Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ginger Baker at the Dakota: Why?

Ginger Baker by John Whiting
Tuesday, October 15, 2013: Ginger Baker, drums; Pee Wee Ellis, tenor saxophone; Alec Dankworth, bass; Abbas Dodoo, percussion

The title of last night’s encore, “Why?” is a good question to ask about Ginger Baker. Why, at 74 and in poor health, is the former Cream and Blind Faith drummer, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, cantankerous subject of the 2012 documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker,” hellraiser (his word, and the title of his autobiography), and one of the worst interviews ever, on the road again?

In part, because he needs the money. He recently told Rolling Stone that was one of the reasons he was touring (“You have to earn money to live, don't you?”); he told the British newspaper The Mirror that a woman he hired in Africa as his personal accountant had stolen from him. He took her to court and won, but he lost his polo ranch in South Africa and all of his horses. Baker now lives in England again, with his fourth wife and stepdaughter.

And because he enjoys the music. Why jazz, of all things? Baker has always loved jazz. He started out as a jazz drummer in the 1960s and brought its colors and complexities along when he moved into rock and superstardom. In the 1990s, he formed the Ginger Baker Trio with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden and later created a group called the Denver Jazz Quintet-to-Octet (DJQ2O) with trumpeter Ron Miles and bassist Artie Moore. He played with Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Art Blakey. His double-bass-drum kit is a direct descendant of Louis Belleson’s. 

So Baker is not just another former rock (or pop, or country) star who decides to make a comeback through jazz. He’s been a jazz musician all along. In fact, don’t call him a rock drummer. He prefers jazz drummer.

Baker named his latest group Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, and it’s a real jazz band, with roots in America, England, and Africa.

Pee Wee Ellis by John Whiting
Schooled by Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis played with James Brown, Maceo Parker, and Van Morrison. Bassist Alec Dankworth is the son of the great British jazz vocalist Cleo Laine and jazz saxophonist/bandleader John Dankworth. Ghanaian percussionist Abbas Dodoo has worked with Baker for many years; Baker affectionately introduced the big man as “my bodyguard.” He played congas, cowbell, and shekere (beaded gourd).

Alec Dankworth by John Whiting
Anyone in the audience at the Dakota who was hoping for some “White Room” or “Sunshine of Your Love” was put straight by the first song of the night, Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” a jazz classic newly infused with African polyrhythms. The rest of the set brought blues and world music and more jazz.

Baker ended each song by telling us what he had played and introducing the next. The set list:
“Footprints” (Wayne Shorter)
“Twelve and More Blues” (Pee Wee Ellis)
“Ain Temouchant” (written by Baker, who introduced it with this story: “I wrote this in the Atlas Mountains in the north of Algeria, where I managed to drive my car at very high speed off a mountain and land on an olive tree in a little village.” It appears on the 1994 Ginger Baker Trio album “Going Back Home.”)
?? (I didn’t catch the name, but Pee Wee threw in a little “Caravan”)
“Ginger Spice” (Ron Miles; from the 1999 DJQ2O album “Coward of the Country”)
“Cyril Davies” (Baker; a blues from “Coward of the Country”)
“St. Thomas” (Sonny Rollins)
“Aiko Biaye” (Yoruba folk song from Lagos)
encore: “Why?”
Abbas Dodoo by John Whiting
How was the show? It was good. Very good, and often thrilling. Heavy on the drums, but that’s what everyone came to hear. The legendary, terrifying Ginger Baker, live! Especially when Baker and Dodoo fell into a groove, it was all about the drums, pounding and interweaving those intricate rhythms in among the thunder of Baker’s two basses. Ellis eschewed the funk for which he’s famous and stuck to straight-ahead jazz, making sounds that probably surprised some of his fans in the house: sustained notes, like singing.

It was direct and serious and down to business. In some ways, it was more like a rock concert than many jazz performances; players took solos, but they were short, with no out-there improvisations that can make those unfamiliar with jazz squirm in their chairs. Last night won’t go down in history as the most transcendant or revelatory jazz concert ever, but it was one that a broad cross-section of music lovers – jazz fans, rock fans, ’60s survivors and hipsters – could appreciate and enjoy.

Touring is not easy for Baker. He has COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), caused by smoking, and he still smokes; he says it helps him deal with the pain of another serious medical condition that plagues him, degenerative osteoarthritis of the spine. He told The Mirror that “drumming is agony.” He doesn’t launch into five- or ten-minute solos anymore, but neither does he hold back, even when it hurts, and from what he says, it always hurts. 

Ginger Baker by John Whiting
At the Dakota, he took a 20-minute break midway through because he needed it. When he talked to the crowd after playing a tune, he was short of breath. When he stood up, Dodoo moved in to help him walk off stage. “Let me recover a bit,” he said before the break. “I’m getting too old for this.” When Baker returned, after playing “Cyril Davies” (what he called “the lull before the storm”) and then “St. Thomas” (the storm), he said, “I’m far too old for this. It’s not a joke, it’s serious!”

It was Dodoo who urged us to call him back for the encore. “Make some noise!” he shouted. “Say Gin-gah Ba-kah! Gin-gah Ba-kah!” We did. When the band returned, Baker introduced the encore with, “Terrible things have happened to me in the past, and they keep happening right up until today. And always, when these things happen, I ask a question: Why?” And we sang along: Why? Why? Why? 

All photos by John Whiting.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A night at the Artists’ Quarter: Bill Carrothers After Hours Trio

Bill Carrothers by John Whiting
Saturday, October 12, 2013: Bill Carrothers, piano; Billy Peterson, bass; Kenny Horst, drums

Now that the word is out that the Artists’ Quarter, the storied St. Paul basement jazz club, will close its doors on January 1, people are coming to see it before it’s gone.

Last night, the joint was jumping. Some were there out of curiosity, others because the recent press about the closing was the first time they’d heard of the AQ, since it has never been big on advertising.

But many were there to hear the weekend’s headliner, the great pianist Bill Carrothers. He’s one of several artists who live elsewhere but play semi-regularly at the AQ (we learned last night he’ll probably return in November) and nowhere else in the Twin Cities.

Davis Wilson, the AQ’s venerable doorman – a former sailor, voracious intellect, diehard liberal, Christmas Santa, and channeler of Lord Buckley – introduced Carrothers with his usual flair: “My lords and ladies, we at the Artists’ Quarter are pleased … and … flipped to present one of the most authentic geniuses in jazz. Pay close attention and dig it!”

Davis Wilson by John Whiting
And then Carrothers played a passionate, virtuosic, joyous, emotional program of tunes he picked out of the air, some of which took brief detours into other tunes he picked out of the air. 

After the final song in the last set, he said, “That was ‘Nature Boy.’ Before that, I have no idea. It’s all a blur. The more of a blur it is, the better it is.”

If you were sitting close enough, you could see him, before each song, put his hands over the keys, bow his head, lean in, and think … what next? You could see his fingers try out ideas in the air, his hands move slightly from key to key, chord to chord. Then he’d look up at Billy Peterson, say a word or two, and Peterson would turn quickly to Kenny Horst and repeat whatever Carrothers had said, and they’d be off.

The After Hours Trio by John Whiting
Over the course of two sets, we heard ballads and standards, Cole Porter and Monk, a hymn, a bugle call (played on piano), a bit of Barbra Streisand, and that’s just what I was able to identify. My loose reconstruction of the night’s music (which I will happily update/correct):
A ballad
Something swinging
“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”
A standard
“On Green Dolphin Street,” with moments of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and what might have been an old Glenn Miller tune
“But Not for Me,” with a taste of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing”
“Joy Spring”
“Just in Time”
“Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” a.k.a. the Navy Hymn
“Let’s Misbehave”
“Nature Boy”
A ballad, with moments of “Evergreen”
Carrothers can play anything, and does – dense block chords and airy arpeggios, cries and whispers, complex rhythms and simple 4/4s. His imagination is boundless and his dynamics are exquisite. He must have seen and experienced real beauty in his life, because he communicates it without reservation. He’s playful, but privately, with the other musicians on stage and not so much with the audience; he never tells jokes or stories and seldom lets you know what he just played or is about to play, which explains my spotty set list. 

Most jazz musicians know a lot of songs, but Carrothers’ enormous mental library, the one he wanders through and draws from during every live performance, includes material not found in many jazz musicians’ books; since Carrothers is a history buff; you might hear melodies or phrases from World War I tunes or Stephen Foster. His lead-ins are thoughtful and evasive. You never know where he’s going until he gets there. He takes as long as he wants, improvising his way in, composing on the fly, until suddenly you’re hearing “Let’s Misbehave,” but you’ve come in through a side door you thought led somewhere else.

Billy Peterson by John Whiting
When artists from out of town perform at the AQ, they usually play with area musicians, sometimes for the first time. That happens in jazz all the time and offers its own brand of thrills; since improvisation is central to jazz, you never know how strangers will get along. Will they play well together? Will they listen to each other, complement each other? Will the music take off? Although Carrothers makes his home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this weekend was not the first time he played with Peterson and Horst.

The After Hours Trio is named for an album that came out in 1998 and features the same personnel. There’s a special rapport among these three, and they rise together. I’ve seen Peterson many times with many people, and some of his best playing has been with Carrothers. (One of Saturday's high points: as Carrothers approached Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” from multiple directions, Peterson played the melody up and down his bass strings, in different keys.)

Horst, who has drummed with everyone over decades as a musician and club owner (the AQ is his place), put aside what’s on everybody’s mind – that the club’s days are numbered – and played like the pro he is.

Kenny Horst by John Whiting
Are they numbered, or is the club's fate still unknown? Many AQ fans and supporters are not giving up. Anything can happen from now until January 1.

Between sets, there was talk at the back of the room about the costs of running a jazz club, and ways to bring in enough money to keep the place going, and how maybe St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman was going to step up. And how the phone is already ringing with people wanting reservations for what’s being called the final blowout, the New Year’s Eve party. (Reservations are not yet being taken.)

There were a lot of musicians in the house, which is normal, and a lot of first-timers, which is not. Some first-timers won’t return; others may, having gotten a taste of the music that happens in this place, and the warm, easy vibe of what is mainly a listening room. As Carrothers said after his encore, “This is the only full-time jazz club between here and a lot further than you want to drive. Tell your friends, tell your enemies. Have them come down here and we’ll settle it. Let’s keep this place alive.”

The joint was jumping

Bill Carrothers by John Whiting

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On the closing of the Artists' Quarter, and what it means

This picture hangs in the hall outside the AQ.
That's Kenny Horst on the left, Davis Wilson on the right.
Lately I’ve been obsessed, like many, with the Minnesota Orchestra: the lockout of the musicians, now entering its second year; the inability of management and musicians to solve what seem to be intractable problems, even with help from former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who is serving as mediator; the unprecedented resignation mid-contract of music director Osmo Vänskä, and last weekend’s farewell concerts at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, when Vänskä led the musicians for what could be the final time.

This whole thing is bad for classical music nationally and internationally. It’s bad for music in general. It’s very, very bad for music in the Twin Cities.

We did not need more bad music news, but we got some Monday. And while this story is not likely to be reported in the New York Times or followed by many blogs, as the Minnesota Orchestra story has been, it has as much potential to blow a hole in our cultural fabric as the continuing lockout of the orchestra’s musicians and the darkness of the newly renovated Orchestra Hall.

Late Monday, Minneapolis Star Tribune music writer Chris Riemenschneider posted an article with this headline on the Strib’s website: “Blue note from St. Paul: Artists’ Quarter to close.”

I think I might have shouted something to my husband. I can’t remember.

AQ owner Kenny Horst, who has long been struggling to keep the St. Paul basement jazz club afloat, has decided he just can’t do it anymore. His rent has doubled. Audiences have dwindled. And love – of Horst, a drummer, for jazz; of the musicians for Horst, because he understands them and respects them; of the fans who go to St. Paul, find parking (it’s not easy), make their way down the stairs, and pay their cover to Davis Wilson at the door – isn’t enough to hold the doors open.

So, what does this mean? I confess to spending the first hour or two after reading the news feeling sorry for myself. Where else would I go, knowing that when I got there I would be certain to hear live jazz? Because there is no other room in the Twin Cities that is devoted solely to jazz.

Side note: Riemenschneider called the AQ “a mainstay for jazz purists,” which isn’t quite right. “Jazz purists” – at least the way it’s defined these days – are those who think the only “real” jazz is traditional and/or straight-ahead. The AQ was strong on straight-ahead jazz, but it also made room for other types, most recently the sounds of Kneebody. 

Speaking with MPR’s David Cazares, trumpeter/composer/bandleader Adam Meckler (who recently scored the plum spot of a regular once-a-month gig at the AQ with his big band) was more accurate when he called the AQ “one of the last pure jazz clubs left in the Midwest.” That’s what I mean by a room devoted solely to jazz. Except for Sundays, when the AQ was most often “available for private event” (if only there had been more of those), and Mondays, which were given over to poetry slams and open poetry with live jazz, you knew that when you went to the AQ, you would hear jazz. You would always hear jazz.

There are other rooms in the Twin Cities that occasionally feature jazz, and we bless them for that. Places like the Black Dog, Studio Z, Homewood Studio, the Cedar Cultural Center, Madam of the Arts, Icehouse, Café Maude (on Penn), Hell's Kitchen, the School II, the Aster, Barbette, the Red Stag, Fireside Pizza, the St. Paul Hotel, and the Walker. Special mention must be made of the Dakota. Once devoted solely to jazz, now featuring a broad range of music, it still brings in the big names (most recently Ravi Coltrane, Dave Holland, and Gary Burton), which Horst could never afford. Special mention must also be made of Jazz Central, a musician-owned combination performance space/listening room/recording studio/classroom. You can find jazz there often, if not every night. But it's not a jazz club.

To repeat: besides the AQ, there is no other room in the Twin Cities that is devoted solely to jazz.

As of January 1, 2014, when (dare we say if?) the AQ closes, there will be no room in the Twin Cities where we can always hear jazz. Beyond feeling sorry for myself, what does this mean to the jazz musicians who play the AQ often or regularly, like Eric Kamau Gravatt (McCoy Tyner’s former drummer), Framework, Pete Whitman’s X-Tet, Dave Karr, Phil Hey, recent Manhattan School of Music grad Miguel Hurtado, and so many more? Where will groups like Atlantis Quartet have their next CD release? Where will the kids fresh from Berklee or the Brubeck Institute strut their stuff? 

Where else in the Twin Cities will Dave Hagedorn, who drives up from Northfield, where he teaches at St. Olaf, get to play his vibes with other jazz musicians? What about the bands with weekly gigs there – the Cory Wong Quartet and Steve Kenny? Where in the Twin Cities will pianist Bill Carrothers play? Where will the Dave King Trucking Company have a whole weekend pretty much whenever they want it? Chris Lomheim, Phil Aaron, Locally Damaging Winds (two trombones!), Red Planet – where will they play? 

Where will chanteuse Carol Martin, Horst’s mother-in-law, sing “Going Back to Joe’s” and “Canadian Sunset”? Will we ever hear Eric Alexander in the Twin Cities again? And Mose Allison? Ari Hoenig? Greg Skaff? Pat Mallinger? And what about pianist Jon Weber, who flies in every year for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, now held in St. Paul? Where will he be able to hold forth for three nights of genius and banter if not at the AQ? And speaking of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, the AQ has been its anchor. How will the AQ’s closing affect the jazz festival?

When (if) the AQ closes, there will not be another pure, real, honest, actual, serious, devoted-to-the-music jazz club in the Twin Cities, its metro area, or (unless I'm mistaken) the whole state of Minnesota. There might not be another jazz club between here and Chicago. And that will be a sad day for music. How can we be training young jazz musicians locally at places like McNally Smith and MacPhail and the U of M and Hamline and Macalester and not have a jazz club?

There’s time between now and December 31 to do something about this. People are already saying that St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman – who praised Horst on his birthday last January for helping to revitalize the city’s cultural scene – should step in. McNally Smith College of Music, many of your faculty have played on the AQ’s stage. What do you have to say? What can you do? Are there jazz musicians out there who can take over a club? Wealthy AQ regulars? Anyone? Is there a space in Lowertown that can give Kenny Horst a "really good deal" so he can move the AQ there? 

A city without a real jazz club is like a city without an orchestra. It's a crying shame.


More press on the AQ news: