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By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A recent trip to New Orleans provided me the opportunity to bask in several facets of jazz. When possible, I took video footage to preserve a few choice moments.

My first night in the Big Easy, I stopped in at the legendary Preservation Hall. With its intentionally rough-hewn interior, stepping inside was like visiting a living history farm. The Hall has been a tourist destination for half a century, but don’t let that keep you away. Sure, this may be the only live jazz most people will hear for the rest of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth experiencing. The setlist stuck to pre-war standards, but they were delivered with plenty of fun and energy. The venue’s name is apt. The arrangements aren’t groundbreaking, but the Preservation Hall band is keeping a sound alive that may otherwise have been forgotten. Unfortunately, no audio or video is allowed.

Located on Bourbon Street a few blocks from Preservation Hall (and near Skully’s, a great record store), Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub draws on the same era, but from a different perspective. If Preservation Hall celebrates the Sidney Bechet of New Orleans, Fritzel’s commemorates the European Bechet. In fact, thanks to an audience request, the band leader treated the crowd to a great version of Bechet’s “Petite Fleur.” The 1959 hit isn’t the easiest song to master, but the clarinet player blew effortlessly. I was able to take a little video to capture the atmosphere in Fritzel’s.

After two days in the French Quarter, I had had enough. The tourist trap may be fine for less-seasoned travelers, but I quickly discovered Frenchmen Street was where the locals partied, The corridor featured many fine clubs within the space of a few blocks, including Snug Harbor, the Apple Barrel and my destination for the next two nights, the Blue Nile and d.b.a.

Kermit Ruffins has enough of a following that he can play nearly every night of the week. Locals now have to share Ruffins with tourists (like me) thanks to his appearances on “Treme.” The two-hour set was filled with standards like “What a Wonderful World” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which Ruffins managed to freshen up without offending purists. An entertainer and trumpet player from the Satchmo school, Ruffins was determined to make everyone in room smile and get on their feet. The best moment arrived after an intermission, when the house PA’s version of Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad At Ya” faded into a live version, with Ruffin’s delivering a blistering post-Katrina rhyme. Here is some footage I shot of Ruffin infusing the Black Eyed Peas with some much-needed zydeco.

On my final night in NOLA, I returned to Frenchmen Street to witness Rebirth Brass Band at d.b.a. There are a myriad of great brass bands in the Crescent City, but Rebirth may be the only one that can boast a parental advisory rating in its catalog. The eight-piece unit mixes funk and hip hop into the traditional brass band sound. The stifling heat in the small room couldn’t keep the crowd from dancing, and the band seemed to be having the most fun. Here’s a bit of Rebirth’s tribute to another native son, Fats Domino.

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(Above: Return to Forever rock Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” to close their performance at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Stanley Clarke announced to an excited Midland Theater crowd that this latest version of Return to Forever wasn’t like all those other reunion bands who declare that a tour was their last time around. Rather, the bass player said, Return to Forever were just turning a new page.

Keyboardist Chick Corea has reconvened his famous Return to Forever groups several times since the band’s 1970s heydays. The current incarnation –- dubbed Return to Forever IV -– comprises Corea, Clarke and drummer Lenny White with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale on guitar.Clarke’s comment may have seemed an odd way to describe a two-hour repertoire was at least 30, and sometimes nearly 40, years old, but while the tones and textures of the original recordings remained unchanged, it was obvious the musicians were having fun exploring this music in a new context.
The quintet’s massive sound easily filled the big room. Playing at rock-show volume they opened with “Medieval Overture,” the first of three songs pulled from their classic “Romantic Warrior” album. White’s drums and Corea’s keys were pristine throughout the night, but it took a couple songs before Clarke and Ponty got the prominence in the mix they deserved.The telepathy Corea, Clarke and White have developed playing together over the decades were obvious from the first notes. While they were far from ringers, it seemed to take Ponty and Gambale a moment to insert their voices in the conversation, although the mix may have contributed to this as well.

Once the sound and musicians adjusted the already-nimble music hit warp speed. Ponty had already soloed before sounding off of Corea’s piano during the snippet of “The Shadow of Lo” that prefaced “Sorceress,” but in that moment he established his presence.

Ponty dominated the next number, a reading of his 1975 composition “Renaissance.” The first completely acoustic number of the night, it demonstrated the ensemble was still just as powerful in the quieter setting.

On “Romantic Warrior,” the other unplugged number, Clarke essentially turned his upright into a massive drum by slapping the neck with alternating hands. Although everyone took impressive solos, Clarke and Ponty’s seemed to generate the most applause throughout the evening.

The night ended with a celebratory romp through Clarke’s “School Days” with Clarke and Gambale standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the front of the stage strutting and strumming like rock stars.

Zappa Plays Zappa: Pairing RTF’s progressive jazz with Zappa’s progressive whatever-it-is was inspired. Dweezil Zappa led an eight-piece band through a one-hour exploration of his father’s catalog. The arrangements were faithful enough to the original recordings to satisfy Zappa’s rabid following, but managed to include several delightful surprises as well. Corea joined the group for “King Kong.” The set also included “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” “Big Swifty” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”

RTF Setlist: Medieval Overture; Captain Senor Mouse; The Shadow of Lo (excerpt) > Sorceress; Renaissance; After the Cosmic Rain; Romantic Warrior; Spain. Encore: School Days.

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By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Year-end, Top 10 lists are everywhere. Only The Daily Record presents its favorite records in haiku. Enjoy.

1. Arcade Fire – Suburbs

Four sides of vinyl.
Suburban sprawl? Viewing life
takes time to explore.

2. The Roots – How I Got Over

Late night’s finest band
drops another classic.
Best since “Game Theory.”

3. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

Ambitious concept
spread over diverse styles,
An amazing voice.

4. Bobby Watson – Gates BBQ Suite

Mouth-watering sounds
Basie, Ollie should be proud
Tribute to KayCee

5. Black Keys – Brothers

Broader sound gives pair
more room for dirty landscapes
Blues and guitar bros.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Self-proclaimed jerk
Submits tortured, twisted art
Tender, repulsive

7. Cee-Lo Green – The Ladykiller

Soul man blurs genres
for nonstop party. Like it?
If not, forget you.

8. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Lefty, Son of Chico Dusty

Execs slow release,
block Andre, but can’t stop fun.
More “Speakerboxx” joy.

9. Oriole Post – Silver City

A down-home hoedown
Warm as buttermilk biscuits
Full of Midwest heart.

10. Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider

Piano maestro
back with Josh Redman.
Expansive, probing.

Keep reading:

Top 10 Albums of 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2007

Top 10 Albums of 2006

Top 10 albums of 2005

Top 10 Albums of 2004

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 (Above: Branford Marsalis solos and shows off his new drummer, Justin Faulkner, at a 2009 concert.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Saturday’s Branford Marsalis concert at the Gem Theater was a night of new beginnings.

The show kicked off the 2010-2011 season of Jammin’ at the Gem and featured new bass player Robert Hurst – this was only his second gig with the quartet in as many nights. It even opened with a new song.

That number, tentatively titled “Joey’s Tune” after its composer, pianist Joey Calderazzo, was a bit of an outlier. Admittedly a work in progress, the arrangement was busy to the point of claustrophobia. When Marsalis stepped back, Calderazzo and drummer Justin Faulkner flooded the room so completely one wondered if Marsalis would be able to wedge his way back in the song.

Fortunately, the rest of the two-hour set fared better. Alternating between soprano and tenor saxophones, Marsalis guided the band through breakneck changes and lumbering mood pieces. Some of his solos displayed the pop sensibilities that made him the go-to hornsmith for Sting and Bruce Hornsby, yet his playing was always challenging, never resting too lightly on the ears.

If the set had one blemish it was that Marsalis seemed too content to introduce a number with a solo, then step away for the rest of the number to let his trio play. Aside from being the best player onstage, Marsalis’ horn was the catalyst that helped the rest of the sounds to coalesce.

“The Blossom of Parting,” a track from Marsalis’ 2009 album “Metamorphosen” was the high point of night. The song opened softly with Marsalis on soprano sax, and Faulkner switching between brushes and mallets to build new textures. Calderazzo’s mesmerizing solo blurred the lines between jazz and classical music, and showed more than a hint of Brad Mehldau’s plaintive style. When the band re-entered, Marsalis gradually built the song’s intensity. Before the song could climax, however, an over-exuberant Faulkner accidentally knocked his ride cymbal to the floor. It wasn’t the ending Marsalis hoped for, but the audience took in stride and responded with a standing ovation.

Faulkner had no problem filling the drum stool occupied by Marsalis’ longtime beatman Jeff “Tain” Watts. On a cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Teo,” Faulkner traded bars with Marsalis with a maturity that outpaced his age of 19 and an energy that underlined it. His solo during a later song recalled another drummer of Marsalis’ acquaintance, Art Blakey.

Hurst also handled himself well, despite sight-reading all of the material. His lengthy solo would have worked better tied to a song than as a stand-alone piece. Aside from that moment, Hurst drew little attention to himself – a positive attribute for now in these new surroundings.

The evening ended with an encore of “St. Louis Blues” that found Marsalis showing off his New Orleans roots and reeling off some Satchmo-like trumpet licks on his saxophone.

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(Above: Ahmad Alaadeen plays for Charlie Parker at a 2008 graveside memorial service.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

I grew up in a musical household where classical was the genre of choice. Consequently, I was left to discover everything else on my own.

NPR was my gateway to jazz. The car my parents let me drive in high school didn’t have much that worked (including heat or air conditioning, which ensured I wouldn’t venture too far from home). The radio, however, was fine. On evening drives I switched between KCUR and KANU, both of which had long blocks of jazz into the night.

I couldn’t tell you who was playing at any given moment. If the song didn’t reach me, or the announcers started talking too much I’d hit the button for the other station. Although I didn’t know Mingus from Monk, I did know that this stuff was a heck of a lot better than hearing the same Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Metallica songs for the millionth time on commercial rock stations.

The other jazz fact I knew all too well was that everyone I had heard of was no longer living. Like the classical music my parents enjoyed, the genre was confined to corpses, their legacies entombed with Beethoven and Armstrong.

Ahmad Alaadeen was my entry into jazz as a living art form. My sister told me a “guy who played with Billie Holliday” was having a concert in a church near Paseo and Linwood. I convinced a couple of friends to make the trek with me, and we were all blown away. I can’t remember what he played, but I know he played in a trio and the drummer had the tiniest kit I had ever seen. At most he had four pieces, but he did more with those than any of the rock drummers with mega-kits I had seen.

After that show I started paying more attention to jazz shows around town. School prevented me from attending most, but I made it a point to see who had played and check out their music from the library. I also started paying more attention to Kansas City’s role in jazz history. As I did, I realized many of the roads led back to Jay McShann (then still living) and the horn players whom he gave his first jobs: Charlie Parker and Alaadeen. (Both men also shared the same saxophone teacher, Leo Davis.)

It seems strange to say, but I had almost forgotten about that Alaadeen performance until I saw him receive the American Jazz Museum Lifetime Achievement Award last May at the Gem Theater. Clark Terry received the same award that night and, deservedly, most of the attention. Terry, however, only sang two songs and did not play. Alaadeen was right there on the front row of the orchestra, horn in his mouth, blowing several solos during the evening’s tribute to Duke Ellington.

A couple days later, Alaadeen’s neighborhood threw a celebration in his honor. I was able to convince one of my friends who saw Alaadeen with me over a decade before to join our party. As we congratulated Alaadeen on the award, I reminded my friend of that show.

Alaadeen didn’t play that night. He seemed content to sit in his lawn chair, greet fans and take in the neighborhood funk band. We had hoped he would play, but weren’t too disappointed – there would be other opportunities.

None of us could have predicted that in a little more than three months Alaadeen would be gone. Next to the frail Terry on the stage of the Gem, he seemed immortal. Shortly after that weekend he was hospitalized for nearly two weeks. News of his cancer only emerged a few weeks ago before his passing.

In hindsight, this award came at the right time. It was the final show of the 2009-2010 Jammin’ at the Gem series. Who knew he wouldn’t live to see the opening of the next season?

When Alaadeen received another award to honor his work as an educator at the neighborhood party he seemed overwhelmed by the weekend. He stood silently at the mic for a few moments, as if recording everything in his mind. Finally, he spoke.

“I’m at a loss for words,” he admitted. Then he paused. “I will never forget this.”

Me neither.

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A tour of KC’s Women in Jazz

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(Above: Billy Paul’s 1972 smash “Me and Mrs. Jones” is a quintessential slice of Philly soul.)

All Photos by Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There’s no shortage of history to be discovered and embraced in the City of Brotherly Love. Sadly, the many of Philadelphia’s musical landmarks have not been preserved as well as those associated with the Founding Fathers. Here is a photo essay from my brief trip to the city.

When Billie Holiday’s mother discovered she was pregnant in 1915, her parents exiled the unwed mother-to-be from their Baltimore home. Holiday’s mother settled in Philadelphia and gave birth in a housing development near what is now the theater district off Broad Street. The family returned to Baltimore shortly after Holiday was born.

The original building long destroyed, this marker is the only sign of Holiday’s neighborhood connection.

In 1952, John Coltrane used his GI Bill funds to purchase this three story brick house on 33rd Street. Coltrane’s house was on the right side of the building, now marked with a white door. The house looked to be in horrible shape, but no worse than the surrounding neighborhood. Several inches of trash lined the curb inside the street, broken windows and doors marked nearly every residence on the block. Located across the street from Fairmount Park, this was a rough part of town, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

A small red appendix on the street sign across the road is the only marker of John Coltrane’s former home in the area. The jazz giant obviously deserves better, but his old neighborhood has greater needs than gentrification.

This sculpture, located near Penn’s Landing, bears no obvious resemblance to any well-known saxophone players, but I thought it was fun.

With no signage or even address on the building, it’s very difficult to locate Sigma Sound Studios. Fortunately, someone was going into the building I suspected might have been home to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Sound of Phildelphia in the 1970s. David Bowie also recorded “Young Americans” behind these smokey windows.

Blessed with excellent timing, the employee I spotted entering the building graciously let me inside. Because they were being renovated, I couldn’t view the actual studios, but here’s the lobby of Sigma Sound Studios.

The Simgma lobby was decorated with awards from the golden age of Philly Soul. This platinum album celebrates Teddy Pendergrass’ 1978 album “Life is a Song Worth Singing.” Look for an exclusive interview with Sigma’s owner Durell Bottoms this fall in The Daily Record.

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(Above: The video for “Me and the Devil,” a track from his 2010 album “I’m New Here.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

WASHINGTON, DC – The “more info” tab on the Blues Alley Website informs the curious that Gil Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania because it was the alma mater of his hero Langston Hughes and that he has a Master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. Informative, but hardly enlightening.

From the twilight of the ‘60s until the early ‘80s, Heron was a groundbreaking artist, fusing poetry, jazz and soul into militant anti-establishment statements. The first chapter of his career extended from the high point of the Black power movement to its nadir, the height of the Reagan administration.

Heron has only released two studio albums since 1982, appearing more often as a sample in works by Public Enemy, PM Dawn and Kanye West, and making the news for his intermittent stays in prison. Heron responded to both occasions the way he handled everything during the next-to-last show of his summer residency at Blues Alley: with humor.

“The first thing you do when you find out you’ve been sampled,” Heron said “is go someplace private and make sure everything is in the right place. Then you want to want to play the song every once and a while make sure it’s still alright.”

After a shout-out to Common, who sampled the song “We Almost Lost Detroit” for his 2007 single “The People,” Heron proceeded to play the original number without the signature keyboard line that had been lifted. Few seemed to mind.

On prison, Heron poked at critics who said his sentences had made him sound unhappy on his new album “You might be unhappy when you go in, but you’re sure not when you come out.”

Dressed in a dark beret, oversized suit jacket and baggy, untucked white dress shirt, Heron split his time between standing behind the mic and sitting behind a Fender Rhodes. His voice was in fine form, gruff, but not as raw as on “I’m New Here,” his aforementioned new record. Halfway the nearly two-hour performance he was joined by a four-piece ensemble of keyboards, saxophone/flute, congas and harmonica.

Heron opened with 15 minutes of stand-up comedy, riffing on Black History month, cable news experts, meteorology (“I’ll tell you what a high-pressure front is: Three bothers walking toward you smoking a joint.”) and inventing your own “ology.” He joked about the volcano that stymied his – and many other’s – travel plans and the difficulty pronouncing its name.

“Does Norway have a brother who sells consonants?” Heron asked. “It seems like they put every vowel in a row then tell you ‘say that.’”

He was just as chatty when the songs began, opening “Winter in America” with a lengthy retelling of the African folk tale that inspired the metaphor. He recounted the history of jazz, from its brothel-parlor origins to big bands, before “Is it Jazz.”

“Is It Jazz” provided the first explosive moment of the night, igniting the previously silently respectful crowd with the succession of solos. Saxophone and flute player Carl Cornwell was the perfect foil for Heron’s verbose verses, punctuating each phrase with a sharp blast from his horn.

Despite the fierce and sometimes bleak politics of Heron’s lyrics, the night was relentlessly upbeat. “Detroit,” a dark recollection of a near nuclear meltdown in the Motor City flowed seamlessly into the hope-filled refrain of “Work For Peace.”

The night ended with “The Bottle,” one of Heron’s most popular songs that hit No. 15 on the R&B charts in 1974. Buoyed by a funky organ line, the lyrics paint a harrowing portrait of alcoholism in the inner city. It was odd when Heron gave a short designated driver PSA before the song, and even more puzzling when the band moved into a joyous chorus of “Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.” But for whatever reason, it worked and everyone in the club had smiles on their faces as they sang along.

As the crowd shuffled outside, the line for the 10 p.m. show snaked around the block. For the previous four nights, Heron had played two shows each evening, and the upcoming performance was the 10th and final of his stay at Blues Alley.

It was clear the set wouldn’t start on time, but the fans in line fed off the beaming faces of the emerging crowd and started to whoop and holler in anticipation. They would not be disappointed. Although there was no encore, and Heron omitted his two biggest numbers, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Johannesburg,” the evening felt more than complete.

A note on the venue: Blues Alley is literally tucked away in an alley off Wisconsin Street in the Georgetown district of D.C. The sun was bright outside when I entered, but it was dark as midnight inside. The only illumination came from small candles placed at the center of each circular, formally decorated table. With its old brick walls and thick ceiling timbers, it felt like walking into a colonial cellar. The tiny stage barely had enough room for the grand piano, let alone the emerging quintet. A waitress told me the venue was originally a colonial carriage house that was converted into a jazz club nearly 50 years ago.

Setlist: Stand-up set, Blue Collar, Winter in America, We Almost Lost Detroit > Work for Peace, Is It Jazz, Pieces of a Man, Three Miles Down, I’ll Take Care of You, The Bottle > Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate.

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