Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Our 10 best-album picks for the 2015 Twin Cities Critics Tally and why

The cover of Irie Sol's "Dred Scott Fitzgerald"
references the original cover of "The Great Gatsby"
Each year for the past several years, Star Tribune music writer Chris Riemenschneider has kindly included me in his annual Twin Cities Critics Tally, in which a bunch of us music and arts writers pick our top 10 Minnesota albums of the year. He knows that most of my choices will be lone flags flapping in the breeze – I listen to jazz, new music and classical – and none will have any influence on the TCCT’s ultimate goal of identifying the 20 Best Minnesota Albums of the Year. But he asks me anyway and I’m happy to shine some Strib light on artists who might not get much otherwise. All that being said, here are my top 10 (in alpha order, not ranked), plus a Just Shoot Me extra.

Peg Carrothers, “Edges of My Mind” (Vision Fugitive). Vocalist Peg is the wife of the phenomenal pianist Bill Carrothers, and the glory usually goes to him, though it’s her voice we hear on his award-winning “Armistice 1918.” For her debut solo release, recorded in Minneapolis, issued first in Europe in a beautiful package by the French label Vision Fugitive, Bill plays piano, with Dean Magraw on guitars and mandolin, and Billy Peterson and Gordy Johnson on bass (on different tracks). No drums, which seems to free the songs and Peg’s voice to float and waft and soar. It’s a strange mix of tunes – some Stephen Foster (“Gentle Annie”), some Johnny Nash (“I Can See Clearly Now”), some Aerosmith (“Dream On”), some Rolling Stones (a dark and rather terrifying “Sympathy for the Devil”) – but it holds together, creating its own dreamy, languid world.

An image
from "Seven Secrets of Snow"
Paul Fonfara, “Seven Secrets of Snow” (self-released). I don’t follow indie music very closely (actually I don’t follow it at all), so when this dropped into my email I almost didn’t listen. Except Fonfara gave me some background on where the music came from. He originally wrote “Secrets” for a BBC documentary about a Russian clown named Slava (Polunin) and his treks through Siberia, When that project stalled, he was far enough along that he commissioned local filmmakers to create original films to accompany his music. Fully orchestrated, performed by musicians from Painted Saints, Poor Nobodies, Dreamland Faces and the Brass Messengers on piano, brass, clarinet, woodwinds, guitar, accordion and singing saw, “Secrets” is cinematic and colorful. I hear a circus, a jazz band, a chamber orchestra, folk songs, and bits of Satie, Nino Rota and Sting. It was all so unexpected and pleasing that I listened to it several times, though I never saw the films. I missed the live show at the Cedar in December and hope it returns.

José James, “Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday” (Blue Note). Since starting out as a jazz singer in Minneapolis in his teens (and becoming a finalist in the 2004 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocalist Competition), James has had a 21st-century music career, releasing two albums on Brownswood (a London label) and a third on Verve, finally landing at Blue Note, infusing his music with hip-hop, multitracking, R&B, rock-and-roll, world rhythms, collaborations and whatever else takes his fancy. His first jazz album, 2010’s “For All We Know” with Belgian pianist Jef Neve, never caught on, and it took him a while to circle back to jazz on his own terms: with a collection of songs made famous by the woman he calls his “musical mother.” His last three albums have all been on Blue Note, where Don Was has the biggest ears in the world for someone who runs a legacy label. So “Yesterday” feels a lot more jazzy than anything James has done for a while, which is fine, but it’s also informed by everything else he’s into, which is also fine. Like Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington, James is drawing diverse crowds to a genre that has been an easy target for too long. (Related: “Jose James pays homage to the soul of Lady Day.”)

Peter Kogan, “Some Monsterful Wonderthing” (self-released on Koganote) and Dean Sorenson Sextet, “Colors of the Soul” (self-released). We lucked out this year with two recordings of brand-new hard bop composed by area musicians, performed by area musicians and recorded in Minneapolis. Drummer Peter Kogan spent several years as principal timpanist for the Minnesota Orchestra, playing jazz on the side (and more seriously during the lockout of the musicians during a lengthy labor dispute, when he suddenly, if unwillingly, had the time); trombonist Dean Sorenson is director of jazz studies at the University of Minnesota. Both of their CDs feature all-original tunes and top area musicians. Kogan’s core band for “Monsterful” is a septet with Pete Whitman on tenor
sax, fellow Minnesota Orchestra member Charles Lazarus on flugelhorn and trumpet, Scott Agster on trombone, Cory Wong on guitar, Sean Turner on piano and Brian Courage on bass, with appearances by New York-based Brazilian percussionist Rogerio Boccata and pianist Tommy Barbarella. Sorenson’s “Colors” is all sextet, with Steve Kenny on trumpet, David Milne on tenor sax, Chris Lomheim on piano, Tom Lewis on bass and Phil Hey on drums. Two great bands playing tight, swinging original music. I couldn’t choose between them.

Irie Sol, “Dred Scott Fitzgerald: A Novella” (self-released). There’s a lot going on in this 20-minute EP – musically, stylistically, lyrically, historically, multiculturally. Irie Sol is an ensemble of musicians and vocalists living and working in the Twin Cities and Eau Claire; founder Junior Williams hails from Jamaica. The five songs blend reggae, blues, funk, rock, and Americana; add dense, fast-flying lyrics full of references to Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” and historic figures (Marcus Garvey, Dred Scott, Haile Selassie, Countee Cullen); and re-imagine Fitzgerald’s Bernice (of his short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”) as a girl from Eau Claire who dreds her hair and jumps into the Harlem Renaissance. The CD comes with a booklet that includes all the lyrics. It’s smart, assured “lit-hop” that rewards close listening, or you can just put it on and enjoy the sound.

Graydon Peterson Quartet, “Duets” (Shifting Paradigm Records). A tune for bass and trumpet, then a tune for bass and drums, then one for drums and Fender Rhodes, then one for bass and guitar … For his second release as leader, jazz bassist Peterson turns a kind of nerdy idea into a varied, intriguing listen. The concept: to write songs for every permutation of two instruments in his quartet. (In fact, Peterson had five instruments to work with; his original quarter included a guitar and his current group has the Rhodes.) All the tunes are originals, and all the tracks have that relaxed, conversational feeling that comes from knowing the person you’re playing with. There’s satisfying mix of rhythms, moods and grooves. I would have included one more song featuring all five musicians – Peterson, Adam Meckler (trumpet and flugelhorn), Adrian Suarez (trap set), Joe Strachan (Rhodes), and Vinnie Rose (guitar) – just because.

John Raymond, “Foreign Territory” (Fresh Sound Records). On his second album as leader, trumpeter and composer Raymond turns standards inside-out and creates something fresh and exciting. Making “What Do You Hear” from the chords of “I Hear a Rhapsody,” the beautiful “Deeper” from “How Deep Is the Ocean” (and winning a 2015 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award for that one), he delivers music that’s new yet somehow familiar, at the same time freeing himself and the other musicians in his quartet to experiment and explore. And what a quartet: Dan Tepfer on piano, Joe Martin on bass and the legendary Billy Hart on drums. The whole album – which also includes a free improvisation inspired by Horace Silver’s “Peace” (“Rest/Peace”), an homage to one of Raymond’s main influences, Lee Konitz (“Adventurous-Lee”) and the sole cover, Kenny Wheeler’s “Mark Time” – is a pleasure, earning well-deserved coverage and kudos including an editor’s pick position in Downbeat and praise from Nate Chinen of the New York Times. (Related: “Jazz trumpeter brings ‘Foreign Territory’ home to Minnesota.”)

Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra: “The Thompson Fields” (ArtistShare). If there’s justice in the world, Schneider’s eighth album will win at least one of the Grammys it’s nominated for: “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album” or “Best Improvised Solo” (for Donny McCaslin’s work in “Arbiters of Evolution”). Lush, gorgeous, spacious and embracing, it makes me want to move to Windom, Schneider’s Minnesota hometown, and grow beans. Schneider leads her excellent New York big band in eight original compositions about beauty, evolution, the changing weather, miles of land, monarch butterflies, and the meaning of home. As ever, she leaves ample room for her soloists – McCaslin being just one example – and I especially love hearing Gary Versace’s accordion in “A Potter’s Song.” This music tells stories, taps the emotions and paints pictures with a big, wide brush and all the colors. If you want to hear it, you’ll have to buy it or borrow it; don’t look for it in Spotify or other streaming services, which Schneider fiercely opposes. (Related: “Maria Schneider on her hometown of Windom, leading the band and working with David Bowie.”)

Mike Olson, “Six Projects” (Innova). As the title suggests, this is a compilation of six discrete works, not an album in the traditional sense of something you listen to from start to finish, although you can certainly do that. Olson is an experimental/electronic/new music composer, so these six pieces, spanning 13 years, are soundscapes, not songs. Most were created using his own fragment-based compositional process – gathering many small musical fragments (some performed live, some preexisting), then manipulating, layering, aligning, altering, combining, and mixing them to create what he wants to say. Some of the musicians heard here include drummer Dave King and percussionist Heather Barringer (on “De Novo”); Olson also borrowed bits from works by Stefan Kac, Paul Dresher, Zeitgeist, Anthony Gatto, Pauline Oliveros, and Janika Vandervelde, among others. You’ll hear thunder and rain in “Flute Clouds,” the repetition and exploration of a single Ojibwe word in the haunting, atmospheric a capella choral piece “Noopiming” (that’s the word, and it means “in the North, inland, in the woods”), vintage and contemporary synthesizers in “Implied Movement” and “Shift.” This is spacey, ambient, dynamically diverse (sometimes loud, sometimes barely discernible), occasionally rhythmic (more often not) music I turned to out of curiosity, then ended up liking very much. We should all listen to more Innova recordings.

Just Shoot Me

I thought Jeremy Siskind’s “Housewarming” (Brooklyn Jazz Underground) came out in 2014. I was wrong; its official release date was Feb. 24, 2015. I love this album and would have included it in my Top 10; just don’t ask what it would have replaced. “Housewarming” is the same core trio as Siskind’s earlier “Finger Songwriter” – Siskind on piano, Clara City native Nancy Harms on voice, Lucas Pino on reeds – plus guests Kurt Elling, Kendra Shanks and Peter Eldridge on selected tracks. Nine original Siskind compositions (and four covers) explore themes of home, belonging, and yearning for home – perfect material for a group that has made a specialty of house concerts, intimate live performances in private homes. I heard them at a friend’s home in Plymouth in August and it was enchanting. So is the recording. Don’t expect drama or pyrotechnics; this is music of tenderness and taking care. The instrumentation – Siskind’s lyrical piano, gleaming with arpeggios and pillowed with chords; Pino’s pensive saxophone and clarinets – is paired with eloquent lyrics borrowed in part from Marilynne Robinson, W.B. Yeats, Carl Sandburg and Derek Walcott. The singing, most by Harms, is exquisite and expressive; she can tell a whole story in a single word or syllable. This is not an album for driving 70 mph down the freeway, but for an evening at home with friends or loved ones, memories or dreams.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Big Ears Festival 2016 is crazy good

I don't normally cut-and-paste press releases into here, but this lineup is so amazing I had to share.

Thanks, Kid Logic Media.

October 20, 2015 – Knoxville, TN – The internationally acclaimed Big Ears Festivaldeclared “the most ambitious avant-garde festival to emerge in America in more than decade” by Rolling Stone – is proud to announce its most expansive, groundbreaking line up to date, bringing together musical leaders and innovators from the worlds of classical, jazz, electronic, folk, hip-hop and beyond for the weekend of March 31 – April 2, 2016 in venues throughout downtown Knoxville, Tennessee.   

Heralded American composer John Luther Adams – winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music as well as the 2014 Grammy Award for “Best Classical Composition” – will serve as Composer-in-Residence at this year’s festival. Hailed as “one of the most original music thinkers of the new century” by The New Yorker, Adams’ work combines rich musical experience with his love for the natural world, especially the wild Arctic landscapes of Alaska, where he lived for nearly 40 years. Several of his key works will be performed during the Big Ears weekend, including his powerful, sweeping orchestral masterpiece, Become Ocean, in a concert by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Steven Schick.

Big Ears will also present at least two very special rare performances during the weekend. New music icons and Big Ears alumni Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass will present the American debut of their unique collaboration, thus far heard only once this past summer in Italy. In addition, the legendary 1972 minimalist/industrial rock creation by violinist/filmmaker Tony Conrad with German “Krautrock” legends Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate, will be heard live in its only concert performance in 2016.

The remainder of the weekend will see dozens of concerts by a virtual who’s who of the world’s most iconoclastic and visionary music artists. Composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton will perform with two of his ensembles – a ten piece group and a trio; his former associate, composer/trumpet virtuoso Wadada Leo Smith will perform duos with leading jazz pianist, Vijay Iyer; while the wildly acclaimed young saxophonist Kamasi Washington – collaborator with Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus – will present his soulful, spiritual jazz.

Guitarist Marc Ribot returns for a couple special concerts, and jazz guitar wizard Mary Halvorson will present a solo show as well.

The Irish supergroup, The Gloaming, will perform, along with young British folksinger, Olivia Chaney; leading American folk and alternative rock artists like Andrew Bird, Yo La Tengo, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Angel Olsen, Joe Henry, Lambchop, and Circuit des Yeux will be in attendance as well.

Icelandic producer/composer Valgeir Sigur∂sson will be bringing his Bedroom Community compatriots Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, and Sam Amidon for a show commemorating their 10th Anniversary as a label and musician’s collective; and fellow Iceland native composer Ólafur Arnalds will present his electronica collaboration with Janus Rasmussen, Kiasmos.

Widely acclaimed new music ensemble eighth blackbird will make their Big Ears debut, presenting Bryce Dessner’s new work Murder Ballades during their performance, and Australia’s musical shamans, the Necks, will return to lead Big Ears on another kaleidoscopic musical journey.

There will be groundbreaking electronics from Nicolas Jaar, Ikue Mori, and Andy Stott; maximum minimalism from drone legends Sunn O))); future thinking hip-hop and beyond with Shabazz Palaces and Hieroglyphic Being; Saharan Desert electric guitar jams from Bombino; and even more musical exploration with avant-garde sonic explorers Phantom Orchard and Wolf Eyes.

There’s more to come, including other special performances and details to be revealed in the coming weeks.  One thing is certain: Big Ears fans will be fully immersed in an unforgettable weekend of astonishing music-making of all kinds.

Weekend passes, individual day passes, reserved seat tickets for Tennessee Theatre performances, and the “Sonic Explorer” VIP Pass all go on sale Friday, Oct. 23 at 12 noon eastern.

Full details on the Big Ears lineup – including the daily artist breakdown – as well as all ticketing information can be found at Installations, interactive experiences, panels, discussions, and undoubtedly a few surprises will be revealed leading into the festival. All this and more information can be found at, by “liking” Big Ears Festival on Facebook, by following @BigEarsFestival on Twitter, and by joining the newsletter.

Daily Lineups:
Thursday, March 31, 2016
Knoxville Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Steven Schick performing the Music of John Luther
Adams, Bryce Dessner, and Philip Glass with Guest Cellist Maya Beiser 
The Gloaming
Yo La Tengo
Andy Stott
Tony Conrad
Wolf Eyes
Marc Ribot
Xylouris White
Zeena Parkins & Tony Buck
Olivia Chaney

Friday, April 1, 2016
Andrew Bird
Anthony Braxton Tentet
Outside the Dream Syndicate (Tony Conrad with Faust)    
Nicolas Jaar (DJ)
Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith
eighth blackbird with Bonnie "Prince” Billy and Bryce Dessner 
Yo La Tengo & Lambchop
Shabazz Palaces
Steven Schick
Joe Henry & Marc Ribot
Phantom Orchard
Chris Abrahams
Molly Nilsson

Saturday, April 2, 2016
An Evening with Laurie Anderson & Philip Glass
Sunn O)))
Bedroom Community 10th Anniversary: Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, Sam Amidon, & Valgeir Sigurðsson
The Necks
Kiasmos (Ólafur Arnalds & Janus Rasmussen)
Angel Olsen
Anthony Braxton Trio
Kamasi Washington
Mary Halvorson
Hieroglyphic Being
Circuit des Yeux
Ikue Mori

Friday, September 25, 2015

Maria Schneider on her hometown of Windom, leading the band and working with David Bowie

Maria Schneider by Briene Lermitte
Minnesota native Maria Schneider recently released a luminously beautiful new album, "The Thompson Fields," on the fan-funded label ArtistShare. We spoke with her shortly before her appearance at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Read it on MinnPost.

Sonny Knight onstage at 67: "It's like life started all over again for me"

Sonny Knight and the Lakers by John Whiting
We caught up with Sonny Knight at the Monterey Jazz Festival, just before his Saturday performance with the Lakers on the Garden Stage. Read it on MinnPost.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The 58th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival: What to see and hear

Geri Allen
From Friday at 6 p.m. when the gates open, through late Sunday night when the last notes sound and the final stragglers, the diehards, those who don’t want the music to end (count us in) make their way down the shadowy tree-lined paths toward the exits, the Monterey County Fairgrounds will be the jazziest place on the planet.

At the 58th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, which happens this weekend (Sept. 18-20), jazz by many of the world’s top artists will rise to the sky above the open-air Arena and the Garden Stage, pour through the doors of the Night Club and Dizzy’s Den and curl around listeners crowded into the small, intimate Coffee House.

Jazz conversations, panel discussions, jam sessions, workshops, mixers and a film will take place throughout the grounds. Everyone you meet at a concert, in a line or around a picnic table will be a jazz fan, aficionado, performer, supporter, producer, journalist, educator, student or at least curious and willing to listen. No one you meet will claim not to like or understand jazz, or insist that it’s dead.

Monterey is a magical weekend, and addictive. This will be our 11th year, and we come all the way from Minnesota. We’re not the only ones who travel a long way to soak up the ambience of the place and the excellence of the programming, which is never the same but poses the identical hair-pulling, teeth-grinding dilemma year after year: what to see and hear? Because with 500 artists and 109 events on eight stages over just two-and-a-half days, it’s about choices. It’s also about chance and happenstance, following your ears and letting yourself be tempted, sidetracked and surprised.

But you have to start somewhere. So here’s what we like best this year.

Wynton Marsalis
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Why have a single Artist-in-Residence when you can have a whole band? Led by Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is 15 exceptional soloists, ensemble players, composers and arrangers. They’ll play together in the Arena on Saturday night, then take over Dizzy’s Den on Sunday with a performance by JLCO saxophonist Walter Blanding and his sextet, followed by bassist Carlos Henriquez and an eight-member band (including guest percussionists) in a concert of his original music, ending with an everyone-but-Wynton jam session that will sound some of the Festival’s final notes. On Saturday afternoon on the Jazz Education Pavilion, JLCO saxophonist Ted Nash will lead the MJF High School All-Star Combo. On Sunday afternoon in the Arena, Nash and Marsalis will perform with the Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra.

Béla Fleck and Chick Corea
Chick Corea. Ageless and tireless, endlessly inventive and enormously creative, this year’s Showcase Artist is someone for whom the term “living legend” is an understatement. Any opportunity to see Corea play live is a gift. He’ll perform in the Arena twice: on Friday night with his superb trio Trilogy, with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, and on Sunday night, again in the Arena, in duo with virtuoso banjo player Béla Fleck, who has transformed the way his instrument is perceived and played. No one should have to choose between the two events – both are unmissable – but if our feet were held to the fire, we’d probably go with the Sunday night show because it’s not a piano-bass-drums trio. Except missing McBride and Blade is dumb.

Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet + 5: “The Forgotten Places.” One of our can’t-fail faves each year is the MJF commission. We don’t know a thing about this yet, except that Akinmusire wrote at least part of it at the Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur, where Bill Frisell wrote his 2012 commission, a luscious hour-long suite he named “Big Sur.” We’ll hear Akinmusire’s new work on Saturday evening in the Arena. The eloquent young trumpeter/composer will also perform with his quartet in the Night Club later that night.

Geri Allen Presents The Erroll Garner Project: Concert by the Sea. This is both a live performance and a major CD release. Recorded on a reel-to-reel machine near Carmel in 1955, two years before the first Monterey Jazz Festival, Garner’s “Concert by the Sea” is one of the most popular jazz albums ever released. Almost 60 years later, it has finally gotten the serious and loving archival treatment it has long deserved. On Friday, the same day as this concert, Sony Legacy releases “The Complete Concert by the Sea,” with 11 previously unissued tracks from the original performance. Pianist Geri Allen, who counts the old album as one of her major influences and co-produced the new one with Steve Rosenthal, will lead a celebratory concert also featuring pianists Jason Moran and Christian Sands, guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Victor Lewis. On Saturday afternoon, Dizzy’s Den will host a panel discussion about Garner’s legacy with Allen, Rosenthal, UCLA professor (and Thelonious Monk biographer) Robin Kelley and Festival board member Jim Costello, who was at Garner’s original “Concert by the Sea” performance. The discussion will be moderated by Erroll Garner Jazz Project manager Jocelyn Arem. The Festival has gone very deep on this, and for those who are interested, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dig in, learn from the experts and come away knowing a lot more than you did going in. Meanwhile, there’s good information on the Festival’s website, plus an article by Nate Chinen that will appear in Sunday’s New York Times but is available now online.

Sonny Knight and the Lakers
Sonny Knight & The Lakers. This is a straight-out hometown shout. Sonny Knight and the Lakers are a Minneapolis soul band, touring behind a new album recorded live at the Dakota, a club where we have spent countless nights and too many dollars, and issued on the Minneapolis label Secret Stash Records. We’ll see them on the Garden Stage on Saturday afternoon. Look for this to be one of those concerts where the crowd builds and overflows onto the sidewalk. Like the Davina & The Vagabonds show two years ago. Ahem, they’re from Minneapolis, too.

Monty Alexander Trio. We can’t remember a Festival year when all six nighttime sets at the Coffee House were given to a single pianist. With John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums, Alexander will take us to Jamaica and back again. This is an old-fashioned residency, something that hardly ever happens anymore outside New York, and what a treat that it’s happening here.

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls. After several excellent albums and heady collaborations with artists including Vijay Iyer, Kadri Gopalnath, Rez Abbasi, Bunky Green, David Gilmore and Steve Lehman, second-generation Indian-American saxophonist Mahanthappa hit one out of the park with “Bird Calls.” Inspired by Charlie Parker, but without any covers or tunes built on Parker’s chord changes, it leaped onto Top Ten lists everywhere and earned Mahanthappa a triple crown in the latest DownBeat Critics Poll: Jazz Album of the Year, Alto Saxophone and Rising Star-Composer. Mahanthappa plays with fierce energy and intelligence, and his current quintet – 20-year-old trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (Arturo’s son), pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist François Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston – is amazing. They play Sunday night in the Night Club. Earlier that day in Dizzy’s Den, Mahanthappa joins Ravi Coltrane for a conversation about John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” hosted by Ashley Kahn.

As always, Monterey is jam-packed and there’s so much more. Her Majesty Dianne Reeves in the Arena on Sunday night. A Jaco Pastorius party led (and arranged) by Vince Mendoza, in the Arena on Friday night. Terence Blanchard’s new E-Collective in Dizzy’s Den on Friday night. The enchanting Lizz Wright in Dizzy’s on Saturday, touring behind her soulful, sensual new album “Freedom & Surrender.” The first public performances of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour band of jazz all-stars, Saturday in the Arena and Sunday in the Night Club. The incendiary Latin rhythms of the Escovedo clan on Saturday at Dizzy’s and Sunday in the Arena. And the grand finale? Superstar trumpeter Chris Botti in the Arena, sending lambent golden notes into the night.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Jazz trumpeter John Raymond brings "Foreign Territory" home to Minnesota

Originally published in MinnPost, July 21, 2015

John Raymond
Photo by Ryan Anderson
Minneapolis native John Raymond left for New York in 2009 as a young jazz hopeful on his way to grad school. He comes through this week as an accomplished and lauded musician with two albums to his credit and a third on the way.
His latest, “Foreign Territory,” has its hometown release Thursday at the Dakota. The reviews have been glowing. Writing for the New York Times, jazz critic Nate Chinen called it “impressive” and “a substantial leap forward.” The jazz magazine DownBeat proclaimed that “Raymond is steering jazz in the right direction.”
The new recording has the right stuff: strong concept, fine players, and music that straddles the line between straight-ahead and avant-garde. You don’t have to know a thing about jazz to enjoy these thoughtful, often beautiful, sometimes playful melodies and sonic explorations.

The concept took shape in late 2013, when Raymond realized that originality didn’t have to mean writing music from scratch. He could return to the standards – the songs all jazz musicians and a lot of listeners know – and “just deconstruct and mess with them.” He could start with the chord changes, a song’s harmonic foundations, and see where they led.
Several tunes on “Foreign Territory” are built on other songs. “What Do You Hear” came out of “I Hear a Rhapsody.” “Rest/Peace” has roots in Horace Silver’s “Peace.” “Deeper” began as Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean?”
For his band, Raymond turned to pianist Dan Tepfer and bassist Joe Martin, both established young musicians with solid reputations and open minds. On the advice of his producer, esteemed trumpeter John McNeil, he asked Billy Hart to play drums.
A major figure in jazz for half a century, and an artist who has helped to shape the landscape, Hart has worked with Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery, Charles Lloyd, McCoy Tyner and Stan Getz, to name a few. Today he teaches at Oberlin and the New England Conservatory and has his own quartet with Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner and Ben Street. He’s a member of the jazz supergroup The Cookers. His name on a CD is a guaranteed attention-getter.
Which is why Raymond hesitated.
“I obviously knew who he was, and I knew a little about him, but I wasn’t that familiar with his playing,” Raymond said in an interview Sunday. He didn’t want to just add a big-name drummer. “So I did my homework. I looked up a bunch of records he was on, bought a few, listened, and thought – wow. Ok, I get it.”
From left to right: Dan Tepfer, John Raymond, Billy Hart and Joe Martin
Photo by John Rogers
Hart won’t be at the Dakota on Thursday; an artist of his stature commands steep fees, and Raymond couldn’t afford to bring him in. Martin was unable to make the date. Raymond’s band here will be Tepfer, Chris Tordini on bass (Tordini was last at the Dakota in June with Becca Stevens) and drummer Jay Sawyer, who studied with Hart.
We spoke with Raymond about his life in New York, the state of jazz, and the challenges of making a living as a jazz musician.
MinnPost: What were your goals when you moved to New York in 2009?
John Raymond: Ever since high school, I had this dream of being a jazz trumpet player. I got hooked in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when I heard a bootleg of [trumpeter] Nichols Payton playing live at the old Dakota [in Bandana Square].
I just wanted to play this music. I knew that to do that, I would have to be immersed in it, and New York seemed like the place to be.
MP: Six years later, are you where you hoped you would be?
JR:  I probably imagined myself further along. It takes a lot more to be a jazz trumpet player than I ever thought it would. The business of jazz is more nuanced than I had any idea about. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. At the end of the day, it’s an industry and a money thing.
My favorite trumpet player of all time is now Art Farmer. Art is well-known among people who know jazz, but he’s not Miles Davis, he’s not Dizzy Gillespie. There are reasons why certain people get the limelight. Some of those reasons are musical, some aren’t. I get the bigger picture now.
MP: What are your goals today?
JR: I want to be able to make some kind of income playing jazz, playing my own music, being a jazz trumpet player. I don’t want to be on the road six or eight months out of the year. I have no desire for that because I have a family. [Note: Raymond and his wife, Dani, have a five-month-old daughter.]
I also want to invest in the community I’m in, the musicians I’m around. We need to support each other. There’s no doubt there’s really not much money in jazz. Many players have to fight to make a living as musicians, and they’re some of the best jazz improvising musicians in the world.
Even if I were in the top 15 or 20 jazz trumpet players, could I make a living? I was so naïve about all of this until I moved to New York. Which probably worked out to my benefit. I was most concerned with what I was passionate about, so my naïvete actually helped me.
MP: What has been the best part of being in New York?
JR: I’m always thinking about growing, being better at whatever I’m doing. For me, being here affords me the opportunity to be around musicians who push me. I’m never in a comfortable musical environment here, and I mean that in a good sense.
I had a gig [recently] at Dizzy’s where the saxophone player threw down the most epic solo, as they do, and I was next. Sometimes I struggle with that because I’m thinking – whoa, that’s hard to top! But the goal isn’t to get the most applause and make the people in the audience go the most nuts. Or maybe that’s some people’s goal. It isn’t mine.
Ultimately, I want to play something singular to me, whatever that looks and sounds like. Jazz has got to be a very personal thing. The people who are able to communicate themselves are the ones who stand out.
I want to make a personal stamp on this music. To play it in a way where you might hear it and say, “Oh, that’s John.”
MP: What has been the worst part of being in the city?
JR: The wear and tear on you, emotionally and physically. It’s such a competitive, high-energy, high-octane place. Dani and I have found that we need to take regular trips out of the city, whether that’s up to New Jersey along the Hudson or coming back home [to the Midwest].
Sometimes you get so insulated here that you start to believe you’re the center of the universe and everything has to revolve around you. You get outside the city and realize that’s not the case at all.
MP: Has playing with Billy Hart changed you?
JR: It definitely has. He’s helped me be much more cognizant of playing to the audience. And he plays every single note at such a level of intensity. There’s so much commitment, authority and conviction [to Hart’s playing]. Especially as a horn player, I’ve learned how crucial it is for me to be as strong as possible. Not domineering strong, or tight-fisted strong, but having a lot of conviction. So whenever I play with him, I have to bring that on a different level.
MP: The title of your new album is “Foreign Territory.” What does that mean?

JR: The premise of the album is to take something familiar to us jazz musicians, and to jazz-educated audiences, and use it as a jumping-off point. To stretch it, change it, mutate and distort it and see where it goes. To take it into foreign territory. I think real magic happens on the bandstand, and for the audience, when you get into foreign territory.
What we’re going after is to be honest, spontaneous and in the moment. When you really have to use your ears and trust each other on the bandstand, exciting things can happen. That’s what makes jazz improvisation so thrilling.
MP: What will we hear Thursday at the Dakota?
JR: We’ll be playing all the music from the album. We’ll probably split it up over the two sets. The only addition might be a tune I first played with [Twin Cities-based pianist] Bryan Nichols last summer, a Charlie Haden tune called “Silence.”
MP: Why should people come to see you?
JR: I’m really excited to bring this band home and play this music at home. A lot has happened with me in New York, and in the past couple of years with this record, and I want to come home and say “Hey! Here’s what I’m doing. I still think about you all the time, Minnesota, and I still love you, and I want to share this with you because you had a part in this, too.”
Everybody hopes to have their hometown, their roots, cheer them on and support them.
MP: You’ve heard the saying that a prophet is never recognized in his own hometown.
JR: I know. I thought that immediately as I said that.
The John Raymond New York Quartet CD release show for “Foreign Territory” is Thursday, July 23, at 7 p.m. at the Dakota. Tickets ($25) are available online or by calling the box office at 612-332-5299.
This interview has been edited and condensed.