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.

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