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.

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