Thursday, June 26, 2008

Happy birthday, Johnny!

Saying hello to this man one April Fool's Day
was the smartest thing I ever did.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sophia Shorai

Where: The Times
Who: Sophia Shorai (voice), Chris Bates (bass), Zacc Harris (guitar), Pete Hennig (drums)

There's been buzz about Sophia Shorai for some time. I think I heard Leigh Kamman rave about her a while back on his radio show The Jazz Image, and Tanner Taylor wants to record with her, and she's versatile, singing jazz standards and pop tunes and Latin classics. She made a Target commercial singing the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye," which I remember hearing. So when I got an email from her "devoted fiance and volunteer" (and sometime performing partner) Jeremy Gordon inviting me to her upcoming gig at the Times, I went.

She's here with a good band. Harris and Hennig are with the Atlantis Quartet, a group we saw earlier this year at the doomed Rosewood Room. I'm always happy to see Chris Bates at his bass.

I like Shorai's voice a lot. It's very pretty, sometimes little-girl, sometimes breathy, sometimes tough, reminiscent of Stacey Kent but not derivative. She sings a nice mix of standards, opening with "It Could Happen to You," a challenging tune with big intervals that probably should come later in a set. "Love Is the Saddest Thing" follows with lots of swing and jazzy phrasing. Then a blues? It's difficult to understand Shorai when she speaks, which isn't entirely her fault, given the setting. The Times is generally noisy, more so on a Saturday night, and even worse when a sudden downpour drives the sidewalk crowd indoors.

"Gee Baby Aren't I Good to You" is sassy, and she opens a flirty "Tea for Two" by singing the verse, which I have seldom heard:

I'm discontented with homes that are rented so I have invented my own.
Darling this place is a lover's oasis where life's weary chase is unknown.

Far from the cry of the city, where flowers pretty caress the streams,

Cozy to hide in, to love side-by-side in. Don't let it abide in my dreams.

The rest we know:

Picture you upon my knee, just tea for two and two for tea...

For this tune Shorai uses her little-girl voice with grown-up phrasing and a feathery vibrato. ("I learned that one from Blossom Dearie," she attempts to tell the yammering crowd.)

"Black Orpheus" is a gently swaying samba, one of the songs on her 2004 CD Wave. On "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," she starts high and nails it, showing off her range (and a bit of a lisp). The set ends with two more standards, "I Wish I Knew Someone to Love Me" and "Do I."

I'd stay to hear more but by now I'm fed up with the Times. The bar also has a dance floor, and normally it's kind of nice to see people get out there and dance, but tonight, in addition to the escalating crowd noise, there's an especially annoying pair of dancers who spend most of the evening directly in front of us. Whenever we try to snap a picture they wiggle into the frame.

Shorai has a Dakota date on July 28 and I've put that on my calendar. The photo above was taken there earlier this year, in May, by whom I don't know; I found it on Shorai's MySpace page.

Jazz is NOW!: The NOWnet

Where: Minnesota Opera Center
Who: Jazz is NOW! NOWnet: Jeremy Walker (leader, piano), Kelly Rossum (trumpet), Chris Thomson (saxophones), Scott Fultz (saxophones), Anthony Cox (bass), Tim Zhorne (drums)

I like everything about Jazz is NOW! The idea of a nonprofit composers' ensemble that performs original music. The music itself. The musicians who write and play it. The inviting, well-written, easy-to-navigate, time-sucking Web site, with videos of their performances, photos, downloadable charts, MP3s, and a blog.

I want JiN to survive and thrive (as much as jazz can thrive these days, and I suppose that depends on how you define "thrive"). I want Jeremy Walker to be our John Zorn and the Minnesota Opera Center (or wherever) to be our Stone and someone to start our Tzadik label. I want people with money to throw some at JiN. They need it. As Meg Cortright, JiN's board president, said during her introduction to the evening, "A jazz musician is always in recession."

Tonight's event is billed as JiN's second open rehearsal for their formal premiere, set for October 9. I missed the first rehearsal in March but can hear it on the Web site anytime I want.

I don't know what refreshments were available in March but tonight it's a $5 bottomless cup of sangria. Homemade, a good deal and lots of fresh fruit, steeped overnight in wine.

The opening tune is Walker's "Cool Turkey." The theme, he explains, is moderation in everything. "It's full of stops and starts, kind of like when you're at a party and you think...better not." Fultz is featured on the saxophone and this bright, bouncy piece is a solid start.

Everything we hear tonight, with two exceptions, is an original composition by Jeremy. He will introduce each tune and preface each introduction by saying he doesn't like talking. But it helps to know what to expect, especially when all of the music is new, and I hope he keeps doing this in future performances. Or, if he really hates doing it, maybe someone else in the band can step up.

This is the first time I've heard Walker play piano. I like what I can hear but it's subdued, partly because the piano isn't miked and partly, perhaps, because this is an early public performance of someone who played the saxophone for many years before that became impossible. Also, this is the first time I've heard drummer Zhorne. Jeremy tells me later that he and Tim have been buds forever.

For Kelly Rossum's tango "Seduction," his shiny new trumpet wears a mute and sounds sexy. Thomson plays soprano sax and sounds sexy, too, especially during his snake-charmer solo. Sometimes we hear all three horns, with Kelly doing a wah-wah, and behind them Cox makes the strings of his bass speak deep round vowels. The mute gives the trombone four different voices, depending on whether it's in or out or how far in or out it is. Toward the end, Cox bows his strings.

"Play" was inspired by dancers at the Xenon company, where Walker's wife Marsha used to work. It's speedy and upbeat—major key. The piano is muted, mostly comping.

Walker originally wrote "June" with himself in mind on lead sax; today Fultz has Walker's horn and plays the part. "We don't repeat the melody because I wanted it to be linear," Walker explains. "When you walk you don't go back to the beginning; you keep going and arrive home." The melody has a Glenn Miller sweetness to it, and old-fashioned harmonies; by playing it just once, the band makes me long to hear it again. It's wistful, like time is passing too quickly.

For "Hill Country," an homage to pianist/composer Andrew Hill, Walker's brother Tom joins the band on acoustic guitar. The horns go high, Jeremy plucks the strings inside the piano (unless I misremember), and the mood gets lazy. We hear the first extended piano solo of the night. Soft, thoughtful.

Jeremy tells us he was listening to a lot of Willie Nelson at the time he wrote "Hill Country." What's up with jazz musicians and Willie Nelson? Wynton Marsalis's new CD, Two Men with the Blues (due out July 8), is with Willie Nelson. It should be fun.

I look around at the audience, which is pretty decent for an open rehearsal. A lot of young people are in the crowd.

After the break and more sangria with oranges and grapes: "Way Back Was," with Tom on guitar again. Backporch blues guitar, with muted trumpet.

I'm enjoying the evening very much. A small group of musicians, an intimate setting, lots of people we know, new music: It feels like chamber jazz. Relaxed, easy (at least for the audience, sipping on our sangrias), personal.

Fultz opens "Requiem for the Day" on flute. A response to a soldier's death in Afghanistan, it's tender and beautiful. Walker introduces "The Pumpkins' Reunion" by saying it's "about seeing my son and missing him." Slow and sad, it ends with a pensive piano solo.

"If I Were a Cowboy (I'd Ride the Hell out of Here)" is a sassy shuffle blues. And the night ends with Fultz's "Dorothy and Robert," a tune about his grandparents when they were young and courting. Fultz opens on tenor sax. It's a waltz, a love song, a happy send-off into the night.

You can see and hear most of the actual performances here.

Photos by John Whiting.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Totally attuned: Pianist Jon Weber plays ninth jazz festival

Jon Weber by Pat Courtemanche
The 10th-annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival starts this weekend, which means Jon Weber is coming to town. For nine of the festival's 10 years,Weber has been its resident piano player.
He calls himself the festival's "utility infielder." Festival executive director Steve Heckler calls him "one of the top pianists in the country."
Weber isn't famous, as he'll tell you himself, but he should be, and if there's any justice he will be. He has a vast library of songs in his head, any of which (whole or in part) can travel to his fingertips in an instant. Hum a jazz or pop tune and he'll tell you the title, composer, and year it was written. He has perfect pitch; ping on a glass and he'll play a song in that key. He can solo, back a singer, or lead a group.
In the words of jazz pianist and Sirius radio host Judy Carmichael, "Jon is one of the most imaginative musicians in the business, equally smitten with all styles of jazz."
Chicago Public Radio host Steve Edwards once asked Weber how many songs he knows. 40,000? "Nowhere near," Weber demurred. "I made a list a long time ago ... I think it was 20,168. But I didn't say I knew 20,168 good tunes."
Weber's passion for music began at age 3, when his father brought home a toy organ. While other kids stacked blocks or crashed toy trucks, young Jon went to work on that organ, spending hours picking out tunes and playing his own versions of songs he'd heard on his Dr. Seuss and Bugs Bunny records.
When his grandmother gave the family her old player piano and piano rolls, Weber played along, following the moving keys with his fingers. By age 6 he had learned almost 2,000 standards.
Early scribbles lead to No. 1 jazz CD
As a teen he scribbled musical ideas on scraps of paper, envelopes, and in the margins of his textbooks. Some were multi-clef orchestrations. Many later became the songs on "Simple Complex," the CD he released on his own label in 2004 that was named the No. 1 Jazz CD of the Year by the Chicago Tribune, Swiss National Radio, Norwegian National Radio, Estonian National Radio and BBC Online.
By age 19, Weber's jazz quintet, playing all original music, had opened for Pat Metheny, Buddy Rich, Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine at various jazz festivals. He has since toured the world, performed to a sold-out Carnegie Hall four times, written arrangements for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, scored extensively for television, and penned 1,200 jingles, 20 of which aired during Super Bowls.
He composes and arranges music for the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which condenses epic works like Shakespeare's plays and the Bible into short, sharp comedies. He does not own a television, preferring to trust his own observations.
In February 2006, when Weber was performing in Florida, Dave Brubeck wandered in and left a signed note saying "There's nobody in the world who plays like this guy."
In sum: Weber is a former child prodigy mad genius jazz pianist, but affable, and very much a crowd-pleasing entertainer.
At this year's jazz festival, Weber is scheduled to play four gigs. He could easily end up playing more - if another pianist bails, if there's a gap in the program, if someone asks him to sit in. "Whatever Steve wants me to do, I'm there," he says.
"I can't say enough about Jon," Heckler says. "He has saved [the jazz festival] a few times. ... Here's a prime example. We had a trumpet player and his brothers come up from Alabama. Jon was already booked for four sets, and the brothers showed up short a piano player. I looked at Jon, he had just gotten done with a set, he walked up there, they called a tune, and he played it. Even with their original stuff, he felt it out, made it work and never complained. ... People love the guy. He's a decent guy. A fun person to hang with and work with."
Weber holds Heckler in equally high esteem. "He's the ideal jazz fest manager," he says. "He pretty much takes whatever live grenade is handed to him and turns it into something magical. ... He knows how to make everybody feel willing and eager to participate. I can't wait to come back every year."
The reason Weber didn't play the first Twin Cities Jazz Festival is simple: He and Heckler didn't yet know each other. In 2000, year two of the festival, the Global Harmonica Summit came to Minneapolis at the same time. "Weber was their resident piano player," Heckler recalls. "At the jazz festival, he and [harmonica player] Howard Levy ended up on stage with Jack MacDuff. Jack would call a tune and Weber would play it. As I watched him, I realized he could do just about everything. He could back up anyone."
Now based mostly in New York, Weber will arrive in the Twin Cities on Tuesday, June 24, where he'll play stride piano at the Dakota with our own Butch Thompson and Paul Asaro, a pianist from Champaign, Ill. Weber has played with Asaro before but never with Thompson. Heckler hopes to have two pianos on the Dakota stage.
On Wednesday, it's off to Christ the King Lutheran Church in Bloomington, where Weber will join Connie Evingson and the George Maurer Group on the front lawn. "Connie requested Jon," Heckler says. What's on the program? As usual, Weber is open. "I pretty much know everything Connie has ever recorded, and I told her it's all good -- do whatever you want."
On Thursday, it's back to the Dakota with bassist Adam Linz (of Fat Kid Wednesdays) and drummer Joe Pulice. On Friday, the trio moves outdoors to Peavey Plaza.
Between planned and impromptu gigs, there should be time for one of Weber's favorite Twin Cities destinations: Hell's Kitchen. According to Heckler, "He loves the peanut butter."
Originally published at, Friday, June 20, 2008

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Steve Turre Is Cool

He plays conch shells.

He has a long braid, like a Manchu queue.

He wears a gold conch shell on a chain around his neck.

He has a metal conch shell welded to the bracing strut of his trombone, as a handhold.

Musicians in his Sanctified Shells band wear shirts made from fabric printed with conch shells.

Nice kicks, too.

A review of the Sanctified Shells performance at the Dakota will follow.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Esbjörn Svensson 1964–2008

Swedish jazz pianist and composer Esbjörn Svensson died yesterday (June 14) in a diving accident near Stockholm. He was 44. He brought his trio E.S.T. (for Esbjörn Svensson Trio) to the Dakota several times, and while the group played stadiums in Europe, they never got the audience they deserved in the states. I saw them every time they came through town, and late last year I contacted their US publicist for news of their most recent CD, Live in Hamburg. She replied that she thought they might be touring again in June of this year. I am so sorry for their families and those who were close to him, and for everyone who loves their music.

The band's Web site.
An article in the Guardian (UK).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yellowjackets with Mike Stern

Where: Dakota
Who: Yellowjackets with Mike Stern: Bob Mintzer (saxophone), Russell Ferrante (keyboards), Jimmy Haslip (bass), Marcus Baylor (drums); Mike Stern (guitars)

I came to jazz through the fusion door, took a hard left at Thelonious Monk, and never really looked back. I like Bitches Brew and Head Hunters and Heavy Weather but those are all from a long time ago. I don't listen to fusion much these days and I'm probably just ignorant about it but there it is.

Although I hadn't planned to see the Yellowjackets again (the first time was January 2003), they are iconic so I went. Also, Kurt Elling has recorded with this band (two tracks on their 1998 release Club Nocturne), which gives them bonus points. This time they brought guitar god Mike Stern (whom Mintzer called "the fifth Yellowjacket" more than once during the set). Stern played with Blood, Sweat & Tears in the 70s, then Miles Davis in the 80s and later Michael Brecker. He still wears his hair in a shaggy cut that brings back fond memories of the Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits.

I'm not familiar enough with Yellowjackets music to know what they're playing unless Mintzer tells us, which he sometimes does: new tunes called "Yahoo" and "Lifecycle" (from their new CD with Stern, also called Lifecycle), "We're With You" (a ballad by Stern), "Revelation" (from Shades, recorded in 1986). Stern reads charts for most of the set, which is no big deal. Recording a CD in the studio is different from playing it live in front of an audience, which John Hammond (Jr.) explained when he toured for his CD of Tom Waits tunes, Wicked Grin. Hammond had to memorize the songs before he could take them on the road.

Everyone in the Yellowjackets plays really well. Tight and together. The music is jazzier than I expected but still fusiony enough that I kind of lose interest. Toward the end of "Revelation," they all cut loose and it's smokin', as the cats say, but too late for me. Plenty of other people in the audience are going crazy for the music and I'm glad for them and the band. My mind wanders, returning most often to Baylor and his drums. Baylor has also played with Kenny Garrett (Happy People) and Cassandra Wilson (several tracks on Traveling Miles). I like his "Tomb Raider" T-shirt.

During the encore, a high-energy piece, Stern quotes Monk's "You Needn't." And there's that hard left again.

Photos by John Whiting.

Judi Donaghy's Tribute to the Vocal Legends of Swing

Where: The Commodore
Who: Judi Donaghy (vocals), Doug Haining (saxophone), Rick Carlson (piano), Steve Pikal (bass), Dick Bortolussi (drums)

Donaghy's performance is part of the Schubert Club's Summer Song Festival, a week-long series of mostly classical evening performances. Billed as "Our Jazz Connection!" this night is the only one devoted to jazz. Appropriately, the event is held at the Commodore Hotel in St. Paul, former hangout and home of F. Scott Fitzgerald, voice of the Jazz Age.

It's an unusual venue—a small ballroom with a stage in one corner and multiple photographic challenges: striped wallpaper, a big window letting in natural light, a wall around the stage, foliage behind the wall, mirrors. But the sound is good and it's a sold-out crowd.

New Schubert Club director Kathleen van Bergen makes introductions, then Laura Caviani tells us about the band and what we'll hear.

This is the first time I've heard Donaghy sing. And she can really sing. Her bio on the McNally Smith College of Music Web site (she heads the voice department there) lists her areas of expertise: opera, musical theater, jazz, folk, country, gospel, pop, and R&B. She also writes songs, and she performs with Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra. I've been madly in love with McFerrin since I first heard him sing The Wizard of Oz—the whole movie—in just eight brilliant, manic minutes. If you have three minutes and forty-five seconds, listen to Kurt Andersen's interview of McFerrin (with Oz snippets).

Tonight Donaghy is singing songs recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Joe Williams. "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me," "You Go to My Head." The band looks as if it has stepped out of the 1940s, and the venue contributes to the overall Wayback Machine feel of the event.

Maryann Sullivan, host of Minnesota Public Radio's "The Jazz Connection" (and Haining's wife) is here; so is singer Maud Hixson (who's married to Carlson), who came with singer Rhonda Laurie. One thing that makes this community such a strong place for jazz is the support musicians give to each other.

I like Donaghy's version of Joe Williams's "Every Day I Have the Blues" very much. She has a big voice, she knows what to do with it, and she really swings. All around me, feet are tapping and heads are bobbing, even in a crowd one could describe as staid without overstating. (It is, after all, the Schubert Club.)

Donaghy's band is smooth and playful. Carlson tosses off quotes, Pikal grabs and slaps his bass, Haining wails, Bortolussi smiles. Donaghy sings "Please Send Me Someone to Love," a song she clearly enjoys and gives 110 percent. Then "Sentimental Star," a song she cowrote with Carlson. She introduces it as "an audition song...the first jazz song I ever wrote...thankfully it was fixed by Rick Carlson and I got the job." You can hear it on Sing or Swing, a CD she recorded with the Wolverines.

Donaghy credits the Wolverines for the jazz part of her career. "I was never all that interested in jazz as a youngster," she tells us. "I didn't grow up in the jazz world. The first jazz group I sang with—in Lincoln, Nebraska—was not very exciting. Then after living in Minneapolis for a few years, I stumbled on a concert with the Wolverines Big Band and [vocalist] Shirley Witherspoon. My jaw dropped and I said to myself, 'I have to sing this kind of music.' I started going to hear the Wolverines and just listened, and then I started singing. Now I can't get enough of it and I want to sing swing all the time."

I'm surprised when Donaghy announces a break. It's 8:30, the show started at 7, and I'm hungry. Also plenty satisfied with what I've heard. So we go to W.A. Frost and sit on the best restaurant patio in the Twin Cities, drinking martinis and eating crab cakes and coconut risotto.

Roy Haynes Quartet

When: 6/9/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Roy Haynes (drums), Jaleel Shaw (alto saxophone), Martin Bejerano (piano), David Wong (bass)

Every time I see Roy Haynes—which is every time he comes through town—I'm astonished. Not by the fact that he's 83 and still playing, but by how he plays. The man is a blur. I've heard people say that Haynes looks 60 and plays like he's 40, but I've seen 40-year-olds who seem a lot more tired than he does.

The second set of their one-night stand at the Dakota (co-sponsored by the Artists' Quarter, where Haynes usually plays when he comes to town and where he recorded his most recent CD, Whereas) begins with Monk's "Bemsha Swing," a Haynes standard that makes room for nice long solos by the youngsters.

Next, Miles Davis's "Solar" features as complex and interesting a piano solo as I've ever heard, making me sit up and pay close attention to Bejerano. Born in Miami, Florida, a professional musician since age 15, he moved to NYC in 2000 and within a year had been invited to join Roy Haynes's quartet. Talk about landing on your feet. Bejerano has made a solo CD and two recordings with Russell Malone, plus Haynes's Grammy-nominated Fountain of Youth (with Marcus Strickland on horns). I'm feeling a Bejerano shortage in my own music collection.

Haynes, Bejerano, and Wong lay down the rhythm, then Shaw blows hard to start "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," the Cole Porter tune that has become a huge jazz standard. If I'm not mistaken, Haynes pretty much always plays this tune (he did in March, and he has whenever I've heard him at the AQ) but I don't mind. Shaw is out front in the spotlight and Haynes is Mr. Cool.

Suddenly it feels as if the whole room is full of sound, every square inch upstairs and down, every corner, and if I opened a door or window it would pour out into the street.

After Shaw's masterful opening (which brings some people to their feet and raises shouts of "Jaleel!" from around the room), Haynes lets loose and it's thunder and lightning, then kisses on the cheek, then some business with the high-hat, and finally just sticks: Haynes stands up and walks around the stage playing his sticks, going in turn to Shaw and Bejerano and Wong, still playing sticks, and finally that's all we hear and then just the memory of the rhythm in a room that has fallen still to hear every ticka tick.

Complete change of pace and mood: Shaw performs a solo that opens into a ballad; it's "Everything Happens to Me," the poor-me, country-and-western song of jazz:

I make a date for golf,
You can bet your life it rains.

I try to give a party

And the guy upstairs complains.

I guess I'll go through life

Catching colds and missing trains...
Everything happens to me.

Silly lyrics but a lovely tune and Shaw plays it beautifully.

Haynes takes a long solo, starting on mallets (boom boom) and taking off from there. It's as if we're hearing the history of bebop (Haynes played with Lester Young, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Monk, and on and on) and the immediacy of right now, as alive as every heartbeat in the room. As HH says, "Viva le Roi!"

Then Haynes stands up from his drums, comes to the mike, and asks if the young man seated at the table in front of him is a drummer. Of course he is. Would he like to play something? Why not. For the next ten minutes or so, this great and legendary artist lets young drummers in the audience come up and play. Something to tell their grandchildren.

The final tune: "Summer Night," written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, recorded by lots of people: Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Stan Getz. As I write this, I'm listening again to Haynes's version (it's on his Fountain of Youth CD) and also to Miles's version (recorded in 1963 for Seven Steps to Heaven).

The Miles version is slow and wistful, looking back at the summer nights that have passed and are gone forever. For Haynes and his quartet, it's a whole different tune, racing toward the summer nights yet to come.

P.S. Haynes played the Isthmus Jazz Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, before coming to the Dakota. Read a fine article here. It was written by someone named Susan Kepecs, and when I tried to find out more about her, I came across this brief bio: "Susan Kepecs, honorary fellow in the University of Wisconsin-Madison department of anthropology, is an archaeologist and freelance writer." That's a skill set you don't often see.

Photos by John Whiting. Sorry we couldn't get Bejerano; too dark at the piano.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Happy birthday, Jonah!

It's my son's birthday. If I were a good mother, I would tell him to stop riding that obnoxiously loud and scary-looking motorcycle, but I'm not.

Jonah takes pictures. He also blogs. He has a real job and a cute, smart GF. All things considered, he turned out pretty well.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Commodore

I used to hang out at the Commodore Hotel
in St. Paul, which has a fabulous Art Deco bar and a literary history: F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived there with his wife Zelda and their new baby girl Scottie, as did Sinclair Lewis. I thought drinking gin in such a setting might inspire me to write a novel but apparently that's not how it works.

Following a fire and gas explosion in 1978, the Commodore was remodeled into condos and offices. It is now owned by the University Club of St. Paul, which means no more public access except for special events. One of those happens on Tuesday, June 10. As part of the Schubert Club Summer Song Festival, singer Judi Donaghy will pay tribute to the vocal legends of swing. That concert is the topic of this week's MinnPost column.

Photo of the Fitzgerald Bar at the Commodore Hotel from the University Club's Web site.

Toots Thielemans

Toots Thielemans has been named a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, America's highest jazz honor.

He last came to the Dakota in April 2006 with his good friend and frequent touring partner, pianist Kenny Werner. Toots was about to turn 84.

Seeing him live is an unforgettable experience. Like being showered with gifts by someone who loves you and every gift is just what you want. Like sitting somewhere with a beautiful view and the sun warming your face. Like understanding that life is a mix of the sweet and the bitter and that's how it's supposed to be. Impossibly corny? Can't help it. I adore Toots.

Notes and the playlist from that evening in April 2006:

Toots opens by saying, "I got the jazz virus during the German occupation. I got infected." [He was born in 1922 and would have been 19. His family fled to France, then moved back home when the Nazis occupied that country.]

(1) "Summertime." A song I've heard a thousand times but never like this.

(2) Steve Swallow's "Falling Grace." Optimistic and wise.

(3) "Autumn Leaves." Toots says, "When a musician doesn't know what to play, he certainly will play 'Autumn Leaves'."

(4) "Tender is the Night," a Jimmy Van Heusen theme. Lush and nostalgic. Kenny Werner is playing lots of electronic keyboards tonight, with sustained chords and reverb.

This is jazz that makes you want to kiss the person you're with, not out of desire or need but out of generosity. After this tune, Toots gives the thumbs-up to Kenny.

(5) Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance." Toots tells us he hired Herbie before he [Herbie] went with Miles, 43 years ago; he was recently Herbie's guest of honor at Carnegie Hall.

(6) "No More Blues." Sometimes music is the one thing you can count on to deliver no more blues.

(7) Jobim's "Wave." Toots says, "There is more than osmosis between Brazil's music and the jazz evolution." He names some of the people he has played with over the years, then says, "And now I'm practically married to Kenny Werner." The evident affection between them is part of what makes their performances remarkable and memorable.

(8) Bill Evans' "Time Remembered." Music so beautiful I want to weep. Kenny plays a lovely solo; Toots puts his hand on his heart and smiles.


(9) Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" mixed with something by Nasciemento. Toots became a naturalized American citizen in 1957, and he's proud of it. "I came for the music and got to play with my idols," he says. And now it's the other way around.


I wondered how Toots came by his nickname. I found the answer in an interview he gave to Les Tomkins in 1978:

"It happened way back in Belgium, in 1946. We had a little amateur band, called Le Jazz Hot, and I was the up-and-coming fellow playing the guitar in Belgium. You know, I was playing like Django Rheinhardt, Charlie Christian—a combination of whatever was played then; it was just before the advent of bebop, I would say. But my name, Jean Thielemans—that doesn’t swing at all. Names on the scene at that time were Toots Mondello, who was with Benny Goodman, and the arranger Toots Camarata; so they said: 'That’s it—Toots.' I said: 'Okay, why not?'— it started like that, and it stuck. It’s been a lucky label, I guess, through the years."

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Nels Cline Singers

When: 6/1/08
Where: Dakota
Who: Nels Cline (guitars), Devin Hoff (bass), Scott Amendola (drums and electronics)

Previewing this show, Tom Surowicz wrote for the Strib: "Long before he pop-rocked the world in Wilco, California guitarist Nels Cline was well-established on the more avant end of the jazz spectrum, recording with the likes of Tim Berne, Julius Hemphill and his twin brother, Alex Cline. He's always been a jazz/rock switch-hitter.... He'll make his Dakota debut with the Nels Cline Singers, a hard-driving, gnarly fusion trio with no vocals, but plenty of splashy drumming by Scott Amendola."

"Singers" with no vocals? Pop rock avant jazz? Sure, why not, let's go. (Even though I have just one Wilco song in my collection, and I only have that because it's on a Harry Smith anthology someone gave to me.)

This is a band that loves electronics. For the first song or two, Amendola doesn't touch the drums; he's bending around behind them turning buttons. Strange flying-saucer sounds come from Hoff's bass and Cline's guitar. The music crescendos, full of static and wind. Four chords are repeated over and over.

When Amendola decides to start drumming, he enters with a big BAM BAM BAM. Cline strokes his guitar strings with what looks like a wire whisk. It's heavy-metal head-banging music and a lot of fun.

Get a taste here—this is not my video but similar to what we heard last night:

Bevan, my friend, you would not have enjoyed this.

Cline tells us we've just heard "Build" (the crescendo), "Fly Fly," and "Thurston County." (Really? Three pieces?) He describes the latter as "a nonpiece we've never played until ten minutes ago backstage."

Next up, Andrew Hill's "Dedication" from Point of Departure. "As most of you know," Cline writes on his Web site, "I love [Hill's] music. I recorded some of his pieces on my CD, released last year, called New Monastery: A View into the Music of Andrew Hill. I recorded it as a tribute to a LIVING MASTER and inspiration." Over the past year, I have started to explore Hill's music. I like how Cline describes it: "visionary, unpredictable, wide-ranging in approach, loose-limbed yet articulate, and...much like the man: beautiful and free." Hill was posthumously named a NEA Jazz Master in 2008.

Digressing: What will happen to the NEA Jazz Masters awards ceremony now that IAJE is defunct? Will it be brought into the JazzImprov conference?

Cline sets up a tune called "Confection" as "so very sweet" when in fact it's so very LOUD. Afterward, someone in the audience says, "That piece hurt my ears." Not missing a beat, Cline says, "That's because I added too much treble. As Charlie Haden told me when I played with him in the 80s, 'Treble is trouble.'"

"One Down, One Up" is a tune by Coltrane but it's not one I know so I can't tell how far afield Cline and his group take it. "Exiled" is a ballad, seemingly randomized but nice. Mellow.

The final tune of the set is a happy cacophony; Amendola's drums sound like a train speeding through the night (ticka ticka ticka ticka).

Earlier Cline shares some of "the horrors of travel." New restrictions (and rising costs) mean he can no longer tour with the many guitars he plays (for example, on the first Singers CD, Instrumentals, these include numerous electrics, a 12-string, and a baritone guitar). He's rueful about not having them along. He does have two tonight, a white one he brought with and another he bought yesterday at Willie's Guitars in St. Paul. Hoff's upright bass is also a recent purchase; it's all neck and strings, no body.

The closest thing I've heard to this kind of music before was a concert at the Walker with Dave Torn. I wouldn't attempt to compare the two but I liked this better. More rock-and-roll than jazz but I heard some good guitar playing tonight, good bass playing, good drumming. Energetic, inventive, emotional, risky. I'm satisfied.

Photos, top to bottom: The Nels Cline Singers, Amendola not playing the drums, Amendola playing the drums, Cline, the fiercely expressive Hoff, the "Obama '08" button on Cline's guitar strap. Group and Cline photos by John Whiting.

Edina Art Fair

When: 5/31/08
Where: 50th & France
Who: 400 artists including some of our favorites: Jo Severson, Duke Klassen and Lades Glanzer, Sarah Dudgeon, Lee and Dan Ross

For three days each May, our normally snoozy street fills up with cars and 50th & France is given over to the Edina Art Fair. Fairly soon on Friday, people start returning to their cars with stuff on sticks: birdhouses, metal sunflowers, big glass balls. There's something for everyone at this too-large, sprawling, oddly juried fair.

We spent Saturday looking at art and not-art, saying hi to friends, resisting temptation and ultimately giving in. Ate Cuban food for lunch. Returned home around 6 for cocktails and at 6:30 all hell broke loose weather-wise. The sky blackened, wind blew, rain fell, then hail. Lots of hail. Hosta-shredding, car-denting hail. Our street flooded and clumps of hail floated by.

Over at 50th & France, we learned the next day, it was chaos. Tents flew up and away. One artist tried holding on to his, then realized he was being lifted into the air and let go. Glass was shattered and pottery smashed.

Potter Bob Husby later told the Strib, "Those tents, they're basically big box kites." His tent went, and he lost $600 worth of work.

Many people make their living doing art fairs, and I think it must be a difficult life, and I raise my martini glass to them.