Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pleased and flipped 2: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: Andrea Canter, Doug Haining, Cory Wong

Second 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.

Andrea Canter, Jazz Police contributing editor, photographer, blogger

Courtesy Andrea Canter
This is a hard task – to zero in on three “memories” of a club that has been part of my life, averaging two nights per week over the past ten-plus years. What truly makes the AQ memorable to me is the cumulative experience of hearing the finest jazz musicians in the Twin Cities – and really the world – night after night in a setting that honors jazz as a serious art form. So with some fudging re: the definition of a “memory,” here’s my list.

Craig Taborn. I became acquainted with Craig’s music (I already knew his family) through two distinct performances at the AQ. The first was in the late ’90s on Jackson Street, when Craig played a gig with Doug Little’s Quartet. He was about 30 and touring with James Carter at the time. I had never heard anyone generate such a range of sound from an acoustic keyboard. (I think the first time I ever heard Craig was a year or two earlier, when he performed with Tom Harrell, but I have more specific memories of Harrell than Craig from that gig!) About five years later, Craig joined forces with Dave King and Anthony Cox for a one-off at the current venue, and I had the same reaction, although this gig featured Craig’s electronic antics as well. And this time I put my reactions into a brief review which I initially shared only with Craig’s mom Marjorie and Craig himself. Craig suggested I start my own website to post my jazz views. I thought that was a ridiculous idea. But a couple months later, Don Berryman launched Jazz Police and posted my piece as the site’s first review.

Young artists. I know, I am really cheating defining this as one memory. One of my favorite experiences at the AQ has been seeing teen musicians evolve into working pros. [AQ owner] Kenny [Horst] has long been supportive of students, opening the stage to such ensembles as Walker West, Minnesota Youth Jazz Band, McNally Smith, and more; to the Twin Cities Jazz Society’s Young Artists Showcase; to still-in-high school bands led by the likes of young Javier Santiago, Miguel Hurtado, Greg Paulus, Will Kjeer, and Ted Olsen. Perhaps my favorite image is a 2008 gig dubbed “The Back to School Band” with young college musicians Javi and Miguel. Recent prime-time AQ gigs have featured Miguel Hurtado and Friends, Courageous Endeavors (Hurtado, Nelson Devereaux, Joe Strachan, and Brian Courage), and the Javi Santiago Trio. Kenny never wanted to charge much for covers for fear of discouraging students. And students keep coming, sometimes with parents, sometimes without. Look around during a set break. Just the other night, Dave Hagedorn spent his break surrounded by a handful of Southwest High School students, talking shop, the young ones wide-eyed and hanging on to every word.

Phil Hey Quartet, 11-27-13. First, there is no other band that says “Artists’ Quarter” to me quite as loudly as the PHQ. They have appeared almost monthly at the AQ – and nowhere else. Their music – accessible modern, uniquely inventive, always collaborative – defines jazz itself, if there is such a definition. They find joy playing with each other and for an audience of wide-eared listeners in what Phil always reminds us is “the only real jazz club in the Twin Cities.” Their most recent (and next-to-last?) gig at the AQ was just a notch above the rest. Phil had been out of action for a couple months, and was not only in top form but elated to be back on stage with his band; his commentary was even more engaging than usual. The music was a continuous string of peak moments, from blazing runs and tender balladry from pianist Phil Aaron, to vibrating explorations and delicate songs from bassist Tom Lewis, to the never-ending acrobatics of Dave Hagedorn's two- and four-mallet wizardry on the vibes. And Phil Hey himself, typically understated yet always lying in wait to launch a barrage of splash, spatter, and artillery fire at just the right moment. Lerner and Lowe, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman provided the inspiration. Hey, Hagedorn, Aaron and Lewis provided the meteor shower.

The Artists’ Quarter is irreplaceable. The musicians will carry on … somewhere. Hopefully soon, in a reincarnation of the AQ.

Doug Haining, saxophonist and clarinetist

Doug Haining courtesy Andrea Canter
Listening to Eddie Berger and the Jazz All Stars (Mikkel Romstad on piano, Tom Hubbard or Tom Lewis on bass, and Phil Hey on drums) at the 26th and Nicollet location.(1) Eddie showed that it was acceptable to play standards in a jazz venue and engage the audience in the process. The guys in the band were all great, but Eddie really sparkled in that setting. His alto sound filled the room with very little help from the sound system. I must have seen them dozens of times and hardly ever heard the same tune more than once or twice. Eddie would play these ultra-fast bebop classics and then turn around and play a beautiful ballad like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” and put considerable emotion into the performance.

Listening to Scott Hamilton at the 26th and Nicollet location, with Ronnie Neumann on piano (I forget who the rest of the rhythm section was). I saw Scott and Ronnie on two occasions there. I can’t remember who was more inspiring to me – Scott and Ronnie really hit it off musically, and I think they both played some of their best on those two gigs. As soon as Scott delivered what seemed to be a perfect solo to a tune, Ronnie would answer with a solo that took it up two or three notches. Scott could do nothing but smile as he listened to Ronnie’s masterful playing. They combined to play the verse of “Stardust” the first time I heard them, and that performance convinced me that I had to learn the tune. It’s been one of my favorites ever since. I still remember how Scott got into the chorus from the verse, with a beautiful breathy pickup that nobody could possibly match.

I’ve had many opportunities to play at the Artists’ Quarter through the years, and they’ve all been a gas. People go there to listen to you, which is quite a different thing from most other places in town. It can be intimidating, but it can also be very rewarding once you get past your own inhibitions.

Cory Wong, guitarist

Cory Wong courtesy Andrea Canter
First: The first time I saw [Peruvian guitarist] Andrés Prado play. I had heard of a new guitar player in town who was slaying minds and writing incredibly interesting music. I was blown away by the energy and reckless abandon coming from the stage. It was one of those moments when I was able to recognize musicians having complete control / education / understanding of a craft and then turning it upside-down and having a personal voice as an artist. It turned out that he was my teacher at McNally Smith [College of Music] that semester, and we formed a lasting friendship and bond that went far beyond teacher/student.

Second: Watching Joey DeFrancesco hanging out in the club, going back and forth from devouring a pizza to shredding on the organ with Bill Brown. It reminded me of sixth grade, in my friend’s basement taking turns on Super Nintendo.

Third: Dean Magraw, Jim Anton, and JT Bates playing “Unseen Rain” … enough said!


Note: (1) Before moving to St. Paul in 1995, the Artists’ Quarter spent 13 years at 26th and Nicollet in Minneapolis. The “Arts Quarter” Condos now at 10 East 26th St. bear faint traces of the old name. And Icehouse at 2528 Nicollet, about a half-block north, features jazz on Mondays and other nights during the week. Maybe there’s something in the water.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Pleased and flipped 1: Memories of the Artists’ Quarter: JT Bates, Dave Kunath, Bryan Nichols

First 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 an era, I'm 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.

JT Bates, drummer

JT Bates by John Whiting
First and best was seeing [legendary drummer] Roy Haynes live for the first time. It was in the old Jackson Street location, next to a steak house and down in the basement. You’d open the door to a little landing and you had to go down a sizable amount of stairs to another little landing. The stairs turned to the left and then to the right. I remember opening the door – the club was way down there, but it was all open air down the staircase – and just standing there because I heard and felt Roy Haynes coming out in the world at me. It was just the fact that [AQ owner] Kenny [Horst] brought Roy Haynes here.

Second – and this was huge for my life – was the time [bassist] Adam Linz and I went down there and met [pianist] Bryan Nichols. Adam and I used to go to the jam sessions on Saturdays. We were just out of high school and Nichols was still in high school, and we met him at a jam session. Within a month, Adam and I went to his parents’ house and played with him there. It became a lifelong friendship, and those are the sorts of things that are hard to come by. If it hadn’t been for that jam session, we probably wouldn’t have met, because Bryan went to high school in Burnsville. He went to [college] in Iowa, but we had already established a connection, so whenever he was back from school we would play. We have always felt very musically connected, and that’s where it came from, and that’s really important to me. Those jam sessions were fun. Some days weren’t good, some days were great, but that’s how you learn and that’s how we learned. You had to come out of your shell, go down to the bar, put your name on a list, assert yourself and tell people you wanted to play.

Third – and this is still back at the Jackson Street club, a formative time in my life – I played with [bassist] Anthony Cox. We’d been playing a little bit with [saxophonist] Michael Lewis, but then David Friedman came to town, a percussionist [vibes and marimba] Anthony worked with a lot in a band called Rios, and I got to play with them. It was the first time I felt like I’d been invited to play with people who were outside of my circle and more prominent. It was exciting to play as a drummer with an unbelievable percussionist. It was a very positive experience in my growing-up time. I thought – maybe I do know what I’m doing. There’s validation when people like that call you [to play] and it actually goes well. It was a big step for me at the time.

About the AQ in general: It has a different proximity. You’re right there. There’s no getting away from the crowd. You go there to see someone and afterward there’s whoever you just saw, standing seven feet away from you. It’s a traditional jazz club. Not a corporatized f***** whatever. It’s just a hang. A f***** hang. You go to hear someone and you end up hanging out with them. That’s the way it works there. And that, to me, is the most frightening thing to lose.

Dave Kunath, music fan and taper

Courtesy Dave Kunath
My first real experience at the AQ was in late February of ’05 for Happy Apple. The month before that I’d seen them at the Cedar, which followed my first outing recording live jazz at the Dakota in late December, with The Bad Plus. I was basically following [drummer] Dave King. I was just kicking off an addiction to live music recording and Dave was very open and charitable towards the local taping community and to me, so I was looking for him and equating that with opportunities to record.

Seeing Happy Apple, or any group of players, at the AQ pretty much set the benchmark in the Twin Cities – for music, audience quality, and as a friendly live recording venue. A quick search of my show notes pulled up 153 unique references to “Artists’ Quarter.” And that includes the two years I lived in [northern Minnesota] … I got to know Kenny, [doorman] Davis [Wilson],(2) [bartender] Dan [Cunningham] and some of the regulars on a very casual and friendly level. We don’t hang out except at the AQ, and when we do it’s always with the music in mind.

I thought of one specific time at the AQ that I’d likely not be able to duplicate anywhere else. It was a date a couple or three years ago when [saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master] Lee Konitz played, and during the break he and Kenny and [bassist] Gordy Johnson were at a stand-up table back near the entrance chatting about Lee’s time in Miles Davis’s band and what that was like. Nowhere else in this city would I (or anyone) be able to feel comfortable standing at Kenny’s elbow, eavesdropping on a conversation which was painting a vivid first-hand picture of one of the few jazz icons I’ve come to appreciate.

That's the beauty of this club. It provides a focus point where so many people with a common interest can gather and feel at home with the players and their music, with the host and his staff and with other patrons.  You can't do that anywhere but the AQ, can you? And of course there’s Davis Wilson, our own national treasure. What can you say but that you are blessed when you darken the door and he looks up from his sudoko and smiles in recognition. You know you’re in a good place.

If the doors do indeed close, I’ll be left with a gaping hole in my life. This hobby is just about the only thing that provides me interest anymore. Losing the AQ will be like … well, it will be hard for me. Without Kenny’s good will allowing me and others to “play” in such a perfect environment, I’d never have met so many great talents. For that I thank my lucky stars, the Taping Gods, and the AQ.

Bryan Nichols, pianist

Bryan Nichols by John Whiting
First memory: showing up for a Saturday afternoon jam session in – 1996, maybe? I was still in high school. Unbeknownst to all of us, and this was pre-Internet, the jam session had been cancelled for that afternoon.(1) When [drummer] Greg Schutte and I both showed up, Kenny was cool enough to let us in. Like, “You’re here, I can open for a moment.” We played two songs as a duo – I had just met Greg – and then he kicked us out. It was very cool to be a 16-year-old and have a club owner accommodate you in that way. Greg and I have talked about that a number of times since. It was a cool thing.

Second was a [trumpeter] Tom Harrell gig. I used to hang out with José James, now Blue Note recording artist José James. We’d play in a band and go see shows together. We saw a lot of shows in high school. One night he called me and said, “Hey, what are you doing tonight? I’m going to a Christmas party, and one of my family members is married to the VP of marketing at Blue Note.” This was back in 1996, way pre-José-on-Blue-Note. So we went to this party and met the guy – Tom Everett was his name – and we played a couple songs for him and I talked to him. I was such a Blue Note records geek I could name all the old records and all the current artists. At some point he said, “What’s going on in town? I want to see some music.” We told him that Tom Harrell was at the AQ and he said “Let’s go!” We went down and it was sold out, but he flashed who he was and got us in. The band was Tom Harrell and a house rhythm section – [pianist/keyboard player] Craig Taborn, Anthony Cox, and Kenny. There was a leak in the roof, and the piano had a plastic tarp over it to keep water from falling on it, but everyone sounded so beautiful, It was my first time hearing Craig live. It was an incredible night. Hanging out with a Blue Note records dude and hearing Tom Harrell … During the set break, Tom Harrell wandered off.(3) José and I went looking for him and found him in Mears Park … These are vivid memories. Going to the show, getting in, hanging out with VIPs, seeing those musicians play, and finding Tom Harrell. Magical.

Third memory: my first weekend playing with Dave King in the band Melodious Thugs.(4) We played music by Thelonious Monk. That was my first weekend playing at the AQ. The first time being paid to play there. An incredible band, incredible music. I was 19, and I invited everyone I knew. Family members, friends, everyone came out. It felt like a big deal. Dave was pre-Bad Plus. We were all in varying stages of musical infancy, and it felt really amazing to be able to play there. I’ll always remember that as one of my very first big gigs.



(1) I had to laugh when Bryan said “this was pre-Internet.” It wouldn’t have mattered if his story had happened yesterday. Kenny Horst has been and always will be pre-Internet. He doesn’t use the web or email; he doesn’t have a cell phone. If you need to reach him, call him at home, but never before noon.

(2) You’ll read the name “Davis” often in these stories. The warm, gregarious Davis Wilson is an AQ fixture. He’s the one who takes your money at the door and (if you’re new) tells you where the bathrooms are. He’s the one you’ll talk to when you want to take a break from the music and hang out on the sofa in the entryway, and you’ll soon realize that your break has lasted a lot longer than you intended because he’s so interesting to talk to. A voracious reader, Davis knows everything and everyone. He can channel Lord Buckley, a man Bob Dylan once described as the “hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels.” Occasionally (too rarely) he has taken the stage at the AQ as Lord Buckley and done his own thing. More often (every night) he introduces the musicians to the crowd, starting something like this: “My lords and ladies, we are pleased and flipped that you are here tonight ...” He doesn’t hesitate to suggest that the audience keep their personal noise down and pay attention to the music. Would that more clubs did the same. That this series is titled “Pleased and flipped” is due entirely to Davis, whom we gratefully acknowledge for his years of service and raconteurship.

Davis as Lord Buckley in "Rants of Winter," March 2007
"My Lords and Ladies ..."
Davis doing business
(3) Tom Harrell, who has been called the greatest trumpeter of his generation, has severe schizophrenia. When he’s on stage but not playing, he stands stooped and silent, head bowed, sometimes leaning on a wall. He has a difficult time with social interactions. But when he plays, there’s no one like him.

(4) The other members of Melodious Thugs were Mike Lewis and Adam Linz.

A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Ave: Photo Set

Eric Hutchinson performed at the Sue McLean tribute
First Avenue on Saturday hosted a star-studded tribute to concert promoter Sue McLean, who died earlier this year of cancer at age 54.

I met her only a few times and never got to know her, but rarely have I heard anyone spoken of with such affection and admiration.

A woman business owner in what has long been a man's business, McLean inspired a lot of women and girls. She had a passion for music, and she treated musicians well, which came as a surprise to many of them.

McLean left behind a large family and a young daughter, Lilly, now 12, and the evening was also a benefit for her.

The people who put the evening together are gathering numbers now -- how many people attended, how much money was raised -- so it's possible I'll add more to this in the next couple of days. For now, here's the link to John's photo set on Flickr.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Fathom Lane at Icehouse

Michael Ferrier
Saturday, Nov. 24: Michael Ferrier, guitar and vocals; Ashleigh Still, vocals and keys; Ben Glaros, electric guitar; Shane Akers, lap steel; Doan Brian Roessler, electric bass; Charlie Peterson, keys; Alex Young, drums (subbing for Pete Hennig)

I don’t listen to a lot of pop music. I’m not saying I don’t hear it, I just don’t listen, not often or very carefully. The exceptions are few, and Fathom Lane, the band started by singer-songwriter Michael Ferrier in 2012, is one.  

“Down by Half,” their second record, came out in fall 2012. The Current’s Andrea Swensson, who listens to a lot of pop music, put it on what she calls her “sit down and shut up” shelf. I put it on my “drive alone in the car for at least an hour” shelf. It’s not background music or dinner-party music. It doesn’t demand attention – more insinuates it, or inveigles it like the person who speaks softly in a crowd of shouters. You want to hear the lyrics, and the music, which seems thoughtful and purposeful and crafted by hand. I liked “Down by Half” very much when it came out and still do. (At the time, I described it as “dark, deeply sad, ghostly and gorgeous.”)

“Fathom Lane,” the band’s eponymous second album, is more of a rocker, sunnier, even playful at times. Parts put me in mind of “Nuggets,” that classic collection of 1960s psychedelia (the one with the Seeds, the Standells, and the Syndicate of Sound). The first track, “Lazy,” is more benign all by itself than the whole of “Down by Half,” and “Ache Me” is a real surprise, upbeat and teasing. “Grey Dress” briefly goes off the rails into screaming electric guitar land. So the band is evolving and doing new things while continuing to hold onto that lush, atmospheric sound we’ve come to expect. An essential part of that sound is Shane Akers’ lap steel guitar, a dreamy, quavering sweetness that leaves you feeling a little off-balance. 

At Icehouse on Saturday night, which can be a talky place, especially when crowded to the point of standing room (which it was), most people were there to hear the music, which included songs from both albums and two new covers, “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost” and “Child of the Moon.” “Ghost” is a Songs: Ohia tune by Jason Molina, who died earlier this year; “Child of the Moon” is an obscure Rolling Stones single, the B-side of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” that never appeared on an album. Between songs, Ferrier told the crowd that their next project would be a Molina tribute album with several other bands. It was a very good night in a room that welcomes live music and treats it well.

Saturday’s set list (thanks to Michael Ferrier for this, and for explaining the covers):

Sweet Sept
Jack Knife
Ghost of Me
Golden Delicious
Perfect Day
Waltzing Blue Jesus
I've Been Riding with the Ghost
Ache Me
The Nightshade
Grey Dress

Child of the Moon

Mysteriously, the fog machine went off a few times during the set
Ashleigh Still

All photos (C) 2013 John Whiting.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Scenes from Friday's opening at Raymond Gallery

Friday, Nov. 15, 2013: Take a small gallery on Raymond Avenue in St. Paul, add two shows - one by gallery owner Joseph Brown of artists' portraits and lighted inflatable sculptures, one by legendary Minnesota potter Warren MacKenzie - send out e-cards, dangle the chance to buy one of MacKenzie's pieces (his works are so collectible they're rationed, like sugar during wartime), open the door and stand back. It was wall-to-wall people including many artists. Off the top of my head: Bob Briscoe, Mary Easter, Dick and Debbie Cooter, Richard Stephens, Guillermo Cuellar, Tressa Sularz, "Media Mike" Hazard, Wayne Potratz, Michael Norman. Madness!

Joseph Brown
Warren MacKenzie 
"Media Mike" Hazard, caught in the act 
The crowd!
The crowd!
All photos (C) 2013 by John Whiting