Monday, March 29, 2010

Anticipating Monterey

What's not to love about the Monterey Jazz Festival? Go more than once and the experience becomes cumulative. Not only do you have last year's memories to savor, you also have next year's lineup to look forward to. And when it's announced, it never disappoints.

Three cheers for MJF/53, to be held September 17-19 on the sweet fairgrounds of Monterey-by-the-sea. Hurray for the sheer, mind-boggling quantity: 500 artists on 7 stages for 85 performances squeezed into three nights and two days. No one sees them all, except maybe Forrest Dylan Bryant. Bravo for the quality, including 9 artists/groups making their Monterey festival debuts.

Is it really possible that the great Ahmad Jamal is playing this festival for the first time? (That Trombone Shorty is new this year I can understand--he's still a kid.) Has Harry Connick truly never made his way to Monterey? All I ask is that he not make this part of his Your Songs tour. Please, Harry, I'm begging you, don't sing "Close to You." Give us some of that New Orleans sugar, swagger and stride. Make us swoon.

Who else? Dianne Reeves is this year's artist in residence. Works for me, because I want to know her much better than I do. Roy Haynes, the dapper dresser and ageless wonder, will be there with his Fountain of Youth Band. (Jaleel Shaw, I hope that includes you.) Angelique Kidjo will perform with a band that includes Christian McBride, Lionel Loueke, and Kendrick Scott. Whew. Roy Hargrove will bring his big band. Nellie McKay will channel Doris Day--or not, depending on her mood. Whatever she does, she'll delight and confound the crowd. She's a one-woman variety/cabaret show.

More? The Freedom Band with Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett, McBride and Haynes. Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition. The inestimable Marcus Roberts and his trio. Jake Shimabukuro, ukelelist extraordinaire. The Chris Potter Underground (with the splendid Craig Taborn, the pianist/keyboardist named most often when I ask jazz musicians, "Who are you listening to?").

Kronos Quartet. Gerald Clayton. Russell Malone. Gretchen Parlato. Les Nubians. Billy Childs. Fred Hersch--in performance and in Downbeat's always enjoyable "Blindfold Test." Can Dan Ouellette stump Hersch? We'll see about that. Sachal Vasandani. Dr. Lonnie Smith. Les McCann. Conversations with Haynes, impresario George Wein, and Sam Stephenson from The Jazz Loft Project. The whole four-part film series Icons Among Us.

And that's not even everyone and everything, and we haven't talked about the food. Or the unique and palpable charm of the place and the people. Moonlight in the open-air arena, and planes flying low overhead. The Flyswatter Lady. Paul Aschenbrenner in his moose hat. Tim Orr on his bike. Clint Eastwood strolling by. The smell of the ocean, the mist in the air.

There are still many jazz festivals out there, thank goodness. Someone I know attends the North Sea festival each year. Wish I could go. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is high on my list. I've been to Montreal and would love to return (though it's pricey; almost everything worth seeing is ticketed). I'd like to see Newport. Dear Jesus, please send me to Perugia someday. But until I win the lottery and can spend my life traveling with HH from festival to festival, he with his camera and I with my pen, make mine Monterey.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hank Roberts' Hat

Cellist Hank Roberts looks very handsome in his hat, part of my ongoing idiosyncratic quest to warm the heads of jazz musicians and others in the jazz world. HH dreams of a Hats for Cats photo shoot, a modern-day version of A Great Day in Harlem with hand-knit headgear. What a band that would be.

The Hats for Cats project began in October 2007 with a hat for Dave King. Here's the list of people with hats to date. Next up: JT Bates, Patrick Harison, and Ahmad Jamal.

Reid Anderson • Paul Aschenbrenner • Chris Bates • Leah Beach • Tim Berne • Don Berryman • Brian Blade • Walter Blanding • Leon “Chocolate” Brown • Andrea Canter • James Cammack • Laura Caviani • Larry Clothier • Pat Courtemanche • Dan Cunningham • Joe Doermann • John Economos • Craig Eichhorn • Dan Eikmeier • Michael Ekhaus • Kurt Elling • Jay Epstein • Douglas Ewart • Milo Fine • Arne Fogel • Scott Fultz • Larry Fuller • Vincent Gardner • Alvester Garnett • Rick Germanson • Ted Gioia • Dave Graf • Benny Green • Doug Haining • Roy Hargrove • Nancy Harms • Carlos Henriquez • Ruth Hiland • Laurence Hobgood • Kenny Horst • Ethan Iverson • Willard Jenkins • Gordy Johnson • Sean Jones • Stanley Jordan • Jason Jungbluth • Dave King • Mary Lewis • Michael Lewis • Wendy Lewis • Adam Linz • Dean Magraw • Wynton Marsalis • Charnett Moffett • Kristen Mors • Bryan Nichols • Phil Palombi • Lowell Pickett • Joshua Redman • Hank Roberts • Justin Robinson • Reuben Rogers • Christine Rosholt • Kelly Rossum • Maria Schneider • Lilly Schwartz • Jaleel Shaw • James Singleton • Greg Skaff • Tim Sparks • Maryann Sullivan • Chris Thomson • Deborah Upchurch • Jeremy Walker • Marsha Walker • Pete Whitman • John Whiting • Davis Wilson • Miguel Zenon

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Interview with Evan Christopher: Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Originally published on Willard Jenkins' blog The Independent Ear

So now you are known as a New Orleans-style, Creole-style clarinetist. That’s how everyone talks about you and how you present yourself. Does it ever feel like a trap?

No, because in 2006 I intentionally branded myself that way. I started to do that even before the storm, but I was more aggressive about it starting in 2006.

I want to make sure people are aware that what I’m doing is related and relevant to New Orleans. I’m trying to be an advocate for that language. I had to find a way to explain it better so that my identity was more explicable.

Most people’s understanding of New Orleans traditional jazz is so narrow that I wanted to find a new way to make sure that I got different gigs, or that other musicians didn’t make presumptions about what I did. So part of it was a strategy to make me not look like I was in some kind of box.

I also I had to find a way to get around the fact that for traditional music, you find a demographic that’s not as much fun to hang out with. So part of the Jazz Traditions Project was simply trying to find an aesthetic that would lead us out of only playing for old people.

It wasn’t some kind of artistic decision. It was more of a survival technique, like switching from saxophone back to clarinet was a survival technique. One day in university, I realized that there’s way too many freaking saxophone players out there. I started getting calls to do clarinet things, and it was my first instrument, so once I started taking it more seriously, I thought, well, I’ve just eliminated so much competition that I may just stick with this.

Talk about your own composing. What are you trying to do with your compositions?

Finding new ways to frame the music has to go beyond jazz clubs and concerts. I started writing a little bit for chamber orchestra for a project in California, and that got me excited.

There’s a group called the Seahawk Modern Jazz Orchestra out of Idyllwild [California], put together by one of my teachers, Marshall Hawkins, the bass player. [Hawkins leads the jazz department at Idyllwild Arts Academy, which Christopher attended.] Every summer they have a music festival with a chamber orchestra concert that blends jazz and classical in different ways, or uses the orchestra to frame certain aspects of improvised music. So every time I’m able, I try to write something for them.

I’m gradually getting more into the idea that there’s vocabulary in New Orleans music that can be used in those forums, and I feel I’m onto something new. It’s been done in the past by composers like William Grant Still, people like that. But nobody today is doing too much with it.

I’m trying to find ways to have elements of that vocabulary present. Even if it seems kind of hidden. For example, I’ve been cataloging the way that the modern brass bands use harmony, meaning the way three trombone players improvise something in the modern [New Orleans] brass band. I’m trying to catalog the way they harmonize with each other.

What do you mean by “catalog”?

I’m literally transcribing the way they harmonize with each other, trying to figure out new systems, trying to figure out how to build that into an orchestration so it becomes a gesture of New Orleans music. In the same way that Mozart used certain rhythms to make gestures that represent aristocracy, or gestures that represent folk.

These gestures become symbols that tell the listener, “Oh, now we’re dealing with the South,” or “Now we’re dealing with the European tradition, or the blues tradition.” We’re dealing with certain traditions just by sticking those little gestures in the music somewhere. They can be ornaments, chords, the way something is voiced, they can be harmonic.

You spent almost three years with the Jim Cullum jazz band in your late 20s. Would you like to talk about that?

That was when I switched to the Albert System [of clarinet fingering], so it was great…. It was an interesting time. I had been in New Orleans for a couple years and was actually dissatisfied. I felt like I had run out of things to do. I hadn’t taken responsibility for having my own projects. The phone would ring, I would do things, I got to do a variety of things, but I got bored pretty quickly…. I couldn’t do the Cullum band more than two and a half years. I got very accustomed to what was going to happen next. When there’s not new information, I have to move on.

I found an old web page from when you were in the band, and even then you had ideas about the music. Here’s what you said: “My goal is to maintain the integrity of early jazz styles, its structure, but move forward so that it's speaking to an audience of today instead of being something bottled and preserved."

I think I’ve been saying that from the very beginning. It’s not like one day I wanted to do repertory and one day I didn’t. As soon as I became interested in this music, I knew I didn’t want to play in bands that were trying to re-create something.

Talk about [drummer] Shannon Powell. You’ve mentioned his name so often that I get the sense he’s important to you and to the music.

He’s one of the best drummers in New Orleans, and a perfect example of someone who has a deep passion for the tradition but doesn’t feel an obligation to be in a box in the way that he uses it. He’ll use it when it’s appropriate, but if he’s just making music creatively, you’ll hear the history of New Orleans drumming in his playing. You’ll hear everybody from Baby Dodds to Ed Blackwell. It’s all in there. He strongly represents his own neighborhood, his own community of the Tremé, in his drumming style.

New Orleans is a fascinating place for that reason. Neighborhoods have their own musical accents, like a linguistic accent… The difference between Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell is a distinction that’s very much rooted in the neighborhoods. The distinction of the 6th ward versus the 9th ward.

How did you figure that out?

You notice the difference and then you ask them about it. And when you’re trying to play with it, you have to ask those questions as well. What am I supposed to be doing with this? This is the way we do things in the Tremé versus the way we do things in the 9th ward.

Scholarship and research are important to you.

I didn’t have what Shannon had when he grew up. He sat behind Cie Fraser. He knew these musicians. When I got to New Orleans, there were no living clarinet players playing in the New Orleans style. The last one would have been Willie Humphrey, who died months before I got there. After that, there wasn’t anybody performing in New Orleans that I was terribly interested in.

So you went into the archives at Tulane University. You’ve said that was like “taking lessons from ghosts.”

Sometimes in those oral histories they’re actually performing on their instruments, they’re describing the way they did things, the jobs they had, how they got to them or why they did them. Those are the things I would have loved to have asked musicians I knew personally, but there weren’t any.

You’ve said that a lot of your mentors died when you were in Paris.

Kenny Davern at 72. Ahmet Ertegun at 80 fell down at a Rolling Stones concert. Tony Scott at 84, 85.

Are you feeling that you’re taking on some of that role?

I had to look at it that way because I was too old to feel sorry for myself. Like, I’m the abandoned kid…. It’s not that way. The circle’s turning.

So now you’re it.

There’s a trumpet player friend of mine, we’re in kind of a similar situation. We’re both 40 and we’re trying to figure out why there aren’t a bunch of young cats in their twenties wanting to do what we’re doing, or trying to get a handle on it. Why aren’t they asking us for the recordings that we got from musicians and friends who are now maybe 10 or 20 years older than us?

One of the obvious answers is because there’s not a demand for it. But there must be something else, too. I’m not thinking there was ever a huge demand for it, just that it suited my personal aesthetic. The development of a personal aesthetic is not something that our culture is promoting or encouraging or nurturing.

You’re a seeker. Do you think the path you’re on will hold your interest?

Figuring out how to play the clarinet in a New Orleans way and have it get gradually farther and farther away from instantly having the associations of being traditional…and yet, at the same time, have it be understood as being from that—that’s a really fun challenge. There’s irony, and there’s a degree of subversion. I find myself trying to thumb my nose at what’s a more dominating aesthetic in the jazz community.

Which is…?

I wouldn’t know how to describe it exactly, but it’s a little bit more of the stare at your shoes mentality, the I-don’t-care-if-you-have-a-good-time-listening-to-your-music mentality. New Orleans insists that on some level you have a good time.


Hear a complete concert by the Evan Christopher/Tom McDermott Danza Quartet, broadcast live from Donna’s Bar and Grill in the French Quarter on New Year’s Eve 2009.

Photo of Evan Christopher by John Whiting

Interview with Evan Christopher: Part 1

Originally published on Willard Jenkins' blog
The Independent Ear

Think “clarinet” and “New Orleans” and a certain sound may come to mind: sweet, quavery, old-timey Dixieland. I once thought of the clarinet as an instrument that had seen its day in jazz, making rare appearances for color and nostalgia. And then I heard Evan Christopher play.

During my first encounter with the Creole-style clarinetist, an impromptu set at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis in 2008, he stole the show from Irvin Mayfield, who usually keeps a pretty firm grasp on such things. I heard Christopher again at Chickie Wah Wah in New Orleans in March 2009, where he has a regular gig on Monday nights, and back at the Dakota in October, where he played for more than two hours to a packed house with no break. Each time I came away knowing I had heard something old and something new.

Born in Long Beach, California, Christopher began playing clarinet at age 11. He moved to New Orleans in 1994 and left twice, the first time in 1996 to join the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in San Antonio, where he remained for two and a half years, and again in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, when his Broadmoor neighborhood flooded and he became one of the city’s more than 4,000 displaced musicians.

At the invitation of the French government, Christopher relocated to Paris, where he deepened his commitment to the music of New Orleans, solidified his claim to the title “Ambassador of the Clarinet,” and formed two groups: The Jazz Traditions Project and Django à la Crèole. He returned to New Orleans in December 2007.

Christopher is charismatic on stage, playing with passion and joy, connecting with the audience, occasionally singing, sometimes dancing as he plays. Rooted in history and scholarship, his music is modern and fresh, sincere and full of emotion, respectful of the elders but not at all dusty or quaint. Contemporary trad? Or simply the living, breathing, right-now sound of New Orleans?

We spoke in late 2009, when Christopher was in Minneapolis with pianist Henry Butler, and also to meet with the Minnesota Orchestra, which has commissioned him to write a new piece for orchestra that will have its world premiere on July 23, 2010.


The name of your website is “Clarinet Road” and you have two recordings called “Clarinet Road.” What is the Clarinet Road?

When I first met Tony Scott, the great bebop clarinet player, he was living in Italy. I was on tour and he autographed a poster-size picture he used to carry copies of around, of himself backstage at Carnegie Hall in 1953 or 1954 with Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. He signed it “Good luck on Clarinet Road, lots of curves.” I lost that poster in the storm but I kept the Clarinet Road thing.

How did your music change when you moved to Paris after Katrina?

When I went to Paris, I was very aggressively trying to move forward, trying not to cry over spilled milk. Initially I thought there was no way I was ever going to go back to New Orleans, I was so pissed off about it. I envisioned getting a project started in Paris, and I envisioned staying there. To shape that project, I had to come up with a slightly new aesthetic, because I had to find a way to represent New Orleans music outside of New Orleans with musicians who weren’t living there or from there.

You were working with French musicians?

On the Live at the Meridien recording, the drummer’s French. The other two musicians live in France but they’re actually Australian.

The bass player, Sebastien Girardot, has played traditional jazz with real New Orleans-style revival bands since he was 19. [Guitarist] David Blenkhorn came up with Australian musicians in the Australian traditional jazz scene. He plays the shit out of blues. He approaches jazz in almost a more American way than a lot of American musicians do.

What does that mean?

He likes to swing and play blues.

Do you find there’s a difference between working with American musicians and those who aren’t American?

I can’t make a generalization like that. But I will say that I enjoy the spirit of these guys. It seems more American to me than a lot of the cats I work with here.

Talk about your Jazz Traditions Project, the group with whom you recorded Live at the Meridien.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek thing. A lot of avant-garde/contemporary groups use the word “project” and it’s sort of annoying. The Jazz Traditions Project is a way of saying “We’re not going to apologize for having a foot in the door of New Orleans music.”

I met Sebastien when he was about 19 years old, at a festival in Norway. He was playing with an Australian band, good revival-style New Orleans jazz. The drummer, Guillaume [Nouaux], I met a couple years later in Paris. David Blenkhorn I met in Ascona, Switzerland. He was there at a festival with a great Australian jazz musician named Tom Baker. Who again embodies what I think is more the American spirit/aesthetic of jazz better than a lot of American musicians.

You taught for a time.

I was adjunct faculty at the University of New Orleans and I’m done with that. I had the distinction for three semesters of having the only performing ensemble at the University level dealing with New Orleans music.

That is so bizarre.

Everybody says that, and I want people to have that reaction. But maybe it’s not so bizarre. If you think about what has become the norm for modern jazz pedagogy, New Orleans strategies and schema for music-making or learning music don’t really fit in. I found ways to make them fit in, but they don’t generally. It’s not people’s experience who teach on that level. It’s not something, except in New Orleans, that students can engage in directly when they walk out their door. The fact that they choose not to is the part that I want to seem strange.

When you are bringing the music forward, making the music contemporary, how are you doing that? What’s going through your mind as you’re preparing and performing?

During my preparation with the band, I have some rules in my head, to intentionally avoid repertory. The idea behind Django à la Crèole was if we do these Django tunes, we have to find a new way to do them. We have to find elements in them that say that they want to be something else. We have to find rhythmic elements, harmonic things, that make them actually want to not be the same thing that they’ve been for years and years, that everybody else is doing.

[See and hear Django à la Crèole perform “Fantasie” and “Riverboat Shuffle.”]

With the Jazz Traditions Project, it’s the same thing. You have to take vehicles that lend themselves to using the vocabulary that’s rooted in tradition. A song like John Coltrane’s “After the Rain” is a beautiful waltz. You imagine, well, what if Elvin Jones is playing in a brass band, what if George Lewis is playing the melody? And it’s not to make anachronisms. It’s like a postmodern strategy, where you’re blurring the lines between genre, where you’re blurring the lines between tradition. At the same time, it still has to be musical, to have what I would call narrative.

[See and hear the Jazz Traditions Project perform Coltrane’s “After the Rain.”]

You also play an Ornette Coleman tune, “Lonely Woman.”

Ornette is one of the pioneers of modern jazz. To be anchored firmly in the earliest New Orleans traditions and yet find a way to make an homage to one of the pioneers of the avant-garde was more symbolic for me than anything.

Is it difficult?

It’s hard finding things. I’ve been looking for other Ornette tunes, and I’ve hung out with him. He’s a lovely cat. He appreciates things that sound good. His whole thing has always been about being free of all of those trappings—what’s traditional, what’s modern, freedom from tonality, even more abstractly, freedom from what he calls our “classness,” or even gender. He’d rather be free of all of that.

What were you doing before you started playing in the New Orleans style?

When I was in college, I was playing a lot of saxophone. When I first started university, I was playing a lot more saxophone. I thought I was being groomed to be a New York musician, someone who was going to wait in line to audition to be one of Art Blakey’s last alto players.

Doesn’t everybody have that Art Blakey dream?

I don’t know if it was specifically Art Blakey. I was kind of making a joke. Those kinds of stories resonate with one’s imagination when you’re out there in California. A couple of my mentors were more modern musicians. I think that’s what I envisioned myself being. I still know a lot of that music, even though I never get to play it.

Continues in Part 2

Photo of Evan Christopher by John Whiting

Friday, March 5, 2010

Symphonic Transients Orchestra at the Bedlam: Stefan Kac’s latest project is bold and tantalizing

Stefan Kac leads the Symphonic Transients Orchestra

When: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 • Where: Bedlam Theatre • Who: Symphonic Transients Orchestra

I’ve heard Stefan Kac (say “katz”) called a “mad genius” and that shoe seems to fit. I first became aware of him during a jam session at the Artists’ Quarter, maybe in 2005, when he walked onstage with his tuba and started to play. In February 2006, he performed with his group Pan-Metropolitan Trio at a Dakota late-night show.

Then came the group Ingo Bethke in 2008, Kac's trio with Adam Linz and Pete Hennig in 2008, his quartet with Sean Roderick, Josh Granowski, and Nick Zielinski, the group Bronco Vision with Brandon Wozniak, Anthony Cox, and Jay Epstein, and journeys into free jazz/improvised music with Milo Fine at Homewood Studios.

And there are the projects I haven’t yet heard, like the Copper Street Brass Quintet. Earlier this week I was talking with Dick Parker, a member of the Mouldy Figs, and he asked, “Do you know Stefan Kac”? Apparently Kac also plays with this trad jazz band and others.

His latest project, the Symphonic Transients Orchestra, made its debut on Wednesday, February 24, at the Bedlam Theatre, an artsy hotbed hidden on a side street in Minneapolis’s West Bank neighborhood. The Symphonic Transients Orchestra is part of Kac’s new Consortium of Symphonic Transients (C.o.S.T.), which he defines as “a network of freelance musicians devoted to creating and performing their own music for large instrumental ensembles of flexible instrumentation.”

It’s a big band, sort of, whose personnel will vary (depending on who’s available), playing original music “for the listening pleasure of an audience, nothing more and nothing less.” It “does not provide musical accompaniment to events, ceremonies, or theatrical productions, nor do we perform in an ambient capacity whereby our life’s work is presented specifically for the purpose of being ignored.”

Hear, hear.

The debut took place in the Bedlam’s Fireside Room, where half the space was taken up by the 13 musicians who had come to play. Kac was hoping to attract an audience to outnumber the band; I think he succeeded because it got pretty crowded in there. We managed to find seats but most people stood before the curtain that divided the room from the bar on the other side. All of the compositions this time around were by Kac. Admission was voluntary, by tip jar.

It’s so rare these days to hear a large ensemble live that Symphonic Transients Orchestra gets props for that, for starters. Among the 13 musicians were many I had seen before in other configurations, some leading their own bands—strong players with their own voices. The night’s lineup:

—Mike Abresch, flute
—Geoff Senn, trumpet
—Dan Frankowski, trumpet
—Nathan Hanson, tenor saxophone
—Scott Fultz, tenor saxophone
—Joy Judge, trombone
—Lauren Husting, trombone
—Brad Bellows, euphonium
—Kate Roarty, bassoon (more props for the bassoon)
—Brent Griewski, guitar
—Sean Roderick, piano
—Matt Peterson, bass
—Nick Zielinski, drums

Too bad Kac couldn’t play; he was busy conducting his music. Big music with lots of horns (seven horns, plus flute and bassoon) that filled the small room. Everything was tightly composed, with windows that opened up for improvisation. The musicians looked as if they were working hard and the music was tricky to play. I heard complex rhythms, interesting melodies, and pleasing juxtapositions—like flute with bassoon. One piece, Double Quintet, seemed to consist mostly of the same note and brief phrase that floated from section to section. There were moments when classical met jazz and took a turn around the floor. It reminded me of no one and nothing; it was itself, and I enjoyed it.

I like the whole idea of this project, and the fact that it exists. I hope it can continue. We have the JazzMN Big Band, with its annual concert series and its skilled and effective board of directors, and long may it survive and thrive, but this is something different, maverick and rogue. Playing where it can, when it can, with whom it can, for whomever shows up. A flash-mob band, but with rehearsals.

More on the music (from the website): “All works are composed with a flexible instrumentation in mind per guidelines established by the Consortium for each project…. Works are composed to function as single movements of a larger work called a Series. The movements may be stylistically diverse, and may be performed in any order desired to form suites of varying length.” At the debut, we heard F-1 (from the “F”) series, Passacaglia, Checkpoint Philosopher, D3, D1, D2, and D4 (all from the “D” series), and Double Quintet. All music is available for download from the site.

The day following the performance, I sent Kac a few questions by email and he kindly responded.

Did you choose/invite the musicians for last night’s performance?

We currently have a pool of about 25 people, all of whom were invited. The musicians who performed last night were the ones who were able and willing.

Were you pleased with last night’s performance? If yes, why? If no, why?

Yes. We could have used more rehearsal, but no one was tentative. That's what it's all about.

Why the Bedlam?

Mostly happenstance. Paul Fonfara, who is one of my colleagues at WBSM [the West Bank School of Music, where Kac teaches], has a band called Painted Saints that plays there on alternate Wednesdays. As they were planning to take the week off, he offered me the gig and suggested that I bring the orchestra.

Are you modeling this orchestra/effort on anything else out there? Maybe Maria Schneider or Darcy James Argue or Dave Holland’s Big Band or Carla Bley or...???

To my knowledge, none of those bands works the way this one does. [Argue's] Secret Society is probably the closest, but I believe that their instrumentation, like all the other bands you listed, is fixed. In other words, they might show up to every gig with a slightly different group of people, but they always have 5 saxes, 4 trombones, etc. Conversely, we might show up with only saxes one night and only trombones the next. It sounds like you've already read my manifesto, where I outlined the many reasons I have (both practical and artistic) for doing things this way. I don't have a specific model, though I'd be shocked if someone somewhere wasn't doing something similar.

In the announcement email you sent, you described the program as “original symphonic music.” To me, that implies classical/contemporary classical. It was composed; there wasn’t a lot of room for improvisation, but there was some improvisation. Care to comment?

By “symphonic” I simply meant “big.” I tend to think of it as a style-neutral term even if it’s really not.

Re: improvisation, I’ll probably get myself in trouble by saying this, but here’s the deal:

There’s a line of thinking out there that improvised music doesn’t require any rehearsal, and that it doesn’t really matter what happens. I don’t subscribe to that line of thinking, but many many people do, and so the tighter peoples’ schedules and wallets get, the more people suddenly find the urge to play free. As a result, there’s no shortage of opportunities to play and hear improvised music right now, but there’s a pretty dire shortage of “new music ensembles” playing through-composed music by living composers, which requires more space, time and people than anyone seems to be able to pull together consistently at the moment. This project is all about filling that void. You know that I’m also heavily invested in (real) improvised music, and happily, those opportunities are plentiful at the moment. This project is my way of finding a balance, and I aspire that it might serve that very same purpose for the other musicians, and for listeners too.

What’s next for C.o.S.T.?

More gigs like this one, more musicians brought into the fold, and more new music written not just by me but by the many other players in the pool who are also composers.

So I don’t have to try and fail, can you sum up your “About” document into a much shorter statement of purpose? What is this thing about?


Was there anything in particular that made you think of this/start it?

There's too much talent going to waste in this f#$%ing town. The music scene is cliquey, parochial, and petty. Musicians don’t get together in large numbers because it’s too inconvenient and expensive. They have no outlet for their large ensemble compositions because pro orchestras won’t play them and community groups can’t play them. Fixed instrumentation excludes too many worthy participants from music making. I could go on, but you wanted something shorter.

Photos by John Whiting. It's dark in the Bedlam.

Monday, March 1, 2010

John Hammond at the Dakota: Concert Review

John Hammond

When: Sunday, February 28, 2010 • Where: DakotaWho: John Hammond

For a veteran bluesman, John Hammond doesn’t seem very blue. In fact, he seems genuinely happy, and nice besides. Someone you’d like to hang out with, have a drink with, invite to dinner, maybe even marry and stay married to; his second wife, Marla, has been with him since 1983, serves as co-producer on his records, and travels with him.

Following last night’s one-night, sold-out stand at the Dakota, people lined up to meet them. Marla handled the CD sales biz, taking money and stripping off shrinkwrap. John reached out his hand, smiled warmly, asked “What’s your name?” and made time to chat. I wanted to bring them both home for nightcaps and leftovers.

Paul Metsa

Local bluesmen Paul Metsa and Sonny Earl opened; it was Metsa’s first time on the Dakota stage, and he was glad to be there. He sang and played “Whistling Past the Graveyard,” then Earl came out wearing his harmonica—belt? Holster? Bandolier? Whatever, it was cool. Tunes like “I’m a White Boy Lost in the Blues” and Charlie Musselwhite’s “River Hip Mama” put us in the mood. Earl is a smoother singer than Metsa, whose voice has been called, perhaps too kindly, “whiskey-tinged.”

Sonny Earl

Then Hammond came on stage alone and announced, “I’ve got a whole bunch of songs and I’m just going to play what I feel like.” (Later in the evening, when someone called out a request, he deflected it by saying that David Bromberg once told a crowd, “This is not Burger King. You do not get it your way.”)

You do get a lot of music at a John Hammond show, from famous blues songs to tunes that were lost until he found them again, from classics to originals. (Scroll down for the playlist I scribbled during the show; I think I caught almost everything.) It’s a history lesson and a head-smacking reminder of how rich and varied this genre is, and how expressive of human emotions: bad-ass and bitter, tender and sweet, playful, rueful, hopeful, anguished, desperate, foolish, wise.

Hammond is a one-man band: a voice made to sing the blues, guitar (he had two on stage at the Dakota, wood and steel, and he switched between them), harmonica on a rack around his neck (he’d snap one out and another in), foot on the floor like a Taiko drum. (He stomped so hard the floor actually shook.) His vowels (“who’s,” “blues”) go high and lonesome, like one of those wooden train whistles.

You also get a lot of stories at a John Hammond show, stories that start in childhood (spent listening to the blues on a Nashville radio station) and move slowly through time. He drops as many names as notes but there is no arrogance about him. Some people will say they know so-and-so, or went to the Grammys, or met a movie star and your eyes will roll. Hammond mentioned dozens of blues legends during his set—people he knew and had played with—but he talked about them like a star-struck kid.

John Hammond

His latest CD, Rough & Tough (Chesky, 2009), was a Grammy nominee this year (“It didn’t win, but my wife still thinks I'm a star”). Hammond told us that his publisher, Bug Music, hosted a big party at Wolfgang Puck during which Jeff Bridges came up to him and said, “I love Wicked Grin.” He wasn’t boasting, just sharing This Incredibly Cool Thing That Happened.

He made us laugh by describing blues legend Big Joe Williams as being “about five-foot-nine by five-foot nine.” He mentioned the Crown Vic he had in his early days but didn’t, alas, sing “Slick Crown Vic,” one of my favorite Hammond tunes. Nor did he sing the Stones’ B-side “Spider and the Fly,” a song I especially love in his version. Maybe next time.

As he’s done before (this is the third time I’ve seen him, the first two at the Cedar), he reached out to the crowd, letting us know he knew where he was, that Minneapolis was not just another nameless stop. “It’s our last night of a two-week tour, all the way through the upper Midwest, and it’s balmy here.” (A little joke for Minnesotans.) “We’re so happy to play this beautiful club.” “I started my professional career in 1962 in New York City, where I met Koerner, Ray and Glover”—local music heroes Spider John Koerner, Dave Ray, and Tony Glover.

Near the end of his generous set, nearly two hours, he said, “Thank you for coming. I feel like somebody.”

Afterward I spoke with a person who had worked with Hammond before. “Is he really that nice?” I asked. The answer: “Oh, definitely.”


“Just Your Fool” (Little Walter)
“Heartache Blues” (John Hammond)
“Mean Old Lonesome Train” (Lightnin Slim)
“My Time After While” (Buddy Guy/Robert Geddins)
“Rockin’ Oldsmobile” (?)
“Come On in My Kitchen” (Robert Johnson)
“You Know That’s Cold” (John Hammond)
“Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” (Skip James)
“Come to Find Out” (John Hammond)
“Someday Blues” (Sleepy John Estes)
“Fattening Frogs for Snakes” (Sonny Boy Williamson)
“That’s Alright (Who’s Loving You Tonight?)” (Jimmy Rodgers)
“Drop Down Mama” (Big Joe Williams)
“Love Changing Blues” (Blind Willie McTell)
“No One Can Forgive Me but My Baby” (Tom Waits, written for Hammond)
“Found Love” (Jimmy Reed)
[Something with the lines “I love you baby like a bulldog loves a hound/You’ve got just what it takes to make a preacher lay his Bible down”]
“Fannin Street” (John Hammond)

Photos by John Whiting