Saturday, April 16, 2011

The NOWnet ends with a bang and a waltz

When: Friday, April 15, 2011 • Where: Loring TheaterWho: Jeremy Walker, piano; Chris Thompson, saxophones; Jeff Brueske, bass; JT Bates, drums; special guests Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, saxophones, and Marcus Printup, trumpet

Except for the snow falling outdoors, it was a perfect night for fans and friends of the NOWnet, the Twin Cities-based jazz ensemble that played its final concert last night before officially disbanding. Founder Jeremy Walker has moved to New York; the NOWnet’s parent organization, the nonprofit Jazz is NOW!, has been turned over to pianist/composer Bryan Nichols, and things will change.

For the NOWnet’s last hurrah, Walker gathered friends from here and NYC (“everyone is a local jazz musician,” he insisted at one point, “and everyone is a national jazz musician”) for two sets of music, mostly his original compositions. “We’re going to play nice and comfortable tonight,” Walker said at the start, and they did, with plenty of fireworks in the solos. 
As they played, images from the history of Jazz is NOW! were projected on the wall at the rear of the stage: Wynton Marsalis’s performance at Walker’s St. Paul jazz club, Brilliant Corners; guest appearances by Ted Nash, Wessell Anderson, and Matt Wilson; gigs at MacPhail, the Minnesota Opera Center, the Dakota, and the Concrete and Grass festival in St. Paul’s Lowertown.

For those of us who know the NOWnet, the music was familiar, but because it was live and the lineup was different, it was also new. The music Walker writes is personal; he always includes brief descriptions of each piece in the program notes, then tells us more at the mic. (He thinks he talks too much. For people who like to know the stories behind the music, he doesn’t.) We heard “Psalm 126,” a tender song about home, and “Cubisms,” a bright and swinging piece with Walker family connections: it’s named for his nephew and written in part by his son. Bassist Jeff Brueske’s wife, Angie, and young son, Ladd, were in the audience, and Ladd liked “Cubisms” a lot. He danced energetically through the whole thing.

We heard “Blues for the New Americans,” Walker’s warm and welcoming tune about immigration, and his humorous “Gringo Tango,” written in 5 ("and sometimes 4"). During “Gringo Tango,” Bates played one of his spectacular drum solos, the kind that makes you lean forward in your chair and focus hard so you don’t miss a thing. (Afterward, in the lobby, he said he’d been saving up, but actually he does this sort of thing all the time.) It was dense and passionate, madly creative, and tremendously exciting. But just when you were thinking it was all about Bates, you became aware of Brueske’s bass, rock steady, earthquake-proof, the pylon in the maelstrom. That was a very fine moment.

It was an evening of very fine moments: gorgeous solos by Printup, Anderson, and Thomson; ensemble work featuring all three horn players harmonizing, calling, responding, weaving in and out of each other’s lines; Walker’s strong melodies and increasingly expressive piano playing. Walker loves swing, and swing is the heartbeat of everything he writes and plays.

We heard Billy Strayhorn’s “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” and Walker’s “So Long New York,” a two-edged sword of a song about his conflicting feelings for the city. (He told a great story beforehand, about being in NYC with just $20 in his pocket and using that money to rent a studio, in which he wrote this song.) That ended the first half of the program.

The second half was crazy ambitious; if the band had played their way through everything listed in the program, we might still be there. So they telescoped down to a few key tunes: Walker’s “Be Careful Out There,” Ellington’s “New York City Blues.” Then Walker took his moment to thank everyone for Jazz is NOW! and the NOWnet; to acknowledge his wife, Marsha ("I write almost everything I write so she'll like me"), and to call Bryan Nichols to the stage and figuratively hand him the keys. 

Nichols had said he wouldn’t play, but Walker asked him to and he did, after which Walker returned for the final song of the night and the NOWnet: Scott Fultz’s lovely, gauzey, nostalgic waltz, “Dorothy and Robert,” written for his grandparents. That has been a traditional NOWnet closer and it worked its magic again, leaving us feeling happy and sad, satisfied yet longing for more.

L2R: Walker, Brueske, Anderson, Bates, Printup, Thomson
A few words about the Loring Theater, the former silent film and vaudeville house that opened in 1920: The room sounded good, although Walker’s talking mic was buzzy. The musicians liked how the space sounded and felt. The main floor seats maybe 180, the upstairs balcony quite a few more, but when there’s nobody upstairs and the balcony isn’t lit, it seems to disappear and the downstairs becomes a cozy, intimate space. When other venues aren’t full, they can feel empty and desolate. But the Loring seems somehow alive and aware, assessing the size of the crowd and adjusting your perceptions accordingly. Strange but true.

Photo by John Whiting. More to come.

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