Each day during the quarantine I’m going deep into my record collection and writing about what I pull out.
Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Further Out (1961) Dave Brubeck’s groundbreaking 1959 release Time Out was so successful a sequel was inevitable. The point of these albums isn’t the complexity of each composition’s time signature. It’s how much fun the group seems to be having as they effortlessly skate through rhythms that would make prog rock bands break out in sweat. Take “Unsquare Dance” for example. On the face it seems simple enough – just handclaps and snare drum with Brubeck intermittently tickling the keyboard. The result is catchy and edgy enough to appear in “Baby Driver,” a mixtape masquerading as a heist film released a mere 56 years after the song was recorded.
Bob Dylan – Live 1966: Acoustic Set (1998) The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert, in the late ‘90s, a friend asked me if he played acoustic or electric. The answer, of course, was both, but the aftermath of that plugged in Newport set warranted the question nearly half a century later. This archival release was recorded about a year after the firestorm at the folk festival. The seven songs that comprise this acoustic set are immaculate. Of course the songs are amazing, but what stands out to me is Dylan’s harmonica playing and the way he teases phrases and moments. This set makes a strong case that Dylan may be an even better performer onstage alone, without a net. Knowing that the arrangements will soon get turned up amplifies the solo performances even more.
Pete Townshend – White City (1985) After the death of drummer Keith Moon, Pete Townshend is often accused of holding back his best work for solo projects and delivering second-rate material for The Who. I disagree. “Face Dances” has just as many strong moments as “Who Are You,” Moon’s final album. By the time the band got to “It’s Hard” no one’s heart seemed to be in it. Besides, it is very difficult to imagine Roger Daltrey singing anything on this album beyond the bombastic (and excellent) opener “Give Blood.” I don’t see where John Entwistle’s bass would add anything, either.
There’s supposed to be a story in here somewhere. I once watched Townshend’s 60-minute film version of White City so long ago it was on videotape. The narrative wasn’t any more apparent after that experience, although it was nice to hear different and extended versions of the material. Don’t overthink this, just appreciate it.
Raconteurs – Live at Cain’s Ballroom (2020) I saw the Raconteur’s performance in Kansas City that immediately followed the shows in Tulsa, Okla. that form this album. It was … good. Nothing groundbreaking, but a solid night out. Unless something changes, I don’t think I’ll feel compelled to buy a ticket next time they come through. The same goes with this album. It’s great to have a document of that tour, but the performance doesn’t have the energy of their concert at the Ryman Auditorium on a 2011 tour (released in 2013). I think I’ll be playing that album more often.
Various Artists – Big Blue Ball (compilation) In the early 1990s, Peter Gabriel hosted a series of weeklong workshops at his home studio. Artists from all over the world were encouraged to add to existing recordings and develop and contribute original material. This collection, released in 2008, a brisk 13 years after the final gathering, is the culmination of those sessions. There are a couple Gabriel gems to be sure, but fun for me is scouring the musician credits and try to pick out how everyone interacts together. Living Colour axeman Vernon Reid lays down synth guitars on “Rivers,” a New Age track that wouldn’t be out of place at a spa (or at least what I imagine a spa would be playing). Gabriel corrals jazz drummer Billy Cobham, former Public Image Ltd. bass player Jah Wobble and onetime Prince foil Wendy Melvoin for the single “Burn You Up, Burn You Down.” The song “Forest” opens like an outtake from Gabriel’s Passion soundtrack before turning into something that might be heard at a dance club or upscale art gallery (or at least what I imagine an upscale art gallery would be playing). Most of the album stays in this vein of world music with modern elements.
Echo de Africa National – Récit Historique de Bobo-Dioulasso (unknown) I know absolutely nothing about this album. I couldn’t even determine the year when it came out. The two side-length songs aren’t even given titles. To my ears, it sounds like this was recorded sometime between 1965 and 1975. I can tell you that if you like African ensembles with multiple horn players, percussionists and guitarists, who like to stretch out, this is probably for you. I haven’t been disappointed by it.
Various Artists – Light on the South Side (compilation) Less an album than an aural art installation, Light on the South Side combines 18 obscure blues and soul cuts with a gorgeous 132-page hardcover book featuring sumptuous black-and-white photography of African-American working class adults in the 1970s looking to escape the pressures of everyday life in the dive bars on Chicago’s South Side. You can smell the polyester and cigarette smoke listening to Little Mack do the “Goose Step” or hearing about Bobby Rush’s “Bowlegged Woman.” Crack open a High Life tall boy and enjoy.
(Above: Reggae pioneers the Skatalites pay tribute to Dave Brubeck, and prove that it is possible to skank to jazz.)
By Joel Francis The Daily Record
The original run of the Skatalites lasted barely over a year. That brief window has proved to be more than enough time to build a legacy strong to survive nearly half a century later.
The music the seven-piece island band played for two hours at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club on Thursday night transformed the sound of Jamaican music, but has deep tentacles into many forms of American music, including jazz, doo wop, R&B, gospel and even country.
The band never tried to hide its influences. “Music is My Occupation” reappropriated the horn line from “Ring of Fire.” Next, on their version of the James Bond theme, the famous surf guitar was transferred to a punchy horn line. The arrangement inspired more dancing than danger. Think of it as the soundtrack to the scene after the big fight, when 007 waltzes away with the girl.
Three horns lined the front of the stage, proclaiming the band’s strength. Founding member Lester Sterling played an old saxophone that looked like it had been rescued from a shipwreck but never failed to summon a melody pure and true. The big rhythm section included keyboards and guitar. They players may have been hidden behind the brass, but never played second fiddle.
The band had no problem moving the tricky 5/4 time of Dave Brubeck’s signature “Take Five” to a ska beat. Originally recorded with Val Bennett as “The Russians are Coming,” the piece featured Sterling’s longest solo of the night and proved he could hang with the players in the Blue Room any night.
When Sterling wanted to show off ska’s versatility, he launched the band into a cover of “I Should Have Known Better.” The Beatles were contemporaries when the Skatalties first laid down their version. A cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” – courtesy of drummer Trevor Thompson – and the spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved” were the night’s only vocal moments.
The two-hour set was generous to a fault. While the room was packed for the first hour, there was plenty of elbow room when “The Guns of Navarone,” the band’s biggest song, finally emerged near the end. Most of the instrumentals employed a similar arrangement, allowing some sameness to eventually creep. The performances were always energetic, however, and kept a steady flow of dancing near the stage.
Purists can quibble over the lack of original members onstage and they’d have a point. Sterling is the only founding member, and almost half the band wasn’t born when the Skatalites were at their peak in Studio One. Blame Father Time for the attrition then ask if the music should be forced to pass along with its musicians.
Sterling put it another way between numbers: “When you’re good, you’re good.”
(Above: A snippet of Allen Toussaint’s cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” from one of his regular appearances at Joe’s Pub in New York City.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
At his first-ever performance in Kansas City, New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint transformed the Folly Theater into a place where “mardi gras” was a verb and Fat Tuesday occurred every night.
The soon-to-be 72-year-old songwriter, arranger and producer delivered around 100 minutes of material he wrote for others, recorded himself or wished he had written for a nearly sold-out crowd.
From the first chords of the opening vamp it was obvious that Toussaint and his four-piece band were determined to melt a little of the mounds of snow stacked outside. Thanks to the jumping introduction, the party was already in full swing by the time Toussaint launched into “There’s A Party Going On.”
Although Toussaint’s heart lies in the Big Easy, his influences were all over the map. “Sweet Touch of Love” ended with Toussaint adapting the melody of “An American in Paris” over a modified Bo Diddley beat. The effervescent “Soul Sister” moved between a stately melody and calypso rhythms and felt like the type of number Billy Joel and tried – and failed – to write at least 20 or 30 times.
The most impressive juxtaposition was Toussaint’s classical piano solo during “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On). For several minutes the maestro interspersed snippets of well-known concertos against contemporaries Professor Longhair and Dave Brubeck.
Two songs stemmed from Toussaint’s recent jazz album, “The Bright Mississippi.” The title song, a Thelonious Monk number, was a syncopated throwback to the Dixieland tradition of New Orleans jazz and featured saxman Brian “Breeze” Cayolle on clarinet. It was followed by “St. James Infirmary,” which found the drummer slapping his knees and snapping his fingers to keep time while Toussaint and his barefoot guitarist traded licks.
Toussaint may not be a household name, but the artists he’s worked with are. His songs have been recorded by everyone from British invasion bands like the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones and the Who to soul singers such as O’Jays, Lee Dorsey and the Pointer Sisters, to artists ranging from Jerry Garcia and Iron Butterfly to Warren Zevon and Devo. Toussaint has also recorded with Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, the Band, Dr. John and the Meters.
The set’s centerpiece was a medley several of Toussaint’s best-known hits, including “A Certain Girl,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Fortune Teller.” It was followed by his most-recorded number, “Get Out of My Life Woman.”
Between several numbers, Toussaint told stories about working with Ernie K. Doe and Costello, plugged upcoming TV appearances, and recalled his impression of a chocolate commercial set to his song “Sweet Touch of Love.” The stories were entertaining on their own, but the beautiful beds of chords Toussaint created under his monologues made especially scintillating.
The night’s only flaw was a slightly sour mix, which buried Toussaint’s piano and vocals during the opening number. The piano was quickly lifted to its proper place over the drums and guitar, but the vocals remained faint throughout the evening.
After sharing the spirit of Mardi Gras, Toussaint closed his main set by going one step further. Walking along the lip of the stage, he threw out beads and masks and searched for the perfect girth to receive a t-shirt. After a few moments, the band returned and Toussaint delivered a breathtaking, unaccompanied performance of “American Tune.” Toussaint’s experiences during Hurricane Katrina added extra resonance to Paul Simon’s lyrics, and the pin-drop quiet crowd burst into approving applause as the last note faded.
Setlist: There’s A Party Going On, Whatever Happened to Rock and Roll?, Sneaking Sally Through the Alley
Sweet Touch of Love, Who’s Going to Help a Brother Get Further?, Soul Sister, Bright Mississippi, St. James Infirmary, Medley: A Certain Girl/Mother-In-Law/Fortune Teller/Working in a Coal Mine, Get Out of My Life Woman > Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On), Mr. Mardi Gras, Southern Nights. Encore: American Tune, Shoorah Shoorah > Fun Time.
While in Jacksonville, Fla. this past weekend for a wedding, I was able to sneak away from my duties as a groomsman long enough to check out the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. On Friday night I arrived in time to catch the last half of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s performance witht St. John’s River City Band. The local big band was well-prepared and sounded great, but their charts didn’t add much to the two songs I heard. “Blue Rondo a la Turk” was perfect the way Brubeck, Paul Desmond and company recorded it 50 years ago. It was interesting to hear the arrangement augmented with a battery of brass, but they certainly didn’t add anything new to the number.
The River City Band’s contribution to set closer “Take Five” fared better, if only because the structure of Brubeck’s signature song is more elastic. Brubeck has been required to end every night with this number for decades, yet he keeps finding new ways to interpret this song and keep it fresh.
Brubeck, who was supported by sax man Bobby Militello, drummer Randy Jones and his son Chris Brubeck on electric bass, reportedly played for about an hour, but we were lucky to even get that much. During his set, the conductor of the St. John’s River City Band announced that Brubeck had been hospitalized in March and put extra time in rehab to be in shape by May and fulfill his date in Jacksonville.
Dr. John took the stage after a short break. Backed by a guitar/bass/drums trio dubbed the Lower 911, his set was considerably louder but no less spirited that Brubeck’s. Opening with “Iko Iko,” John strolled through his catalog, treating the audience to “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Tipitina,” “Junco Man,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and several songs off his latest album, “The City that Care Forgot,” an angry diatribe against the government’s treatment of his native New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
As evidenced in the song listing above, John pulled heavily from his early ‘70s stint on Atlantic. The highlight of these tunes was “Qualified,” a lesser-heard, energetic album cut off “In the Right Place.”
Because of the perpetual heavy rains that have peppered Jacksonville for the better part of May, Friday night’s shows were delayed and pushed indoors to the Times-Union building. The facility has two stages; the auditorium Brubeck and John shared was about the size of Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College. Although the balcony was closed, the floor was packed, giving Brubeck a slightly larger audience than the one he played to in Kansas City last fall at the Folly Theater. John must have been pleased with the turnout, which was considerably larger than the crowds he usually plays to at the Beaumont Club.
The explanation for the crowd size lies in the Jacksonville Jazz Festival’s dirty little secret: it’s free. Although the festival featured names like Simone, Chris Botti, Stanley Clark, former Miles Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb, Roberta Flack and Bill Frissel scattered on four outdoor stages throughout downtown, the art, beverage and food vendors were the only people asking for money.
Their demographics don’t pefectly align, and Jacksonville’s metro population of 1.3 million makes it about a half a million people smaller than Kansas City. It is frustrating to see Kansas City unable to support and sustain paid events like the Rhythm and Ribs Festival and Spirt Festival while free shows like Jacksonville’s Jazz Festival flourish. What would it take to see a similar event take root and become an annual highlight in Kansas City? Perhaps we should pick some of Jacksonville’s brightest minds to find out.
(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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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’ 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
Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the second of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.
Not only has Ravi Coltrane followed in his famous father’s footsteps as a musician, but he’s established himself with his dad’s instrument. The child of John and Alice Coltrane (Ravi was two when his dad died), Ravi cut his teeth with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones before finally stepping out on his own. In little over 10 years, he’s build a strong catalog that would sound just as sweet under a different surname. Coltrane is currently on the road in a new septet celebrating 70 years of Blue Note Records. Albums to start with: Mad 6, In Flux.
Kora Jazz Trio
Comprised of pianist Abdoulaye Diabaté (who is not related to kora master Toumani Diabate), griot percussionist Moussa Sissokho and kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara, this trio deftly blends their African heritage with American jazz. Throughout their three albums, they have tackled songs by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and the Buena Vista Social Club and delivered over a dozen dazzling originals. Imagine McCoy Tyner getting lost in an African marketplace and you’re getting close. Albums to start with: Part II, Part III
Pianist and singer Diana Krall grew up surrounded by her dad’s extensive collection of Fats Waller albums, but ended up with a style and sound closer to that of Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett’s longtime arranger and accompanist. Although Krall’s music is certainly not aggressive or pushing any boundaries, dismissing her music as smooth jazz for dinner parties would be a mistake. Her performances of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jimmy McHugh have a freshness, energy and vitality lacking in other “supper club” performers. Krall’s most recent album, “The Girl in the Other Room,” leans heavily on original material written with her husband, Elvis Costello. Albums to start with: Love Scenes, The Girl in the Other Room
Medeski, Martin and Wood
Decades of touring have made the bass/keyboard/drums trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood one of today’s tightest ensembles. Their experimental, groove-based sound is broad enough to be equally at home at both Newport and Bonnaroo without changing a thing. Early pieces like “Hermeto’s Daydream” sound like Dave Brubeck run through “A Clockwork Orange,” while newer material features hip hop artists like DJ Logic, and guitarists Marc Ribot and John Scofield. Albums to start with: Notes from the Underground, Combustication.
Pianist Jason Moran only has 10 years of recording under his belt, but he’s covered a lot of territory in that time. His albums contain interpretations of Prokofiev and Afrika Bambaataa interspersed with original compositions and spoken-word pieces. In addition to releasing seven albums under his own name, Moran has worked and recorded with Andrew Hill, Cassandra Wilson, Christian McBride, Don Byron, Ravi Coltrane and dozens more. Only 34 years old, Moran is just getting started. Albums to start with: Modernistic, Same Mother
Keep Reading: 15 Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years
(Above: Brad Mehldau performs an arrangement based on Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film).”
By Joel Francis
Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the first of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.
Over the past 20 years, Roy Hargrove’s trumpet has proven to be one of the most versatile instruments ever. He’s equally at home conjuring Cuba on his own or summoning the spirit of African rebellion with rapper Common. Although Hargrove has yet found a way to reconcile his split personalities, he has built a strong catalog. In the Roy Hargrove Quintet, Hargrove works the more traditional mold forged by Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Brown. The RH Factor is the less-focused urban playground where Hargrove’s funky side comes out. Albums to start with: Habana, Earfood.
Pianist Brad Mehldau cut his teeth working with saxophonists Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter before striking out on his own. His lengthy concert arrangements often leave no stone unturned. Although his classical approach to playing is influenced by Bill Evans, Mehldau has no problem converting songs by Radiohead, the Beatles and Nick Drake into extended jazz workouts and placing them on footing equal to George Gershwin and Cole Porter standards. Mehldau made albums with opera singer Renee Fleming, guitarist Pat Metheny and pop producer Jon Brion without pandering on any project. Albums to start with: Back at the Vanguard, Day is Done.
Singer Madeleine Peyroux’s voice sounds more than a little like Billie Holiday, but her style is closer to Joni Mitchell’s. Born in the South, raised in New York and California and seasoned in Paris, Peyroux splits the distance between jazz, folk and pop. Her interpretations of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams numbers made her a star on Lilith Fair stages a decade ago and earned her acclaim as the “Best International Jazz Artist” by the BBC in 2007. Albums to start with: Dreamland, Half the Perfect World.
Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenon recalls the tasteful, silky tone of Paul Desmond. In little more than five years, he’s released four albums, worked as a founding member of the SF Jazz Collective, won the Best New Artist award from JazzTimes in 2006 and named Rising Star-Alto Saxophone for three consecutive years in the Down Beat Critic’s Poll. While Zenon’s horn rests easily on the ears, his arrangements capture the spirit of his native island through insistent originals and unlikely hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Albums to start with: Jibaro, Awake.
Maria Schneider’s compositions for her jazz orchestra have been some of the most ambitious works in the jazz canon since the heyday of the Duke Ellington Orchestra or Dave Brubeck’s late-’60s expositions. At once sweeping and evocative, Schnieder’s near-classical pieces reveal the deep influence of Gil Evans. The cinematic expanse of her work takes the listener on a journey where everyone from George Gershwin to Gustav Mahler is likely to appear. Albums to start with: Evanescence, Sky Blue.
Keep Reading: 15 Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years
Above: Watching the Dirtbombs rip through “Ever Lovin’ Man” at The Bottleneck was one of the Top 10 shows of the year.
By Joel Francis
(Note: All concerts in Kansas City, Mo., unless otherwise stated.)
10. Dirtbombs, The Bottleneck, Lawrence, Kan., May 25
The Dirtbombs didn’t get started until midnight, but no one seemed to mind. With barely three dozen fans in the club, just showing up was a sign of devotion. For the next hour, singer/guitarist Mick Collins and his band plowed through solid cuts like “Ever Lovin’ Man” off their latest album, “We Have You Surrounded,” and soul covers like Sly and the Family Stone’s “Underdog” from their classic album, “Ultraglide in Black.” Collins hails from the Motor City and he embraces its every aspects, combining the soul of Motown with the soiled fuzz of the White Stripes and Stooges.
9. Carbon/Silicon, Record Bar, March 29
It isn’t often a member of the Clash comes to town, and even more rare they’d play a 200-person room like The Record Bar. With barely a nod to his old band, guitarist/songwriter/singer Mick Jones displayed the chops and charm that made him a legend. Read the full review.
8. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Qwest Center, Omaha, March 14
Bruce Springsteen closed his “Magic” tour with a three-hour performance at the Sprint Center. I didn’t make that one, but I did see his warm-up gig a few months earlier in Omaha. Springsteen and company treated the crowd to most of his latest album and liberally sprinkled classics like “Jungleland,” “She’s the One” “Thunder Road,” which featured a guest appearance from hometown boy Conor Oberst. Read the full review.
7. Rhett Miller, Largo, Los Angeles, April 11
The Old 97s had barely reconvened when Rhett Miller struck out alone for two nights on the tiny stage at Largo, Los Angeles’ legendary artist-friendly club. He dusted off several 97s favorites and debuted songs from the group’s upcoming album “Blame It On Gravity.” Miller also tromped through his solo catalog and treated the intimate crowd to his favorite covers. The appearance of pianist Jon Brion midway through the set was the cherry on the sundae. The two musicians renewed their musical friendship through songs like David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and Wilco’s “California Stars” that had the pair grinning like schoolboys. Miller announced he was recording the show for future release. Keep your fingers crossed this pops up.
6. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Granada Theater, Lawrence, Kan., Jan. 29
It was after 11 p.m. on an icy winter night when the Dap-Kings took the stage. Within minutes it felt like a hot 1966 summer afternoon. Clad in matching suits, their three-piece horn section complementing the three-piece rhythm section, the Dap-Kings – go-to performers for everyone from Amy Winehouse to Seattle’s Saturday Knights – settled into a solid soul groove. Moments later, the diminutive Sharon Jones skittered across the stage as if she were shot from a cannon. Like a perfect hybrid of James Brown and Tina Turner, Jones partied through songs from her three albums and taught the crowd a few new dance moves. The heat from the band must have pushed the overall mercury up, because when it was all over outside didn’t feel as cold.
5. Randy Newman, Folly Theater, Oct. 11
Randy Newman found a break from his day job scoring movies to make a quick run to the heartland and give his first Missouri show in a generation. Working primarily from this year’s “Harps and Angels” album, Newman’s solo set was stocked with more than two dozen catalog favorites peppered with hilarious asides, all performed in front of a sold-out, appreciative audience. Read the full review.
4. Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, Starlight Theater, Sept. 23
Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones may be beating down Robert Plant’s door to reconvene Led Zeppelin, but Plant would be better served sticking with Alison Krauss. With a muse mightier than his former bandmates can imagine, Plant and Krauss delivered two hours of spellbinding music with arguably the greatest backing band of all time. Read the full review.
3. Dave Brubeck, Folly Theater, Oct. 2
Dave Brubeck quit touring Europe a few years ago, so the 88-year-old jazz pianist’s occasional treks to Kansas City are even more prized. Most people know Brubeck from his groundbreaking quartet with Paul Desmond, but his new group is arguably as good. Randy Jones did more with the nine pieces in his drum kit than most drummers can do with triple the amount, while saxophone player Bobby Militello applied sheets of sound and originality to Desmond’s well-worn and much-beloved “Take Five.” The quartet encored with a brief, smirking reading of Braham’s “Lullabye.”
2. Radiohead, Verizon Wireless (formerly Riverfront) Ampitheater, St. Louis, May 14
Radiohead’s last concert in the area was on the “Hail To the Thief” tour and I have been kicking myself for five years for missing them. No longer. The band’s set burned with the intensity of a supernova, climaxing with “Fake Plastic Trees.” Early detours through the “Idiotheque” and all of “In Rainbows” made the evening both invigorating and draining – and just enough to hold me over until the next tour. Read the full review.
1. Tom Waits, Fox Theater, St. Louis, June 26
Hipsters, hippies, bikers and beatniks alike populated the sold-out congregation for Tom Waits first visit to St. Louis in a generation. He made it a night to remember, performing rarities like “Heigh Ho!” (for the only time on the tour), old favorites like “Rain Dogs” and new gems like “Day After Tomorrow.” Oh yeah, and advice on how to bid on eBay. Read the full review.
The unlikely pairing of Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus at a London film studio should have been a collision of worlds on par with the big bang.
In the early sixties, Brubeck was rewriting the jazz songbook with his legendary quartet that featured Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Morello and bass player Eugene Wright. Signed to Columbia Records, home to both Miles Davis and Doris Day, their “cool jazz” was both critically acclaimed and extremely accessible. In other words, it was jazz both hardcore fans and housewives could appreciate.
Charles Mingus, on the other hand, was the dark prince from the underbelly of the genre. His dense, avant-garde approach carried discordant melodies and boasted nearly impenetrable titles like “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.” He was on the threshold of a three-album deal with Impulse Records, the jazz label John Coltrane helped transform into the bastion of cutting-edge, experimental music.
Although Mingus and Brubeck’s music was world apart, the bassman and pianist first crossed paths in the post-War San Francisco jazz scene. The two met again in 1962 at Pinewood Studios in London.
The unfathomable union of Brubeck and Mingus occurred under the most commercial circumstances. Brubeck had been hired to write the score for “All Night Long,” a modern telling of “Othello” starring Richard Attenborough. In the liner notes to the 1991 Brubeck box set “Time Changes,” he describes their encounter.
“My contract for the film specified I would not play with Charlie Mingus, because I knew how demanding Charlie could be and I just wanted to avoid it. It was out of respect,” Brubeck said.
“And fear,” he added.
Mingus, who had also been hired to score certain scenes, kept bugging the director to play with Brubeck. Finally, Brubeck relented – with three stipulations: no rehearsal, no synching and no overdubbing. Everything had to be live and off-the-cuff.
With those rules in place, the pair decided upon a Mingus composition. “Non-Sectarian Blues” begins with Mingus thumping borrowed bass, walking the beat as Brubeck joins in on the piano. Mingus can be heard grunting and shouting encouragement to Brubeck as the pair play off each other with staccato piano riffs and pulsing, aggressive baselines. The result is so natural and engaging it’s hard to believe these men came from such seemingly disparate camps.
Although the song was recorded in1962, the performance remained unheard outside theaters until the Brubeck collection “Summit Sessions” was released in 1971.
“When it was over, Charlie picked me up off the floor and gave me a bear hug,” Brubeck said. “It was wonderful.”
(Above: Bill Shapiro appeared on television in Kansas City in 2008 to celebrate 30 years of his radio show, “Cypress Avenue.”)
By Joel Francis
Late at night, the house is silent.
Everyone is asleep, or so it seems. In a bedroom, a dim light shines through the blankets peaked around a small figure sitting up under the covers. The sound of tinny music can barely be heard.
The boy beneath the sheets is still, but his heart is racing. His hands tremble as he fine-tunes the radio under the covers with him. He thought it was lost forever, but he has found it: the jazz radio station carrying the songs of Dave Brubeck and Shorty Rogers. It was only late at night he could pick up the phantom AM signals from stations in exotic places like New Orleans. Forget sleep, he had found something far more important.
Fast-forward 50 years.
Today, the city – Kansas City – is alive. Cars zoom past on the interstate, clearly visible from the law office’s window on the 20th floor near Crown Center. Visitors scurry in and out of the renovated Union Station.
A train blows by in the distance. The stress of daily life is lost in this picturesque, birds-eye view.
The scene is quite different, but the boy, now 62 years old, has not changed. The passion for discovering new music still burns within.
Today Bill Shapiro doesn’t hid his love of music; on the contrary, he broadcasts it. Shapiro has hosted the weekly radio show “Cyprus Avenue” for more than 20 years on KUCR 89.3 FM, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, National Public Radio affiliate.
Taking the show’s title from a song on Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” album, “Cyprus Avenue” has become one of KCUR’s highest-rated local shows.
Shapiro has found freedom on the airwaves. Unrestricted by playlists generated by demographic studies and corporate interests, Shapiro plays the music that excites him in hopes of engaging his audience.
“He has a lot more information and insight into groups that commercial radio doesn’t know about,” says Robert Moore, KCUR and “Cyprus Avenue” producer and music director. “A show like his would never happen on commercial radio because they don’t break down artists. They just play one format.”
While commercial radio serves a bevy of Bachman-Turner Overdrive and saccharine teen pop, Shapiro slips his sophisticated audience the Velvet Underground, Stevie Wonder and Uncle Tupelo, all linked by a common theme for a given show.
When Beck’s “Midnite Vultures” was released in 1999, no Kansas City radio stations would pick it up, despite heavy play from MTV and VH1. “Cyprus Avenue” not only spotlighted the album, but buttressed it with Prince’s “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic,” forming a fitting tribute to both.
Shapiro sprinkles his shows with information from box sets, liner notes and magazine interviews, but for the most part he lets the music do the talking.
His inspiration may come from a television special or an album passed onto him by a friend.
More often than not, Corky Carrol, co-owner of Village Records in Overland Park, Kan., points Shapiro to a quality release. The two usually talk once a week about scheduled new releases.
“It’s strange to think that this is the only place to hear Elvis Costello or Nick Drake on the radio,” Carrol says. “You know at least for two hours you are going to get a solid effort, not a couple of good songs then Celine Dion.”
Says Moore, “He turns the public on to new groups they won’t hear anywhere else. Unfortunately, it won’t have any impact on commercial radio because it is run by corporations. It’s expected that this is what non-commercial radio does.”
“Cyprus Avenue” may be popular, but Shapiro has yet to reach the notoriety of Murray the K. Sure, he gets calls at the office from fans and fan mail isn’t unexpected, but for the most part Shapiro is anonymous. That’s fine by him.
“Other than family I don’t think I could tell you a specific person who might claim to be my biggest fan or a longtime listener,” Shapiro says.
Carrol has supplied Shapiro with music for more than 25 years and is a regular “Cyprus Avenue” listener. Carrol says he has bought “thousands and thousands” of albums for Shapiro.
“It’s hard to get one past him, but there are a few records he’s missed,” Carrol says. “His purchases are all over the board. I think the only thing I haven’t sold him is a classical record.”
A hit all over the country
The diverse playlists on “Cyprus Avenue” have made the show successful not only in Kansas City, but all over the country. During much of the 1980s, “Cyprus Avenue” was distributed on NPR’s satellite uplink system.
“In those days you could buy an hour of stereo time for $40,” Shapiro says. “I thought it was worth a shot and was willing to invest a couple thousand dollars.”
Several stations picked up “Cyprus Avenue” and it became a hit in Minneapolis and a dozen other smaller markets, but when satellite costs rose, Shapiro pulled his show.
“I knew it wasn’t going to grow because it didn’t fit the NPR format,” Shapiro says. “People think public radio should be country and jazz or folk for the adventurous.”
But Shapiro wasn’t content with confining the show to his hometown. He decided to give the satellite one more try, this time with a national sponsor. “Cyprus Avenue” proved to be popular, running in more than 40 markets, including Detroit, San Francisco and Jacksonville, Fla. Unable to find a sponsor, expenses were mounting and Shapiro was faced with a decision.
“I decided I could either earn a living as an attorney, or I could get in my car and drive across the country and build ‘Cyprus Avenue’ into a radio show,” Shapiro says.
For the second time, “Cyprus Avenue” was pulled from the uplink
“We just weren’t penetrating the major markets,” Shapiro says. “Today radio is a secondary medium. People don’t care about shows, they care about stations and that’s why radio is as homogenous as it is. Advertisers just want a demographic to sell their product to. I don’t fit that mold. I knew I’d never get the audience I wanted.”
Compromising the show to build a bigger audience would be counteractive to everything Shapiro was trying to do – share the music he loves with his friends. And if his only contact with these friends is through the radio, so be it.
“A lot of people use the TV as a companion. My stereo is my companion,” Shaprio says. “I alwasy have 30 to 50 unopened CDs at home. They come to me faster than I can listen to them. There is always part of my head saying, ‘Is this something you want to take further and put on the radio?’”
When Shapiro listens to music at home, he makes sure it gets the audio treatment it deserves. At age 12, Shapiro built his own Hi-Fi system from a Heath kit. That system has been upgraded and replaced many times since.
“I’m a sound freak,” Shapiro says. “I have more money tied up in sound equipment than most people have in a home. I wasn’t to hear it as well as I can hear it. I buy all the gold CDs and audiophile stuff.
“To me, music is as important as oxygen and food,” Shapiro continues. “When I’m home, I have music on 24 hours a day. In the car, music is on the whole time.”
Hooked by a phonograph
Shapiro got hooked on music in 1942 when an uncle gave him a phonograph player for his fifth birthday. A family friend in the jukebox business kept Shapiro supplied with records once they were too scratched for commercial play. At age 12, he discovered Brubeck, Paul Desmond and West Coast jazz.
Shapiro tried music lessons – he tackled the piano, vibraphone and banjo – but his musical aptitude was mental, not physical. He spent his time amassing records and building playback systems.
“Whatever money I made went into getting more records and improving what I had,” Shapiro says.
Shapiro migrated across Missouri and graduated pre-med from Washington University in St. Louis in 1958 with the intent of becoming a doctor.
Still an avid jazz fan, Shapiro would often get together with friends and play records. Then he saw Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey show. Shapiro was hooked on rock and roll and spreading the gospel of Elvis.
“I didn’t know who or what it was, but it had the same impact on me as hearing JFK was shot,” Shapiro says. “I can still visualize that room and the TV set and here we are 50 years later.”
To a generation of buzz-cut, starched-collar squares, Elvis represented the rebellious, darker side of 1950s adolescence.
“Presley was a lightning rod from my generation, a button-down generation,” Shapiro says. “There was a whole side of our lives – smoking cigarettes, sipping beers, getting lad – that was never talked about, and here it was in our living room. I immediately became a hard-core rock and roll fan.”
By the time Shapiro graduated, he had abandoned the idea of being a doctor. He headed north to the University of Michigan and enrolled in law school. With his law degree in hand in 1961, Shapiro decided he wanted to be a tax attorney. He heard that New York University had a graduate tax law program, so he went to the Big Apple. One show on Manhattan Public Radio planted the germ that would become “Cyprus Avenue.”
“It was a thematic program,” Shapiro says. “They’d take someone like big-band arranger Fletcher Henderson and play arrangements done by different bands. They might play a combo version next to a big band version. I listened to that show religiously. In later years, I got thinking that there was so much richness and social impact in pop music as in jazz and I could do the same thing.”
Shapiro had finally found his calling, but after three universities and seven years of higher education, a career shift was not going to happen.
“By this time my family and I had spent a lot on higher education,” Shapiro says. “If I’d know then what I knew no, I would have been in the music business. It just wasn’t in the cards.”
The jump from disc jockey to tax law may seem extreme, but Shapiro says his work is extremely satisfying.
“Tax law is not what most people think it is,” Shapiro says. “It is the most creative part of the law, because what we do is planning. You might want to buy your partner out. If you do it one way, Uncle Sam takes a hunk. If you do it differently, you save money.”
Shapiro left New York in 1962 and returned to Kansas City to work and start a family. As his family grew and Shapiro flourished professionally, he became involved with broadcasting, but it was television that proved to be Shapiro’s stepping-stone to radio.
Deeply involved with public television’s early on-air auctions and fund-rasiers, Shapiro’s good deeds did not go unnoticed. A high school friend working at KCUR called Shapiro and asked if she could take him to lunch and discuss fund-raising methods. At the end of the meal, she asked if there was anything she could do for him. Shapiro asked for an audition to do a public radio rock show.
The dream was starting to materialize. Shapiro arrived at the studio with a stack of records for the show and hoped that the manager liked it.
“My first show was called ‘Ballads by Rockers.’ It was all ballad material done by people thought of as screamers,” Shapiro says. “He (the manager) says, if you can do that every week, you’re on.”
As Cyprus Avenue entered its second decade on the air, Shapiro realized new music and artists – particularly rap and alternative – were not striking the same chord with him.
“I’ve known for a long time I’m the generation these people want to rebel against,” Shapiro says. “I respect the fact that the music says this to the previous generation,” he says, emphatically holding up his middle finger. “There is a need to shake up the status quo.”
Shapiro doesn’t mind the envelope pushing done by newer artists, he just doesn’t get it musically. The Talking Heads and Beck are about as modern as Shapiro gets with “Cypuss Avenue.”
But Shapiro’s show doesn’t need Moby and Soundgarden to be effective. “Cyprus Avenue” is a discovery process – for both Shapiro and for listeners – of influential artists and the impact they’ve had on music.
By showing listeners the roots of music, Shapiro leaves the listener naturally curious of the modern amplification and integration of this process.
“Cyprus Avenue” isn’t a forum for Shapiro to amaze everyone with his knowledge. It’s a platform for him to share his love of music and enlighten listeners who don’t fit commercial radio demographics.
Jackie Nixon, NPR director of strategic planning and audience research, says that shows like “Cyprus Avenue” are what NPR is all about.
“We treat our listeners with respect and intelligence and try to produce programming that makes people think as well as entertain,” Nixon says.
For Shapiro, those sleepless nights in the early 1940s were a discovery process.
“It was like going into a cave with a flashlight and all of a sudden – bang, something is shining back at you,” he says.
Shapiro has not forgotten that feeling and tries to instill the same feeling of excitement in his listeners.
“I think I broaden the awareness of the intelligence and importance of popular music,” Shapiro says. “I lift it out of the aural wallpaper and let people know it can be a powerful element. That it shapes opinions and tells a lot about where we are and where we are going.”