lawton by John Whiting. Melodica from Wikipedia.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jim Rotondi

When: 4/5/08
Where: Artists' Quarter
Who: Jim Rotondi (trumpet and flugelhorn), Bill Carrothers (piano), Tom Lewis (trumpet), Kenny Horst (drums)

New York trumpeter Rotondi doesn't make it to St. Paul very often, and neither does Carrothers, so when the two perform together it's must-see jazz.

On the first tune, "It's You or No One," Carrothers is already playing as if he has spent the past several hours practicing scales and doing finger push-ups. He alternates between explosive runs and Zen-like calm.

On "What's New," Rotondi swaps trumpet for flugelhorn and Carrothers quotes "Honeysuckle Rose." I'm reminded of the need to pay close attention when Carrothers plays. As with all jazz (all music, for that matter), you can choose to sit back and let your mind wander while the music becomes background and still have a fine time, but you'll miss a lot, including the entire history of jazz and pop culture, which Carrothers brings to every performance and tosses in as if it's no big thing.

He is one of the least self-conscious performers I've ever seen. He sings out of tune while he plays in his stocking feet. He's a handsome guy but doesn't care if you can see him or not. Tonight he spends part of the first set behind a black metal music stand that blocks him from view by a large part of the crowd. Howard Gitelson, who wants to shoot pictures (as many of us do), takes advantage of a break between songs to ask if he can move the stand. Carrothers says sure.

"Easy to Remember" starts out as "But Not for Me," Monk's "Evidence" includes some "April in Paris." Clifford Brown's "Gerkin for Perkin" (great song title) gives way to "They Can't Take That Away from Me." Rotondi sounds terrific and he's enjoying himself.

Carrothers takes a solo and it's Mr. Toad's Wild Ride through the James Bond theme, "The Meaning of the Blues," Civil War tunes, and who knows what else; by the time my brain searches my memory of tunes to identify a theme or passage I'm hearing, it's long gone and has been followed by five more. I imagine if I were sitting closer, behind his chair (Carrothers never uses a bench, always a chair), I would hear his synapses firing.

The night ends with a fresh take on a familiar standard, "Without a Song." Carrothers storms the keys and Rotondi's brass is high and clear. Horst takes his big solo, starting on the high hat and cymbals, moving to the bass and toms. I wonder (as I have many times) why the drum solo always comes at the end. Carrothers closes with the "Jeopardy" theme.

Get a taste of the evening with Don Berryman's video:

Photos by John Whiting. Top to bottom: Rotondi, Carrothers, and Lewis, who's usually (like most bassists) in the shadows. Nice shot, Johnny.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bruce Henry at the Dakota: Concert review

When: 4/4/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Bruce Henry (voice), Peter Vircks (tenor sax), Bryan Nichols (piano), Chris Bates (bass), Daryl Boudreaux (percussion), Wendell Henry (drums)

We're seeing Bruce Henry as often as we can before he moves to Chicago. Tonight he's in fine form, dressed to the nines, accompanied by an excellent band, singing his heart out, bantering with the open-curtain Friday-night crowd, and happy to be in this elegant club ("People talk about this place all over the world," he later says).

We don't hear "Nature Boy" or "Afro Blue," two of his signature songs, but we do hear others Henry has made his own: "House of the Rising Sun," Chick Corea's "Spain" (with lyrics by Al Jarreau), the original "Africa Cries."

As many times as I've heard Henry sing "House of the Rising Sun," it has never been the same. It depends on his band, his mood, the crowd, the weather, maybe the way the planets are aligned. Tonight it's new again—partly because Henry sings as if it is, partly because each note from Nichols's piano is a surprise.

We hear "Autumn Leaves," Horace Silver's "Senor Blues," and "In the Beginning God" from Duke Ellington's Sacred Concert ("a seldom heard song unless you come to my shows," Henry says).

He tells us about growing up on Madison Street in Chicago, home of the blues; how all of the big blues singers had "imposters" (Little Little Milton, Little James Brown;) how he once saw the real Muddy Waters get out of his car and go into a club and tried to follow him in. "I'm not a blues singer, but I've got the blues aesthetic," Henry says, then launches into the blues standard "Sweet Home Chicago."

More Horace Silver, this time "All," a song Henry got from Dean Brewington, "the first person I met in the state of Minnesota." The lyrics (also by Silver) seem especially appropriate for Henry: "All time is now/all space is near/all minds relate/all souls evolve...all things are spirit/all is in mind." His performances are engaging and entertaining, but they're also deeply spiritual if you're willing to let that part reach out and touch you.

African American history is important to Henry. "Every day of my life, I celebrate African American History Month," he says. Then he sings an original song, "Jump That Broom," based on genealogical research he did on his own family, including a great-great grandfather who loved his about-to-be great-great grandmother so much that he bundled his clothes on top of his head and swam across a lake to court her. Boudreaux plays the washboard and it's joyous.

Henry closes out the night with a song for Martin Luther King Jr., who died on this day 40 years ago. Rather than a sad song, he gives us "a song about freedom and justice and peace all around the world." I don't know the name but here are some lyrics: "It's a party/it's a freedom party/raise your victory sign!" He ends by wishing us peace and love. There's no encore; we don't need one.

A few about the band: I hadn't heard Nichols and Bates play with Henry before but you can't go wrong with either one. Boudreaux has always seemed like Henry's own hands on the percussion, a natural fit; as Henry said earlier in the show, "We go way black, I mean back," then laughed. I've heard Wendell Henry play drums for Bruce Henry but never for anyone else. I'm guessing he'll show up at the Freedom Train benefit concert on April 19? (For more about that, see Andrea Canter's preview on Jazz Police.)

Vircks was new to me but I have since learned (thank you, Jazz Police and the Internets) that he's part of Moveable Feast, the Rhythm Junkies, and other bands around town. I thought he got off to a slow start but picked up the pace later in the show. Good, strong sound.

Photos by John Whiting.