Friday, September 28, 2012

A few more photos from Monterey

HH doing that thang he does,
from the side of the Garden Stage
Dee Dee Bridgewater backstage at the Night Club
after Gregory Porter's performance

HH schmoozing with Don Was and his son

Our favorite Monterey usher/volunteer,
Paul Aschenbrenner, who guards the Arena gates
in many guises
Paul in his shark hat, with HH's mascot
perched on his head
For some reason, F-16s flew over the festival grounds several times
during the weekend. They were loud and fast.
Not at Monterey, but en route to Monterey from SF, we stopped at a strawberry farm
and discovered the SlowCoast Airstream Store parked on the grounds.
Purveyors of books, bags, soap, and sea glass. We're considering a career change.

Monterey Jazz Festival 55: Photos

Click here to go to John's Monterey 2012 set on Flickr. Enjoy.

José James interview

Jose James by John Whiting
It might one day be said that singer José James’ star in the U.S. officially rose in September 2012. His new song, “Trouble,” was an iTunes single of the week. His new EP, “It’s All Over Your Body,” was launched, a preview to his forthcoming album on the iconicBlue Note label, to which he was signed earlier this month. (“No Beginning No End” is due out Jan. 22.) He made his debut at the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival, the longest-running jazz fest in the world. Two days later, he opened for the influential pianist Robert Glasper at the iTunes Festival in London...

Read the complete interview at

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Monterey Jazz Festival 55: A very good year

Tony Bennett
We missed Rudresh Mahanthappa’s performance with Jack DeJohnette. We missed Ninety Miles with Nicholas Payton and David Sanchez (so did the band’s vibraphonist, Stefon Harris, whose son was born that night). We missed Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, Eddie Palmieri, Mulgrew Miller, Gregoire Maret, Christian Scott, Tierney Sutton, Ben Williams, the Cal Tjader tribute with Michael Wolff and Pete Escovedo (Sheila E’s dad), Antonio Sanchez & Migration, Mads Tolling (the former Turtle Island member, now heading his own quartet), John Abercrombie, even Esperanza Spalding.

And yet, at the 2012 Monterey Jazz Festival, we heard live music almost every moment of the weekend. From headliners we knew to artists we didn’t, the densely packed line-up kept us moving from Arena to Night Club, Garden Stage to Dizzy’s Den to Coffee House, with brief stops for food (Jamaican vegan stew, which was delicious; black-eyed peas and shrimp with grits; teriyakis; brats) and shopping (the usual array of eclectic vendors; I brought home a pair of tortoise-shell hoops and HH got his annual MJF T-shirt). As I have each year since 2005, when I first attended the world’s longest-running jazz fest, I arrived home already anticipating next year, when the artist-in-residence will be saxophonist Joe Lovano.


Our Friday night began at the Garden Stage, where we waited for José James to arrive for his 9:30 set. I had managed to get an interview with him (to my knowledge, the only interview he granted at the festival, and the only one he had time for), after which we stayed for most of his performance. This was a big week for James. Having just signed with Blue Note earlier this month, he’s riding the major-label high-speed train; his song “Trouble” was the iTunes Single of the Week, his EP launched, and his new album drops in January. During our talk in a small room backstage, Don Was dropped by with his son. Was seems like a nice guy. He laughs a lot.

Jose James
James’ set was very fine. Not our usual jazzy kick-off, but jazz infused with R and B, hip-hop, and soul. Sensual without being steamy. James doesn’t have the rumbling purr of Barry White, but he does have a delicious and velvety baritone voice, and this is easily turn-down-the-lights, pour-the-wine music. Highlights of the set: his new song “It’s All Over Your Body,” which included (in live performance) a nod to his earlier “Blackmagic;” the catchy single “Trouble;” his unique takes on Bill Withers’  “Ain’t No Sunshine When You’re Gone” (James sings a Bill Withers/Al Green show in NYC in October) and the Nancy Wilson standard “Save Your Love for Me;” and an amazing vocalese of Coltrane’s “Equinox,” with James’ own lyrics. (The Coltrane has been recorded but probably will never be released; read more/watchlive/download [legally] here.) Also every solo by his trumpet player, Takuya Kuroda.

From the Garden Stage, we headed to the Night Club for a taste of the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet, enough to hear the young trumpeter blow one eloquent tune. We knew we’d catch him again over the weekend -- he was this year’s Artist-in-Residence – and in fact we saw him several times on the festival grounds. Yet another wonderful thing about Monterey: random artist sightings. Ours included Tierney Sutton, Chris Potter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Pat Metheny, Christian Scott, members of various bands, and (twice) Clint Eastwood, a long-time festival supporter, trailed by his retinue. His son, bassist Kyle Eastwood, played a set early Sunday evening with the pianist Rick Germanson. (We missed that, too. Sorry, Rick!)

Gregory Porter
From the Night Club, we crossed two lawns to Dizzy’s Den, where the singer Gregory Porter held a packed house in thrall. Of the new artists we saw this year, Porter was for me the most memorable and profoundly touching. We arrived in time for his lilting, wistful “Be Good,” a ballad in waltz time. HH hears Sammy Davis Jr. in Porter’s voice; I’m too busy melting to hear anyone but Porter. My prayer to the jazz gods: please oh please let Porter become as big a star in the U.S. as he is in Europe so we can see more of him here. He has everything: a big, gorgeous voice, impeccable timing, natural swing, a tasty growl, and that clear and direct emotional connection we want from our singers. Plus he scats (bonus) and writes original songs. Okay, I love him. I kind of told him that when he came off stage after his second encore. I might have gushed a little.


DownBeat Blindfold Test
We began our Saturday at the annual MJF edition of the “DownBeat” Blindfold Test, during which journalist Dan Ouellette plays a selection of recordings for a featured artist, who does his or her best to identify the musicians. (This and other discussions held at the festival are rare opportunities to hear artists converse. Often, the moderator takes questions from the audience.) In this year’s hot seat: pianist Gerald Clayton, the immensely musical son of a musical family (John Clayton is his father, Jeff Clayton his uncle). He was stumped by the young Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and “Qbafrica,” the opening track to his debut CD, “Sounds of Space,” but ID'd him after a few hints from Ouellette. He also thought Rodriguez packed too much into the tune. And that’s all I’ll say about the Blindfold Test. You can read about it in a future issue of the magazine.

A small part of Trombone Shorty's crowd
We snatched a few moments of Trombone Shorty’s show in the sun-baked Arena, where a crowd of thousands stood and danced and waved handkerchiefs. Shorty played trombone, trumpet, and drums. He sang and danced. He’s a consummate showman, New Orleans distilled into a slim but muscular high-energy package. His 2010 Monterey debut was on the much smaller Garden Stage, but he’s an Arena man now.

Pedal steel master Robert Randolph and his Family Band played two sets on Saturday, the first in the Arena. We caught part of the second on the Garden Stage. Backstage, I had the chance to look closely at a spare pedal steel guitar, an odd instrument with a fascinating history. Randolph, whose version has 13 strings, made it moan, wail, and scream, sometimes pushing it forward on its front legs and bending over it in prayer, still playing. Bluesy, soulful, fiery, spiritual music. He’s one of the artists I didn’t know before Monterey and will never forget.

Bill Frisell's Big Sur Quintet
One of my must-sees is the annual Monterey Jazz Festival commission. Brand-new music by important artists, supported in part by the NEA, thank you very much. This year’s commission artist was Bill Frisell, whose “Music of Glen Deven Ranch,” composed in and about Big Sur, was lush and lyrical, spacious and pastoral – chamber music with grooves. Frisell’s Big Sur Quintet included Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, Hank Roberts on cello, and Rudy Royston on drums. It was good to see Roberts at Monterey again; his last appearance there was in 2009 with Buffalo Collision, a group with Ethan Iverson, Dave King, and Tim Berne.

Catherine Russell
Still going (Saturday is Monterey’s most star-studded and therefore challenging day), we heard some of pianist Gerald Clayton’s first set in the intimate Coffee House and a few moments of the wonderful vocalist Catherine Russell on the Garden Stage. Long enough to catch her heartbreaking “Don’t Leave Me” in its entirety. She’s a passionate, powerful singer. From there we bounced back into the Arena for the Jack DeJohnette Special Trio with Pat Metheny and Christian McBride. DeJohnette was this year’s Showcase Artist; he’s also a 2012 NEA Jazz Master, and he’s spending his 70th year traveling and performing with friends. We settled in for the whole set, a display of musicality and camaraderie that seemed (to me at least) a bit Metheny-heavy. I wanted more Jack, a drummer I’ve seen live just once before.

Tony Bennett
For many with Arena tickets, the most anticipated event on Saturday was the return of Tony Bennett. I had seen his 2005 Monterey performance, which was unforgettable. He was 79 then; he’s 86 now. The seven years between 79 and 86 are not the same seven years one lives from 29 to 36 or even 59 to 66. Could this legendary entertainer still command the stage? Smack me for asking. He was fantastic. He spun on his heel. He slapped his knee. He bent down to the ground to pick up a piece of paper – which alarmed someone at the side of the stage, who ran to help. (We all held our breath. Tony! Don't fall!)  He reached out in expansive gestures that embraced all of us, chopped the air with his hands, smiled broadly (he is still so very handsome), and sang a ton of songs, all from memory (my loose count: 22). In most cases he sang one chorus each, but he has an immense catalog and he never sank to a medley. He may not land every note precisely on key, but he still has the volume, the chops, the exquisite phrasing, the charisma, and the heart to sing a big show in the open air before an adoring audience. When he stepped on stage, a woman beside me said, “I think I might cry,” then did. Bennett ended not with a grand, arena-filling “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (he sang that earlier), but with a hushed and tender “Fly Me to the Moon.” He gave us 90 minutes of greatness. Fill his heart with song and let him sing forevermore.

Done for the night? Not quite. We caught the last half of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour band in Dizzy’s Den. Each year, festival artistic director Tim Jackson puts together an all-star superband, then sends them out to spread the Monterey spirit across the land. (The tour begins January 10 in Santa Cruz and ends April 28 in Anchorage. Check the schedule to see if it comes to your town.) The latest incarnation is, in short, awesome: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Benny Green, Ambrose Akinmusire, Chris Potter, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash. At Dizzy’s, Dee Dee (who gets hotter by the minute) sang a breathtaking “Don’t Explain” with Benny, Christian, and Lewis, after which the band played Bobby Hutcherson’s dynamic “Highway One.”


Our Sunday started late in the day with a Dizzy’s Den conversation between Jack DeJohnette and journalist/author Ashley Kahn. The topic was DeJohnette’s life in music; the questions came from other artists at the festival with whom Kahn had spoken. Kahn began by saying what a challenge it was to name an improvising musician with whom DeJohnette hadn’t played and noting that the drummer had been in the lead position of every jazz style since the 1960s.

Jack DeJohnette and Ashley Kahn
Words from DeJohnette: “Music chose me … When I was 4 or 5, we had a Victrola. I’d wind it up and drop the needle on 78s of Count Basie, Duke, Slim Gaylord … I used to listen to them before I could read well … In those days, it was the thing for kids to take piano lessons. A friend of my grandmother was a teacher, and she found out I had perfect pitch … At ages 5 and 6 I was giving recitals, and even then I’d want to improvise. My teacher would say, ‘Jackie, that’s not on the page!’ ”

After hearing Vernel Fournier on Ahmad Jamal’s “At the Pershing,” DeJohnette bought his first set of brushes. When his grandmother passed away and left him some money, he bought a car, a set of drums, and a portable Wurlitzer keyboard. “That put me on a good path,” DeJohnette recalled. “The keyboard let me get work in places without pianos.” He never took drum lessons because “the drums came naturally to me … I learned from listening and watching, and I started to practice 5 or 6 hours a day.” He finally made a choice – drums over piano – when he moved to New York City in the 1960s, paying $27 to send his drums by Greyhound bus (without cases, which he couldn’t afford). Renting a room at the Y for $2/day, he thought, “I’m going to be a drummer” and he never looked back.

How did he find his path? “You find your own voice, and the village of other musicians reinforces it.” When he plays, does he see colors or shapes? “Sometimes I feel colors … Sometimes I’m transported somewhere else – I’m in the library of cosmic ideas.” Which album first defined his sound? “Special Edition” with David Murray and Arthur Blythe (1980), something I’ll probably have to go out and buy.

Meklit Hadero
From there, we wandered, winding down. The temperature had dropped; it was chillier than usual, and you could tell by the audience sizes at the various venues that some people had given up and gone home. We heard a little of the Jack DeJohnette-Bill Frisell Duo in Dizzy’s Den, walking in on a lengthy solo by DeJohnette full of silence and thunder. On the Garden Stage, the fresh and exciting Ethiopian-born, San Francisco-based vocalist Meklit Hadero braved the cold in not enough clothes, her breath blossoming white in the air around her. (Another festival discovery for me.) In the Arena, Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour gathered once more to wow us, starting with a spare but greasy duet between Dee Dee and Christian on “It’s Your Thing.” Dee Dee was wearing the highest heels and the thickest eyelashes I had ever seen. A few moments of Chester Thompson streaming live on a computer in the press room and it was over.

Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour
Why does Monterey always seem so long at the start, so evanescent at the end? The setting – grass and trees, sun and stars, the timeless feel of an old WPA-era fairgrounds (built from 1939-40) – lulls you into believing that time has slowed. The ambience – relaxed, casual, easy-going – adds to the illusion. And then you’re exiting through the gates for the last time, at least until next year, and it's bittersweet. Do I sound overly sentimental? Sorry, but that’s an unavoidable side effect of this gem of a jazz festival. Go once (I dare you) and you’ll want to return again, and again.



Singer José James  does 'the Minnesota thing' and makes music his way (link takes you to
Five New Singers at the Monterey Jazz Festival (link takes you to NPR's A Blog Supreme)
Ten must-see events at the 55th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, from one person's point of view
The 55th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival stays true to the music

Click here to view John's photo set on Flickr

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Monterey 2012 coverage at NPR

Last fall, NPR gave the 2011 Monterey Jazz Festival some heavy coverage. Patrick Jarenwattananon, who helms (and writes much of) NPR's jazz blog A Blog Supreme, traveled to Monterey, where a local NPR affiliate streamed and recorded several performances. HH and I wore NPR creds, contributing "The First Time Attendee's Guide to the Monterey Jazz Festival," "Monterey Jazz Festival 2011: A Game Plan," and post-performance interviews with pianists Helen Sung and Bill Carrothers. Back in our respective homes in Washington, DC and Minneapolis, Patrick and I wrote a recap over Instant Messenger. Here's the complete NPR coverage of MJF54.

NPR didn't make the trip this year, and we wore MinnPost creds, but I did write a piece for A Blog Supreme spotlighting five first-timers at Monterey, all singers. It gave me a chance to talk with the festival's artistic director, Tim Jackson, and an excuse (like I needed one) to see singers I'd never seen live. I skipped Melody Gardot because a late-in-the-game schedule change put her up against Jose James, whom I'd arranged to interview for MinnPost. But I had the chance to hear Meklit Hadero, Catherine Russell, James, and Gregory Porter, all of whom turned in fine performances. Both James and Porter look to be the next big thing, each in his own way: Porter more classic and mainstream (but so passionate), James more modern and cutting-edge, but with roots sunk deep in jazz history and tradition.

Jose James at MJF55 by John Whiting

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ten must-see events at the 55th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, from one person's point of view

It’s that time again – time to decide what to see, what to miss, what to remember and what to regret at the Monterey Jazz Festival. You’d have to be five people to take it all in, since events take place on five stages on the festival grounds, and even though start and end times are staggered, you don’t want to skip across this festival like a stone on a pond. The music is too good. Artists bring their A-games to Monterey.

Choices must be made. Being something of a Monterey veteran by now (this is my eighth straight year), I know I love the Coffee House for intimate performances, the Jimmy Lyons for late-night magic under the stars (bundle up; it can get so chilly in the open-air arena that the local ladies wear their furs), the Garden Stage for the relaxed, tree-shaded outdoor experience, and Dizzy’s Den and the Night Club because you can run back and forth between them. I’ll hit all five several times over the weekend, but these ten events are at the top of my list ... for now.


Jose James, 9:30 on the Garden Stage. This is a big week for the young singer originally from Minneapolis, now living in New York and traveling the world; his latest Facebook postings were from Tokyo, and he leaves Saturday morning after his Monterey performance for the London iTunes Festival. James was recently signed to Blue Note, with a CD forthcoming in January; this week, his new song “Trouble” became the iTunes Single of the Week and his new EP was released. I’m expecting to hear a lot from the new CD, “No Beginning No End.” I like how James blends jazz with R&B, hip-hop and soul. I like his sexy, beautiful baritone voice. He makes it all sound sooooo easy. I’ll be meeting with him before he goes on stage (fingers crossed) for a brief interview, and to bring greetings from his hometown peeps.

Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet, 10:30 p.m. in Dizzy’s Den. The hot young trumpeter/composer is this year’s Artist-in-Residence, with several scheduled performances. I saw him live at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in 2010 and have very high expectations.

Gregory Porter, 11 p.m. in the Night Club. Porter is that relative rarity among jazz singers – male. He’s more classic and mainstream than James, more along the lines of Joe Williams and Nat King Cole with hints of Bill Withers. Porter writes a lot of his own songs. And, hallelujah, he scats.


“DownBeat” Blindfold Test, 2 p.m. in Dizzy’s Den. I enjoy these annual conversations between jazz journalist Dan Ouellette and a festival artist; this year, it’s the amazing young pianist Gerald Clayton. Ouellette selects several recordings to play, then asks the artist to identify the players and rate each tune. It’s rather jazz nerdy but I always learn something. Plus it’s intriguing to hear the artists unscripted. Some are politic and polite; others are more up-front about what (and whom) they like and don’t like.

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, 3 p.m. in the Arena.This will be a party, major festival fun in the sun. Shorty played the Garden Stage at the 2010 festival and fans were climbing trees to get a better look. That was before he was a star, before his appearances on Davis Simon’s HBO series “Treme.” There will be dancing in the aisles

Bill Frisell’s Big Sur Quintet, 8 p.m. in the Arena. One of the events I most look forward to at each festival is the annual commission. Hats off to Monterey for supporting the creation of new works by important artists. This year, the masterful guitarist and spacious thinker Frisell has written a piece inspired by Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur. He was there earlier this week, adding the final touches. I love his band: Eyvind Kang, Jenny Scheinman, Rudy Royston, and the great cellist Hank Roberts.

Jack DeJohnette Special Trio with Pat Metheny and Christian McBride, 9:20 p.m. in the Arena. It looks like I won’t make it out of the Arena on Saturday, despite the festival’s many other attractions: Antonio Sanchez, Catherine Russell, Ben Williams, Christian Scott. But I fully expect to be awed and transported by this trio.

Tony Bennett, 10:50 p.m. in the Arena. If you’re at the festival with arena tickets, you’d be insane to miss this. Don’t think for a minute that because Bennett is 86 and he’s sung “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” 10 million times that he won’t rip your heart out, because he will.


Jack DeJohnette-Bill Frisell Duo, 7:30 p.m. in Dizzy’s Den. I will have already seen both artists perform, but this combination is too good to miss. During the 2008 festival, I wandered into a concert by Frisell and another drummer, Matt Wilson. That is still so fresh in my memory that the thought of seeing Frisell with DeJohnette makes me feel kind of faint.

Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour, 9 p.m in the Arena. Monterey isn’t over even when it’s over. Each year, the festival puts together a superstar band, premieres it at the festival, then sends it out on tour across the US. This year’s version includes Dee Dee Bridgewater, Christian McBride, Ambrose Akinmusire, Chris Potter, Benny Green, and Lewis Nash. One word: wow. Check the schedule to see if their tour includes your town or city. If so, go, and experience a taste of Monterey.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Treme Season 3 starts Sept. 23

Not having HBO, I have finally caught up with the first two seasons of Treme, the David Simon series set in New Orleans post-Katrina. Starring familiar faces from "The Wire" (Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce), featuring just about every New Orleans musician you can name off the top of your head, it's as good as you would expect from Simon, meaning really good. More Evan Christopher, please. More glimpses of Irvin Mayfield's jazz club on Bourbon Street. Bring the celebrity chefs to NOLA when Janette gets re-settled. Don't kill off any more characters if you don't mind.

Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR's A Blog Supreme both "truly, truly enjoyed the program" and is also "professionally obsessed" with it, due to the richness of the music and the sure thing of musician sightings in every episode. He "vivisected" every episode, often in partnership with WBGO's Josh Jackson. Worth reading. At, see the "'Treme' Explained" series of articles.

Here's HBO's description of what to expect from Season 3:

New Orleans, 25 months later. Crime and corruption are up, culture is being trampled, and the people who matter – the workers, families and dreamers who still live here – have had enough. HBO’s drama series Treme revisits the musicians, chefs, Mardi Gras Indians, and other familiar New Orleans characters who continue to rebuild their lives, their homes and their culture in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane that caused the near-death of an American city.  In Season 3, which takes place from Fall 2007-Spring 2008, rampant crime and government ineptitude continue to cripple the city’s recovery, with outside profiteers looking to cash in on short-term gains. The series’ focus is still on ordinary people, but they no longer accept their lack of influence on the institutions that have controlled the city.  Diminished by grief and loss, but fed up with incompetence and graft among police and city officials, the characters in Treme begin to make inroads in demanding that their music, art and well-being be protected. Through a murder prosecution that unites several players, Treme will also explore the city’s handling of justice, schools and politics, while charting the inspiring, grassroots efforts to preserve the individuality of this most iconic of American cities.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bassist and composer Chris Bates comes home to "New Hope"

Chris Bates by John Whiting
If you’ve been to more than a few jazz shows in and around the Twin Cities, you’ve seen bassist Chris Bates play. It’s hard to miss him. Either he’s on the stand with a touring artist (like Mose Allison, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, Steven Bernstein, or Eric Alexander) or he’s up there with one of the many bands he’s in, a list that currently includes Atlantis Quartet, Todd Clouser’s A Love Electric, Framework, Good Vibes Trio, Leisure Valley, the Pat Moriarty/Ellen Lease Ensemble, and Red Planet. Like another bassist he admires greatly, Dave Holland, Chris loves what he does, and it shows as he grins, nods, and wraps himself around his big instrument as if it’s his best friend in the world.

Chris and his younger brother, drummer JT Bates, were born into music. Their father is the respected musician and bandleader Don Bates; their older brother, David, is a recording engineer and saxophonist in Nashville. Chris began learning the upright bass in fourth grade, studying with James Clute of the Minnesota Orchestra. He taught himself electric bass and played both classical and jazz from seventh grade on. Sometime between junior high and high school, he decided he wanted to be a musician, knowing even then from his father's example that it would be a lifelong journey. He studied bass performance at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (with Clute) and later with Anthony Cox, who had returned to the Twin Cities after several years in New York.

In the mid-1990s, Chris was a founding member of Motion Poets, a jazz sextet that also included Doug Little on saxophone, Mark Sutton on trumpet, Mark Miller on trombone, Nate Shaw on keys, and JT on drums. From 1995–99, they released three CDs and toured nationally, earning writeups in DownBeat and JazzTimes. All of their music was original, written by the band members. In 1999, Chris won a McKnight Foundation Composer Fellowship. 

More than once over the years, as I’ve watched Chris play with other people (and at least one memorable solo set at the Rogue Buddha gallery in 2007), I’ve wondered when he would start his own band and maybe make a CD. He has now done both, sort of in that order. “New Hope,” the debut CD by Chris Bates’ Red 5, a quintet with JT on drums, Chris Thomson on saxophones, Brandon Wozniak on saxophones, and Zack Lozier on trumpet, has its official release at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul the weekend of Sept. 14-15. It’s a double debut, launching both a new band and a new label, Technecore, founded by award-winning architect and music lover Will Jensen.

“New Hope” is a frankly personal, richly varied, serious and playful collection of all-original compositions (eight by Chris Bates, one by Wozniak). Every tune says something different while forming part of the whole. The three-horns frontline builds on the solid foundation of Motion Poets; the absence of a chordal instrument (no piano, no guitar) leaves room for the bass to roam. The music swings, wails, sighs, dances, and rocks. It says a big thank-you to Chris’s parents, sends a love letter to his wife, nods respectfully to Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, tells a sly joke or two, and carries you like a good story from the opening track to the closing note, which leaves you wanting more. And although this is Chris’s first CD as leader, a temptation to hog the spotlight if there ever was one, it’s all about the band, the ensemble spirit and sound. And what a band it is – stellar, in-demand players. For many jazz fans in the Twin Cities, the big unknown will probably be Lozier, who is often categorized as a New Orleans-style trumpeter. Which he is, and then some.

Chris and I spoke by phone in early September.

PLE: First, congratulations on the release of “New Hope.” Second, what took you so long? 

Chris Bates: Life! In 2000 I got married and Motion Poets broke up. I took a different path and got a regular job. I was divorced in 2005 and laid off from my job in 2006. That’s when I said, “Time to be a bass player again, Chris Bates.” I had never stopped playing, but there were some lean years between 2000 and 2006. I was away from music for a while. 

When I was laid off, I went to unemployment classes, took personality tests, did group exercises – the things you’re supposed to do to find a job you want. It was like going back to Career Day in high school. All signs pointed toward “You’re an artist, kid! Get yourself in the arts!” I thought, “I’m already in the arts. I’m a bass player. I’m just not executing this right now.” BOOM, the equation had been solved. I went into attack mode, taking whatever gigs I could get, putting myself in front of people again. I did some solo shows and got involved with Framework [with Chris Olson and Jay Epstein). About that time, Red Planet came together [with Dean Magraw and Epstein]. That was a dream come true for me, playing with my hero, Dean Magraw. It propelled me very quickly to a higher bar of artistic expression. 

In 1999, you won a McKnight Composers Fellowship. Between then and now, where was Chris Bates, composer?

He was off the map. I applied for the McKnight again for the next two or three years but didn’t get it, after getting it the very first time I applied. It was like the freshman triumph followed by the sophomore slump. Also, when Motion Poets went away, I lost the vehicle I had for writing. I’d had a band I could bounce ideas off of, try things out on, and refine things with. The band’s break-up was an emotional bottoming-out for me musically. I thought, “Since I don’t have a band anymore and I have to get gigs, I guess I should learn the standards.” So I went from trying to be a writer to becoming a more well-rounded sideman. When I joined Atlantis Quartet in 2008 [with Wozniak, guitarist Zacc Harris, and drummer Pete Hennig], I brought in some of my old tunes from the Motion Poets days, like I did with Framework and Red Planet. 

In 2011, I was touring a lot [with Todd Clouser’s A Love Electric] and finding myself in many of the same places I’d been in the mid-1990s with the Poets. I started thinking, “Why am I not doing this for myself? What’s wrong with this picture?” I had a break in the winter of 2011, four or five months of open time, and was starting to throw some things down on paper when I got a call from Will Jensen, someone I’ve known for a couple of years. He said, “Here’s a number. Can you make an album for this?” It was one of those angel moments.

Which came first, the compositions or the band?

The idea of the people came first, but I wrote the songs before the band came together. I knew that I wanted three horns, bass, and drums. I wanted the hang to be great, and I wanted the relationships to be personal.

Chris Thomson and JT were on my list from the start. I played a gig with JT, Brandon, and Lozier at Jazz Central and realized those two dudes [Wozniak and Lozier] play great together. Then I heard them again in Adam Meckler’s big band and I knew it was going to work.

I can't stress enough that all of these guys rose to this in a way I didn’t think was possible. The music was written, there was no band, we rehearsed and recorded and now we’re exploring it. This is completely the opposite of any other band I know. Usually, the concept of the band comes from playing gigs, and original compositions come after you’ve formed a band.

Do you miss the piano?

Not on this record. There are times when it’s great to have a piano or guitar. But when it’s not there, it frees the bass and drums to do more, to react more readily to the soloist. It creates more openness. 

When and where did you learn composition?

I learned theory and the building blocks in college, but composition for me has been trial-and-error, a combination of lessons with Anthony [Cox] and writing for the Poets. That’s pretty much it. 

I play and listen to a lot of music. Sometimes I think, “I love that chord.” That cell becomes part of the language. It might be a modulation chord the composer is using to get from point A to point B, but that’s the one I like. I rip it out and use it. Kenny Wheeler’s music is a touchstone for me, especially "Music for Large and Small Ensembles." [Dave] Holland, [Charles] Mingus, Ornette [Coleman], Joe Lovano: that’s some of the stuff I draw from, and had put in a box on a shelf when Motion Poets went away. Another direct influence for me this time around was African pop music. And Happy Apple. You can hear those influences in two songs on the record, “Maliapolis” and “We’re Going In (Dusted).” 

Somewhere along the way I started thinking, “How can I write tunes that are simple enough to work with, yet ample enough for improvisation?” That’s where “The Hidden Place” came from, a tune I wrote for Atlantis. And “Rarefaction” for Red Planet. With Red 5, even though we’re playing structured music, I want it to feel and sound like it’s fresh and made-up on the spot. 

I’m always trying to create structures that allow people to do more with them. But ultimately it comes down to trust, and the relationship you have with the people you play with, that takes you to the level of freedom where it’s actually organic. At 50 minutes, “New Hope” is the shortest record I’ve ever made. It has the compactness and succinctness I’ve been searching for. Yet when we played Icehouse in August, we played just seven songs and the set lasted an hour and half. It proved to me that the songs are vehicles we can expand on. But if we need to keep it short, we can, and there’s still something there. 

What does composing mean to you personally?

It’s an expression of a different part of myself as a musician. The bass player is the foundation of a band. The bass player never, ever stops playing. Specific roles need to be fulfilled by the instrument due to its sound. Composing allows me to express other ideas I might have, melodically or harmonically. When the bass player expresses those ideas, certain things disappear from the sound of the group. As a bass player, I’m always riding that line. On this record, with this band, is the closest I’ve ever gotten to an organic balance between my compositional vision and the roles I have to play for the music. I’m happy to play the bass line on these songs because I wrote them. Because it’s my compositional vision, I can be comfortable in the role I have to play for the music.

Why did you name your band Red 5?

Why any name for a band? I honestly didn’t know what I was going to call it, so at first I just called it the Chris Bates Quintet. “Red 5” is Luke Skywalker’s call number in the original “Star Wars” movie. [Recording engineer] Brett Bullion and I are huge “Star Wars” geeks. While we were in the studio, I started riffing on lines from the movies. When I said, “This is Red 5, I’m going in!” it was a moment of clarity for me. Will [Jensen] hated it. He’s still not 100% sold on the name. 

What about “New Hope,” the name of the CD?

“New Hope” is the title of “Star Wars” episode 4. It’s also the name of the city where I live, and the feeling I have with this rebirth.


Related: Chris Bates' Red 5 CD Release at the Artists' Quarter, Friday-Saturday, Sept. 14-15, 9 p.m. ($10).