Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Newly minted MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran comes to the Dakota on Thursday

Originally published at on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010

By now, we all know that being named a MacArthur Fellow is a very big deal. Established in 1981, the award carries enormous prestige; its nickname, the “Genius Grant,” says it all. And for anyone involved in the arts, it’s a godsend: $500,000, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years, no strings attached.

Over the years, the MacArthur Foundation has recognized and rewarded several jazz musiciansm including Regina Carter, Ornette Coleman, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Max Roach, Cecil Taylor, Miguel Zenon and John Zorn. On Tuesday, a new name was added to this short but stellar list: Jason Moran.

Just 35, jazz pianist and composer Moran is one of the most interesting and inventive musicians working today. His compositions, recordings, and performances cross genres and incorporate unusual elements — the human voice, archival recordings by Thelonious Monk and Jimi Hendrix, visual images — to create jazz both forward-looking and respectful of tradition.

Moran is no stranger to the Twin Cities. In 2005, the Walker commissioned him to create a music-theater work, “Milestone.” In 2009, he returned with a multimedia performance built around Monk’s famous 1959 Town Hall concert. If you blinked, you missed this, but Augsburg College brought him in for its annual Convocation Series in October, 2009.

Moran has his own estimable trio, called the Bandwagon, with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen; their latest CD, “Ten” (Blue Note), released this summer, has earned raves. At the Dakota, Moran most often performs as part of Charles Lloyd’s New Quartet, which will play two sets on Thursday night.

Lloyd and his quartet are on tour with their new CD, “Mirror” (ECM), an exquisite collection of standards, originals, gospel songs, and the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No.” With Lloyd, the jazz shaman, on saxophone, Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums, this was a not-to-be-missed show before Moran won his MacArthur. Based on my own past experience hearing this quartet, I can promise you a rare experience: uplifting, thought-provoking, richly musical and deeply satisfying. The CD is beautiful but live music is better.

Charles Lloyd New Quartet, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 30, Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall ($50/$35). Tickets online or call 612-333-5299.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Talking with Esperanza Spalding

Photo by Sandrine Lee
We're back from the Monterey Jazz Festival in time to see Esperanza Spalding, who's at the Dakota for two nights beginning tonight.

I had the chance to interview her for MinnPost on August 23, before she started her current Chamber Music Society tour. Here's the link if you're so inclined.

Her second set tonight was enthralling. For an encore, she did a solo bass-and-voice version of "The Midnight Sun." A sample of Johnny Mercer's luscious lyrics:

Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice,
Warmer than the summer night.
The clouds were like an alabaster palace,
Rising to a snowy height.
Each star its own Aurora Borealis,
Suddenly you held me tight;
I could see the midnight sun.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What I'll see at the 53rd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival and why: Sunday

Ahmad Jamal (C) Jean Marc Lubrano

I’m writing this early (very early) on Saturday morning, after the festival’s first night (Friday). Did I see everything I said I would on Friday? Mostly, and then some.

We began at the Garden Stage with the Ben Flocks Quartet, where Flocks was joined by Javier Santiago, Chris Smith, and Cory Cox—all past Brubeck fellows, two (Santiago and Smith) from Minneapolis. We saw the first half of Marcus Roberts’ first set in the Coffee House, with Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums. And the first half of the Roy Hargrove Big Band in the Arena, up to and including both songs by Roberta Gambarini, who looked amazing in a red gown.

The very end of Jazz Mafia’s Brass, Bows and Beats, a 45-member band squeezed into Dizzy’s Den. A little Les Nubians back at the Arena. All of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition in the Night Club. And, as it happened, a bit more of Hargrove’s big band. For their second performance of the night, they got a late start at Dizzy’s and played late—until well after midnight. Nobody minded. The line to get into that show was huge, by the way, a reminder that if there’s someone you really want to see in one of the smaller venues, where seats are not reserved, try to arrive early.

What about Sunday? It's the festival’s final day, with a magnificent lineup and more hard choices.


2 pm Conversation with Roy Haynes Hosted by Yoshi Kato (Dizzy’s Den)

Part of what I love about Monterey is the opportunity to hear jazz musicians speak. The interviews and conversations each year at Dizzy’s Den are, to me, high points of the festival. While I’ve seen Roy Haynes play several times at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul (he and AQ owner Kenny Horst are longtime friends), I have heard him speak only briefly, on the occasion of his 80th birthday at the AQ five years ago. (He just celebrated his 85th at the Blue Note in NYC.) So I’ll be there to hear what Haynes has to say about…whatever he wants to talk about.

2:40 pm Angelique Kidjo featuring Christian McBride, Lionel Loueke, Kendrick Scott, and Mino Cinelu (Jimmy Lyons Stage—Arena)

The Benin-born singer’s latest CD has an interesting roster of guest stars: Roy Hargrove, John Legend, Dianne Reeves, and Bono. Her band isn’t too shabby, either. Guitarist Loueke is a fellow Beninese; Cinelu toured with Miles Davis’ band in the early 1980s. If you go, wear a hat. You’ll be sitting in the direct California sun.

5:30 pm Sachal Vasandani Quartet (Garden Stage)

This young male jazz singer has it all—good looks, a golden voice, and on-stage charisma. His band includes Jeb Patton on piano, David Wong on bass, and Kendrick Scott (who plays earlier in the day for Angelique Kidjo) on drums.

7 pm Harry Connick Jr. (Jimmy Lyons Stage—Arena)

This will be Connick’s Monterey Jazz Festival debut, and he has been the handsome face of this year's festival, in ads and articles and magazines. There’s something about Harry I have always liked, but his latest CD, Your Songs, isn’t among them. Produced by Clive Davis, it seems overdone and far too poppy. The songs include “All the Way,” “And I Love Her,” “Close to You,” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” It's an album with strings. Since Connick's festival band includes a first violinist “plus additional string players,” I’m suspicious. But I’ll stop by to bask in his star power.

It pains me to miss festival artist-in-residence Dianne Reeves and her new project “Strings Attached”—in this case, strings means two guitars, Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo, with no rhythm section—but it can’t be helped.

8 pm Fred Hersch Trio (Coffee House)

This is a wonderful festival for those who love jazz piano. So far, Marcus Roberts and Gerald Clayton, and now Fred Hersch, poet of the keys. He’s with his trio, John Hebert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. This is one of the performances I have looked forward to most.

9 pm Ahmad Jamal (Jimmy Lyons Stage—Arena)

How is it possible that neither Roy Haynes nor Ahmad Jamal has ever played the Monterey Jazz Festival? Jamal recently celebrated his 80th birthday with a concert in Chicago’s Millennium Park. His playing makes me forget to breathe. It’s so complex, so beautiful, so spacious, so moving, so dynamically diverse; he can go from thunder to sigh in the same measure, the same phrase. On Friday night, Marcus Roberts included “Poinciana” in his first set. I can’t imagine Jamal won’t play his signature song on the last night of the Monterey Jazz Festival, before what is sure to be a rapt and appreciative crowd. His quartet: James Cammack on bass, Herlin Riley on drums, Manolo Badrena on percussion. I’ve heard this group and it doesn’t get any better. And I don’t care that I heard them as recently as February of this year (twice).

Both Roy Haynes and Fred Hersch play late sets starting at 9:30, the final sets of this year’s festival. On the way out, we’ll try to catch the last half of the Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band at Dizzy’s. He’s bringing Jaleel Shaw on saxophone, Martin Bejerano on piano, David Wong on bass. Terrific young players all, they’ll work up a sweat trying to keep up with Haynes.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What I'll see at the 53rd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival and why: Saturday

Fred Hersch

The festival's first full day. We'll head over in the early afternoon all bright and bouncy and drag our tired selves back to the hotel after midnight. (It's a half-mile walk between our hotel and the festival site, a WPA-era fairgrounds, and it feels a lot longer at the end of the day.)

2 pm DownBeat Blindfold Test with Fred Hersch Hosted by Dan Ouellette (Dizzy's Den)
The premise is, jazz journalist Ouellette will attempt to stump pianist Hersch by playing several jazz recordings and asking him to identify the performers. It's really an excuse for what is sure to be a far-ranging, fascinating conversation about jazz. If you can't be there in person, you can read about it in a future issue of DownBeat.

If time allows, I'll attempt to catch the last part of...

2:20 pm Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue (Jimmy Lyons Stage—Arena)
This may end up being one of the most popular and talked-about acts at this year's festival. Trombone Shorty (so named because he started playing the instrument at age 4, when it was longer than he was tall) is (as someone in the know said the other day) the right person from the right place playing the right music at the right time. Translation: He's a tall, good looking, preternaturally talented man in his 20s from New Orleans playing jazz, hip-hop, soul, and street at a time when the doomsayers are wailing "Jazz is dead!" I won't be surprised if he second-lines the whole Arena crowd out the door and through the fairgrounds. We saw him this summer at the Minnesota Zoo (on a very nice outdoor stage, in case you non-Minnesotans are wondering) and loved him. Go Shorty!

3:30 pm Hristo Vitchev Quartet (Coffee House)
A jazz guitarist and composer from Bulgaria? I'll bite. With pianist Weber Iago, drummer Joe De Rose, and bassist Dan Robbins. (Tip: To do the festival well, try new things.)

4:00 pm Conversation with George Wein Hosted by Andrew Gilbert (Dizzy's Den)
Founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, producer of hundreds of music events annually since then, George Wein thought he was bowing out of the festival biz when he sold his company to the Festival Network, a newly-formed entity run by thirtysomething Chris Shields. By 2009, both the Newport and New York festivals (among others) were in shambles and Wein came to the rescue. The man is 84; won't he ever get to take it easy? He's a living jazz encyclopedia and hearing him speak should be interesting to say the least.

7:30 pm Gretchen Parlato Band (Night Club)
Everybody's talking about this young singer, including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Of Parlato, Shorter has said, "in an inconspicuous way, Gretchen plays the same instrument as Frank Sinatra," and to be honest, I have no clue what that means. Her band is stellar: Lionel Loueke on guitar, Aaron Parks on piano and Fender Rhodes, Derrick Hodge on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums.

8 pm Billy Childs Quartet and the Kronos Quartet premiering Music for Two Quartets (Jimmy Lyons Stage—Arena)
It's the hour of the festival's first major music pileup: Childs and Kronos in the Arena, gifted young ukelelist Jake Shimabukuro on the Garden Stage, Septeto Nacional de Cuba at Dizzy's, and the Gerald Clayton Trio in the Coffee House. I'm torn between Childs/Kronos and Clayton but will probably opt for the former because the music they're premiering was commissioned by the MJF. Commissioning new works is a very good thing and I want to show my support. Also, I've enjoyed the commissions I've seen in the past: from Jason Moran, Dave Brubeck, Maria Schneider. (Kronos will also perform a new work by Schneider.) Pianist/composer/arranger Childs' quartet is impeccable: Brian Blade on drums, Scott Colley on bass, Steve Wilson on saxes and flute.

9:45 pm Chris Potter Underground (Garden Stage)
I would walk across hot coals to see this group: Potter on saxophones, Adam Rogers on guitar, Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, Nate Smith on drums. (Note no bass.) The band has been together for five years now, and although each member is involved with other bands and projects (Potter perhaps most famously with Dave Holland), they're committed. I'm super excited about seeing Craig Taborn again. Craig, your mom says hi.

10:50 pm Chick Corea Freedom Band with Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Roy Haynes (Jimmy Lyons Stage—Arena)
The festival's all-star supergroup. This is the only time they will play together; McBride and Haynes will perform in other venues on the grounds on Sunday, but unless I'm mistaken, neither Corea nor Garrett will make another appearance. I was surprised to learn that the great drummer Roy Haynes is making his MJF debut this year.

I might have to leave early to catch at least part of Gerald Clayton's 11 pm set at the Coffee House. With Clayton on piano, Justin Brown on drums, and Joe Sanders on bass, it will be a fine way to end the night.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Talking with rising jazz star Esperanza Spalding

Originally published at on Friday, Sept. 17, 2000

Esperanza Spalding by Sandrine Lee
When bassist/composer/vocalist Esperanza Spalding came to the Dakota in March 2009, she played to a standing-room crowd. That was before the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, where Prince listened from his limo backstage at Mears Park; before her second performance at the White House that year; before Oprah named her one of “10 Women on the Rise.”

It was before she was voted top rising star in the acoustic bass category in the DownBeat Critics Poll (for the second year running; she recently won for the third time); before she made the cover of DownBeat and was profiled in the New Yorker and praised in the Wall Street Journal and featured on NPR; before she released her third (actually fourth) CD.

A daring, romantic album with strings (violin, viola, and cello), “Chamber Music Society” debuted in mid-August as the No. 1 jazz album on iTunes, Amazon, and Billboard’s Heatseeker Chart. Eight of the 11 songs are originals.

Did I mention that Spalding is just 25? Like Trombone Shorty, another jazz star in his 20s, she started early. As a 4-year-old growing up in Portland, Ore., she saw Yo-Yo Ma on an episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and knew she wanted to make music. She taught herself to play violin and joined a community orchestra at age 5. At 15, she found the bass. At 20, she became the youngest-ever faculty member at the Berklee College of Music.

Speaking of Shorty, Spalding hopes to work with him someday.

“When I hear him play, I think — wow! See, now, this is what I’m talking about. It’s not that the average person doesn’t get jazz. His charisma, his mastery of the elements of improvised music and jazz and of his instrument — anyone and their mother-in-law can appreciate it.”

Currently on tour with “Chamber Music Society,” Spalding returns to the Dakota on Sept. 21-22. Amid all the press and brouhaha, despite her being dubbed the new savior of jazz (Norah Jones, anyone?), she’s warm and charming in an interview, with deep ideas and an easy laugh. We spoke by phone in late August.

MinnPost: What made you decide to include strings on your new CD?

Esperanza Spalding: I’ve been curious about writing for strings for many years but never had a distinct objective, or a working string group, or a place to perform and share this music. When I realized I could decide what my next project would be, I felt drawn to a project like this, with a string ensemble and a rhythm section ensemble, and exploring that space between the two worlds. It became a natural, organic exploration of the music.

MP: “Chamber Music Society” feels like a whole idea, a whole album. There’s an arc to it, a story. When you record, do you think in terms of albums or singles?

ES: Hopefully, ideally, every song is good enough to be a single. But I know what you mean. That’s probably one of the benefits of performing a lot. Being a bandleader, you’re always thinking of the set list and the arc of the show. You’re thinking in terms of what works and what doesn’t in terms of creating a full listening experience of an hour or more.

MP: The first song on the CD is “Little Fly,” your setting of a poem by William Blake. Next is “Knowledge of Good and Evil.” That’s a pretty big topic.

ES: It is and it isn’t. Everybody interprets the story of Adam and Eve and the garden and the Tree of Knowledge differently. I find the struggle of discerning between good and evil one of the most interesting aspects of human existence. I feel like our work on this earth as humans is that endless struggle of trying to understand good and evil. So why not write a song about it? People have written a million songs about love, and it seems to me this is just as universal.

MP: Were you raised in a church?

ES: I went to church as a child with my mother, but when she discovered the lessons we were getting in Sunday school, she spent so much time trying to unteach us that she decided maybe we shouldn’t go to that specific church. Unlike most people in this world, my mother has read the Bible through twice. I didn’t grow up in any specific church, but I did grow up with parables and teachings and quotes from the Bible.

MP: Girl question: How do you decide what to wear for a performance?

ES: It depends on what’s in my suitcase. It’s really tricky now, with YouTube and photos everywhere. You don’t want to show up for different gigs wearing the same outfit. I’m thinking mainly of making the most complete show experience. It depends on the venue, the set we’re going to do, what’s in my suitcase, how I’m feeling, whether I’ve shaved my legs or not. I try not to make outfits before I leave my house to go on tour for a month or whatever. I throw a bunch of random things into my suitcase on purpose, so I’m forced to make outfits when I go on the road. It’s an exercise in creativity.

MP: How do you know what to do with your body on stage? The double bass is a big instrument. You’re dancing with a beast.

ES: I don’t think about that. Whatever happens physically is due to the way I have to play or hold myself to sing. That involves practicing how to get this note out on the bass or the voice without too much strain.

MP: You move a lot on stage. That’s a fairly new development in jazz bass playing — not the tradition.

ES: Sometimes it can be a testament to bad technique. In my case it certainly is sometimes. You’re tired, you stop paying attention to technique, you end up going out of your way to do the same amount of work that a little bit of focus and better preparation would allow you to do with much less exertion. Also, artistically there’s more freedom to be expressive. You see it in the classical world, too. People are allowing themselves to show what they’re feeling more. That might be a more courteous explanation.

MP: There’s a lot going on in your life right now. Press, videos, concerts, albums. You’re being called the next big thing in jazz. What keeps you grounded?

ES: Rarely do I feel ungrounded. This is jazz we’re talking about here. Just jazz. Nobody knows who I am when I walk outside.

MP: But when you’re on stage, that’s often where the focus goes. People want to know what you have to say.

ES: Which is wonderful, and I’m happy to say it, but what I have to say isn’t any more valuable than what anybody else has to say. I just happen to be getting all the attention right now, and I’m so grateful for every little ounce. I have a lot of friends who are way hipper than I am musically and doing way more interesting stuff, and they struggle just to get people to come out to their gigs. I’m grateful to be supported in my work, but beyond that, it’s not about me. Who I am is my own business. I’m excited that there’s all this hype about my work.

MP: Things are moving pretty fast for you right now. Where would you like to be in five years?

ES:  In a broad sense, I would like to have a greater degree of mastery writing for strings and horns. I would love to become a better lyricist. And be more studious, and really enrich the music I’m playing, enrich the way I play, widen the palate of my voice, widen the palate of the bass. I would like to find a way to format improvised music, this music I love, keeping all this freedom and spontaneity, so anyone can appreciate it. I have a vision of a teenybopper being able to follow the poetry of improvised music and enjoy it. The skills of being able to listen and give people the freedom to be themselves within the context we’ve all agreed upon are ultimately important to making us human beings. I would like to find a way to incorporate them into a music that many, many people can enter.

MS: You’re playing an instrument hardly any women play, with big-name musicians who would be intimidating to a lot of people. You’re writing and arranging your own music, and singing. You seem fearless. Are you?

ES: Nobody’s fearless. I have all the same insecurities any artist has. I just don’t let them control what I do. I am who I am and I’m on my own little path, and I’m glad I sound how I sound and here I go. Maybe there’s a certain amount of bravery in that, but I have no other options. I would be very unhappy doing anything that wasn’t me.


Here’s a video of Spalding performing “Little Fly” from “Chamber Music Society.” And here’s a CD review I wrote with Fantastic Merlins bassist Brian Roessler.
Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, Sept. 21-22, Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall ($45-$25) Tickets online or call 612-333-5299.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

CD Review: Don’t Stop: The Bad Plus’ “Never Stop”

Originally published on Jazz Police.

A new CD by The Bad Plus is a new CD by The Bad Plus. You know right away, even if you haven’t seen the art or liner notes, that you’re not hearing anyone else. It’s as if this trio—Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, Dave King on drums—speaks the secret language of twins.  

After ten years together, TBP has a sound so distinct it should be trademarked, except no one could duplicate it. Which is not to say the group is predictable. Never Stop, just out on Sept. 14, has at least one feature few people would have foreseen: All ten tracks are originals. For a group that first gained national attention for covering Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” then reconfigured classic tunes by the Police, Tears for Fears, Rush, Black Sabbath, Queen, Neil Young, Radiohead, even Bobbie Vinton (their “Blue Velvet” with singer Wendy Lewis on the vinyl version of For All I Care is a killer), a cover-free CD comes as a surprise. 

I confess to not being completely surprised. When I spoke with Dave King in late 2008 about the band’s annual Christmas residency at the Dakota (scheduled this year for December 25-27), he mentioned that their next record (after For All I Care, which hadn’t yet been released) would be “all original instrumental recordings, no covers.”  

I wondered if I might be a little disappointed. To Bad Plus fans, anticipating what the band will cover next has long been part of the fun. But I’m ready to let that go, now that I’ve heard Never Stop

The new CD is smart, witty, serious, humorous, gentle, and fierce. The band has been workshopping the tunes for some time, and I’ve heard at least two live performances each of “My Friend Metatron,” “Beryl Loves to Dance,” and “Bill Hickman at Home.” In live shows, each was prefaced by a lovingly detailed and invariably absurd story told by Iverson with a poker face. (It’s interesting that Iverson is the person who does the talking for The Bad Plus. For Happy Apple, another of Dave King’s many bands, King is the spinner of tales. Does anyone know if Anderson ever takes that role?) 

There are no stories on the CD, so we won’t dwell on them here, though I’m tempted to dig them out of my notes and report on them elsewhere at length. Each painted a colorful picture of the song we were about to hear. For example, I’m pretty sure Iverson said something about Bill Hickman, the subject of “Bill Hickman at Home” and an actual person (he was a stunt driver in both Bullitt and The French Connection), buying a frozen dinner at a convenience store and eating it alone. Iverson’s words make Hickman seem like a lonely man, a misfit. As does his own piano playing on Never Stop. It sounds as if he’s playing a different piano entirely—an old upright with at least one key out of tune; a G, if I’m not mistaken. There’s a bluesy, barsy, sad and smoky feeling to this song which Iverson underscores by returning to that G again and again, lovingly if not a bit perversely.  

“Bill Hickman” is near the end of the CD. Let’s start at the beginning, with “The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart.” You could name that as a Bad Plus tune in the first three notes, if you’ve heard one or two of their tunes in the past. The melody seems to glance in the direction of “Old Man River,” but only briefly. The opening is big and full, a wall of sound, with loud piano chords and thunder on the drums and thick, muscular bass notes. It’s a workout of a song. The last minute-thirty or so is a more subdued, repeated riff, simple and spacious. Just don’t try to dance to it or you’ll trip over your own feet. 

Photo by Cameron Wittig
 Anderson penned the title tune, “Never Stop,” and if you’ve been listening to much of The Bad Plus, you could name it as a Reid Anderson tune within the first ten seconds. It starts with the same note repeated on the piano, accompanied by the drum, then stays deceptively simple in construction while working itself into a frenzy. It’s all about forward motion, marching on. People are speculating that Never Stop is TBP promising to stay together and keep making music. 

I like this group’s longevity, their commitment to being a band, and the fact that they accept no substitutes. It’s Iverson, Anderson, and King or nothing. They all have other projects, but you don’t go to see TBP and find anyone on the bench but Iverson or at the drums but King or behind the bass but Anderson.

“You Are” is classic Bad Plus, tricky and showy, tight from the start. Everyone shines, especially King. “My Friend Metatron,” named after an archangel (I’m not making this up), is one of my favorite TBP tunes. From the first jabbing, assertive notes on bass and drums, it’s unpredictable, layered and dense. A charming little tune is tucked in twice.  

Both “People Like You” and “Snowball” are tender and beautiful tunes, the ballads of the bunch. At nine minutes fifteen seconds, “People” is the longest song on the CD but doesn’t feel that way. It’s an emotional journey and you want to go wherever it takes you. Like most (all?) of Anderson’s compositions, it builds in volume and intensity; Iverson’s piano goes from quietly pensive to glittering and grand. His classical training is written all over this piece. Then all grows quiet again and after being lifted up, we’re set down gently and tenderly. Nicely done. 

Coming after “People Like You,” “Beryl Loves to Dance” is almost too frenetic and giddy. The story Iverson tells for this tune is something about a young girl who dances alone in her room. At one point, the song explodes in crashing piano chords and machine-gun drumbeats. Beryl must be knocking pictures off her walls.  

“2 PM” sounds like three musicians who know each other very well, getting together and playing with no charts, no plans, no preconceived notions. They’re speaking the secret language of jazz.  
Following the bittersweet “Bill Hickman,” the CD ends with “Super America.” The gas station or the nation? Don’t ask, just clap along as if you were in church. The whole song is accompanied by clapping, which makes it feel like a gospel song. At the end, the clapping falls apart and fades away, and Anderson’s bass says amen. 

What I'll see at the 53rd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival and why: Friday

This will be my sixth year at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I'm still a newbie compared to those who have been coming here for decades (there are many), but I know where the venues are, where to find samosas and sterling silver jewelry, and why it's good to visit the merchandise tent early in the festival (because otherwise the T-shirt you want will be sold out). I know to carry an extra layer or two of clothes because it gets chilly in the Arena at night.

I know it's perfectly fine to see part of a set by one artist or band and move on to another (someone will be grateful for your seat or spot on a bleacher). I know I won't see everything I plan to see. I'll be en route to the Coffee House when a siren song from the Garden Stage will lure me in. Or I'll head for Dizzy's Den and run into a friend and we'll stand there talking or go for a beer.

And I know there's someone I'll later kick myself for missing. That's the way of Monterey.

Because I live in the Twin Cities, home to the Dakota, the Artists' Quarter, numerous other venues, and jazz series at Orchestra Hall and the University of Minnesota, I have seen many of the artists who will perform at this year's festival. Does that mean I'll pass on Chris Potter's Underground or Fred Hersch? Uh, duh, no. It means I'll arrive early.

Here's my hour-by-hour schedule for the first night of this year's festival.


6:30 pm Ben Flocks Quartet, Garden Stage
Young saxophonist Flocks is in the enviable position of performing at a time when nobody else is. Usually there are four or five things going on at once and you have to make a painful choice. For the first hour or so of the festival, he is the festival. We saw Flocks perform in St. Paul in 2008 with other Brubeck Institute fellows and liked him.

8pm Marcus Roberts Trio (Coffee House)
A performance by pianist Marcus Roberts is a jazz history intensive, delivered with passion, poetry, and soul. I've seen him several times over the years, basically whenever I had the chance, and each time has made me feel a lot smarter about jazz and more in love with the music. With Roland Guerin on bass, Jason Marsalis on drums.

Unlike most of the rest of jazz, MJF performances start on time. So I can hear a half-hour of Roberts' trio, then dash across the way to the Arena for...

8:30 pm Roy Hargrove Big Band with special guest Roberta Gambarini (Jimmy Lyons Stage—Arena)
For those who may not know, Hargrove and Gambarini share a label (Emarcy) and a manager (the estimable Larry Clothier). I've heard the amazing, inventive, scarily brilliant Hargrove several times--he's a regular at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis--and I adore Gambarini, whose voice has the purity of Waterford crystal. I've never heard Hargrove's big band. Hyperventilating at the prospect.

9:30 pm Marcus Roberts Trio (Coffee House)
More Marcus Roberts? Yes, please. And I might zigzag back for a bit of...

9:50 pm Les Nubians (Jimmy Lyons Stage—Arena)
I've not heard this Afropean/funkin' fashion/modern Amazon group, though it sounds like a lot of fun.

11 pm Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition (Night Club)
So far I've seen Indian-American saxophonist Mahanthappa play with Vijay Iyer and Danilo Perez. His Coalition includes Pakistani-American guitarist Rez Abbasi and tablaist Dan Weiss. Can't. Wait.

Coming tomorrow: My picks for Saturday. 
Coming Saturday: Sunday's best bets IMHO.

On Sitting Down to See Sonny Rollins Once Again: Sonny Rollins @ 80 Concert Review

by John Scherrer

I first saw Sonny Rollins many years ago in Chicago.  I recall the concert vividly.  After Sonny played his first song, uncharacteristically a ballad, the 70-ish year old man seated directly to my left tapped on my shoulder and with a huge grin on his face said, “Isn’t he something?”  That night forever changed how I listen to and conceive music.

On the occasion of Sonny’s 80th birthday, I traveled to my old stomping grounds in New York for the Rollins birthday bash at the Beacon Theatre on Friday, Sept. 10.  Refurbished since I had been there, the Beacon, once a lavish movie theatre and replete with Greek and Egyptian architecture, had last hosted a Sonny Rollins concert in 1995.  Having purchased a ticket in May and knowing the announced guest list of musicians who’d join Sonny on stage—two of whom were “mystery” guests—my expectations were high.

Rollins last played an indoor New York City concert in 2007 at Carnegie Hall, an event marred by a will-call debacle caused by a computer crash that denied entrance to many ticket holders for the most anticipated portion of the concert, a trio set commemorating Sonny’s 1957 Carnegie Hall appearance.  I knew Sonny, having not played a concert in nearly six weeks, would be well rested, and especially anxious to make up for the 2007 gig.

Rollins, accompanied by his current working band (Russell Malone, Bob Cranshaw, Kobie Watkins, Sammy Figueroa), was given a standing ovation before even playing a single note.  Sonny began the festivities with two originals.  If perhaps slow out of the blocks, Sonny found his stride when taking a second solo during the opening “Patañjali.”  He seemed to have infinite permutations for the three-note melody, sometimes coaxing a snake-charmer tone out of his horn.  Whereas “Patañjali” was punctuated by a fierce rhythm, the calypso “Global Warming” was delivered with a buoyant bounce fitting for the celebratory nature of the evening.  Early on, it was clear Sonny had brought his ‘A’ game.

The first special guest of the night was Dakota favorite Roy Hargrove.  Introduced by Rollins as a “chosen one,” Roy recorded with Sonny in 1991 when he was 21 years old—and to my knowledge had not played with him since.  Hargrove, opting for flugelhorn, took the lead on a lovely reading of the Vernon Duke standard “I Can’t Get Started” and was complemented by the jazz contrast of Rollins.

The highlight of the Rollins-Hargrove pairing, though, was Billy Strayhorn’s “Rain Check.”  After Roy and Sonny had traded fours with Watkins, Hargrove attempted to return to the head before Sonny, shuffling briskly across the stage, challenged only by his octogenarian gait, stood up close to Roy and loudly put the brakes on any such closure.  Sonny, showing a sly grin, wasn’t out for blood, but he simply wanted to play.  Rollins and Hargrove started sparring, though friendly and often finishing each other’s thoughts.  One wonders if Sonny had flashbacks to his tragically-brief partnership with Clifford Brown.

After Hargrove left the stage, Rollins brought out master guitarist and former band mate Jim Hall.  Having noticed that Hall’s guitar was out of tune as he played an introduction to “In a Sentimental Mood,” (which would turn into a Hall feature—the only song of the night without a Rollins solo), Sonny, in a display typical of his sense of humor, elicited more than just a chuckle with his drawn-out quote of Chopin’s Funeral March.  Rollins and Hall’s second number was yet another concert highlight: “If Ever I Would Leave You,” a song the pair recorded for RCA in 1962 and one of Sonny’s studio masterpieces.  Rollins and Hall did not make Camelot a silly place, but instead injected a gentle Latin swing (a tad slower than the 1962 version).

With Hall and Sonny’s quintet having departed, Rollins introduced Christian McBride and, filling in one piece of the puzzle, invited the first mystery guest to the stage, fellow legend and jazz’s sharpest dresser, Roy Haynes (a man who cannot possibly be 85).  I got chills when McBride started his introduction of “Solitude.”  The trio, the same that shared the Carnegie Hall stage together in 2007, did not play the Ellington standard as a gentle ballad—ruthless swing would be a better description.  If the concert had ended here, it would have been a smashing success.

But the trio started “Sonnymoon for Two.”  After a couple minutes of meandering, Sonny stepped to the mic and told the crowd that there was a man backstage who was going to sing “Happy Birthday” to him and he had brought his horn.  Anticipation built.  The second mystery guest’s identity had been guarded quite well.  The trio continued to play with all three looking backstage.  A few minutes later, a gentleman in a dark suit with a pork pie hat slowly stepped out and walked towards Sonny.  When I saw a white alto saxophone, I nearly went into shock.  Mystery guest #2 was the patron saint of free jazz, Ornette Coleman, who proceeded straight to Sonny and shook his hand while bowing at the knee out of respect.  The crowd went nuts.

As a friend once said to me, Ornette always plays Ornette—and here was no different.  Coleman took the Rollins blues in a different direction.  Sonny watched intently, sometimes nodding approval and also looking up in thought.  When Sonny took his turn, he played more “out” than he probably had since the 1960s.  If this concert is viewed as a brief retrospective of Sonny’s early years, Ornette was filling in for the late Don Cherry.  All the while, I had never seen so many cell phones pop up at a concert to snap pictures or capture video for posterity.  And at this point, I don’t have much more to say about the meeting of these two icons, their first public performance (?), other than “I was there.”

With the exception of Ornette, all the musicians came back out to play Sonny’s most famous calypso, “St. Thomas.”  This amounted to a victory lap.  Even Sonny, notoriously self-critical, had to know what he had already accomplished.  For nearly two hours, Sonny stood on stage—no intermission and never once sitting down—and did not coast one bit, even though a loving audience would have forgiven the 80-year old man if he had needed a break.  Reflecting on this concert, I’m reminded of what Sonny told Stanley Crouch in a 2005 profile for the New Yorker:
I know what I got from Coleman Hawkins, from Ben Webster, from Dexter Gordon, from Don Byas, from Charlie Parker, and all the other guys who gave their lives to this music.  I know that without a doubt…So now, after all these years, it's pretty clear to me, finally. All I want to do is stand up for them, and for the music, and for what they inspired in me. I'm going to play as long as I can. I want to do that as long as I can pick up that horn and represent this music with honor. That's all it's about, as far as I can see. I don't know anything else, but I know that.
And, thankfully, once more, I had the privilege to stand up and applaud Sonny Rollins, the greatest living jazz musician.

Beautiful, romantic, languorous: Esperanza Spalding’s “Chamber Music Society” CD review

Written with Brian Roessler (thank you, Brian). Originally published on Jazz Police.

Esperanza Spalding plays a massive instrument—the double bass—and carries a heavy weight on her slight, photogenic shoulders. She’s the new darling of jazz, the Next Big Thing, the One who will somehow convince young listeners that jazz isn’t moldering in its grave.

Just 25, she has played for President Obama, with Joe Lovano as part of his band Us Five, with Stevie Wonder, with McCoy Tyner, at a BET tribute to Prince. Oprah named her one of “Ten Women on the Rise.” Her new CD, Chamber Music Society, released in August on Heads Up, debuted as the #1 jazz album on iTunes, Amazon, Billboard’s Heatseeker Chart, and the CMJ Jazz Chart.

I had listened to Chamber Music Society casually but wanted to listen more closely before writing a review. And I wanted to hear it with a bass player. Brian Roessler, bassist and composer with the Fantastic Merlins, accepted my invitation and we spent a long afternoon together. Until then, he had heard just one track from the CD, “Winter Sun,” which was featured recently on NPR’s All Things Considered. He’s not a fan of Spalding’s previous CD, the self-titled Esperanza (Heads Up, 2008), considering it “too slick-sounding.”

We both like Chamber Music Society very much. And we both like Spalding’s singing, a sinuous blend of lyrics (many written by her) and pure sound, scatting and sighs. Some people don’t like her singing, and if you’re among them, Chamber Music Society is not for you, and maybe Spalding is not for you; she’s as much about singing as she is about playing bass. I like that she’s on pitch, she leaps tall intervals and lands them, and she treats her voice as another instrument in the band. Roessler likes the quality of her voice: “breathy, innocent-sounding. Not super-developed or polished. Genuine.”

Courtesy of Montuno Productions, photo by Sandrine Lee
Chamber Music Society is a concept album with a classical string trio: violin, viola, cello. Spalding has already announced her next project, also a concept album: Radio Music Society, which (according to a press release from her label) “features an exciting new repertoire of funk, hip-hop and rock elements fused into songs that are free from genre.” (I’m suspicious of the marketing phrase “free from genre,” which sounds like code for “Don’t worry, folks, it won’t be jazz!”)

Perhaps, like jazz violinist Regina Carter, Spalding is a concept-album person, following her passions and her curiosities. Chamber Music Society is an entity, a whole, maybe even a one-time thing, like Carter’s Paganini: After a Dream. It is not a collection of radio-friendly singles; most of the 11 tracks are longer than three minutes and one is much shorter. So even though some people speak of Spalding in the same breath as Norah Jones, the jazz/pop singer who sold truckloads of CDs for Blue Note, Spalding is not “the next Norah Jones.”

We begin at the beginning, with the first track, “Little Fly.” The lyrics are by poet William Blake, the music by Spalding. It’s a song I can’t get out of my head, it’s so tender and lovely. Roessler is struck by the story behind the song, which Spalding told on All Things Considered: She saw a book of Blake’s poems in a bookstore, thought it beautiful, bought it, copied this particular poem, and hung it above her desk for years, waiting for the music to come.

“I hardly know anyone who reads poems,” Roessler says. “So many musicians are so obsessed with music that they don’t notice things like poems and paintings, books and film.” He returns to this idea later in our conversation, noting that Spalding seems to have “a full life of appreciating beautiful things.”

Something wonderful informs this music—both her own compositions, and her selection of the few tracks not written by her—because one thing they all have in common is beauty. Chamber Music Society is a gorgeous album full of delicious moments that make you want to close your eyes and savor them. For that reason, among others, it invites repeat listenings.

Spalding is not afraid to take on big topics, with a wisdom that belies her 25 years. The next track, “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” tackles the fall of humankind with soaring strings and wordless, wide-ranging vocals. It’s lengthy (just under 8 minutes), intense, sometimes turbulent. “One thing I love about her bass playing is it’s so transparent,” Roessler says. “I don’t notice that she’s virtuosic because it all sounds great…. This feels like a band, not an album-with-strings.”

Neither of us takes to the next track, “Really Very Small.” Coming after “Little Fly” and “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” it feels like an exercise, lacking in emotional content. Roessler, admitting to a “weird analogy,” says it reminds him of Rush, a band he doesn’t especially like because “difficult things happen just because.” It’s a midsection of tricky rhythms bookended by a lyrical beginning and ending.

On to “Chacarera,” composed by Spalding’s piano player, Leo Genevose. This is a complex, almost symphonic piece that seems longer than it is (6:40). (At the end, I wonder aloud, “Did that have ten endings?”) Rather than feature piano, it spotlights acclaimed cellist David Eggar, which Roessler and I agree is a good thing. (Briefly, Eggar was a child prodigy, got his classical training at Juilliard and Harvard, and, like Spalding, doesn’t concern himself too much with genres.)

Photo by John Whiting
A lot happens musically—in Roessler’s words, “It’s kind of all over the map” and not for casual listening. “I’m interested in the fact that people are making such a big deal about this album,” Roessler says. “It doesn’t seem quite as accessible as I thought it would be. Especially this piece. It doesn’t have a simple, single melody you can walk away with.” Instead, it’s thick with themes, layers, mood shifts, and drama. I love “Little Fly,” but to me this is the most interesting track on the CD.

Spalding’s arrangement of the Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington classic “Wild Is the Wind” (a song recorded by everyone from Johnny Mathis to David Bowie and Cat Power) is another big tune, a dark and stormy night of a song, colored with deep strings and Genovese’s melodica, the strange little free-reed keyboard instrument that everyone seems to be playing these days. (It looks like a toy, and you blow into it.) Spalding doesn’t just cover “Wild Is the Wind,” she inhabits it. Roessler’s assessment: “Great. I like that her arrangement of somebody else’s thing turns into a unique composition that fits as part of the whole sound of this record.”

On “Apple Blossom Time,” another Spalding original complete with lyrics, Milton Nascimento sings with her. Like “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” this is a serious song, about life and death, love and loss, grief and memory. Unlike “Knowledge,” it has a fairly simple, straightforward melody that repeats, like a folk song. The strings add depth and richness. Nascimento’s unusual singing style and otherworldly falsetto are a perfect complement to Spalding’s sweet voice. There’s a moment near the end where the voices and strings weave together and dance. Roessler says, “Now it sounds like a Joni Mitchell song. To me, that’s the highest compliment.”

At 41 seconds, the strings-filled, classical-sounding “As a Sprout” seems like a passing thought, a spoonful of sorbet. Roessler wonders if it’s there “to clear the emotional intensity of ‘Apple Blossom.’” It works as a transition from the sadness of that song and the sunniness of the next, “What a Friend.” This is not “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (though “it would be cool if it was,” Roessler notes), but a lilting dialogue between slow and speedy, bass and voice, rising and falling.

“This is starting to feel more and more like a fantastic, unselfconscious combination of the things [Spalding] is interested in,” Roessler says. “Jazz things and classical things and Latin-flavored things, almost all of them almost all of the time. But it feels very natural. From a technical perspective, it’s remarkable writing.”

You can hear Spalding discuss and deconstruct the album’s next track, “Winter Sun,” on NPR. After the glories of “Chacarera” and “Wild is the Wind,” neither of us finds it especially compelling. Roessler describes it as “fusiony, very clean—too clean and neat. Pretty poppy, which is probably why they played it on the radio. Within the context of this album, it’s one of the least interesting pieces musically.”

We move on to “Inútil Paisagem” (“If You Never Come to Me”), Jobim’s song of love and longing (“What is the evening without you? It’s nothing”). Many people have recorded this; my favorite takes are Kurt Elling’s on Night Moves, where he combines it with “Change Partners,” and Nancy King’s with Fred Hersch on their Live at Jazz Standard collaboration.

Courtesy of Montuno Productions, photo by Sandrine Lee
Spalding’s version on Chamber Music Society, with her friend Gretchen Parlato joining her on vocals, may be the album’s one serious misstep. Both Roessler and I immediately think “Bobby McFerrin imitation.” I mind this less than Roessler, who dubs it “distracting. It would be so much more beautiful to hear [Spalding] singing the song and playing the bass.” I venture that to come up with something original is challenging. He counters with “Originality is overrated. To me, the question has to be, ‘Is it good? Is it beautiful?’ I’d much rather listen to beautiful than original.”

The final track, “Short and Sweet,” is languorous and wistful. In it you can almost hear the story of a relationship, which may account for the title. Spalding and Genovese take thoughtful, expressive solos and the strings paint broad swaths of color. The ending is sudden and unexpected, leaving the final phrase unfinished, hanging in mid-air. We both love it.

I say “languorous” and Roessler says, “The whole record could be described as languorous, in a good way. Relaxed. It’s very romantic music. It makes me think of the south of France. Romantic in a traditional way—the life of the spirit, the quest for beauty and love.” Overall? “I think it’s amazing. I’m blown away.”

I’m a bit embarrassed that Roessler is the one who calls attention to the fact that two main players in the rhythm section are women: Spalding on bass, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. “I don’t want to open this can of worms—jazz and gender politics—but in this band, the rhythm section is dominated by women, which is really unusual,” he says. “Women drummers are super rare, women bass players almost as rare, and they’re almost never together in a group.”

Carrington is not part of Spalding’s regular quartet and (to my knowledge) won’t be on her Chamber Music Society tour, which begins Sept. 17 in Grinnell, Iowa, and comes to the Dakota in Minneapolis on Sept. 21–22. Her drummer at the Dakota will be Francisco Mela.

Follow the Chamber Music Society tour on Esperanza Spalding’s website. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Jazz concert review: René Marie Sings the Truth at the Dakota

When: Sunday, September 5, 2010 • Where: DakotaWho: Rene Marie, voice; Kevin Bales, piano; Rodney Jordan, bass; Quentin Baxter, drums

Singer Rene Marie gave an inspired, inspiring, and at times deeply moving performance at the Dakota on Sunday night. More than once during the evening, I looked around at the crowd to see people dabbing at their eyes, overcome by a song’s message and delivery. I was among them.

Marie sings the truth. Her songs, including many well-written originals, are about her life experiences, her feelings, her convictions and beliefs. If she sings a standard, she makes it her own. And if you’re in the room, you feel her feelings. Especially in live performance, she opens a direct emotional channel with her audience. She gives you more than words and melodies, sound and breath. She gives you joy, grief, passion, and pain. If you’re open and receptive, you come away knowing more about her, and more about yourself.

She began the first set of two with Dave Brubeck’s “Strange Meadow Lark,” starting low, soft and swinging, accompanied at first by Rodney Jordan’s bass and then by the rest of her remarkable trio, slowly building and bursting forth. Here’s a recent video of Marie singing this song with her trio and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.

The second song was an act of generosity and thanks. Artist Catherine L. Johnson was in the house, and she had brought Marie a gift: a print from her Sparrow series and a written description of what the sparrow means to her. Marie sang the first verse to the gospel hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” then read Johnson’s words (which were lovely), then paused, seemed to gather herself, and segued into Mentor Williams’ “Drift Away,” a song that has been covered by everybody and his sister (“Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul/I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away…”). It was seamless and perfect, and Marie transformed a soft-rock chestnut into a song of revelation and thanks.

This may have been the moment we all knew we had stumbled onto something remarkable, one of those performances that would stay with us for a long time.

Marie calls her current tour “Voice of My Beautiful Country” and describes it as “the musical soundtrack of my life so far.” That gives her a lot of music to draw from. At the Dakota, she blended the old Jimmy Van Heusen song “Imagination” (“Imagination is crazy, your whole perspective gets hazy”) with the Temptations’ hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).” She sang “White Rabbit,” the acid rock classic from Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 album “Surrealistic Pillow,” which she and her trio turned into a lengthy, exciting jazz composition.

We also heard several originals including “Vertigo,” the title track to her second CD with her former label MaxJazz. And a saucy “Rim Shot,” which she introduced by explaining that she wrote it as a way to get her drummer to play rim shots when she wants, not only when he wants. (A rim shot is a sharp sound made by hitting the drum head and rim at the same time.) Actually, the song seems more like an excuse for spicy lyrics, which she sang with considerable relish. (Think Alberta Hunter's "Handyman.") A showy, tongue-in-cheek solo by drummer Quentin Baxter at the end sent Marie into gales of laughter. (Gasping, she said, “I think that song was retired tonight.”) Kudos for her clever rhymes for “rim shot,” among them “caveat,” “coffee pot,” and “astronaut.”

Marie is known for writing provocative songs about issues that concern her deeply: homelessness, racism, violence, abuse. She introduced the puzzling, disturbing “Weekend” by saying “Here’s a bedtime story for you all,” then raised eyebrows with a song about a wife who is beaten by her husband and, later that night, seduced by a stranger who binds and blindfolds her. No unequivocal meanings or tidy endings here. People have asked her about this song, and you can read her response on her website.

“And now for a little change of pace,” she said wryly, introducing the evening’s finale, the stirring “Voice of My Beautiful Country” suite. Marie has taken the patriotic tunes we all know—“America the Beautiful,” “America” (“My Country, ’Tis of Thee”), and “The Star-Spangled Banner”—and set them to different melodies (or, in one case, stayed with the melody but used different lyrics). 

“America the Beautiful” is a jazz tune, with scatting; “America” a gospel song I could imagine Aretha Franklin wanting to sing; “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the melody we know, but the words are those of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem. This is the song that got Marie into deep doo-doo in Denver in 2008, when she was asked to perform the national anthem before the city’s State of the Union address and sang this instead.

Hearing it live, I can understand why people were surprised, but not why they were angry. Marie’s version is reverent and heartfelt. Her merging of the official national anthem with what the Congressional Record calls “the official African American National Hymn” is more an affirmation than a sign of disrespect. She’s saying, “We are all Americans.” Which seems like a message we’re badly in need of hearing today.

The suite ended the show and no one called for an encore, which would have been anticlimactic. We had heard something special and we knew it. Afterward, pianist Kevin Bales came out to say hello, to praise the piano (a 9-foot Steinway the Dakota brought in early for Ramsey Lewis’s two night stay on Sept. 6–7), and to thank us for listening. When someone commented on how excellent the trio was, and how this clearly wasn’t a singer-with-a-backup-band situation, he said that Marie brings out the best in each of them, and “I don’t play that way with anyone else.”

The trio—Bales on piano, Jordan on bass, Baxter on drums—deserves a glowing review all its own. Marie left ample room for solos, which were happily received by the crowd; the affection and creative energy they shared was palpable. I started to say that Bales shone especially brightly, that his inventiveness on the keys was a high point, but then I remembered equally thrilling contributions from Baxter and Jordan. During the “Voice” suite,” Baxter played a lengthy and riveting solo that was part Native American drumming, part African drumming, part Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers marching off to war. Jordan’s double bass was many things—a gorgeous voice, a steady beat, a pair of big, warm arms holding the group together. 

What a satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking pleasure the evening was. This was Marie’s first appearance at the Dakota for six years, during which she moved to Denver, left her label, remarried, temporarily retired from the road, and became better, stronger, more powerful and convincing. I’m hoping we don’t have to wait another six years to hear her again.

Photos by John Whiting.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jazz concert preview: Powerful, original singer René Marie returns to the Dakota

Originally published at on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010

A little over a week ago, a late booking appeared on the Dakota’s calendar without much fanfare: After a six-year absence, singer René Marie will return for one night only, one show.

Here are my notes from the last time she came through town, in October 2004: “Confessional, autobiographical music, mostly original; I can’t imagine anyone else singing these songs.”

Her story is compelling. An early love of music; self-taught; winning talent contests; singing in a band at 15, where she meets the boy she will later marry. At 18, they join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, wed, and stop performing in public. She listens to music and sings at home.

Fast-forward 23 years to January 1996. Marie is 41, wife, mother of two sons, working at a bank. Her oldest son urges her to start singing again. She gets a gig for tips in a smoky motel bar. In January 1997, her husband tells her to quit. She does — for three months, then begs him to let her sing again. On Dec. 31, he lays down the law: Stop singing in public or leave. Within 18 months, she gets a divorce, produces her first CD, and signs with MaxJazz.

Sings what she wants, what she believes
Marie’s story may seem shockingly old-fashioned. But it took great courage to do what she did, and ever since, her life has been her own. She sings what she wants and what she believes. For her commitment to writing and performing songs about social issues, she has been compared to Nina Simone, her muse. On stage, in live performance, emotion pours out of her.

If she makes an occasional misstep, so what. I’m not in love with her mash-up of “Bolero” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” (Her pairing of “Dixie” with “Strange Fruit” is a whole ’nother story. Jaws drop and hair stands up on people’s arms when she sings that.) Some of her interpretations are over the top. She takes the jazz standard “Caravan” about a jaunt through the desert and turns it red-hot, complete with panting and mallets booming on drums.

Sometimes she tees people off. In 2008, she was invited to sing the national anthem before Denver’s State of the City address. (Marie lives in Denver now, with her second husband.) She sang the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” but the lyrics of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a.k.a. the Black National Anthem.

The consequences were swift. State and local politicians denounced her. Emails included slurs and death threats. Then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama opined, “If she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that.” Marie didn’t apologize. When asked if she would do it again, she said yes.

Still on her own path
That storm has blown over, but Marie is still on her own path. After three more CDs with MaxJazz including the Billboard-charting “Live at Jazz Standard,” she left the label in search of greater freedom. In 2007 she self-released a new CD, “Experiment in Truth.” A one-woman show, “Slut Energy Theory,” a tale of abuse and healing, earned positive reviews in the Denver press. She wrote and released a single called “Three Nooses Hanging” inspired by events in Jena, La., then donated the profits to the Jena Six Defense Fund.

This is a lot of background, and you may be wondering — can the lady sing? Here’s a subtle and sultry “Thanks, but I Don’t Dance.” And here’s her potent original “Vertigo.”

Marie calls her current tour “Voice of My Beautiful Country” and describes it as “the musical soundtrack of my life thus far.” Some of the songs we may hear include Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” Dave Brubeck’s “Strange Meadowlark,” and the folk tunes “O Shenandoah” and “John Henry.” She’ll be joined by her simpatico working band: Kevin Bales on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass, Quentin Baxter on drums. If you want to be moved, surprised, engaged, entertained, provoked, and maybe even transported, check it out.

To me, Marie is cut from similar cloth as blues singer Bettye Lavette, who recently played two burning Dakota shows. Marie started her career late in life. Lavette had a hit at 16, then dropped off the radar; now in her 60s, she’s enjoying a spectacular comeback. Both women sing as if they have nothing to lose, nothing to fear. They give it their all.

René Marie, 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 5, Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall ($20). Tickets online or call 612-333-5299.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010