Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Bad Plus: Bringing it home

When: Sunday and Monday, Dec. 28–29, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums

Continuing a holiday tradition begun eight years ago, The Bad Plus returns to the Dakota for four nights and eight shows. (Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson are from around here but now live in NYC; Dave King still makes his home near Minneapolis.) We hear the final two late sets. Club owner Lowell Picket introduces the group with “They just play music; genres don’t matter.”

Iverson is all business at the piano, except when he rises from the bench to tell us what the group has just played or is about to play. Anderson is the sensitive, serious poet of the bass. King attacks his drums with sticks and mallets, hands and toys; he’s a blur of action with a big smile at its center.

The sets on both nights are similar, but that doesn’t mean they sound the same. With TBP, it helps to hear their songs played several times, especially their original compositions, so you can get past the surprise and really listen.

The first night begins with Milton Babbit’s “Semi-Simple Variations,” a short piece they played last year and have included on their new CD, For All I Care, to be released stateside in February. It’s one of several 20th-century classical tracks on the new CD, which also features vocals by Wendy Lewis.

Babbit leads into Iverson’s original “Let Our Garden Grow,” then a tune Iverson sets up as “a famous national anthem,” full of fat chords and bashy drums. "Fem" ("Metal"), a piece by Romanian (actually Transylvanian) composer Gyorgi Ligeti. Anderson’s “Beryl Loves to Dance,” a not-yet-recorded tune of wild abandon. Ornette Coleman’s explosive “Song X,” with a long bass intro. King’s composition “My Friend Meditron,” about (says Iverson) an angel who protects shoppers and has a complete collection of Lee Marvin DVDs. A swinging “Have You Met Miss Jones” from a group that seldom swings. Just last week I interviewed Dave King for a MinnPost piece in which I wrote “They don’t swing.” Shows what I know.

Anderson’s “Silence Is the Question,” a long crescendo, rises to fill the room and ends with the distant sound of thunder on the drums. Two encores: the lovely and delicate “Flim” and (unless I’m mistaken) “Big Eater.”

On the second night they mix it up with King’s “Anthem for the Earnest” and Anderson’s “Dirty Blonde.” The encores: “Flim” and Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love with You.”

For a group that made its name deconstructing pop and rock covers (“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Heart of Glass,” “Knowing Me Knowing You”), the only one they play (in the shows I’m at) is the Bacharach. I generally leave TBP with more questions than answers, and these are this year’s:

—Their not-yet-released CD, For All I Care, is entirely covers. Have they already moved beyond it? (King told me in our interview that their next CD would be all original compositions, zero covers.)
—If their new CD is (as a friend described it) the ultimate prog-rock-pop album, is it also their prog-rock-pop swan song?
—How do they keep up with themselves?
—Some of their own tunes are now anthemic. Is anyone else playing them?

Another fact from the interview: The new album has two bonus tracks that will only be available on the vinyl release and on iTunes: “Blue Velvet” and U2’s “New Year’s Day.” Personally I can’t wait to hear TBP’s take on “Blue Velvet.” I loved the original Bobby Vinton version of that song, hated how David Lynch made it weird and creepy in his film by the same name. Will TBP restore its innocence, make it even creepier, or take it somewhere else entirely? (More questions.)

Interesting reading:
Do the Math, TBP blog and webzine
Wild Blue Yonder, Wendy Lewis's blog about "singing around the globe with The Bad Plus"

Photos by John Whiting.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bill Carrothers: One of a kind

When: Friday and Saturday, Dec. 26–27, 2008 • Where: Artists’ QuarterWho: Bill Carrothers, piano; Gordy Johnson, bass; Kenny Horst, drums

Maybe it’s because he makes his home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he rides snowmobiles and goes blueberry picking with a shotgun in case he and a bear meet at the same bush, that Bill Carrothers’ playing is full of space, even when his notes are stacked in chords and linked in long glissandos. Maybe it’s because he lives outside an old copper mining town called Mass City (population around 600, one general store, one blinker light) and plays mostly in Europe that it doesn’t feel tied to a particular place or time.

Hearing him over a weekend at the end of December at the AQ, I’m reminded again of how unique Bill Carrothers is. He’s avant-garde and traditional, serious and playful, free-flying and grounded in history (maybe because his full name is William Gaylord Carrothers III—thanks for that fact, jazz.com). You never know where he’ll go next, whether within a live set or on his recordings.

This weekend he has three new CDs available for sale, which he mentions only in passing but Davis will gladly tell you about at the door. The Voices That Are Gone: The Music of Stephen Foster is an art-songs collaboration with cellist Matt Turner and Carrothers’ wife, Peg, a vocalist. Play Day is a children’s CD that includes a loving ballad arrangement of the old Oscar Mayer song (“Wiener Mood”). Home Row is straight-ahead piano trio goodness; recorded in 1992, it features Gary Peacock on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. Writing for the New York Times, Nate Chinen suggests we treat Home Row like a modern recording and forget that it sat on a shelf somewhere for 15 years.

On both nights we hear standards transformed into originals by Carrothers’ passion, improvisational skills, vast musical knowledge, far-ranging intelligence, and sly wit. “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” “Billie’s Bounce” (which ends with a quote from “In Walked Bud,” played fast and loose), “Blue Evening,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and a delightful “All of Me”—dusted off, reinterpreted, and kicked in the pants.

Then “Nature Boy.” Carrothers thinks about this one before he begins, fingers poised, head bowed. He becomes very quiet. It starts as a solo piano piece, a beautiful rumination. Kenny Horst comes in with mallets and a soft, persistent beat; Gordy picks up the melody on his bass. It’s breathtaking—a song everyone has heard countless times yet it feels like the first time, yet it’s suffused with the past and tradition and all who have gone before. Played with reverence and grandness, it ends with a wordless poem. No disrespect to the AQ’s piano but I’d love to hear Carrothers on a Steinway someday.

“Just You Just Me.” “Call Me Irresponsible” (with lots of notes). “This Is Worth Fighting For,” a WWII recruiting song that blends “America the Beautiful” with “Amazing Grace” and “The Christmas Song.” “So in Love.” A lush and lengthy series of chords that seems headed toward “When I Fall in Love” but ends up somewhere else. Gordy and Kenny are hyper-watchful; it’s clear this night is going wherever Carrothers wants to take it, not by a set list. “Con Alma.” “Rhythm-a-ning.” “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story.

Sometimes Carrothers seems to forget he’s part of a trio and plays like he’s alone. Perhaps he forgets us, the audience, as well. Maybe it's because he takes off his shoes and performs in his stocking feet that he seems so comfortable, so at home. The night ends with “Thanks for the Memories,” and I think of Bob Hope and his USO Christmas shows and our service men and women still overseas and I’m pretty sure that’s where my mind is supposed to go.

We can stay for only the first set on Saturday, long enough to hear “You and the Night and the Music” (tender, reflective, tinged with sadness), more “Moonlight Serenade,” a not at all wistful version of “Autumn Leaves,” “My Old Kentucky Home” (a tune from his new CD with Matt Turner), a “Let It Snow” that morphs into “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Whatever Carrothers wants to play. A phrase from Kenny Werner pops into my head: Effortless mastery.

Watch Don Berryman's video of "Blood Count" from Friday night.

Photos to come.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Back in town: The Bad Plus still defy easy definition

The Bad Plus plus Wendy Lewis by Mike Dvorak
Christmastime in the twin towns means "The Nutcracker," "Black Nativity," "A Christmas Carol"—and The Bad Plus. Since 2000, TBP have closed out their year by playing several nights at the Dakota. This year’s dates are Friday through Monday, Dec. 26-29.

Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King all grew up in the Midwest (Iverson in Wisconsin, Anderson and King in Minneapolis). King is the only one who still lives here.

Most years they have a new CD to play from. Last year it was Prog, which Billboard called “easily the most likable and listenable jazz album of 2007,” infuriating jazz critics and not for the first time. Whether TBP is a jazz trio, whether they represent a new direction in jazz, or whether they’re jazz assassins has been widely debated.

"We like being hard to classify," says King in a Q&A (see below). "All of our heroes were hard to classify."

From their first major release on Columbia, These Are the Vistas (2003), TBP has been controversial. They play original tunes and covers—of Nirvana (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”), Black Sabbath (“Iron Man”), Burt Bacharach (“This Guy’s in Love with You”). They pull tunes apart and smash them back together. They don’t swing.

Their new CD, the cryptically named For All I Care (apathy or passion?), features a vocalist, alt-rocker Wendy Lewis. And it’s all covers, this time of rock tunes and contemporary classical music. It won’t be released in the states until February but will be previewed at the Dakota. There will be a CD release show in Minneapolis, probably in March, venue TBD. 

See a making-of video on YouTube

MinnPost caught up with King last Sunday at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul, where he was playing with Happy Apple, one of his numerous other bands. (Happy Apple saxophonist Michael Lewis is Wendy Lewis’s nephew.)

MinnPost: Why a singer? Why Wendy Lewis?

Dave King: We felt like it was time to collaborate with someone, and we thought we might as well go all the way and make a record with vocals. We were looking at singers and thinking about asking some star-type people but then we decided we’d end up being the backing band, and the whole idea was, this is a guest for us. We talked about Tom Jones…we talked about Darryl Hall. Then we thought, we’ve gotta get someone who can deal with this kind of crazy music. I had played with Wendy years ago. Reid was a fan of her music. She ended up working beautifully.

MP: So this isn’t a response to “is the Bad Plus jazz or not”?

DK: We’re not concerned about that. We just believe in what we’re doing. You’re into it or your not. We like being hard to classify. All of our heroes were hard to classify.

MP: How did you choose the songs for the new CD?

DK: We all chimed in with different ideas from different genres and decades…. I picked “Barracuda” [by the rock band Heart] and also “New Year’s Day” [U2] and “Blue Velvet” [Bobby Vinton], two extra tracks that will be released on iTunes and on vinyl.

MP: Since you’re not releasing the CD until February, what will you do at the Dakota?

DK: Wendy’s going to come up and sing one song on Friday and Saturday. We’ll be doing new music, stuff we haven’t played in a while, and the classical music. New stuff that’s not on this record but will be on the next one. Our next record will be all original instrumental recordings, no covers.

MP: What, no Wendy on Sunday and Monday?

DK: You’ll be more surprised then. We’ll definitely put on a show.

MP: What keeps you in Minneapolis?

DK: My wife and I were raised here. We were living in LA for a while and came back—we have family here. We love Minneapolis/St. Paul…. This city is one that people watch. If you say you’re from Minneapolis, people go, “Yeah, that’s a great music city.”

Originally published at MinnPost.com, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Peace, love and Marcia Ball

When: Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Marcia Ball, keyboard and vocals; Thad Scott, tenor sax; Andrew Nafziger, guitar; Don Bennett, electric bass; Corey Keller, drums

On the first real winter night of 2008,
as snow falls and the temperature plummets and icy winds blow the Holidizzle parade down Nicollet Mall, Marcia Ball brings some New Orleans heat to the Dakota. She and her band give us 90 minutes of bluesy, rollicking, good-times music and touching songs including “Louisiana” (“six feet of water in Evangeline….”). Heads nod all around. It’s an open-curtain crowd, what looks like a full house, mostly people I haven’t seen here before—not the jazz audience.

We hear several tunes from her latest CD, Peace, Love & BBQ: the title track, “Married Life,” “Falling Back in Love with You” (“squeezing tight, kissing slow, Ray Charles on the stereo…”), “Party Town,” “Where Do You Go.” Also songs from the Marcia Ball catalog: “Red Beans,” “Down the Road,” the boogie-woogie rouser “Crawfishin’.”

She has a voice like a male blues shouter; nothing fancy but it gets the job done. She can whistle through her teeth. The Dakota’s Yamaha grand has been pushed to the back of the stage and she’s playing a Roland at the front. Wonder why? To be nearer the audience? She fits her long tall self behind the keyboard and plays like she means it.

Her banter is easy and warm. In brief bursts between songs she tells us how certain tunes came to be, and about her hometown on the Texas/Louisiana border (“on the easy-drinking side, the ‘Loose-iana’ side; on Saturday night all the Baptists would come and act like Catholics”). She explains that before Peace, Love & BBQ there was a time when she couldn’t write: “I was kind of angry. Then my friend Tracy Nelson sent me a song about homelessness and poverty [‘Where Do You Go’] and once I did that I could write my silly stuff.” She says she and her band never used to come north in the winter and “now I know what snow tires are for.” She’s been watching Holidizzle pass (she can catch glimpses through the windows onto the mall) and notes she has never seen a parade go by so fast. She thinks we’re crazy for having parades in the winter.

The set officially ends with the delightful “I Want to Play with Your Poodle,” they exit, and Ball returns for a powerful solo encore: “Ride It Out,” the tale of a house in Mississippi that was carried away by Katrina’s flooding and survived intact. Then the band reconvenes for “I Wish You Well,” one of the best end-the-set, say-goodbye tunes ever written, a sweet benediction: “I wish you sunshine, flowers, and smiles/I wish you ribbons tied up in your hair.”

Apologies for the pitiful photos (which are not by John Whiting).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Ahmad Jamal: Live at the Dakota

When: Monday-Wednesday, Nov. 24-26, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Ahmad Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; James Johnson III, drums; Manolo Badrena, percussion

It’s rare to see a jazz artist and his or her band perform several nights in a row, at least in Minneapolis. Most out-of-towners come in for one night, maybe two, and those who live here play around town in different configurations. Provided the artist doesn’t repeat the same sets every night with the identical patter in between (some do), even a brief artist-in-residency is a chance for the audience to settle in and really listen.

We were able to attend the late sets on all three nights of Jamal’s most recent stay at the Dakota. We’d seen him several times before but never three nights in a row. He didn’t play the same sets, although he did play some of the same songs (not in the same way), and he’s not much of a talker; he might announce the first three or four tunes, call attention to one or more from his latest CD, It’s Magic, then not say another word for the rest of the set. It’s all about the music, and if you’re smart you sit quietly and open your ears as wide as you can.

You can’t compare Jamal to anyone else because he’s not like anyone else, so if you’ve never heard him, all I can suggest is that you buy a CD or two or ten. He is an absolute master of dynamics. Within the same tune, he combines great delicacy with thunder. He makes the Steinway whisper and roar. He uses the whole keyboard and plays more high notes than anyone I know. Single notes of enormous import, big fat chords, and glittering glissandos pour out of the piano. Rhythms pile up in translucent layers. Melodies surface and combine. Spaces open and close.

It’s transfixing to hear and see it all happen in front of you. He signals to the other members of his ensemble like an orchestra conductor, with a lift of the hand, a gesture, a wave. He beckons and points. He sometimes rises for applause, then starts playing again before he is seated. The other musicians watch him like hawks. They barely blink. Cammack explains later that there isn’t a set list and they never know in advance what they will play on a particular evening. They have to know everything and be prepared. Then, he says, “We just react.”

Here is some of what we heard over three nights—a combination of originals and standards, chosen who knows how from a lifetime of possibilities. This list is by no means complete and, in fact, is pretty pitiful; if a song doesn’t have lyrics, I may recognize the tune but usually don’t know the name. So this is the best I can do.

“Spanish Interlude”
“Topsy Turvy”
“Fran’s Tune”
“The Devil’s in My Den”
“High Fly”
“Someone to Watch Over Me”
“In Search Of”
“My Romance”
“So Good to Have You Home Again”
“My Foolish Heart”
“Island Fever”
“It’s Magic”

And “Poinciana,” of course. Jamal ended every late set with this, a runaway hit when he first recorded it in 1958 and still fresh and lovely after 50 years. I think if he didn't play it the audience might riot.

Badrena added much to the overall sound, and it was fun to watch him move from instrument to instrument—shaking this, ringing or tapping that, playing the mighty congas. A Latin percussion array is a candy store.

So many high points. The effervescent “Poinciana” and grand “Swahililand” with its opening proclamation. The gradual emergence of "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "My Romance" from sparkling showers of notes. Randy Weston's lilting "High Fly" (a special thank-you for that one, Mr. Jamal). As I heard “My Romance,” I thought: This song is a field of flowers.

Photos by John Whiting.