Jane Bunnett at the Jazz Factory
I hope you believe in the adage, "better late than never," because it's time to catch up on a couple of previously promised reviews. Jane Bunnett and Spirits of Havana made their Louisville debut at the Jazz Factory on August 25th. Bunnett, a Canadian saxophonist, has become one of the best non-native interpreters of Cuban jazz in the world. Her husband, Larry Cramer, plays trumpet, and she carries a band including several Cuban musicians. Because of a communication breakdown with a label representative, I was unable to be admitted to her first, sold-out set. However, I was able to return for her second set, and a solid set it was. It seemed almost like a house party en el barrio, with the musicians encouraging dancers to join them on the small stage. The band opened with "Oddara," from Spirits of Havana, (1991, Messidor ), during which the band encouraged three ladies from the audience to join them onstage. "Maria La O" and "Odira-E, both from her new Narada Jazz/EMI release Red Dragonfly, followed. The latter piece was a high-energy workout featuring an extended soprano solo by Bunnett. "La Camparsa [Carnival]," from the 2001 CD Alma de Santiago (Blue Note) was next and had an appropriately joyous feel. After "Azuca (Sugar for You)," during which the usually chair-bound crowd was encouraged to get up and dance, the band closed with "Osain," based on a Yoruba chant to the Saint of Mother Nature. Bunnett told me afterwards that "the guys had been chomping at the bit for more Cuban music, so tonight we let the band go with the flow." The latest recording, Red Dragonfly, is actually something of a change of pace for Bunnett, as it incorporates the Penderecki String Quartet in a series of songs "more based on folk melodies I grew up with as a kid or came to later," as she told me in a prior phone interview. She mentioned that she had heard good things about the Jazz Factory before her gig, and it was evident from the joyful spirit that she and her band displayed that she had heard right.
The Buster Williams Quartet at the Jazz Factory
Buster Williams brought a superb group of musicians with him for the opening of the Kentucky Center at the Jazz Factory Series. Lenny White, perhaps best known for his work with Chick Corea and Return to Forever, was all over the drums, while alto and soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson, coincidentally an alumnus of Chick Corea's Origins Band, showed great versatility and taste. Pianist George Colligan is perhaps the least well-known of these musicians, but his skillful playing should earn him more widespread recognition in the jazz world. The group played two short sets to a packed house, consisting primarily of Williams originals. As he told me in an interview the week before the show, "If I don't play my music, who will?" Not surprisingly, several of the pieces were from his recent HighNote release, Griot Liberté, featuring Colligan and White, but with Stefon Harris on vibes and marimba rather than a saxophonist. The band opened with "Native Dancer," featuring an introduction by piano/bass/drums at a fast tempo before Wilson joined in on alto. Colligan soloed with superb support by Williams and White, reaching a high intensity which really captured the audience. The tempo dropped a bit for a solo by the leader, before the composition was concluded. Other highlights included a mid-tempo Latin song Williams wrote for his granddaughter, entitled "Deja," which featured a Williams solo over Colligan's synthesizer, and an up-tempo bop number entitled "Related To One." Throughout both sets, it was intriguing to hear some of the compositions from Griot Liberté played with the same "rhythm section" but with a saxophonist rather than a vibes/marimba player. Wilson's affinity for Williams' music was apparent, and reflected what both Williams and Wilson told me was an extensive history of their having worked together over the years. This set of concerts provided a hard to top beginning to the Kentucky Center at the Jazz Factory Series.
The Tony Monaco Trio at the Jazz Factory
Tony Monaco is a Hammond B3 organist of the old school, meaning that soulfulness and the blues are the heart and soul of his music. He brought his trio, consisting of Robert Kraut on guitar and Louis Tsamous on drums to the Jazz Factory for two nights of audience-pleasing performances, September 24-25. On the second night, the trio covered such warhorses as "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "All Blues," and the Muddy Waters classic "Got My Mojo Workin'" (with a nod to Jimmy Smith), while also performing original material including "Katarina's Prayer" a mid-tempo blues dedicated to his wife. The trio also covered a mixed bag of more contemporary pop/soul/rock tunes, including a sing-along version of Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones," and a rousing take on Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On, Reggae Woman." Although not primarily a vocalist, Monaco did sing on the opener, "The Way You Look Tonight," among others, much to the delight of the crowd. He is very upfront about acknowledging his influences, saying during an unnamed blues in the first set "Jimmy McGriff might say it like this ...," and covering McGriff's fast shuffle "All About My Girl" in the second set. His Columbus, Ohio hometown heroes include Don Patterson, whose ballad "Magic" added a gentle touch to the second set. His upcoming release, Fiery Blues, on Summit Records (www.summitrecords.com) is a tribute both the blues and the Columbus scene.
Astral Project at the Jazz Factory
Following two years at Tulane University, from 1969-1971, I was unable to return to New Orleans for the Jazz and Heritage Festival until 1980. Perhaps there is something about "your first time," as I still remember to this day dancing in ankle-deep mud to Etta James singing Randy Newman's bawdy "You Can Leave Your Hat On," making a last minute decision to get a ticket for an evening concert featuring the Count Basie Orchestra and the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and discovering the progressive New Orleans jazz band, Astral Project. This is a band that has remained together for a quarter-century, with only one personnel change, the departure of pianist David Torkanowsky, followed by the subsequent decision to carry on as a quartet, featuring the talents of saxophonist Tony Dagradi, guitarist Steve Masakowski, bassist James Singleton, and drummer Johnny Vidacovich. If you think of "New Orleans jazz" only in terms of, say, Louis Armstrong and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, then you owe it to yourself to check out Astral Project's organic blend of New Orleans street rhythms with the depth of modern jazz chops and compositions which hold their own against those of many better known musicians.
The Jazz Factory kicked off October with a return engagement of the Astral Project on Friday and Saturday, October 1 and 2. Their Saturday night sets caught them in high gear. Many of the tunes in the first set on Saturday were not identified by title. The opening number reminded me of a Spanish march, with solo space for all. The third song began with a seriously funky drum intro, after which the band joined in. This was funk without clichés, as Dagradi soloed on soprano sax, Masakowski took a solo, after which Vidacovich and Singleton engaged in a duet before Dagradi picked up his tenor o take the song out. Billy Strayhorn's lovely "Blood Count" was introduced by Dagradi as "my new favorite ballad." Vidacovich showed his prowess with the brushes and Singleton's arco playing set the proper mood for this latter-day piece of Ellingtonia. The title song of their new, self-released CD The Legend of Cowboy Bill, was next. A guitar introduction led to a bass solo which showed off Singleton's abilities playing both arco and pizzicato. The set ended with a very fast second line number. The band was feeling pretty relaxed by the second set of their second night, and treated the audience to several compositions so new that they have not been recorded yet. They closed with the title song from their 2000 Compass album, Voodoo Bop.
On the CD The Legend of Cowboy Bill, (available online at www.cdbaby.com, and through the band's website, www.astralproject.com), the second line rhythms of New Orleans are prominent on Dagradi's "Second Thoughts," after which Vidacovich's "Saint Paul" leads the band into more abstract territory. On the disc, each member contributes at least one piece, yet the sound of the album has a unity which can only come from the unique abilities of these musicians who have honed their collective improvisational craft to such a high level over the years.
The Big Rock Park Jazz Festival
Usually when I attend a jazz concert, I am very focused on the music, and take lots of notes so that I can write about what I heard and share it with you. However, for the Fifth Annual Big Rock Park Jazz Festival, a last-minute problem left me being a single parent with my almost-six-year-old daughters for the afternoon. Thus, for much of the afternoon, music provided a backdrop for our picnic lunch (we discovered that bees prefer chicken over either bagels with cream cheese or apples), and our subsequent explorations of the beautiful park. I can tell you that the visiting Russian musicians comprising the Open World Program were every bit the equals of our homegrown players, and treated the crowd to several jazz standards, concluding with a spirited take on Dizzy Gillespie's immortal "Night in Tunisia." Bellarmine professor and guitarist Jeff Sherman, usually found leading his own trios, sounded great as a featured soloist in the University of Louisville's Jazz Ensemble I. He also brought Bellarmine's Nouveau Gumbo group, as well as its Guitar Workshop, for the first performances of Bellarmine musicians since this festival began. John LaBarbera led the U of L Jazz Ensemble I through some charts before introducing guest soloist Virginia Mayhew, a saxophonist, composer and arranger from New York City. By this time, the girls and I were ready to settle back and listen, so I can tell you that the student ensemble played well enough to earn heartfelt accolades from Mayhew, as they tackled several of her compositions. . She introduced her composition “Apple Flambé” by sayingthat it was written for New York City. “Maybe Someday,” another original, was a lovely ballad. Mayhew alternated between guiro and saxophone on the closing number, which she said was a B flat blues for her mother. Throughout her performance, her command of ther instrument and her generosity in allowing solo time for the students showed that Mayhew is a musician who deserves wider attention.
Mayhew has a fairly recent new release, entitled Phantoms, on the Renma label. This CD sheds light on Mayhew's accomplishments in a quartet setting, featuring bassist Harvie Swartz, former Diva band mate Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Allison Miller on drums. The liner notes make much ado about her use of "odd" time signatures, such as the 7/8 arrangement of Cole Porter's "I Love You," as if Dave Brubeck's Time Out and its progeny had never come out. To me, however, the key is not whether the songs are in times other than 3/4 or 4/4 (or their standard variations), but rather, do the songs sound natural or stilted? Whether playing in "odd" meters or standard, Mayhew and her colleagues do, indeed, sound natural. The instrumental lineup, without a chordal instrument such as guitar or keyboard, occasionally calls to mind the classic Atlantic recordings of Ornette Coleman, such as on Mayhew's "Monterey Blues." If you saw Jensen earlier this year with her Project O group at the Jazz factory, you will enjoy hearing a different side of her as she complements Mayhew with exquisite taste and sensitivity throughout.
The Heath Brothers at the University of Louisville
The following night, the University of Louisville brought the Heath Brothers to the Comstock Hall at the School of Music. Eldest of the brothers is bassist Percy, at 81 showing no signs of slowing down in either his playing or his positive outlook and sense of humor. Best known for his forty-year tenure with the Modern Jazz Quartet, he played with skill and joie de vivre throughout the concert. Middle brother Jimmy, who will have just turned 78 on October 25, is a saxophonist and has composed several songs which have gone on to become standards, including "Gingerbread Boy" which was performed with verve and panache. "Baby brother" Albert "Tootie" Heath, a mere 69, is a well-rounded drummer, whose playing frequently was nothing less than a master class in the use of brushes. Their pianist was Jeb Patton, whose stylistic diversity added greatly to the playing of the Heath Brothers. From the opening composition by Jimmy, "A Sound for Sore Ears" through the closing medley of his "Sleeves" and an unnamed blues, the playing was never less than superb. In a nutshell, mainstream jazz simply doesn't get any better than this. Among many high points was a solo by Percy on "baby bass" (a cello restrung with the bass notes) on Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite." He was also featured on the John Lewis classic from the MJQ songbook, "Django." The encore was a thoughtful duet by Jimmy and Patton on the Harold Arlen song "Last Night When We Were Young." Over the years I have had the opportunity to see each of the brothers in other configurations, as well as in various versions of the Heath Brothers Band. As excellent as each brother is, together they eschew sibling rivalry and bring true family values to the world of jazz. It is, at best, regrettable that the Courier-Journal did not highlight this performance in advance with a feature on these elder statesmen, nor acknowledge the importance of their individual and collective contributions to jazz with a review.
ON THE HORIZON
The Jazz Factory, 815 W. Market St. in The Glassworks and the Kentucky Center Concerts continue with René Marie (November 5 and 6), and in 2005, Monty Alexander and Freddie Cole (February 18 and 19), and Frank Morgan and Cyrus Chestnut (April 8 and 9). For details, go to www.kentuckycenter.org or www.jazzfactory.us.
The Jazz Factory will bring a fine new Chicago group, BMR4 to town on November 19. Their instrumental lineup is saxophone (Jay Moynihan), guitar (Neal Alger), bass (Chris Bernhardt) and drums (Mike Rodbard). Their collective resume includes stints with blues and R&B bands, and three members of the band have performed as the Buzz, which played locally at Stevie Ray's. Together, their sound is more like a Windy City variant of Astral Project, with an emphasis on straight-ahead. Their new CD, Fixing A Hole, combines jazz standards such as Jackie McLean's "Appointment in Ghana" with the Beatles' rock classic "Fixing A Hole." Native Louisvillian and saxophonist par excellence Don Braden gives cause for thanksgiving when he returns home for the holiday and plays Friday and Saturday, November 26-27. In between, top local talent includes the Louisville Metro Big Band, the Jerry Tolson Quartet and Big Band (the latter with Sarah Stivers), Matt Lawson, Bennett Higgins with Kasi Crooks Davis, the Java Men, the Todd Hildreth Trio, Jason Curry, Q with Kevin Keller and others, as well as Dan Fahnle, Rolando Mattias and Intrinxico. For details, call 502-992-3242 or check the website, www.jazzfactory.us.
On Sunday, November 7, the Kentucky Center will present jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin together with tap-dancer Savion Glover. This could be a night of magic as these two present their unique take on these classic jazz idioms. Also, as part of its Lonesome Pine Special Series, the Kentucky Center will feature Mike Marshall and Edgar Meyer on Friday, November 19. Marshall is a talented multi-instrumentalist, whose career includes playing with the David Grisman Quintet, and whose instruments include mandolin and guitar, while Meyer is a composer and bassist who has recorded with everyone from classical cellist Yo Yo Ma to some of the top names in Bluegrass. While they are not jazz, their talents for playing and improvising should appeal to jazz fans looking for something a little different.
The Jazz Bar at the Seelbach has announced the following guests joining the Dick Sisto Trio: November 5-6, trumpeter Scott Belck; November 12, trumpeter Matt Lawson; November 13 ? guitarist Brandon Bernstein with saxophonist Jacob Duncan [not with Sisto]; November 19-20, Mike Arthurs; and November 26-27, saxophonist Tim Whalen.
In August I reviewed the Charlie Hunter Trio's performance at Jillian's, and covered the Trio's Ropeadope release Friends Seen and Unseen. In September, I mentioned a Charlie Hunter CD entitled Latitude, on Thirsty Ear (www.thirstyear.com), and promised I would get back to it, so here goes. Hunter has teamed up with percussionist and electronic musician Bobby Previte to form an alternate trio, called Groundtruther, with the unusual concept that the third spot in the trio will be rotated among various guest artists. The first result of this collaboration features alto saxophonist Greg Osby, who, in addition to leading his own groups, has played with everyone from Jack DeJohnette to the post-Jerry Garcia version of the Grateful Dead (now "the Dead"). For all the adventurous work Hunter has done in his own trios, quartets, and other aggregations, these past endeavors are positively tame and mainstream when measured against Latitude. The song titles, such as "North Pole," "Equator," and "Horse Latitudes South," may have provided the inspirations for the music, which is "99% live and 100% improvised," or they may have been added after the fact; it's hard to tell. Overall, this recording has a feel of the famous bar scene from the original Star Wars film, albeit as if it had been orchestrated by Darth Vader. The opener, "North Pole" reminded me of the Angelo Badalamenti music from Twin Peaks, while the next piece, "Arctic Circle," could be subtitled "Funk meets Sun Ra in the Outer Limits." Electronics are emphasized in "Horse Latitudes South," while Osby provides the introduction to a strange ballad entitled "Antarctic Circle." This is simply not an album which can be described in the normal review sense of a jazz album. It is music which might be the jazz of tomorrow; it is exciting, unusual, and very atmospheric.
When I reviewed bassist Michael Manring's July 30 concert at the Rudyard Kipling, he mentioned his work on the recent release Yo Miles! Sky Garden on Cuneiform Records (www.cuneiformrecords.com). I have now had the opportunity to listen to this sprawling two-and-a-half hour 2-CD set. To cut to the chase, if you are a fan of the early 1970s Miles Davis electric sets such as On the Corner, Live-Evil, and so forth, this album shows what contemporary musicians can do to keep the adventurous spirit of this music alive without falling into the trap of mere imitation. Manring, together with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, guitarist Henry Kaiser, drummer Steve Smith, saxophonists Greg Osby and John Tchichai, tabla master Zakir Hussain, and keyboardist Tom Coster, and a few others, give fresh interpretations to pieces such as Davis' "It's About that Time/The Mask," Joe Zawinul's "Directions," and others from the canon, while also bringing original compositions which capture the vibe. For example, Wadada Leo Smith's "Shinjuku," on first hearing, sounds like it could have been a previously unreleased Miles track from the era, such as those on The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. "Great Expectations," originally released on Miles' Big Fun, here is turned into a 35-minute series of duets featuring the tabla work of Hussain, which are interspersed with rich ensemble sections. A medley of "Sivad/Gemini Double Image/Little Church" begins with a gentle "big band" saxophone introduction before moving into raunchy guitar over a simple backbeat. Unlike the bass work of Michael Henderson on many of the original sides, which Miles valued for the basic groove, Manring frequently is able to bring his own intricacies into the mix without ever losing sight of the need to keep the music welded together. In short, this is all about the Miles Davis ethos of playing and keeping the music fresh, rather than simple idolatry. His is a worthy addition to any library of electric jazz.
To borrow one of Hunter S. Thompson's catchphrases, okay for now. Let me know what you think, at email@example.com.