Friday, December 27, 2013

A night at the Artists’ Quarter: The Phil Hey Quartet

Phil Hey by John Whiting
Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013: Phil Hey, drums; Phil Aaron, piano; Dave Hagedorn, vibes; Tom Lewis, bass

The countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve will be especially significant at the Artists’ Quarter, the basement jazz club in St. Paul. It will also be a countdown to the club’s closing its doors forever, perhaps to be reborn in a different form but never how it used to be.

For those of us who love the place, the past two months have been a countdown. The final appearance of Pete Whitman’s X-Tet in November. The last time Pat Mallinger and Bill Carrothers would have a weekend there. The last night the Dave Karr Quartet would play. And the Tuesday Night Band, and the Dean Granros Trio, and Snowblind, Bryan Nichols, Dean Magraw, Zacc Harris, Eric Alexander and David Hazeltine, the Adam Meckler Band, the Cory Wong Quartet, Brandon Wozniak, Valves Meet Slide, Lew Tabackin. 

We ticked off the regulars we could count on seeing there once a month, or once or twice a year. They came, they played, they said goodbye.

Last night it was the Phil Hey Quartet, part of the fabric of the AQ from the start. Fans know Hey for his splendid drumming and his outspokenness. Both were in evidence on Thursday.

Like many nights since owner Kenny Horst announced that the club would be closing, the AQ was packed to capacity, people squeezed around tables, stacked at the bar, standing in the doorway and against the back wall, some even seated on the floor near the stage.

Phil Aaron by John Whiting
Hey addressed the crowd early in the first set and often throughout the night, letting us know what we had heard or would be hearing, telling us something about the composer, joking that “Duke Ellington was a pretty good musician, I don’t care what anyone says,” basking in the unfamiliar heat and glow of a house full to bursting.

Early on, Hey said: “We haven’t played for so many people for the last 14 years. It’s nice to see you all tonight – on the last night we’re ever going to play. I’m feeling kind of bitter about this … It’s a very strange night. We go way back to 1978, when the AQ was at 26th and Nicollet. We were charter members of the Jackson Street location. And we’ve played here [at the Hamm Bldg. location] once a month since it opened. It’s different to have this kind of vibe in the house.”

And later: “I can say what I want up here tonight. What are they gonna do, not hire us again?"

And then, after the quartet played Charlie Haden’s “Silence” so beautifully that no one exhaled: “There is nowhere else we know where we can play this song. This is the best club I’ve ever played, the only jazz club in the Twin Cities. This music is hard enough to find in the U.S. – especially in the U.S. We have to keep it alive.”

How sweet the music was on Thursday night, how fine the quartet sounded: Hey on drums, Phil Aaron on piano, Dave Hagedorn on vibes, Tom Lewis on bass. All terrific musicians, with the ease and familiarity of old friends. Here’s what they played for us:

First set

“Bittersweet” by Sam Jones
“The Feeling of Jazz” by Duke Ellington
“Show-Type Tune (Tune for a Lyric)” by Bill Evans (Hey tells us Bill Evans was the given name for the great Yusef Lateef, who died earlier this week, something most of us probably didn't know)
“Lucent” by Frank Kimbrough
“Solar” by Miles Davis, which segued seamlessly into
“Silence” by Charlie Haden, more prayer than song
“Maffy” by Don Cherry

Second set

“The Fruit” by Bud Powell
“Fifth House” by John Coltrane (Hey: “a very snaky, tricky line”)
“Reflections” by Thelonious Monk
“Round Trip” by Ornette Coleman (Hey: “He was not ahead of his time; we were just behind”)
“Summer Night” by Harry Warren

And finally, to close:

“I’ll Be Seeing You” by Irving Berlin

Tom Lewis by John Whiting
There was no encore, because what can you say after this? Many of us probably heard the lyrics in our heads: “I’ll be seeing you/in all the old familiar places ... I’ll find you in the morning sun/and when the night is new/I’ll be looking at the moon/but I’ll be seeing you.” A song about seeking, not finding; about melancholy, memory, and loss. 

It was a jazz journey, a jazz survey, a jazz class way beyond 101. Swinging, sincere, and so generous, performed by four musicians in peak form, playing this challenging, difficult music for a ridiculously low five dollar cover charge. 

Hagedorn’s sticks (sometimes two, sometimes four) were a blur, and we were reminded that one of the world’s most distinguished vibes players lives here in Minnesota and teaches college in Northfield. Aaron’s pianism was precise, powerful, and expansive. He’s all about the music and doesn’t bother much to engage with the audience, so it’s sometimes easy to overlook his tremendous artistry. 

With Lewis, as always, every note was distinct, whole, and rounded; his bass is almost a keyboard, and his command of it absolute. Hey, the master, used sticks and mallets and brushes to paint great splashes of sound, and delicate tendrils, and landscapes bright with the brass of his cymbals.

Hey is a magician on the cymbals – and on something that looked like a small Chinese gong, he made notes bend and twist like streamers in the air.

Dave Hagedorn by John Whiting
The crowd, respectful, listened hard, and some people stayed through both sets. (Davis Wilson had said at the start of the night that “it’s okay to bonk your neighbor on the head and tell him to hold it down.”) There were many familiar faces, but more unfamiliar ones. 

Who were they? Jazz tourists? Funeral crashers? People who know the place is closing and want to be able to say they were there? (Lately, a lot of pictures are being snapped of people seated at tables and the bar, people standing in the door or before the big mural.) Are some finding out that jazz is more approachable and enjoyable than they thought? Are new jazz fans being made? If and when the AQ returns, in whatever form, will it draw larger audiences? Will the death of the AQ we know lead to a rebirth of support for jazz in the Twin Cities? 

I admit to complacency on my own part over the past several years. I knew that if I didn’t see the Phil Hey Quartet on a given Thursday night, I would have another chance the following month, and I thought that would last forever. Now I know better. Like everyone else, I crowded in for last night’s last hurrah.

Tonight and tomorrow, the Artists’ Quarter is hosting two jam sessions, billed as the AQ’s Final Weekend Jams. Friday’s rhythm section will feature Phil Aaron, Saturday’s Bryan Nichols, and many musicians are expected to show up for one last moment on the AQ’s stage. On Sunday and Monday, the club will be closed as preparations are made for New Year’s Eve.

And after, the hang: The scene at the bar
At left: Rich Solomon, Davis Wilson, Greg Paulus
Behind the bar: Dan Cunningham

Phil Aaron, Phil Hey, Tom Lewis

Phil Aaron, JT Bates, Tom Lewis

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Talking with Ethan Iverson about Stravinsky and Sony

Ethan Iverson by John Whiting
On Dec. 19, a press release went out saying The Bad Plus had “returned to Sony and signed a multi-album deal.”

In April 2014, the Sony Music Masterworks label will release TBP’s interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” a Duke Performances commission that debuted at Duke in 2011 and came next to what was then called the Loring Theater in Minneapolis.

A brand-new The Bad Plus album will be issued on Sony’s jazz imprint, the recently re-launched OKeh Records, later in 2014.

With The Bad Plus scheduled to play the Dakota in Minneapolis tonight (Thursday, Dec. 26) through Sunday, when they’ll end their four-day residency with the Stravinsky, I couldn’t resist trying to get a few moments with Ethan, even though it’s the holidays and writers should definitely not pester artists during the holidays.

Ethan kindly agreed to a brief interview on Christmas Day. He was in Duluth, Minnesota, visiting his family, and we spoke by phone after their Christmas dinner.

PLE: How has the Stravinsky changed since you first played it at Duke in March 2011 and then at the Loring here in May?

Ethan Iverson: It hasn’t changed, really, except I hope we are playing it better!

The performance we saw at the Loring in 2011 included videos by filmmaker Cristina Guadalupe. Will we see those at the Dakota?

Actually, there will be no video. We call this the “concert” version, like a “concert” version of an opera.

The first movement begins with electronics by bassist Reid Anderson. I’ve heard rumors that he’ll play those live.

No, the first movement will be the same tape as always, and then we will play the Stravinsky down.

When we first spoke about the Stravinsky in 2011, you said, “There are things we can’t play. Sometimes I wish I had an extra arm or two.” Do you still feel that way?

I probably always will. I haven’t added a bunch of new stuff in, personally. The development has been to try to get more inside the way we play it, not closer to the way it was originally. So it’s probably more the way we want to play it now. Like any great thing you get to do over and over again, things develop.

About how many times have you performed the Rite live?

Close to 50 times.

Have you become more comfortable playing it?

Yes. We’ve all become more comfortable. But then there’s that danger zone where you think it’s easier than it is because you’ve done it so much.

Do you ever get sick of it?

No. It’s too good.

It’s just been announced that you’ve signed with Sony and will release a recording of the Rite in April 2014. Can you tell us about that?

We recorded it in New Jersey, in a nice old studio there, seconds away from New York City. It’s self-produced, like everything we’ve done from the beginning.

Yves Beauvais hung out for our first three Sony records [“These Are The Vistas” (2003), “Give” (2004), and “Suspicious Activity” (2005)], but we basically did our own thing. Yves signed us to Sony [the first time] and has been a big supporter of the band.

[Recording with a producer] makes the music go in a different direction. When I record with ECM, it’s a Manfred Eicher production. He’s a great producer on a wonderful label. When people recorded with Alfred Lion for Blue Note, or Creed Taylor for CTI, everyone played in a certain way. We’ve never been in that situation, and I don’t know if we could be.

[Note: Iverson recorded “All Our Reasons” with the Billy Hart Quartet for ECM in 2011. The quartet is Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Ben Street on double bass, Iverson on piano, and Hart on drums.]

When the Stravinsky recording comes out in April, will you tour behind it and play the Rite more frequently?

We’d like to. The thing we’re really excited about is Mark Morris made up a dance to it last year. We’ve only done that live once. We’ll be doing it more with him in America, [starting in] Champaign-Urbana. It would be great if we could bring it to the right dance venue in Minneapolis.

[Notes: Mark Morris’s dance, “Spring, Spring, Spring,” debuted at the University of California, Berkeley, in June 2013, with The Bad Plus playing its version live. Here’s the New York Times reviewHere’s information about the University of Illinois performances in March 2014. Iverson is Morris’s former musical director.]

You’re also making a new The Bad Plus album for OKeh. Is it all originals, or a mix of originals and covers? More Ligeti or Babbitt or some other composer of new classical music?

We’re recording it in January. All the music is pretty much written. It’s another album of all originals [like “Made Possible” and “Never Stop”]. We’re refining the thing we always do. It’s us on a journey, committed to a concept. As usual, we split up the writing tasks, and we have a working title.

Do you think you’ll play more music by classical composers?

It’s a good idea, gratifying to do, but hard. So hard. I’m going to have to practice all day Saturday to get the Stravinsky up by Sunday.

We’ve had various offers [to record more material by other composers], but they tend to fade away as we show no interest.

When The Bad Plus signed with Columbia in 2002, people had fits. You were seen as the destroyers of jazz, and the saviors of jazz. How are things different today?

I don’t think anyone thinks we’re either of those things anymore. I know a lot of people really want to hear the Rite; I hear that from different jazz musicians and other unlikely sources. People have heard enough about it to know that we just play the score down, which as far as I know is unprecedented for jazz musicians.

The Sony press release says you have a “multi-album deal.” Do you already have plans beyond the two announced albums?

It’s definitely my impression of the industry now that everybody waits to see how things go. If the first two albums do nothing for Sony, why would we record a third one? If it’s going all right, we’ll do more.

Does being back on a major label change things for you?

I really don’t think so. We’re lucky to have a great team already in place – management, booking agencies. The irony is that Chuck Mitchell, who signed us to Sony, worked with us for our previous records, “Never Stop” [2010] and “Made Possible” [2012], which came out on the eOne label. He’s a great guy who’s been in our corner. Chuck moved from eOne to Sony, and we kind of followed his move. These are all people we’re excited to be associated with.



Stravinsky gets the Bad Plus treatment (Minneapolis StarTribune, May 17, 2011)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Milo Fine's long-running series at Homewood Studios has ended, but the music has not

From Homewood's latest email:


Ten years of Improvised Music at Homewood Studios came to an end in November with the final concert of this long-loved and storied series. Since 2003 local musician Milo Fine has curated several concerts a year in our gallery. Each concert showcased the improvisational skills of three to five (sometimes more) of the fifteen or twenty musicians Milo has assembled into a cohort of individuals dedicated to creating "sculpted sound" that happens only in the moment, is not scored or notated, and will never be performed in the same way again.

These concerts have been, for us and for all those who attended over the years, a lesson in learning to listen, to be attentive in the moment, to live in the music as it happens.  We are indebted to Milo and all the Improvised Music musicians for that series of memorable experiences.

Milo is in the process of building a state-of-the-art performance studio in our community.  Rest assured this kind of music will continue to have a life in our neighborhood, and also know there will still be, from time to time, improvised music events at our gallery.

For further info about Milo, his work and his new studio, please visit his website at


We attended several of Milo's concerts over the years. Trying to describe them has always been complicated, an exercise in searching for words that don't exist. There was never a melody, a chorus, or a refrain in anything Milo and the other musicians played. The music started and stopped, seemingly on its own. Some of it was cacophonous, a blaring, crashing, screaming assault on the senses. Some of it was incredibly beautiful, but not in any sort of traditional way. Much of it was puzzling. Yet the more often we went, the more we heard and learned about listening and letting go -- of doubts, fears, expectations, rules, ideas of what music is and isn't, should and shouldn't be. 

Every concert was a one-of-a-kind experience. Sometimes the musicians played for an audience of three or four people. Some people fell asleep -- including me, on more than one occasion. My head filled up with sound and I couldn't take it anymore, so I shut down briefly, then came back. I often wandered off into daydreaming. I thought deep thoughts, and shallow ones.

I'm forever grateful to Milo and the many people he played with -- Scott Newell, John O'Brien, Anthony Cox, Davu Seru, Charles Gillett, Elaine Evans, Viv Corringham, Kevin Cosgrove, Aerosol Pike (Philip Mann, Ryan Reber, Rick Ness), Bryce Beverlin II, Daniel Furuta, Joseph Damman, and many others, all fine, inventive musicians and courageous souls, all drawn to Milo's uncompromising insistence on self-determination, like moths to a white-hot flame. The music they played was as free as it gets, as thorny, challenging, difficult, messy, daunting, maddening, exhilarating, liberating, flattening and elevating as any I've ever heard. It changed me and made me more receptive, more bendy, and open to whatever, which is the very best way to approach anything in the arts. You can decide later if you like something or not, but openness is what gets you through the door to the possibility of having one of those transformative moments that art is all about.

Thank you, Milo. We're looking forward to that new studio.

Photos by John Whiting from Milo's last concert at Homewood, Nov. 11, 2013

Dark & Stormy’s “The Receptionist”: Not so banal after all

Sally Wingert (L) and Sara Marsh in "The Receptionist."
Photo by Melissa Hesse.
This review (or a version) would normally appear in my Artscape column on MinnPost. But MinnPost is on break for the holidays, “The Receptionist” closes Jan. 4, and I won’t be writing Artscape again until Jan. 3, so I’m putting it here.   

You go in the front door of the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art on 3rd Ave. N. (the strip of street facing the freeway entrance and exit at Washington Ave.) and pass through a quiet show in the lobby of delicate prints of Japanese gardens. Then you take the elevator to the fifth floor and follow the signs through a series of turns until you’re in the theater, which isn’t a theater, but an abandoned office space being used as a theater by Dark and Stormy Productions, and the set is an office. It’s already a hall of mirrors and the play hasn’t even started.

The play is the regional premiere of “The Receptionist” by Adam Bock, whose work has not (to my knowledge) been presented in the Twin Cities before now. Dark and Stormy earlier introduced Bock to local audiences by giving two free readings of his plays “The Thugs” and “The Drunken City,” the first in the Casket Arts Building and the second at Mixed Blood Theater. Dark and Stormy is a new theater company and “The Receptionist” is only their third production, following the very well-reviewed presentation of Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” (Feb. 15 – March 9 of this year) at the Miller Bag Building and the regional premiere in 2012 of Edward Allan Baker’s “Outside Providence” at the Engine Room. D and S does not have a permanent home and uses found spaces, which adds to the unpredictability you feel when you go to see one of their performances.

Directed by Benjamin McGovern, “The Receptionist” is short, just 75 minutes, and there’s no intermission. It begins with Edward Raymond (Harry Waters Jr.), one of the play’s four characters, seated in a chair on a raised platform, under a harsh light. He’s talking about fly fishing, how he loves to see the line curve out over the water, how he loves to catch fish and let them go – unless they’re hurt, in which case he kills them (humanely) and eats them. He stands up, sighs, cryptically says, “Let’s give this another try,” and exits. Lights down.

It’s a puzzling prologue you set aside when the lights come back up on what will be the focus of the play: the large receptionist’s desk, run as efficiently as a cruise ship by Beverly Wilkins (the marvelous Sally Wingert). Wearing a headset, tool of her trade, she answers the phone (“Northeast Office”); converses with friends, her daughter, Jane, and her husband, Bob; counsels flirty, unlucky in love, and usually late-to-work Lorraine Taylor (the wonderful Sara Marsh); keeps jealous watch over the pens in her pen cup; orders a birthday cake for Mr. Raymond; and greets a visitor, Martin Dart (the bland yet somehow creepy Bill McCallum), who has come from the Central Office to meet with Mr. Raymond, who isn’t in yet.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the cast of this mostly unknown play being presented by a baby theater company in a makeshift space. Wingert and McCallum are among our city’s great actors. Marsh recently returned to the Twin Cities after years in Hollywood, where she appeared in films and a web series. Harry Waters Jr. is a veteran actor with local and national credits. You could pick them all up and set them down at the Guthrie, where everyone but Marsh has already appeared (Wingert and McCallum multiple times). Dark and Stormy may be a start-up, but its talent is already tops. (McCallum is D and S’s associate artistic director; for “The Receptionist,” he also designed the props.)

The play continues, and you’re charmed by Wingert’s confidence and gab, sort-of sympathetic toward Lorraine’s ineptness at managing her life, and vaguely disturbed by Mr. Dart. There’s something not quite right about his smile, his bonhomie, his small talk, his eagerness to do more than just flirt with Lorraine. As if his actions – he’s a married man, they work for the same company, they’re at the office – would have no consequences. Martin Dart is a man who doesn’t care about pushing things too far.

Dart steps out for a few moments, and in his absence Mr. Raymond returns. We haven’t seen him since the fly-fishing scene. He’s agitated. Disturbed. He starts telling Beverly and Lorraine why, and here’s where I can’t say what happens next, because that would be an unforgivable spoiler. But Mr. Raymond’s words, delivered almost matter-of-factly, responded to in kind by Beverly and Lorraine – who, you suddenly realize, are all in this together – are the worm in the apple, the razor blade in the Halloween candy, the skull beneath the skin.

The play is not over, but everything has changed. What used to seem banal and commonplace has been ripped open. It’s all very neatly and skillfully done. It’s also a bit of an O. Henry plot twist, minus the playfulness and moved further up in the story. I wondered briefly if this revelation were enough to justify a whole play, even one as short as 75 minutes, and decided that it is. I spent a lot of time talking about “The Receptionist” with the person I’d seen it with. I woke up thinking about it, feeling profoundly sad.

It’s the holidays, so maybe you’re not in the mood for a play that makes you sad or compels you to think about serious matters, like morality, complicity, cruelty, and the central question: how can you trust anyone if you can’t trust anyone? If so, that’s fine. Don’t see “The Receptionist.” But if you’re up for something provocative and unconventional, brilliantly acted and absorbing, do. Through January 4. FMI and tickets. The final night (Jan. 4) is already sold out except for standing room.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Pleased and flipped 24: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: John Whiting

Twenty-fourth in a series. After almost 20 years in St. Paul – first on Jackson Street in Lowertown, then in the Hamm Building near Rice Park – the esteemed and beloved Artists’ Quarter jazz club will close January 1. As we near the end of a jazz era, we’re asking musicians (and a few others) whose lives have been shaped by experiences at the AQ to share their three favorite memories of the place, the people, and the music.

John Whiting, photographer

Courtesy Andrea Canter
A few years back, Benny Green was in town visiting his then-girlfriend. She was working late, and we offered to Benny-sit. Tanner Taylor was playing an Oscar Peterson tribute at the AQ and we decided to bring Benny there. He’d never been to the AQ. 

We got a great table and the crowd was very attentive. Benny was bouncing to the beat. At the break, Tanner came over to say hello, and we introduced Benny and Tanner to each other. As Tanner was leaving our table, he leaned over and said, very softly, “You bastards.”

December, 2004. We met friends at the St. Paul Grill, then went to the Ordway to see a dance performance. It was the coldest day I had ever experienced, and I’ve lived in Minnesota all my life. Afterward, huddling together, moving very fast through sub-Arctic blasts of wind, we all made our way to the AQ for a jazz nightcap. I don’t even remember who or what we saw that night, just that the AQ was welcoming and warm. Five minutes inside felt like a sauna for the soul. We completely forgot about the misery outdoors and wanted to stay the night – many nights – and chisel the car out in the springtime.

September 3, 2008. Our wedding anniversary falls in the midst of the Republican National Convention, the closest St. Paul has ever come to being a police state. Pianist Jon Weber is at the AQ for one night only, playing with Gordy Johnson and Kenny. We decide to brave it. We arrive in St. Paul, driving past barriers and fences topped with barbed wire, and find parking in the Macy’s ramp. To get into the Hamm Bldg., we have to walk past armed guards. (We learn later that the Hamm Bldg. was locked down for much of the day because some idiot threw water balloons out of a window.) At the AQ, we’re treated to a bottle of bubbly (thanks, Steve Heckler) and a wonderful night of music with masters Weber, Johnson, and Horst. So few people are there it’s almost a private concert.

Here’s Pamela’s description of the evening:

“Penthouse Serenade.” “Very Early” by Bill Evans. Weber leans back from his bench and considers the possibility of a CD made entirely of Thelonious Monk ballads. “When you slow Monk down,” he says, “it’s almost normal speed … ‘Darn That Dream’ is a Monk tune if you speed it up.” He demonstrates. It is. Then he riffs on the strange but true fact that 4/4, 6/6, 8/8, 10/10, and 12/12 all fall on the same day of the week no matter what year it is. Who knew? He plays a Henry Mancini tune. He tells a Henry Mancini tale from when he (Weber) was 25 and gigging at the Hyatt in Milwaukee when Mancini came in and young Jon played the composer's music for him.

“Secret Love,” a Sammy Fain tune from 1954, written for the movie “Calamity Jane.” The bridge between choruses is very long. It’s the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. “Lulu’s Back in Town,” “When I Fall in Love” (with Kenny on brushes, caressing the drums). Around midnight, a few people wander in, dressed up, no doubt from the Convention; they have just stumbled into some of the best music they may ever hear.

Weber loves to play and he doesn’t want to quit. Fine with us; we’re enjoying everything about this evening. Appropriately (or ironically), “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” a Rodgers and Hart tune (from a musical called “Too Many Girls,” Weber explains, which is where Desi met Lucy). Finally, “Jitterbug Waltz” with touches of “Take Five” and the “Mission, Impossible” theme.

Still smiling, we climb the stairs into the night and walk down the pedestrian mall toward the parking ramp. A minivan pulls up to the light, stops, and two police officers in riot gear get out. They slam their doors and glare at us before turning away. Not as bad as being maced or pepper sprayed or handcuffed, but chilling. Usually when we come out of the AQ late we worry about too-aggressive panhandlers, not police.

And one more: There was the night in 2009 when author Ted Gioia(1) was in town on a book tour. Pamela was in touch with him – she had done some writing for, a website for which Ted was editor – and asked if he was free that night and wanted to visit a local basement jazz club. Just a small place, unpretentious, with good music and inexpensive drinks. He said yes. We met him at the bookstore where he was doing his reading, then took him to the AQ to see Roy Haynes and his Fountain of Youth Band.

Thanks, Kenny and Dawn, Davis and Dan and David and Jennifer, for welcoming us into the AQ family and allowing us to document the goings-on there over the years, in pictures and words. 



(1) Ted Gioia’s many books include "The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire," "The History of Jazz," "Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music," "West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960," and "The Birth (and Death) of the Cool."