Social Distancing Spins – Day 53

By Joel Francis

Insurgence DC – Broken in the Theater of the Absurd (2019) Insurgence DC formed in the late ‘80s, but Broken in the Theater of the Absurd is just their third album, arriving 19 years after their previous release. The Washington D.C.-based punk trio has plenty to say about the corruption and incompetence they see around their hometown. Reading the lyrics printed across the back of the album, one could be forgiven for thinking she was looking at a Billy Bragg broadside. What keeps songs like “Poison Profits” and “Third Party Opinions” from being op-ed pity parties is a well-seasoned band that plays well off each other and knows how vary textures and arrangements to keep the music fresh. The aggressive songs are tempered by flourishes of avant noise (think Sonic Youth), post-punk moodiness and the gleeful ska of “Pick Pocket Pirates.” Fans of the Dischord label and anyone P.O.ed by the current political landscape will find a lot to like in the Theater of the Absurd.

Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969) I shudder to think how Miles Davis would have responded to the age of Twitter. Davis has been dead for nearly 30 years and audiences are still trying to catch up to what he was doing. The period when In a Silent Way came out demonstrates Davis’ restlessness and ambition. Just a year earlier, Davis disbanded his second quintet, one of the most incredible ensembles in music history. Three members of that quintet appear on In a Silent Way, but are used in completely different ways and surrounded by a host of other musicians. I’m having trouble coming up with a contemporary corollary for the sounds here. The last couple Davis quintet albums hinted at this direction, but In a Silent Way’s music still sounds surprising and fresh more than half a century later.

Neither rock, nor jazz (and not fusion), the closest touchstone to the music on In a Silent Way might be a psychedelic, improvised version of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp tried to accomplish both together and on their own in the mid 1970s. In fact, John McLaughlin’s electric guitar that opens the second side on “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time” sounds like what Daniel Lanois would play with Eno in the 1980s. Davis had long moved on by that point, of course. He jerked even more heads by releasing Bitches Brew, another masterpiece, the following year. The vast expanse of the universe is barely enough to contain all of Davis’ ideas. I’m glad he never had to face myopic imbeciles limited to 280 characters.

Alex Chilton – Songs from Robin Hood Lane (compilation) What is it about the Great American Songbook of the 1930s to ‘50s that compels repeated interpretations? Late in his recording career Alex Chilton drew from this well for two solid albums. The output bears absolutely no resemblance to the power pop that Chilton created with Big Star or the blue-eyed soul he brought to the Box Tops. While no one would confuse him with Grant Green, the albums do reveal Chilton has decent jazz guitar chops. Chilton’s phrasing and vocal delivery also depict him as someone completely at home in this style of music. The title of this collection holds the key to Chilton’s comfort with these jazz standards. Robin Hood Lane was the name of the suburban Memphis street where Chilton grew up hearing his mom play these classic songs endlessly. Come to this collection not expecting “September Gurls” or “Cry Like a Baby,” but with an open mind to hear another facet from a criminally neglected (by mainstream society and himself) artist.

Eddie Hazel – Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977) Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel left his stamp on many P-Funk classics (dig “Maggot Brain” as Exhibit A) but this was the only solo album released in his lifetime. Solo is a relative term here. Bassman Bootsy Collins co-wrote three of the songs here and keyboard legend Bernie Worrell is credited on two. Those two, plus the Brides of Funkenstein and a host of other P-Funk players all appear, but the album really does belong to Hazel. He transforms “California Dreamin’” into a slow jam and turns the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” into an acid-drenched guitar workout. The original songs fit well into the P-Funk songbook, but Hazel’s playing is remains prominent throughout. Although Hazel continued to sporadically appear on P-Funk releases after this album dropped, he was never as prominent as before. Thankfully back in print, Game is essential not only for P-Funk fans, but anyone who wondered what Jimi Hendrix or Ernie Isley might have sounded like fronting a funk band.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981) Nearly 40 years ago, when Hard Promises came out, MCA records wanted to hike the price to $9.98. Today, you can down the album on iTunes for $9.99. Inflation, huh? Petty and the boys refused to be the reason their label nicked fans an extra buck and Hard Promises eventually came out at the standard price of $8.98. Regardless of how much you paid, the music here is worth the investment. The songwriting on Hard Promises is every bit as good as Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s previous album, but doesn’t suffer from the same overexposure. The album starts with the classic “The Waiting” before leading into “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” the album’s second single. The remaining eight songs are all album cuts, but still beloved to hardcore Petty fans. Stevie Nicks duets on the gorgeous “Insider,” the Heartbreakers roar on “A Thing About You” and the album ends with another delicate ballad, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.” In between we get the slinky “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Mind,” which opens with a slide guitar part that sounds like a country version of the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

Heartbreakers bass player Ron Blair left after this album and didn’t return until 20 years later. Of the four original-lineup Heartbreakers albums, Hard Promises is easily my favorite. Heck, it might be my favorite Petty album pre-Full Moon Fever. Either way, all American rock fans need this album.

The Roots – Game Theory (2006) The Philadelphia natives that comprise The Roots are often labelled the best band in hip hop, an unsubtle jab at other groups that don’t play traditional instruments. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, I think it’s past time to drop the sobriquet and call them what they are: One of the best bands ever. Full stop. After striving (and compromising) for mainstream success on their previous album, The Roots went all-in on a darker, stripped down sound for Game Theory. Even though they weren’t aiming for the charts, I find myself humming the hooks in these songs for days afterward. Named after a mathematical model for decision making, Game Theory stares at big-picture topics like police brutality, drug addiction, poverty and dishonest media outlets. MC Black Thought’s isn’t afraid to drop heavy lyrics, but his delivery swings enough that you wind up tapping your foot as you nod your head. “Clock With No Hands” isn’t just a thought-provoking (no pun intended) look at addiction, but features a beautiful original (read: non-sampled) melody. In fact, one of the few samples on the album comes when Thom Yorke’s voice floats in and out of “Atonement.”

I saw The Roots perform with a full horn section on back-to-back nights of the Game Theory tour and they are among the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not in hip hop, but among everyone. Full stop.

Various Artists – Lows in the Mid-Sixties: Vol. 54: Kosmic City Part 2 (compilation) Between 1967 and 1973, Cavern Studios in eastern Kansas City, Mo., were a hotbed of recording activity. Local groups could venture into the subterranean limestone cave where the studio was located and, for the right amount of money, walk out with a record. The best of the rock sides were compiled on Numero’s exquisite collection Local Customs: Cavern Sounds, shown back on Day 12. Lows in the Mid-Sixties is a companion to that release, rounding up 14 covers of well-known hits by bands you’ve never heard. It is solid garage rock with a touch of psychedelia sprinkled across for good measure. One of my favorites is Dearly Beloved’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Dearly Beloved have clearly studied Van Morrison and Them’s cover, but removed the shimmering signature guitar line (later sampled by Beck on “Jack Ass”). The music here is far from essential and I’m not sure how interesting it might be to an audience beyond KC’s metropolitan area, but it proves the local music scene was humming around the Age of Aquarius.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 2

By Joel Francis

Welcome to another installment of spelunking in my record collection while the world … well, who knows what’s happening out there. Let’s just stick to the music.

A.K. Salim – Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy (1965) I knew nothing about this album that wasn’t on its packaging when I bought it. I don’t know much more now. But this much is certain: If you want lots of African percussion with blasts of free jazz swooping in and out, this is the place to be. It’s not for every day listening, but at the right time this always does the trick.

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018) Illmatic is such a great album that this edition marks the third time I’ve purchased it. After owning the original CD and album, I passed on the 20th anniversary edition and rolled my eyes when I heard an orchestral live version was coming out. Then I heard a track and knew I was going to have to buy this again. Hearing these performances with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the album to another level. It’s almost like watching The Godfather in a 1972 theater, then viewing it in IMAX. The jazz organ underpinning the original “Memory Lane” becomes a swirling concerto complemented by the DJ Green Lantern’s scratches. Earlier, Nas shouts out his dad’s original cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” There’s amateur footage on Youtube of Kendrick Lamar doing a similar performance with the NSO. Cross your fingers this someday gets official release.

McCoy Tyner – McCoy Tyner plays Ellington (1965) This is essentially an album by the celebrated John Coltrane quartet without the legendary leader. Without their leader’s sheets of sound, everyone else gets more room to shine. Tyner was usually the person keeping Coltrane’s songs from falling apart – think about his insistent piano line in “My Favorite Things” while Coltrane scrapes the stratosphere. Finally out front and on his own, Tyner showcases and ability to pay tribute to a genre pioneer in Ellington while applying the some of the touches he showed with the futurist saxophonist. We lost a giant when McCoy Tyner died earlier this month.

The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019) The Raconteurs have always been my least-favorite Jack White project, however their by-the-numbers approach made for a refreshing listen after White’s previous release, the bizarre solo album Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger arrived more than a decade after the Racontuers’ previous release. While I didn’t really miss them, it is nice to hear White doing some straight-up rocking without all the cutesy tricks and gimmicks.

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) Here’s a question to pull out when the party gets dull (or maybe when you want it to end): Who had a better 1970s, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye? At first glance, it looks like Wonder in a landslide. He won all the Album of the Year Grammys and graduated from opening for the Rolling Stones to recording with Ella Fitzgerald. A second look reveals that Gaye’s decade was every bit as incredible, even if he didn’t win as many trophies. Of course What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are the twin pillars, but I Want You and Trouble Man are very, very good, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows. Then there’s Here My Dear, Gaye’s final album of the decade and a bitter kiss-off to his ex-wife (and label boss Barry Gordy’s sister) Anna Gordy.

Gaye knew going into the recording sessions that Anna Gordy would receive all royalties from the album’s release, as per the terms of the divorce. Undaunted, Gaye recorded the longest album of his career and used that time to dissect the relationship, peel open Gordy’s heart and spray lemon juice on the wounds. Here, My Dear isn’t only a bitter album, though. Gaye slides between soul, gospel, funk and jazz as he bares his soul and examines the wreckage. At the time, it seemed few wanted to go on Gaye’s deeply personal journey. The album didn’t sell well initially, but eventually even Gordy came around to appreciating Here, My Dear.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975) The first time I saw Roy Ayers in concert I didn’t get it at all. I was expecting a jazz vibes player in the tradition of Lionel Hampton or Bobby Hutcherson. Instead, I got what I thought was a smooth jazz crooner going on about sunshine and searching. The second time, I got it. If Louis Jordan is the link between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, then Ayers is the cog that connects Milt Jackson with Tupac.

Tom Verlaine – Words from the Front (1982) I think I spotted this at a yard sale for a song a picked it up on a whim. While I like Television, this is the only album I own from the Verlaine catalog. I always enjoy this album while it’s playing, but it leaves my mind almost immediately after it’s done. Sorry, Tom.

Various Artists – The Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (compilation) I got this album in a bundle when Luaka Bop celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dismiss this collection as a mere toss-in at your own peril. You can hear everything from the roots of Celia Cruz and the samba to songs like “Son de los Diablos” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Afro-Peruvian music originated with the slaves brought over from Africa and forced to settle in Peru. There’s no trace of this horrific history on the 15 hip-shaking cuts here, but it does explain why some of the music sounds like a flamenco band got kidnapped by an aggressive drum circle.

The Dead Girls – Out of Earshot (2010) The Dead Girls were Kansas City band who weren’t afraid to proclaim their power pop influences. This is their second release and as far as I know the only one that made it only vinyl. You can hear a lot of Big Star, the Replacements and Thin Lizzy on this release and while the album plays more like a tribute act than saying something on its own, it’s still a very fine listen.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016) Paul Simon started taking his time between albums after Graceland took off, which is to say more than 35 years ago. Appropriately, Stranger to Stranger sounds like it has been crafted by a patient perfectionist. Simon spent an entire 40-minute podcast breaking down how he built “Werewolf,” the opening track, around the rhythms – but not guitars – of Flamenco music. Other tracks employ the experimental instruments developed by Harry Partch or the laptop sampling of Clap! Clap! “Cool Papa Bell” marries the rhythms and mood of Graceland with the profanity of The Capeman. It’s cerebral stuff to be sure, but also infinitely hummable and pleasurable.

Joe Strummer – 001 (compilation) The 2018 collection 001 is both an overview of Joe Strummer’s career opportunities outside of The Clash and a treasure of unreleased material from his archives. The ten-year jump from his pre-Clash band The 101ers to “Love Kills” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack is jarring, but other than that the collection flows quite smoothly until its unfortunate, premature ending.

Kudos to the Strummer estate for making this set affordable, instead of a trophy piece that only the super-rich or ultra-dedicated can acquire.

U2 – October (1981) The Irish quartet’s sophomore album is easily the group’s most overlooked release. It doesn’t have the promise of their defiant debut, the hit singles on War or the Brian Eno cache of The Unforgettable Fire. All bets for October’s reappraisal were off once The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby took off.

October’s status may seem harsh in this context, but it’s pretty fair. October is by no means a difficult listen, but it also doesn’t the chops to muscle its way into the conversation. That said, it is still nice to see “Gloria” and “October,” the album’s two best songs, creeping back into setlists for the first time since the ‘80s.

Review: Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle

(Above: Shawn Colvin, left, and Steve Earle emplore listeners to “Tell Moses.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

With all the smiles, stories and strumming, Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin’s performance Wednesday night at the Kauffman Center seemed like very upscale busking.

The two artists stood on an all-black stage adorned with four monitors, one table, four guitars and two mandolins.

The concept was as straightforward as the setup. Over the course of 100 minutes, the pair performed ever song from their new collaboration, “Colvin and Earle” and scattered a couple of their own hits for good measure.

IMG_5969Despite nearly two dozen albums to their names, cover songs dominiated the setlist.

Earle introduced the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” by saying he learned how to play tennis racket to that song in front of a mirror. The spare arrangement brought Mick Jagger’s haunting lyrics to the forefront, particularly lines like “catch your dreams before they slip away.”

Other standout covers included Emmylou Harris’ “Raise the Dead” and the oft-recorded “Tobacco Road.” A laidback, almost effortless cover of “Wake Up Little Suzy” opened the night.

Before “Someday,” Earle told a long story, recapping his days as a Nashville songwriter trying to get a record deal, then fighting to get another when his debut single disappointed everyone. A friend took him to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on the “Born in the U.S.A.” tour, where Earle found inspiration to write his “Guitar Town” album. After success proved to be more of a struggle than failure, Earle fell into a spiral of drugs, only poking his head out of the darkness long enough to hear Harris recorded “Guitar Town” and Colvin cut “Someday.”

IMG_5974Despite a lack of drums (or band), the version of “Someday” that followed punched as hard as a metal band going full throttle.

Colvin bragged about all her depressing breakup songs, saying “I’ve known fans who won’t take their Prozac for a week before I come to town.” She backed up her words with her biggest hit, “Sonny Came Home,” and “Diamond in the Rough.” While most songs found Colvin and Earle playing off each other vocally, “Diamond” featured a long outro that saw the pair spar musically.

The auditorium was about two-thirds full, and needed little prompting to join in on Earle’s buoyant, mandolin-fueled “The Galway Girl.” The singing and clapping encouraged during “Tell Moses,” a new song, felt like an hootenanny.

After returning to the stage with a Beatles number, the pair closed the night with Earle’s biggest hit, “Copperhead Road.” Colvin got the chance to show off her guitar chops again on that one. With Earle playing mandolin, she had to provide all the song’s musical muscle.

Judging by the lines at the merchandise table afterward, it was more than enough to convince fans into throwing some more change in the hat on the way out.

Setlist: Wake Up Little Susie; Come What May; You Were On My Mind; Raise the Dead; Ruby Tuesday; Tobacco Road; That Don’t Worry Me Now; Someday; The Way That We Do; You’re Right (I’m Wrong); Burnin’ It Down; Sunny Came Home; The Galway Girl; Happy and Free; Tell Moses; You’re Still Gone. Encore: Baby’s In Black; Diamond in the Rough; Copperhead Road.

Keep reading:

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Review: Lilith Fair

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

Review: David Bowie tribute Holy Holy

 In a way, David Bowie’s unexpected death last January has freed his songs. Because we are no longer dependent on him to sing them, they are available to everyone to perform as they wish. On Saturday night at the Uptown Theater, the magic happened to come from a couple of the guys who helped create it in the first place.

Middle of the Map 2015 – day four

(Above: William Elliott Whitmore looks forward to “Digging My Grave” on the outdoor stage at the 2015 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

(Note: With more than 100 bands performing on eight stages across four days, it is impossible to hear everything at the Middle of the Map festival. I spent most of the festival’s final day on an unseasonably cold day at the outdoor stage.)

Phox:

Despite cold hands and early sound issues, Phox delivered an enjoyable set that delighted the fans that filled about two-thirds of the parking lot around the outdoor stage.

The six-piece band from Wisconsin performs soulful, confessional indie rock that recalls fellow Wisconsinite and mentor Bon Iver. Their delicate melodies never got lost in the expansive outdoor environment, thanks to inventive arrangements.

“Evil” featured a New Orleans jazz trumpet solo, while “Never Love,” an unreleased song, opened with a recorder and African guitar line a la Vampire Weekend. Throughout it all, lead singer Monica Martin was the not-so-secret weapon. Her soulful voice and playful stage talk kept the songs weighty and the downtime light.

The band threw a curveball into the mix with a hushed, dainty cover of Blink-182’s “I Miss You.” More fans sang along with that number than any of the band’s original numbers.

murder by death
Murder by Death

William Elliott Whitmore:

Armed with a guitar, banjo and bass drum, William Elliott Whitmore did a great job prepping the crowd for Murder By Death’s Americana rock. His 45-minute set was filled traditional folk songs about train trestles, digging graves and devils.

Between songs, Whitmore bantered with the audience with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Whitmore said he wanted his time to feel like friends hanging out on the front porch. While he’s a bit early for that festival, he accomplished the feel.

Murder by Death:

Murder by Death play the kind of songs that make you more likely to get pulled over for speeding. Even the band’s down-tempo numbers are full-throttle. Case in point “Curse of Elkhart,” a torrid cautionary tale fueled by Sarah Balliet’s furiously strummed cello.

Several of the band’s Americana opuses unfold like novellas. Judging by apparel and lips, plenty of the crowd already knew the stories. Highlights of the hourlong set included the David Bowie tribute “I Shot an Arrow,” “Spring Break 1899” and “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs.”

Keep reading:

Middle of the Map 2015 – day three

Middle of the Map 2013

Review: Vampire Weekend

KC Recalls: The Clash at Starlight

(Above: The Clash perform “Three Card Trick” at what would be their next-to-last concert in June, 1985.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Thirty years ago today, The Clash took the stage at Starlight Theater for their first and only concert in Kansas City. They were a far cry from The Only Band That Matters, as the groundbreaking punk band was known when it London by storm in the late ‘70s. Key members Mick Jones, guitar, and Topper Headon, drums, had been replaced by three hired guns. The mission, however, remained the same.

clashKCstarlightStub“You’re gonna do ten days’ work in ten minutes when you deal with us,” lead singer Joe Strummer told NME in 1984. “We’ll smash down the number one groups and show that rebel rock can be number one.”

Alan Murphy, 28, didn’t have to wait long for his favorite song. “London Calling” kicked off the night, followed by the powerful “Safe European Home.” The Starlight setlist could not be located, but staples of that tour included “Career Opportunities,” “Clampdown,” “Brand New Cadillac” and “Janie Jones.”

A pair of covers made big impressions on a pair of fans seeing the band in concert for the first time. Michael Webber, 20 at the time, was happy to finally experience the band’s iconic reggae cover “Police and Thieves.” “I Fought the Law” was a high point of the show for Derek Koch, then 23.

The “Out of Control” tour marked the Clash’s first extensive U.S. tour in two years. Although there was no new album to support, the band played many new songs that would end up on its final album, “Cut the Crap.” These included “This is England,” the last great Clash song, “Three Card Trick” and b-side “Sex Mad Roar.” Two new songs never saw studio release. “(In the) Pouring Rain” was released in live form on “The Future Is Unwritten” soundtrack and “Jericho” is only available on bootlegs.

Clash_PaulJoe-Roskilde-850005_∏Per-Ake-Warn-1024x976Koch recalls watching bass player Paul Simonon “throwing all the great poses I had only seen in pictures on TV or video, and Joe prowl(ing) the stage like an angry lion.”

Coverage of the Clash’s Sunday night concert at Starlight was surprisingly light. The Kansas City Times ignored the event entirely, and the Star only mentioned it in a run-down of summer concerts. A monster truck rally at Arrowhead Stadium dominated entertainment coverage that weekend, receiving both a preview story in Saturday’s paper and event coverage on Monday. Copies of The Pitch were unavailable for research at press time.

For Webber, Murphy and Steve Wilson, 31, the absence of Mick Jones, put an asterisk on the concert. Although everyone interviewed wishes they had trekked to other cities to see the band in its prime, that Sunday night at Starlight still carries great memories.

“(We arrived) just as the band began to play,” Wilson said. “I think what struck me was this sense, however diminished by Mick’s absence, that ‘Wow, I’m finally seeing the f-king Clash.’“

Keep reading:

 

KC Recalls: Elvis Presley at Kemper Arena

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

Review: Carbon/Silicon at the Record Bar

Ever Fallen For The Buzzcocks?

A Black Friday blowout

(Above: Jazz pianist Mark Lowrey teamed up with local musicians for the second installment of the Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop series.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Mark Lowrey sits behind a grand piano, contemplating using a Thelonious Monk number as an introduction to the rapper Common’s song “Thelonious.” As his fingers coax a signature Monk melody from the keys, bass player Dominique Sanders and drummer Ryan Lee nod in approval.

“I thought it was really obvious at first,” Lowrey admits. “But sometimes obvious is good.”

Two days before Thanksgiving, Lowrey and his rhythm section are sorting through ideas, sketching a musical landscape. They are joined by singer Schelli Tolliver and MCs Les Izmore and Reach. The final vision – a bridging of jazz and hip hop, structured and improvised – will be displayed tonight at Crosstown Station. The Black Friday ensemble takes the stage at 10 p.m. Cover is $10.

“We’ll be doing a mix of originals and covers,” says trumpet player Hermon Mehari, who will also be participating. “We’re playing tribute to some of the great hip hop artists of our time like Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla. Additionally, Reach and Les will both do some originals.”

After a few trials, the Monk number “I Mean You” has been successfully married to “Thelonious.” On “The Light,” another Common song, the band suddenly drops into Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” right after the lyric “It’s kinda fresh you listen to more than hip hop.”

KC MCs Les Izmore (left) and Reach salute Charlie Parker inside the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

“When Les and Diverse played this (‘The Light’) earlier this year they did ‘Unforgettable’ in that spot,” Lowrey says. “Everybody liked that, but we didn’t want to use the same thing. We were tossing out ideas, and someone suggested Michael Jackson.”

That same process informed the playlist. Everyone presented the songs they wanted to do, and the set was culled from what worked and how the band’s reactions. When Reach takes the mic for Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” he intersperses short bursts of freestyle around the original lyrics. A later run through of Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got” reveals an energy only hinted at on the Top 10 single. As Reach commands the imaginary crowd to wave their arms, Lee goes berserk on his drum kit.

“These shows have a different energy than Hearts of Darkness,” Izmore says of the local Afrobeat group he fronts. “With those shows you’re always trying to keep people dancing and keep the energy high. Here you can chill out and listen.”

Rehearsals will soon move to Crosstown Station, but for tonight the Mutual Musicians Foundation is home. The hallowed hall on Highland, home to Hootie and Bird, Count Basie and Big Joe Turner. The spirit of innovation those musicians introduced to the world via Kansas City is very much on display in the current sextet. Some may scoff that jazz and hip hop may seem to exist on disparate planets, but their orbits collide surprisingly often.

“I grew up on jazz, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald,” Reach says. “She (Ella) very much influenced my delivery and the way I play with cadences.”

Lowrey first toyed with combining rap and hip hop when he invited local MC Kartoon to sit in with his group a couple years ago. Both artists enjoyed the experience and Kartoon put Lowrey in touch with other vocalists in the KC hip hop scene.

“Hip hop has always been influenced by jazz,” Reach says. “Now, because the younger jazz musicians have grown up with hip hop, we are seeing it influence jazz. It’s kind of come full circle.”

In the past year, Lowrey has hosted several Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop concerts. The shows are basic, but explosive. Lowrey and drummer Brandon Draper create free jazz textures, as MCs and musicians alike improvise over the ever-changing structure.

“Our arrangements for this show are based in the tradition of jazz where you play the melody, then improvise over the chords before coming back to the head (melody),” Lowrey says. “The only difference is that we’re adding MCs in the mix with the horns.”

At another jazz/hip hop mash-up last February, Izmore and Diverse, a local jazz quartet that includes Mehari and Lee, celebrated the 10th anniversary of Common’s album “Like Water For Chocolate” by rearranging and performing the record in its entirety. The night ended with an encore of the Charlie Parker song “Diverse.”

“I’ve never seen a crowd of non-jazz fans so into the music,” Mehari says. “It’s the perfect example of what we want to do. Bring people in with hip hop and music they want to hear, then take them on a journey to new sounds. Once we’ve earned their trust, they’ll follow us anywhere.”

Keep reading:

KC’s MCs throw down this weekend

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Open wide for Mouth

Catching up with the Hot Club of Cowtown

(Above: Hot Club of Cowtown get lowdown at the Americana Music Association Festival in 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When Elana James was growing up in Kansas City, you could usually find her in Westport on the weekends. After checking out the bookstore, window shopping for clothes or catching a movie she’d take out her violin and busk.

What James played, though, wasn’t the classical music she’d been trained. James’ bow bounced to old timey fiddle music meant for dancing. And it tormented her.

“I thought it was the road to ruin,” James (nee Fremerman) said. “It wasn’t until I graduated from college I realized I wanted to play a more immediate, social music and, especially, dance music. It was such an undeniable pull by then I didn’t feel bad about leaving classical music, but I was at war with myself for a long time over it.”

James may have gotten over her classical guilt, but she had a harder time getting over the demise of her band, the Hot Club of Cowtown. In the past decade, the band broke through and found success, only to crumble at its peak. After a few years apart, the trio reformed to try it all over again.

“It’s funny,” James said, “a lot of stuff has changed around us, but I don’t feel like what we do has changed, only gotten better.”

The Western swing trio opened the decade with two albums under their belt and were building a steady following with their dynamic live shows. In 2004 they caught a deserved break when Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson invited them to offer their joint tour of minor league ball parks.

“We were in England on tour when our manager told us of the offer,” James said, recalling the fateful day. “It was totally incredible – it was one of the happiest, most exciting things I had experience in my life at that point. There were no expectations for the tour. We just thought we’d play our 23 and a half minute slot and that’s it. It turned out the tour was incredibly fun, musically gratifying experience.”

What should have been a tipping point turned to disappointment when Hot Club guitarist Whit Smith decided to pursue other projects. Fortunately another guitarist, Bob Dylan, offered James a spot in his band.

“It’s not something I like to talk about,” James said. “He (Dylan) loved my playing and was a huge advocate of me musically and personally. He gave me a lot of confidence and it was an honor to have that reception from him.

“The highest compliment you can get is to be asked to play with somebody else,” James continued.”I got a lot out of my friendship with him and his enthusiasm for the things I was doing.”

After double-duty time with Dylan – James also served as opening act on the tour – James formed the Continental Two and released a solo album. She couldn’t stay away from her Cowtown bandmates, though. Smith frequently sat in with James. Before long, bass player Jake Erwin was back in the fold as well.

“The band is the best at what we do,” James said. “Nobody sounds like us or does what we do as well. That’s why we got back together.”

But a lot changed over the band’s four year hiatus. Print outlets that used to champion the band, like “No Depression” were no longer around. And the decay of the major labels meant the standard system of filters were no longer in place.

“It’s been difficult after stopping to regain that momentum. We’ve had to come back and reintroduce ourselves. The media opportuines – so disorganized and spread out,” James said. “We are swimming in a difficult sea.”

Between the release of a greatest hits compilation in 2008 and a new album in 2009, the threesome spent the year touring the world, reintroducing themselves to fans.

“We weren’t expecting it, but people found out about us and things have been going great guns,” James said. “We’re actually having more work than we can accommodate. We have to be choosy.”

While there won’t be a new Cowtown album this year, James said the band will “probably start heading in that direction.” In the meantime, they just want to enjoy their accomplishments.

“This is our fun year,” James said. “There’s no major agenda. Last year was hard work, making the record, then putting it out on three continents and touring to support it.”

Although James didn’t know it at the time, the country music she plays today is just as much a part of her upbringing as the classical instruction she started receiving at age 5.

“Coming from Kansas,” James said, “even though I didn’t grow up listening to fiddle tunes and old dudes sitting on the porch and drinking moonshine, when you pull back I can see how that culture just seeped into me. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my time in Kansas City.”

Keep reading:

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

More Bob Dylan on The Daily Record

Contest: Win a pair of tickets to the Air Guitar Championship

(Above: This could be you – or one of your really drunken friends.)

Be it Jimi Hendrix with a broom stick or Eddie Van Halen and a tennis racket, every music fan has gone through an air guitar phase, whether he (or she) wants to admit it or not.

If you’ve kept practicing your air guitar moves or like to laugh at those who have, then make plans to be at the Record Bar, on Tuesday, June 9 for the Air Guitar Championships.

Tickets for the competition run $10 online (plus TicketBastard fees), but The Daily Record is giving a one of its loyal readers the chance to get in free.

Here’s how this will work: If you live in the Kansas City area and want to go, simply leave a comment for this entry describing your favorite air guitar song or greatest air guitar moment. Be sure to leave your e-mail address, because that’s how I’ll contact the winner to let them know they’ve won a two tickets to witness or participate in the Air Guitar Championships.

Originality counts, folks, so don’t inundate us with stories about “Eruption” and “Stairway to Heaven.”

The people throwing this competition are serious about finding the ultimate air guitar hero. Winners at the 23 regional showcases will have the chance to compete in the championship round this August in New York City. There they will be judged by reigning U.S. and World Air Guitar Champion “Hot Lixx” Hulahan (I know, but that’s what it says in the press release) and Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones.

For complete rules, videos and other information visit the Air Guitar Championships Web site.

Commence sending your stories … now!

Piano Men: Dave Brubeck, Dr. John and the Jacksonville Jazz Festival

(Above: The Night Tripper gets “Qualified” back in the day.)

By Joel Francis

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.