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Posts Tagged ‘Bela Fleck’


(Above: Modest Mouse’s concert at the Uptown Theater in March deserves an honorable mention.)

By Joel Francis

Stevie Wonder, Starlight Theater, June 27

One day after the shocking death of Michael Jackson, Motown legend Stevie Wonder took the stage before a packed Starlight Theater to both grieve and celebrate his old friend. Wonder’s songbook and the scarcity of his performances – he last played Kansas City in 1986 – already guaranteed a special evening. The timing made it historic. Keep reading….

Bela Fleck, Uptown Theater, April 2

Banjo legend Bela Fleck ditched his band the Flecktones for a half dozen African musicians he encountered on his musical adventure across the continent. The three-hour showcase not only exposed the audience to artists they likely wouldn’t have otherwise been able to experience, but brought the performers to the nooks and crannies of America. Keep reading ….

Sonny Rollins, Walton Arts Center (Fayetteville, Ark.), April 16

Saxophone legend Sonny Rollins marked his first performance in the state of Arkansas by reminiscing about radio host Bob Burns, aka the Arkansas Traveler and crowing about his idol, native son Louis Jordan. In between stories, Rollins and his four-piece band made transcendence standard with extended performances of chestnuts like “In A Sentimental Mood” and newer material. Keep reading ….

Leonard Cohen, Midland Theater, Nov. 9

Leonard Cohen knew that most of his biggest fans had never seen him in concert and that this tour would be their only chance to experience him in person. Accordingly, Cohen, 75, generously packed his three-hour concert with all his big numbers – “Hallelujah,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” “Everybody Knows,” and about two dozen more – some album cuts and one new song.

Helping Cohen through this immaculate musical buffet was an impeccable six-piece band. Javier Mas’ performance on bandurria and 12-string acoustic guitar frequently stole the spotlight. His playing added new shades and textures to the songs and his solos were always breathtaking. Reed man Dino Soldo was also impressive on clarinet, sax, harmonica and other wind instruments. Three backing vocalists, including Cohen’s longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, helped smooth the rough patches in Cohen’s gravely baritone.

The adoring, sold-out crowd marinated in every moment, cheering at choice lines and raining ovations on the surprisingly spry singer as he skipped and hopped joyously around the stage. Cohen may have been forced back on the road for financial reasons, but both he and his audience delighted in celebration.

Sly and Robbie, Folly Theater, June 6
Lee “Scratch” Perry, Beaumont Club, August 30

This summer was a great time to be a reggae fan in Kansas City. Jamaican visitors included two biological sons of Bob Marley, and several metaphorical ones, including Toots and the Maytals, the reconstituted Wailers and Matisyahu. Pioneers Sly and Robbie and Lee “Scratch” Perry were the season’s bookends.

Sly and Robbie, veterans of literally hundreds of reggae recordings, kicked off the unofficial summer of reggae with nearly two hours of rumbling riddims at the Folly Theater. Nearly three months later, the eccentric and prolific producer “Scratch” Perry kept a small Beaumont Club crowd waiting for hours, before finally appearing with a psychotropic set of Bob Marley numbers he produced and originals like “Roast Fish and Cornbread” and “Pum Pum.”

Keep reading:

–          Sly and Robbie
–          Lee “Scratch” Perry

Jimmy Cobb, Gem Theater, October 17

As the last living performer from Miles Davis’ landmark jazz recording, Jimmy Cobb left a crowded Gem Theater crowd feeling anything but kind of blue. The drummer and his five-piece So What Band celebrated the 50th anniversary of “Kind of Blue” by playing all of its numbers, but treating the lauded original recordings more like an outline than a blueprint. When Cobb finally unleashed a drum solo more than an hour into the set, he was rewarded with the standing ovation he deserved. Keep reading ….

Pogues, Midland Theater, October 25

It took the renowned Irish acoustic punk band nearly three decades to reach Kansas City, and the groups notorious singer Shane McGowan wasn’t going to vacate the stage quickly. Alone onstage, the dying chords of “Fiesta” still ringing out, McGowan delivered a very inebriated, off-key version of “Kansas City.” A drink in each hand and cigarette dangling from his mouth, McGowan finally shuffled off to whoops and cheers.

The rest of the Pogues, recently reunited and sober (with one exception), have learned to live with these incidents. It’s probably safe to say a good portion of the crowd showed up because of them. Both the morbidly and musically curious had plenty of cause to be glad. After his only face plant of the evening, McGowan replied with aplomb “That’s why they call me Mr. Trips.” Overall, though, he was in good enough shape to deliver great versions of “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” “Dirty Old Town” and “Bottle of Smoke.”

Despite suffering from a muddy mix, the rest of the band held up their end of the bargain, especially accordion player James Fearnley who ran and slid around the stage like Bruce Springsteen at the Super Bowl and tin whistle-ist Spider Stacy’s percussive beating of his head with a cookie sheet during “Fiesta.” The McGowan songbook was augmented by the traditional Irish numbers “Irish Rover” and “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and late-Pogues number “Tuesday Morning.” There were a few stones left unturned – “Fairytale of New York” was missed – but more than enough good moments to justify the wait.

Alice Cooper, Ameristar Casino, August 8

Alice Cooper’s theatrics aren’t as shocking as they were 30 years ago. What is shocking is how captivating and entertaining his stage show remains. Cooper’s adventures with the noose, guillotine, iron maiden, hypodermic needle, wheelchair, guns and swords mesmerized a fist-pumping, sold-out audience who sang along to every syllable of “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and nearly every other song in the set. Keep reading ….

Raphael Saadiq, Voodoo Lounge, March 13

While not officially tied to the 50th Anniversary commemoration of Motown, Raphael Saadiq’s 75-minute concert in front of a pitifully small crowd at the Voodoo Lounge was an homage to old-school soul, complete with David Ruffin’s horned glasses, tight suits and choreographed dances. The best aspect, though, was that all the music was new and original material written by the former Tony! Toni! Tone! frontman, much of it drawn from his incredible album “The Way I See It.” Keep reading …

Keep Reading:

Top 10 Concerts of 2008

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By Joel Francis

Metric – Fantasies
Indie synth band shines
on fourth album. Smart dance-pop
bests Metric, Phoenix.

Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy
Fun from start to end,
Brit blends hip hop, jazz and soul,
wins Mercury Prize.

Bela Fleck – Throw Down Your Heart: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3
Mismatch on paper
Banjo goes to Africa?
A joyous result.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Red-head continues
streak of amazing albums.
Doubtless to persist.

Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi
NOLA pianist
and songwriter honors roots
with great jazz album.

Me’Shell Ndegeocello – Devil’s Halo
Poetry, jazz, soul –
Don’t try to classify this.
Bass phenom triumphs.

Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar – One Fast Move or I’m Gone
Voices of Death Cab
and Son Volt pay homage to
poet Kerouac.

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is!
Southern soul throwbacks
bridge JB, Otis.
For fans of Daptone.

Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
Indie sensation
examines life via Bible.
(Isn’t Christian rock.)

Mos Def – The Ecstatic
Fourth LP finds MC
back on game. Fans rejoice. More
rhymes, less acting, please.

Honorable mention:
Maxwell – BLACKsummer’snight
Eight years, a long time.
Welcome back, neo-soul man.
Slow jams worth the wait.

Keep Reading:

Top 10 Albums of 2008 (haiku remix)

Top 10 concerts of 2008

Review: Son Volt (2005)

Review: Neko Case, Son Volt and more at Wakarusa 2005

Green Ribbon Haikus (2008)

Feature: Hail Death Cab

Review: Bela Fleck’s Africa Project

Top 10 Albums of 2007

Top 10 Albums of 2006

Review: Mos Def, Kweli, others at Rock the Bells (2007)

Top 10 albums of 2005

Top 10 Albums of 2004

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derek_trucks_band

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Guitarist Derek Trucks was 12 years old when Bob Dylan asked him onstage during a show to play “Highway 61 Revisited.”

For Trucks, it was just another gig. The look on his dad’s face, however, told a different story.

“I knew who Dylan was because my dad was a massive fan, but it didn’t hit me then like it would have now or even 10 years ago,” Trucks said. “But even though I didn’t realize the significance, I could see it in my dad’s eyes that this was life-changing.”

Trucks and his father were both right. Playing with Dylan was just another encounter for the prodigy who would go on to play with Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and numerous others. But it also opened the door to other possibilities.

Trucks, who turns 30 in June, now helms his own eponymous group (performing Friday at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge) and also plays in the Allman Brothers Band. He returned Dylan’s favor with his supercharged blues cover of Dylan’s “Down in the Flood,” which opens his sixth and newest studio album, “Already Free.”

“I try to pick covers with some connection to the band,” Trucks said. “Part of that is Dylan is such a good songwriter with a great amount of tunes, but on top of that I figured after Katrina and the flooding in Iowa, the title and the lyrics were just a great metaphor for all that.”

Trucks didn’t go into the studio planning on cutting a record. Finding himself with downtime at his Jacksonville, Fla., home – atypical for a man who averages 300 shows a year – and a recently completed home studio called Swamp Raga Studio, Trucks and his band decided to lay down some tracks just to see how the room felt.

“The first day we wrote and ” Trucks said. “The next thing we recorded (the song) ‘Already Free,’ knew there were a dozen, then two dozen songs. We started calling people from (wife and blues guitarist) Susan (Tedeschi)’s band, Doyle (Bramhall II), Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, to come in.”

The resulting release has a laid-back yet focused organic vibe that inhabits the best of the Allman Brothers’ Capricorn albums.

“It’s the most natural record I’ve done,” Trucks said. “It was very comfortable recording, and I think you can feel it. We captured tunes hours after they were written. There’s a freshness that comes across when songs are captured so quickly.”

Unsurprisingly, Trucks wanted to translate that urgency to the road as quickly as possible. The Derek Trucks Band tour kicked off last week.

For someone who has seemingly played with everyone, Trucks had the opportunity to encounter another legend and influence last year.

When you record two John Coltrane numbers on your debut album, and the opportunity to play with Coltrane’s longtime pianist McCoy Tyner arises, you don’t say no.

Still, Trucks was intimidated. Especially when he walked into the studio and saw bass player Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“Those guys are legends in their own right, but McCoy is on his own level,” Trucks said. “He was such a sweet guy. He really made it feel comfortable.”

Trucks entered the studio with a list of four songs he hoped to play with the trio, but as the last guitarist on the session, some of his choices had already been recorded.

“My first choice of song was ‘Contemplations,’ but (jazz guitarist Bill) Frisell had already recorded it,” Trucks said.

The two-day session yielded collaborations with Trucks, Frisell, Bela Fleck, Marc Ribot and John Scofield. Trucks was the only “rock” guitarist invited, but he works well on his two featured cuts, “Slapback Blues” and “Greensleeves.” Trucks’ presence in the company of such eclectic legends is unsurprising given the range of covers his band performs – everything from Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Delta bluesman Son House – and the diversity of the band playing them, which contains a four-decade age span.

Trucks said his innate musical curiosity has not only expanded his palate but has also given him a level of comfort playing with nearly anyone.

“It started at such a young age. I was always around musicians, so I’d try to pick their brains and see what influenced their music,” Trucks said. “A huge part of being able to stay on the road and on top of the game is to keep finding inspiration. You keep finding different things that turn you on, things that tweak different parts of the brain. In the long run you’re a better musician for it.”

Trucks hopes that same level of comfort and curiosity extends to his home Swamp Raga Studio.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with Willie (Nelson) in Maui, and anywhere he is has a clubhouse vibe. I can see that communal feeling. Wherever you are with him – on his bus, in his home – he makes sure everybody is absolutely comfortable,” Trucks said. “That’s kind of what it’s (Swamp Raga) starting to turn into in the month and a half we’ve gotten into it.”

Swamp Raga is not only musician-friendly but environmentally friendly as well.

“The beauty of building from scratch is that you can think about stuff ahead of time,” Trucks said. “When I figured the electric bill would be double, not only was that a financial hit, but psychologically I started feeling guilty because of all the energy we’d be using. We went out of our way to be conscious of that. We made it a point to do everything as efficiently as possible.”

To that end, Trucks and Tedeschi installed 26 solar panels on the studio and their home. And in the months when the family is out on tour, the local utility company pays them for the energy their panels generate.

“Sometimes our bill comes in right around zero,” Trucks said. “By doing the right thing it actually works out better in the end.”

Despite such 21st century enterprises, Trucks believes his band and his music are a throwback to a time where wooden instruments were hand-crafted and stepping onstage meant being ready to cut some heads.

“When you get on stage, you have to bring it,” Trucks said. “I get a sense from new music that the idea is to outsmart your audience or be so ultra-hip you can pull one over on them.

“With a band like ours, we try to represent a more honest music. We’re musicians representing our craft first and then trying to connect with people.”

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(Above: The Dave Brubeck Quartet “Take Five” at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.)

By Joel Francis

In a belated post-script to The Daily Record’s series on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the past 20 years, we look at five artists who are still significantly contributing to their legendary status. Although their reputations were cemented generations ago, it would be criminal to overlook their most recent works.

Roy Haynes

At the 2005 Newport Jazz Festival, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman and several others all paid tribute to drummer Roy Haynes on the occasion of his 80th birthday. These musicians honored Haynes not only for his resume, which includes stints with Lester Young, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Sarah Vaughan, but because he has allowed the younger artists to grow and learn under his guidance. Haynes has released six albums this decade, starting with “The Roy Haynes Trio,” which recaps his career through new performances, “Birds of a Feather,” a tribute to his former bandleader Charlie Parker, and the strong live set “Whereas.”

Dave Brubeck

One of the most important – and popular – jazz pianists of the post-War era, Dave Brubeck landed on the cover of Time magazine and became a legend with his groundbreaking, yet accessible, work with saxophonist Paul Desmond. Although the 16 years Brubeck and Desmond played together in the Dave Brubeck Quartet form the crux of his catalog, Brubeck has built an impressive resume in the 40-plus years since.

Brubeck’s current quartet, consisting of drummer Randy Jones, bass player Michael Moore and saxophonist/flautist Bobby Militello, may be the best ensemble he’s worked with since his mid-’70s pairing with Gerry Mulligan. Unlike many of his contemporaries, there has never been a Brubeck comeback; there are no lulls or low periods in his catalog. Brubeck has continued to write, record and perform regularly well past his 88th birthday. Of the nearly dozen albums Brubeck has released this decade, three stand out. “The Crossing” kicked off the 21st century with nine strong, new selections, including an ode to longtime drummer “Randy Jones,” Militello’s delightful solo on “Day After Day” and the title song, Brubeck’s interpretation of a chugging ocean liner. Brubeck blends old and new songs on “London Flat, London Sharp,” and the his quartet sizzles on the live album “Park Avenue South,” which mixes standards and favorites with more recent material.

Wayne Shorter

After two years of auditioning other horn players, Wayne Shorter’s saxophone turned out to be the piece missing in Miles Davis second great quintet. An alumni of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Shorter not only filled the spot vacated by John Coltrane, but contributed many key songs to the group’s repertoire. As if that weren’t enough, he was simultaneously cutting magnificent solo albums on Blue Note. Shorter followed his bandleader’s path into fusion, but took a more pop approach in Weather Report, the group he co-founded with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, another Davis alum. Shorter floundered in the days after Weather Report’s demise in the mid-’80s, but his three most recent albums are among the most inspired of his career. After a 12-year absence from recording, Shorter returned with “Footprints Live,” which documents his reinvigorated 2001 tour. He fronted an acoustic band for the first time in over a generation on “Algeria,” which paired Rollins and his “Footprints” rhythm section with Brad Mehldau for several selections. Shorter’s hot streak continued with his most recent album “Beyond the Sound Barrier” and his inspired playing on Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning “River: The Joni Sessions.”

McCoy Tyner

More people have probably heard McCoy Tyner than know who he is. The backbone and counterfoil in John Coltrane’s masterful quartet for six years, Tyner’s piano has graced well-known recordings like “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme.” Tyner also put out several stellar albums under his own name on Blue Note and Impulse in the 1960s. No less active today, Tyner collaborated with Bobby Hutcherson for the live album “Land of Giants” and played tenor Joe Lovano and the awesome rhythm section of Christian McBride and Jeff “Tain” Watts for 2007’s  self-titled release. Tyner’s latest album, “Guitars,” was recorded over a two-day span that paired Tyner, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette with several of six-string luminaries, including John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Bela Fleck and Derek Trucks. Uninformed fans should stay away from 2004’s “Illuminations,” however. A dream pairing on paper of Tyner, McBride, Terence Blanchard, Lewis Nash and Gary Bartz, the performances are ruined by a glossy production that smothers the quintet’s interplay and is suitable only for shopping for a sweater at Nordstrom with your mom.

Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins’ legacy includes recordings with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Clifford Brown – and that’s just in his first decade of playing. In the half-century since then, Rollins (along with contemporary John Coltrane) established himself as the preeminent post-Bird saxophonist. Although the pace of Rollins’ releases has slowed considerably, what he has put out have only added to his reputation. Recorded in Boston just four days after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City, “Without A Song” is an emotional listen finding Rollins channeling his conflicted emotions through long solos. “This Is What I Do” continues Rollin’s penchant for transforming b-quality songs into must-listen melodies with the Bing Crosby standard “Sweet Leilani.” Rollins’ most recently release, “Road Songs, Vol. 1” mines the archives for several cherry-picked performances that prove that the passion on “Without A Song” was no fluke.

Keep Reading: 15 Jazz Legends to Emerge in the Last 20 Years

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

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(Above: Vusi Mahlasela at Live 8.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bela Fleck has taken his banjo to some unexpected forays into jazz, classical and holiday music. For his latest project, not only did Fleck bring his banjo to Africa, but he brought several of his African collaborators with him on tour.

For three hours Fleck and his Africa Project mesmerized a half-full Uptown Theater Thursday night.

Starting promptly at 8, Fleck opened with a 10 minute solo improvisation based on the melodies and techniques he picked up in Africa. After introducing thumb pianist and Anania Ngoliga and guitarist John Kitime from Tanzania, Fleck ceded the stage to the duo. That set the pattern for the night: Fleck’s introduction, a couple solo numbers followed by a couple duets.

Ngoliga’s thumb piano was a wooden box about the size of a sampler with about three dozen metal strips of varying lengths attached. Backed by Kitime’s buoyant acoustic guitar, the pair sang about their native country. After 15 minutes, Fleck came out for “Kabibi.” Ngoliga sang that one in a voice so high it almost sounded like a children’s song. His happiness was so infectious it’s hard to imagine anyone not cracking a smile while listening.

There were only two drawbacks to Fleck’s format. Just as it seemed the performers were getting in a groove, it was time for the next act. Perhaps more frustrating was the high level of entertainment and musicianship from the artists. Each could easily carry a show of their own. With any luck, some of them will come back through again.

On the other hand, Fleck is to be commended for introducing these musicians to his audience. During his set, kora player Toumani Diabate recalled the last time he was in Kansas City … 18 years ago. It is very conceivable this was the first (and only) performance our town will see from the rest of the artists.

Next up was D’Gary and Mario, a guitarist and percussionist from Madagascar. D’Gary’s playing style was like Spanish flamenco married to Ali Farka Toure’s African blues. D’Gary’s playing was virtuosic, yet warm and inviting. He was joined by Mario who played a small tin can filled with glass, sealed and attached to a stick. It may not sound impressive, but somehow Mario managed to turn the simple instrument into an uber-maraca.

After sitting in with the pair for one number, Fleck brought out bluegrass violinist Casey Drieson to join them on “Kinetsa.” Drieson was initially absent in the mix. Frustrated, he walked across the stage and started playing into D’Gary’s microphone. The cheers that erupted were so great that when Drieson tried to retreat, Fleck urged him to take another solo.

(Above: The six-string wonders of D’Gary.)

Vusi Mahlesela came out after a 20-minute intermission. His guitar style was closest to the Western tradition. It’s easy to imagine him in the South African equivalent of a Greenwich Village coffee shop. A former anti-apartheid activist, Mahlesela sang in an expressive tenor. Like most of the performers, he didn’t sing much in English, but he put his whole body into what he said.

The joyous “Thula Mana” was dedicated to Mahlesela’s grandma, who protected him from the Afrikaans police force. If Fleck added the least to this pairing, it is only because Mahlesela’s presence was so complete.

Finally, Fleck introduced kora master Toumani Diabate. A native of Mali, Diabate has collaborated with Taj Mahal and Bjork and was the best-known of Fleck’s guests. Clad in a traditional golden robe, Diabate’s instrument was the most traditional and formal of the night. After a long solo piece, Fleck came out and urged Diabate to explain his instrument. Diabate’s kora looked like an industrial broomstick with many protruding strings stuck in a gigantic half-gourd. After demonstrating the four-finger picking technique (thumbs and two index fingers), Diabate slowly built a song starting with the bassline, adding melody and finally improvisation.

Dierson returned – this time with a working mic – to join Fleck and Diabate on “Throw Down Your Heart.” Banjo and kora work well together because both instruments are treble-heavy and prone to twang. Playing double stops on the low strings, Dierson’s violin was a pleasant counterpoint that added fresh textures.

The night ended with everyone onstage together for an improvised jam and Mahlesela’s “When You Come Back,” a tribute to his home continent.

Western artists have been mining African music since before they wouldn’t play Sun City, but Fleck may be the most accommodating. He acted as less a host than a facilitator who was honored to sit in with his guests.

The collaborations were so organic it seemed they could have taken place anywhere – the studio, living room, outside. They just happened to be experienced in the Uptown this night.

(Below: Toumani Diabate rocks the kora.)

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