Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jazz in Glen Ellyn

A shout-out to Glen Ellyn, Illinois, the so-called bucolic bedroom community west of Chicago where I grew up, had crushes on the neighborhood boys (Chucker, Eddie, Gordie, and Jimmy), went to grade school and junior high and high school (at Glenbard West), and got confirmed as a Lutheran (Missouri Synod, no less). Who knew it would become a jazz mecca, home to Chicago's top jazz radio station (public radio WDCB-FM 90.9) and an annual jazz festival?

Tia Fuller concert review

From the Department of Better Late than Never, a review that should have been posted much earlier. It will live at the top of the blog for a short time, then  move to its proper chronological position.

When: May 25, 2010 • Where: DakotaWho: Tia Fuller, saxophones; Shamie Royston, piano; Luques Curtis, bass; Rudy Royston, drums

I saw saxophonist Tia Fuller when she came to the Dakota last July. I thought she was good, although she didn't knock my socks off. (Her drummer, Kim Thompson, did.) Fuller returned to the Dakota in May of this year and I missed both nights, something I now regret. Here's what my friend Raymond Hayes wrote about her in an email to me the day after he saw her.

A quick review of last night's concert. Tia Fuller was great, way better then the first time she came. This time she had her own band. She had her sister [Shamie Royston] on piano, her sister's husband [Rudy Royston] on drums, and a very good bass player [Luques Curtis] who was not related. She did mostly original material with a few standards thrown in for good measure. She is a very powerful player. Definitely influenced by Coltrane (who isn't), she has obviously studied very hard. And her hard work is paying off. This band was as tight as any jazz band I have seen at the Dakota. But her personality is very bright and bubbly, more what you would expect from a singer then from a hard-core jazz player. She definitely loves playing. It was really interesting seeing this bright and bubbly person talk about her family and playing music. Then, all of a sudden, throw down as hard as Joshua Redman. Her sister is great piano player who can play both fast and hard plus light and lyrical. Her sister's husband, the drummer is one of the hottest guys out there, they said he just came off the road with Eddie Palmieri and has played with Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Charles Lloyd and many others. Same is true with the bass player ,who just joined the band last week. Only two things wrong. (1) I only went to one night and I should have seen both. (2) There were almost no people there. Why is it that some of the best jazz you hear comes when there is almost nobody around? I downloaded her new record [Decisive Steps, Mack Avenue, 2010]. It's very good. If she ever comes back you have to go. Ray

 Photo from Tia Fuller's website.

When: May 25, 2010 • Where: Dakota • Who: Tia Fuller, saxophones; Shamie Royston, piano; Luques Curtis, bass; Rudy Royston, drums

Benefit for Dean Magraw scheduled for August 22

It's been a year since the first in a series of benefits was held for guitarist/composer Dean Magraw. Time for another one, as Dean is still recovering and it's a long, slow, costly process. Come out and help a great musician/soul man/human being with medical and living expenses.

Musicians on board as of this writing: Frank Boyle and His Eminent Acoustic Entourage, Dakota Dave Hull, Lehto & Wright, Laura Mackenzie, Elgin Foster, Marcus Wise, Jim Anton, Mark Anderson, Gregg Herriges, Anthony Cox, Cory Wong, April Foo’s, Prudence Johnson.

When: Sunday, August 22, 2010, starting at 10 a.m.
Where: The Celtic Junction, 836 Prior Ave., St. Paul
FMI: Do the Dean

I wrote a profile of Dean in late 2008 that's still one of the pieces of which I'm most proud, not the least because he told me later that he liked it.

Photo by Manfred Pollert.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Craig Taborn Speaks

The innovative and daring young pianist/keyboardist/composer gives us glimpses into his process and thinking in an interview with WBGO's Josh Jackson. If you have time, go listen to the whole thing (and download a free concert from the Care Fusion festival) on NPR's excellent "A Blog Supreme." Meanwhile, here are a few illuminating excerpts.

On solos and soloing:
"A lot of my groups have very little soloing going on. It's all group improvisation, and solos may emerge, but it's less geared toward that...It's hard for my improvisational process to dictate solos, or even solo spaces. It's hard for me to say, 'Okay, now there's going to be a saxophone solo,' and have that hold in the moment, because it may not want to happen then...I'd rather just let the musical moment and the musicians themselves decide. If a solo emerges, it emerges because somebody is playing some really interesting material and everybody else decides to let that be at the forefront. For me, that seems like the only reason to really have a solo."

On playing both piano and synthesizers/electronic instruments:
"They're just different instruments and different ways of making music. They don't present to me much of a dichotomy that needs to be bridged...They feed on each other in my playing...I can access a certain kind of technical thing when playing a keyboard, for instance--or anything with buttons, actually. I have a digital dexterity that comes from playing piano, so I can make certain things happen live with synthesizers that is facilitated by having finger and hand independence. If I didn't play piano, I don't know if I'd be able to pull off some of the things I do, just because I can have my left hand doing something while my right hand's doing something else and really not think about it too much."

On playing two leads at once, one with the left hand and one with the right:
"It's all an illusion, but I'm trying to think of two things at once. What that boils down to is a kind of strobing between the ideas, the two hands and the ideas I'm trying to develop...I always to try to work on even more, like maybe if I get a third idea...It's just something I'm continually working on, and trying to hear that way, trying to hear counterpoint, contrapuntal ideas...I'm trying to hear multiple ideas all the time. A lot of that is an extension of things I heard Sun Ra do. "

On what it means to live with music:
"Not to get too Cage-like, but tuning into the environment--it's just sounds in time. Extending that, it's just events in time. For me, living with music is just more of an active participation in that, trying to create things that isolate or abstract from a larger world of sound and organize them in some way. That's the 'art form' I choose. But I think we all live with music all the time."

Thanks to Craig's mom, Marjorie Taborn, for alerting me to this interview and concert.

Friday, June 25, 2010

2011 NEA Jazz Masters Announced

On Thursday, the NEA announced the winners of the 2011 NEA Jass Masters Award: flutist Hubert Laws, saxophonist/flutist/composer David Liebman, composer/arranger/trumpeter/trombonist Johnny Mandel, jazz producer/author Orrin Keepnews (winner of the award for jazz advocacy), and the Marsalis family: pianist/educator Ellis Jr., saxophonist/composer/bandleader Branford, trumpeter/composer/educator/bandleader Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and percussionist/vibraphonist Jason.

I don't get the family award. (Lois Gilbert of Jazz Corner put it this way: "I'm kind of surprised at an all encompassing Marsalis family honor being named 2011 NEA Jazz Masters.") I agree that the Marsalis family has been and is important to jazz. Although each has occasionally said or done boneheaded things (except, maybe, for father Ellis), I'm not a Marsalis basher and never will be. But--Jazz Masters?

Here's how the NEA describes the award:

The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship is the highest honor that our nation bestows upon a jazz musician. Each year since 1982, the program has elevated to its ranks a select number of living legends who have made exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz.

For the NEA Jazz Masters, the selection criteria are artistic excellence and significance of the nominees' contributions to the development and performance of jazz. The Arts Endowment will honor musicians who represent a range of styles and instruments. These awards will be categorical, e.g., a rhythm instrumentalist, pianist, solo instrumentalist, vocalist, and an arranger or composer.

Why not honor Ellis as paterfamilias, performer, composer, and educator? Although "educator" isn't one of the categories, and neither is "paterfamilias." I'm not saying that Ellis doesn't deserve to be honored and respected. But is he a Jazz Master? Wynton and Branford, one day, yes. Right now they seem kind of young to wear the Jazz Master hat. Delfeayo and Jason? Waaaay too soon to tell.

I'm not sure what the "family" award says about the Jazz Masters program. Currently this leads every story about this year's awards. "America's first family of jazz can now claim the nation's highest jazz honor" (AP). Most egregiously: "The patriarch of the first family of New Orleans jazz, Ellis Marsalis, will be honored along with his four sons as Jazz Masters by the National Endowment for the Arts...Three other artists also will be honored..." (WWLTV). We learn who the "three other artists" are at the very end of the article, almost as an afterthought. Let's hope the spotlight doesn't stay on the unusual "family" award while Laws, Liebman, and Mandel (and Orrin Keepnews) are left in the shadows.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

MacPhail gets $15,000 from the NEA to showcase music by Charles Mingus

Originally published at MinnPost.com, Thursday, June 24, 2010

MacPhail Center for Music has been awarded an “American Masterpieces: Music” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The $15,000 grant will support a unique performance and education project showcasing the compositions of jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus.

One of the most important figures in 20th century American music, Mingus left a vast body of work, second only to that of Duke Ellington. After his death in 1979, the NEA provided grants for cataloging his music. Microfilms were given to the New York Public Library, where they are available for study and scholarship. His papers and other items — manuscripts, photographs, correspondence, interviews, recording sessions, broadcasts — were presented to the Library of Congress in 1993.

MacPhail’s ambitious project, called “Meditations and Revelations,” will include four concerts at Antonello Hall beginning in October. The concerts will feature a trio, quintet, septet, and nonet of area musicians including bassist and MacPhail jazz coordinator Adam Linz, drummers JT Bates and Alden Ikeda, saxophonists Chris Thomson and Michael Lewis, and pianist Bryan Nichols.

Preceding each concert, Linz and an ensemble will demonstrate Mingus’ music for students at four Twin Cities high schools: South and Patrick Henry in Minneapolis, Central in St. Paul, and Minnetonka High School. In addition, the Mingus repertoire will be infused into MacPhail’s curriculum throughout the year, with combos playing his music and classes learning the Mingus legacy.

“There is a certain wildness to Mingus’ music that makes it fun for musicians of all ages and skill levels,” Linz told MinnPost. “His deep roots in the church and blues make him accessible, and his rubbing shoulders with the avant-garde makes him desirable. ... It’s a music that is not to be taken lightly. It makes you really get your [act] together as a player. But the energy at the end of the day is unmeasurable. When all the wheels are turning, there’s nothing like it.”

“Meditations and Revelations” concert dates: Thursday, Oct. 7 (trio); Thursday, Nov. 18 (quintet); Thursday, Jan. 20 (nonet); Thursday, Feb. 10 (septet). All concerts will be held at 8 p.m. at Antonello Hall, MacPhail Center for Music, 501 South Second Street, Minneapolis. 

Read a review of the first concert here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A star in Europe, José James heads home on tour

Originally published at MinnPost.com, Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Some people in the Twin Cities may remember José James as a slight, soft-spoken student at DeLaSalle and South High. Others may recall his Monday night performances at Fireside Pizza in Richfield with pianist Denny Malmberg. Most probably don’t know that in Europe, 31-year-old James is a sensation. Now based in London, he has released three CDs, performed in dozens of countries, and played to crowds numbering in the thousands.

James is currently on tour with his latest release, a collaboration with acclaimed Belgian pianist Jef Neve. “For All We Know” is a collection of jazz standards — “Body and Soul,” “Embraceable You,” “Tenderly,” “Lush Life” — in spare, intimate arrangements, as if James and Neve had come into your living room (bringing a 9-foot Steinway grand) and given a concert just for you. They will be at the Dakota this Thursday for one night only.

The story of “For All We Know” is a blend of fairytale and kismet. James is not strictly a jazz singer, though his roots are in jazz; he performed around town in his teens, studied jazz at New York’s New School with Junior Mance and Chico Hamilton, and took part in the prestigious Thelonious Monk and London Jazz competitions. (He won neither but was a finalist for the Monk, where his performance made judge Dee Dee Bridgewater cool her face with a fan.) While in London, he handed a demo to DJ and producer Gilles Peterson, who owns the Brownswood label.

That was his second big break. (We’ll get to his first in a minute.) “Gilles Peterson put me on the world stage and gave me a chance to produce my first album,” James told MinnPost earlier this week by email. He wrote his own material and included soul and hip-hop vibes. “I was heard by other folks outside of jazz, which is crucial.” Both “The Dreamer” (2008), his first recording for Brownswood, and the follow-up “Blackmagic” (2010) are more pop than jazz.

Performed together in Belgium

James met Neve in Belgium, where they performed together on a TV show and Neve filled in for James’ regular pianist at a concert in Brussels. When James suggested they make a recording, Neve booked a studio for the next day.

They played songs they love. “These are basically my favorite standards,” James said. “Songs I have a relationship with. They were my introduction to jazz. I grew up listening to the classic versions by Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon. These are our national treasures, timeless songs from the history of our culture. They remain important.”

And here’s where the story gets really interesting. “For All We Know” is an album of mostly first takes and no overdubs, like the great jazz album “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” released in 1963 and now a classic. (Kurt Elling’s interpretation, “Dedicated to You,” won the 2010 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album.)

James and Neve made the recording for their ears only. Then word got out, buzz happened and Impulse! came calling — the same label that is home to “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.”
“For All We Know” is the first new release on Impulse! since 2004. Its most recent release up to now: Alice Coltrane’s “Translinear Light.”

Coltrane was key

What does James think of this fortuitous chain of events? “What can I say? ‘Dedicated to You’ is my favorite male vocal jazz album of all time. It was hearing John Coltrane play ‘Equinox’ when I was 17 that got me seriously into jazz singing, so he’s always had this pull on me. He is an inspiration to us all, and it’s an honor to follow Alice on the label.”

Impulse! is betting heavily on “For All We Know.” The new CD will play a major role in the label’s 50th-anniversary celebrations. The suits are hoping that it will bridge the gap between jazz and pop — like Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” famously did for Blue Note. Plans are in the works for a second Impulse! CD, a live recording of James’s “Facing East” project, a five-piece band (with Neve) that plays the music of John Coltrane.

Now, what was James’ first big break? Meeting music teacher Denny Malmberg at South High. “He transferred from DeLaSalle midyear,” Malmberg recalls. “The counselors put a schedule together for him, and the only place they could put him during fifth hour was my women’s choir. He sat there staring at me for two weeks.

“Then one day he came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Mr. Malmberg, have you ever heard of Nat King Cole?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ He said, ‘I do a lot of his songs.’ I said, ‘How about “Route 66”?’ I started playing it on the piano, he started singing it, and he blew me off my bench. José sang baritone-bass parts with the women’s choir for the rest of the year, and we featured him on solos.”
How did the women feel about that? “Are you kidding? They loved him.”

'I want to be a jazz singer'

James and Malmberg grew close and remain friends. When James moved back to Minneapolis after several disappointing years in New York (“He was so young; it was very difficult,” Malmberg says), he went to his former teacher and announced, “I want to be a jazz singer.” They performed together on Monday nights at Fireside Pizza for just over a year.

“José is all about Coltrane,” Malmberg says. “He’s all about Monk. He’s all about Louis Armstrong. He knows the history, he knows the roots. [Vocalist] Debbie Duncan once told me, ‘José is an old soul,’ and it’s true.”

Malmberg helped James create his audition tape for the 2004 Monk competition. James didn’t win (another young singer named Gretchen Parlato did), but that hardly matters anymore. Did Malmberg know his former student would be successful? “I had no doubts about it. I had never heard a voice like that in my life.”

James has a gorgeous baritone, sultry and haunting. He’s been compared to Hartman — and to Billy Eckstine, Gil Scott-Heron, Joe Williams, and Bobby McFerrin (for the quality and resonance of his voice), Marvin Gaye (for his soulful style), D’Angelo (for sexiness), and Billie Holiday (for his ability to communicate pure emotion). I hear Andy Bey in his voluptuous, quivering vibrato.

Closing note: Malmberg had several students who went on to be fine musicians. A short list: Michael Lewis, Kevin Washington, Michael Bland (Prince’s drummer), Dan Frankowski, Adam Linz, Bryan Nichols, Betsy Barta, Bernard Scully (principal French horn for the SPCO). Some were going through very rough stretches when they met Malmberg. “I hate to think what they would be doing right now if they hadn’t found music — if that hadn’t been available to them at that time,” Malmberg says. Words to ponder for those who would cut music programs in the schools.

Hear tracks from “For All We Know.”
See and hear James talk about and perform “Lush Life.”
José James and Jef Neve, Thursday, June 24, 7:30 and 9:30, Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, ($20-$10). Tickets at the door or online.

Interview with Sean Jones

By Larry Englund

Larry Englund hosts the weekly radio show "Rhythm and Grooves" for KFAI Radio Without Boundaries. bb

Trumpeter Sean Jones has a muscular, yet often lyrical approach to contemporary jazz. He has been called a Young Lion, a Firebrand, a Rising Star (Downbeat, 2006, 2007), and Best New Artist (Jazz Times Readers Poll, 2007). Barely thirty, he has released five albums on Detroit’s Mack Avenue Records, played on the Grammy Award-winning Turned to Blue by Nancy Wilson, and has served as a session man with Joe Lovano, Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster, and Jon Faddis, as well as for label-mates Tia Fuller and Gerald Wilson.

At his Twin Cities Jazz Festival performance on June 17, Jones and his quartet came out blazing, causing at least one fan to wonder at the band’s incendiary performance, declaring his awe with, “This is the warm-up?” [Ed. note: Jones preceded Joe Lovano on the Mears Park stage.] Jones debuted original music from an upcoming album, sharing it as a gift to the audience. I talked with Jones by phone about a week before his performance, as he took a break from a recording session.

Larry Englund: Good morning, Mr. Jones, how are you today?
Sean Jones: I’m doing well, how are you?

LE: Just fine. You said you are in the studio. Are you doing some new recording?
SJ: I’m actually in the studio with Gerald Wilson. We’re working on his next record. Next week I’m in the studio with my band.

LE: I notice you’ve been on a couple of Wilson’s records on Mack Avenue Records. He’s one of the masters.
SJ: He certainly is. He’s one of the staples of the Big Band rep, and I’m honored to work with him.

LE: What is your first memory of music?
SJ: Wow. (Pauses.) Actually, the first memory of music that I have is being in church, I think I was about five years old and saw the choir director directing the choir and I thought it was pretty cool that when he made a gesture with his hands there was sound. I thought the sound was coming out of his hands. I know that sounds strange, but I actually thought the sound was coming from his hands. So after church, when everyone  was finding their way out the door, I went up to the choir stand and put my hands out thinking there was going to be sound, and there was no sound. I went to my momma and asked, “How come there’s no sound when I do it?” She said “Well, you know, that’s the music. They‘re playing the music, they’re playing the instruments.” So I’ve always been intrigued by music, man, since I was five years old.

LE: Was the choir director the first musician you admired?
SJ: I didn’t necessarily admire him, I think it was music as a whole. The first musician I ever really admired was a guy named Eddie Howard, an organist at our church. He would do stuff with his hands and feet that I thought, wow, that’s pretty amazing. I had to be in elementary school then.

LE: What was the impetus for your decision to become a jazz musician?
SJ: I would have to say, sixth grade, where I had a great teacher named Jessica Turner. She brought two Miles Davis records in. She brought Miles Davis’ Amandla, and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and I kind of fell in love with jazz. Then I knew that I would at least be listening to that kind of music for the rest of my life. I didn’t know until high school that I would make a career out of it.

LE: When you made that decision, what was behind that, your decision to become a jazz musician?
SJ: Two things. Someone asked me what’s the first thing you want to do when you wake up in the morning. I said, “I want to play my trumpet.” They said, “Well, that should be your career.” Then I wrote a letter to my mother telling her what I would be doing ten years from my sixteenth birthday. Those two things really led me in this direction.

LE: When you made that decision, you went to school and studied classical trumpet.
SJ: Right.

LE: What made you decide to study classical trumpet, as opposed to going to a jazz school?
SJ: Well, I figured it’s very important to understand the instrument. I wanted to study the pedagogical component of playing music, which is: knowing your instrument inside and out. Studying jazz, or any genre for that matter, is pretty much about learning the musicianship required to play a certain type of music, swing, chords, all of that. That’s musicianship. Pedagogy is how to play the instrument, or the vehicle that you choose to make music. I think a lot of jazz musicians, sort of in hindsight, begin to study the pedagogy of their instrument, because they find out their musicianship far exceeds what they’re able to do with their vehicle of choice, their instrument. For me, I wanted to make sure that both were balanced, all the way through.

LE: Now you teach at Duquesne University.
SJ: That’s correct.

LE: What are the two or three main points that you tell your students when they take one of your classes?
SJ: First and foremost, you have to be able to play your instrument. It’s extremely important to know your instrument in and out. To be able to play anything that you possibly can on your instrument. Know a variety of styles, and also get in touch with your humanity. Those three things, to me, make you a great musician. Know your instrument. Know the music, and know how to be a great human being. It’s extremely important.

LE: That will all come out in your playing.
SJ: That’s right.

LE: For the last few years you’ve been the lead trumpet for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. You’ve also put out five albums. You’re obviously doing sideman work with Gerald Wilson, Tia Fuller, and others. What have you learned from working with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?
SJ: Work ethic. Sitting next to Wynton Marsalis, I really learned how to work and what the meaning of work is. I’ve never seen a human being work as hard as him. He really makes you want to do more when you see how much he’s working on music, raising money, going to talk with kids, and all those different things. People can say all they want about Wynton’s musicianship, and his opinions, that’s fine. But you can’t knock his work ethic. That man works extremely hard. I definitely learned that.

LE: Is there anything that you’ve learned on your own that has been important to you and your development as a musician?
SJ: People want to feel you. People want to hear your story. People want humanity when they come to hear you perform. They don’t want to hear a bunch of notes. They don’t want to hear how good you think you are, or how good you are. They want a very human experience and then they’ll go home. Because they’re trying to escape their daily routines, and their daily issues. That’s what I’m trying to do each time I get on stage and each time I put an album out.

LE: Now you’re embarking on a tour. You’ll be here in the Twin Cities for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. You’ve played in the past with your own group. Is this a new aspect to your career?
SJ: I wouldn’t say it’s new. I’m trying to work with this ensemble a lot more. It’s become a priority. It’s always been a priority, but it’s definitely a priority now. I’ve stepped down from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to deal with my own band and my own projects full time. It’s a big step, but I’m ready for it. Also, I’ll be playing with different people. All summer I’ll be on tour with Marcus Miller, so I’m looking forward to steps in new directions.

LE: Who’s going to be with your band when you play here in the Twin Cities?
SJ: It will be Orrin Evans on piano, Luques Curtis on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums, and Brian Hogans on saxophone.

LE: Your most recent album, The Search Within, came out last year on Mack Avenue records. It’s a very personal album.
SJ: It’s definitely very personal, about my journey into my thirties, looking back, and plowing ahead into the future. The next album is pretty personal, too. It’s about love, and exploring the different aspects of love. It’s not all about love with flowers and candy and all of that. It’s the varying aspects of love.

LE: Which brings me to my final question. What’s been the most satisfying aspect of your career so far?

SJ: Just being on stage and seeing people happy about what they heard. Being able to move audiences. I’ve been a lot of places playing with a lot of people. Nothing beats the energy and the synergy of the audience when they’re feeling you, when you’re feeling them. I crave that, and I’m looking to many more years of that.

LE: Thank you so very much for your time. I look forward to seeing and hearing you at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival in Saint Paul next weekend.
SJ: We’re going to have a ball. Thank you.

Photo of Sean Jones at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival by John Whiting.

Joshua Redman and Yo-Yo Ma on the PBS cartoon "Arthur"

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lena Adasheva wins Photo of the Year at the Jazz Journalists Association Awards

What a great photo of trumpeter Tom Harrell. HH and I met photographer Lena Adasheva last month at the Jazz Standard, where we had gone to see Andy Bey sing. She was taking photos of Bey and generously shared some with me for future posting here (I haven't written my review yet but took detailed notes--it's forthcoming.) HH and I both loved her photo when we saw it on the Jazz Journalists Association website (and voted for it twice, once in the preliminary round and again in the finals).

Congratulations, Lena. You deserve this.

Tom Harrell, Moscow International Performance Arts Center (Moscow, Russia), December 26, 2009. (C) Lena Adasheva.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Melody Gardot sort-of concert review

When: Saturday, June 12, 2010
Where: The Depot, Minneapolis
Who: Melody Gardot, vocals; Irwin Hall, saxophones and flute; Charnett Moffet, bass; Charles Staab, drums

This is a sort-of review not because it was a sort-of concert, but a concert at an event and venue that are challenging for performers with any degree of subtlety: the Minnesota Orchestra's annual Symphony Ball at the Depot in Minneapolis.

The Depot is cavernous, a former train shed with high peaked ceilings. The Ball is the Orchestra's annual fundraiser. Ladies wear gowns, men wear tuxes, and people are there to see, be seen, socialize, and give money. (Live auction items included a trip to Hawaii valued at $50,000.) Co-hosts Sarah Hicks and Irvin Mayfield were charming, HH looked dreamy in his tux, I had the privilege of meeting maestro Osmo Vanska, meteorologist Paul Douglas walked by, and I saw at least one pair of Christian Louboutin shoes. But I digress from the music. See how easy it is?

The Depot. Not our event, but you get the idea.

Gardot and her band were the featured entertainment. I had never seen her live but had heard her debut CD, Worrisome Heart, and like it very much. She's her own singer with her own voice and style, but if you've never heard her before, it might be helpful (sort of) to think Madeleine Peyroux meets Patricia Barber meets Nellie McKay.

Here's Gardot live on the Swedish-Norwegian talk show "Skavlan" in 2009, singing "Baby I'm a Fool."

Her personal story is compelling: a devastating accident in 2003 left her in chronic pain, hypersensitive to light (her dark glasses are not an affectation), and needing to walk with a cane. Just 25, she seems older, but who wouldn't. She credits music and music therapy with saving her brain.

She has a distinctive and beautiful voice--sultry, bluesy, with a feathery vibrato--and enormous personal style. Her sound, her way of singing, her demeanor, and her name seem French; she was born in New Jersey, but the French love her. For the Symphony Ball, she wore a very little black dress and very high heels.

She brought a killer band. The saxophonist and drummer were new to me, but not her bassist, Charnett Moffett. Any band with Charnett Moffett in it is worth sitting quietly and listening to, which many people didn't do. Had Frank Sinatra come back from the dead or Barbra Streisand appeared on stage, I'm not sure the results would have been much different.

Despite the talking and laughing and milling around and the fact that many people left early (this was, it must be said, mostly an older crowd, the event started early and ran long, and once the wine was poured, there were no bars), Gardot prevailed. The people who stayed gradually moved closer to the stage as spaces opened up at tables. Toward the end, mostly serious listeners were left, and we were richly rewarded.

Gardot sang and played piano and guitar. Her singing is warm and intimate, her banter relaxed and engaging. She sings with real emotion--not just the words, but the feelings within and behind them, whether serious or playful, hopeful or consumed with longing or nostalgia or regret. She performed many of her own songs--I wasn't taking notes, and now that I've been listening again to Worrisome Heart and (for the first time)  My One and Only Thrill (her latest, a giveaway at last night's event), I can't recall which songs I heard last night and which I heard this morning. But I do remember a delicious "Summertime" and her closer, "Caravan." I hope to hear her again before too long, in a club setting or a small hall or even a festival where people come for the music.

I wish I I could have been in two places at once last night. In another part of the Depot, Maud Hixson and her  new band, French 75, were performing at Crash the Ball, an event for young professionals. Wish I could have seen them, too.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Jazz concert review: Stacey Kent enchants at the Dakota

Originally published at MinnPost,com, Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It’s been four years since Stacey Kent last performed at the Dakota — on March 14, 2006, to be precise. During that time, she released her first CD on Blue Note, the Grammy-nominated “Breakfast on the Morning Tram” (2007); was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by France; studied Portuguese; made her second Blue Note CD, “Raconte-moi ...” (2010); and battled breast cancer. Her husband, saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, began wearing his hair like a Sumo wrestler, pulled back and tied in a knot at the back of his head.

She’s on tour for “Raconte-moi,” just released and sung entirely in French. (“Breakfast” includes two French songs; the new CD is the whole baguette). Because the first set on Monday ran long, the second started shortly after 10 p.m.

Kent’s opening song was Antonio Carlos Jobim’s widely covered “Waters of March.” He originally wrote it in both Portuguese and English; she sang it in French (“Les Eaux de Mars”). Jobim’s masterpiece is a high-wire act, basically three notes with leaps in between and tricky lyrics (a sampler, in English: “It’s a sliver of glass/It is life, it’s the sun/It is night, it is death/It’s a trap, it’s a gun. ...”). She made it sound relaxed and easy, her lovely voice twining with Tomlinson’s soprano sax.

From there, we heard a selection of songs from several recordings: the title tracks from “Breakfast on the Morning Tram” and “Raconte-moi,” two bossa novas, including Jobim’s “Corcovado” from Tomlinson’s CD “The Lyric” (2006), “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Say It Isn’t So” from “The Boy Next Door” (2003), “One for My Baby” from “Let Yourself Go” (2000), Kent’s homage to Fred Astaire. For the bossa novas, she played guitar. She sat quietly as her husband and the band played “Alfie,” Tomlinson’s tenor sax sighing with regret.

In between, she told stories, the longest about her French connection: a grandfather who taught her to recite French poetry. Kent enjoys talking with the crowd, so much that she sometimes gets trapped temporarily in a dead end of her own devising. Tonight it was something about the French having a head-heart connection, Brits not having it, and Americans being all heart.

Later she riffed on “delicious,” noting that French journalists love the word and using it to describe her band. Part of the great pleasure of seeing Kent live is the warm, romantic interplay between her and Tomlinson, married 19 years this August. Art Hirahara on piano, Gordon Johnson on bass, and Phil Hey on drums really are delicious, a perfect blend of sound and rhythm that supports Kent’s singing and Tomlinson’s playing.

Kent’s voice is sensual and sweet, with flutters like silk in a breeze. She can also swing hard, which she did on “Makin’ Whoopee” (not a happy song, despite its title). And she can fill a lyric to bursting with emotion. Irving Berlin’s “Say It Isn’t So” (“Everyone is saying you don’t love me/Say it isn’t so”) is now officially the saddest song I have ever heard.

At one point, Kent spoke of her love for bossa nova. “I’m obsessed, possessed, impassioned and engrossed,” she told the crowd. Effusive, too. Hearing her speak and sing, it’s evident how much she loves words and languages. English alone isn’t enough for her anymore.
Stacey Kent and her band are here for one more night at the Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis. Shows tonight (Tuesday, June 8) at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. ($35/$25). Tickets at the door or online.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Conversations on Improvisation: Stefan Kac

Stefan Kac
While sifting through words to describe Stefan Kac (pronounced "cats"), I opened an email from trumpeter Dan Frankowski to find that he had already done the work for me. Frankowski called Kac "an intense, brooding, mercurial, funny, and passionate composer, tuba player, and thinker."

At 27, Kac has one foot in jazz and the other in classical music. In 2005, he was accepted to the Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead residency program at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. -- the first tuba player ever to make the cut. He has performed and recorded with the Pan-Metropolitan Trio and the sextet Ingo Bethke. He's an avid part of Milo Fine's circle of improvising musicians and a member of BroncoVision; in March, he played with pianist Bryan Nichols' We Are Many project at MacPhail.

As a classical artist, Kac was a finalist in the Minnesota Orchestra's 2005 WAMSO Young Artist Competition. He holds the tuba chair in the Copper Street Brass Quintet, a touring and educational group that is artist-in-residence at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. He also teaches low brass at the West Bank School of Music.

Most recently, Kac formed the Symphonic Transients Orchestra, a large instrumental ensemble of flexible instrumentation that performs original compositions -- part contemporary classical, part jazz.
Born in the Twin Cities, Kac hated music until age 11, when he was given a choice that must have seemed lose-lose at the time: join either the school band or the choir. He first took up the euphonium, the tuba's smaller cousin, and then switched to the tuba in ninth grade. In 2005, he received a Bachelor of Music in Tuba Performance degree from the University of Minnesota.

Musical achievement aside, for the first 19 years of his life, baseball was Kac's real priority. As a student, he once hit against a young pitcher named Joe Mauer. "I'm a .500 lifetime hitter against Mauer," he says. "One for two -- not bad."


Pamela Espeland: What obstacles have you encountered because of the instrument you play?
Stefan Kac: Not as many as you'd think. The obstacles I've faced have been in formal, academic settings. I can't think of one example from the so-called real world where it has held me back or where I've lost out on something because of it. The novelty [of the instrument], and the expectations of what the tuba is traditionally asked to do, and what it is actually capable of doing, work in my favor.

[Note: Kac believes that any instrument can be a jazz instrument, and that insistence on "standard" jazz band instrumentation is bad for jazz and for music students. For more on this topic, see "A Tuba in the Jazz Band?" in the "Writings" section on his website.]

PLE: The tuba used to be more common in jazz. What happened? 

SK: The textbook version of what happened is that the Chicago style of jazz took over. The bass took over the tuba, and bands were playing indoors instead of outdoors, so they didn't need a bass instrument to project over a football-field-size space.

There's been kind of a revolution in tuba playing within the last 40 years -- not just in jazz, but also in classical music. The level of playing right now is absurdly far ahead of what it was two generations ago.

PLE: Have you ever been tempted to stray -- to play another instrument?

SK: All the time. I'm tempted by the piano. I'm fascinated with the clarinet and the viola. I feel there's a lot locked inside of me that I can't get out through the tuba. I'm not going to sit here and claim that [the tuba] is just like a saxophone, because it's not. You can do things the saxophone can't do, in terms of the richness of the sound, and the range -- the dynamic range is huge -- but you can't do everything. I would love to have chops on a more facile instrument.

I've never thought of myself as just a tuba player. I was a tuba major in college, and it was my job to get better at playing tuba. Once I got away from that, I remembered what I had known years earlier: I'm not just a tuba player. I'm a composer. I'm a listener.

PLE: When did you first become interested in improvisation?
SK: I joined a group in 2003 led by [drummer] Nick Zielinski called Tanya and the Holsum Family Fiscal Planner [later Brenda and the Holsum Family Fiscal Planner]. It was a large improvising group that he conducted, about 11-12 people. I was in my third year of college, playing a lot of jazz and classical. I had never played free. Joining Nick's group introduced me to that.

PLE: What was it like?

SK: Equal parts scary and exhilarating. I knew pretty quickly that I had stumbled on to something that was going to become more important to me.... As most jazz players do, I had trained myself to play in that style. It never occurred to me until then that I might want to improvise in another style.

PLE: What do you mean by "in that style"?

SK: Taking tunes and solos, material from famous recordings and famous players, and imitating them. Taking phrases and licks from people like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, practicing them a lot, and trying to use those licks the way they used them. The way jazz is taught is that you take someone else's stuff and play it. Rarely do you stumble on a teacher -- and it's difficult to do this as a teacher -- who teaches improvisation as improvisation rather than style. And I was happy [playing in that more traditional jazz style] for a long time. It took joining Nick's group to break everything open.

[Note: For more of Kac's thoughts on style and jazz pedagogy, see "Stylization as an Oppressive Force" in "Writings" on his website.]

PLE: How do you define improvisation?

SK: I'll have to steal Milo's [Milo Fine's] definition. He calls it "instant composing." My only caveat to that is that traditional composition is well-suited to yield certain results, and improvisation is well-suited to yield other, different results. If you sit down with a string quartet, and someone says, "Why don't you guys improvise something in the style of a Haydn string quartet?" you're talking about very minutely, closely organized harmonic motion. It's really hard to improvise harmonically with other people when you don't know what the chords are.

PLE: When you're playing free, do you know what the chords are?

SK: No. This isn't to say that free improvisation doesn't involve harmonic motion; it does. But it doesn't involve the same kind of harmonic motion that Haydn would involve. Also, when you compose for a string quartet, you control the entire group. [When you're improvising], you can only control yourself and your part.... I've heard composers say, "You could never improvise a piece as well as a great composer could compose a piece." I don't agree with that at all. I agree that you could never improvise a piece and have it sound like it was composed. It's going to sound like it was improvised. I'm not saying that's better or worse; it's a different set of parameters yielding a different result. If that's not the result you want, you're working in the wrong medium.

PLE: What happens when you and Milo Fine and Davu Seru or whoever sit down and start to play?

SK: The first thing that happens is someone, or a group of someones, has to decide to start. To me, that's the hardest part. You know the Miles Davis quote, "If you don't know what to do, do nothing." That's kind of my philosophy in that situation. It's never in doubt that someone will start. And once there's sound, you're composing in real time. I grew up composing with notation, ostensibly in a classical musical style and tradition. I'm cognizant of the fact that I can't control the other people, and I don't know what they're going to do before they do it, but I can listen, and I can react, and I can compose my part to this symphony that's going on around me.

PLE: Are you seeing notes?

SK: There's no visual aspect to improvisation for me. I'm thinking about what should happen next; occasionally, there's something technical, in terms of playing. You hope to keep those things in your subconscious, though, because it's tough to keep up if you're thinking about technique.

PLE: Does time speed up or slow down when you're playing? What is your sense of time?

SK: I think I have a tendency for time to speed up, which isn't always a good thing.... When I played baseball, I was an in-fielder for most of that time. When a ground ball would be hit to me, I would almost black out, because after I had thrown the ball, and it was in the first baseman's glove, and the guy was out and the play was over, I wouldn't remember what had just happened. It was almost trancelike. That happens from time to time in playing, too. It's hard to trust that, though. I still rely a lot on the conscious part of my brain -- probably more than I should, probably more than a lot of other players do, but that's kind of who I am, for better or worse. I'm not the kind of person who leaves things to chance.

PLE: Are you pre-hearing or trying to predict what the others will do?

SK: I'm tempted to anticipate, but when you do that, you're always wrong. And if you're not wrong a lot, then you need to play with some new people and get out more.

PLE: How do you know when it's working?

SK: That's completely subjective. Different musicians in the group sometimes don't agree on that. If the people in your group aren't agreeing on that, you're probably with the wrong group.

PLE: It seems as if playing free would be energizing and enervating at the same time.

SK: I find it mentally exhausting. At the end of those Homewood things [free jazz performances at Homewood Studios in North Minneapolis], my head is spinning. That's not to say that I don't have fun. Of course I have fun, but I feel a significant sense of responsibility that I don't feel as much elsewhere. It's not just about executing the part on your page perfectly; it's about making up a part. What if something cool is going on, and I ruin it? That's not the kind of thing that should be going through your mind, but it's always there for me. So, it's actually more of a burden than a lot of other situations.

PLE: Many people seem to think they have to understand jazz before they can enjoy it. They don't say, "Before I go to a classical concert, I have to understand Bach."

SK: They do [say that about classical music], but it's definitely worse with jazz. I've never liked the word "understand" applied to music. I don't think that liking something has to do with understanding it or not understanding it. It's hard even to define what "understanding" would mean in this case. You could apply it technically -- to the theory behind the music. But there are people who don't read music, don't know theory, never studied formally, never played an instrument, and somehow they're able to enjoy those kinds of music. That, I think, is a pretty obvious argument that "understand" is not the right word.... We probably won't ever be able to reason our way into aesthetic judgments. That would be a total contradiction of what art is, what aesthetics are, and how we function.

PLE: What advice would you give to someone who's thinking about going to one of your free jazz performances?

SK: First of all, the sound is the important part. And I mean that as opposed to the visual part, the rebellious we're-just-going-to-do-what-we-want-to part. It's a piece of music. It's a concert. Focus on the sound, in spite of everything else that might be different about it. Second, don't expect it to do what other kinds of music do.

PLE: What should people expect?
SK: The cliché would be "Expect anything!" and theoretically, anything could happen. Obviously, depending on the [performers], not absolutely anything could happen, because people have their things they do -- their approaches, their experiences.

PLE: People often have negative expectations of free jazz. Noise, cacophony, disorganization, shrieking.

SK: If they're expecting shrieks and wails and farting sounds, assuming they view those things negatively, they're probably going to have a better time than if they're expecting glorious celestial harmonies.... Most really good, accomplished free playing doesn't just shriek and wail. There's a lot more to it. That's why people will be pleasantly surprised.

PLE: What are you listening to these days?

SK: I haven't been listening to much jazz lately; I'm almost entirely listening to classical music. Every now and then, I stumble on a progressive rock band I really like -- a lot of those bands were heavily influenced by jazz. I can tell you who has influenced me in jazz: Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis. Miles Smiles was one of the very first jazz albums I listened to. Monk: I've been listening to Monk because I'm still working through that Robin Kelly biography [Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original]. My dad gave it to me for Christmas. I'm like, "Thanks, Dad, I can't even lift this thing."

PLE: You're comfortable in a number of different worlds that don't always get along, like classical and jazz.

SK: I don't go out of my way to be eclectic. I have legitimate interests in a couple of different areas, and most people tend not to be like that. Classical musicians are not known for their eclecticism. Jazz musicians are jazz-centric. Trying to straddle different groups like that is difficult. Not musically or artistically, but socially.... I'm finding balance to be an important and tricky issue. But if I had to do just one of the things I'm doing and couldn't do the others, I'd be really unhappy.

Stefan Kac
Originally published on mnartists.org on June 2, 2010. mnartists.org is a project of the Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation.
Learn more about Stefan Kac, hear selections from his music, and view scores at his website.

Photos by John Whiting.