Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bobby McFerrin and Cantus: Bliss

When: Friday, Jan. 30, 2009 • Where: Orchestra HallWho: Bobby McFerrin and the singers of Cantus: Dashon Burton, Chris Foss, Eric Hopkins, Aaron Humble, Adam Reinwald, Paul Rudoi, Gary Ruschman, Shahzore Shah, Timothy C. Takach

Nine men in somber suits with the voices of angels; one man in jeans and a T-shirt, graying dreads knotted behind his head, his slight body holding a chorus, an orchestra, and the entire cast of The Wizard of Oz.

Playing to a capacity house (Orchestra Hall holds more than 2,000 people, and the concert was sold out—Tickets Wanted pleas were posted on Craigslist), Cantus, a full-time professional vocal ensemble (one of the few in the world), opened with a program of folk songs, pop songs, gospel, and McFerrin’s arrangement of the Twenty-third Psalm, dedicated to his mother, paraphrased, and with the pronouns changed: “The Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need. She makes me to lie down in green meadows…She restores my soul.” Beautiful. Cantus is now on my list of go-see-agains, and if tenor Gary Ruschman wants to come to my house before then and sing a few songs I’m good with that.

Here’s Cantus performing the Twenty-third.

Then Cantus took chairs on either side of the stage and McFerrin came out like a child sauntering onto his own personal playground, which every stage in the world must be to him. He sat on a chair and performed several songs solo—if by solo you mean using his body and mouth as percussion instruments, singing multiple parts (melody, harmony, rhythm) at once, leaping (and landing) octaves and intervals, and roaming everywhere across his limitless vocal range. If you have never heard him, go to this page on his website and do what it says.

Audience participation is a big part of McFerrin’s shows. He had us singing along to silly stuff (the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Peter Gunn” TV themes), serious stuff (Bach-Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” which a surprising number of people in the audience knew, over McFerrin’s own vocalese of Bach’s first Two-Part Invention), and improvised-in-the-moment stuff (he taught us to sing a particular note when he jumped up and down, then jumped sideways to lead us along the musical scale—think Tom Hanks in the movie Big—and before long we were singing a tune). He brought Judi Donaghy, a member of his interactive choral group Voicestra, up from the audience for a lovely version of “I Can See Clearly Now.” (See the P.S. below.) Then he asked Cantus to join him and played them like the instruments they are.

McFerrin didn’t sing his mega-hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but he did sing Charles Chaplin’s “Smile.” He ended with his famous condensed version of The Wizard of Oz, which starts as a straightforward (for Bobby) version of “Over the Rainbow” (with audience participation), then segues into a 100-yard dash down the Yellow Brick Road through the whole movie, with McFerrin playing all the characters and sound effects. Watch a version here from the late 1980s. It’s hilarious, it’s virtuosic, it’s otherworldly.

They left the stage, we wanted McFerrin back, and he obliged—with the Mickey Mouse Club’s “Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye.” A perfect ending to a perfect night. Kudos to Orchestra Hall’s visionary Lilly Schwartz for pulling it together.

P.S. (added 2/5/09): Earlier that same day, McFerrin performed at McNally Smith College of Music. As he would at Orchestra Hall later that night, he called Judi Donaghy (the school's vocal chair) on stage. Here's something similar, not identical, to what we saw, within hours of when we saw it. You can also read the McNally Smith blog entry on McFerrin's visit and watch a student perform with him. (Thanks to Sydney Michaels for sending the link to the YouTube video.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

David "Fathead" Newman, 1933-2009

Tenor sax master and flautist David "Fathead" Newman played with the Ray Charles Band for many years, and with jazz greats Lee Morgan, Billy Higgins, Cal Tjader, Buster Williams, and Stanley Turrentine.

I saw him perform just once, at the 2004 Twin Cities Jazz Festival, with Jon Weber on piano. Earlier this year he was booked to play the Iridium January 24-27 to celebrate his 75th birthday and new CD release.

Learn more at Vancouver Jazz (thanks to for the link, and to Ted Gioa for letting us know this sad news).

Photo from the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, 2004.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How Cool is the Monterey Jazz Festival

Bret Primack, the Jazz Video Guy, captures the coolness of the festival we love in this video.

Watch for Tim Orr, the cool and handsome marketing/media relations dude who bestows upon us our press creds each year. Yay Tim!

We met Bret at last year's festival--nice guy, very friendly, carries a lot of equipment. I briefly thought, "Hey, I could make jazz podcasts, how hard could it be?" until I learned more about him. Uh, no, Pamela, you could not.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Debbie Duncan at the Dakota

When: Thursday, Jan. 8, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Debbie Duncan, voice; Chris Lomheim, piano; Adam Linz, bass; Daryl Boudreaux, percussion; Kevin Washington, drums

We see Debbie Duncan at Barbara Morrison's show on Monday, then return to the Dakota on Thursday for Debbie and her quartet. We arrive in time for "Over Dere," a song for which I usually have little patience but I like pretty much whatever Debbie sings.

She moves effortlessly from song to song, style to style. And she knows how to get the best out of whatever band she plays with. There are moments tonight of pure magic when the energy can't get any higher or the music any better--during "After All" ("Mornin' Mr. Radio, mornin' little Cheerios, mornin' sister Oriole"), and during Debbie's own arrangement of "Afro Blue," accompanied only by Boudreaux and Washington. Voice-and-percussion now seems like the perfect way to do this song.

She sings "Love, Look Away" from Flower Drum Song and a swinging version of Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me," ornamented at the end with scatting. And "Misty," a tune we've all heard a zillion times but not like this: She sings around the melody, not on it. Occasionally she lands on a melody note, but only briefly, like she's touching ground between flights.

In homage to jazz legend James Moody, who comes to the Dakota on Monday and Tuesday (Jan. 12-13), she performs "Moody's Mood for Love," which inspires an introduction. "Personally," she says, "I think this is one of the sexiest songs ever written, yet it leaves something to the imagination. It's one of those songs you put on when you're trying to get from point A to point Z in the course of an evening." Her between-songs patter is warm and engaging.

"Teach Me Tonight" is soulful and sincere, playful and bluesy; she ends with "Teach me! I'm willing!" and sends us out into the night. She's back at the Dakota on the 20th in "4 Women for Obama" with Yolande Bruce, Ginger Commodore, and Tonia Hughes-Kendrick, then again on February 7 with Adi Yeshaya. Debbie, do your many fans a solid and update your schedule on your Web site so we know where else to find you.

Photos by John Whiting.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The end of jazz at Minnesota Public Radio

Yesterday I learned that Maryann Sullivan, host of "The Jazz Connection" on Minnesota Public Radio for the past 15 months, had been laid off. I called her, she generously agreed to speak with me, and I wrote a short news article for MinnPost.

So a once-a-week, three-hour radio program is no more. ("The Jazz Connection" aired on Saturday nights from 9 to midnight.) What's the big deal, other than a friend losing her job? The big deal is that MPR, a large and successful public radio organization with a regional network of 38 stations and nearly 100,000 members, no longer thinks that jazz is worth supporting.

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ray Brown, Roy Hargrove, Fred Hersch, Benny Green, Joshua Redman, Randy Weston, Patricia Barber, Kurt Elling, Sean Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard, Abdullah Ibrahim, John Lewis, Joe Lovano, Jackie McLean, Lester Bowie, Jimmy Smith, Ornette Coleman, James Carter, Charlie Haden, John Coltrane, Art Tatum, Sonny Rollins, Maria Schneider, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Horace Silver, and on and on, not to mention the many, many fine musicians and performers we are so fortunate to have here in the Twin Cities area--you, and you, and you are no longer worth supporting, at least not by Minnesota Public Radio.

Some of us believed that once Leigh Kamman retired (after 34 years of hosting "The Jazz Image"), jazz on MPR would go away, then sighed with relief when Sullivan was given the job of jazz broadcaster in Kamman's former time slot. We thought that meant MPR was committed to jazz. NPR (National Public Radio) seems to be. So does the BBC.

Locally, we still have jazz programming on KBEM and KFAI. Like MPR, both are public radio stations.

Many people have sent emails with comments about the MinnPost article and MPR's decision. A sampling:

--"Me, I'm pulling for Lightrail to reroute through their lobby."
--"Just plain pitiful."
--"Mary Ann did a valiant job of furthering the art form in this region. I'm among those who will really miss the show. "
--"This is indeed sad news."
--"I ALWAYS learned something when I listened to the program."
--"Pardon my French, but those bean counters at MPR are assholes."
--"This is an unfortunate trend all over the country.... What's alive as an art form is nearly buried as a business venture."
--"It is further inspiration to support the lesser-supported arts."
--"The Twin Cities' support for jazz used to be fawned over from San Francisco to New York City. Now we're an embarrassment. What happened?"

Allow me to suggest that we include KBEM and KFAI in our giving plans. And to suggest that in the midst of the economic crisis, the cutbacks, the layoffs, the downsizing, our personal economic troubles, our worries, and our fears, that we do what we can to support live jazz. If we want it to be there and available to us six months from now--whether at the Dakota or the AQ, Orchestra Hall or the Ted Mann, the Rogue Buddha, the Kitty Cat or the Hopkins Center, the Clown Lounge or the Hat Trick or Cafe Maude or any one of the places we can experience this remarkable music in person--let's get out there, kids. Now is the time.

Deborah Voigt: All the right notes

When: Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009 • Where: OrdwayWho: Deborah Voigt, soprano; Brian Zeger, piano. Part of the Schubert Club International Artist Series.

Confession: I don’t get the art songs, or recital songs, or whatever they call the music performed by classical/operatic/dramatic sopranos/mezzos/tenors/basses in programs like the one we heard last night at the Ordway. I’m not saying I don’t like them; I just don’t get them. It seems they’re either too short or too long, with too much drama, and I can’t make sense of the structure. I’ll take jazz almost any way it’s served, but give me a song with a verse and a chorus and a bridge, please.

That being said, I enjoyed every moment of Deborah Voigt. At 8:02, the doors opened, out she strode, and off she took on “The year’s at the spring,” an energetic setting of a sunny poem by Robert Browning (the one that ends “God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!”). She looked spectacular. This is the soprano who was fired in 2004 by the Royal Opera House for being too large for a costume she was supposed to wear in the opera Ariadne auf Naxos. Following gastric bypass surgery, she is considerably slimmer but hardly a stick. (And she treats the story with humor and wit; see her video “The Return of the Little Black Dress.”) At the Ordway, she wore beefsteak-tomato-red satin, lace, and sequins. Her matching shoes had beaded tassels. Just what a diva should wear.

Three Browning songs were followed by four Verdi songs, each with lots of rolled Rs. Then five by Richard Strauss. Reading the texts and translations, minding the printed instructions “Please wait for the end of the song to turn the page” (when everyone turned the page, Voigt mimed being fanned by a breeze), I fantasized someday writing a poem that would be set to music and sung by a famous soprano. Maybe I could start by selecting some of the lyrics from tonight’s program….

The wind has dropped, and the sky’s deranged.
Do not approach the urn that holds my ashes!

Have mercy, oh woman of grief. Pour me some wine!

The weather is bad. The alders and the willows weep.

Girls with streaming hair and bare breasts cry “Adonis! Adonis!”

A groan of the dead arises.
The crows fly over the moors, grimly.

Intermission, then part two (the part where Voigt wore sequins). Four songs by Respighi (actually three; she skipped one), and four by living American composer (and painter) Ben Moore, a name new to me. His texts are poems by Elizabeth Bishop, James Joyce, and Robert Herrick (“To the Virgins, to make much of Time”). I liked them very much. The last six songs were by Leonard Bernstein, starting with the nonsense lyrics of “Piccola Serenata” and ending with “Somewhere” from West Side Story.

Throughout, Voigt was utterly charming. She made occasional comments to the audience, mugged a bit, and mentioned more than once that her mother was in the house. Her voice was sumptuous, resonant on the lower notes, wide-open on the highs. Her diction was crisp and clear. World-famous though she is, she seemed accessible and warm, and the entire evening had an intimate feel. It was everything I like about a Schubert Club concert.

We wouldn’t let Voigt and her superb pianist, Brian Zeger, go, so they returned for three encores: another Strauss (“Zueignung”), Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat.

As always at a Schubert Club event with a piano, there was a third person on stage for much of the night: page-turner (and composer) David Evan Thomas, seated in a chair to the left of Zeger. Read more about him here. (Be sure to see the delightful rumination from AfroJet at the top of the page.) I wonder: Do page-turners ever get sleepy?

See and hear Voigt sing the suicide aria from La Gioconda. High notes and high drama.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Barbara Morrison: Lady swings the blues

When: Monday, Jan. 5, 2008 • Where: DakotaWho: Barbara Morrison, voice; Lee Blaske, piano; Dave Karr, tenor saxophone; Gary Raynor, bass; Joe Pulice, drums

I love Barbara Morrison, and I don't just want to hear her sing. I want to be her girlfriend and go shopping and take long lunches with lots of wine, or maybe martinis. I'd hope she'd be in the mood to tell stories from her 30-plus years as an entertainer, performing with jazz and blues legends including Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles, Etta James and Joe Williams. I'd try to make her laugh because her laughter, like her singing and her stories, is such a pleasure.

How many times have I seen her? Three, four, maybe five? It's been almost two years since she was last in the Twin Cities, as a headliner at the 2007 Summer Jazz festival. The audience for her second set at the Dakota on Monday was small. I was embarrassed for us as a community of people who are supposed to know something about music. As a friend said later, "There should have been a line out the door." I came home and stayed up late to write a review.

Photo by John Whiting.