Friday, December 28, 2012

Boot Camp at the Artists' Quarter: concert review

When: Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012 • Where: Artists' Quarter, St. Paul, MN • Who: Jeremy Walker, piano; Brandon Wozniak, tenor saxophone; Chris Bates, bass; Miguel Hurtado, drums

Jeremy Walker by John Whiting
Jeremy Walker is a jazz survivor. He’s had a jazz club in St. Paul, the now-legendary (in certain circles) Brilliant Corners, where Itzhak Perlman once came to play with Wynton Marsalis. He founded and ran a nonprofit called Jazz is NOW! that functioned as a composers’ forum (you could download original scores free from its website), presenting organization, and loose affiliation of some of the Twin Cities’ best improvising musicians. When health issues meant he could no longer play saxophone, his instrument since childhood, he switched to piano, practicing up to nine hours a day and studying with teachers including Frank Kimbrough and David Berkman.

Walker has lived in Minneapolis and New York and Minneapolis again. He has started and led a number of bands including the NOWnet (a flexible ensemble), Small City Trio (with Jeff Brueske and Tim Zhorne; their CD, “Pumpkins’ Reunion,” came out in 2010), Boxcar (with Wessell Anderson, Anthony Cox, and JT Bates), and something called the Bootet (Walker’s nickname is Boot). He was the original curator of the Late Night series at the Dakota. He writes an opinionated column on jazz, music, and life for He composes; lately he’s been working on a new piece, “Seven Psalms,” for piano, bass, drums, trombone, solo voice, and choir.

He has famous friends in the jazz world (Wynton, Ted Nash, Wessell Anderson, Matt Wilson) and not-so-famous friends, and from what I can tell, he treats them all pretty much the same. He has a dry wit and a self-effacing demeanor at the mic, which he approaches only reluctantly to tell people what his band has just played or is about to play, veering occasionally into apologetic, humorous tangents. I have never heard him raise his voice or crash a chord on the piano.

Brandon Wozniak by John Whiting
One of his latest ventures is a quartet called Boot Camp: Walker at the piano, Brandon Wozniak on saxophone, Chris Bates on bass, and recent Manhattan School of Music graduate Miguel Hurtado on drums. The night after Christmas at the Artists’ Quarter was their second public gig. (Their first was in August at the Dakota; an earlier incarnation of the group, with Chris Thomson on saxophone and JT Bates on drums, performed at the Dakota in February.) They played a mix of mostly originals and a few standards. (It seems Walker doesn’t subscribe to the current vogue for standards-bashing.) Here’s the set list from where we came in:

“Mother Nature’s Son” (Lennon-McCartney)
“City Bumpkins” (Jeremy Walker)
“So Long New York” (Walker)
“Solid/Liquid” (Chris Bates)
“Cubisms” (Walker)


“Upper Manhattan Medical Group” (Billy Strayhorn)
“Requiem for the Day” (Walker)
“Sweet Bea” (Walker)
“She’s a 90s Girl” (Walker)
“One Less Person to Thank” (Walker)
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” (Frank Loesser)
“Friar Monk” (Bates)

It was not a knock-you-off-your-bar-stool night. The music was understated, subtle, at times almost subdued. You had to lean in to listen, and be quiet to hear.

Chris Bates by John Whiting
Wozniak, Bates, and Hurtado can all play big, loud, and fast. I’ve been in the room when Wozniak has blown fire through his horn, when Bates has melted his bass strings, when Hurtado has beaten his drums into dust. None of that happened in Boot Camp. There was no bombast or strutting, no showdowns or blowdowns. All four musicians listened and responded, made way for each other and joined back up again. And the music, which at first you could almost ignore because it wasn’t loud and fast and flashy, worked its way into your ears and from there it filled you up.

This is one way jazz should be: deep, spacious, purposeful, thoughtful. Yet still melodic and, at its core, swinging. There’s a Bill Evans feel to how Walker plays and especially how he writes, flavored by Monk, informed by Ellington and Strayhorn. His songs have weight and meaning because they come from his life. “Cubisms” is about a nephew (and based on a jaunty bit his son, Sam, once played on the piano); “Sweet Bea” about his grandmother, who said hello in thirds; “She’s a 90s Girl” about his wife, Marsha; “One Less Person to Thank,” about seeking and not getting a grant. So they’re not just tunes, they’re true stories. Walker’s music is written from the place of personal experience, not as exercises in form. They have emotional content. If you’re open to being touched, they can touch you.

Boot Camp hadn't spent much time together before meeting at the AQ on Wednesday. (In addition to the August set at the Dakota, they had only one rehearsal.) Yet they played two sets of mostly new music with heart and joy and that warm camaraderie it’s a pleasure to be around as an audience member.

Miguel Hurtado by John Whiting
This is a good band. Walker’s hard work at the piano shows in his growing confidence as a player; he’s more relaxed, easier, having fun. Wozniak is much in demand these days, and no wonder; he can play anything, and he has a quietly commanding presence on the stand. Bates is riding high on the success of his first CD as leader, “New Hope.” His playing is even more imaginative and fresh, and he seems like a very happy man. Hurtado has the skills to contribute and the smarts to realize he can learn a thing or two (or a thousand) from this group. 

During the break, HH and I moved from the bar to a table near the stage, where I had a close-up view of Hurtado. On one of Walker’s tunes – I believe it was “Requiem for the Day” – Hurtado played an almost military riff, a sort of parump-um-pum-pum on the snare. I saw him play it over and over again, then change it up, try new things, mix the rhythms, move around the kit. Not seeking the spotlight, but adding to the genial and committed conversation happening on stage. It was a small moment, the sort of thing this kind of music lets you notice by leaving room.

Boot Camp by John Whiting

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