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Posts Tagged ‘Jammin at the Gem’

 (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.

Keep reading:

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Review: Oleta Adams

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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.

Keep reading:

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Clark Terry’s Last Stand

Remembering Rusty

A tour of KC’s Women in Jazz

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(Above: “Get Here” brought down the house at Oleta Adams’ recent homecoming concert in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Oleta Adams took the stage of Gem Theater on Saturday night with a smile and an apology.

“I’m sorry I’m dressed this way,” she said, wearing a stunning, strapless, turquoise dress. “I thought it was supposed to be spring.”

It would take more than a dumping of out-of-season snow to keep the nearly full house from seeing its hometown girl. For more than two hours, the singer, who was a staple of the local jazz scene in the 1980s, indulged them with stories, a wide selection of songs, and surprises.

The evening got off to a rocky start. Adams’ piano was initially buried in the mix. The drums, played by her husband John Cushon, and keyboards, played by Kansas City native Everett Freeman, Jr., overshadowed everything. The songs were played at a level reserved for noisy clubs or large theaters, not a respectful group in an acoustically sound room.

Adams’ powerful voice, however, would not be derailed by the sonic disarray. After opening with “Feelin’ Good,” the first of several cuts from her latest album, she led her four-piece band into “New York State of Mind.” By the time she got to the reworked bridge that ushered in a lengthy guitar solo, the song bore little resemblance to Billy Joel’s hit. “I Just Had to Hear Your Voice” displayed Adams’ dynamic range. The lyric-heavy melody found her working the verses in a lower register before opening up and soaring on the chorus.

After 40 minutes, Adams announced a short break. It felt premature, but the timing couldn’t have been better. When the group returned 30 minutes later, the sound issues had been resolved. Balance had been restored and instruments were complementing instead of competing. The always-upbeat Adams seemed happier with the situation, too. During “My Heart Won’t Lie” she held onto a note with a phrasing that recalled Nina Simone and drew big applause.

The biggest cheers of the night, however, didn’t go to Adams. After playfully introducing her band, Adams informed the audience that the mother of her bass player, Jeanne Arland Peterson, was sitting in their midst. With the spotlight focused on Peterson, Adams was able to coax her to come onstage.

Peterson looked fragile making her way up the steps, but spring to life behind Adams’ grand piano. After a breathtaking solo, Peterson launched into “All the Things You Are” with her son, Paul Peterson, and Cushon. The impromptu trio sounded like they’d been playing together for years (and, I suppose, two-thirds of them had). When the 88-year-old pianist wanted to hear a solo, she raised her left hand and shot her index finger at the musician in question as if holding a gun.

Once the massive standing ovation died down, Adams joined the trio for a romp through “More Than You Know.” Peterson’s hands slid across the keyboard with gusto and inspired Adams’ best performance of the night.

Clearly excited to be playing again in her adopted hometown, Adams relished talking with the crowd as much as performing. She sang the praises of the 18th and Vine District, and recalled her days playing at the Signboard Lounge in Crown Center.

“My favorite moment every night,” Adams said, “was waiting to see who got beat up in the bathrooms.”

Fights, Adams remembered, sometimes broke out because someone didn’t applaud the right way. Adams also told of a police detective who frequented her gigs. When someone would start talking too loudly, he would start polishing his badge, hinting at what might happen if the chatter didn’t stop.

“I always had the most dedicated fans,” she said, laughing.

The night ended with what Adams said she called the “fourth set” back in her Signboard days. After hinting at her gospel roots in the first set by prefacing “No Way To Love Me“ with I Corinthians 13, Adams took the assembly to church with a powerful one-two of “If You’re Willing” and “Holy is the Lamb.” Both songs were from Adams’ 1997 gospel collection “Come Walk With Me” and fans voiced their pleasure by clapping along and shouting amen.

The poignant “Long and Lonely Hours” is part of a new collection of prayers set to song that Adams hopes will be her next album. The invocation was written after her mother died after spending five months in the hospital, and deals with the feelings of abandonment, awkwardness and, ultimately, acceptance, one feels alone at night in the hospital.

Adams wouldn’t let the night end on a dark note, so she immediately sprang into “Get Here.” Fans burst into applause at the opening chord of her most famous number and several cried out with excitement. Expectations can be high for homecoming shows, but it was clear from the closing ovation that Adams had met them all.

“Tonight,” the woman sitting next to me said, “we got our own jewel, right here at the Gem.”

Setlist: Feelin’ Good; New York State of Mind; I Just Had To Hear Your Voice; I Hope You Dance; Picture You the Way That I Do; Circle of One. Intermission. The Power of Sacrifice; Let’s Stay Here; My Heart Won’t Lie; All The Things You Are (ft. Jeanne Arland Peterson); More Than You Know; If You’re Willing; Holy is the Lamb; Long and Lonely Hours (solo); Get Here.

Keep reading:

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Buck O’Neil: Sweet times, sweet sounds at 18th and Vine

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(Above: Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band delivers “The Theme” – and a drum solo.)

By Joel Francis

Jimmy Cobb had been onstage at the Gem Theater for over an hour Saturday night before he finally gave the capacity crowd what they came for: a drum solo.

As the last living musician from the landmark Miles Davis sessions for “Kind of Blue,” Cobb would have deserved an ovation regardless of what he played. The taught and thunderous riffs that snapped from his 80-year-old wrists would have been impressive from someone half Cobb’s age.

All year Cobb and his sextet, dubbed the So What Band, have toured the world celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Kind of Blue.” Since Cobb is the last living musician from those sessions, it’s a noble gesture and fantastic marketing, but the execution could have been deadly. Play it too close to the original and you end up with paint-by-numbers Davis and John Coltrane. Improvise too much and the music not only loses its spirit, but the evening seems like a gimmick.

Fortunately, the band played it down the middle, playing homage without slavish dedication. As the trumpet player, Wallace Roney had the greatest cross to bear. While not emulating Davis, Roney’s similar moody tone and posture made comparisons inevitable. Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson seemed hesitant and overwhelmed at times in his role filling Coltrane’s shoes but overall added a strong voice to the night.

As the stand-in for the lesser-known Cannonball Adderly, alto sax player Vincent Herring had the most flexibility. Herring took advantage by chipping in adventurous solos that varied the textures laid by Roney and Jackson. Pianist Larry Willis was the ensemble’s hero, vamping on the chords behind the soloists with flourish and relishing every turn in the spotlight.

The band whipped through “Kind of Blue” in order, extending the original LP’s run time by about a half hour. “So What” started at an aggressive tempo accentuated by Roney’s angry solo that made “Freddie Freeloader” seem almost jovial in contrast.

Willis opened “Blue In Green” with a tremendous solo before Roney took over. The melancholy number was made even more poignant by the way Roney whipped away from the mic after his solo, leaving before the note was finished and before any resolution.

Since there was no drum solo on “Kind of Blue,” the band added “The Theme,” a piece from Davis’ period on the Prestige label, as a showcase for Cobb. He took another brief solo during “Four,” the joyous victory lap of an encore.

After striking the right tone, the ensemble had carte blanche with the rapturous crowd. The musicians were speaking through an established vocabulary with the emphasis on the right syllables. There would be no funk breakdowns, hip hop remixes or hard rock power chords. While the conservative approach often cuts against the genre’s best interests, Saturday night it sounded magnificent.

Setlist: So What, Freddie Freeloader, Blue In Green, All Blues, Flamenco Sketches, The Theme. Encore: Four.

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(Above: Drummer Jimmy Cobb gets down with his So What band.)

By Joel Francis

Fifty years ago, Miles Davis walked in to the recording studio, handed everyone in his band slips of paper with outlines of melody and a couple scales and told them to start playing. What emerged from those two sessions is arguable the greatest and greatest-selling jazz album of all time.

“Kind of Blue” contains several numbers that have become standards, like “So What” and “Freddie Freeloader” and features the classic lineup of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb an and Bill Evans.

As the only remaining member of that ensemble, drummer Jimmy Cobb has been touring the world this year celebrating “Kind of Blue” and the music of Miles, Trane and Adderley from that period with his So What band.

Although the official Jammin’ at the Gem concert lineup has yet to be announced, both Pollstar and the International Music Network are showing that Cobb will perform at the Gem Theater in the heart of Kansas City Mo.’s historic jazz district on Saturday, Oct. 17.

This is one of two U.S. dates Cobb has scheduled for the remainder of the year. The 80-year-old Cobb was recently named and NEA Jazz Master. His other works with Miles include “Sketches of Spain,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

The members of Cobb’s So What band are as follows: Vincent Herring , alto saxophone,  Javon Jackson tenor saxophone, Wallace Roney, trumpet, Buster Williams, bass,  and Larry Willis, piano.

Ticket information is unavailable at this time.

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