Monday, December 21, 2009

Jazz fracas

Tweet! Honk! Squeal! Blaaaaaat!

I saw saxophonist Larry Ochs when he came to town in October as part of the Northrop Music Season and played the Whole Music Club. He's not for everybody, but that's true for most improvised music. He's a fascinating, prolific, highly creative artist who's internationally known and respected. I enjoyed seeing him play, and I enjoyed speaking with him ahead of time. I like his latest CD, Stone Shift, very much. Read an interview with Ochs and outtakes if you're interested.

As reported in the Guardian (and other places since), Ochs was performing with his Sax & Drumming Core at Spain's Siguenza Jazz Festival on Monday night (Dec. 7) when a man in the audience called the police, complaining that Ochs' music was not jazz but "contemporary music." He said his doctor had warned him that it was "psychologically inadvisable" for him to listen to contemporary music.

The police showed up. The man demanded his money back. He didn't get it. The case will eventually go before a judge.

Earlier today (Monday Dec. 21) things got even sillier. Wynton Marsalis asked the Guardian to find the man (now dubbed "the jazz purist," like that's a good thing) so he could thank him and send him a package of his music. The man, Rafael Gisbert, has since stepped forward. Wynton's people are claiming this was never supposed to go public.

Is it possible to appreciate both the music of Wynton Marsalis and the music of Larry Ochs? Duh, yes. Must one choose sides? Why? Should definitions of what jazz is/isn't further divide an already small audience for the music, which is attractive in large part because of its variety and rebel nature?

Blogger Philip Booth writes: "Kenny G wields his chirpy soprano sax for bland instrumental pop, markets it as jazz, makes a mint, and nobody bats an eye.... Where are the Jazz Police when you really need them? They'd really come in handy when a certain local festival turns over all its headlining positions to boring 'smooth jazz' acts. I'd welcome the Jazz Police to help keep incessant talkers and noisemakers from rudely ruining my enjoyment of concerts. And maybe pianist Keith Jarrett would cease his godawful audible humming--which sometimes spoils otherwise brilliant solo and trio performances--if there were a chance that the Jazz Police would intervene."

I read this and laughed out loud. Which might be the answer to the whole brouhaha.

The photos at the top of this blog are there for fun. According to reports, Ochs has behaved like a gentleman, saying "I thought I had seen it all. I was obviously mistaken" and "Stay tuned."

Jane Donahue, friend of jazz

I last saw Jane Donahue at the Dakota sometime in November. I can't remember the occasion; was it Evan Christopher's performance with Henry Butler? It could have been almost anyone or anything. Jane's tastes in jazz were broad and varied, and she was as likely to show up at the Dakota as the AQ or a JazzMN Big Band concert. We knew each other as jazz fans only, and would always stop and speak about the person or band we were seeing that night, or someone else we had seen recently and enjoyed. She was a kind and gentle soul, one of those people who come out to support live music over the years but don't call much attention to themselves and one day you realize--wow, that lady has known a lot of jazz in her time, and spent a lot of hours in booths and on chairs and bar stools, and paid a lot of covers.

When I saw her at the Dakota, she was wearing a sterling silver Kokopelli pin. Acting on impulse, given that we knew each other only casually, I said, "I have some Kokopelli pins in my jewelry box. I rarely wear pins. May I send them to you?" She was surprised but said yes. I sent them off a few days later and immediately received a warm and gracious thank-you note saying I had put a smile on her face. The point of this story is not my own wonderfulness; it's the randomness of life, the dearness of each moment, perhaps the importance of acting on impulses (the good ones). More and more, I'm discovering the power of the gift that has no strings.

Jane died on Friday, December 18, following a car accident on December 2. I heard she had a tough time--a broken neck and/or back, a heart attack while in the hospital, a respirator, dialysis. Family members who visited her reported that she seemed to be recovering and her sense of humor was intact. Her obituary in the StarTribune reads, in part:

The Twin Cities jazz scene is mourning the loss of one its most passionate participants. Not a singer, musician or composer.

A retired nurse, Jane Donahue.

A significant behind-the-scenes contributor to the genre for nearly three decades, Donahue died Friday from injuries suffered in a single-car traffic accident 16 days earlier in Lake Elmo. She was 77.

Donahue, of Roseville, helped promote jazz in the metro area in any way she could, whether it was recruiting members to the Twin Cities Jazz Society, editing the society's Jazz Notes monthly newsletter or compiling the jazz scene's most comprehensive metro area performance calendar.

"Jane was there at the start [of the Jazz Society] 30 years ago," said Lee Engele, a jazz singer and the current society president. "She was part of that group that really got it going. ... She was so exuberant about it, [but] calm and quiet and humble in her way."

Engele said that when she arranged to honor Donahue in February at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis for her tireless contributions, Donahue "just kept her head down, she didn't want to come up on the stage ... she didn't want to talk. It was so cute."

Arne Fogel, a society board member, jazz singer and regular host on KBEM (FM 88.5), the metro area's radio home for jazz, said of Donahue: "You might be excused if you saw her as a quiet suburban lady who didn't get enthused about much of anything, until you talked to her."

Photo from the Hudson Star-Observer (Jane was born and raised in Hudson).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jazz at Lincoln Center's Swing University announces winter classes

I don't often wish I lived in NYC--okay, from time to time I do, along with wishing I had buckets of money--but I just opened an email from Jazz at Lincoln Center that made me long to be there.

The email describes JALC's winter schedule of adult education classes for jazz lovers and the curious. I love taking classes about jazz and they're in short supply in Minneapolis/St. Paul. When trumpeter Kelly Rossum was still at MacPhail (before leaving for, where else, NYC), he taught a series of classes on jazz history and appreciation and offered jazz "book clubs"--he assigned books to read, we read them and talked about them and listened to music.

Some of the people who came to Kelly's classes had seen a lot of live jazz performances and knew a little something about the music; others knew almost nothing but wanted to learn. Kelly made us all feel welcome and worthy.

Here's what JALC's Swing U is offering. I would totally sign up for Vincent Gardner and probably Lewis Nash, and Phil Schaap is a walking, talking, radio-announcing encyclopedia of jazz knowledge and history so he would be tempting, too.

MARY LOU WILLIAMS with Father Peter O'Brien
Monday Nights: 1/11; 1/25; 2/1; 2/8
Jazz at Lincoln Center continues to celebrate the centennial of Mary Lou Williams, one of the primary pianists, arrangers, and composers in jazz history. As an innovator, she marked the music of Kansas City, The Swing Era, long form composition, and sacred music in jazz while developing the primary concept still used in jazz piano today. In mid-career, Mary Lou Williams converted to Catholicism, and left the performance field to do good works. She was coaxed back into performing by Dizzy Gillespie and received a spiritual guide, Father Peter O'Brien - the very man teaching the course - who eventually became her manager.

DRUMS AND THE RHYTHM SECTION with drummer Lewis Nash
Monday Nights: 2/22; 3/1; 3/8, 3/15
Drumming giant Lewis Nash will guide you to understand the workings of the rhythm section and the musical blending that distinguishes great rhythm sections. This course will help you recognize drum stylists such as Art Blakey, Big Sid Catlett, Papa Jo Jones and Max Roach.

BEBOP with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra trombonist Vincent Gardner
Tuesday Nights: 1/19; 1/26; 2/2; 2/9; 2/16; & 2/23/2010
Virtuosity, fuller harmonies and a new rhythmic sense established this sound as a new type of jazz. Join JLCO trombonist Vincent Gardner for a close look at how Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie paved the way for other masters of this innovative sound.

JAZZ 201 with WKCR radio personality Phil Schaap
Tuesday Nights: 1/19/; 1/26; 2/2; 2/9; 2/16; 2/23/; 3/2; & 3/9/2010
These in-depth sessions will open your ears to the music of known and lesser-known masters. How did King Oliver help invent the jazz solo? What was Bill Evans' role in Miles Davis' Kind of Blue? In Jazz 201 you'll learn to hear the details.

JAZZ 101 with WKCR radio personality Phil Schaap
Wednesday Nights: 1/20; 1/27; 2/3; 2/10; 2/17; 2/24; 3/3; & 3/10/2010
Discover the A to Z of jazz. Learn about the Crescent City pioneers who taught musicians everywhere how to swing and the Big Band Era heartthrobs who brought jazz into prime time. Relive the bebop revolution and follow its descendents - cool, hard bop, modal and free jazz - into the modern era.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Two events this week for Nancy Harms' 'In the Indigo' release

Originally published at, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

You think you know a song, then someone makes it new again. Like “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Talk about a chestnut. It’s been around since 1926. Countless versions have been recorded; there are hundreds on iTunes. But I’d never heard one that gave me chills until Nancy Harms sang the arrangement she wrote with guitarist Robert Bell.

Listen. First the bass, all alone in the world. Then the voice, lush and distinctive, with a hint of purr. Traditionally, the chorus ends “Make my bed and light the light/I’ll arrive late tonight/Blackbird, bye-bye,” but here “Blackbird, bye-bye” is gone; “I’ll arrive late tonight” stretches to fill the space, overlapped by muted trumpet, soft piano chords, cymbals.

Is “I’ll arrive late tonight” a promise or a threat? Should you triple-lock the door or throw it wide?

“Blackbird” is the first track on Harms’ debut CD, “In the Indigo,” a mix of standards, covers, originals, and a John Mayer tune. Featuring Tanner Taylor on piano, Graydon Peterson on bass, Jay Epstein and Spencer McGinnis on drums, Kelly Rossum on trumpet, Robert Bell on guitar, and Chico Chavez on cajon (wood box drum), it’s a diverse and polished showcase for an exceptional new voice.

The CD release takes place over two events this week: Thursday at the Dakota and Sunday at the Jungle.

Full disclosure: Nancy and I are friends. We go to jazz shows together. We’re both Kurt Elling fans. I contributed a quote to the back of her CD, for which I was paid. So I’m going to let others praise “In the Indigo.”

Tom Surowicz: “A terrific debut CD. ... Harms’ voice is lovely, husky and lived-in, while her delivery is intimate, personal, almost conspiratorial.” Jon Bream: “Quiet confidence, an innate sense of swing and languorously seductive phrasing. ... Quite impressive.” Andrea Canter: “A voice that delivers with subtle power and insight.”

Harms grew up in Clara City, Minn., singing in school and church choirs. She graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, where she was involved in the classical music program and jazz bands, and taught elementary music in Milaca before moving to the Twin Cities in 2006. Wearing my MinnPost hat, I spoke with her last week.

MinnPost: You had a job. You had a life. What made you decide to become a jazz singer?

Nancy Harms: It was really about a great discontentment. I was always wondering if teaching was what I was supposed to be doing. I thought about myself in that position five years down the road, and it was painful to me. ... Friends encouraged me to move to the Cities. I wasn’t sure I would pursue jazz right away, but I was magnetically drawn to it. I thought, maybe when I’m 50, I’ll have enough knowledge to get up and sing in a club.

MP: I was just reading about jazz singer Gretchen Parlato, who came from an artistic family. That was not the case for you.

NH: My grandmother was musical, but she didn’t pursue it. My parents are not musical at all. I look like them, but they’re somewhat puzzled as to where I came from.

MP: When did you first become aware of jazz?

NH: When I was in high school, watching David Letterman. Harry Connick Jr. was swinging like crazy. That’s how it started, loving the swing stuff. ... Another epiphany was listening to Kurt Elling’s “Night Moves” CD in the car. I couldn’t stop listening.

MP: Was there a particular moment when you knew this was your path?

NH: I had my doubts at first, but I also had hope: Maybe the thing you love is the thing you get to do. ... One night in 2007 I was at the Fine Line, my first gig at a bigger place, and my good friends Siri and Mike were in the audience. They sat completely still the whole time. After, one of my roommates asked Mike, “Aren’t you into dancing?” He said, “I couldn’t move. I was shaking.” That night we all realized, I get to do what I love.

MP: How did you choose the musicians you worked with on the new CD?

NH: They are all people I have worked with a lot. The one I hadn’t worked with much was [trumpeter] Kelly [Rossum]. Miles Davis is my favorite instrumentalist, and I started thinking, wouldn’t it be fun to have something similar to that? Bittersweet, not afraid to be spacious.

MP: What will we hear at your CD release on Thursday?

NH: Lots of standards. Some new things I’ve been working on. I have plenty to choose from. The percussionist [Chico Chavez] will probably be in the house. Robert [Bell] will play on some of the tunes as well.

MP: How will Sunday’s show at the Jungle be different?

NH: It’s going to be more theatrical, with three different sets. The Twin Cities Hot Club will play, I’ll sing a couple of tunes with them, then Arne [Fogel] will come up and sing with my band. We’ll end the show with the CD. It will have a festive feel. I’ve invited people from out of town, from my previous lives.

Nancy Harms' “In the Indigo” CD Release. Thursday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m., Dakota, ($5). Saturday, Nov. 21, 2-4 p.m., Jungle Theater  ($8 at the door; no reservations).

Monday, November 16, 2009

Evan Christopher at the Dakota, 10/25/09: Concert review

On Sunday night, Oct. 25, Dakota Jazz Club owner Lowell Pickett gave us a gift, and New Orleans clarinetist Evan Christopher delivered: more than two hours of music that took us back and forth in time, filled us with rhythm, honored roots, insisted on relevance, and left us breathless and giddy.

Pickett flew Christopher to town for the Dakota’s annual members’ party. (If you live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and want to know more about Dakota memberships, click here.) The first part of the evening (cocktails and apps) was private, the second (music) was open to the public but not terribly well advertised. By the time the music started, the club was full.

I’ve heard Christopher play before—with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, at the Dakota (after a NOJO show at Orchestra Hall), at Chickie Wah Wah on Canal Street in New Orleans, where he has a regular gig. More than any other artist, he has opened my ears to New Orleans music: not the kitschy, touristy stuff often associated with NOLA but the living, breathing, kicking sounds of the place where jazz was born and is still evolving. When he plays, I hear the old tunes, the old sounds, but the way they sound today, this minute.

Christopher is his own cat, but I’m reminded of Marcus Roberts when he plays. Not because they’re from the same place or doing the same things (and they don’t even play the same instrument), but because each is a scholar and a historian with deep, deep roots in the past, yet their music is very modern. Listen to Roberts play “Jitterbug Waltz” on his latest CD, New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 (J Master, 2009) and you’ll think that tune was written today, not in 1942. [While you’re at it, if you can, listen to Roberts play the same tune on As Serenity Approaches (Novus, 1991). Another just as modern, totally different approach.] Christopher performed it at the Dakota as his encore. My dream jazz club date: Christopher and Roberts together on the same stage.

Joined by area musicians Tanner Taylor on piano, Reuben Ristrom on guitar, Gary Raynor on bass, and Joe Pulice on drums, Christopher played for two hours without a break, which nearly killed a certain member of the band who smokes. The music was full of joy and emotion and virtuosity. The crowd was rapt and attentive. The only people who left before the end were a couple with small children; this was a school night, and the parents looked back in regret as they headed for the door.

Christopher is an artist who educates from the stage, telling us what he’s playing, sharing interesting stories and anecdotes without filler or shtick. Here’s what we heard.

1. Christopher solo on (I think) “Cheek to Cheek.” He talked briefly about Creole clarinet: “A vocabulary that has different layers of meaning, based on individual musicians and neighborhoods, individual countries; Creolitude.”

2. Christopher and the band on Sidney Bechet’s “Blues in the Air.” “In the words of Jelly Roll Morton,” Christopher said, “fast is not a style.”

3. Buddy Bolden’s “Funky Butt,” later known as “Buddy Bolden’s Blues.”

4. Music by Cole Porter associated with Louis Armstrong, including selections from the musical comedy Jubilee and the film High Society (“I Love You, Samantha”). Christopher sang. This, too, is a New Orleans thing. Musicians lower their horns and sing a verse or two.

5. Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom.”

6. A song about rum punch. Christopher mentioned that he was playing with his fellow musicians tonight for the first time (except for Reuben Ristrom; they know each other and have played together before). Fine with him. “I’m not a big fan of rehearsing,” he explained. “It creates expectations.”

7. Christopher switched from clarinet to a 1926 soprano sax with a mouthpiece from Claude Luter, who played in Bechet’s band. “I honked on it last night and decided to bring it along,” he said, then played Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” with a Creole feel, tossing in a lengthy quote from “Caravan.” “The Creole clarinet vocabulary is a tricky thing to navigate,” he told us. “Much comes from the place and dynamics of playing in New Orleans—the heat, the economics. So much comes from individual musicians, who together as a family have created a language… There’s a fine line between performing that language and imitating that language.”

8. “Waltz for All Souls,” an original composition, which he dedicated to a friend who died recently. So tender and beautiful. It reminded me of “A Wild Irish Rose.”

9. He ended with a rousing, celebratory second-line version of Oscar Hammerstein’s “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” playing and singing (“When I grow too old to dream/I’ll still have you to remember”).

10. Encore: an exquisite “Jitterbug Waltz.”

By now we were all stiff from sitting. If we weren’t dopey Minnesotans, we would have gotten up and danced around the club, out the door, and down Nicollet Mall, buses and taxis be damned.

Friday, November 6, 2009

In Conversation with Tim Sparks

You can approach guitarist Tim Sparks’ music from several directions. You can enter through Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, originally arranged for orchestra, rearranged by Sparks for six strings—a feat that won him the 1993 National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship. You can look for other CDs he has made for the German label Acoustic Music. You can track down recordings by the Twin Cities jazz group Rio Nido, popular during the 1970s and 80s and still sorely missed. You can enter through the bluegrass and jazz Sparks heard as a child and finally got around to recording on his new release, Sidewalk Blues (Tonewood, 2009).

Or you can walk through the door marked “Radical Jewish Culture,” a series on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. Starting in 1999 with the solo album Neshamah, Sparks has made five recordings for Tzadik. His latest, Little Princess (2009), is a collection of tunes by Naftule Brandwein, aka “Nifty,” the King of the Klezmer Clarinet. It’s an elegant, polyglot, sophisticated recording—World Music for the 21st century.

Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Tim Sparks “appropriated my dad’s guitar” as a child and started picking out tunes. When encephalitis kept him housebound for a year, he taught himself to play traditional country blues and gospel by listening to old LPs, the radio, and his grandmother, who played piano in a small church. Impressed by Tim's skill, an uncle nominated him for a scholarship at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where Sparks studied the classics with Segovia protégé Jesus Silva and began adapting compositions by Jelly Roll Martin and Fats Waller for solo guitar.

Rather than continue on to college, “I got my degree in the world of music, the world of nightclubs.” He went on the road with a funk and R&B band and ended up in Minnesota, where he worked as a session player and became part of the vocal jazz group Rio Nido. That kept him busy for several years, after which he worked in a variety of groups, traveled, and moved to a farm in northern Minnesota with his wife, Chyrll, who is part owner of the country music festival We Fest.

For a time, Sparks taught at the University of Minnesota-Morris, but gave that up because of the killer two-hour commute, which “during winter is really tough. We have heavy-duty weather out here on the plains.”

I’ve been an admirer since first hearing a track from his Nutcracker Suite on the radio several years ago, then ordering the CD and almost wearing it out. When I heard he was playing a late-night show for Little Princess at a local jazz club, I grabbed a table near the stage so I could see his fingers on the strings. We spoke on the phone not long after.  


Pamela Espeland: How did a nice Christian boy from North Carolina end up making radical Jewish music for John Zorn?

Tim Sparks: It all started with Rio Nido. That was a pretty successful Twin Cities jazz group for quite a long time. It was a period of our lives collectively when we all had families and worked constantly. We were the house band at a club; we played there two weeks a month. You can’t get those long gigs anymore.

The band folded around 1986–87. After that, I played like a lounge lizard—straight-ahead jazz, R&B—for many years. I went on a long trip to Europe with my wife. Part of it involved traveling to Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bosnia. I encountered a lot of music that was really exotic to my ears. I’d always been curious about Eastern European music. When I was a teenager, my two favorite recordings were Village Music of Bulgaria and a Charlie Parker album on Verve. In a funny sort of way, those two streams finally came together in the Tzadik recordings.

When we came back from Europe, I began digging all kinds of people. Plus I started learning a lot of things Rio Nido didn’t play—Brazilian music, world music, Edith Piaf. I took up some Middle Eastern instruments—oud, fretless lute, saz, long-string lute. I played with a belly dancer, with a group called Rubaiyat that played Persian music, with Boiled in Lead, with a Brazilian group called Mandala.

I studied Jewish music with accordionists Maury Bernstein and Mark Stillman. I played with a group called Voices of Sepharad, music of the Sephardic tradition. I had a very hands-on experience with Jewish music.

I get asked, “Why are you playing this music? You’re not Jewish.” The answer is, first of all, it’s beautiful music. Jewish music shares a quality with gypsy music of touching on a diverse array of cultural and musical boundaries, especially Middle Eastern and Eastern European, with a particular soulfulness that moves me…. There’s a mystery in it; you never get tired of it. Like the blues progression. That “Hava Nagila” scale pushes a button for me.

PLE: How did you and John Zorn first get together?

TS: Through my friend Duck Baker. Duck was kind of a mentor to me as a teenager. He lived briefly in Winston-Salem and I used to go over to his house and he’d play Sun Ra and Frank Zappa. Perverse on his part; illuminating for me.

In the 60s, guitar music was in a bunch of separate categories and players never crossed the line. Classical guitarists completely ignored jazz and so on. Then gradually, because of people like Lenny Breau, Chet Atkins in a way, and Duck Baker, we reached the point where we’re at today, with incredibly eclectic fingerstyle guitar. It’s been quite a fluorescence in the last 20 years.

PLE: Can you explain what you mean by “fluorescence”?

TS: In a cultural fluorescence, you have a certain idea that catches on and blossoms. It’s a tipping point, when many people and ideas connect. The fluorescence in fingerstyle guitar started to happen in the late 1980s and early 90s.

I visited Duck at some point in the 90s, and he had done this great record called Spinning Song: Duck Baker Plays the Music of Herbie Nichols for Zorn. [Zorn was the executive producer.] It may be Duck’s best record. He’s known for playing Irish/Celtic music.

PLE: Which is notably absent from your repertoire.

TS: Seems to me there’s enough people covering it. There’s nothing I can add. I try to do things that add to the overall value of the body of guitar work. I’ve always been drawn more to the tri-tonal, Afro-American, Middle Eastern music sounds. Though I did go to Ireland on tour and decided that when I die, I want them to pour my ashes down the toilet of O’Flaherty’s bar in Flago.

PLE: Back to Duck Baker and John Zorn…

TS: So Duck said, “Zorn is really righteous.” I sent Zorn one of my Peter Finger [Acoustic Music] CDs, a fusion of Middle Eastern and American roots music called Guitar Bazaar. I had done an arrangement of Bartok’s “Romanian Dances” as part of that record. Zorn said he really liked it and wanted me to do a record of Jewish folk music, but done in my style. I sent him some stuff I was doing with David Harris and Mick LaBriola [of Voices of Sepharad] but he kept insisting on the solo guitar thing. That’s what he really wanted. So I worked on it. Any artist is happy to work.

Another cool thing about Zorn was he said, “Be as eclectic as you want. Pick out the songs you like.” I chose things I thought were compelling or beautiful. He also encouraged me to be eclectic in the way I play the tunes. So I freely mixed country with jazz and bebop riffs and blues runs and Middle Eastern scales. That for me made Nehama [Sparks’ first CD for Tzadik] a really fulfilling project. It was a stew of guitar music that had all these diverse elements. More like a salad than a stew, because everything still has its own unique identity.

Every time I make a record, I have a few tunes left over, seeds for another record. Zorn put me together with Greg Cohen and Cyro Baptista for Tanz, a trio record. Then the next time [for At the Rebbe’s Table] he said, “I want you to add Marc Ribot and Eric Friedlander.” Then we did Masada Guitars, where he had me and Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot each pick out tunes from his Masada songbook.

Zorn never wants to repeat himself.

PLE: What about Little Princess?

TS: I worked up a lot of tunes—more Masada tunes and a bunch of other stuff. Zorn liked the Brandwein stuff best.

I may by now have recorded almost everything there is by Brandwein. He only recorded 25–28 tunes that have been released by Rounder. When I was working on Neshama, I came across that recording and used it as a resource. I like Brandwein’s tunes a lot. A hundred years ago, he was playing with a palette and a repertoire that reflected multiple influences. His music’s got a lot of different bags in it.

PLE: You must be having déjà vu. Releasing Little Princess and Sidewalk Blues in the same year is similar to what you did ten years ago—with Neshamah and One String Leads to Another, your album of mostly original compositions for Acoustic Music.

TS: That’s kind of a coincidence. I put together Sidewalk Blues, put it out, and didn’t realize that I was going to wind up recording Little Princess so soon or that Zorn would release it so quickly. We just recorded Princess in February. That’s another nice thing about working for Tzadik. It’s a small label, always righteous…that’s what Tzadik means. A Tzadik is a righteous person. I’ve been very happy to do stuff with them. Very cool catalog, cool community.

PLE: Are you still composing?

TS: On Little Princess, the core songs are ten percent of the song, then twenty percent my arranging, then a lot of composition that developed those arrangements before improvisation. I’m not right now composing songs from scratch. I’m being a blank slate for a while. That feels kind of good.

I worked up half the tunes for the new record as part of a batch of demos I sent to Zorn last year. Then he sent me an email saying, “Let’s do a record of just the Brandwein tunes.” From October on I worked up the rest of the material, thinking as a solo guitarist. I had to comp with myself and do the bass line. When I got to New York and started to play the tunes in the studio with Greg and Cyro, suddenly half the arrangements I had made, meticulously developed and practiced, turned into soloing. I don’t know where that came from. It was something I never practiced, and I’m kind of happy about that. I played a lot of jazz for years and none of it was recorded. I think there’s some nice playing on Princess.

Greg and Cyro were creating spontaneously. They had just learned the tunes. That’s how those guys work all the time. When Zorn does a project, the musicians come to the studio, then he shows up and gives them tunes they have never heard before. John Coltrane liked to do that, too. You get a very, very fresh sound.

PLE: Has there ever been anything you wanted to play but couldn’t?

TS: Sure. All kinds of stuff. If there wasn’t, there would be no reason to live. I’ve been playing “Giant Steps” a lot lately, trying to figure out how to play that tune. For years I’ve been trying to do a follow-up to Nutcracker Suite, an arrangement of Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet, but I can never find enough time to allocate to it. I did about five of the tunes ten years ago. Prokofiev’s music is something I’d like to figure out how to do on guitar. Maybe that will be the next thing I do.

PLE: A City Pages article from 2002 mentioned your trips to Japan and your interest in Japanese music. Tzadik has a “New Japan” series. Any chance we’ll see you there?

TS: I’ve got an idea I have pitched to Zorn and felt might be cool. In Japan, there’s a type of music called Enka music. It’s Japanese, but with a Western musical influence that goes back to the 1800s, when the Meiji dynasty decided to embrace Western culture and technology. It’s soulful, sad music about broken hearts, betrayal, the usual stuff, like Hank Williams, but the Japanese version, with cool Japanese pentatonic scales mixed with Westernized arrangements. I’ve checked into and heard stuff that definitely caught my ear. Sometimes you hear things and a light goes on and you can start hearing and sensing how that would go on guitar, how cool it would be.

PLE: So you’re still passionate about this?

TS: I’m too old to quit. That’s what [bassist] Billy Peterson once told me. “We’re too old to quit, man.”


Visit Tim Sparks's website for sound clips and a video.

Recommended listening:
The Nutcracker Suite (1992; Acoustic Music)
Neshama (1999; Tzadik)
At the Rebbe’s Table (2002; Tzadik)
Masada Guitars (2003; Tzadik)
Sidewalk Blues (2009; Tonewood)
Little Princess (2009; Tzadik)

Originally published on, November 2009.

Tim Sparks interview on

I first heard the great fingerstyle guitarist Tim Sparks on the radio--a cut from his arrangement of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite." I tracked down the CD and almost wore it out. Lately Sparks has been recording for John Zorn's Tzadik label. When I heard he was coming to the Dakota earlier this year, I took a seat up front and asked for an interview. It was published today at It's on the home page now. When it's not, here's the permalink.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Free tickets for NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony in January

Here's where to be at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 12, 2010: in the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC, where the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters will be honored.

The National Endowment for the Arts and JALC announced today that free tickets will be distributed to the general public at or at the JALC Box Office on Broadway at 60th Street (Monday-Saturday, 10am to 6 pm; Sundays, 12 pm to 6 pm). Limit 2 tickets per person.

It's good that this is a free event. When it was part of the now-defunct IAJE, the ceremony was too pricey for most people to attend.

This year's Jazz Masters are Muhal Richard Abrams, Kenny Barron, Bill Holman, Bobby Hutcherson, Yusef Lateef, Annie Ross, and Cedar Walton. It's expected that 26 fellow Jazz Masters will also be present including Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ornette Coleman, Paquito d'Rivera, Ramsey Lewis, and Dr. Billy Taylor.

The event will be both awards ceremony and concert, with video tributes to each of the 2010 honorees. For those who can't be there (which sadly includes yours truly), it will be broadcast live on Sirius XM Satellite Radio and WGBO radio (88.3 in NYC, online for the rest of us).

Read the full press release here.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloweenie

Carmen's annual Halloween photo. We're calling this "Memoirs of a Geishaweenie."

(Click on photo for actual size dog.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Alicia Renee's "Judy Garland: Born in a Trunk" tribute

When: Friday, Oct. 23, 7:30 p.m. • Where: Cabaret Theater at Camp BarWho: Alicia Renee, vocals; Stephen Roemer, piano

I don't like musicals. I'm not a Judy Garland fan. But I went to Alicia Renee's tribute show, "Judy Garland: Born in a Trunk," at the Camp Bar in St. Paul anyway because I wanted to hear Renee sing again.

The last time was probably in 2002 or 2003; I have the CD, Wait for Me, she released as an 18-year-old, and it's a solid effort by a young singer with a big, beautiful voice and an ace band (Jon Weber on piano, Gordy Johnson on bass).

Renee has been away at UMD (University of Minnesota–Duluth) getting edumacated. I wondered how she sounds now.

In fact, she sounds terrific. I enjoyed the show so much I wrote a review for MinnPost.

Here's the setlist of songs and medleys Renee performed, accompanied by Stephen Roemer on piano.

"Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart"
"I Don't Care"
"Be a Clown"
"Dear Mr. Gable, You Made Me Love You"
"Johnny One Note"
("Everybody Dance"?)
"On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe"
"For Me and My Gal"
"The Boy Next Door"
"The Trolley Song"
"I've Got Rhythm"
"Born in a Trunk"
"You Took Advantage of Me"
"Black Bottom"
"Peanut Vendor Song"
"Melancholy Baby"
("Overnight Sensation"?) (brief "Born in a Trunk" reprise)
"That's Entertainment"
"There's No Business Like Show Business"
"I Love a Piano"
"You Can't Get a Man With a Gun" (Lyrics: "You can't get a hug from a mug with a slug...")
"The Man That Got Away"
"San Francisco" (with Garland's "I never will forget Jeanette MacDonald" beginning)
"Get Happy"
"Look for the Silver Lining"
"Over the Rainbow"
"San Francisco" (full song)

Photos by John Whiting

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Miles Davis headphones?

This just landed in my email box. Who/what is "Miles Davis Properties, LLC"? And why do I think these 'phones are...kind of cool?



-- Created in Conjunction with the Miles Davis Family, New Headphones Feature Sleek Styling Designed to Capture the Essence of the Man and His Music; Engineered to the Most Demanding Sonic Specifications --

NEW YORK, NY, October 21, 2009 – Monster, renowned for its many advanced consumer electronics accessories and fast becoming one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-performance headphones, is proud to announce the upcoming introduction of the world’s first audio hardware product to bear the official name and signature of legendary trumpeter Miles Davis – the new “Miles Davis Tribute high-performance in-ear headphones. Created in conjunction with Miles Davis Properties, LLC, the new headphones are being offered in a individually numbered limited edition. Adding value to this limited edition release, purchasers of the Miles Davis Tribute headphones will also be able to enjoy free of charge the official 50th Anniversary boxed set of the artist’s seminal album Kind of Blue, featuring two music CDs, a DVD and a 24-page booklet.

Miles Davis Tribute headphones feature a striking gold/brass finish based on the actual trumpet played by the artist, featuring a Miles Davis silhouette and gold-etched signature on the earpiece. The headphones are complemented by an attractive ”kind of blue” cord and uniquely designed “musical instrument” carry case. Designed in every way to capture the essence of the renowned musician’s style, the Miles Davis Tribute headphones are tuned to reproduce the subtle nuances of music, with advanced sonic technologies engineered to deliver reference-quality audio...

Read more here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On the road again: Kurt Elling and Laurence Hobgood in Fargo: Concert review

Last week (Saturday, October 10): Kurt in St. Peter, MN. This week (Saturday, October 17): Kurt in Fargo, ND.

I have friends who follow U2 from city to city and believe me, jazz is cheaper.

This was a totally different concert from the one at Gustavus Adolphus College. From St. Peter to Fargo, there was not one crossover tune. Two possible reasons: This time, Kurt and Laurence performed with the Jazz Arts Big Band instead of their own quartet. And they don't repeat themselves.

How often have we all heard artists on tour for a new CD play the same sets multiple times? Dedicated to You is still new (although Elling and Hobgood are already well into planning their next recording with Concord), and while Elling mentioned DTY and the fact that it would be available for sale in the lobby after the show, they are not playing that show everywhere they go. (Though they are playing it on their European tour, which begins October 24 in Cork, Ireland.) Selected songs are being incorporated into the vast and expanding Elling-Hobgood repertoire.

Playing with a big band can’t be as spontaneous as playing with a quartet. There are charts to be learned ahead of time. When Elling told the Gustavus crowd that the quartet would be performing some tunes from DTY, some requests, and “some things I haven’t thought of yet,” I took that to mean the set list was not carved in stone and they would go at least in part where the spirit of the performance and the house moved them. But with a big band, even the encore is decided and rehearsed in advance.

I wonder if the sets they played on stage in Fargo were the same as they played earlier that day, during their one and only rehearsal with the band. We were given a printed program with titles prefaced by “Program to be selected from the following.” Over two sets, they played most but not all of the songs listed, swapping “Man in the Air” for “Say It (Over and Over Again)” and changing the order significantly. I didn’t see any of the musicians madly shuffling charts on their stands, but perhaps Elling decided the order of the program as the evening went along? That would be interesting to know.

A bit about the Jazz Arts Big Band: Founded in 1991, the 17-member band is made up of professional musicians/jazz educators from the Fargo-Moorhead area. A nonprofit organization, it has a board and depends on grants, sponsors, and individual supporters—just like Minnesota's JazzMN Big Band which, I learned later from Jazz Arts Group executive director Rochelle Roesler, was modeled on the Jazz Arts band. (JAG is the umbrella group that brought Elling to town. This is its 19th season. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon will perform in February. Past guest artists have included Conrad Herwig and Freddy Cole. JAG also has an educational mission; Elling gave a class on Friday for students that was also open to the public. Twin Cities-based vocalist Nancy Harms went to Fargo a day early so she could attend the class.)

I’ve seen Elling with a big band only once before, at an International Association for Jazz Educators conference in NYC. (RIP, IAJE: Roesler saw Elling at the final conference in Toronto, and that’s when she decided she had to bring him to Fargo.) I saw him with the Bob Mintzer Big Band, a Grammy-winning organization led by jazz great (and Yellowjacket) Mintzer. The Jazz Arts band is not the Mintzer band, but it’s a good band and it was up for what Elling wanted it to do. Elling made his wants very clear, turning often to conduct the band and push it harder. I’m not sure how musical director Dr. Kyle Mack felt about that and I didn’t get a chance to ask him, but he was certainly gracious about it. (Writing for Fargo-Moorhead’s INFORUM website, John Lamb noted that Elling’s “takeover wasn’t hostile, but it was forceful.”)

The band opened the program with two upbeat tunes: “I Be Serious ’Bout Dem Blues,” a chart by bassist John Clayton, and “Another One of Those Things” a take-off on “Just One of Those Things” by composer John Mahoney. Mack introduced Elling by telling a story about an Arts Midwest master class he had attended several years ago, during which Elling had made a nervous young student feel at ease by asking him to stay after class for a private lesson. Then Elling and Hobgood came out, and those in the audience who were studying their programs and thinking they were about to hear the relatively mellow “Close Your Eyes” were in for a surprise.

Elling was in full bring-down-the-house Sinatra mode for “Luck Be a Lady,” turning to the band and punching the air whenever he wanted a blare from the horns. He got it. He wanted the band to swing hard right now, and he got that, too. The band might have started the evening a bit tentatively (okay, not might have, did), but by the end of the night they were breathing fire.

Everything seemed a bit overamped all evening long. Many of the subtleties usually present in an Elling show were lost. But this was about rousing a crowd that seemed even more reserved than Minnesotans, and more hesitant to show their enthusiasm. Solos (by the band and the guests) weren’t rewarded as often as they should have been.

Next: Mintzer’s arrangement of “My One and Only Love.” (Hear it on Mintzer’s Old School: New Lessons. It's also on DTY in a new arrangement by Hobgood.) Elling stepped aside to let the spotlight fall on the band's guitarist, Tom Carvell. Then, prefaced by Elling as “a little Basie action where the band gets all greasy”: “Goin’ to Chicago Blues,” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks. On this tune, Elling growled and roared. Jaws dropped. He could take this show to Vegas.

The first set ended big with Coltrane’s “Resolution,” featuring Elling’s lyrics and Mintzer’s chart. Elling and the band took it over the top. But first Elling told the story behind his version, which I had not heard before. “Mrs. Coltrane [Alice] did not cotton to people writing lyrics to her husband’s music,” he explained. He sent her a tape and heard back: “The first word is ‘God’ and I like that and that’s right, so he can record this—but no more from anybody.”

After the break, the second set began with two more tunes by the band: Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee,” arranged by David Springfield, and Horace Silver’s delightful “Filthy McNasty,” arranged by John La Barbera. This time, when Elling and Hobgood stepped on stage, they started with “Close Your Eyes” in a big band arrangement by Shelly Berg which Elling recorded earlier with the USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra. (You can find on iTunes if you’re so inclined. Search for USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra).

The band sat out for the next tune, the tender and beautiful “Say It (Over and Over Again)” from DTY (and also on Hobgood’s “Left to My Own Devices,” in a version for solo piano). Elling began by telling the crowd that Hobgood’s arrangement on DTY was for jazz quartet, saxophonist Ernie Watts, and string quartet (ETHEL), but “any night I have Laurence Hobgood with me, I have an instant ten-fingered orchestra.” This was the evening’s most romantic moment, a wonderful performance by a master of the love song and his elegant, intuitive, expressive collaborator. The crowd—about 400 people, not a full house but a good house, split among chairs on the main level and sofas/cocktail-style tables on the mezzanine—was rapt.

Before the closer, Elling took time to praise the band and introduce each member by name, “these handsome men, because everybody has a mother and they all want to hear their little boys’ names.” He reminded us that CDs were available in the lobby, each “a fitting coaster for anyone who likes a drink,” pointed us toward his website with the words “it’s costing me a fortune; it costs you nothing,” and said that his next CD—with John Patitucci on bass and Peter Erskine on drums (!!!)—will probably be out in the spring of 2010. Then the great, colorful story-song “Nature Boy.” If you want to see Kurt sing it with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, here’s a video.

The encore, during which Elling conducted the band: “My Foolish Heart.” Two full, varied, enjoyable sets had come to an end.

But the night wasn’t over. Roesler kindly invited us to a reception at The Wine Bar, a small café in a strip mall where we had some lovely Penfold shiraz and I had the chance to talk with Dr. Matthew Patnode, a saxophonist with the big band (who told me how it works—thanks for that, Dr. P.), and with Hobgood, who was seated across the table from me.

Having read Hobgood’s postings on Elling’s website (the Forum section), I always thought he would be interesting to talk with, and he was. Topics ranged from the upcoming Jazz at Lincoln Center concert with Richard Galliano (Friday–Saturday, May 14–15, 2010), a meeting with Galliano in Paris (where the accordionist is a superstar), Turkish music, world music, the Dakota jazz club in Minneapolis, life in Chicago, life in New York, the Green Mill in Chicago, Hobgood's friend Patricia Barber (he calls her Patty), the piano he recently played at a concert in Des Moines, shopping for silk shirts in Los Angeles, the prospect of composing for string quartet, listening to Shostakovich’s string quartets (numbers 4 and 6, if I remember correctly), the next Elling CD and how amazing it will be with Patitucci and Erskine, Hobgood’s recent one-night engagement at Small’s (you can listen to both sets online), and more.

Meanwhile HH, seated at my right, was talking with Elling, who was seated at his right, about photography and music and Monterey and the Iron Chef television program (this being a bar, the TVs were on). I asked Elling if he cooked. He doesn't.

The wine was passed, glasses were filled, glasses were emptied, and we ordered more.

Photos by John Whiting.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Miguel Zenón's "Esta Plena" at the Dakota: Concert review

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón played the Dakota two days ago, two extraordinary sets, and I’m still thinking about them. (The house wasn’t full and some of us stayed for both. That’s a long night at the Dakota—the first set starts around 7, the second usually ends after 11.) The music was so intriguing, the rhythms so beguiling that I find myself returning to the evening—and to the CD, Esta Plena (Marsalis Music), for which Zenón and his group are currently touring. Its official release date is October 20; Zenón brought a box of 30 to sell at the Dakota. (Until Oct. 20 or shortly before, you can listen to the full album at NPR.)

For Esta Plena (This Is Plena), Zenón went home to his native Puerto Rico, from whose indigenous music he also drew for Jibaro (2005), the album believed to have gotten the MacArthur Foundation’s attention. (Zenón was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008, shortly after winning a Guggenheim.) Jibaro is string-based music from the Puerto Rican countryside. Plena is vocal music associated with the coastal regions. Both are folk styles.

Except for maybe the encore after the last set, none of the tunes we heard was straight plena. All were plena wrapped in and shot through with modern jazz, which Zenón first heard as a teenager growing up in Puerto Rico, then studied at the Berklee and Manhattan schools of music. In 2004, just three years after earning his Masters in Saxophone Performance, he was invited to become a founding member of the SF Jazz Collective, one of the most prestigious jazz organizations in the USA. Current members include Stefon Harris, Joe Lovano, Robin Eubanks, Matt Penman, Dave Douglas, Renee Rosnes, and Eric Harland. Good company.

So Esta Plena is not folkie folk music—and yet, as another admirer seated beside us remarked, “Miguel, your roots are showing.” Somehow the music seemed rooted, grounded, traditional, yet brought forward into this moment, especially when heard live.

Zenón brought his working quartet, the fine musicians he has worked with for years: Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo, also a member of the Ravi Coltrane Quartet (can Perdomo pick saxophonists or what?), Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig, formerly a member of Kenny Werner’s trio and quintet, now heading his own quartet (with Perdomo, Dave Binney, and Eric Doob), and Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole (say koh-lay, not cole). For the new CD and the tour, he added vocalist and percussionist Hector “Tito” Matos, also from Puerto Rico. When he wasn’t singing (and usually when he was), Matos played one or more panderos (hand-held Puerto Rican drums). Zenón also sang.

For the first set, we heard individual tunes, most of which Zenón introed or outroed: “Esta Plena,” “Oyola,” “Pandero y Pagoda,” maybe “Residencial Llorens Tarres” (something that began with a lot of percussion, then moved into a speedy section with Zenón and Perdomo in unison). The second set become one continuous piece of many rhythms linked together, during which Zenón played with such fire and fierceness that I thought his head would explode, or maybe everyone’s. He had been more than warmed up for the first set; for the second, he was nuclear.

I found the music challenging, but in a good way; these are thick, thorny rhythms I can't separate into tidy sections. Every so often I clung to the bass line, hoping that Glawischnig would just keep time for a minute or two, but he was as crazy as the others. Whenever I thought I had figured out a rhythm, I was one or two beats off. I later read at NPR that “variations of three, six, and nine are recurrent motifs in the form, phrasing, and intervals of Zenón ’s compositions.” No wonder I was a helpless cork bobbing in the water.

The music was also melodic and beautiful. Sometimes it was amusing. For the encore, “El Canto del Gallo,” which Zenón described as a traditional plena song, Matos clucked like a chicken and crowed like a rooster. (“El Canto del Gallo” = “The Song of the Rooster.”) In “Despidida,” Zenón quoted “Auld Lang Syne.” Before then, we heard sweetness and warmth from Perdomo’s piano, tenderness and depth from Glawischnig’s bass, and delicacy in Cole’s drums.

At the shining center of it all: Zenón ’s saxophone. His tone is clear and clean-edged, never fuzzy or blurry; it’s as if each note is carved by a knife. No matter how many notes he plays—and often he plays a lot of notes, in torrential runs filled with unexpected intervals, and he’s not afraid to rear back and wail (so far back he seems to be blowing himself backward, or doing the limbo)—each one sounds pure and fully-formed. His technical proficiency is undeniable; so is his passion. He wants us to know the music of his homeland. First jibaro, now plena; what next, Miguel?

Photos by John Whiting

CD Review: Vicky Mountain & James Allen: Sincerely Yours

Vocalist and MacPhail educator Vicky Mountain’s new CD, Sincerely Yours (2009), is a pleasure from start to end. Her voice—which ranges from sultry chanteuse to little girl, bluesy mama to playful tease—is in fine form, her landings sure-footed, her articulation pristine (one of the things I especially enjoy about her singing), her song choices eclectic and enjoyable. Where else can you find “Willow Weep for Me” side-by-side with “Love Potion #9”?

She scats smartly in all the right places (on the Illinois Jacquet/James Mundy tune “Don’cha Go 'Way Mad” and the Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn standard “Love Me or Leave Me”), sings her own lyrics to Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” (renamed “Jitterbug Fantasy”) and gives it a music-hall ending, infuses “Love Me or Leave Me” with a fresh sense of urgency, and fills the Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Mercer fave “I Thought About You” with joyous anticipation instead of the usual regret. No worries; these lovers will meet again soon.

Throughout, her background in theater shows: each song is a story, convincingly told. Each has its own mood and emotional setting. And she gives us her full voice, from lush low notes to sweet high ones.

For accompaniment, she chose one man and one instrument. MacPhail colleague James Allen’s guitar is a full partner to Mountain’s voice. He brings skill, sensitivity, and wit to the table; for the R&B classic “Unchain My Heart” (think Ray Charles), Allen frames the tune with bassist Jack Bruce’s famous riff from the Cream song “Sunshine of Your Love.” Clever and utterly unexpected.

It’s just the two of them on all but a single track, “When Your Lover Has Gone,” when they add Graydon Peterson on bass (and give him room to stretch out on a solo). Voice and guitar add up to a warm and intimate recording, one you can get close to and take personally.

A sampling of Mountain’s lyrics for “Jitterbug Fantasy”:

A look, a turn, a phrase, a crooked smile, a certain way of walking
and I think it’s you
but no, you’re just a fantasy

A joke you tell, the quiet laugh, a wink, the way you wear your hairdo
and I think, it must be you,
but it’s just my fantasy

And when I’m out I follow strangers down the street

I wait on corners thinking that it’s you I’ll meet

I never do, and all I get are sore feet
Oh, where are you in my fantasy?

And this choice couplet:

It’s getting hard to tell the real from the un
And you know I’m not having any fun….

The CD release is tomorrow, Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Sage Wine Bar in Mendota Heights. Sincerely Yours is not yet available on CD Baby, but her previous recording, Don’t Go to Strangers (2005), is, so check back there if you don’t find Sincerely Yours at the Fetus.

Photo from Vicky Mountain's website

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Jason Moran: Outtakes from the Augsburg convocation

Pianist/composer Jason Moran spoke and performed at Augsburg College in Minneapolis yesterday (Oct. 12) as part of its 2009–2010 Convocation Series. Augsburg English professor Mzenga Wanyama, who curates the Fine Arts convocation, brought him in; Wanyama didn’t know Moran or his music before this but someone recommended him.

A moment to say how much I enjoyed meeting and speaking (if briefly) with Professor Wanyama, born in Kenya, educated at the University of Nairobi, then at Howard University and the University of Minnesota (where he earned his Ph.D.), now teaching English (postcolonial theory and literature; African American literary history) at a small Lutheran college in Minnesota. How did that happen?

I like Moran very much and have heard him speak before, at the Walker Art Center in conversation with performing arts curator Philip Bither. He’s an educator so he’s comfortable addressing audiences, and he has interesting things to say about his music, his influences, and his process(es). A report on the convocation is up on MinnPost. Here’s more of what Moran said during his hour in sunny Hoversten Chapel.

“Music is the form that has given me opportunity and possibility.”

After noting that hearing Thelonious Monk’s music changed his life (and kept him from quitting piano studies): “Monk is a descendant of people whose history is still uncharted and unfound…. As I play his music now, I see it as a reflection of his history.” (This is a helpful clue on how to listen to Moran play Monk; he’s not just dealing with the music, but thoughtfully and profoundly with his own considerable research into Monk’s life and background and ancestors.)

“It’s the duty of musicians to be as honest and truthful as possible—as honest as they can stand.”

He asked how many students in the audience have passports and was surprised by the large show of hands. Then he encouraged everyone else to get one and use it. His first serious travel experience happened when he was still in college (at the Manhattan School of Music, where he now teaches). Saxophonist Greg Osby needed a pianist for a three-week tour of Europe and asked Moran to come along. “I started to see what’s happening outside America. It was eye-opening.”

He talked about his teacher, Jaki Byard, whose unsolved murder in 1999 still haunts him. “Jaki was kind of a crazy piano player, with hair that shot out the back of his head like Frederick Douglass. Crazy dresser. He taught me to explore the possibilities of the piano. I always play a piece of his in performance.”

“To me, the piano is therapy… I have to travel through myself to get to the point where I can look forward.”

“Monk, Jaki Byard, and my parents all made it possible for me to do something artistic, satisfying, and also soul-searching.”

Words to young pianists (in response to a student’s question): “First, practice. Practice what your teacher says, and practice what you like. Second, listen to as much music as you can, including music you don’t like, so you know what it is.”

When a student asked him to explain what he was doing inside the piano, Moran talked briefly about John Cage and prepared piano, then demonstrated by putting a drumstick and mic on the strings and playing several notes and runs. “The instrument can be a toy. The sounds that come from it are up to you. The piano can be whatever you want it to be…. Once I poured potpourri inside my parents’ piano. It didn’t do much, but it still smells like flowers.”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kurt Elling Quartet at Gustavus Adolphus College: Worth the drive

Kurt and his collaborator

Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota is about an hour’s drive from Minneapolis, a bit longer if you stick to speed limits. It’s also Kurt Elling’s alma mater (class of 1989), and last night (Oct. 10) he returned for homecoming and a concert at Bjorling Recital Hall, where he first performed jazz before a live audience.

How many times have I heard Elling sing? I’ve lost count—maybe 20? And I’m not through yet. He’s always evolving, pushing himself, changing, going in new directions, taking risks, trying new things. I’ve never once seen him just go through the motions. He just gets better, more subtle and more powerful, commanding the stage and holding the audience. His voice is a Stradivarius, improving with the years. He must work very, very hard.

As I drive to Saint Peter with a friend, we wonder—will we hear the Dedicated to You show again? (Elling has been on tour with that in support of his latest CD on Concord, his take on the iconic Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane sessions—not a replication, an interpretation, with wonderful arrangements by Laurence Hobgood.) I’ve seen it in Monterey and in Minneapolis, and I think—if he wants to do it again, that’s fine.

He doesn’t. He cherry-picks songs from it (as he has done with his project with Fred Hersch, Leaves of Grass) but this is a whole new show as far as I can tell, full of favorites and songs not yet recorded but promised for his next Concord release.

Maybe because he’s back home at Gustavus (of which he always speaks fondly), maybe because Bjorling is such an intimate and inviting space (lined in wood, it seats just 475, and the acoustics are pin-drop perfect), maybe because he’s playing to at least a partly college crowd, Elling seems especially loose, relaxed, and anything-goes. He dances and glides across the stage, makes jokes, and addresses the audience throughout the performance. He’s warmer and more playful than I’ve ever seen him in a club setting, except perhaps at Birdland.

The night begins with a sweet, funny moment. Laurence, drummer Ulysses Owens, and Nigerian-British bass player Michael Olatuja come out through a door at stage left, take their places, and wait. Will they play an instrumental crowd-warmer? No, they just wait. The audience is absolutely still. Then Elling opens the door, which gives a loud crick crick. In pin-drop acoustics. Note to Gustavus: WD-40.

Song by song, here’s what happens next.

1. “Autumn Nocturne,” entirely a cappella. Elling’s voice sounds as if he has spent the last several hours warming up. This nostalgic, achy tune is a perfect start to a concert in a state that just last night had its first dusting of snow.

2. “My Foolish Heart,” with trio. The version that includes the poem by Sufi saint Rabia of Basra (“The moon was once a moth who ran to God…”). This seems to be Elling’s preferred version now; it’s the only one I’ve heard him sing live. There’s another, with a poem by St. John of the Cross, on Live in Chicago (1999). He ends on a high note that lasts and lasts and slowly fades and no one breathes until it’s over.

3. Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” Seriously swinging. Forget the original pop song smoothie. It’s a jazz song now. I’ve read about Elling performing this song but have never heard it until now. Hoping it will be on the new CD.

Break: Elling talks about how much he loves the fall, the “magnificent everything season…. Summer is like finishing up the year for me.” Then tells us a bit about Dedicated to You, how the band recorded it live (at the Allen Room in Jazz at Lincoln Center) and had “one take to get it right…I’m pretty happy with much of it.” He promises to sing “some from that, some requests, and some things I haven’t thought of yet.”

4. “Dedicated to You,” a measured, velvety ballad on the original Coltrane/Hartman album, is a whole new song with Hobgood’s spirited arrangement—there’s bounce to it. Still beautiful but more modern. Hobgood is a genius.

Ulysses Owens

5. Working title: “Kabuki Cowboy.” Elling’s description: “A Marc Johnson lick with a lyric I’ve written.” A work in progress, and I’m glad I’m here to see/hear it. To me, this kind of experience is the whole reason to see jazz live. It's a surprise, a delight, a tour-de-force, a high-wire act.

It starts with teasing back-and-forth between Elling and drummer Owens. Elling scats a rhythm, Owens repeats and elaborates. Again. Fun to watch and hear. You can tell Owens doesn’t know exactly what Elling will do next—he’s a hitter on the mound, swinging at pitches. Then Olatuja joins in, and Hobgood, playing the piano like a kora (thanks for that insight, Janis), one hand holding down strings inside so the sound is more plucked than struck.

The lyrics are wild, plentiful, far-fetched, and colorful--almost stream-of-consciousness. Something about “a little man riding around in a space capsule deep inside my head,” about “digging everything in life” and “thinking all the time.” Hip, chatty, cool. I would have taken more notes but I was listening too hard. New CD, please.

Kurt with Michael Olatuja

6. “You Are Too Beautiful” from Dedicated to You. A complete change of mood/direction that makes perfect sense. Elling introduces it by saying “By osmosis, you know this song, even if you don’t know this song.” A showcase for his amazing voice, its range and depth and resonance.

7. “Late Night Willie.” Hobgood plays a gospel groove and we’re off on another adventure—to me, the centerpiece of the entire night. Is this Elling’s take on the Keith Jarrett tune by the same name? I don’t know and can’t say but I’m guessing it is.

It starts with a story that seems customized for this crowd: about being in college, discovering yourself, finding out if you’re a late-night person or an early person. “Your perception will alter radically if you stay awake for 24 hours at a time…. You’ll find your sleep cycle has made you misperceive reality…. You’ll feel different about the day when you’ve already lived through one and you’re still up. You’ll wonder, ‘What will happen if I stay up for two days?’” There’s a very funny bit about being at a party, deciding to leave early, feeling someone pulling on the back of your coat (here Elling pulls on the back of his own suit jacket and poses as if surprised), and discovering it’s the devil disguised as your friend, who talks you into staying.

Kurt gets down

Throughout, the amazing Hobgood is right there with Elling. His piano accompaniment--intuitive, witty and wry--turns a monologue into a dialogue, a layered conversation. Fascinating to see and hear.

Then Elling launches into reams of lyrics, heaps of lyrics, singing fast. Playful, smart stuff, the total opposite in mood, style, and intensity of the Hartman/Coltrane project. A phrase I loved and managed to scribble: “Unless you’re Miles Davis, there’s always some brother, some other smoother than you.”

Elling steps aside and Hobgood takes it away and I will forever regret not making a clandestine recording of what happens next (which I would never do, but I’m just saying): a solo that strides across the musical landscape like Colossus, from gospel to blues to jazz to classical, thick chords and whispered single notes and glittering ornaments. The ending is delicious, so beautiful and romantic, and the drums and bass return and Elling steps forward and it’s a satiny segue into…

8. “Stairway to the Stars.” I’m still puzzling over how “Late Night Willie” turned into Rachmaninov. But I’m happy to hear this lovely song, which Elling sings on Hobgood’s latest CD, When the Heart Dances (2009). That is definitely worth checking out BTW; Hobgood’s playing throughout is gorgeous, and his bassist is not too shabby: Charlie Haden. I especially love the first tune, “Que Sera Sera.”

Break: Elling introduces the band: young Juilliard grad Owens, who’s “elbowing his way onto the New York music scene in all the right ways,” bassist Olatuja, “on loan from Terence Blanchard for the weekend.” He saves his most profound thanks for Hobgood: “my great collaborator and friend of more than 16 years…he makes so much of what we do possible…his arrangements and improvisational skills…he’s half of the success we have.”

9. Pure scat singing. Is it Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”? I think so, but only because (thanks to Carmen McRae’s Carmen Sings Monk) I can sense words behind the scatting. Maybe Elling’s version is built on it, or draws from it, or…who cares.

This is the official last tune of the evening, after which the band will return for an encore. But as I listen to Elling scat Monk (or whatever), I’m thinking as I always do when I hear him live that no one singing today can touch him. The awards (Best Male Vocalist multiple times), the heaps of praise (“standout male jazz vocalist of our time”—New York Times; “may be the greatest male jazz singer of all times”—Jazz Review), the awestruck reviews (yes, this is yet another one) are not fluff or hyperbole but simple fact. What a satisfying evening this has been in every way.

The encore:

10. Hobgood’s “Motherland.” Just Elling and Hobgood on stage in a comment on the times, a plea for unity and change: “Look around/tell me what you see/it isn’t what it’s supposed to be.” Moving and inspiring.

Afterward, Elling greets friends and former classmates in the lobby, and Hobgood signs copies of his new CD. Mine, unfortunately, is in the car.

Worth the drive to Saint Peter—to, in daylight, past leaves of red and gold; from, in darkness, a long, lonely stretch of highway on the Minnesota plains? No question.

Worth the drive to Fargo, North Dakota, next weekend (Oct. 17) to see Elling and Hobgood with the Jazz Arts Big Band? Some people think so. Here’s a link. Tickets still available. Twenty bucks.

Laurence's blue shoes. The back of his jacket
was embroidered in red.