Thursday, December 25, 2014

Our two cents in the 2014 Twin Cities Music Critics Tally, with reasons why

The cover of the Chris Bates Good Vibes Trio self-titled debut  recording
For the past few years, Chris Riemenschneider, local music columnist and reporter at the Minneapolis StarTribune, has invited me to join the annual Twin Cities Music Critics Tally, in which a bunch of us post our Top 10 lists of local releases and our "No. 1 sign the local music scene was alive and well" during the year in review.

Earlier this week, after hearing Karrin Allyson, an exceptional jazz singer with strong local ties, at the Dakota (with Laura Caviani at the piano), we headed to Icehouse, where JT Bates's Monday-night "Jazz Implosion" series featured the Regional Jazz Trio (Anthony Cox, Michael Lewis, JT) and guest trumpeter Greg Paulus, in town from NYC to visit his family for Christmas. On Saturday we were at Jazz Central Studios for the CD release of "Twin Cities Jazz Sampler: Volume One," an audio snapshot of a big part of the Twin Cities jazz scene. Jazz happens every night in many places. To find some tonight, or tomorrow, or any night, check the Twin Cities Live Jazz Calendar on the Jazz Police website.

Here's my Top 10 list for this year's Critics Tally, with reasons for my choices. This is not a ranked list. The lion's share is original music, with a few original arrangements of someone else's music. All albums but one are self-produced on microlabels.

Patty and the Buttons, “The Mercury Blues.” Because button accordionist Patrick Harison (Patty) is always worth watching. His music is both old-timey and fresh, and this album of all original songs made me laugh out loud and want to dance. The band: Harison on accordion, vocals, steel guitar, washboard and uke; Keith Boyles on bass; Tony Bailuff on clarinet; Mark Kreitzer on guitar. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Courageous Endeavors, “Prototype.” Because this is a very impressive first and probably last outing by four well-trained, opinionated young dudes. It's all new, original music by the band members, full of ideas, energy, unexpected twists and solid grooves. I say "probably last" because the group's co-founder, bassist Brian Courage, has relocated to NYC after two years in the Twin Cities, during which he showed up at everybody's gigs, played with almost everyone, earned respect and made a lot of fans and friends. With Nelson Devereaux on sax, Joe Strachan on piano and Miguel Hurtado on drums. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Firebell, “Impossible Vacation.” Because this is an altogether lovely album of fine writing and playing, melodic and musical, thoughtfully put together, well-recorded and worth close, quiet attention. The trio Firebell - Park Evans on guitar, Graydon Peterson on bass, Jay Epstein on drums and exquisitely shimmering cymbals - has played together since 2009, but this is their first CD. It's mostly originals, plus two unexpected pop hits, dusted off and shaken up: "Beyond the Sea," made famous by Bobby Darin in the late 1950s, and Del Shannon's "Runaway." Buy it on Shifting Paradigm Records.

Chris Bates Good Vibes Trio, “Good Vibes Trio.” Because it's just so good, and how can it not be, with Bates on bass, Dave Hagedorn on vibes and Phil Hey on drums? Over the past few years, Bates has been on fire, playing in multiple bands, showing up on MPR podcasts, emerging as a leader and making two exceptional albums: 2012's "Chris Bates' Red 5: New Hope" and now this. It's a satisfying mix of originals by all three and new arrangements of lesser-known tunes by David Berkman, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and others. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Chris Lomheim, “Timeline.” Because Lomheim on piano is poetry, both as player and composer. His body of work is relatively small - "Timeline" is only his third album in 20 years - which makes it even more precious. Full of gorgeous lines, laced with real emotion, this is elegant, ethereal listening: piano trio perfection, with Gordy Johnson on bass and Jay Epstein on drums and cymbals. Buy it from the artist.

Dean Magraw and Eric Kamau Gravatt, “Fire on the Nile.” Because the first time I heard about this project - just Magraw on guitar and Gravatt on drums, two seasoned masters of melody, improvisation, and music history, turned loose in the studio to do whatever they wanted - I did the happy dance. That Red House Records took a chance made it even better. (Red House is a traditionally singer-songwriter label.) Magraw calls his music "Heavy Meadow." Gravatt spent years on the road with McCoy Tyner. The results of their collaboration are unpredictable, playful, serious and joyous. Buy it from Red House.

Adam Meckler Orchestra, “When the Clouds Look Like This.” Because Meckler's original compositions for a whole lot of instruments are tuneful, atmospheric, lush and cinematic. Parts here and there, and the whole title track, seem inspired and informed by Maria Schneider, which I mean as the highest possible compliment. The musicians are (deep breath) Adam Meckler, Tom Krochock, Sten Johnson, Cameron Kinghorn and Noah Ophoven-Baldwin, trumpets; Keith Hilson, Nick Syman, Mason Hemmer and Jenn Werner, trombones; Nelson Devereaux, David Hirsch, Ben Doherty, Shilad Senn and Angie Hirsch, saxophones; Steven Hobert and Joe Strachan, piano; Trent Baarspul, guitar; Adrian Suarez and Pete Hennig, drums; Graydon Peterson and Chris Bates, bass. Buy it on Bandcamp.

The cover of "Ghost Dance," a sweet year-end surprise

Casey O’Brien: “Ghost Dance.” Because this came as such a sweet end-of-year surprise. It almost didn't make the list; I learned about it second-hand and listened at the last possible minute. (It wasn't officially available until December 14. The CD release is set for January 5 at Icehouse.) So glad I did, because it's a beauty. O'Brien on bass, Nathan Hanson on saxophones and Davu Seru on drums play eight of O'Brien's original compositions. This is music of seeking and finding, pensiveness, tenderness, and a spirituality reminiscent of Charles Lloyd. Even when the tempo speeds up, it takes its time. Buy it on Bandcamp.

Peter Vircks, “What You Believe Is True.” Because it has everything: great writing, playing, band, spirit and soul. With Ron Evaniuk on bass, Kevin Washington on drums and Brian Ziemniak on piano, guests Schoen Oslund on guitar and Michael Nelson on trombone, Vircks plays eight of his own compositions and one by Evaniuk - some straight-ahead, some funkified. This is Vircks' first CD as a leader, and it's one with broad appeal. Buy it from cdbaby.

Jeremy Walker, “7 Psalms.” Because it's profound, majestic and brave. Even those of us who knew Walker's story - a career as a saxophonist sidelined by Lyme disease, the switch to piano and a renewed focus on composition - could not have predicted this evening-length work for jazz quartet, solo voice and choir, based on the unabridged texts of seven psalms. Allow me to quote myself, since I couldn't say it any better if I tried: "Inspired by Johnny Cash and John Coltrane, Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Radiohead, Walker wrote new music for the ancient Hebrew poems that are cries for help, howls of frustration and shouts of joy: 'Have mercy on me, O Lord.' 'How long, O Lord?' 'Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing.'" With Jason Harms, soloist; Walker on piano; Brandon Wozniak on alto saxophone; Jeff Brueske on bass; Tim Zhorne on drums; and the 7 Psalms Chamber Choir led by Brian Link. Buy it from cdbaby, amazon or itunes. 

The cover of Jeremy Walker's "7 Psalms"

My No. 1 sign the local music was alive and well in 2014:

“Twin Cities Jazz Sampler: Volume One.” Released Dec. 20, conceived by trumpeter Steve Kenny and crowd-funded through Kickstarter, the Sampler symbolizes the resilience of jazz at a time when making a living at it seems especially hard. The Artists’ Quarter has been dark for a year, and the Dakota, like many jazz clubs, has opened its doors to all kinds of music, yet jazz is heard across the Twin Cities every night, from Jazz Central to Icehouse, the Black Dog, Studio Z, and now even Orchestra Hall. Buy it at cdbaby.

The Sampler includes tracks by the Adam Meckler Orchestra, Chris Bates Good Vibes Trio, Courageous Endeavors, and Chris Lomheim Trio. You can check them out, along with several others, then go out and hear them play live at places like Jazz Central, the Black Dog and Studio Z.



Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Monterey must-sees: our Top Six picks for the 57th annual Monterey Jazz Festival and why

Cecile McLorin Salvant by John Abbott
Deciding to attend the Monterey Jazz Festival is easy, especially once you’ve been there. It only takes one time to fall in love with the music, the ambience, and the setting, a WPA-era fairgrounds with winding paths and mature trees and a mixture of buildings that three weeks ago hosted the Monterey County Fair, complete with pig races. This will be our 10th consecutive year at the longest continuously running jazz festival in the world, co-founded in 1958 by Jimmy Lyons and Ralph J. Gleason with a big helping hand from Dave Brubeck, who paved the way by performing for the Monterey City Council in 1957 with his quartet. He charmed them, then graced the festival 15 times in 55 years.

Deciding what to see once you’re there and the gates open Friday night is hard. Except for a single half-hour at the start, when the fine young pianist Jeremy Siskind will sit down for the first time at the piano on the Courtyard Stage, music will happen on multiple stages simultaneously all weekend long. (This year’s numbers: 500 artists in 86 performances, four conversations and a film, squeezed into a short Friday night and two days that start at noon.) And except for the 15 minutes between 6:45 and 7 p.m. Saturday, there’s music happening somewhere all the time. So you can’t see everything unless you dash from venue to venue up and down the fairgrounds, grabbing a few notes here and there. We’ve tried that, sort of, and what happens is you get sucked into a tune, a solo, or the sound of a duo or trio or band, and the next thing you know, you’re cheering and clapping and calling for an encore like the rest of the crowd.

We’ve done the festival many ways: planning every minute, which doesn’t work for us because we’re easily distracted; making few to no plans, which means we end up missing things we really want to see; and running around like crazy people. Whatever you end up doing, you’ll have a good time. How can you not, in such a beautiful place with such terrific music and exceptional fair food? We think the perfect MJF experience lies somewhere between adhering to a schedule and hanging loose. With that in mind, here are our top six picks for 2014 and why.

Billy Childs: Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. Because nobody bridges jazz and classical music like the Grammy-winning pianist and composer – not by swinging Bach or arranging Monk for string quartet, but by writing original music that draws from both. Because his new Laura Nyro project is way more than a tribute; it’s a love child that joyously mixes jazz with chamber music, soul with Brill Building pop. Because this performance will also feature Shawn Colvin, Becca Stevens, and Lisa Fischer, the runaway star of the Grammy-winning documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom.”

Davina and the Vagabonds. Because they were last year’s Monterey moment: the band nobody knew that everyone ended up talking about. Because band leader, singer, keyboardist, and composer Davina Sowers can channel Ma Rainey and Etta James and a long line of blues singers while still remaining entirely herself. Because she has put together a killer brass section. Because their new album, “Sunshine,” is terrific. (DownBeat gave it four stars. Tip: buy it early if you want it signed.) Because Davina just got engaged. (Unless you’re her Facebook friend, you probably didn’t know that, but now you do.)

Geoffrey Keezer. Because he’s an exceptional pianist with an amazing resume. Now in his early 40s, Keezer joined Art Blakey’s band at 18 and toured with Ray Brown in his 20s. Because he’s someone who can accompany singers (Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves) and superstars (Chris Botti, Sting, Wayne Shorter) and still have much to say as a composer and soloist. Because he can play anything with anyone, which is why he’s in such great demand. Because his trio dates at Monterey in the intimate Coffee House will honor two artists we miss a lot: Mulgrew Miller and James Williams.

Charles Lloyd. Because jazz is more than sound and rhythm. It’s also spirit and soul, and no one makes that more clear than 76-year-old sage and guru Lloyd. Because his music lifts you up, which is not the same as saying it’s feel-good music; it’s far more profound than that, and more satisfying. Because he’s a master, which is why all the great younger musicians – people like Jason Moran, Gerald Clayton, Eric Harland, and Reuben Rogers – want to play with him. Because if you’ve never heard him live, you owe that to yourself, and if you have, you know.

Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party. Because Moran is a shaper of jazz and culture, someone whose influence will be felt far into the future. Because he’s a 21st-century jazz man, a MacArthur “Genius” fellow, artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center (the position formerly held by Dr. Billy Taylor), a composer, performer, band leader, educator, visionary, standard-bearer and provocateur. Because his Fats Waller project is the sort of thing he does really well: rooted in history, brand-new, smart, and wide-open.

Cecile McLorin Salvant. Because she’s the hot new female jazz singer (the 2010 Monk Competition winner, a 2014 Grammy nominee, winner of four categories in the most recent DownBeat Critics’ Poll). Because she’s the real thing. Because what she can do with a single note will astonish you. Because she sings with conviction, precision, and passion; because, at the tender age of 26, she’s an old jazz soul; because everything about her is just right.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

John Raymond talks about intensity, disappointment, and his new Roots Trio

John Raymond by John Rogers
As I write this, I’m listening to jazz trumpeter/composer John Raymond’s next CD, a not-yet-released collection of 10 tracks recorded earlier this year with the acclaimed pianist Dan Tepfer, the in-demand bassist Joe Martin, and legendary drummer Billy Hart.

It’s a group of musicians the Minnesota native and Eau Claire grad would not be recording with if he hadn’t moved to New York in 2009, hit the ground running, and been dead serious about certain things: learning, listening, finding mentors, forming relationships, and evolving as a musician and as a human being.

He’s very good at all of those. His first CD, “Strength and Song,” came out in 2012, a solid debut. The new one, tentatively titled (for now) “Foreign Territory” after the first track, is still his music, still his presence and clear, radiant tone, but better. Stronger, smarter, more soaring and swinging.

Raymond returns to the Twin Cities this weekend with his New York-based Roots Trio for a concert and another recording session. The trio features Raymond on flugelhorn, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, and drummer Colin Stranahan. They’ll play Saturday at Studio Z, the St. Paul listening room run by Zeitgeist, the new music chamber ensemble.

We spoke when he was here in July, and before then in January (and also in March 2012, soon after the release of “Strength and Song”). In conversation, he’s open and direct, confident in his abilities but without arrogance or attitude. This piece combines parts of our two most recent exchanges. I asked the questions, but he gave the answers, so I’ll get out of the way.

On intensity

JR: What I’ve realized in New York is that the intensity level is always there. People play with so much intensity all the time that it took me a little bit to get on that plane. Now that I’m there, now that I realize what that feels like, I hate anything that doesn’t feel like that … The music is all that we as musicians have. If you’re not going to put 100% into it, why do it? I don’t want to hear something that lacks that intensity, that commitment.

There’s a certain rhythmic intensity that has to happen in jazz. A certain melodic intensity. And harmonic intensity. After that, it’s all a personal stand … You just want to do something that’s honest to you. What’s honest to me now looks different than it did three years ago. And I have to honor that. If I’m committed to that, it doesn’t matter what it sounds like, it’s going to work.

On learning to lead

In my first couple years in New York, I was doing a lot of reacting. I would be in these musical situations, playing with people a lot better than me, and thinking I wanted everybody to be on an equal playing field – for everybody to have a say in what was happening in a given musical moment. I realize now that when I’m the soloist, I direct where the music goes. As a bandleader, I have to direct and lead. I’ve always felt like a capable leader, I’ve always realized I have those skills, but now I have the tools to lead more fluidly and effectively.

On embracing the unknown

The people I love to make music with are people who push me into the unknown. I’ll go into something where I don’t know what’s happening or what’s going to happen and embrace it. My motto recently has been, “Just jump off the cliff. Just go.”

One of the big things I realized musically is that I was trying to control all of these things – my sound, improvising, the arc of a solo I would take, or the arc of a whole song. I wanted so much control! Then I saw that the people who are most inspiring to me would abandon that control and go with something spontaneous and unknown. That, to me, has been the thrill. I’ve gotten into not knowing what’s going to happen next. At first, that was kind of terrifying. But now I’m okay with it. The unknown is one of the most exciting parts about jazz.

On being himself

I’ve been getting together off-and-on with Matt Merewitz of Fully Altered Media. He’s an important publicist on the jazz scene, and I felt that he would tell me honestly and bluntly what he thought about me … One thing he told me right at the beginning was, “You need to stop trying to be like Ambrose [Akinmusire]. You need to think about who you are as a white, Minnesotan, Christian jazz musician.”

There was something about the white music/black music thing that made sense to me. A voice in my head said “Stop trying to be who you’re not. Be who you are. You’re a Minnesotan white dude who grew up in a Lutheran church.” So, what does that mean for me? What does that look like? It’s changing how I’m playing, and how I try to improvise.

When I started getting into Lee Konitz, I saw that Lee is not trying to be like anybody else. He never has. He doesn’t care anything about what anybody else thinks.

On playing the tune

I know what aspects I bring to the music, in terms of improvisation. I know I’m not a super-free player like Taylor Ho Bynum. I’ve been bred to have a really great sound, so in that way, I’m going to be different. I know that I think about music in a certain way. I want people to hear that I understand the tradition, because I do. So some of the things I’ve told myself over the last couple of years are, “Stop playing to try to impress people. Be okay with just playing the tune, playing the changes, playing something that is melodically really great.” What makes Lee Konitz so great is that he plays a lot of amazing stuff, but it’s not like he’s reinventing harmony or melody.

John McNeil [trumpeter and producer of Raymond’s new CD] has harped on me to get more of a vocal quality in my sound and how I play. The people we tend to connect most with as improvisers have a primal vocal quality. The music sings to you.

On who he’d like to work with someday

I desperately want to one day make a record with Dave King. To me, he’s a drummer who’s the perfect combination of everything. Maybe it’s because I’m from [the Twin Cities] and there’s a certain thing about that, but when I saw him at the Vanguard with Billy Carrothers and Billy Peterson, it was incredible. I stayed for both sets. I was going to go somewhere else after the first set, but I said to myself, “You’re not going anywhere.”

I’d kill to work with Brian Blade. Brian Blade and Dave King are two people I would love to record with at some point in my life.

On how his new Roots Trio came together

Last year, I ended up doing two different recordings. Both were with Gilad, and ever since we recorded “Strength and Song” he was always my first-call guy. There’s some kind of connection I feel with him – the way he makes music, and our relationship. There’s something there that I really want to keep. So I pared it down to a quartet – Gilad and I and a bass and drums. We recorded two different times with different musicians, and both of those times I played only flugelhorn.

Both of those recordings didn’t turn out how I wanted them to. There was just something about them that didn’t feel right.

For a while, I’d been thinking about doing a project with just a trio, with a different instrumentation – something a little fresher, something I’m not used to hearing or feeling. I emailed the guy who books The Bar Next Door in New York, which is a trio venue with no piano. I was just trying to get a gig, and thinking as I’m writing the email that I should propose a gig with me and guitar and drums. The guy knows Gilad really well, and Gilad plays there a lot. We ended up booking a gig. I had thought about Colin, but he couldn’t make that one, so Eric Doob, who’s another great drummer in New York, ended up doing it.

Then I thought, let’s just scrap the whole originals thing. Let’s play songs that people are familiar with, whether that’s folk songs or hymns or indie rock tunes, and incorporate some standards in there, too. I spent a while getting the music together, working out certain arrangements, but I didn’t work out too much. I just wanted to throw it at people. And we did the gig, and it was a really special night of music, and I could feel it, and Gilad felt it, too.

Part of the heartbeat of jazz is the joy that comes from the spontaneity. I have known that intellectually for a while, but after the Roots trio gigs and playing with Billy (Hart), it has come full circle. Something I’m telling myself a lot these days is, “Just make it feel good. Have fun with it and be happy about the music you make.” I notice a difference in how I feel and how everybody else reacts.

On the flugelhorn-guitar combination

I’ve transitioned to only playing flugelhorn with the trio. I think it sounds great with guitar. That comes out of the Art Farmer/Jim Hall influence. Farmer is one of the only people who’s known for playing mainly flugelhorn. I got a new flugelhorn, and there’s something about it and just playing flugel in general that has brought out a voice in me that I didn’t have playing trumpet.

The Art Farmer/Jim Hall groove inspired the whole pairing, and now I’m putting it in a different context, which is kind of cool.

On what the Roots Trio will record

We’ll be doing an arrangement of “This Land Is Your Land,” and an arrangement of “Blackbird,” the Paul McCartney tune. With a jazz sensibility. The nature of the instrumentation, specifically flugelhorn and guitar, will lend a rootsy feel to things, for lack of a better word, so I’m not as concerned about squeezing the jazz out of it.

We’re doing an arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel. An original, “Thaddeus,” in dedication to Thad Jones, based on his song “Three and One,” so it’s a contrafact. We’ll do a couple original songs of mine. Probably a Chris Morrissey tune, “Minor Silverstein,” off his “North Hero” record. An arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” an arrangement of “Be Still My Soul,” and an arrangement of the hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which most people have probably heard on the soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” A Thom Yorke song that [Twin Cities saxophonist] Chris Thomson introduced to me long ago that always stuck with me.

I think that’s it – 12 or 13 songs. I’m trying to plan compositionally and be smart – use my intellect in a good way to keep things interesting and fresh, but also leave a lot of space to let the musicians do their thing. That’s one of the strengths of the band.

On his disappointment after “Strength and Song,” and what has changed since then

When I put out “Strength and Song” [in 2012], it was like – okay, I’ve got a record now. I’m going to try to play all these festivals. I’m going to get an agent and play all these clubs. I was so gung-ho to make a big splash. But I didn’t have much success. It definitely opened a lot of doors, but it didn’t have the impact I was hoping it would.

That was disappointing, and hard to go through. I didn’t get a DownBeat review or a JazzTimes review. I didn’t get many good reviews from notable press. I was upset about that at first, that I didn’t get those reviews.

Then I had a conversation with the sax player John Ellis. He lives pretty close to me, and we’ve gotten together a few times for sessions or seeing each other at gigs. I think we were riding the train home from some gig together, talking about a whole bunch of things, and I was asking about the business side of music – we were going down that road – and his thoughts on certain things. At one point he said to me, “Remember that ultimately it’s not about any of that. It’s about the music. If you put 100% of your energy into making your music the most honest and high-level you possibly can, everything else will take care of itself.”

That conversation has stuck with me. Instead of thinking “I should’ve gotten this review” or “I should’ve done this,” or “those people should’ve liked the record” or whatever, just focus on the music. I’ve learned so much about how to take care of the music, and how to invest the heart and soul of my energy into that. Nothing has happened yet with the record with Billy, and we haven’t even recorded yet with Gilad and Colin, but I can already sense that things are very different from me than they were three years ago.

Related: John Raymond talks about his music, his faith, and his new CD

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Conductor Andrew Litton on his new recording, "A Tribute to Oscar Peterson"

The charming and in-demand maestro Andrew Litton – music director of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic, music director of the Colorado Symphony, artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Sommerfest, and conductor laureate of Britain’s Bournemouth Symphony – has a not-so-secret side: he’s a huge fan of jazz giant Oscar Peterson.

A highly accomplished, Juilliard-trained pianist in his own right, Litton often conducts from the keyboard and enjoys performing chamber music. At this year’s Sommerfest, now under way, Litton will be the featured pianist for Brahms’ Trio in E-flat major for Horn, Violin, and Piano, Op. 40 on Sunday, July 13; for Prokofiev’s Sonata in C major for Cello and Piano, Op. 119 on July 20; and for Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on July 25. (Litton is known as an authority on Gershwin; he’s currently working with a panel of Gershwin experts at the University of Michigan to develop a critical edition of all Gershwin works.)

He’ll also play a late-night solo set on Saturday, July 12. After leading a concert of Viennese music in the main auditorium of Orchestra Hall, he’ll move out to the atrium, where a piano will be waiting, and perform selections from his first solo CD, “A Tribute to Oscar Peterson” (BIS, 2014). Released in March, recorded on a Bösendorfer Imperial (Peterson’s piano of choice), “Tribute” has already earned praise from critics including those who write about jazz and often don’t look kindly on crossovers. (Litton has made more than 120 recordings; all the others are classical, with orchestras or operas.)

Litton first became aware of Peterson when a friend gave him the album “Tracks” (Verve, 1970) for his 16th birthday in 1975. (Recorded in 1970, after Peterson had spent 20 years performing with trios, this is a solo outing.) Nine years later, in 1984, Litton met his hero in London. Their friendship developed while Litton was serving as assistant conductor of the National Symphony in Washington, DC (under Msistlav Rostropovich) in the mid-1980s and Peterson often came to perform at Wolf Trap, the NSO’s summer home. In 2003, Litton was named artistic director of Sommerfest, and the very next year, 2004, he brought Peterson and his trio to the Orchestra Hall stage. He claims it’s because he wanted to introduce a jazz component to Sommerfest. Or maybe he just couldn’t wait to hear Oscar Peterson play live once more.

I spoke with Litton about Sommerfest for MinnPost; excerpts are available there. Here’s everything he had to say about playing Oscar Peterson.

Andrew Litton by Jeff Wheeler
“You can imagine the thrill it was, having met Oscar for the first time in 1984, and in 2004 being able to present him here [in Minneapolis]. The tribute album came out this year, but it was actually recorded in 2012. On Saturday night, I’ll be playing the whole disc minus a track or two.

“It’s been really fun to relearn them. Bringing them back to my fingers has been a challenge. The most amazing part of the whole experience was once I got over the nervousness of trying to play like [Oscar], I started appreciating who he was and what he did. It’s one thing when you idolize someone and listen to what they do, but when you try to learn the notes as they played them, you get inside their brains. It gave me a deeper level of understanding and appreciation for the genius he was. It never ceases to amaze me.

“People have asked, ‘Are you doing a straight crib?’ That’s the starting point. Then you play things through enough, mess around with them, practice them, try things out and eventually they become your own spin on what the man originally did. My intent is to play the same notes, in the same order. Therein lies the challenge. He just spontaneously played these things, and I’m trying to re-create how he played them

“At times I thought, ‘Andrew, this is the most idiotic hobby you’ve ever had. I can’t play this! Impossible!’ Then you come back the next day with fresh eyes and suddenly it’s there.

“The thing that took longest was proofreading the various transcriptions I was using. I found some on the internet and they were dodgy and full of errors. It’s like you’re given the ingredients for a recipe [but not told how to use them]. Some assembly required.

“Some transcriptions are now being published by Hal Leonard. A whole book came out a few months ago. The entire ‘Tracks’ album has now been transcribed and published! Including ‘Give Me the Simple Life,’ the first cut, a life-changing moment for me. I spotted a mistake in bar 3. I closed the book and said no, I’m not starting another one now. Someday I’ll play it. Transcription is a special skill I don’t have.”

[Note: About that “life-changing moment,” Litton told the Minneapolis StarTribune: “I was blown away by this uptempo ‘Simple Life.’ I said, ‘He’s off the beat,’ but I started clicking along with it, and he’s not only fooling us that he’s lost it, but he’s absolutely on the beat. It was an epiphany, and I became a groupie.”]

“ ‘Tribute’ is my first and only solo album. It was great [to make it] but such a challenge. Part of the challenge was getting practice time.” [Litton spends much of his life on the road.] “Seventy-five percent of the time [when you’re conducting an orchestra], your soloist is a pianist. Each week, I would find myself in open negotiation with the soloist over who would get to play the piano backstage. Obviously, the soloist of the week has to have priority. 

“I thank a bunch of people at the end of my liner notes. I thank Stephen Hough. I worked with him for six out of the last eight weeks prior to recording the album. He was so sweet; he shared the piano. Not every hall is like Orchestra Hall, where there are seven pianos backstage. This is pure luxury here. Very often in Europe and elsewhere in America, there’s only the one instrument.” 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rufus Reid on François Rabbath: "He's magical"

Rufus Reid by Jimmy Katz
The virtuoso double-bassist François Rabbath started teaching around the time he turned 50. Rabbath never had a teacher – he is entirely self-taught – and he didn’t want others to suffer and struggle as he did to master the mighty beast of the strings. 

His students have included members of many great symphony orchestras around the world and several renowned jazz bassists. Ray Brown was one of his students; so were John Clayton and Rufus Reid.

While researching Rabbath for a piece I was writing for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, I came across these words:

In December 2002, Rufus studied with bassist extraordinaire François Rabbath, whom Reid considers “the synthesis of all music … I waited 25 years for this remarkable and life-altering experience.”

I spoke with Reid on June 26, 2014.

PLE: Thank you for taking my call.

Rufus Reid: No problem – talk my man François, that’s easy. We could talk for hours about that.

A lot of people don’t know who he is.

I’m shocked at that. Long before the bass community here in the United States knew about François, he was doing things. I remember seeing a program at his house, for a concert at Carnegie Hall with Ornette Coleman. He was – in a way, he still is – considered to be a renegade.

He’s been marching to his own drum. That’s why he’s accomplished what he’s done. Everything that he’s accomplished is because no one told him he couldn’t do it … His whole concept of playing the bass is because he never got with somebody who said, “You can’t do that on the bass.” His whole life is like that. He was always doing bizarre things that nobody else was doing … He’s someone who can play all the Bach cello suites as well as any cellist, if not better.

I’ve heard that he plays the Bach in the original key.

In the exact same key, not transcribed. Years ago, people would change the key so it would lay a little easier for the bass. But he wouldn’t go for that … One reason why François has written his own music is because almost everything bass players play is a transcription of a cello piece or a violin piece. Music hasn’t been written specifically for the bass.

Why is that?

I don't know. [Double bassist and composer] Edgar [Meyer] started writing a lot of music for the bass because I guess he didn’t want to be playing all these other well-known pieces. But not too many other bassists can play his stuff.

François wants people to play his music. It introduces technical things to the student that they never would have thought about before, and once they get those under their fingers, they begin to have more of a voice on the instrument … Have you talked with [composer and bassist] Frank Proto?

I haven’t, but I’ve been reading about him.

He’s written five concertos for François, some of them with orchestra. They were tailored for the way François plays, and they’re extraordinary pieces of music. So there is a breadth of new compositions coming out. I’m beginning to write a couple things.

You’re writing for large ensembles.

Yes. There’s very little new stuff that’s made for large ensembles. But more and more people are beginning to get into that.

[Note: Reid’s latest recording is “Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project,” released on Motema in February, 2014. Inspired by the sculptures of the late African American artist and civil rights activist Elizabeth Catlett, “Quiet Pride” is a five-movement, large-ensemble suite featuring 20 players.]

Francois Rabbath by John Whiting
When did you first become aware of François Rabbath?

I guess the first time I met him was at the International Society of Bassists [convention]. It was held in Los Angeles, which was probably 25 or 30 years ago, and he was a guest. I have a picture of [the two of us] on my wall in my studio, but I didn’t really know him at that time. He could barely speak English at that time, but it was awesome just to hear him play.

Several years later, I got an opportunity to go to Hawaii for a bass workshop, and he was there. I was around him for an entire week doing the workshops and teaching, and it was mind-blowing, the sounds and the things that were happening …When I wasn’t doing my thing, I was watching him do his thing. We became friends and we would play. I liked him because he improvised. He’s not a jazz player in the sense that I am, but he’s an improviser, and he sees music as music.

He made a record of jazz standards [“In a Sentimental Mood,” 2004]. No typical classical bassist would even think of doing something like that, much less recording it and putting it out as a project. The Japanese wanted him to do that and he did. I think it’s great. I don’t call him a classical player because that’s really not enough. He plays music on the bass. He can play all the standard classical repertoire and more.

[In 2002], I went to France on a tour, and when I finished I spent four days with him taking some lessons myself. It was like going back to school. I thought I could play. Got my butt kicked, and it was great.

Was that the extent of your studying with him, those four days in Paris?

Yes. Me and him … I’ll never forget my time there, that’s for sure.

I started out playing the German bow, and I had students who played both [the German and the French bows], and I began to feel inadequate about working with them because I knew that they weren’t doing well with the bow. I said, “Man, I gotta learn how to play this bow a little better.”

The French bow is how François plays. You turn the hand completely over the bow. The part you hold with the hand is much larger … At one time, there was this stigma that if you play the French bow, you can’t really play with any balls, like the German bow player. Or if you’re a German bow player, you can’t play with any finesse, like a French bow player. That kind of stupid stuff was going on.

I wanted to learn how to play both, and because of François’s ability to do both, he’s even introduced a kind of a hybrid bow that you can play either way. It depends on how the music is designed. But he’s such an open book, and so I went and studied with him.

I found a hotel that was about two blocks away, and I left my bass at his house, and I was just trying to get into his concept more. Because years ago, when we were doing the workshops, he told my wife, “Tell Rufus I really like the way he plays, but I can help him play better.”

You weren’t offended by that?

Oh, man! That was mind-blowing. Bring it on! I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the sound that I made, but when I got together with François, it was so much more refined … Just playing the open note, or playing one note, it was all about the sound, the placement, your relaxed body, and that intrigued the hell out of me, and still does to this day. It’s been years since I’ve been to see him, but I think about him a lot. I adapted my end pin [to be like his].

You mean slanted, or angled, instead of straight.

A few more jazz players are beginning to utilize that concept. John Clayton, for one … The bassist from Texas at Rice University, Paul Ellison – I’m sure you’ve heard that name. He took a year off to study with François …

Did his teaching change your playing?

Absolutely. I’m doing things technically that I would’ve never even thought of trying to do, because in the traditional stance I wouldn’t be able to get the sound without some weird contortions of the body. That’s where his concept comes to the fore.

The stance of the bass with the slanted end pin changes the center of gravity of the bass. Your body is more relaxed, and pretty much in the same position whether you’re playing way up in the upper register or down low. The playground – the fingerboard – is much more accessible. In the traditional stance, once you get really high up on the bass, the lower strings aren’t very easy to negotiate.

François plays all over the goddamn bass effortlessly, whether he’s in the upper register or lower register. The bow has more equity on all the strings.

What do you mean by “more equity”?

If you have the bass against the body in the traditional way of playing, you don’t get the same sound over the whole length of those lower strings. François can actually play scales all over all the strings and get a really robust sound, not a string sound … No matter where he is, his posture’s the same, and that makes the music come out with much more consistency. So that’s the concept.

I once saw a young musician, a girl maybe 10 years old – she’s probably 17 or 18 now. She had learned François’s concept with the bent end pin, and she was amazing.

A removable angled end pin
invented by French luthier
Christian Laborie
So his concept is becoming more widespread?

Absolutely. At first, most people thought it was a fad. Anything new is a fad, and of course people are reticent to embrace it. Anything that goes against tradition, I don’t care what it is, people fight it. They’ve been fighting François for years. [They won’t] even give it up that he can play this way. But he got me. It’s not that I want to play like François, but his concept makes sense, and I’m happy. And people who hear me say, “You’re so relaxed when you play.” I can play for hours. And so I think about him. He’s with me all the time.

Actually, I thought about him a few weeks ago. I was just gonna call him up, but it was like 8:00 or 9:00 at night and I can’t call Paris then. I could probably wake him up, but I don’t want to do that. I like him as a gentleman, as an artist, and everything else. He’s really fun.

The first day I spent with him, my lesson was ten hours long, and I wasn’t ready to leave. After that, we would work all morning from 10:00 probably until about 1:00, then he’d say, “Let’s go have some lunch, but we’re not going to have any wine because we have more work to do.”

Even in Paris?

There’s a time to work and there’s a time to play. It was great.

You were almost 60 when you had those four days with him in 2002. How did it finally happen?

I was going on tour with pianist Kenny Barron in Switzerland, and we would be flying home from Geneva. François had gone to my wife [years before] and said, “Tell Rufus he’s got to come see me,” and my wife said “Now’s the time.” I set things up with François [in advance], left my trunk and big suitcase in Geneva, got a backpack and my bass, and got on a train to Paris.

[Earlier I had asked François], “How much do you charge for your lessons?” He said, “Give me what you can.” This is what he does for his students. I knew what I got for teaching and thought I had better at least double that. Thanks to my wife finagling files and moving money around, the money I earned on the tour with Kenny Barron was my lesson money.

You once called him “the synthesis of all music.” What did you mean by that?

He’s not a classical player, he’s not a jazz player, he’s not a pop player, but he’s played all those things. He was very close to Michel Legrand when they were younger in Paris. He played in the Paris Opera; he didn’t get that gig until he was 50. And then he was always trying to improvise. He’s not afraid of any kind of music, and he plays really modern music that is kind of hard to listen to sometimes. He can play beautiful melodies. He encompasses such a broad sense of just music, and that’s why I say that.

Is there anything else you would like to say about François Rabbath?

I love him. He really has helped me do what I do better, which I’m thankful for. I already thought I was doing a good job of it, but at the same time, when I got together with him, it was like – oh, that’s different. And I began to try to indoctrinate that into my own playing … I never tried to compete with him because I would be a fool to do that. A lot of people want to show how much technique they have, and there are some incredibly virtuosic people out there, but they don’t play music. They just play stuff … François is a true performer. He lights up.

You mentioned Paul Ellison a moment ago. He once called François “the personification of love.”

He’s a leprechaun. He’s magical. He’s a pied piper. I don’t want to be super-syrupy about it, but he exudes this aura that makes you feel good … I’m fortunate that I can call him a friend, and that he’s helped me do what I do, and he seems to respect me for what I do as well.