Saturday, March 14, 2009

Fat Kid Wednesdays + Buckley

When: Friday, March 13, 2009 • Where: Café Maude Who: Fat Kid Wednesdays: Michael Lewis, saxes; Adam Linz, bass; J.T. Bates, drums

I’m liking Maude more and more. Owner Kevin Sheehy is committed to keeping the music going, the food good, the art fresh. It’s a too-loud crowd for the music but these days the operative word is “crowd.” And somehow it has become a place that gets away with presenting real music, often cutting-edge music, where no one seems to be listening.

It doesn't seem that the musicians who play there are gritting their teeth and putting up with it just because it’s a gig. They like Maude, too. Plus other musicians regularly show up to see their friends play. Tonight it’s bassist/composer James Buckley, who sits in for Linz for a couple of tunes near the end of the last set. I know about Buckley and hear about him often but have never seen him play—the timing has never worked out—so this is a first.

FKW is fine tonight. They give their usual nod to the Shaggs with “That Little Sportscar,” which Don Berryman caught on video when they played it at the AQ in January.

But most of the night is mellow—ballads and standards. Lewis’s mom Mary is here and he’s making her happy. Vince Mendoza’s “Ambivalence.” “Makin’ Whoopie.” The killer closer, “In a Sentimental Mood.” I won’t say FKW “deconstructs” the standards—the melodies and rhythms are still strong—but they do stretch them, bend them, reshape them.

Although Lewis is best known for his out-there saxophone antics (and, more recently, for playing electric bass with Andrew Bird), he is a superb player of standards, with a meltingly, heartbreakingly beautiful tone. We’re all googly-eyed during “Sentimental Mood.”

What a great band. Why everyone doesn’t come out to hear them every time they play is a mystery. Mary tells us they have played together for 15 years—half their lives. That’s probably how they make it look so easy.

Hear more FKW on MySpace.
Buckley is finishing up a CD with his trio (Bryan Nichols on keyboard/piano, J.T. on drums) and posting tracks on MySpace.

Photos by John Whiting. Top to bottom: Lewis, Buckley, FKW, Linz.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Happy Birthday, Roy Haynes

The beautiful, awesome, and always well-dressed Roy Haynes turns 84 today (March 13). This picture is from his 79th birthday at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul. We have more recent pictures (for example, from his appearance at the Dakota last year) but I like this one of Roy as pensive, silk-clad mandarin. Read more about him at and check out the 12 essential Haynes recordings Eric Novod recommends. Then buy yourself a present in honor of the great man's birthday: A Life in Time: The Roy Haynes Story box set with DVD.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SFJAZZ Collective: A supergroup comes to town

When: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 • Where: Dakota • Who: Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Renee Rosnes, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Eric Harland, drums

The trouble with most supergroups is they’re too much to take in. Consider the SFJAZZ Collective. I would have been happy to see any one of these seven great musicians in a small-group setting (or, in the case of the splendid pianist Renee Rosnes, solo…or, because a girl can dream, piano-four-hands with her husband, Bill Charlap). But last night all seven were on the Dakota stage at once, making it difficult to decide (except during solos) where to point my eyes and ears.

I mean, Joe Lovano! He rarely touches down in Minneapolis and I have only seen him live once, at an IAJE in NYC. And Miguel Zenon! I’ve seen him several times but it’s never enough. What a powerhouse. Passionate and fascinating. Eric Harland—monster/charmer. Matt Penman. Robin Eubanks. Dave Douglas. At least I didn’t have to torture myself over when to focus on Stefon Harris; he’s on hiatus from the band for a year.

Unlike supergroups with dueling egos and meltdowns, SFJC is a real ensemble. They rehearse extensively before touring and it shows. They’re tight. They all arrange, they all compose. Each year, they focus on a different composer; this year it’s McCoy Tyner. (Past years: Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk.) So their program includes their own arrangements of works by Tyner and new works of their own.

We were at the second set, and this is what we heard:

1. Tyner’s “Peresina,” arranged by Douglas. Out of the gate, an amazing solo by Rosnes. (Pianist Mary Louise Knutson had a clear view of the keyboard and Rosnes’s hands throughout the set—how perfect was that?)
2. Penman’s “Yup, We Did.” Written as a playful response to Eubanks’s “Yes, We Can,” which came later.
3. Tyner’s “Aisha,” arranged by Joe Lovano. A showcase for Lovano’s gorgeous tenor saxophone.
4. Rosnes’s “Migrations.” A warm and sunny piece with a terrific solo by Douglas. Did I hear him quote “There Will Never Be Another You”? A big song for Chet Baker.
5. Eubanks’s “Yes, We Can (A Victory Dance).” Eubanks explained that he was in Bratislava, Slovakia on the night Obama won the election. He wanted to write a celebratory tune. When they weren't playing their instruments, the other band members clapped a pattern of twos and threes.
6. Harland’s “ECollective.” Harland purred and growled his introduction, telling us this piece is based on a tihi, a rhythmic cadence used by Indian drummers. Harland has played a lot with Indian tablaist Ustad Zakir Hussain so he has learned from the best. The band members began by singing the rhythm, as Hussain does when he plays: ticka ticka ticka. Then all rhythmic hell broke loose.
7. Tyner’s “Four by Five,” arranged by Zenon. The blazing, generous encore.

Tonight’s performance capped an incredible run of very big nights for music in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Last week: Joshua Redman’s trio, Esperanza Spalding, Frank Kimbrough, Kenny Werner, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, a surprise performance by Wynton Marsalis and his quartet on the Dakota stage following their final LCJO show at Orchestra Hall. (Kimbrough was the only one I didn’t see, simply because I couldn’t be in two places at once). Who knew things could get so exciting in flyover land?

Photos by John Whiting.

About the blog, and music writing

One never knows who reads a blog. (There are ways to find out but I haven't yet explored them.) Lately I've heard from several people who read this blog, much to my surprise, and have wondered where it is, why it hasn't been updated, even if I have abandoned it.

It's still here, it hasn't been abandoned, and there are two reasons why I haven't kept it up for the past few weeks.

First, time. I want to be sure to keep my paying clients happy, especially now. They support my jazz habit and pay the bills. Thank you, paying clients.

Second, my MinnPost jazz writing gig changed. For more than a year I wrote one column each week. These weren't New Yorker-size profile pieces but they were long enough to justify interviewing artists, something that not only takes up their time but also involves a lot of preparation on my end. (For the curious, the final column is here.)

Starting in December, all MinnPost arts coverage was moved to a new Arts Arena section. We were asked to write more often and much shorter--about 400 words max. (If you have read this far, you're at 200.) How could I introduce an event, describe it, say why it’s worth attending, give enough background to prove it, and let the artist speak, all within those confines? Would it be worth the artists' time, and mine, to continue with interviews? I didn't want to recycle press releases or blah-blah opinions. To me, reporting on jazz includes learning something new, most often from the artist, and passing it on.

It took me a while to figure out how to make this work. If the early jazz recordings had to be kept to 3 minutes (due to technology limitations), I guess I can live with word-count constraints. Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” (1928) clocks in at 3:18. I’m not comparing (how silly would that be), just finding inspiration where plenty of others have found it before me.

And the blog is back. Thanks for noticing its absence, and for reading.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Jazz jam, with Wynton

When: Saturday, March 7 • Where: Dakota

The Dakota jazz club and Orchestra Hall, home of the Minnesota Orchestra, have been in close geographical proximity since the Dakota moved from St. Paul to Minneapolis in late 2003, but they never had a relationship until Lilly Schwartz became the Orchestra’s director of pops and special projects. Ever since, artists performing at Orchestra Hall have made their way to the Dakota after shows to dine in the club’s restaurant and sometimes perform on its stage. So when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra came to town, it was a given that at least some of the band members would stop by on Friday or Saturday, maybe both. And it was hoped that some of them would jam with the excellent trio hired for the late-night shows: pianist Bryan Nichols, bassist Adam Linz, drummer J.T. Bates.

We weren’t able to go to the late-night on Friday but heard later that trumpeter Sean Jones and other JLCO members performed—and that a local musician had engaged Jones in a cutting contest. As they say, poor bastard, and I don’t mean Jones.

We were there on Saturday and it was one for the jazz history books. We knew when Wynton Marsalis came into the club—everyone knew—but didn’t expect him to play. Then he stepped on stage and joined Nichols, Linz, and Bates for the first tune. When he stepped down, we thought that was all we would hear from him. More JLCO members played—bassist Carlos Henriquez, drummer Ali Jackson, trumpeters Freddie Hendrix and Ryan Kisor. Then the trio took a break, after which Marsalis returned with his own trio: pianist Dan Nimmer, Henriquez, Jackson.

For the next 20 minutes or so, the Dakota was the Village Vanguard, Blues Alley, and the House of Tribes. By now it was SRO—word had gotten out—and it was thrilling to be there. The last time Marsalis played a small club in the Twin Cities was October 2003, at the now-defunct Brilliant Corners in St. Paul. Tickets were $45. The Dakota charges $5 for its late-night sets. People who walked in off the street on Saturday out of curiosity, or because they had heard the Dakota had a late-night scene and wanted to check it out, got more than a bargain. They got a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

When the quartet finished, the jam didn’t end. Saxophonist Michael Lewis, home on break from his tour with Andrew Bird, came through the curtain and played a tune; so did saxophonist Chris Thomson. Drummer Kevin Washington took over for J.T. toward the end and filled the air with thunder. Marsalis stood by the side of the stage, nodding and smiling.

See also my Arts Arena post on
Photos by John Whiting. Top to bottom: Wynton Marsalis; Nimmer, Henriquez, Marsalis, Jackson; Nichols, Linz, Lewis, Washington, Thomson.

P.S. I asked Jeremy Walker, former proprietor of Brilliant Corners, what Marsalis and his group played during their set. His answer: "I believe it is a suite of tunes called 'The Magic Hour.' I know he played some of the material at Brilliant Corners way back when. If I remember right, it is a suite about getting the kids to bed so you can have quiet time with the special person in your life."

Kenny Werner captivates a date-night crowd

When: Saturday, March 7, 2009 • Where: Dakota • Who: Kenny Werner, piano; Jorge Roeder, bass; Richie Barshay, drums; guest vocalist Debbie Duncan

The Dakota on a Saturday night can be a tough room for musicians, depending on what their expectations are. It's a big date night when people come to see and be seen, to hang out and sip martinis and be cool. Sometimes the crowd noise buries the music or turns it into wallpaper.

Not tonight. The curtain is open, the house is full, and people are here to listen to the Kenny Werner Trio’s poetry and elegance and sublimeness. Even if that’s not what they came for, they succumb.

Werner’s presence is a lucky break for us. He was already scheduled to be in Minnesota, performing at the Head of the Lakes Jazz Festival in Duluth on Thursday and Friday; apparently his Saturday was free and the Dakota booked him. Area vocalist Debbie Duncan, originally on the calendar for Friday and Saturday, will join the trio for part of the evening. Duncan and Werner met for the first time today. It’s jazz.

“With a Song in My Heart”: Big, lovely chords. Then a piece Werner introduces as “written for us by J.S. Bach; we’re honored.” Bach would have been honored by Werner’s respectful, inventive treatment of his “Sicilienne,” beginning with a lengthy improvised piano solo into which Roeder and Barshay delicately step. (I’m listening to the recording on Werner’s Form and Fantasy, Vol. 1 as I write this.) Something by Herbie Hancock. Werner’s “Peace.”

Duncan enters for Gershwin’s “Plenty of Nothin’” and Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” I have heard Werner several times but never before with a singer (although he often plays with Betty Buckley, it hasn’t happened here). He and Duncan are a fine match and both seem happy with the results. We are.

Werner’s version of Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” closes the first set. The second is just as luscious: Coltrane’s “26-2” (Werner notes that they changed it to “26-2-5”), a multilayered “Greensleeves,” the bright, sunny Bulgarian folk song “Nardis” (also on Form and Fantasy), “All Right with Me.”

Duncan returns with Monk’s “’Round Midnight” and sings the version she prefers, with lyrics by Jon Hendricks. She introduces it by explaining that “Hendricks’ words have a more positive swing to them” than the more commonly performed lyrics by Bernie Hanighen and Clarence Williams. Later, I compare.

It begins to tell
’round midnight, midnight
I do pretty well

till after sundown

Suppertime I’m feelin’ sad

but it really gets bad

’round midnight.

Tears you’ve shed today
will pause, waiting until tomorrow

Dreams of what could be

come close to me timidly
There’s a brand new day
in sight
at the time
’round about midnight.

It’s a powerful and expressive performance during which Werner smiles broadly.

I have said almost nothing about Werner's new trio. (Previously I have heard him with Johannes Weidenmueller and Ari Hoenig, and with Toots Thielemans.) When Werner plays, my focus is almost entirely on him. He comes from such a deep place and brings so much with him--beauty, profoundness, wisdom, emotion, awareness, understanding--that it's all I can do to take in as much as I can before it melts into the air. His playing is food for spirit and soul. I think the audience knows that, even the fine young dandies with their dressed-up dates, and that's why they listen so hard.

Bassist Jorge Roeder and percussionist Richie Barshay are both very young (still in their 20s), though also very experienced: Barshay has been a member of the Herbie Hancock Quartet, Peruvian-born Roeder has performed and recorded with Hancock, Steve Turre, Roy Haynes and others. Next time I'll pay more attention to them.

Photos by John Whiting.