Archive for the ‘Live Music’ Category

Groove globally, listen locally

May 21, 2008


There has perhaps never been a better time for listening to music. There is so much variety out there. Good, cheap technology is making it possible for more and more people to make and share music. And everyone from Amazon to iTunes to MySpace is making it easy to get our hands—and ears—on a dazzling array of music from every little corner of the world.

In some ways, this bounty mimics what’s going on in the food world. Increasingly, formerly exotic ingredients are making their way to supermarkets and home kitchens. Seasonality be damned, if you want asparagus in January, it’s being grown somewhere in the world and chances are, you can find it in the store. I can already hear the locavores groaning. What about carbon footprints? What about protecting local, small farms? What about embracing seasonality and absolute freshness? All valid points.

I’d like to suggest the same thing for music—kind of a locahear movement. You know, supporting local musicians by showing up for their gigs, paying cover charges or dropping something in the tip jar. And by buying their CDs.

I did that this past Friday night, catching a too rare performance by Chicago jazz combo Soulio at Nick’s, a friendly no-cover bar in Wicker Park. Soulio’s website describes their sound as “bluesy, groove-based jazz, hard bop, funk and soul-jazz.” Down Beat magazine’s Jeff McCord calls it “an amalgam of loping funk, Blue Note-like hard bop and a blues-driven vibe reminiscent of the Jazz Crusaders.” And Brad Walseth of labels it “good time straight ahead soul-jazz that is meant to be enjoyed by listeners or dancers alike.” Having heard Soulio live a few times now, I would say their sound is D.) All of the above.

I picked up their self-titled CD too that night, for a mere $12.99. Soulio is 11 tracks, about an hour of loose-hipped but tightly played jazz, a mix of pieces by the greats—Dexter Gordon, Eddie Harris and Freddie Hubbard, for example—two originals by sax player Matt Shevitz and two ’60s tunes, Sunny and Grazing in the Grass. Proving once again that familiarity does indeed breed contempt, these two tracks are my least favorite on the disk. But if I force myself to tune out the “heard that a thousand times” factor, what they do with even these songs is quite nice.

The basic group is a quintet, led by trombonist John Janowiak and rounded out by a sax player, guitarist, bassist and drummer. Given the sometimes hardscrabble nature of local music, personnel sometimes changes. Various friends guest on some of the tracks on the CD—a trumpeter, a keyboard player and an additional drummer. When I saw them this past weekend, they had an excellent trumpeter sitting in with them.

Which brings me back to my ad hoc locahear movement. Making music is a hard way to make a living, especially at the local level. A bass player friend of ours in St. Louis says that you get paid for hauling equipment and you play for free. When I talked to Soulio’s trombonist during a break Friday night, he said they all play in a number of groups, including a corporate/wedding band. He didn’t say so, but I’m sure most of them also have day jobs. For every White Stripes or Mariah Carey or Common who strikes it rich, there are countless hardworking, talented musicians who barely get by [often with the support of an understanding spouse gainfully employed at a place with benefits]. But they do it. They make music because they love it. And we’re all richer for it.

Support them. Get out there and hear some music. In a club, a bar, a coffeehouse… hell, even the lounge of the Holiday Inn out by the airport. At the very least, you’ll have a little fun. You might find something truly transcendent, like Soulio. And I guarantee, the musicians will be glad you came.

Buddy Guy: Chicago blues, alive and real

May 7, 2008

This week I’m revisiting another album that fell into a technological black hole when I revamped my kitchen boombox sidebar blog sometime back. The amazing Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal lives up to its name and then some.

Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal

Buddy Guy takes a certain amount of heat for sometimes playing in the rock ‘n roll end of the blues pool. And I’ve read reviews of him pandering to the crowd with easy, crowd-pleasing pap like Mustang Sally. But when he gets it right, he nails it.

On this 1996 release recorded on his home turf—his club here in Chicago, Buddy Guy’s Legends—he gets it right. The back-up band is G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band [complete with the horn section], and they are in turn backed up by blues piano legend Johnnie Johnson. Not bad company.

Probably my favorite way to listen to live music is in a bar. This hour-long live album delivers the sound of that venue, right down to appreciative crowd noise and energy and even the buzzing of a guitar amp on the opening track until the guy at the sound board gets it sorted out. Put a drink in your hand and some smoke in the air [well, no more—Illinois has gone smoke-free, I’m happy to say] and you’re there. A great mix of songs and tempos and solid musicianship, wall to wall. And yeah, Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal owes more than a little to rock [as does much of Chicago blues], but there’s still plenty of Mississippi juke joint in Buddy’s guitar.

If you want to catch Buddy live in this kind of setting, your best chance is the dead of winter. This just kills me. He owns Legends—he can play there anytime he chooses. And when he chooses is the entire month of January, probably the least hospitable time to be in Chicago. But book your tickets early—pretty much the entire month sells out quickly, especially the weekend dates.

Of course, when he’s not on the road other times of the year, you may find him sitting at the bar in Legends, taking in whatever local or touring blues act is playing that night. And while he won’t get up and play with other bands playing his club, he’s happy to talk with you if you walk over and say hi.

Revisiting the man who put me off jazz

April 16, 2008

Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake

The first time I heard Oliver Lake, I wasn’t ready for him. I was a teenager spending as many evenings as possible at the Circle Coffeehouse in St. Louis. Not only was it a way to not be at home, it was my introduction to a whole world outside my own at the time. Weekends were the best. Friday nights were given over to theater, improv and spoken word. Saturdays bands and singer/songwriters took the stage. And Sunday nights it was jazz.

The Oliver Lake Quartet was pretty much the house band for jazz at the Circle. They did not play standards or bebop or hard bop. They played flat out, out there avant garde. At this point I had had pretty much zero exposure to jazz, so for me, this was jazz. And as much as I tried to like it—I spent a good number of Sunday nights at the Circle trying to wrap my head around the often atonal, rhythm-defying honks and squawks and thumps and bangs they put forth—I just couldn’t get there.

So I let go of jazz for a good long time, ten years or so. Oliver Lake, in the meantime, went on to help form the World Saxophone Quartet and become a major figure in the avant garde jazz scene, even without my support.

Eventually, I wandered back into jazz, starting with big band, then moving on to jazz standards, then bebop and hard bop. And finally, I found avant garde again, through the music of Ken Vandermark, Dave Rempis, Tim Daisy and other Chicago musicians. This time around I was ready.

All of which got me thinking about Oliver Lake and those Circle Coffeehouse sessions, wishing I could go back and hear them with new ears. Or at least hear Mr. Lake again. I got my first chance almost two years ago when he played with trumpeter and freebop pioneer Malachi Thompson at the Green Mill. They played a little avant garde music, giving me a tiny taste, but mostly stuck to straightahead jazz.

Then last week at the library [remember me geeking out about libraries recently?] I found this album, Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake. At six tracks and just under 50 minutes, it delivers a satisfying mix of laying down solid, melodic structures and then coloring way outside those self-imposed lines.

For me, the music is at its most exciting when they’re pushing the limits, challenging the listener to keep up as one musician after another—Lake on saxophone, bassist Reggie Workman, pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Frederick Waits—heads off in one direction or another. Sometimes it’s only as they’re returning to the original melody that you can see where they’ve been. And that’s just how I like it.

Alas, Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake is a semi-obscure import album; you won’t find audio samples on The YouTube clip above will give you a little taste of Oliver Lake’s more melodic side; it’s a solo piece performed in Seattle in 1996. For some more samples, go to his website. If you like what you hear, you can even buy music at the site. I know I’m going to be doing just that. And this time, I’m ready for him.

More than three chords, but plenty raw.

April 2, 2008


Old Time Relijun: Catharsis In Crisis


A great live show does not always a great studio album make, though. I’ve been disappointed by more than my share of CDs purchased after an electrifying live performance. For some reason, producers and musicians have a real penchant for producing, polishing and tweaking the life right out of the music.

Happily, such is not the case with Catharsis In Crisis. Granted, I don’t have the live concert experience to compare it with, but the music on this disk is plenty live and raw. The corners have not been knocked off. And even though the music is multi-layered and satisfyingly complex, there is an artful artlessness to it. The basic, at times almost crude, instrumentation and over the top passionate vocals seem calculated to push the limits—and to push the listener’s buttons. What they don’t do is fade into the background. If you are listening, you are listening actively.

For comparison’s sake, YouTube comes through once again. Here’s a bit of a live performance at Bear’s Place in Bloomington, Indiana. It shows me that their live performances are a little more raw and low-fi than the album. It also shows me that I need to be getting out for more live music.

Matt compared their sound a bit to the Talking Heads—and to jam bands. I can see that. But I can also see other influences. The saxophone music in particular seems to borrow heavily from Middle Eastern music. In fact, the opening track on this album, Indestructible Life!, conjures up a Muslim call to prayer issuing forth from some minaret, both in the vocals and the sax. And occasional reverbed guitar riffs and saxophone passages sound like nothing so much as bits of incidental music in TV shows that indicate that the main character has suddenly traveled to some exotic locale.

The 14 tracks of Catharsis In Crisis take up less than 40 minutes. But you’re just getting started. Some CDs add on a bonus track or two. This disk contains an absurdly generous 26 additional tracks, more than two hours of bits and pieces of music, including several extended jams. The idea, I think, is to give you a glimpse into the process of making music. It does this beautifully. The “bonusy-stuff” as it’s called on the disk also includes a music video, a beautifully disturbing, graphic novelesque piece.

For me, Catharsis In Crisis shows me that rock still has a lot of interesting places to go. And that the next time Old Time Relijun comes to town, I need to be there.

Rock-based jazz and Dick Cheney’s hidey hole

March 19, 2008


Ben Allison & Man Size Safe: Little Things Run the World

At last. An actual new release on the kitchen boombox. The 2007 Little Things Run the World is the latest release for New York jazz bassist Ben Allison and his quartet Man Size Safe. They were in town last weekend in support of the album, and we caught a performance at the Chicago Cultural Center.

We lucked into going to this performance when I came across a glowing write-up in the Chicago Reader; jazz critic Pete Margasak had named them his Critic’s Choice for the week. Here’s what he had to say:

What sets New York bassist Ben Allison apart from nearly every other jazz composer active today isn’t the influence of African music, electronica, and funk on his work—it’s the way he’s internalized the introspective melodicism of contemporary rock. (Here I’m thinking specifically of Radiohead.) His compact tunes are consistently so catchy and propulsive that you could easily overlook their subtlety and rhythmic elasticity: the new album from his band Man Size Safe, Little Things Run the World (Palmetto), may be his hookiest and most rock flavored yet, but the grooves he pounds out with drummer Michael Sarin constantly change shape and tempo, belying their rugged directness. The improvisations by trumpeter Ron Horton, saxophonist Michael Blake, and guitarist Steve Cardenas (who maintains a cool tone and attack even when it’d be easy to crank it) seal the deal—this is jazz all right, and played on a very high level. It’s a treat to hear soloists this good challenged by material this strong.

And if all this praise weren’t enough, the show in the Cultural Center’s intimate, acoustically wonderful Claudia Cassidy Theater was free. How could we not go?

Allison and his group delivered on the promise and then some. They stuck to tracks from the new album for the hour and change show, with the exception of a single tune. The music was smart, complex and engaging, if more melodic than the avant garde jazz I tend to seek out these days. And while the group’s leader is a bassist, he resisted the urge to play frontman with his rhythm instrument, always a potential danger with groups led by bassists or drummers.

On the other hand, because of his leadership—and the great work of drummer Michael Sarin—rhythms and tempos shifted freely from piece to piece and within individual tunes, often veering off in exciting directions. This, coupled with great performances by guitarist Steve Cardenas and sax player Michael Blake and particularly by trumpeter Ron Horton made for an excellent show. It also gave me plenty of reason to but the album.

Even without Pete Margasak’s comments, there’s no missing the rock influence on the music. Occasional fuzz-toned moments in Cardenas’ guitar solos make the point, as do the driving bass lines by Allison. But a real giveaway is Sarin’s drumming. A rock drummer friend once talked about trying to sit in at a jazz jam session. He lost his nerve when he saw that the other drummers rarely touched the pedal for the bass drum, a staple in rock drumming. Sarin’s bass drum sees plenty of action.

Another hint that rock informs their sound? The only cover on the album is John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. It’s also one of the standout tracks. With all this talk of rock helping shape the sound of the group, let me make one thing clear: This is not jazz fusion. That particular musical travesty is all but dead, I’m happy to say. This is solid jazz, beautifully performed.

Is it possible for a song with no words to be political? The tune that gives the band its name, Man Size Safe, refers to just such an object in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. The music begins with solo guitar picking out a melody line that is pure 60s caper film; it smacks of darkness, imminent danger and nefarious activity. Jewel thieves, spies and crooked dealings. You would feel this even without the back story. Allison describes the song perfectly in his entertaining liner notes: “Part of my ongoing Dick Cheney Suite. Dick—a modern corporate man steps off a plane, his scarred heart crackles and fizzles. He must believe his own psychosis. Sneering secrets create empires. The business of war drives the economy. It all makes sense in his mind. After all, he’s the policeman policing himself. But I can’t help wondering what the man size safe in his office is for.”

The album isn’t without its problems. Saxophonist Blake, who played an integral part in the musical conversation at the show is only a guest on the album, meaning that, on too many of the eight tracks, the trumpet has to do too much of the heavy lifting solowise. And sometimes when musicians get into the studio, there is a tendency to polish and tweak and produce the life right out of the music. For me, the recording lacks a little of the energy and edge that the live performance had.

Then again, maybe this is just one of those recordings that demands active listening, much like the show itself. I find when I put Little Things Run the World on the kitchen boombox, it tends to slip too easily into the background as I get involved in cooking. But listening to it in the car or on my iPod, it takes center stage, and I find myself delighting in complex moments and subtle exchanges.

The ReBirth Brass Band: First-rate Second Line

February 27, 2008


ReBirth Brass Band: Ultimate ReBirth Brass Band

A QUICK UPDATE: I’ve gotten a number of comments to this post from people asking if the band is available to play weddings. Unfortunately, I have no connection to the band other than loving their music. To contact them, please visit the Rebirth Brass Band’s MySpace page.

According to the New Orleans Jazz Club, The Second Line “has several definitions. Basically, it’s the people that follow the brass bands on the street. These Second-Liners also have a special step, shuffle or dance they do when following the band. This is called ‘Second Lining.'”

Second Liners follow these brass bands for all kinds of occasions—parades, funerals and perhaps New Orleans’ defining occasion, Mardi Gras.

In this YouTube video, the ReBirth Brass Band plays for a Threadheads “patry” at the 2005 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. According to their website, Threadheads are the denizens of the chat board on the festival’s website. At some point, the word party was misspelled patry on the message board and it stuck.

The ReBirth Brass Band grew out of the Second Line tradition. Formed in 1983, they have taken the music beyond the parades and streets of New Orleans to, as their website proclaims, “theaters and festivals all over the world.” They are committed to upholding the tradition of brass bands while “at the same time incorporating modern music into their show.” Including their signature brand of heavy funk.

The fine 2004 release Ultimate ReBirth Brass Band demonstrates this blend of tradition and modern music beautifully. Although for me, the Second Line comes through strongest. The big brass sound—produced by a tuba, two trumpets, two trombones and a saxophone [technically a woodwind, I know] and driven by a bass drum and a snare drum—at times sounds like nothing so much as a marching band, albeit a loose-hipped marching band. It is parade music, but with a syncopated rhythm, and listening to it, you can’t help but move.

Besides the music’s strong, driving rhythm, the parade aspect comes through in its repetition. The basic melody is laid down right away, and the music never strays far. Ensemble playing and solos repeat and reinforce it, embellishing it, to be sure, but in the end, repetition is in the driver’s seat. When there are lyrics, this becomes even more obvious. In my favorite track on the album, Do Whatcha Wanna, the lyrics for the entire eight-plus-minute song consist of minor variations on, “Do whatcha wanna, hang on the corner,” repeated again and again and again. And it works, wonderfully.

If you’ve ever heard a marching band in a parade, you’re typically standing in one spot and only hear their music as they approach you, pass you by and then fade off into the distance. So they can keep playing variations on a theme for an ever-changing audience. For Second Liners trailing along after the band and dancing, this repetition lays down a steady groove that lets them improvise their own variations in movement.

The ReBirth Brass Band celebrates its 24th anniversary with a show at Tipitina’s Uptown in New Orleans in 2007.

Of course where the band’s music differs from old school Second Line music built on traditional New Orleans jazz [think Louis Armstrong] is in the funk. And this turns great parade music into great party and dancing music. Think of the repetitiveness of disco or house music. Now add some funk and Creole spices. One tune almost flows into the next, and the effect is stirring, uplifting and energizing. Ultimate ReBirth Brass Band is the kind of music that gets the party started or makes chores less chorelike. Or, on a winter walk to the subway with it turned up on your iPod, it makes you wish the walk were a little longer.

Neither of us even remembers now how this lovely disk joined our music collection. But what put it back into the rotation on the kitchen boombox is this: Over the weekend, Marion happened on an episode of This Old House set in New Orleans. As its website says, the show “follows stories of rebuilding and recovery in New Orleans, while helping one fourth-generation resident of the Lower Ninth Ward return home by renovating her flood-damaged shotgun single.” It also tells the story of “the building of Musicians’ Village, a Habitat for Humanity community in the Upper Ninth Ward that has affordable housing for 82 musicians and other families—conceived by, among others, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and musician and actor Harry Connick Jr.”

In other words, it tells the stories of people and organizations doing the Post-Katrina rebuilding that the government either can’t or won’t. And if that’s not rebirth, what is?

Books and dogs and rock & roll

February 20, 2008

The bookish, slightly geeky and very fun Harry and the Potters play for an appreciative crowd.

You know how parents and kids rarely see eye-to-eye on music? How parents are usually the ones yelling, “Turn that [insert desired expletive here—or not] down!”? Not so much in our household. I’ve been known to ask the girls to turn it up, more often than not. And as often as not, when I’ve gotten in the car after Marion’s been driving alone, the music will be cranked when I start the engine.

Still, we’ve gone through cycles of overlap and divergence with the girls and their music. For a long time, influenced by local bands we saw when we went out, mainly in St. Louis, Marion and I gravitated to roots rock and roadhouse music. But as first Claire and then Laurel got into going out for music [which usually entailed one or both of us taking them to shows], we got exposed to garage, punk, art rock and various other iterations often involving power chords [never more than three], screaming and plentiful F-bombs. Eyes [and ears] were opened. This stuff was loud, raw and even dangerous—you know, what rock is supposed to be.

So of course, as we were really getting into this, the girls veered off into an area we couldn’t follow. I’m not sure what the technical term is, but the layman’s term is whiney singer/songwriter. You know. Rufus Wainwright. Conor Oberst. There were seriously times I would drop them at one venue for a show of nice, sensitive, introspective music and would drive to another for a screaming punk show.

Younger daughter Laurel has gotten into more rock music again, some of it pretty interesting. It’s not the primal stuff I crave [someone recently loaned me a Sonic Youth disk and, while it’s all right, it feels a little too commercial to me], but, well, interesting.

And perhaps no band she’s following is more interesting than Harry and the Potters. To get the most out of them, it helps to be a fan of the Harry Potter franchise of books and films. I’m not. But what this Boston duo—brothers Paul and Joe DeGeorge—has done with it, both musically and how they choose to perform, is fun, off-center and apparently genuine. I’ll let their website tell you their story.

The idea is that the Harry Potter from Year 7 and the Harry Potter from Year 4 started a rock band. And now, no one can stop the wizard rock.

Paul and Joe are brothers. They started this band in the summer of 2002. The legendary tale of their origin goes like this:

Joe was planning to have a rock show in the shed in the backyard. People had been invited. But then all the bands cancelled. So that morning, the time was finally appropriate to bust out an idea that had been incubating in Paul’s head for some time: Harry and the Potters. That morning, over the course of an hour, Paul and Joe wrote 7 songs. Then, they went out to the shed and practiced them for half an hour. And then, later in the day, they performed them for about 6 people. It was awesome. The place went nuts.

“The place went nuts.” Six people. How can you not smile at that?

Another thing I like about them is the venues they choose to play. Libraries. Bookstores. Art galleries. Oh, and a hot dog jamboree. Which is how they made it onto the Kitchen Boombox, where they will be seen by ten men and a dog, as we like to say in the advertising business.


A few days ago, Laurel sent me a link to the blog I am an American and I Eat Hot Dogs. She knows I write a food blog, of course. And that I like hot dogs. But why she thought I might find this particular blog interesting is that it is by one of the Harrys, brother Paul. In his blog, he reviews hot dogs eaten in his travels. Or as he puts it on his home page, “Paul chronicles the inseparable adventures of everyday life and hot dogs.”

Like the band and its music, the blog is fun and unexpected. And with the decidedly punkish performance below, Harry and the Potters just may have found another fan.

Notes from the underground—above ground too

February 13, 2008

Beatbox flute and cello duo in a New York City subway station.

On the way home from dinner in Chicago’s Chinatown last Friday, we switched from the Red Line train to the Blue Line downtown at Jackson and Dearborn. It’s a busy subway station, and there are almost always performers trying to make a living there. Many are fairly ordinary, but sometimes they are wonderful.

Like Friday night. As we came up out of the tunnel to the platform, we first heard the jazz clarinet and a drum—a West African djembe drum, to be exact, an odd but beautiful match for the clarinet. Two young men stood watching the musicians more intently than most of the others on the platform. As the clarinetist nodded at one of them, we soon knew why: He began to dance.

The bright staccato clicking of the taps on his shoes added to the music. His movements were tight and precise, not the big, sweeping athletic moves of Gene Kelly. But he had his flourishes—long, rapid-fire bursts, for instance, punctuated with dramatic pauses as he balanced on his toes.

The younger man was a little less confident, a little less poised. But the clarinetist kept nodding at him, kept drawing him out, and you could see him open up a little more to performing each time. Our train pulled into the station, but Marion just said, “Let’s take the next one.” It was that kind of moment. And yes, we tipped well.

Japanese folk musician, in a New York City subway.

Subway stations and the trains themselves are home to all manner of performers. They offer at least a modicum of climate control compared to the streets and at least temporarily captive audiences. Both in Chicago and New York, performers have to audition for licenses, so there’s at least a baseline for talent too. And in New York, competition can be fierce for the best spots in the best stations.

Auditions being held in Grand Central Terminal for the MTA’s Music Under New York program.

Watching these clips—and remembering countless subway and street performances I’ve seen—I’m struck by how many people not only don’t tip, but don’t even acknowledge the performers. And I’m reminded of these lyrics of a wonderful Joni Mitchell song about seeing a musician playing a clarinet on a street corner, For Free:

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free

Yes, there is plenty of, well, crap. But when it’s wonderful, it’s truly wonderful. Marion tells the story of someone on the Paris Metro who suddenly strung up a curtain between poles and performed a short but brilliant puppet show. And once when I was in New York, a half dozen teenagers suddenly turned on a boombox in a subway car. Expecting an uninspired rap performance, I jammed my hands in my pockets, determined to keep them—and my dollars—there. Instead of rap, they broke into a well-rehearsed tumbling routine, doing cartwheels and backflips; grabbing wrists and ankles to form two-man wheels, rolling through the moving car, carefully judging the placement of the center poles as they did; hands came out—even the most jaded among us applauded. And tipped.

An especially impressive group in New York. Note how one of the horn players makes sure they get paid.

Perhaps the most amazing moment like this for me happened above ground, in Paris. My brother and I spent a week there, doing museums, cathedrals and cafés during the day and looking for music and booze at night. Every night, we would drive around aimlessly, looking for clubs. When we found a promising neighborhood, we would abandon the car. Legal parking was non-existent, and people would pull up on medians, the sidewalk or wherever and leave their cars. We did too. Unfortunately, we would always rush off without bothering to note where we’d left the car. So we would end every night wandering whatever neighborhood we’d landed in until we found it.

One such night [well, three or four in the morning, if you’re a stickler for detail] while searching for our car, we happened on a duo just setting up on the sidewalk. They had strung a couple of ropes from a tree to a ladder, one about eight feet off the ground, the other about two feet. The apparent leader, dressed in a circus ringmaster’s red coat with tails and a top hat [and inexplicably, with a big, bouncy kangaroo tail protruding between the coat tails], grabbed several people from the crowd, including me, and had us hold the vertical ladder. He told us dramatically [and in French] that the other performer’s life depended upon us.

The other performer, dressed as a mime, but by no means silent, reluctantly climbed the ladder, protesting the whole way. He then proceeded to walk the makeshift tightrope, urged on by the ringmaster’s orders, threats and whipcracking [did I forget to mention the whip?]. Soon, he was juggling too. The ringmaster worked the crowd, collecting money in his top hat. When someone tossed in a mere ten centimes, the ringmaster took it from the hat with an angry flourish, spat on it and threw it into the street.

For all the drama, the finale was serenely surreal. The tightrope walker balanced on the top rope, juggling flaming torches. The circus ringmaster balanced on the lower rope [we’d all wondered what it was for], balancing a cello in front of him and playing a sad sonata. It was like a moment from a Fellini film, only better, because it was real and it was Paris.

Oscar Peterson: Grace and elegant virtuosity

January 2, 2008


Oscar Peterson: Summer Night in Munich

When I heard that jazz piano giant Oscar Peterson had died recently, this was the album I wanted to hear to remember him by. I had first heard part of it the night the death of Peterson’s longtime bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was announced on a local jazz radio station. The dj played the third track of the album, Nigerian Marketplace, because it began with a long bass solo. I was in the car at the time and had just gotten where I was going when the tune started. I sat there in the car until it ended nearly ten minutes later.

Like much of Peterson’s vast library of recordings, Summer Night in Munich is a stunning display of technical mastery and eminently listenable jazz. Peterson rarely pushed the envelope stylistically. As the New York Times obit points out, “rather than expand the boundaries of jazz, he used his gifts in the service of moderation and reliability, gratifying his devoted audiences whether he was playing in a trio or solo or accompanying some of the most famous names of jazz.” Some critics felt that he traded virtuosity for emotion or tension in his playing.

Listening to this disk again this week [and again and again], I’ll have to admit it doesn’t challenge me, doesn’t stretch my ear as free jazz—or even some old school be-bop—does. But the music has such grace and polish and elegant, intimate conversation going on among the musicians that I don’t miss the challenges.

Peterson suffered a stroke in 1993 that diminished the skills of his left hand. He responded by finding ways to make his right hand do more. It is evident in this 1998 recording. You don’t hear a lot in the way of the lower notes of the left hand; the piano is a bright, lively presence made up mostly of the higher register notes of the right. But bassist Pedersen steps up beautifully, supplying not only the stellar bass technique he was known for, but occasionally adding almost pianolike playing, particularly on the ballads. Drummer Martin Drew and guitarist Ulf Wakenius round out the quartet.

Seven of the eight tracks are Oscar Peterson compositions. For me, these are the best work on the disk. But even his take on Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll satisfies. No, Summer Night in Munich doesn’t take jazz in any new directions. But it shows how, with the right musicians, there’s still much to be explored in the places jazz has already been.

Hot jazz, cool Paris vibe

November 14, 2007


The Best of Django Reinhardt

A few weeks ago, we went to the Green Mill and caught part of a set by Alfonso Ponticelli and Swing Gitan. Two amplified acoustic guitars, a violin, upright bass, drums and an accordion—the musicians were all twentysomething [or thereabouts] guys except the accordionist, and they were doing spot on Django Reinhardt-style gypsy jazz. Absolutely authentic and very lively—it transported the already historic Chicago jazz club back to Paris in the ’30s.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, here’s a little sample of an actual set at the Green Mill. Although bandleader Alfonso plays lead guitar, the videographer was obviously a friend of violinist James Sanders. But the clip will still give you a sense of the music and the moment and the place.

That lovely evening of course sent me in search of some actual Django Reinhardt music. The music snob in me generally causes me to ignore “Best Of” albums, but in the case of this one, they mostly got it right.

Django Reinhardt was born in a Gypsy caravan in Belgium in 1910. He started playing guitar when he was 11; by the time he was 13, he was playing professionally in working-class cafés. He eventually discovered jazz and in the 1930s, teamed up with French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. And that led to what I think of as the classic Django Reinhardt sound—hard swinging jazz, often with rapid-fire guitar work, usually teamed with Grappelli’s violin, always up to the challenge of Django’s masterful playing.

Decades after his untimely death in 1953, he remains arguably the best jazz guitarist of all time. In fact, that was the basis for an interesting Woody Allen film, Sweet and Lowdown, in which Sean Penn’s character considers himself the second best guitarist in the world, second only to Django.

Again thanks to YouTube, here is a wonderful clip of Reinhardt and Grappelli performing together. The music gets going in earnest after a stagey little newsreel bit.

The tracks that work best for me on The Best of Django Reinhardt are the smaller settings—quintets, duets, even solo pieces. They let the amazing guitar work shine through. On the couple/few tracks that feature a full orchestra, the guitar becomes more of a featured player than a leader. More important to me, at least, it loses that Paris jazz club vibe. Still, with a total of 18 tracks, there’s plenty to love here.