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.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Roberta Gambarini: Jazz as destiny

Photo by Ben Huggler
Jazz has been called America's greatest original art form, America's classical music, and the soundtrack of America. In fact, jazz is global music, heard and performed in all corners of the world.

One of today's finest interpreters of the great American songbook — those melodic, memorable tunes by Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins and others — was born in Turin, Italy, site of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Roberta Gambarini brings her pristine voice, impeccable diction and pitch, scatting smarts and personal charm to the Dakota for two nights starting Sunday, Oct. 12. If you already know who she is, you probably have tickets. If you don't, here's a short list of her mentors and admirers: the late Benny Carter, Jimmy Cobb (Miles Davis' drummer on "Kind of Blue"), James Moody, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Hank Jones.

Jones, who has worked with a lot of singers in his 90 years, proclaimed Gambarini "the best since Ella Fitzgerald." Critics have crowned her the successor to Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.

Arrived on music scholarship
Not bad for a singer who arrived in the United States 10 years ago with a scholarship to the New England Conservatory, little money and a burning desire to sing the songs she fell in love with as a child.

Her parents were jazz fans who took their daughter to see Ellington on his final tour of Europe. "I was very, very little, but I remember it well," she said by phone from her home in New York City.

She was already learning English and singing along with her parents' jazz records. "I loved Ella singing 'Cotton Tail.' My parents would tell me stories about a little bunny with a little fuzzy tail." She listened to Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford, Don Byas and the Duke. For tunes without lyrics, she sang along to the instrumental solos.

Gambarini began studying clarinet at age 12. "At the time, there was not really any jazz education to speak of in my country. … I came to jazz through the recorded and played sources, through my ears. I didn't have access to the rules, the books, things like that." 

Sang first gig at 17
At 17, she sang her first gig at a jazz club, the Biella, in a small town north of Turin. "Since that very first time, I said to myself, I really want to do this thing. But I want to do it seriously. So I started taking music theory lessons, and right after I finished high school, I moved to Milan. It was like going to New York City. Completely insane." From there she performed at festivals and clubs around Italy.

Did her friends think she was crazy? "I was so driven, so determined, they thought I was possessed more than crazy." What about her parents? "Parents usually discourage acts of complete recklessness, but mine never did. They always supported me. … A lot of times parents say, 'When are you going to get a real job?' This never came out of my parents' mouths, even when goings were very hard in Italy and there was not much work. My dad would say, 'You're making progress.' "

In 1998, two weeks after arriving in Boston, the young singer from Italy no one knew finished third place in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition, right behind Jane Monheit.

To date, Monheit has released six CDs on five different labels. Gambarini has made just two CDs since coming to America, both on her own label, Groovin' High. The first, "Easy to Love" (2006), earned rave reviews and a Grammy nomination.

'You Are There' with Hank Jones
The second, "You Are There" (2007), is a remarkable piece of work for our high-tech times. Hank Jones and Gambarini, who first performed together at the 2001 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Idaho, met in a New York recording studio in September 2005. They sang what they wanted, how they wanted, with no rehearsal.

Gambarini sat on a stool beside Jones's piano. As she wrote in her liner notes, "There were no partitions, no isolation booths, no headphones, no overdubs. The sound would be just what you would hear had you been in someone's living room."

They started at 2 p.m. and finished at 7. Most of the 14 tracks on the CD — songs like "Stardust," "Just Squeeze Me," and Gambarini's favorite, "Lush Life" — are first takes.

Dee Dee Bridgewater says that Gambarini is "one to see live." I last saw her live at the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival, singing a killer role in a new work by Dave Brubeck. Her voice is an amazing instrument. It can leap tall buildings, as in Dizzy Gillespie's arrangement of "The Sunny Side of the Street." On ballads like Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" it's warm and velvety.

That she can make an album like "You Are There" in such a relaxed and easy way, and so quickly (recording for Guns N' Roses' upcoming studio album, "Chinese Democracy," began in 1994), attests to her professionalism, her commitment, her considerable gifts as a singer, and her familiarity with the material.

An Italian in an American idiom
American material, composed for the American idiom called jazz. Does Gambarini ever question her calling? How and where does she see herself fitting in?

"First of all, internally, I never, ever felt a dichotomy or a separation. … A lot of people brought this up to me and still do — 'Why are you not singing opera?' I love opera, but the world of opera is farther from my personal spiritual history than the world of jazz. I'm much more viscerally connected to jazz. I always felt at home with it. I worked with composers from Italy, I sang in Italian, but in the end I always got back to what felt natural for me. …

"It depends on the voice, not where you are from. To me, it depends more on what your destiny is." And then this jazz singer from the Italian Alps quoted Emily Dickinson: "Each life converges to some center/Expressed or still."

At the Dakota, expect songs from her first two albums and songs from a new CD due out next spring. She'll bring her own band: pianist Eric Gunnison, formerly with Carmen McRae; Neil Swainson, who was George Shearing's bass player; drummer Montez Coleman, last seen here with Hargrove in September. Each set will be different because "even if you're playing the same songs, they won't be the same." 

Originally published at, Friday, October 10, 2008

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Interview Outtakes: Larry Ochs

The 2009–2010 Northrop Jazz Season begins tonight (Oct. 8) when saxophonist/composer/improviser Larry Ochs brings his Sax & Drumming Core to the Whole Music Club at the University of Minnesota. I spoke with Ochs last Friday (Oct. 2) for MinnPost; that interview, in which he talks about improvised music and how to experience it, appears here. Below are other interesting things he said during our conversation.

On touring

It’s not an easy time to be out running around. I feel privileged to be touring and playing music live, which for me is what it’s all about. As [Anthony] Braxton says, play or die…. There aren’t as many venues as there used to be. In the jazz world, of which I’m debatably a part, some 50 years ago there were clubs in every town, every little town, places where people could play. They didn’t used to have to travel very far. That’s how improvised music grew. That kind of music really needs to be played live.

On his many groups, and why so many

I played with the ROVA saxophone quartet almost exclusively from 1978 to 1986. At that point, there was this obvious need [to do something else]. ROVA is still great, still the strongest thing I do, but it’s a particular set of chops, a particular way of playing—more symphonic, more orchestral. There are just lots of other things to check into it.

At first it was just one other group, Room, then What We Live, then [work with the Glenn] Spearman [Trio]. All kinds of things started to open up…

There’s Jones Jones with Mark Dresser on bass, Vladimir Tarasov from Russia on drums. Kihnoua with a singer from Korea [Dohee Lee]. Trio Ochs, Masoaka and [Peggy] Lee. [A trio with] Jean Jeanrenaud [formerly of Kronos].

One band that isn’t on my website is ODE, a trio with Trevor Dunn and Lisle Ellis on bass. We could have another conversation about keeping the website [current].

On Coltrane’s Ascension and Electric Ascension

For the 30th anniversary of Ascension, ROVA did an acoustic version—the exact same arrangement and instruments Coltrane used. Then [in 2003] we did Electric Ascension, which is more worth checking out.

That time, we changed the arrangement and also radically changed the instrumentation. If Coltrane was alive in the 21st century, he would certainly use electronics. We threw the piano out so we wouldn’t be stuck dealing with chord changes. [At the Saalfelden Jazz Festival in Austria earlier this year], Chris Brown played synthesizer. It’s all about sound. You don’t hear any McCoy Tyner-type things going on. We always play with Nels Cline on electric guitar. He really makes it happen.

[At Saalfelden], we were in the Austrian Alps. This is not a hip city scene, although the audience was obviously from all over Europe. Saalfelden is a ski resort, and they were piping our music into the streets. Electric Ascension is a very extreme piece. It’s not like piping Bill Evans out into the town.

On expanding the Sax & Drumming Core to include piano and trumpet

I started with two drummers [Scott Amendola and Donald Robinson]. Tenor sax and drums is this great device, since the early free jazz—Coltrane and Rashied Ali, Braxton and Max Roach, Archie Shepp and Max Roach, Andrew Cyrille and Braxton. I love the drums, and I thought, what else could happen with drums and one saxophone player? Two drummers would be a trio and I’d have two goals: They would be soloists and it would be a collective trio, not the sax up front.

On the first two CDs [The Neon Truth, 2002, and Up from Under, 2007], I tried to give them things to think about that kept them from being just drummers. If we’re going to do a collective thing, we have to have some unusual concepts to keep people from stepping on each other. We have to have a planned hierarchy and be like-minded. Like a string quartert, where everybody’s got their role. I tried to do that with the drummers, to keep them on their toes and force them into sonic areas they might not get to. Then, at a certain point, it was just over. We did a couple of tours, two great CDs, and didn’t know what else to do.

I had done some collaboration with [pianist Satoko] Fujii and [trumpeter Natsuki] Tamura in big-band situations and I loved their playing. I was thinking I would really like to add a trumpet to Drum Core. But the only way I could add Natsuki, who seemed like the right guy, given his personal vocabulary, was to bring Satoko along, too. [Note: Tamura and Fujii are husband and wife.] Though a pianist was the last thing I wanted.

I asked Satoko if she played synthesizer and she said she messed around with it but didn’t play it. Then I found by accident a CD of the Tamura Quartet where all she played was synthesizer. So I told her, “Now that I know you don’t know how to play synth, that’s exactly what I want you to do.” She insisted on a piano being there. I told her why I didn’t want a piano and we had a discussion about that, but I finally acceded because she’s such a great pianist. I said, “Fine, you’re a genius.” Otherwise it’s like asking Coltrane to play with you but saying he can only play soprano sax.

Since then there are pieces I’ve created expressly for piano. Like “Abstraction Rising” on the new CD [Stone Shift, 2009].

At this point, Satoko has a complete understanding of what I’m looking for, so she’s never going to do something I’m not interested in.

On the importance of playing live

This music only matures and grows when you play it live. I guess if we [Sax & Drumming Core + Fujii and Tamura] had the luxury of all living in the same place and could go into the studio and make recordings all the time, that would work, too. But there’s something about the pressure of “this is real” that takes music somewhere…. When you’re playing 5, 6, 7 concerts in a row for 8–10 days, if you’re playing with the right people, they don’t want to repeat themselves.

On imaginary soundtracks

I have these imaginary soundtrack pieces that are soundtracks for imaginary movies. I dedicate them to a certain filmmaker and try to go into a performance thinking about them—what would be interesting to do. It’s not like I’m making a soundtrack for a real movie. It’s much more referential and abstract. I’m thinking, “If I was listening to this and trying to imagine a movie, what would it be like?” Everyone in the audience can make their own visual image.

On the music of the Sax & Drumming Core

The pieces have a finite length, usually. There’s a form there. And thematic motifs. They change, but they have a similarity to them. Which is one of the things I really like about this band. I’m working basically with four forms, so it’s kind of like having a jazz band.

I’ve got the imaginary soundtracks for imaginary films. That’s a particular kind of form, with a graphic score. Then I’ve got more of a jazz thing, like “Abstraction Rising,” with notated heads and solos. More of a traditional thing. Then I’ve got the Finn series [pieces named for his grandson], which is more of an improvised thing. Then I’ve got pieces from when I first started the group—meditations on blues shouters, pieces with “calls,” simple blues line. Like “Across from Over” [on Stone Shift] and “Up from Under” [Up from Under]. Those pieces are really close together. They’re kind of blues, homages to singers. I wanted to open that up a bit.

On speaking to the audience during performances

Usually I don’t talk. I don’t want the audience to understand the music through my ears. I want them to think “Here it is, and here we go”… It’s like a composer who sees a hive of bees and is inspired to write something and tells the audience “I saw a hive of bees and wrote this piece.” From then on, that piece is dead to me…. One time a guy came up to me and said, “If you started a set by telling people to relax, go with the music, have no expectations, enjoy, and just let it happen, that might really help.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

MJF/52 wrap-up: A musical feast

Our fourth year at the Monterey Jazz Festival was as delightful as our first; more so, now that we know our way around. Meeting festival publicist Tim Orr in the press office when we picked up our credentials; greeting the Hat Man at the entrance to the Arena (dear, kind Paul Aschenbrenner, who’s been ushering for 25 years and always wears a funny hat); seeing some of our favorite vendors; running into friends; breathing the California ocean breezes; watching planes fly low over the Festival grounds; walking the half-mile or so from the Hyatt Hotel to the Festival site on the Monterey Fairgrounds…. It all felt like home.

At the 52nd annual Monterey Jazz Festival—that’s 52 years without a break, making MJF the world’s longest-running jazz festival—the economic downturn was in the air, like the smoke from the Cuban/Caribbean kitchens, the Korean barbecue, and the ribs vendor. Sometimes (especially Friday evening) the crowds seemed smaller, and for the first time in the Festival’s history, you could buy single tickets to Arena events.

thought perhaps the number of performances was down as well, but checking past years’ schedules, I see I was wrong. As always, there was more to see and hear than we could possibly fit in, simply because we couldn’t be in two or three places at once.

Toughest choices: The Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars (Kenny Barron, Regina Carter, Kurt Elling, and Russell Malone) or the John Patitucci Trio with Joe Lovano and Brian Blade? I’m a big Kurt Elling fan and John (my photographer husband) knows better than to try talking me out of that, so we saw the All-Stars. Forro in the Dark or pianist Jonathan Batiste? We caught a few moments of Batiste earlier in the evening so went with Forro (who performed in Minneapolis at the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday the 25th).

Staying for the first part of Pete Seeger’s performance—not jazz, but deeply meaningful for many in the audience—meant missing much of a conversation about the history of Blue Note Records with journalist Ashley Kahn, Blue Note’s Michael Cuscuna, vibes master Bobby Hutcherson, and saxophonist Joe Lovano. Picking pianist Vijay Iyer over the Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny White trio might seem insane, but we had seen Corea/Clarke/White at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis earlier this month, and Clarke/White return in October with pianist Hiromi. Plus I was curious about Iyer, and my curiosity was amply rewarded. What a fine, exciting, complicated, intriguing, satisfying young pianist he is.

We went to Buffalo Collision on Sunday afternoon because we had missed them at the Dakota the night before. The group—Ethan Iverson on piano, Dave King on drums, Tim Berne on saxophone, Hank Roberts on cello—finished playing in Minnesota around 1 a.m. on Sunday, caught a few Zs, then an early flight to California for their 5:30 p.m. Monterey set on the open-air Garden Stage.

Many people who experienced Buffalo Collision’s unique brand of avant-garde music didn’t care for it, to put it mildly. Props to MJF’s Tim Jackson for bringing the Festival into the 21st century with performers like BC and Jason Moran, this year’s commission artist. Moran’s “Feedback” (jazz trio mixed with the looped and manipulated sounds of Jimi Hendrix’s feedback from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival) also drove some Festival attendees to the exits. They returned later for Dave Brubeck’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of “Time Out.” As I looked out over the Arena crowd, it seemed that all 6,500 seats were full for that event. MJF loves Brubeck and it’s mutual; he’s been a friend to the Festival from the beginning.

We chose Moran over a performance by the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Quartet; both were scheduled for 7 p.m. on Saturday. That one really hurt. I’ve never seen Akiyoshi perform, but at least I was able to hear her speak earlier in the afternoon, in a conversation hosted by journalist Yoshi Kato. We learned how a Japanese girl growing up in Manchuria in the 1930s and ’40s fell in love with jazz and started on her path to NEA Jazz Master. Think about that.

High points: Russell Malone’s achingly beautiful take on “Time After Time.” When Malone plays a ballad, he’s a dangerous man. The infectious rhythms of Forro After Dark. Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: a peerless performance, plus a sweaty hug afterward from bassist Carlos Henriquez (and, later, running into much of the band at the Hyatt Hotel lobby bar). Seeing Elling sprawled on the lawn among the picnic tables. Dee Dee Bridgewater’s no-holds-barred late-night show at Dizzy’s Den. Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez’s ravishing version of “Body and Soul.” Moran, Tarus Mateen, and Nasheet Waits, always exciting. Vijay Iyer.

Low points: The afternoon sun baking my head during Scofield’s Piety Street Band set in the Arena. Not being able to see/hear everyone/everything I wanted—Raul Midon, Ruthie Foster, the screening of the new Oscar Brown Jr. documentary, the Peter Erskine-Alan Pasqua Trio, Akiyoshi and Tabackin, Soulive with John Scofield, more of dishy young trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, more of Jonathan Batiste. And finding out too late that the chowder cart also sold lobster rolls. Besides all that, the Festival was perfection.