Between the wretched weather and family ailments, the past month has been a good one to stay indoors and catch up on some listening. There have been a slew of new releases that I have been meaning to discuss, so that's what this month's focus will be. But first . . ..
The University of Louisville Jazz Week 2005
The BIG NEWS is right here. Barely in time to make it into this month's column comes the word on the University of Louisville Jazz Week 2005. All performances are at Comstock Hall and except for the matinee-only performance on Sunday, all concerts begin at 7 p.m. The "week" is actually a "long weekend" this time, beginning Thursday, February 24 with U of L's Jazz Ensemble II. Bud Shank is the featured soloist with the Faculty Combo on Friday, February 25 with Jazz Ensemble I also performing. Slide Hampton will likewise be featured with these groups the following night. Sunday, February 27 will bring the Week to a tremendous conclusion with the great Roy Haynes and his own Quartet, for a 3 p.m. performance.
Group, single and package tickets are available. For tickets and additional information call 502- 852-6907 or visit www.louisville.edu/music/jazz and the click on Jazz Week.
Rod McGaha at the Jazz Factory
The last live show I had a chance to see before hibernating was Nashville-based trumpeter Rod McGaha, on Friday December 17. When I first saw his name on the Jazz Factory calendar, it took me back to the days when I still had cable TV and I remembered being impressed by McGaha on the "BET on Jazz" series. My recollection was that he was in a post-comeback, Miles Davis electric bag. However, as I eased into the club to the strains of Bobby Timmons' classic "Moanin'," I realized that he had moved toward the mainstream in his approach. He was accompanied by pianist Will Menefield, bassist Ed Brookshire and drummer Mark Lomax. Following the soulful workout on "Moanin'," the quartet brought it down with a rendition of "There Is No Greater Love." McGaha made good use of his mute, while Lomax showed restraint in his accompanying brushwork. Menefield's solo built in intensity, with Lomax switching to sticks, before McGaha took the dynamics back down, only to push them back up again during the course of his solo. Menefield's solo displayed elegance and feeling. Another change of pace came as McGaha introduced the gospel standard "This Little light of Mine" with a humorous tale of his work with trumpet legend Clark Terry. Terry apparently made his bandmembers sing, regardless of their vocal abilities. However, McGaha's vocal on this number was executed with the same authority that he brought to his trumpet playing. A piano solo led into "When I Fall in Love," after which McGaha's trumpet took over. "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise" was next, featuring a bass solo by Brookshire that was reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison's work with John Coltrane. In a brief conversation after the performance, Brookshire acknowledged a deep admiration for Garrison. The set ended with two more standards, "On the Sunny Side of the Street," a duet between McGaha (emphasizing his wa-wa style with his mute) and bass; and "Caravan," called by the drummer and allowing him space to build from simple rhythm patters to a more complex display, much to the delight of the crowd. Curiously, the second set began with a reprise of "Moanin'," a song which I have liked since first hearing a version on local top 40 radio back in the 1960s, but which I could have done without for the second time that night. "Stella by Starlight" was next, featuring delicate hand-drumming as a backdrop to a bass solo. An all-too-brief take on the Meters' funk anthem, "Cissy Strut" was just starting to move the crowd when it was ended and the band played "Happy Birthday" New Orleans-style to a patron. Miles Davis' "Theme" was next, with McGaha and Menefield trading choruses. Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," which became a signature piece for Duke Ellington, was next, with McGaha using his plunger to again "speechify" through his trumpet. "`Round Midnight" and a gospel medley of "Amazing Grace/Down by the Riverside" closed the second set.
Between sets, McGaha commented to me that his approach to jazz was "like Duke Ellington, entertain the people and not be so `heady.'" Through his reliance on standards, his and his group's effective use of dynamics and the high level of musicianship, McGaha demonstrated that "entertainment" and good jazz are by no means mutually exclusive concepts.
His 1999 CD, Preacherman (Compass), was produced partly by McGaha and partly by Delfeayo Marsalis. Although using different musicians on this project, McGaha's approach to the music on the CD is similar to that of his performance here in Louisville, with a number of pop and jazz standards, including an elegant version of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" and the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love." However, he also demonstrates his writing ability, on songs such as "Cookout," which would not be out of place on a Jazz Messengers album and "Splip, Bap, Boom!" which, despite its bebop-sounding title, actually seems more "churchy," and thus coordinates stylistically with the closing hymn, "Is Your All on the Altar." Throughout, McGaha demonstrates his mastery of the mainstream trumpet, utilizing growls, wa-wa passages and just plain old blowing to create an inviting and enjoyable listening experience.
EH LAS BAS, LAISSEZ LE BON TEMPS ROULER! HAPPY MARDI GRAS!
Mardi Gras arrives early this year, with Fat Tuesday falling on February 8. The Jazz Factory joins in the celebration; for more information, see "On the Horizon" below. Putumayo World Music celebrates with the release of two new compilation discs: Putumayo Presents New Orleans (PUTU232-2 CD) and Putumayo Presents Kermit Ruffins (PUTU233-2 CD). While neither CD is specifically a "Mardi Gras album," both contain lots of infectious second-line traditional jazz appropriate for donning masks, throwing beads and parading through your neighborhood with decorated umbrellas held high. The New Orleans disc begins with Ruffins' "Drop Me Off in New Orleans" and is followed by a great duet by the late Doc Cheatham with Nicholas Payton on the classic "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." After these two recent recordings, the vaults are opened for Louis Prima's timeless "Basin Street Blues" and the Preservation Hall Hot 4 with Duke Dejan sweetly swinging "Wrap Your Trouble in Dreams." The Master himself, Louis Armstrong, is represented by "Tin Roof Blues." Dr. John offers a "fonky" alternate take on "Basin Street Blues," while the title song from his 1992 album, Joe "Honeydripper" Liggins' "Going Back to New Orleans" is performed by one of New Orleans' best-kept secrets, Deacon John. Dr. Michael White's clarinet is heard to great advantage on "Give It Up" and in duet with Preservation Hall trumpeter Greg Stafford on a medley of "Bye Bye/Saints." The cover, in Putumayo's signature primitive folk art style, is evocative of street parades in the French Quarter.
Kermit Ruffins currently records for Basin Street Records, but previously made CDS for the Justice label, which are now out-of-print. This disc collects 11 cuts from both labels. Ruffins is accompanied on many of the cuts by his band, the Barbecue Swingers, so-named for Ruffins' penchant for firing up a grill before gigs, after them and even during breaks. His warmth and humor, as well as his excellent neo-Satchmo trumpet, are well-represented in this sampler. Another jazzman known for good humor and appreciation of cuisine, Fats Waller, provides the leadoff song, "Ain't Misbehavin'." Ruffins' blues side is represented by "Leshianne." Two original songs, "Kermit's Second Line" and "Do the Fat Tuesday," come straight out of the Mardi Gras tradition, while the most of the other pieces are standards such as "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "After You're Gone." Ruffins, who started with the one of the first post-Dirty Dozen new brass bands, Rebirth Brass Band, shows that an artist can remain committed to the tradition without becoming stodgy in the process. Overall, both New Orleans and Kermit Ruffins provide entertainment for lovers of traditional jazz without being tied to the seasonal celebration of Fat Tuesday. Laissez le bon temps rouler ["Let the good times roll"]!
Softly As In . . .
No, not `a Morning Sunrise'; Softly as in two releases, one archival and one recent, from England's excellent fusion band, Soft Machine. Soft Machine (named, like Steely Dan, after work by William Burroughs), came out of the psychedelic era. However, by the time of their third album (cleverly titled Third,) they were incorporating influences ranging from Miles Davis to minimalist composer Terry Riley. From the time of Third, released stateside in June, 1970, through the mid-1970s, Soft Machine embodied much of the same exploratory ethos as Weather Report, with very expressive use of multiple keyboards, rhythms which could go from funk to swing to "straight jazz," and sinuous saxophone work. Cuneiform has just released a 2-CD set of an under-recorded lineup of the band, titled Live in Paris, May 2nd, 1972 (Cuneiform Rune 195/196). Elton Dean's saxophones and occasional electric piano weave through the swirling organ and piano textures of Mike Ratledge, while drummer John Marshall and electric bassist Hugh Hopper are much more than simply a "rhythm section." On Live in Paris, as in other live recordings of this band, songs frequently segue into one another, drawing the listener into extended improvisations that range from almost free-form (the first half of Ratledge's "Drop" on Disc One) to ethereal ("Slightly All the Time"). The leadoff track on the first disc, "Plain Tiffs" begins with a seeming nod to the "It's About that Time" segment of the "In a Silent Way" suite. Throughout, the Softs (as they are affectionately known by their fans) take the listener on intriguing journeys through forests and rivers of electric jazz. For more information or to purchase Live in Paris if you can't find it locally, check out www.cuneiformrecords.com.
Dean, Marshall and Hopper reunited on ABRACADABRA (MoonJune) and with the addition of fabled jazz fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth they called themselves SoftWorks. The opening number, a collaboration by Dean and Marshall, is "Seven Formerly." It starts hypnotically with a cyclical Terry Riley-esque motif before resolving into an extended series of improvisations in which the seven-beat cycle can be easily heard. Holdsworth is especially impressive here. Hopper's "First Trane" has little which overtly says "John Coltrane," yet works well. "Elsewhere," also by Hopper, follows, a fast waltz which comes as close to mainstream as anything on this recording. The band gets funky on Dean's "Willie's Knee," and returns to another variation of a three-beat cycle on the title track. The only Holdsworth composition and a co-write with Marshall at that, is the closing "Madam Vintage" which features an intense and lengthy guitar/drum duet in the middle.
MoonJune label head Leonardo Pavkovic has indicated that he anticipates a follow-up effort by Dean, Marshall and Hopper, but with guitarist John Etheridge (who performed with Soft Machine in the mid-to-late 1970s). The Soft Machine Legacy is the working name for this ensemble. For more information or to purchase ABRACADABRA if you can't find it locally, check out www.moonjune.com.
Dave Douglas: Mountain Passages
Trumpeter/composer/bandleader/award-winner Dave Douglas is now also an entrepreneur, as he has just launched his own CD label, Greenleaf Music (www.greenleafmusicnews.net), distributed in America by Koch. This is not just a "vanity label" for his own works, however; the press release accompanying the first release, makes clear that Douglas plans to actively seek out and record other creative musicians. Nonetheless, it is certainly fitting that the first release on Greenleaf is Douglas' own Mountain Passages (KOC-CD-58902). As is his wont, Davis takes a radical turn in both instrumentation and approach from his recent "electric Miles" recordings and instead opts for the unusual lineup of cello (Peggy Lee), tuba (Marcus Rojas), alto sax and clarinets (Michael Moore) and drums (Dylan van der Schyff). The music was commissioned by the festival at the Sound of the Dolomites, intended to be played at an altitude of between nine and twelve thousand feet, according to Douglas' liner notes, in which he also dedicates the music to his father, a mountain runner who passed away shortly before the premiere of these pieces.
The music itself frequently matches Douglas' description of the local Ladino music he was sent by the festival promoters: "it seemed to veer between solemn devotional calmness and riotous drunken celebration." Okay, what does that mean? Well, a good point of reference would be Carla Bley's music and bands, which combine skilled musicianship with a certain swagger and a sense of humor. Just as Bley came out of the modern jazz tradition but has not been bound by it, instead creating her own voice and musical persona, so too has Douglas here left behind standard notions of swing and head-solo-head pieces in favor of expressing himself in the context of the culture of the mountain people. However, there are more conventional reference points, such as on "Twelve Degrees Proof," which starts out sounding like a New Orleans brass band before the music turns a corner. Throughout, the drums of van der Schyff provide a running commentary as well as a steady pulse for the explorations of the other musicians. A short piece, "Purple Mountains Majesty," alternates between dirge-like sections and faster interludes. Besides Bley, another reference point might be Frank Zappa, whose writing utilized jazz motifs as a means of self-expression rather than as a declaration of any intent to be a "jazz artist." As expansive and varied as Douglas' oeuvre is, Mountain Passages shows yet another side of this highly talented and restless musician. The CD invites repeated listenings to dig into the unusual sound textures. While it cannot be recommended to those looking for a straightahead jazz experience, it offers challenges to those willing to take them on, just as mountain climbing offers challenges for those who heed its call.
ON THE HORIZON
As a preliminary matter, I urge you to sign up for "Jennifer's Jazz E-News," the successor to Lil Gascoyne's weekly jazz updates. Contact Jennifer at Jenjenjazz@louisvillejazz.org. Musicians, take note (no pun intended): if your gig is not listed through the venue, you may want to contact her to keep her up with your performance schedule. As I have noted before, there are so many opportunities to hear live jazz that it is both impossible for me to try to provide a complete listing here and it would be duplicative in any event. Also, Louisville Music News' monthly music listings are carrying more jazz events than ever, in both the print and online editions (www.louisvillemusicnews.net). Thus, as I have for several months now, I will simply attempt to highlight a few performances which I find of particular interest.
The Jazz Factory, (815 W. Market St. in The Glassworks, www.jazzfactory.us) brings in Mardi Gras with the Philadelphia-based Independence Hall Jazz Band, featuring Louisvillian Doug Finke on trombone, for gigs February 2-5. Although I have not had the opportunity to listen to any of their music, any organization which bills itself as a "traditional New Orleans-style jazz band" rather than as a "Dixieland band" has its heart in the right place. Valentine's Day will arrive two days early, on February 12, when Harry Pickens and guest singer Jennifer Lauletta will perform for the romantically inclined. Fans of the "Whad'Ya Know" radio show will no doubt enjoy the music of that show's John Thulin Trio on February 17. A late-breaking addition to the lineup is the superb mainstream guitarist Joshua Breakstone, for one night only, on February 24. He is followed by singer Janis Carter, a Louisville native who Jazz Factory entrepreneur Ken Shapero describes as "a world-class singer [who] does the whole wardrobe change thing."
The Jazz Factory and the Kentucky Center Concerts continue in February. Through a series of late-breaking changes, Monty Alexander will be featured with his own group, sans guests, as neither the originally-announced Freddie Cole nor the later-booked Grady Tate could make the gig (February 18 and 19). Frank Morgan and Cyrus Chestnut will conclude the series with performances on April 8 and 9. For show details, go to www.kentuckycenter.org or www.jazzfactory.us.
The Seelbach Jazz Bar features the Dick Sisto trio, a/k/a The Tri-tones (with Tyrone Walker and Jason Tiemann). If any guest musicians are announced later, look for updates on www.louisvillemusicnews.net.
At the risk of sounding trite, "this just in:" on Saturday, February 5, the Sun Ra Arkestra, with opening act Nathaniel Mayer, will land at The Dame, 156 W. Main St., Lexington, KY 40507; phone 859-226-9204 for details.
As always, I am interested in your comments. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.