Future Stars

Last night we joined friends at The Art of Jazz fundraiser for the Jazz Arts Group at the Columbus Museum of Art. It was a terrific affair that featured performances by the Columbus Youth Jazz All-Stars, who played a mix of jazz classics and some impressive original compositions by the young performers in the band, and a closing concert by with Byron Stripling, the Artistic Director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, engaging vocalist Niki Harris, and Bobby Floyd, Andy Woodson, and Jim Rupp.

The music was great, from beginning to end, but the segment that really blew me away featured two of young men from the Fort Hayes high school, Jaxon Dixon and Jack Thompson, getting up on stage to play with the pros and showing great poise and awesome talent as they performed. They fit right in, and their contribution to a memorable evening was a great way to illustrate the value of the educational and youth outreach programs of the Jazz Arts Group.

I love jazz, and it’s great to see that it’s alive and well and in the hearts of young people who will carry the jazz torch forward.

Whirlybirds Accompaniment

I went to work this morning, and as I was working I kept hearing this great jazz music coming up from the street below during today’s Sunlight Market on Gay Street.  I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing a recording or a live band — but the music was terrific.  It was old-school jazz that had a kind of New Orleans feel to it.  It reminded me of Tuba Skinny, one of my favorite Big Easy jazz bands.

whirlybirds-facebook-picWhen I left the office and walked out onto Gay Street, I saw that the music was coming a live band.  They finished a number and took a break, and I walked up to throw a few dollars into their open guitar case and thank them for adding a little musical accompaniment to my Sunday work session.  They were a Columbus-based band called the Whirlybirds, and they were great.  You can check out their Facebook page here and hear one of their numbers here.

I’m going to keep an eye out for a chance to hear more from the Whirlybirds.

King Louie

We’re staying in a VRBO rental in the French Quarter, about halfway between Bourbon Street and Louis Armstrong Park.  This morning at about 8:30 a.m., with the temperature already about 90 degrees and the humidity approximately 1000 percent, we walked to the park and checked out the statue of the legendary jazz trumpeter.  We’re traveling with two long-time music educators, so we also got an interesting tutorial on how Armstrong started off on the coronet, and how the coronet and the trumpet are different.

Educated and sweaty, we’re ready for breakfast.

Columbus Jazz Orchestra

Last night Kish and I completed our Christmas cultural gift exchange by attending a performance of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra.  Entitled Ella Fitzgerald & The great Ladies of Swing, the show featured the CJO in full throat and two superb guest artists:  Marva Hicks and Nicki Parrott.  

It’s the first time I’ve seen the CJO in a long time, and the show demonstrated what I’ve stupidly been missing.  This is a tight group with a big sound and lots of talent to display, and when they get a chance to play classic tunes from the American songbook with two brilliant female vocalists (and, in Parrott’s case, a fine double bass musician, besides), you’re going to get a great show.

The program was top-notch from stem to stern, but I particularly liked Parrott’s rendition of Fever and I Will Wait for You and Hicks’ version of Stormy Weather, and Kish and I always relish Blue Skies, which was played on our wedding day.  I also enjoyed CJO artistic director Byron Stripling’s  tasty trumpet fills and deft vocal efforts to channel his inner Louis Armstrong– but the high point for me was Hicks’ powerful and heartfelt performance on My Man’s Gone Now, from Porgy and Bess, which was a knockout punch if there ever was one.

The CJO is another artistic asset in a city that is full of them.  If you’re in the mood for some great lives music, you can still catch this show tonight and tomorrow.

I Got A Kick Against Modern Jazz

steve-lehman-octet-2014-press-650x400Last night Kish and I and our friends the Soon-To-Be-Someone’s-In-Laws went to the Wexner Center Performance Space for a performance of the Steve Lehman Octet.  The group is a heralded new force on the jazz scene and is headed by Steve Lehman, a composer and saxophonist.  At the performance, I learned that even where every one of the members of a group is obviously an incredibly accomplished musician, capable of doing extraordinary things with their instrument, they can produce music that just isn’t to my liking.

The SLO has released two albums that have been as widely acclaimed as jazz recordings can be.  A Wall Street Journal article about them described the music as follows:

“The octet has a mesmerizing sound. Shimmering harmonies are densely layered, but in a way that seems transparent. There is a three-dimensionality to it that makes it seem as if there are many different lines being played at once, yet the music is surprisingly coherent. The rhythms are fluid and catchy.”

At last night’s performance, I got the densely layered part, and the three-dimensionality, because there definitely were instruments playing discrete pieces that looked to combine into a whole.  But the “catchy rhythms” part I missed.  The music was interesting and had a certain power, but as I observed to Mr. STBSIL I didn’t walk out whistling a tune that had been performed.  Instead, it seemed like the musicians were more interested in probing the outer boundaries of sounds that could be produced by their instruments, alone and in combination.  The result was just too inaccessible and discordant to my uneducated ear.

The fault obviously must be mine, because the Steve Lehman Octet gets accolades from every quarter.  I like a lot of jazz, and I found myself wishing that the group, and other modern jazz groups, would try to play more tuneful music, a la Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and early Miles Davis, that wouldn’t make me work so freaking hard.  Of course, that’s selfish, because I’m sure that gifted musicians want to push the envelope of the instruments and their sound and their own capabilities.

The sweet spot is hit, though, only when the composer and players’ desire to press forward into new territory intersects with the sensibilities of even the less sophisticated members of the audience — and not every musician is aiming for that sweet spot.

Friday Night At Notes

It was bitterly cold last night, with a teeth-rattling wind blowing, but Kish and I wanted to get out of the house, anyway.  We decided to walk down to High Street to check out Notes, which is something that has been on our to-do list for a while now.

IMG_0457Notes is the music venue below Copious, one of the newer restaurants in the German Village area.  Last night the Tim Cummiskey Duo was playing the 7:30 set, and there was no cover charge.  How could we go wrong?

Well, we didn’t.  I’m happy to report that Notes is a pretty nice place to spend your Friday night.  It’s a big open room, the stage at one end and the long bar at the other, with bench-style seating along the walls, several dozen tables of different sizes around the room, and even a small area in front of the stage for dancing.  The Notes bar is stocked with just about every kind of adult beverage you’d care to drink — an extremely important consideration at any night-time music venue, in my book — and there is also a limited food menu.  Kish and I tried one of the create-your-own flatbread pizzas, and it was quite tasty.

The sound quality and acoustics — the other extremely important consideration in a music venue — were excellent.  That was crucial last night, because the Tim Cummiskey Duo turned out to be a good jazz guitar and bass combo, and for that kind of music you want to be able to hear every note, in every improvisation, clearly.

Our Friday night at Notes turned out to be a fun way to beat the winter cold and the winter blahs.  Good live music will do that for you.  There are lots of fine musicians out there; they just need a place to perform.  Now we know there’s a good spot only a few blocks away.

Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck died today.  He was a piano-playing genius and a giant in the music world who recorded one of the most influential jazz albums of all time.

In 1959 Brubeck, along with saxophonist Paul Desmond and the other members of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, released Time Out.  The big hit on that album was Take Five, a song that became instantly recognizable because of Desmond’s iconic sax line, but the rest of the album was equally excellent.  (A 1966 performance of Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet appears below.)  Brubeck’s very interesting piano playing, and Desmond’s light, almost effervescent touch on the saxophone, complemented each other perfectly.  Other songs on the album, like Three To Get Ready, Pick Up Sticks, and Everybody’s Jumpin’, are as fresh and timeless now as they were when Time Out first hit the streets during the Eisenhower Administration.

I’m not especially knowledgeable about jazz or musicianship.  Brubeck’s work — particularly his collaboration with Desmond and his Quartet — appealed to me because it was beautiful and accessible.  Brubeck’s and Desmond’s solos retained a controlled melodic structure, rather than meandering into the atonal, self-absorbed solos that characterized the work of so many other modern jazz artists.  Brubeck always seemed to remember that he was performing for an audience that wanted to be entertained, and I appreciated that.

If you like Christmas music, as I do, you might also want to give a listen to Brubeck’s recordings of holiday standards.  The CD A Dave Brubeck Christmas, with Brubeck playing jazzy versions of favorites, is excellent and is part of my holiday mix on my iPod.

Dave Brubeck lived into a his 90s, but he left us too soon.


Savannah Music Festival

Every March/April Savannah holds a Music Festival.  For seventeen days there are concerts, often three or four and sometimes more each day.  One of the highlights of the series in our view, is something they call Swing Central Jazz.  It comprises a number of high school jazz bands who come to Savannah for several days and are tutored by some of the name professionals who are here to appear in the music festival.  This year there were twelve bands that were invited to participate.  The professionals who tutored the kids included jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, trumpeter Jon Faddis and drummer Jason Marsalis, to name a few.  Some of these professionals also travel to the high schools during the year to provide instruction in playing jazz.  The week culminates for these kids in a competition for a first, second and third place money prize on Friday.   The bands compete during the day, each playing the same three pieces that had been identified last Fall, allowing each to make their own arrangement of the pieces and how they would be presented.   Then the three top bands are announced and they perform again in the evening after which  the winning order is announced.  Following the kids performances the professionals play a concert of their own.

I went all day last Friday to hear these bands compete and my wife and I went to the evening performance as well.  The kids are terrific !  It amazes me that people so young can play so well.  To my ear, they are all professional level performers.  I don’t know how the judges are able to pick the winners.  One band from Fort Lauderdale,Florida – Dillard Cente rfor the Arts Jazz Ensemble – had won the last two years and this year it tied for first with a band from Agoura Hills,California.  I guessed that the Dillard group would be finalists again as they had a unique presentation.  As to the others, I really couldn’t pick one or two as standing far above the rest.

Some of the band directors, in thanking the festival organizers, parents of the kids and their school administrators for the support of the program mentioned that these kids met three or more times a week as early as six a.m. to get their practices in while attending their normal classes.   So often we hear of the early and difficult practices for the various athletic teams in high schools and even have them highlighted on the local evening news, but we seldom think about and virtually never see what the arts majors are doing to reach their potentials.  What is really troubling is to hear that the band, or art classes, choir or drama activities have to be cut from the public school curricula for budgetary reasons.

As an end note, it was amusing to see the kids, who are so professional when they are on the stage performing, sitting together in the audience before and after they perform, acting like teenagers.  I know that is what they are, but when they are performing it is hard to remember that their hormones are raging and that they are at that time of life when they are trying to devise their own personalities and independence.  These young folks are great ambassadors for their contemporaries.  When one wants to despair over “today’s youth” they need only see what thee kids are doing.

Smell The Smoke, Hear The Jazz

Herman Leonard died recently.  An accomplished photographer, he is best known for stunning black-and-white photos of jazz performers like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dexter Gordon (pictured at right) among many others.  His vivid photographs allow the viewer to almost smell the ever-present smoke, hear the clink of highball glasses in the hushed audience, and experience the trumpeter arching back as he reaches for that final, high note.

The BBC has a fine slideshow of some Herman Leonard photographs set to music.