Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tim Sparks' Setlist at the Dakota

When: Saturday, July 18, 2009 • Where: DakotaWho: Tim Sparks, guitar; Chris Bates, bass; Jay Epstein, drums

A review of this special Dakota late-night show will follow. For now, this is for Dave Kunath:

“Ariel” by John Zorn (Zorn’s Astaroth: The Book of Angels, Vol. 1; not yet recorded by Sparks?)
“The Rebbe’s Hasid” by Naftule Brandwein (Little Princess)
“Oh Daddy, That’s Good” by Naftule Brandwein (Little Princess)
“Little Princess” by Naftule Brandwein (Little Princess)
“Nifty’s Freylekh” by Naftule Brandwein (Little Princess)
“A Few Bowls Terkish” by Naftule Brandwein (Little Princess)


“Mississippi Blues” by Willie Brown (Sidewalk Blues)
“Oriental Blues” by Eubie Blake (Sidewalk Blues), with a little “Moonlight Sonata” thrown in
“The Dearest in Bukovina” by Naftule Brandwein (Little Princess)
“Der Yid in Jerusalem” by Naftule Brandwein (Little Princess)
“Rigal” by John Zorn (Zorn’s Stolas: The Book of Angels, Vol. 12; not yet recorded by Sparks?)
“I Mean You” by Thelonious Monk (not yet recorded by Sparks?), with a quote from “Over the Rainbow”

Photos by John Whiting.

Oh, no: MnMo on jazz, again

In the May 2008 issue of Minnesota Monthly, editor Andrew Putz noted that jazz is "too damn hard. Hard to understand. Hard to appreciate. Hard to love."

In the August 2009 issue, which is cooling on some of our coffee tables as I write this, senior writer Tim Gihring includes the Kelly Rossum Quartet Farewell Weekend (August 28-29 at the Dakota) in his list of "your best bets for August."

Then he goes on to write that "the mohawked Rossum is an irreverent, take-no-prisoners presence in the sometimes stuffy modern-jazz scene."

Is there something in the water at the 600 U.S. Trust Building? I have the highest respect for Gihring--he's a writer worth reading and he cares deeply about the arts in Minnesota.

But "sometimes stuffy modern-jazz scene"?

Does that include Fat Kid Wednesdays, the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet, Monk in Motian, Atlantis, Snowblind, Framework, Frankhouse, Happy Apple, Buckley, the NOWnet, the Merlins, BroncoVision, the utterly unpredictable events scheduled at the Rogue Buddha, Homewood, Art of This Gallery, Maude, and...and... I can't list everyone so let's move on.

One might think that MnMo doesn't like jazz. For sure Minnesota Public Radio, with which the magazine has had a long relationship, doesn't like it. This is the station that cancelled its one and only jazz program in January of this year, tossing host Maryann Sullivan out of the tree (she landed safely at KBEM).

In May, Putz was actually recommending that people go see jazz—at Orchestra Hall. And Gihring was giving the thumbs-up to Rossum. But why the caveats?

And how often do MnMo staff check out our local jazz scene?

(Image: http://www.ezdiyelectricity.com/images/icons/question-mark1a.jpg)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Benefit for Dean Magraw scheduled for August 30, 2009

Go here for the latest information on the Dean Magraw benefits (four have now been scheduled).

Dean Magraw is beloved by countless people, as a musician and as a person.
Guitarist Elgin Foster was kind enough to forward this email to me yesterday and I'm including it here for friends and fans of Dean. NOTE: The benefit committee is considering moving the start time to noon, since more people are wanting to play. I'll post details here, on fb, and on twitter as they become available.

From: Benefit Committee
Subject: Benefit for Dean Magraw

To: folkrock42@yahoo.com

Date: Tuesday, July 21, 2009, 12:55 AM

Benefit for Dean Magraw - August 30, 2009

Please join us in a benefit for Twin Cities' musician, Dean Magraw!

Dean is suffering from cancer-related issues and has had to cancel all of his performances for the foreseeable future. A benefit to raise money for his living expenses will be held on Sunday, August 30th, 2009 at The Celtic Junction in St. Paul:

The Celtic Junction

836 Prior Avenue

St. Paul, MN 55104

Doors will open at 1:30 and music will start at 2:00 PM continuing throughout the
day until 10:00 PM. [Start times have changed. The music will begin at noon.] Many of the Twin Cities' finest musicians will be present, including members of the Peterson family, Boiled in Lead, Lehto & Wright, Marcus Wise and more.

There is a suggested donation of $15 or whatever you can afford. Please, please forward this email onto anyone who might want to know of this event.

For more information, contact:

helpdeanmagraw@yahoo.com or


Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Illicit Sextet Reunion

When: Friday, July 24, 2009 • Where: Artists' QuarterWho: Steve Kenny, trumpet; Paul Harper, saxophone; David Roos, guitar; Chris Lomheim, piano; Tom Pieper, bass; Nathan Norman, drums

The band with the unforgettable name formed in the late 1980s, played a steady gig at O'Gara's in St. Paul for years, underwent personnel changes (one of the co-founders moved to New York), released their first and only recording, Chapter One, in 1993, was named Best Jazz Instrumental Group in the 1993 Minnesota Music Awards, and gave its final performance of the 20th century in 1997.

Twelve years later, they're back at the AQ for two nights.

In the 1990s, Jim Meyer famously dubbed them "the Cadillac of local jazz," and now I know why: Their music is a smooth ride, and not in a bad way. Their book is all originals and all the tunes are new to me; I missed them in the 90s and I'm here tonight because they're part of local jazz history and Lomheim is one of my favorite pianists.

As they play their first lengthy set (they start shortly after 9 and end at 11), people keep coming in until the house is SRO. We hear a tune by Dave Roos, then one by Tom Pieper called "Tribute" dedicated to Tom Harrell, the title track to their CD, a tango by Roos called "Entangoments," Lomheim's "Izzy & Lambchop," Pieper's "Pardon Who?," dedicated to George Bush Sr., and Kenny's "Little Big Horn."

Each tune is intro'd and outro'd by Kenny, who must have attended the same school of patter as Dave King: he's chatty, funny, and off the wall. We learn, for example, that "the Minnesota Music Awards went straight to our heads and we didn't play again for twelve years," that "Entangoments" is "twenty years old; it's in college now," that Lomheim's tune is "about sock puppets," and that "it's kind of creepy to thank people for showing up at a compelling jazz performance, but this is our national art form and I'm a patriot."

Did they get together and practice before this weekend's reunion, or did they just fall into step all over again? They play like old friends who are playing for old friends, which many audience members probably are. I've never heard any of this music before but I'm happy hearing it now. Listen to the mp3 at Kelly Bucheger's website. (Saxophonist Bucheger is the member who moved to NY; he's not here tonight, but he keeps the best and only web page about the group.) According to the facebook page, "the group has recently reunited." Does that mean there will be a Chapter Two?

Photos: The Illicit Sextet now (to come); the Illicit Sextet then

Frankhouse at the Black Dog

When: Friday, July 24, 2009 • Where: Black Dog • Who: Dan Frankowski, trumpet and flugelhorn; Shilad Sen, saxophone; Karl Koopmann, guitar; Graydon Peterson, bass; Dave Stanoch, drums

Still to come: a review of Frankhouse's CD release at the Artists' Quarter in June. Tonight was their first performance since then, with more scheduled for the coming months: at the 318 in August, the Dakota in September. I like this group a lot, and their approach to music: serious with a sense of fun.

Their choice of covers and how they play them is revealing. Joni Mitchell's "All I Want," Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," Michael Jackson's "Human Nature"--all songs we know, interpreted from a jazz/improv perspective (but not necessarily swing jazz, Frankowski explains). Then, out of the blue, Jackson's "Billie Jean" and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Well, why not? (They also cover Kevin Washington's "Three Days," a beautiful ballad with a plaintive melody that's crying out for lyrics. What a torch song that would be.)

Where they really shine is on Frankowski's original compositions: bright, upbeat tunes like "Ambulatory;" "Enough," with its soaring theme (and intertwining horns); the sly, witty "Folly;" the menacing "Don't." He writes melodies that stay with you, that bear repeated hearings, that sound even better live, then you return home and put on their CD, Thought versus Emotion, and enjoy them all over again. Ed Jones at KBEM has said more than once that he thinks it's one of the best CDs of the year. Find it at CD Baby.

Starting out, the crowd at the Black Dog was small. Which may have something to do with the fact that Cirque de Soleil has literally pitched its tents for its latest touring show, Kooza, in the Dog's backyard and parking, always a challenge in Lowertown, is now impossible. Kooza runs through August 9.

Frankhouse's MySpace
Photo: Silly iPhone shot of the band and someone's not-yet-cleared dinner dishes. L to R: Stanoch, Sen, Peterson, Frankowski, Koopmann (hidden behind Frankowski).

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thursday's musical feast

It is not decadent or greedy to see two or more live jazz performances on the same night.
Jazz fans did it all the time on NYC's 52nd street back in the day, and musicians ran from gig to gig to play, sit in, or listen. Some nights it's possible to do it in downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul, and you can also go from city to city if you start early enough or stay out late enough.

Last night began at Orchestra Hall's outdoor Peavey Plaza with a free concert by Fat Kid Wednesdays: Michael Lewis on saxophones (tenor and alto), Adam Linz on bass, JT Bates on drums. The crowd was sizable, the beer cold, the music as intriguing and unpredictable as always with this trio. Looking worldly from his recent tour with Andrew Bird, during which he's been playing electric bass and singing, Lewis wore a new tattoo. FKW is (are?) at Cafe Maude tonight, at the Clown Lounge in the basement of the Turf Club on Monday.

At 7:30 we were inside Orchestra Hall for a concert by the Minnesota Orchestra and the Irvin Mayfield Quintet. With the charismatic Andrew Litton conducting (which tonight included jumping up and down, suit jacket flapping), we heard Gershwin's An American in Paris (which HH said sounds like music from The Simpsons--it does). We rarely hear the orchestra (so much jazz, so little time) and I had forgotten how delicious one can be--all those musicians and dynamics, that big instrumental voice. It was fun to see both Pete Whitman (who played last weekend at the AQ and returns there soon with his X-tet) and Dave Milne in the saxophone section.

Then the symphonic arrangement of Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige, which Ellington called a "tonal parallel to the history of the American Negro." Dismissed by critics in 1943, now beloved, it includes the gorgeous and wistful "Come Sunday." The original is over 40 min. long; this shorter (18 min.) version is the one most often performed.

With the orchestra still on stage, Maestro Litton sat down at the piano to play Oscar Peterson's arrangement of "'Round Midnight." Litton told us how much he loves Peterson, that he probably owns 140 Peterson CDs, and that when asked "What's on your iPod?" he'll likely answer "All jazz and the occasional Ring Cycle." He was a classical musican playing a jazz arrangement, with great affection and skill. Afterward he joked, "It's so much easier when nobody's listening." (He played with a dislocated finger, injured in the Bahamas during a fall from a scooter and scheduled to be splinted for months.)

For the final piece before the intermission, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, bass player Neal Caine, and drummer Adonis Rose joined the orchestra in an arrangement of "Over the Rainbow" that Litton commissioned during his tenure with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. (In Dallas, the trumpet part was played by Texas-born Roy Hargrove.)

After intermission, the focus of the concert: the world premiere of Mayfield's The Art of Passion, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra. Mayfield introduced it by talking about passion, how important it is, and how when passion is absent, resentment takes its place. He praised the orchestra as "the best distillment of love we do as humans." His quintet—which also included John Chin on piano and Ronald Westray on trombone—stood at front center stage with Maestro Litton behind them on his podium and the orchestra wrapped around them, like an embrace.

Through his music, Mayfield dealt with topics he cares about deeply: love, passion, truth, adventure. Sometimes the orchestra and the quintet played together, sometimes just the quintet, with lots of room for solos by individual members. The first part began and ended with a bass solo; the final part ended in a blaze of trumpet glory. The music was by turns thoughtful, beautiful, and lively. This was the first time it had been performed in public and the audience loved it.

We went from OH to the Dakota to see the final hour of the Jazz is NOW! NOWnet, the composer's forum led by Jeremy Walker. Bonus: it was Jeremy and Marsha's fourth anniversary--a good feeling in the room, with friends all around. I've seen the NOWnet several times and like this group very much. It's more-or-less the same six musicians, with the occasional variation due to someone being out of town or otherwise engaged. This time was Walker at the piano, Chris Thomson on tenor sax, Scott Fultz on alto sax, Kelly Rossum on trumpet, Jeff Brueske on bass, Kevin Washington on drums.

They sounded great, their music new and modern yet very approachable--it approaches you. I spent a few moments talking with Larry Englund (KFAI host and the man who books the Hat Trick Lounge), who said, "What I like about their music is there's so much space in it." He's right. Walker doesn't play a single extraneous or disposable note. No one in the NOWnet does. Another reason to like them, and to pay attention to what they have to say. Some of what we heard: "Summer Sunday Afternoon," "So Long New York," Walker's arrangement of Ellington's "New York City Blues," something brand-new, and the lovely, romantic "Dorothy and Robert," Fultz's homage to his grandparents.

As the NOWnet wrapped up, people began arriving from OH: Mayfield and his quintet, Maestro Litton and his wife, Lilly Schwartz (the reason Mayfield is artistic director of jazz at Orchestra Hall, a position that was recently renewed), audience members who had heard that Mayfield might perform at the Dakota, as has become his tradition when he plays OH. After the NOWnet left the stage, once the quintet had dined and relaxed, they gave us what we wanted: an impromptu late-night jam. Mayfield played and sang and laughed and joked. We heard more of the marvelous Chin. Rose, still wearing his OH stage clothes, kept his jacket buttoned. Caine and Westray let loose. It was glorious.

And it was all one night and into the morning.

Photos: Fat Kid Wednesdays; Michael Lewis.
NOWnet; Neal Caine and Irvin Mayfield; Mayfield Quintet by John Whiting.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Talking with Irvin Mayfield

When Irvin Mayfield was named artistic director of jazz at Orchestra Hall in July 2008, he was also commissioned to compose a new work to be performed by orchestra and jazz quintet in July 2009.

Orchestra-with-jazz has been done before; examples that come to mind are Wynton Marsalis’s All Rise, Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra, commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with James Carter, not yet recorded; further back, Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra, The Modern Jazz Quartet & Orchestra—what else? Please comment if you know about more.

Word is that Mayfield’s The Art of Passion will be worth hearing. At the tender age of 31, he’s an experienced composer; conductor Andrew Litton is a jazz fan (the two become best friends at the Dakota last week when they came to hear Tia Fuller play); and everyone wants this to work. Someone at Orchestra Hall who’s heard bits and pieces says it’s beautiful.

I interviewed Mayfield last week for MinnPost. Here’s more from that conversation.

On the origins of The Art of Passion:
I was at a concert when a young lady came up to me and said she had been a clarinet player in high school and wished she had kept playing. All over the world, people say, “I wish I had kept playing.” I started thinking about, why did I keep playing? This turned into a global conversation about what it takes to be a musician—what it takes to be so many things in life.

On passion:
You can’t be great in music unless you’re passionate. You can’t have a great life if you’re not passionate. I think what happens—why a lot of people stop and don’t follow their passion—is they get to the not-fun factor. You get the instrument, have to practice, and have to do a bunch of technical things that rob you of the romantic ideal you had.

If you don’t know what you’re passionate about and you’re looking for something, investing in other people’s passions can be a great catalyst. Coming to Orchestra Hall is one way you can start investing in other folks’ passions and start becoming passionate yourself.

We need passionate people today, because it’s going to take passion to meet the challenges we’re dealing with as humans, from the educational system to global warming to where we need to go as a society, as Americans. A lot of these challenges are going to require the same tools this orchestra puts in place on stage. People overlook and trivialize what great things the orchestra is doing.

On love:
One of the things I think is really hard right now in America is for people to understand love. We assume we don’t have to teach love, we assume we don’t have to use tools to give people an opportunity to develop love. We’re at a real loss. People have a hard time knowing how to love things and understand what that means.

You understand love when you can fall in love with something every day. It’s not just about relationships, but about careers. Folks in my generation will have 13 jobs over their lifetime. This is not a good thing…. I’ve had to fall in love with playing music every day. You get to a point where you have assistants, a career, commitments, you don’t have to worry about money, and it’s easy to forget the real purpose of why you’re doing it. The passion can elude you. You have to make an effort to remember why you’re doing this every day.

On practicing:
How many hours a day? That depends on what I need to practice. Obviously, if I’m writing a commission, I’m practicing writing and the trumpet goes down. If I’m working with students, I’m practicing techniques so I can add value to their experience. Practicing can be used for many different things, not just picking up the trumpet.

On building the jazz audience:
What needs to happen with jazz is the same thing that happened with the culinary arts. Fifteen years ago, nobody wanted to be a chef. Then came the cooking shows, and cooking became the center of what was going on. And it’s not about celebrity or personality—it’s about can they cook.

Irvin Mayfield Quintet with the Minnesota Orchestra. Andrew Litton, conductor and piano. Irvin Mayfield, trumpet; Ronald Westray, trombone; John Chin, piano; Neal Caine, bass; Adonis Rose, drums. Thursday, July 23, 7:30 p.m., Orchestra Hall ($45/$65 VIP). Tickets online or call 612-371-5656.

Photo of Irvin Mayfield by Greg Miles

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


More hats went out today--to Reid Anderson, Doug Haining, Kenny Horst, Ethan Iverson, and Jaleel Shaw.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The night Elvis Costello met Minnesota Nasty

Considering we Minnesotans have a reputation for being over-the-top polite and accommodating (it's "Minnesota Nice," not "Iowa Nice" or "New Jersey Nice" or "Nevada Nice"), this true story from my friend Lilly Schwartz, director of pops and special projects for the Minnesota Orchestra, will raise a few eyebrows.

On Friday evening (July 3rd), I went with my colleague (and one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s conductors) Sarah Hicks to Origami for dinner. We were sitting at the sushi bar reminiscing about the time we had dinner at Origami with Elvis Costello a couple of years ago, after he had performed with the orchestra.

That occasion had been particularly fun, as we (Elvis and his band and a few Minnesota Orchestra folks) were the only ones in the otherwise closed restaurant. We ate lots of sushi, took photos, drank sake, and at some point during the evening Elvis signed a plaque for the Origami staff, which they have since hung with the many other famous signatures on their walls.

About twenty minutes after our Elvis conversation, I turned around, and to my amazement, there was Elvis. I said to Sarah, “Either I’m hallucinating, or Elvis Costello is standing at the door.” (When I lived in the tropics, we would have believed that we conjured Elvis up by talking about him, but here I knew it was pure coincidence. He would perform the next night at Taste of Minnesota, but I wasn't expecting to see him so soon.) Sarah turned, looked, and said, “Yep, that’s Elvis. Let’s go say hello.”

As we approached them and exchanged greetings, we realized that the staff was refusing to seat Costello and his four band members. The reason? "No room."

“But we called a half-hour ago and asked if we needed reservations, and you told us to come right in,” Elvis’ road manager, Robbie McCloud, was saying.

“Yea, well, obviously, we filled up,” answered the restaurant's general manager.

We could see a four-top open directly behind the host stand, which could easily have accommodated five. Also, Origami had closed its upstairs dining room not ten minutes prior to Elvis's party walking through the door.

Both Sarah and I were incensed.

"Do you know who this is?" we asked.

"We don't give preferential treatment to anyone," the manager said.

"But they called ahead to let you know they were coming, and you just closed your upstairs--couldn't you turn on a light and seat them? You clearly have the wait staff."

"No," said the manager.

“Well, guess that answers it,” Elvis said as he walked out the door.

"You are an idiot," I told the manager, "and I am embarrassed to be a resident of Minneapolis at this moment."

The sushi chefs were also mortified and insisted on paying for the sushi Sarah and I had eaten, which was very kind. Then the hostess gave us our check for our sake and appetizers, saying "This is your lucky day." Uh, not really. Witnessing rude behavior toward a musical icon is not what I call a lucky day.

Soon after, Elvis and his party were able to find a more hospitable spot for dinner, McCormick & Schmick's on Nicollet Mall. The next evening, after Elvis had performed at Taste of Minnesota in St. Paul, we were riding back to Minneapolis when I asked, “So, what’s the plan for dinner this evening?”

Elvis grinned and said, “Anybody up for Origami?”

Monday, July 13, 2009

Talking with Karriem Riggins and Mulgrew Miller

When: June 28, 2009 • Where: Dakota • Who: Karriem Riggins, drums; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Warren Wolf, vibes; Joe Sanders, bass; DJ Dummy, turntables

Drummer Karriem Riggins speaks jazz and hip-hop,
Betty Carter and Erykah Badu, Diana Krall and Kanye, performer and producer, rap and Burt Bacharach. Most recently, one of his many projects, the Karriem Riggins Virtuoso Experience, brought straight-ahead jazz and hip-hop to the same stage on the same night. There’s no album yet, but one is in the works, and late June saw a brief tour, a let’s-see-how-it-flies run from the Triple Door in Seattle to Yoshi’s in Oakland to the Dakota in Minneapolis.

Larry Englund and I caught Riggins and his group—the great Mulgrew Miller on acoustic piano and Fender-Rhodes, Warren Wolf on vibes, Joe Sanders on bass, and DJ Dummy on turntables—at the Dakota on Sunday, June 28. We weren’t sure what to expect. A fusion of jazz and hip-hop, à la G.U.R.U. or Branford Marsalis’s Buckshot LeFonque or Madlib’s work for Blue Note? Something entirely different? Where would Miller fit in?

Riggins and Miller played together for years in Miller’s trio and made a series of recordings together, starting with Getting to Know You (1995) and continuing through the two Live at Yoshi’s releases on MaxJazz (2004/05). They trust and respect each other. And although (as we learned later) Miller may not be a hip-hop fan, he’s willing to join Riggins on his latest exploration.

The Dakota show was eclectic and satisfying. DJ Dummy (real name Andrew Smith) opened with a solo set, a musical dance at the turntables lit by his ear-to-ear smile. He exited, the quartet entered, and it was straight-ahead time: a swinging version of Gene Perla’s “Tergiversation,” with Miller on Fender-Rhodes, and a jazzed-up take on Bacharach’s “Wives and Lovers” with Miller on acoustic piano.

Wolf, a vibist new to these parts, was front-and-center on the stage, and the spotlight was his for much of the evening. At one point he played so fast and fierce that the head came off one of his mallets and flew into the crowd like a little cannonball. Fortunately it didn’t hit anyone; later in the set, it was retrieved and tossed back.

Following Nicholas Payton’s “Let It Ride” (which ended with a terrific solo by Riggins), DJ Dummy returned, adding beats, toots, and whistles to a Brazilian tune. By now we had the answer to our question of what to expect: Not quite a fusion, but a whole of a different kind, sincere and musical. People who didn’t expect to like it—those who had come to hear Miller but were deeply suspicious of “that DJ thing”—ended up liking it a lot.

The second set featured Tony Williams’s “Proto-Cosmos,” Lawrence Williams’s “Number 3,” and an original by Miller called “Second Thoughts.” Riggins and DJ Dummy paid tribute to J Dilla, an American record producer (Common, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest) who died in 2006 of a blood disease, and with whom Riggins was close (close enough to complete an unfinished Dilla album posthumously). DJ Dummy took a solo turn that included some Michael Jackson tunes, and the night ended with the quartet performing Miller’s “The Eleventh Hour.”

After the show, Larry and I had the opportunity to interview Riggins and then Miller. Considering what a monster he is on drums, Riggins is surprisingly soft-spoken in conversation. Miller is a gentle giant. Both were generous with their time. Here are the highlights.


Pamela Espeland: Thank you for a really interesting evening of music. It was different than I expected it to be—for some reason I thought it would be more hip-hop, and then we went from straight-ahead stuff to Burt Bacharach!

Karriem Riggins: Yeah.

Larry Englund: Burt Bacharach, the folks you’ve worked with—Elvin Jones, Tony Williams—What’s the common denominator for you?

KR: For me, it’s just a lot of the music that I listen to daily. When I wake up, I have a wide range of different genres that I put on. A lot of my favorite songs. I put them together in a sequence that kind of takes you on a ride.

PE: How much time do you spend doing that?

KR: All day, really. That’s just what I do. Feeling music out, trying to get new inspiration, start something new, spark something new in me.

PE: You started producing hip-hop in junior high?

KR: Just experimenting. I didn’t really professionally start doing hip-hop until 1996, when I first bought my MPC 3000 [sampler/sequencer].

PE: Your father [Emmanuel Riggins] plays what kind of music?

KR: Jazz and soul.

PE: So you were playing jazz with your dad?

KR: I was rehearsing with him.

PE: Did you have lessons as a child?

KR: Not really. Just more going to see people play, just watching. That’s pretty much how I learned. Watching.

PE: You’ve been on parallel paths—hip-hop and jazz. Larry and I were wondering, how does an audience approach that? Most people are not on those two paths.

KR: A lot of people are, actually.

LE: How did you figure out how to incorporate the DJ so well? I’ve seen a couple of other folks try to incorporate DJs and it didn’t work out very well.

KR: It’s important for the DJ to have a musical ear, to know when to do whatever—when it’s called for to scratch, or mix something in. It has to be in context. It’s all a taste thing.

PE: You’ve worked with [DJ Dummy] before?

KR: With Kanye West, and also with Common.

PE: The recording you’re making, are you working with Madlib?

KR: I have two projects with Madlib. One is called Supreme Team, where we’re both rapping and producing. Then the jazz group—it’s not exactly jazz, but it’s a lot of soul, Brazilian, jazz fusion. It’s called the Jahari Masamba Unit. My jazz album I’m working on has Mulgrew Miller on piano, Warren Wolfe on vibes, and Robert Hurst on bass. It’s some of the music that we played tonight, and also some different.

PE: So the Virtuoso Experience album you’re putting together now is not going to have a DJ on it?

KR: I’m not going to say that yet. It’s not complete yet.

LE: What made you decide that for this particular group you wanted to have vibes?

KR: I love vibes. I love the Rhodes…. I love mellow-sounding instruments. Both have a mellow tone. That’s kind of like my personality, kind of mellow.

LE: You’ve got piano and vibes, both of which have similar characteristics….

KR: And the Rhodes, definitely.

PE: I hadn’t heard Warren Wolfe before tonight. I fell off my chair three or four times.

KR: He’s a beast. Warren is a bad dude.

PE: I think Stefon Harris was the last person I saw who moved that fast—although Stefon didn’t lose a head off his mallet.

KR: Warren plays drums as well.

PE: How did you and Mulgrew get together?

KR: A bass player named Richie Goods introduced us. This was in 1994. We’ve been working together ever since then.

LE: When you put together a group such as this group, where you have vibes—a very mellow instrument—and regular piano and electric piano, and a DJ, do you do it with a conscious concept in mind?

KR: The conscious concept is the DJ can play any part. He can be a guitar, he can be the music—we’ve done duo things where it’s just a loop—he can be any instrument.

PE: Does he do whatever he wants, or do you talk ahead of time about what you might want him to do, the kinds of sounds?

KR: We pretty much have a setup—what we wanted to do tonight.

PE: So, like the Latin percussion part…?

KR: He plays the music, and he’ll juggle it, and I’ll play on top of it, basically kind of solo.

LE: So you’re listening to him just as you listen to any other musician?

KR: Exactly.

LE: What’s been the most difficult part of putting this together for you, or has there been any difficulty?

KR: These guys are so professional and musical it’s effortless working with them. It’s a beautiful thing. Superlative.

LE: And when Mulgrew heard you were going to use a DJ, he was cool with that?

KR: Without a doubt.


Larry Englund: How did you hook up with Karriem?

Mulgrew Miller: Karriem was the drummer in my trio for many years. From the time he was about 18…I think he was in my trio about 10–12 years. So we have a long history together.

Pamela Espeland: How did you find him in the first place?

MM: He had come to New York as a very young man, not quite out of high school, to be part of Betty Carter’s program, Jazz Ahead. You know how she would scout all these young people around the country. So he came there and he was kind of hanging out in New York, like all the youngsters do when they come to New York, and I heard about him through the bassist that was in my band at that time, Richie Goods, and I arranged a rehearsal where I could hear him and play with him, and I just fell in love with him right there, and it’s been a long relationship since then. He is a tremendous talent, I mean tremendous. There’s something in the water in Detroit…. Some of the most naturally gifted musicians I know come out of Detroit. Kenny Garrett, a pianist named Johnny O’Neal…. Karriem falls right in there. He’s such a gifted young fellow.

LE: In terms of your own career, when was it you decided this was something you were going to make a living at, or when did you realize that?

MM (laughs): At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to make a living at it….

LE: That’s why I asked it that way.

MM: The night that I decided this was something I wanted to do as a life, and lifestyle, was the night that I heard the great Oscar Peterson on The Joey Bishop Show. I was in ninth grade. Regis Philbin was the sidekick. Oscar Peterson came on. I’d been hearing about Oscar Peterson through my older brother.

PE: Had you heard him play? Had you heard any of his recordings?

MM: I had never heard him—nothing. I was into R&B at the time, and the closest thing to that I’d heard was Ramsey Lewis. You know, Ramsey had all those hits in the 60s, “Wade in the Water,” all these things, and I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to hear when I heard Oscar Peterson. It was like something from another planet for a young fellow like myself, having never heard that kind of jazz before, certainly not the piano played like that. So the next morning I was a different kid, let me tell you.

PE: How old were you?

MM: Fourteen.

PE: Did you ever have an opportunity to study with Oscar Peterson?

MM: Oh, no. I wish I had. It was many years later before I met him. I’m from Greenwood, Mississippi, a little town in the delta of Mississippi, and I left there after high school and went through a couple years of college in Memphis, kind of moved around a bit before I ended up in New York playing. And then it was still some years later—I had met Oscar several times—before I had a chance to really sit down with him and conversate with him. It was the late 90s or something like that, or the early part of this century, the 2000s, something like that.

PE: So you told him he changed your life?

MM: I did tell him. I’m glad I had the chance to tell him.

PE: You’re probably not the first person who told him that.

MM: I can imagine. He touched so many…. But fortunately I got to know him a little bit, he heard me play a few times. The first time I knew that he was listening I couldn’t play a note.

PE: There’s a piano player here [in Minneapolis], Tanner Taylor, 27 years old, and he says that Oscar Peterson is the reason he plays piano.

LE: He’s developed a whole show around his music.

MM: Oscar had that real accessible thing in his playing, where even though there’s a lot of technique and stuff going on, he had that swinging thing happening, and bluesy kind of thing that got you…. While I was at Memphis State University, I heard Phineas Newborn, and that knocked me out, and I heard McCoy Tyner during those years, and Chick Corea, and later Herbie [Hancock], then I got to New York and there was Tommy Flanagan, and Cedar Walton, and those kind of people I admire, and Kenny Barron….

PE: McCoy came through here not too long ago, and there were times tonight when I was thinking about McCoy when you were playing.

MM: He was a huge inspiration.

PE: We asked this of Karriem, too, but in a different way: Your recordings tend to be pretty straight-ahead jazz. How do you feel about this hip-hop stuff?

MM: Well, um…I’m still, you know, getting some insight to it.

PE: Does it feel natural to you?

MM: It’s all music. I grew up listening to rhythm and blues, so it’s not totally foreign. My challenge is finding a way to fit in. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing, fitting in, being a team player.

PE: I would think that people would be more concerned about fitting in with you, frankly.

MM (laughs): Well, you know, I think a reason that I work in the situation I work in is because I have a pretty good track record for fitting in. But it’s very interesting thus far. It’s been a very interesting project.

PE: Do you listen to hip-hop?

MM (pauses): No. I hear it, though.

PE: You don’t necessarily seek it out, but you’re around it.

MM: I have a daughter who’s 21. I hear it all.

PE: There was more of a separation tonight than I think I was expecting coming in.

LE: But when you used the hip-hop, it seemed to fit very well.

MM: And this is a new project. As it goes on and evolves and develops, I think you’re going to see more of a marriage between them.

PE: How far into it are you? How many times have you played together?

MM: We’ve been on this little tour here about a week.

PE: Did you rehearse with it, with a DJ?

MM: We did some rehearsal. But, you know, it takes time…. For me, it’s a new concept. Karriem, he’s been out there hitting it. I think in his mind the concept is a lot further along than in my mind. So I’m sure he has a vision of where he wants to go with it. I know that he does.

PE: You have such a long-term relationship that it’s also very logical that you’d be working together on this.

MM: I’m honored that he asked me. I feel very close to him on a personal and a musical level. I’m just happy to be here.

Larry Englund writes about music for The Villager in St. Paul, hosts the weekly “Rhythm & Grooves” radio show for KFAI, and hosts live shows at The Hat Trick Lounge in downtown St. Paul.

Photos by John Whiting.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Kurt Elling on the Internets

Kurt Elling's new CD, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman, is at the top of the JazzWeek airplay chart for July 6. I finally bought my copy today from the Electric Fetus, my LRS.

I had been resisting the siren songs of iTunes and Amazon ("click me!") ever since the CD came out on June 23 because I wanted to drive to the Fetus, park in the lot, walk through the security pylons, pass the cards and T-shirts and soaps and stationery and Kangol hats, continue through the music that actually sells all the way to the north end of the store, take a sharp right and end up at the Jazz and Classical New Releases bin—the destination farthest from the door, unless you count the basement.

Kurt was there, of course, and a few more temptations: Farmers by Nature featuring Gerald Cleaver, William Parker, and Craig Taborn, recorded at Stone; the Chris Morrissey Quartet's The Morning World; Fly's Sky & Country with Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier, and Jeff Ballard; and Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra: Book One, which I want to hear before Mayfield comes to town to play with the Minnesota Orchestra later this month.

On the way home, I heard "All or Nothing at All" from Dedicated to You on KBEM.

In mid-June, Ted Panken, that lucky dog, had a lengthy, leisurely, wide-ranging, far-reaching conversation with Elling about all sorts of things (including music, Chicago, God, poetry, the soul, Sinatra, Kerouac, KE's college days, New York, jazz, and Johnny Hartman). The interview is now up on jazz.com. Interesting and worthwhile reading for anyone who enjoys KE and his music.

On the same day Panken's interview was posted, NPR featured "Lush Life" from Dedicated to You as its Song of the Day. Great pick but I wonder how well writer Marc Silver knows KE's music. Silver writes, in part: "Kurt Elling has a lot of gumption. On Dedicated to You, his new CD, he sings the songs of Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, including the utterly iconic 'Lush Life'--which has been performed by not only Coltrane, but also Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Nat King Cole and even Donna Summers.... Elling doesn't seem intimidated by the song's stature."

Why should he be intimidated? He can sing whatever he pleases, and he has pretty much from the start. One of the many things I enjoy about his live performances is the fact that he takes chances. He never phones it in. He's the Philippe Petit of jazz singers, jumping up and down on a high wire. I've thought that since I first heard him sing at the old Dakota many years ago. And again when I came across his recording of "Tanganyika Dance," his interpretation of the McCoy Tyner tune "Man from Tanganyika," for which KE wrote his own lyrics and which he recorded in 1994, when he was 27 years old, before his first CD as a leader (Close Your Eyes, 1995). Track that down and listen (it's on Bob Belden's Shades of Blue) and see if you think it sounds like someone who's risk-averse.

Some relevant quotes from Panken's interview:

About Dedicated to You:
KE: "It's a very different experience for me just to sing these tunes as opposed to, 'Let's stretch out, and I'll do this gigantic, obnoxious, vocalese thing.' For once, why don't we just bite off as much as we can chew, as opposed to more than we can chew?"

In response to Panken's question about whether the John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman record was important to him in his formative years--something he would have done it if hadn't been proposed to him:
KE: "I wouldn't have thought of it.... I wouldn't have thought to touch on any other than maybe to consider taking Speak No Evil and trying to write a lyric for all of it."
Panken: "That would be a very different proposition."
KE: "That would be a very different proposition. That's the way my head naturally goes, though. 'Let me bite off this gigantic piece that I can't actually do.'"

I wonder what KE has planned for his "Passion World" performance at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center next May. He's sharing a bill with French jazz accordionist Richard Galliano. And Laurence Hobgood, of course.