Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pete Whitman's X-Tet at the Artists' Quarter: Concert notes

Laura Caviani
When: Thursday, July 29, 2010 • Where: Artists' QuarterWho: Pete Whitman, Dave Milne, and Dave Karr, saxophones; Jeff Rinear, trombone; Jeff Gottwig and Brad Shermock, trumpets; Dave Hagedorn, vibes; Laura Caviani, piano; Gordy Johnson, bass; Joe Pulice, drums

After AntiGravity at Studio Z, we go the AQ to hear the excellent X-Tet. It's their more-or-less monthly gig, which we miss too often, and we're already in St. Paul so of course we go. Plus tonight the band is celebrating the birthdays of leader/saxophonist/composer Pete Whitman and bassist Gordy Johnson and there will be cake.

The "little big band" formed by Whitman and Caviani first came together as a one-time thing in the early 2000s to make a record. Where's When (Artegra, 2002) was so well-received that they kept on keeping on. In January of this year they made their second album, recording live at the AQ over two nights.

When we arrive, around 9:30, few tables are available so we sit at the bar. More people come through the doors. It looks like a full house, it's more than a full stage, and the room is full of music. "Parallel Bars." A sweet and mellow "Light and Rain." Caviani's original "No Better Time." "Berdie," which Whitman wrote for a film (and jokingly describes as "hot off the press...if I can find my own part"). Milne's "Vanguard Shuffle," featuring Karr on the big bari sax, one of my favorite sounds in the world. Former X-Tet member Joe Cosgrove's "Epicycle." What a rare treat it is these days to hear a 10-piece jazz band live in a small room. Or a big room, for that matter.

One of the best jazz clubs in the world, Davis at the door, a crowd of (mostly) attentive listeners, Dan's Manhattans, a terrific band, wonderful music, chocolate cake. We can only stay for the first set (an early morning tomorrow) but we leave satisfied and someone else takes our seats at the bar.

Jazz concert review: AntiGravity with Viv Corringham at Studio Z

Viv Corringham
When: Thursday, July 29, 2010 • Where: Studio Z Who: Dean Granros (guitar), Stephen Goldstein (laptops), Patrick O'Keefe (clarinets and soprano saxophone), Scott Fultz (tenor saxophone, Viv Corringham (voice)

The improvised music/free jazz group AntiGravity has been playing a bimonthly series at the recently refurbished Studio Z in St. Paul’s Lowertown, and more people should be showing up.

I’ve been to three concerts now, in May, July, and last night, and their music deserves a bigger audience. Improvised/free/whatever you call it is a hard sell but I’ve seen decent crowds at the Rogue Buddha, the Clown, Homewood Studios and Art of This Gallery and there’s no reason the same people shouldn’t be coming to Studio Z. Different people, too.

Unless they’re not hearing about it. Or unless the door to the building is locked when they get there. In July, we had to enter through a deli on the other end of the building that happened to be open late. Last night we were about to drive off when HH saw Patrick O’Keefe push the door open. Concerts start at 8 p.m. and apparently that’s the same time the door to the Northwestern Building (an artists’ cooperative) is locked

Maybe start at 7:30?

AntiGravity. L to R: Fultz, O'Keefe, guest Corringham, Goldstein, Granros.

The core AntiGravity group is Dean Granros on guitar, Jacqueline Ultan on cello, Stephen Goldstein on laptops (software synths, samplers, beats, textures), Patrick O’Keefe on clarinets and saxophone, and Scott Fultz on saxophones (also flute and occasionally stainless steel bowls). For the last two concerts they’ve brought in guests: in July it was multi-instrumentalist/instrument maker Douglas Ewart and last night it was British vocalist/sound artist Viv Corringham. Ultan was unable to attend.

Steve Goldstein
AntiGravity is a very musical group. I was talking with someone recently, a musician, who said his main problem with free jazz is he doesn’t like it when instruments make ugly sounds. It’s true that sometimes they do, depending on who’s playing them and what he or she wants to say. Some musicians push their instruments to the edge and over. You can follow or not. Personally I have found great rewards in music I couldn’t have sat through a few years back, because I have trained my ears to hear it, mainly by going to live performances.

But not all free jazz is aggressive or (as it's often called) "just noise." AntiGravity may seem like five musicians doing their own thing, whether it’s a saxophone squawk or a series of static bips or a dissonant chord, but then O’Keefe’s and Fultz’s horns will soar together on the same wings or Goldstein will lay down a trancelike beat or Ultan will bow her cello or Granros will play a single phrase of pure guitar poetry and it's beautiful.

Patrick O'Keefe
I’ve heard Corringham twice before. The first time, a performance with Milo Fine at Homewood Studios in 2009, was daunting. I was surprised by the sounds she was making, some of which seemed very strange to me. A few months later I heard her again, at the Black Dog with Didier Petit, and because I knew more of what to expect, I could listen with a more open mind. The Homewood performance had begun my ear training (aided and abetted by an email exchange with Fine); the Black Dog was the next lesson. At Studio Z, I crossed over. I get it now, or I get it enough that I can enjoy it.

Vocal free improvisation—at least, how Corringham does it; I haven’t heard anyone else attempt it—is not singing or scatting. It’s using the voice, lips, palate, tongue, teeth, diaphragm, nose, and breath as an instrument, occasionally with electronic manipulation. (She uses a Line 6 looper; Fultz uses a DigiTech Whammy pedal and a Boss DD-6 digital delay pedal; Granros plays electric guitar. O’Keefe is the only one who’s unplugged. Yet at one point he makes his bass clarinet sound exactly like a didgeridoo.)

Scott Fultz
With Corringham, anything goes: clicks, growls, chirps, panting, trills, kisses, whoops, grunts, squeals, mews, glissandos, chatter, speaking in tongues. We hear occasional hints of a rich mezzo-soprano and  vibrato. Her range seems limitless, as does her imagination. She can do what anyone around her can do, except for chords. (At least, I’ve never heard her sing chords, though she probably has the Tuvan throat-singing thing somewhere in her repertoire.) It’s fascinating to watch and to hear.

They perform two pieces, one long (over an hour) and one short. There’s so much variety and color in the first piece that it doesn’t seem that long. (For reference, Beethoven’s Ninth is over an hour long, with short breaks between movements.) When you listen to something as unpredictable as this, you can try to take in all the sounds at once; you can follow one person for a while, then another; you can do both. To me, improvised/free jazz is like an Impressionist painting: Stand back, view the whole thing, and it becomes coherent; get too close or focus on a single aspect and it falls apart. 

Dean Granros
I close my eyes and listen to everything, then open them to see what a particular musician is up to. There’s a nice stretch between Granros and Corringham where they anticipate and respond to each other, and a dialogue between Corringham’s vocalizations and Goldstein’s beats. A spontaneous duet between O’Keefe and Fultz. A time when everyone else is playing/vocalizing low tones against a groove from Goldstein and Granros adds random blats from his guitar. At one point, Goldstein’s beats sound like cicadas.

The second piece is all percussion, suggestion, and breath. A soft landing.


Listen to AntiGravity on their MySpace page. Even better, go see them live. I heard Goldstein say something about skipping August, then reconvening in September. I'll put the specifics on the calendar as soon as I know them.

Watch a video featuring Corringham with guitarist Dave Tucker.

Thanks to Scott Fultz for help with the electronics.

Photos by John Whiting.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Concert review: Roy Ayers at the Dakota

Roy Ayers
When: July 28, 2010 * Where: Dakota * Who: Roy Ayers, vibraphone/vocals; Ray Gaskins, sax/keyboards/vocals; Mark Adams, keys; Trevor Allen, bass; Lee Pearson, drums; John Pressley, vocals

It felt like I had wandered into someone else’s party. Most other people who had come to see Roy Ayers knew his music; many had grown up with it. I was a brand-new fuzzy yellow chick to his music. A fuzzy white chick. Like Rachelle Ferrell back in May, Ayers drew a sizable black crowd to the Dakota, which was recently named Music Venue of the Year at the Minnesota Black Music Awards.

I'd read that many artists have sampled Ayers’ music (Mary J. Blige, A Tribe Called Quest, P. Diddy), and heard Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 track, "Take a Look At Yourself," that features him (R.I.P., Guru), but that was as far as I went until Wednesday night.

(If you want to hear how various artists have sampled Ayers’ music, check out a website called WhoSampled, but be warned: you will spend a lot of time there.)

At first it was too quiet storm for me (“No Stranger to Love”) and too loud (earplugs needed) but Ayers and his band drew me in. I couldn’t help it. The beats, the grooves, even Ayers’ banter (“Some of us don't trip. Those who don't trip need to trip") were irresistible. There was a lot of talk, and some fooling around onstage, but when that band got serious you just fell in. And when Ayers really played the vibes—in longer solos, not just musical punctuation marks—the sound was liquid silver and gold.

"No Stranger" was followed by “Woodpecker,” with Pearson playing rat-a-tats on the drums and Gaskins contributing an impressive sax and keyboards duet all by himself: sax with his left hand, keyboards with his right. A lengthy, funky jam-band track. “The Third Eye,” a tune (Ayers explained) “from when I was into my spiritual thing, Kahlil Gibran” that became a spoken word piece.

People called out names of songs they wanted to hear: “Daylight,” “Running Away,” “Everybody Loves the Sun.” Promises were made.

Ray Gaskin
Next up, “Shady Lane,” with a spoken homage to Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield, and Michael Jackson. The deliciously groovy “Searchin’.” “Baby, You Got It,” during which Gaskins quoted Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”: You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

I was kicking myself. How could I have known about Barry White and completely missed Roy Ayers?

Then “Running Away” (doobie-doo-run-run-run). The crowd was on its feet for most of this one. Gaskins played a screaming soprano sax solo and Ayers took a luscious turn on his electric vibes. “You Send Me," an infectious version of the Sam Cooke tune ("you-you-you-you-you-you send me"). “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” with a reggae beat. Just bees and things and flowers.

I looked around and saw how happy everyone was—Ayers, the band, the women sitting in front of me, Deborah to my right, Robert at a table in front of us. I was happy, too.

It was a generous set. If you already know Ayers, I suspect you’ve heard a soundtrack in your head as you’ve read this.

Where should I start my Roy Ayers collection?

Ayers' cool MalletKATPRO electronic vibes

Running Away
Everybody Loves the Sunshine
You Send Me 

Photos by John Whiting.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Eric Clapton's Crossroads the Movie

While I might have been at the Dakota hearing Alexander O'Neal or Hell's Kitchen enjoying Sophia Shorai or any one of many other venues in town featuring live jazz (check the calendar, boys and girls), I was at the clumsily named but well-appointed Kerasotes Showplace ICON Theatre at West End in St. Louis Park watching the concert film of Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010.

A benefit for Clapton's Crossroads Centre, a drug treatment center located in Antigua, the festival was held this year in Chicago on June 26. Star Tribune music critic Jon Bream went and called it "the best one-day all-star rock event I've witnessed since the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1995." He noted that a two-hour version would air on July 27 in 475 movie theaters and I thought...why not?

It's a good concert film. Lots of close-up camera work of fingers picking, plucking, strumming, tapping, and sliding along guitar strings. More guitars than I have ever seen in one place. I was reminded of why I like Robert Cray so much, amused (not meaning any disrespect) by ZZ Top, hypnotized by Derek Trucks (how can he look so angelic and play like such a beast?), enchanted as always by Vince Gill, moved by 78-year-old Hubert Sumlin (Howlin' Wolf's former guitarist, now on oxygen), more interested in John Mayer than I expected to be, and worried that the wide silver bracelet Jeff Beck wore on his upper right bicep would cut off his circulation. Gary Clark Jr.'s playing style is fascinating; his long, spidery fingers flail over the strings. Lang is a lot less skinny than I remember. He's man-sized now, not boy-sized. Buddy Guy is gravitas incarnate, a Buddha of the guitar.

Although B.B. King performed at the festival, the film did not include him. Lately the great man talks more than he plays. That was true when he played the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand in 2007, along with Al Green and Etta James.

I saw a pedal steel guitar close-up for the first time, played by Robert Randolph. What a glorious instrument that is—but you have to play it sitting down. It's like a guitar built into a table.  This must in some ways be a disadvantage. Sitting does not allow for strutting, and strutting is a big part of being a guitar hero.

I don't get Sheryl Crow. Susan Tedeschi is amazing. Who's Citizen Cope? (On the way out, a women in front of me was saying, "I couldn't understand a word he sang and his eyes looked funny. Was he high?") Ron Wood wore an "I Feel Like Painting" shirt and I flashed on Tony Bennett. (Why do all the Stones look to say this...scary?) Brief glimpses of Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo were insufficient. I was surprised to see Earl Klugh but in retrospect I don't know why. Would have liked to see more of Keb' Mo'. And more women. They were rare on stage (Crow, Tedeschi, a pair of backup singers, an electric bass player) and, it seemed, in the audience as well.

Steve Winwood sounds exactly the same as he did in the 1960s. It's uncanny. I prayed for "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys," but he and Clapton played "Had to Cry Today" from the Blind Faith days instead, then "Voodoo Child." Music of the wayback machine. Clapton did a wonderful "I Shot the Sheriff" ("but I did not shoot no deputy") and everyone came on stage for the finale, "Sweet Home Chicago." I thought about what it must have been like to stand for 11 hours at Toyota Park hearing the whole concert. Two hours in a comfy seat with popcorn, a cherry Coke, and HH by my side worked for me.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Concert review: Lizz Wright with the Minnesota Orchestra

When: July 23, 2010 • Where: Orchestra Hall • Who: Lizz Wright with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Sarah Hicks

Singer/songwriter Wright was the first half of an unusual double bill at Orchestra Hall, with the second half being Creole-style jazz clarinetist Evan Christopher and the world premiere of a new work commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra. Jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater was originally scheduled; when she had a conflict, Wright was brought in. It was two very different shows separated by an intermission and would have been either way. Bridgewater has been rebooked for later this year, for a holiday show with Irvin Mayfield.

Wright is better known than Christopher, and I suspect that much of the audience was there to see her. She’s about to release her fourth CD on a major label, Verve; her first, Salt (2003), debuted at #2 on Billboard’s Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. As a jazz singer, she’s been compared to Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, and Cassandra Wilson; she also sings rhythm and blues, folk, gospel, blues, and pop. Writing for the New York Times, Stephen Holden called her “an awesome talent [who] stands in a direct line of descent from Odetta through Tracy Chapman.” I saw her live at the Dakota her first time through town (in 2006). This was her Orchestra Hall debut.

Wearing a papaya-colored halter dress and no shoes, she looked dazzling, and she held the crowd’s attention through an approximately hour-long program of songs drawn from her first two albums: “Silence” (Salt), “Walk With Me, Lord” (Salt), Neil Young’s “Old Man” (Dreaming Wide Awake), “Soon As I Get Home” from The Wiz (Salt), and the title songs from Dreaming Wide Awake and Salt.

To me, this felt like a pop program. I was fine with that. Wright’s voice is so rich and delicious that I really don’t care what she sings. There were moments that worked spectacularly well—the gorgeous, string-filled “Dreaming Wide Awake”—and moments when things fell apart ever so slightly among Wright, the orchestra, and the pianist and drummer at the front of the stage with her (her band?), but overall it was well done, with conductor Hicks holding the strings in her sparkly black top and high heels.

I wish there had been more variety in tempo and feel. A program of mostly sultry ballads edges toward monotony. Why no songs at all from The Orchard? That album includes “I Feel the Earth Move,” and I could have used a little Carole King (though Wright slows that song down as well). I’m assuming no orchestra charts yet exist for the new CD, Fellowship, due out this fall. It all felt a little stuck in the past—too much from Salt. And yet, that fabulous, full-bodied, languid contralto voice; that riveting stage presence; that confidence and beauty and regal sexiness. Wright is a force and a power. She more than held her own in front of a major symphony orchestra, and people enjoyed her performance very much, to judge by the comments I heard on the way out and afterward. Personally, I prefer her in a smaller room, with a smaller band.

P.S. A friend who was sitting in the first tier writes: "Did you notice Prince come in just for the Lizz Wright piece? Incognito, sat down just 20 seconds before she started and disappeared immediately after she was done." Comments? Confirmation?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Concert review: Evan Christopher’s “Treat It Gentle Suite” World Premiere at Orchestra Hall

When: July 23, 2010 • Where: Orchestra HallWho: The Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Sarah Hicks, and a nine-piece jazz ensemble: Evan Christopher, clarinet; Irvin Mayfield, trumpet; Matthew Hanzelka, trombone; Gus Sandberg, saxophone; Erik Jacobsen, sousaphone; Don Vappie, guitar; Shannon Powell, drums; Andrew Gillespie, percussion; Dave Williamson, bass. Christopher, Mayfield, Vappie, and Powell are from New Orleans. Williamson is with the Minnesota Orchestra. Hanzelka, Sandberg, Jacobsen, and Gillespie are from New Orleans-style area bands, the Jack Brass Band and Mama Digdown’s Brass Band.

In May, New Orleans-based, Creole-style clarinetist Evan Christopher talked with writer Rick Mason about his commission for the Minnesota Orchestra. “I’m doing my best not to make it a ‘pops’ offering,” Christopher explained, “in the sense that a lot of times when you combine jazz and the orchestra, you get a texture that’s kind of banal, where the orchestra is just playing weird little background figures behind jazz.”

Many of us have heard that kind of music, the uneasy partnership between the jazzy band and the classical orchestra, the hybrid that never quite makes it out of the garage. But we didn’t hear it on Friday night at Orchestra Hall. Instead, we heard complex, moving, scene-setting music, and we were the first to hear it.

Jazz concert review: Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the Dakota

When: July 20, 2010 • Where: DakotaWho: Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with Charlie Gabriel on clarinet/saxophone, Frederick Lonzo on trombone, Rickie Monie on piano, Clint Maedgen on vocals/reeds, Will Smith on trumpet, Ben Jaffe on sousaphone/tuba/bass, and Joseph Lastie Jr. on drums

It’s the Dakota debut of the world-famous traditional New Orleans jazz band, which usually plays Orchestra Hall. All four shows sell out; we're at the final show on the second night.  The music is relaxed and amiable, salted with over-the-top showmanship: Maedgen’s mannered take on “You Are My Sunshine,” Lonzo’s circular breathing on the trombone. 

I especially like Smith’s singing on “Basin Street Blues,” his voice like a big horn. Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield is in the house, in town to play at Orchestra Hall on Friday with Evan Christopher, and he joins the band for a couple of numbers including “Old Man Moe Is Dead.”

The spotlight is often on Lonzo, who takes the trombone so low (as the others egg him on with “Don’t breathe, Freddy…Don’t die, Freddy”) that the slide comes off and he needs help from a woman in the audience to put it back on. Trombone intact, he moves right into “Has Anybody Seen My Gal”?

It’s about music, and tradition, and storytelling, and having a good time. Other tunes we hear tonight: “Bourbon Street Parade,” “Whenever You’re Lonesome,” “Save That Tiger,” “Last Chance to Dance” (with a second line around the club—I’m starting to think every live concert should end with a second line), and the encore, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Jaffe (the band’s director as well as its sousaphonist/tubist, son of original founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe) tells us that Prez Hall’s first time ever playing outside of New Orleans was in Minneapolis, in 1963, at the old Guthrie theater. And that they came back the following year to make their first recording, Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They were sponsored by a group of fans headed by Dr. Henry Blackburn, who fell in love with jazz while attending med school in NOLA. Blackburn is in the audience tonight.

Members of the band appear in the August 2010 issue of Playboy, dressed to the nines and shot by celebrity photographer Danny Clinch. There’s talk of opening Preservation Halls in other cities. Since Prez Hall didn't start as a concept or a brand, and because the original venue in the French Quarter is so special, I'm not sure how it will translate into other spaces and places. Should it become just another chain?

Embraced by the crowd.

Irvin Mayfield sits in.

Maedgen at the vintage mic, with light from the neon blue Dakota sign reflecting off the wall behind him. Magic! John calls this "Torch Singer."

Photographs by John Whiting.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Clarinetist Evan Christopher makes the old sound new

Originally published at, Thursday, July 22, 2010

Evan Christopher by Jim McGuire
It’s a big deal when a major orchestra commissions a new work by a composer, especially a jazz composer. On Friday, the Twin Cities will hear the Minnesota Orchestra’s second jazz commission in two years when New Orleans-based, Créole-style clarinetist Evan Christopher performs the world premiere of his “Treat It Gentle Suite.” Titled after the autobiography of legendary clarinetist Sidney Bechet, it’s the latest step in Christopher’s plan to keep the New Orleans clarinet tradition relevant and alive.

If you’ve seen Christopher perform — whether here at Orchestra Hall with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, at the Dakota solo or with pianist Henry Butler, in New Orleans or somewhere on the road — you know this is not the clichéd, touristy treacle so often associated with “traditional New Orleans jazz” or “Dixieland jazz.”

Christopher’s music is steeped in the history and vocabulary of Bechet, Barney Bigard and other early masters, but it’s also very modern. You’re hearing something old, yet it feels fresh and contemporary. Add Christopher’s compelling stage presence and gorgeous sound — if the clarinet can be this beautiful and expressive, why don’t more people play it? — and this promises to be an electrifying evening.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Interview with Pat Mallinger

By Larry Englund

Larry Englund hosts the weekly radio show Rhythm and Grooves for KFAI Radio Without Boundaries. This is his lightly edited version of a live on-air interview from July 3, 2010. bb

Pat Mallinger is a multi-reed virtuoso who is very active in Chicago, playing in various configurations around town and leading the late-night house band at the Green Mill.

In 2000, he and his quartet played the 25th North Sea Jazz Festival in The Netherlands and released a recording of the concert as Moorean Moon.

Mallinger is originally from St. Paul and returns once or twice a year, when he usually plays a gig at the Artists' Quarter. This time around, he was promoting his third CD, Dragon Fish (Chicago Sessions, 2009), an elegant musical conversation between Mallinger and pianist Dan Trudell. He stopped by Rhythm and Grooves on Saturday, July 3rd. We played some cuts off the new album and talked.

Larry Englund: You grew up in Saint Paul.
Pat Mallinger: Indeed, I grew up in West Saint Paul and I went to Sibley High School and before that to Grass Junior High, which had a reputation for a fine jazz program.

LE: Was it in junior high that you decided you wanted to become a jazz musician?
PM: Yeah, it was kind of funny. It was about 7th grade. Exactly 7th grade.  I remember I wanted to be a dentist for about a minute, and then the bug hit me and I quickly decided I would switch from being a dentist to being a jazz musician.

LE: You went on to school at North Texas?
PM: Actually, I went to the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire for a year and then transferred down to Denton for North Texas State.

LE: They have a wonderful jazz program there.
PM: At the time, it was the second largest jazz program in the country. It still is pretty large.

LE: You’ve had a career that’s taken you around the world, literally. Sometimes on ships, I understand.
PM: Exactly. Right after school, I jumped on a ship for about a year and played with some great musicians. I went to Boston after that and was with a bunch of friends. They were on the ships together, so we kind of formed a group together and jammed everyday. For about four years I jumped on the Artie Shaw band and the Woody Herman Orchestra and went the road awhile and then moved to Chicago. So I’ve been in Chicago almost 20 years. This November will be my 20-year anniversary of being in Chicago.

LE: You’re very active in the Chicago scene, with a weekly gig at the Green Mill leading Sabretooth.
PM: Sabretooth has been there for 17 1/2 years. In fact, someone was asking if Sabretooth was taking a break. I said no, Sabretooth doesn’t take a break. In the 17 years we’ve been doing this, we’ve been there each and every Saturday night. We start the late shift at midnight and go to a quarter to 5. 12:30 til quarter to five.

LE: So you sleep in on Sundays.
PM: If I can. My family is pretty helpful with that.

LE: You have a new recording out. It’s a wonderful recording that’s really a duo with Dan Trudell.
PM: I met Dan in my second year at North Texas. He came from Wisconsin as well. Ironically, we were born a day apart, hence the title of the CD, Dragon Fish. Dragon coming from the Chinese calendar for 1964, and Fish because we’re both Pisces. That’s where we got the name.

LE: How did you come to compose and record the CD?
PM: Chicago Sessions, a relatively new label out of Chicago, approached me about a year ago.  Their mission is to record local artists and original music. They asked what I’d like to do, and I thought for a minute about my quartet with Billy Carrothers. I thought there would be some logistic issues with that, so I asked what they thought about a duo recording. I had recently done a couple of duo performances with Dan and a couple of people put that in my ear. They thought it would be a good idea. When I mentioned it to Nick Ipers of Chicago Sessions, he was thrilled with the idea. I call Dan and Dan thought it was a good idea as well, and so Dragon Fish was born.

LE: The idea was to do original music. You came up with some. Did Dan come up with ideas as well?
PM: There are two tunes that Dan and I co-wrote.  "Adventures" is one of the tunes we co-wrote specifically for the album. It’s our tongue-in-cheek rock tune. [Laughs.] If there can be such as thing as a rock tune done as a piano/sax duo.

LE: The way you interact is so seamless, it’s obvious you have been playing together for a long time.
PM: Really continuous since college, North Texas, where we first met in 1984.

LE: How did you go about composing Dragon Fish?
PM: Well, I can pretty much trace all or most of my compositions to, funny enough, airline flights. When I’m flying—I don’t know if it’s the altitude, or if it's just being contained in one spot for a certain time with nothing to do—I bring a little manuscript sheet with me that fits in my pocket so I can scribble ideas while I’m in-flight. These ideas ultimately turn into tunes. Dragon Fish is one of them.

LE: When you went into the studio, what happened then?
PM: At Chicago Sessions, they want to record new material. When I talked to Dan about tunes, I basically went through my most recent compositions. The ones that haven’t been recorded. Most of these have been written in the last year. So I gave Dan the tunes and he really shedded these tunes for a good month. We got together a few times to rehearse. He put in a lot of time into learning the tunes. I’ve been told they’re not easy tunes to learn. [Laughs.] I can attest to that because I have to improvise over them.

LE: What do you think it is it about your writing that makes them difficult? Are you just attracted to particular chords or particular progressions?
PM: Yeah, that’s probably correct. Maybe my chord choices, or the progressions. It’s hard to say exactly. The tunes don’t seem too difficult to me when I’m at the piano and working out the chords as I finish them up from my notes from the plane. But when you get on the bandstand or we’re rehearsing them, navigating through the chord changes, that’s when I become aware, these aren’t easy tunes.

LE: Do you approach things differently at that time? Does the meter or tempo change?
PM: Not too much. I’m not a huge fan of big meter changes or hard things to navigate when you’re playing melodies.

LE: Do you sometimes wonder what it would be like to play something slow at a faster tempo or vice versa?
PM: On occasion, but most of the time what I come up with on a flight is what I think in my head is what the tempo and feel should be. When I wrote "Just Give It a Chance," I had in mind a Jobim feel for it. I’m not sure if that’s the way it came out.

LE: You play tenor, alto, and soprano saxes, as well as flute. What are the differences in playing each of the instruments you use? 
PM: I approach them differently. I’ve got my influences on tenor, Coltrane and such. Alto, I’ve been influenced by Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker and such. So I approach each instrument slightly differently.

LE: Does the physical difference of each instrument make for differences in fingering?
PM: It does. Each has its own idiosyncracies. That’s probably why a lot of saxophone players prefer to play one or the other. I began as an alto player and picked up tenor in college. Really didn’t play the alto for awhile, but then brought it back into my life. The soprano snuck in there somewhere in college.

LE: Let’s talk about another aspect of your musical life, the Ravinia Jazz Mentor Program.
PM: I’ve been involved with the Ravinia Jazz Mentor program for 17 years now, about as long as I’ve been at the Green Mill. Ravinia started this great program and I was on board since its inception. It was created by Ramsey Lewis. The tradition of jazz education has been imparted through mentorship. For me there was no exception. I was mentored by Brian Grivna here in town, and Eddie Berger was a mentor of mine. Of course, there was my uncle Tommy Bauer, who played with Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller. So, this mentorship program has meant a lot to Chicago public school students. Right now we’re involved in 19 Chicago public high schools.

LE: How does it work?
PM: Basically, we have a mentor on each instrument. Bobby Broom is our guitar mentor, Willie Pickens is our piano mentor. We go into each school and we give performances, clinics, and workshops to each school.
     There are two separate aspects to it. We have the scholar program, where we pick the best students out of auditions in October, and rehearse twice a week with them. It’s like a mini jazz camp. Then, at the end of the year, we perform at Ravinia in June with them, and have a big picnic on the lawn. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Ravinia has a big festival on the North Shore of Chicago. We also bring the scholars to jazz camp. We’re going to the Jamey Aebersold jazz camp, so we’ll be bringing them to Kentucky in a couple of weeks.
     The other aspect of the program is our in-school visits ,where we give our workshops and reach as many kids as possible and try to teach the about jazz and the love of music.

LE: That sounds like a terrific program, and it’s impressive it’s been going on for so many years.
PM: It’s great that Ravinia continues to support it.

LE: Thank you very much for coming in.
PM: Thank you and your audience.

Photo from Pat Mallinger's MySpace page.

Jazz concert review: Somebody Scream! Glen David Andrews at the Dakota

When: Saturday, July 17, 2010 • Where: DakotaWho: Glen David Andrews Band (including Andrews on trombone and vocals, Revert "Peanut" Andrews of the ReBirth Brass Band on trombone and vocals, Erik Jacobsen of Mama Digdown's Brass Band on sousaphone, and others)

The show was supposed to take place outdoors and it’s probably good that it didn’t. It could easily have turned into a street dance, a second line, a riot that burst beyond the confines of the closed-off block of Nicollet Mall where the Dakota Street Fest was taking place, leading to arrests and unflattering mug shots of Dakota owner Lowell Pickett and his staff. Instead, fierce storms and tornado warning sirens forced the remaining hours of the Street Fest indoors, and that’s how New Orleans vocalist/trombonist Glen David Andrews ended up crowd surfing among the tables.

But I jump the gun. There was music happening inside the club as well as on the street, and when the sirens blew, everyone crowded into the Dakota and musicians piled up in the green room. Charmaine Neville’s set outdoors, which followed Bonerama's, was cut short. Vocalist Debbie Duncan, who was singing indoors, finished her set and was followed by bluesy, rollicking Davina and the Vagabonds, who made way for fiery Cuban pianist Nachito Herrera, who was scheduled to play on the Peavey Plaza stage outdoors at Orchestra Hall until the weather rolled in. Nachito’s 15 minutes turned into a half-hour and then it was time for Andrews and his band.

From Debbie to Davina to Nachito was a crescendo of sound and rhythm and excitement, and when Andrews came out, the room went boom.

Pickett had been talking up Andrews for weeks, but we still weren't prepared for what we saw. He prances. He poses. He crouches and bends backwards. He sings—bellows, roars—in a voice full of gravel and grit. He screams and yells “Somebody Scream!” He jumps up and down and shouts “Jump Up and Down!” We do whatever he tells us to do.

He oozes charisma and sex appeal while singing gospel tunes. He lobs the occasional F-bomb. Blowing his trombone, he struts through the room, up the stairs, along the mezzanine and back again. He asks for twelve strong men to approach the stage, then launches himself at them and demands to be carried through the crowd. He sweats, sends servers after towels, orders tequila shots for his band.

Andrews will not tolerate a passive, seated audience. He exhorts, he cajoles, he absolutely insists you get up and take part. Most of the crowd was on its feet for much of the set, dancing and clapping and waving black Dakota napkins in the air. Someone near us got so fired up he tried to dance on his table. Lucky for him, his friends caught him as he fell. He looked mortified, briefly, then popped back to his feet, raising an umbrella in the air.

It may have been the most raucous night in the 25-year history of the Dakota, including both locations. It’s the only time I’ve felt the floor move. People stood on the mezzanine, the stairs, at the bar, in the doorways. They screamed. They jumped up and down. They raised their hands and shook their behinds and sang along.

We heard “This Little Light of Mine” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “St. James Infirmary” and “Down in the Treme,” the title song for David Simon’s HBO series Treme, in which Andrews appears, as does his cousin, Troy, better known as Trombone Shorty. During “Wonderful World,” Andrews started saying goodbye, as if that were the last song, but it was only a ploy to rile the crowd further for a manic medley of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Proud Mary,” “Down in the Treme,” “Born in the USA,” a salute to the troops, and another run around the room, this time followed by much of the crowd, second-line style. At the very end, around midnight, once Andrews had made his final exit, people were dancing across the stage, including a Dakota server with a clutch of guest check folders in her hand. 

Here's a recent video (June 2010) of Andrews leading a symbolic second line around Jackson Square in protest of New Orleans' crackdown on musicians playing after 8 p.m. You don't know about that? Read Larry Blumenfeld's article here. Crazy.

Here's "Walking Through Heaven's Gate," recorded live at Zion Hill Baptist Church in the Treme neighborhood.

More photos:

The south end of a northbound Andrews

L to R: Lowell Pickett and Richard Erickson, Eric Jacobsen and "Peanut" Andrews

Charmaine Neville, high-kicking before the storm hit

The lovely Davina and her Vagabonds

Nachito Herrera and his daughter, Mirdalys

Photos by John Whiting

In the second photo from the top, the pale trumpeter behind Glen David Andrews is our own Dan Eikmeier. Go Dan!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Third Stream

Listening to and writing about David Leonhardt’s Bach to the Blues reminded me of how much I enjoy it when jazz musicians play classical music and add improvisation to the mix. (This is not the same as Keith Jarrett playing Bach’s French Suites or Handel’s Piano Suites, or Branford Marsalis’s Romances for Saxophone with the English Chamber Orchestra, or Wynton’s Classic Wynton; those are classical performances by musicians who otherwise play mostly jazz. As were Benny Goodman’s performances of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and Quintet with the Budapest String Quartet.)

Here’s the “third stream” music (classical + jazz with improvisation) I know about. Who/what have I missed?*

Whole CDs:

—Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone: Virtuosi
—Regina Carter: Paganini: After a Dream
—Eddie Daniels: The Five Seasons
—Bela Fleck: Perpetual Motion (I’m fudging with this one, which isn’t jazz but is full of fresh ideas from Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Evelyn Glennie, Joshua Bell and others).
—David Leonhardt Trio: Bach to the Blues
—John Lewis: J.S. Bach: Preludes and Fugues (in 3 volumes); The Bridge Game (based on Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” 2 volumes)
—John Lewis & Mirjana Lewis: The Chess Game (based on Bach’s “The Goldberg Variations,” 2 volumes)
—Jacques Loussier: Plays Bach; Play Bach Nos. 1 and 2; Bach: The Brandenburgs; the Bach Book; Bach’s Goldberg Variations; Baroque Favorites; Beethoven: Theme and Variations; Jacques Loussier Trio Plays Debussy; Impressions on Chopin’s Nocturnes; Handel: Water Music & Royal Fireworks; Mozart Piano Concertos 20/23; Ravel’s Bolero/Loussier’s Nympheas; Satie: Gymnopedies, Gnossienes; Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
—Modern Jazz Quartet: Blues on Bach
—Modern Jazz Quartet & Guests: Third Stream Music
—Gunther Schuller: The Birth of the Third Stream
—Chucho Valdes: Fantasia Cubana: Variations on Classical Themes
—Randy Waldman: Wigged Out

Stray Tracks:

“Fur Elise Jazz Variations”
Acker Bilk, Kenny Baker, Kenny Ball: Giants of Jazz
The CD is “A British Jazz Extravaganza Recorded in Concert.” I only have the MP3, not the CD. Who plays on this particular track?

Pachelbel’s Canon
Hiromi: Place to Be
Perhaps the wildest of all PCs.

“Nocturne in C-sharp Minor”
Randy Halberstadt, Gary Hobbs, Jeff Johnson: Parallel Tracks

“Clair de Lune”
Hiromi’s Sonicbloom: Beyond Standard
Hiromi and her electric band.

Interesting how most of these recordings are made by piano players. Where are the saxophonists or trumpets who are willing to jazz up a Goldberg or a Brandenburg, even a Canon?

* John Scherrer adds the Classical Jazz Quartet (Kenny Barron, Stefon Harris, Ron Carter, Lewis Nash) and its recordings, which include The Classical Jazz Quartet Play Rachmaninov; notes that Ornette Coleman has long played the Bach Cello prelude in G (a version is available on his 1995 release with Prime Time, Tone Dialing); and lets me know that Sonny Rollins recorded Edward MacDowell's "To a Wild Rose." Thanks, John.

Here's Coleman playing Bach. Glorious.

* Reader Edouard Reichenbach adds Benny Goodman's delightful version of "Bolero," originally recorded in 78 rpm and now available on a compilation CD called Ravel's Greatest Hit: The Ultimate Bolero. Goodman pares it down to an economical 2:42.

* Ed Reichenbach returns with more additions including Place Vendome, the 1966 collaboration between the Swingle Singers and the Modern Jazz Quartet. It's lovely. He gently but firmly chides me for neglecting the Swingle Singers. Not sure how I missed them, because I used to sing a Swingle Singers arrangement or two. If you enjoy vocal third stream music, the Swingles are for you. Their many jazz-infused albums of classical works include Bach's Greatest Hits, Going Baroque, Anyone for Mozart, Rococo A Go Go, Spanish Masters (Concerto d'Aranjuez), and Back to Bach, all recorded during the 1960s. Released in 1986, Anyone for Mozart, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi? is an excellent compilation drawn from their mid-1960s Philips Classical LPs. By the way, if you saw the movies Milk and Thank You for Smoking, you've heard some of their music. The original Swingles disbanded in the early 1970s; a London-based group by the same name continues the tradition (and, as Ed points out, adds beat boxing).

Here are the original Swingles and the MJQ playing Bach's "Air for G String."

CD review: The David Leonhardt Trio: Bach to the Blues

Years ago, a friend gave me a tape (I said years ago) of French jazz pianist Jacques Loussier playing music by Bach. I liked it so much I went looking for more. I now have a collection of “third stream” music, a term coined by composer Gunther Schuller in the 1950s to describe a synthesis of classical music and jazz, complete with improvisation.

I’m pleased to add the recent release by the David Leonhardt Trio, Bach to the Blues (Big Bang, 2009). It’s a diverse collection of tunes that will be familiar to almost anyone with some knowledge of classical music: works by Bach, Debussy, Schubert, Satie, Beethoven, Pachelbel, Chopin, and Copland (“Simple Gifts”). The original themes are clearly stated before the trio—Leonhardt on piano, Matthew Parrish on bass, Alvester Garnett on drums—takes off and does its jazzy, bluesy thing.

Some reviewers tiptoe around this kind of music, as if the conflation of classical with jazz is bound to offend sensibilities in both camps. How is it any different from jazzing up a Sigmund Romberg tune (“Lover, Come Back to Me,” “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise”) or turning “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Disney’s Snow White into a jazz standard? Simple answer: It isn’t any different. Any tune with good bones can be played as jazz.

Leonhardt’s arrangements are delightful. Bach’s Prelude in G Major starts off fairly straightforward (with jazz syncopations—no classical musician would play the opening in quite this way) before settling into a sweet, swinging groove interspersed with occasional straight phrases (brief reminders of the original) that act as transitions between inventive solos by all three trio members. Much of the final minute and 15 seconds is as Latin as Tito Puente. Unexpected and joyful.

Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” is played as a big, beautiful jazz ballad, with thick piano chords and depth in the bass and drums. It’s mood music with piano at the forefront. Same for Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” though it takes a long time—almost halfway through the 4:15 track—for the piano to move beyond the melody.

Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1” is such a simple tune, but one with endless possibilities, and this trio explores them all. (While Loussier takes a dreamy, atmospheric approach, Leonhardt is more lively and playful.) Bach’s Prelude in A minor is propelled by whispery bebop brushwork by Garnett on drums and cymbals. (I think he’s using brushes; I have also seen/heard him play with his hands with as much delicacy and precision.) The Adagio from “Pathetique,” one of Beethoven’s most tender compositions, is as poetic as one could hope for, the improvised sections only carrying the poetry further.

Leonhardt’s version of “Simple Gifts,” the Shaker melody Aaron Copland brought into his score for the ballet Appalachian Spring, leaves the melody behind at about 1:30 and ventures into more interesting (to me) improvisational territory, with cooling little cascades of piano notes, then returns to the melody with renewed energy and assertive statements from Parrish’s bass.

Two Chopin mazurkas (G minor and C major), Bach’s Prelude in B-flat, and Pachelbel’s Canon in D, round out the disc, with the G-minor mazurka emerging as my favorite, thanks to Garnett’s addition of a refreshing ting from a little bell and Parrish's lengthy, thoughtful solo. The B-flat prelude has a seriously swinging midsection that once again includes little nods to the original. The C-major Mazurka is bright and sprightly, and while I was sure I never wanted to hear another version of Pachelbel’s hoary old Canon in D, I was drawn into Leonhardt’s: slower, darker, and more measured than the original, minor-key chords given room to fade, mallets soft on drums, bass even softer. I forgot all about the Canon. The final track on Bach to the Blues is enjoyable late-night jazz, intimate and moonlit.

Here’s a video of Leonhardt and his trio playing the G-major prelude at the Iridium in New York City. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Jazz concert review: Bill Frisell’s Beautiful Dreamers at the Dakota

When: July 12, 2010 • Where: DakotaWho: Bill Frisell, guitar; Eyvind Kang, viola; Rudy Royston, drums

Bluesman Paul Metsa, who attended the same set we did, wrote this on Facebook:

Trio: custom Tele, viola, drums. First tune included several themes/motifs, then cascading baroque cartoon music, classical figures, faux pedal steel, S.O.S. signals, marble raindrops, urban surf, an allusion to fusion, ethereal, at times disorted, a literal space age hoedown. Encore: a delightful and delicate Tea for Two. Very modern jazz with the top down.

Metsa gave me permission to include his words here and I should just stop writing. I can’t improve on poetry and truth. But I can add a few more details, because when I’m a very old woman looking back on my decadent club-hopping, music-chasing, cocktail-swilling days, I’ll want to remember more about the music I heard on this night and why I enjoyed it so much.

One cavil: Frisell is an artist who walks on stage and plays. At least in my experience, and I’ve seen him several times, he doesn’t talk. He doesn’t tell stories. He barely introduces his band mates. And he doesn’t tell you what he has played or is about to play. In sum, he doesn’t make it easy on writers who are trying to review a concert featuring music from a new CD that hasn’t yet been released. (Beautiful Dreamers comes out on Savoy at the end of August.) I was lucky enough to hear an advance audio stream, but still. Musicians, I’m begging you. We want to write about your wonderfulness. If you don’t feel like talking, make someone else do it.

Here’s part of the set list, to the best of my abilities (considerably augmented by later email assistance from John Scherrer): “Sweetie,” “Winslow Homer,” “Baby Cry,” and “Keep on the Sunny Side” from the new CD (the latter as a medley with Boubacar Traore's "Baba Drame" and Coltrane's "26-2"), plus Monk's "Misterioso," with Kang plucking the stepwise piano intervals. And the tender “Tea for Two” that Metsa mentions, also on the new CD.

The combination of Frisell and Kang is one I’ve heard twice before, at the Walker Art Center in February of this year (with Rahim AlHaj) and at the Village Vanguard in May (with his 858 Quartet featuring Hank Roberts and Jenny Scheinmann…all strings). The Frisell/Kang combination is made in heaven. Together Frisell’s guitar and Kang’s viola weave a cat’s cradle of sound—sometimes frail and wraithlike, sometimes dense and wailing. It’s a waltz, it’s two friends on a front porch, it’s rock and roll.

Side note: All great guitarists should be named Slash or B.B. or Muddy. Not Bill, John, Larry, Pat, Les, or Wes…please. Those names don't fit the men who breathe fire from their axes. Frisell, who describes his own music as “Jazz/Americana/Other” on his MySpace page, could have been a rock god. Might still be a rock god one day, but  a rock god who plays ethereal lullabies like “When You Wish Upon a Star."

The concert was mesmerizing, seductive, with moments of incredible gentleness and screaming ferocity. At first, for me, it was all about Frisell and Kang, while Royston played distant thunder with mallets. I especially loved the opener, “Sweetie,” a tune full of sharp turns and question marks (da-DING?). Midway through the second tune (“Winslow Homer”), Royston made a splash on the cymbals, caught my attention, and held it for the rest of the set. What a fantastic drummer. Why have I never heard him before? (Because I missed the show he played here with Tia Fuller in late May.) [Addendum: I have heard him before, at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in 2009, with Frisell, Tony Scherr, and Ron Miles.]

About the trio, Frisell says this on the Savoy website: “We played our first gig on June 7, 2008, in Eugene, Oregon and from the first note, it was working. Each time we get together the music feels new…and old. Backwards and forwards. Up and down. Anything is possible.” Parts of the concert were dreamy, gauzy, like a music heard from a distance late at night. Parts seemed like the soundtrack to a Tim Burton movie. Parts were "Mountain Stage," hootenanny folksy, but with dark edges, like a black border on a quilt. The music swung, it danced, it grew tipsy, it wept.

We didn’t hear “Beautiful Dreamer” or “Goin’ Out of My Head” (both on the forthcoming CD), but I’ve heard them along with all the other songs more than once, thanks to the audio stream, and I like this new album very much. Much of it is rather slow and quiet. I suspect the live shows are more lively; the one I saw certainly was. Recorded or in person, this is beautiful stuff, defying categorization but who cares?

If you want to hear Frisell speak, tune into Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz for a session that originally aired in October 2007, available online. He sounds like the humblest man in the world.

Scherrer tells of hearing Frisell talk to an audience: "Bill was momentarily chatty at his last Cedar Center concert. He asked if he should identify the tunes he'd played (quick 'yes' from the crowd) and somehow he ends up talking about an old Gary Cooper movie and sharing a hotel room with Tony Scherr. Finally, after several minutes, he abruptly stops and says, 'I really should start playing, shouldn't I?'"

The next time Frisell comes to town, I may have a note delivered to the Green Room in advance. A polite request for tune identification, perhaps written by hand with fountain pen on a card tucked into a bouquet of roses? Or a gift basket of wild rice and maple syrup from Minnesota.

Here's a review of that first Frisell, Kang, and Royston gig in 2008.

Photos by John Whiting.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jazz Bookends on a Sunday: Reuben and Dan Ristrom, and the Gerry Hemingway/Terrence McManus Duo

When: July 11, 2010 (morning) • Where: Tryg’sWho: Reuben Ristrom, guitar and voice; Dan Ristrom, guitar and voice

When: July 11, 2010 (evening) • Where: Rogue BuddhaWho: Gerry Hemingway/Terrence McManus Duo: Gerry Hemingway, trap set, acoustic and electronic addenda; Terrence McManus, homemade guitars, electronic processing

Tryg’s in St. Louis Park often has live music but doesn’t keep its online calendar up to date (hint), so we weren’t expecting to hear anyone when we met a friend for brunch on Sunday. It was a pleasant surprise to find guitarist Reuben Ristrom and his son, Dan, tuning up in a corner of the bar, where the big windows were open and the summer breezes blew through.

I have a special affection for Reuben Ristrom. I heard him fairly early when I started listening more seriously to jazz, and he opened my ears to jazz guitar, for which I’m grateful. I’d never heard Dan before. I think he mostly plays rock, which is probably why I’ve missed him. As a jazz artist, he reminds me of John Pizzarelli, a good thing in every way. His voice is clear and fresh, with a lovely vibrato; his stage presence is warm and engaging, and he’s all about entertaining. I like that he’s out with his dad. You can hear them together every Wednesday at Sawatdee in Maple Grove. Listen to “Blue Skies” (song 4) and/or “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (song 6) on Dan's MySpace page. At Tryg’s, we heard several jazz standards, a Beatles medley, and some James Taylor. The perfect soundtrack to a Sunday morning with mimosas, or a Wednesday with Thai food.

The word “improvisation” always gets my attention, so when we heard that the improvising duo Gerry Hemingway and Terrence McManus were coming through town on tour, we made a date to see them at the Rogue Buddha. I don’t know them but there was enough buzz from the Clown Lounge crowd that I wanted to check it out.

Two events were scheduled for Sunday: a master class at 4 and a performance at 7. Travel problems caused delays (all roads leading in and out of Mpls/St. Paul are torn up) and the class didn’t start until 5:45. When we arrived at 7, the class was ending and the musicians needed a break. The performance began around 7:30—sooner than expected, all things considered.

We, an audience of 14, heard two selections, each about a half-hour long. The first started with a whisper, Hemingway patting his drums softly with his hands, McManus tapping the strings of his guitar (held in his lap) with the handle of a screwdriver. The strings hummed and whistled. Each artist had an array of implements—bows, metal pieces, balls, sticks, paint brushes—on the chair beside him, to choose from as the evening progressed.

As light from the evening sun danced across his face, McManus bowed his strings. Hemingway pedaled the hi-hat so softly I might have been imagining it. A beat emerged, sort of, maybe a rhythm, not a melody. The piece grew louder, more intense. The guitar made train sounds. McManus slid a piece of metal under his strings, then touched them with a paint brush handle; Hemingway switched to a mallet and hands. McManus slid a large piece of paper under his strings, tore it, blew on it, left pieces of it hanging from his guitar. He lifted his guitar from his lap, held it in his arms, and began plucking the strings with a plectrum, paper still in place. The strings wailed and Hemingway switched to sticks and the gallery filled with sound, which subsided into sweet notes on the guitar and soft drums to end.

I liked it. The sounds were unpredictable (I haven’t mentioned a quarter of the things Hemingway and McManus did) but related, a dialogue. The music had an arc; it told a story.

For the second piece, Hemingway hummed into what looked like a trumpet mute but HH said might have been a spotlight reflector—a round, dented metal thing. The sounds he made were hollow, fluttery, high and singing, and deep as a didgeridoo. McManus used an ebow, a hand-held electronic bow for guitar. (Thanks, Joel Shapira and Keith Lee.)

I found the second piece less interesting than the first. In the warmth of a summer evening at the end of a Sunday, it seemed a bit slow and snoozy. Afterward McManus asked Hemingway if he’d been playing some Strayhorn and Hemingway said yes (I think; I was eavesdropping). If he had, I missed it.

I felt the set was a bit short but understood it had been a long day involving travel on difficult roads. They’re playing again at the Clown on Monday, where I suspect things will heat up more than they did last night.

Visit Terrence McManus’s website to hear a clip of him playing solo. Go here to hear the duo. Click on links within this piece to hear an excerpt from the duo recording and watch videos.

This is an ebow. (Web photo.)

Photo of Dan and Reuben Ristrom from Reuben's website. 
Photos of Gerry Hemingway and Terrence McManus by John Whiting.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Jazz concert review: Kendra Shank at the Artists’ Quarter

When: July 9, 2010 • Where: Artists' QuarterWho: Kendra Shank, voice; Bryan Nichols, piano; Terry Burns, bass; Phil Hey, drums

There are good nights in jazz, and okay nights, and off nights, and then there are great nights when the unexpected happens and you almost forget to breathe.

Last night at the AQ was one of the great nights. Not because we were in a giant venue in a crowd of thousands with a jazz legend—someone like Sonny Rollins, which these days is kind of like seeing God Almighty play saxophone. We were in a small basement jazz club in St. Paul, where a jazz singer from New York named Kendra Shank has a two-night engagement with three area musicians, two of whom she has played with before (ten years ago) and one she met and rehearsed with briefly for the first time on Friday afternoon, only hours before the first set.

Shank is a fearless improviser and interpreter, which is important to know. She usually performs with her own quartet (also important to know), musicians with whom she has built an intimate relationship over many years: pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Dean Johnson, and drummer Tony Moreno. On this tour, the second half of a tour for her most recent release, Mosaic (Challenge, 2010), she’s traveling solo, as many artists do in this economy, working with artists recommended by club owners or friends along the way.

For her AQ dates, Shank is playing with pianist Bryan Nichols, bassist Terry Burns, and drummer Phil Hey. Shank and Nichols are new to each other. While any musician in a group this size can make or break a show, much of the conversation happens between voice and piano. What kind of conversation will it be? Will the two be equals? Will the voice make room for the piano, and the piano make room for the voice? Will they soar and inspire each other or simply get along?

From the first moments of the first song, Cole Porter’s “All of You,” something happens between Shank and Nichols. Then all four leap off a cliff together with “Incantation/Throw It Away,” a blend of Shank’s improvised introduction and the Abbey Lincoln song. 

“Incantation” is a mix of vocal clicks and aahs, ticka-ticks and soft whoops—not the usual scat sounds/syllables—that Shank later explains is her own private language, “whatever comes through the channels on a given night.” Just try playing along with that. In fact, Nichols, Burns, and Hey know exactly what to do. Nichols is the perfect partner, his own improvisations equally thrilling. Burns lays down a flawless rhythm. Hey drums with the flats of his hands, a soft, sensuous accompaniment. It’s glorious, and as the song unfolds, they all become aware of what they’re creating in this moment. It’s as if lights go on over their heads, and within their faces.

Afterward, Shank describes this rare and wonderful thing as “the universal language of jazz—the coming together.” The rest of the set stays at the same dizzying height: “I’m Movin’ On” (during which Burns plays a lovely solo); “Reflections in Blue/Blue Skies,” a completely different take on the old tune, rhythmically and emotionally, thanks to Shank’s searingly personal introduction (“Blue was the color of his eyes, on the day he left me…Then you came in view…No more good-byes…Just blue skies, smiling at me”). A song about hope, written by Kimbrough; “How Deep Is the Ocean,” with a lively improvised ending; a sweet, swinging “Blue Monk,” with Abbey Lincoln’s lyrics; and finally Shank’s passionate, powerful reading of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” which can stand proudly beside Nina Simone’s.

Midway, between songs, when everyone is all smiles, Shank says, “I’m in love. I might have to move to St. Paul. I’m in love with these men!” We are, too, and also with you. Kendra. What an exciting, exceptional evening, and it could only happen live.

Photo of Kendra Shank and Terry Burns by John Whiting.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Jazz concert review: Trombone Shorty at the Minnesota Zoo

When: July 8, 2010 • Where: Minnesota Zoo (“Music in the Zoo” Concert Series) • Who: Trombone Shorty, trombone and trumpet; Michael Ballard, bass; Pete Murano, guitar; Dan Oestreicher, baritone sax; Joey Peebles, drums; Dwayne Williams, percussion; Tim McFatter, tenor sax.

Trombone Shorty can play the trombone and the trumpet. He can sing, from low notes to a sweet falsetto, Marvin Gaye to Louis Armstrong. He can write songs and dance, channeling James Brown and Prince and Michael Jackson. He can hold a crowd in the palm of his hand and bring it to its feet. Is there anything he can’t do? Stand still, phone it in, and be boring.

Last night in the open-air Weesner Amphitheater at the Minnesota Zoo, Shorty and his band Orleans Avenue gave a 75-minute, nonstop, high-octane show of New Orleans jazz, pop, old-school soul, funk, R&B, and hip-hop, a savory, contemporary blend Shorty (real name Troy Andrews) calls “supafunkrock.”

The set would have been longer had bayou bluesman Tab Benoit, the opening act, gotten off the stage sooner. Benoit delivered some blistering tunes (like Albert Collins’ “Too Many Dirty Dishes”), but he overstayed. Not only did he play beyond 8:30 (shows at the Weesner start at 7:30 and end at the zoo’s 10:30 curfew), but he spent several minutes exhorting us to do something about what’s happening to New Orleans, our rights as citizens, the government, the National Guard, and more. Benoit is known as an environmental activist, but if he wanted to give a speech, he should have done it earlier and in fewer words.

Long, tall Shorty (who earned his nickname at age 4, when his trombone had several inches on him) came out in a black T-shirt with a sparkly fleur-de-lis on the back. His band formed a half-circle around him, and over the course of the set he went from one band member to another, urging them on (“Put a little chicken grease on that guitar!”). It’s a good-sized band, seven players, with big brass, big rhythms, and big energy. Along with Shorty’s trombone and trumpet, it includes tenor and baritone saxes, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and congas. Shorty is just 24, and everyone else is around the same age; the old man of the band (bari sax player Oestreicher) is 27.

We hear “American Woman” (Shorty spent time in Lenny Kravitz's band), something called “Rats and Roaches Around My Home” (I think that’s the title; when I Google the lyrics, most hits lead to Orkin), and a long and playful trombone solo. Shorty sings “Shake your thing/Watch yourself/Show me what you’re working with” and by now many people are down in front doing just that. He’s riveting, charismatic, working the whole stage, and you can’t take your eyes off him. For “Hurricane Season” from his new CD Backatown (Verve, 2010), his first major-label recording and the reason he’s on tour, Shorty switches to trumpet and gets the crowd to shout “Hey!” Between and during songs, he twirls and poses, making beautiful arcs and curves with his lanky body. He hikes up his pants.

The band plays a tune with a reggae beat, then Shorty asks, “Can I take it old school for you?” A few notes and the whole mood changes: He’s singing “Let’s Get It On” and playing a sexy trumpet solo. This 24-year-old is making me think naughty thoughts. The sound builds in intensity, speeds up, the trumpet is on fire, and he’s dancing. He’s moonwalking. The crowd is wild. Marvin Gaye’s hit has morphed into the Rebirth Brass Band’s signature tune “I Feel Like Funkin’ It Up,” and Shorty is the Godfather of Soul. And just as suddenly, he’s singing the Isley Brothers’ “You make me want to shout.”

Two more songs from the CD—“One Night Only,” “Something Beautiful”—and time runs out. They close with a rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In” (during which Shorty sings like Louis Armstrong) and it’s all over. We catch him briefly on his way toward the CD sales/autographing table and mention that we’ll see him in Monterey. He says, “When’s that? Two weeks?” More like two months. When you're a fast-rising star, keeping schedules straight is what managers are for.

Point-and-shoot shots from last night's concert (SLRs aren't allowed at Music in the Zoo shows).

Benoit and his band, with guest Bernard Allison (son of Luther).

Trombone Shorty's band, and the setting.

Michael "Bass" Ballard throws himself on the ground and keeps playing as the band gathers around.

 Getting it on.

 Playing their a**es off.

P.S. The Weesner must be the only music venue in the world where, as you’re walking the curving paths leading toward it, you might hear a low, rumbling growl off to your left that makes you want to run for your life. I checked a zoo map later. Tiger.

Top photo of Trombone Shorty by Kirk Edwards.