Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Ten Most Important Jazz-Related Events and Stories of 2009

Matt Otto set me straight earlier this month. "I think jazz has never been so strong," the saxophonist asserted in an interview. "Not necessarily from an economic point of view, but due to the sheer number of jazz musicians on the planet that increases year after year." The contentious relationship between art and economics riddles this summary of the state of Kansas City jazz in 2009.

1. Jazzy Home Companion. The weekly 12 O'Clock Jump radio broadcast brought fresh energy to the Mutual Musicians Foundation. It's too soon to know if the program is going to get the syndication sought by its organizers, but even if it fails the experiment is a noble one. (The NPR-centric show was nicknamed by Jason Harper.)

2. No Rhythm. No Ribs. The cancelation of the 2009 edition of the Rhythm and Ribs Festival, Kansas City's premier jazz event, was demoralizing. Adding insult to injury, the festival's site has been hacked.

3. Diverse. The rise of Diverse gives Kansas City music fans an energetic young act to rally around. Musically, Diverse is excellent. But they also "get it." The band's DYI PR model proves that energy and enthusiasm can make good things happen.

4. The Majestic. The closing of The Majestic provided a great deal of hand-wringing. Its re-opening has been the source of cautious optimism. The sometime jazz joint doesn't yet have a dedicated new site, but they do engage customers on Twitter. Our fingers are crossed.

5. Fresh faces. Three notable musicians- Jerry Hahn, Matt Otto and Kim Park- either returned to Kansas City or moved here for the first time. And Dixieland fans must be delighted that Lynn Zimmer is now featured several nights a week at the Gaslight Grill.

6. Non-jazz creep. Venues ostensibly dedicated to jazz feature an increasing number of blues, soul, cabaret, folk and rock acts. Well over a quarter of the bookings at Kansas City's three primary jazz clubs don't play jazz. I'm hardly a jazz purist, but I just can't bring myself to list artists who resemble Tori Amos, James Taylor and Eric Clapton on The Kansas City Jazz Calendar.

7. New media. Some get it. Some are being left behind. Real-time Twitter dispatches from artists, clubs and music fans influence where I spend my dollars at least once a week. Meanwhile, savvy artists make their music accessible to fans. Last week, for instance, Chris Burnett gave fans a free MP3. Diverse boasts a national presence thanks less to radio than to podcasts. Not coincidentally, Burnett and Diverse also understand the power of video. Money is no longer an excuse- I saw an off-brand video camera advertised for $25 on Black Friday.

8. Quiet Saturday afternoons. One of my favorite Kansas City traditions ended this year. Saturday afternoon jazz jams are no more. Jardine's ceased hosting the event several months ago. It has yet to be replaced. And no, Mama Ray's blues-rock jam session at BB's Lawnside BBQ doesn't count.

9. Dwindling audience. I keep hearing about great turn-outs for jazz events, but the majority of high-profile jazz shows I attended at the Folly, the Blue Room and Jardine's were poorly attended. A lot of it is attributable to sad attrition. Vince Bilardo, for instance, was a fixture at almost every jazz event. He died in February. Jazz students aside, I have yet to see evidence of a young jazz audience to replace previous generations.

10. Jazz on film. Decades after it was acquired by the city, portions of The John Baker Film Collection are finally on permanent display at The American Jazz Museum.

I wrote similar lists at the conclusion of 2008 and 2007.

(Original image by Plastic Sax. What I wouldn't give to be a 17-year-old member of this pep band...)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Weeping With Webster

Do you cry when you listen to music? I do. It seems Ben Webster did too. He appears to start weeping during Teddy Wilson's solo in this remarkable video. I get it. The Kansas City native would have turned 100 this year. He died in 1973, three years after delivering this riveting performance in Europe.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*The Jazz Session podcast recently featured Hermon Mehari of Diverse.

*The Star reviewed the Jeff Hamilton Trio's recent appearance at Jardine's. So did Tony's Kansas City.

*Pat Metheny will tour extensively in 2010. He stops at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City on May 7. A book of interviews with Metheny was noted by Joe Klopus last week.

*Coleman Hawkins is remembered in a KC Currents podcast.

*"Bethel campus will be a jazzy place in December." The headline of an article about a forthcoming appearance by Ben Leifer and Ben Markley cracks me up.

*KCJazzLark shares more war stories.

*Here's the week in jazz according to Mark Edelman.

*Anyone know of a Donna King? She claims Kansas City as her hometown in this performance filmed in London. She lists Mama Ray's blues jam among her credits here.

*A feature about Swiss jazz vocalist Beat Kaestli is fascinating. He lived in Higginsville, Missouri, as a high school exchange student.

*Mouth posted a live collaboration with Reach at MySpace. Is it jazz? Not really. Do I like it? Yes I do.

*Johnny Almond of the Mark-Almond band died November 18. My friend BGO noted that Almond lived in the Kansas City area for a while. "The City", his biggest song, contains jazz elements.

*Here's a photo essay of jazz night at YJ's. (Link via Tony's Kansas City.)

*Photographer Dan White has a new exhibit of photos of Kansas CIty jazz artists at a gallery in Michigan. Here's the story.

*Here's the latest missive from the Black House Improvisors' Collective: ... the second Black House Residency is now underway. Once again we are proud of the caliber of musicians we have participating. The collective this session consists of Matt Otto, Chris Burnett, Patrick Ketter, Russell Thorpe, Peter Lawless, Hunter Long, Derek Worthington, Nick Howell, Blake Rayfield, Zach Beeson, and Matt Leifer. This residency will conclude with a performance of original music written by the participants on January 15th as part of the Charlotte Street Foundation's 3rd Friday open studios. Admission is free and the performance will take place at 8:00pm on the 5th floor of City Center Square at 1100 Main.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bobby Watson: The Plastic Sax Person of the Decade

There's no getting around it. The Kansas City jazz scene has suffered greatly during the past ten years. Don't blame Bobby Watson. Without his vital presence, the decade might have been a complete disaster.

Watson accepted an invitation to become an instructor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2000. As director of jazz studies at UMKC he's overseen the development of dozens if not hundreds of musicians. These young hopefuls have been a fresh and enthusiastic presence both as fans and as performers at Kansas City's jazz venues. All but one member of the exciting new band Diverse, for instance, are proteges of Watson.

His academic endeavors haven't prevented Watson from becoming the most famous Kansas City-based jazz musician. A fiery saxophonist, Watson tours the world and records frequently. In addition to releasing five albums as a leader this decade, he's racked up an extensive list of recent recording credits.

As if all that wasn't enough, the Kansas City, Kansas, native is a tremendously nice guy. Thank you, Bobby, for your invaluable contributions to Kansas City.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bob Brookmeyer: An Appreciation

Bob Brookmeyer was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1929. Although he turns 80 next month, the trombonist continues to make his presence felt. "We're up to our necks in repertory groups and you can't recreate dead people," Brookmeyer complains in a recent interview. Talk like that makes Plastic Sax swoon with admiration. The embedded video shows Brookmeyer performing about fifty years ago (!) with Gerry Mulligan's groundbreaking band. A true artist, Brookmeyer continues to explore news sounds. This fascinating video shows him working on innovative material with Kenny Wheeler. Happy Birthday, Bob, and keep giving 'em hell.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*The Majestic Steakhouse has reopened! I'd love to celebrate this great news by integrating their jazz bookings into my Kansas City Jazz Calendar, but the downtown venue's entertainment schedule seems to be a secret.

*Did you know that the Count Basie Orchestra released a new album in August? I didn't either. Here's a new EPK for the project.

*What's wrong with these kids! The 5 Star Jazz Band is a group of teenagers who enjoy performing jazz. They're featured by the Star.

*Angela Hagenbach's new album receives favorable reviews from The Pitch and a blogger.

*UMKC's student newspaper shines its spotlight on the Marr Sound Archives.

*A man by the name of Derek recently left a lengthy and thoughtful comment on a 2007 Plastic Sax post. (The photos I used to illustrated my original point still make me laugh.) Here's one of his better lines about the challenge of post-bop jazz: "It's work trying to figure out why such rhythmic music is so eminently, intentionally undanceable."

*Shay Estes shares "A Case of the Mondays" with the Star.

*Steve Penn checks in with Darryl Terrell.

*Orchestrion, the freaky new Pat Metheny album, will be released on January 26.

*Mark Edelman makes his live jazz picks here.

*Sorely missed friend of the Kansas City jazz scene Lee Ingalls is currently living it up in Seattle. His hysterical (and flattering) review of a Sachal Vasandani show is at his blog.

*Eldar's latest album receives a mixed review at All About Jazz.

*Mike Hendricks's latest column analyzes a dust-up surrounding “We Haz Jazz,” "a salute to African-American culture by the mostly white third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Timber Creek Elementary School in south Overland Park."

*Here's a video highlighting the Kansas City Plaza Rotary Club's 9th annual Jazz Cabaret. The April 2010 event will feature Tim Whitmer and the Wild Women of Kansas City.

*Sue Vicory shot a promotional video for Kansas City Youth Jazz. I've been informed that the organization "is looking for a high school jazz pianist to play in their top jazz band, The Reno Jazz Ensemble on Monday nights from 6 to 7:30 p.m." Interested parties should contact Leon Brady at

*From Jim Mair, Associate Professor of Instrumental Music at Kansas City Kansas Community College: "Drummer Jeff Hamilton and bassist Christoph Luty will work with the KCKCC Jazz Band and Jazz Combo on Wednesday November 18 from 10:00am till noon in the band room at KCKCC. The Jeff Hamilton Trio presented clinics at KCKCC last time they were in Kansas City." The Kansas City Kansan published additional details here. The Kansan also notes the forthcoming fall jazz concert by KCKCC's jazz ensembles. The November 24 event will feature percussionist Scott Prebys. His talents are on display in this video.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Matt Otto: The Plastic Sax Interview

The arrival of Matt Otto on the Kansas City jazz scene is one of the most encouraging developments of 2009. The exciting and accomplished saxophonist has already injected fresh ideas into the sometimes insular jazz community.

Those who have yet to catch him at an area venue are encouraged to take in his gorgeous solo here and his more aggressive solo here. Otto clearly has enormous stylistic range.

Curious about what brought him to Kansas City and what he hopes to accomplish here, I conducted this email interview with Otto last week.

Plastic Sax: When did you move to Kansas City? What brings you here? Do you plan on staying?

Matt Otto: I moved here toward the end of July this year, my wife got a job as a professor at William Jewell so we'll be here for a while.

PS: Your recordings, at least the ones I've heard, definitely lean toward the outside edge of jazz. Is that the style you most prefer?

MO: I love improvising, whether it's free or over standards. I do have one album of completely free music, Q Trio Vol 1. which is all improvised with no agenda or structure. Most other albums I've lead or collaborated on are what I would consider to be fairly “inside” in that they deal with functional harmony and melody, and improving over a structured form.

PS: How have audiences in Kansas City reacted to your music? Do you expect to find sympathetic venues for that sound in Kansas City?

MO: I've only had two gigs of my own since I came to town, both were very well received, in general, I find the audiences to be good, intelligent listeners.

PS: What are your favorite aspects of the Kansas City jazz scene today? What do you wish was different?

MO: The pace of life here is relaxed, which I like. Both NYC and LA are generally very crowded, loud and intense. It's nice to have some space, calm and a pace that allows time for reflection.

PS: I just listened to the new Jan Garbarek album. His approach reminds me of yours. Is he one of your influences? Who are your musical inspirations?

MO: I really love the recordings he did with Keith Jarrett. One thing I like most about Jan is that he is original and doesn't sound like anyone else. My influences on sax aren't original be any means, I listen to all the players that are considered to be great... Bird, Lester, Hawkins, Desmond, Trane, Stitt, Rollins, Getz, Ornette, Lockjaw, Jug, Konitz, Marsh, really, hundreds of players over the years, some more than others. I feel it's an obligation, as a creative improvising musician, to listen to as much music as possible before you're done.

I know you've collaborated with Loren Pickford, the Sons of Brazil and Dave Stephens since you've been in Kansas City. That's a pretty diverse mix. Who else have you been working with?

MO: I've been rehearsing and working a bit with my quartet which includes Mike Warren on drums, Jeff Harshbarger or Ben Leifer on bass, and Gerald Dunn on alto sax. I did a nice gig at Jardine's with Roger Wilder, Brandon Draper and Ben Leifer. I've been playing the Saturday late night set at the Mutual Musicians Foundation each week with Chris Clark, Mike Warren and Tyrone Clark. I've been playing off and on with Brad Cox and the Peoples Liberation Big Band which I'm currently trying to write a piece for. Who else?... Mark Southerland, Sam Wisman, Matt Hopper, Hermon Mehari, Brian Stever, Brad Williams, Gerald Spaits, Rod Fleeman, Angela Hagenbach, Stan Kessler and many others.

PS: Do you see yourself as a leader, a sideman or both?

MO: Definitely both, I write a lot of music and practice a lot of standards.

PS: What went into your decision to make some of your albums available as free downloads?

MO: I just wanted people to be able hear and enjoy the music, without as many economic hurtles to jump over, I knew I'd never make a lot of money playing jazz, it comes with the art form. I get a lot of positive feedback and encouragement and even some donations, all of which help keep me inspired and fed so I can do what I do. I'd rather the music was out in the word than in a box in the back of my closet. I've recently put some Google ads on my blog so that a few cents trickle in every time someone clicks on one they find inciting enough... lol.

PS: Which of your recordings is your favorite?

MO: I like them all for different reasons, if I had to pick one I'd say the Baobab album from the band 3-ish.

PS: It seems that everyone is eager to discuss the state of jazz in 2009. What's your assessment?

MO: I think jazz has never been so strong. Not necessarily from an economic point of view, but due to the sheer number of jazz musicians on the planet that increases year after year. That means better players, more players, more music, more influences and a bigger audience of educated listeners. Of course, without food, water and shelter none of that can happen, so economics is, in a sense, working against art and culture; more artists, less work.

PS: Are you a full-time musician? Is jazz your sole gig? If not, what else do you do?

MO: Just music, I teach private lessons out of my house, other than that it's practice, write, rehearse and gig. (Editorial note: Otto's YouTube channel dedicated to teaching is here.)

PS: You suffer from repetitive strain injurty/carpal tunnel problems. How has that affected your playing? Is it still an issue?

MO: RSI/Carpal Tunnel is a big problem for me, everyday I stretch, exercise, and have to constantly refrain from practicing too much. The technique in my left hand has been dramatically impaired over the years, especially my ring finger. (Editorial note: see Otto's fascinating YouTube channel dedicated to the subject here.)

(Original image of Matt Otto by Plastic Sax.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review: The Lionel Loueke Trio

A few of the songs Lionel Loueke performed Thursday at the Blue Room clearly evoked the musician's roots in Benin. Yet they weren't exactly exercises in traditional African roots music. Loueke applied an Auto-Tune-style effect to his vocals. It was funny, surprising and entirely delightful. That's Lionel Loueke in a nutshell.

About fifty people- at least a third of whom were area jazz musicians- witnessed an extraordinary musical dialogue between Loueke, bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth.

I told someone at intermission that the intense way Loueke and Nemeth locked eyes for minutes at a time made me slightly uncomfortable. This intimacy, however, allowed the men to interact at an incredibly high level. While their music was serious, the musicians played with a rare sense of humor. Thursday's show was one of the funniest I'd seen all year. Nemeth, in particular, is quite a comedian. He'd occasionally raise his stick as if to bash a drum only to pull back at the last moment.

A trumpet player shot some footage of the show. Suggesting that it's not representative of the trio's performance is misleading. No two selections were alike. General references points in the trio's vast stylistic range included Pat Metheny-style gracefulness, John Scofield-ish funk and a bit of James "Blood" Ulmer-style skronk in addition to the African explorations.

The trio's next gig is in Martinique on December 3. I can't imagine a place I'd rather be that day.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Now's the Time: The Jeff Hamilton Trio

My first exposure to Jeff Hamilton's drumming came via KCUR's weekly Just Jazz radio program. How I miss hearing Ginny and Ruth! While I didn't exactly share the women's taste in jazz, their banter was absolutely hysterical. And it seemed like every third song they played featured Hamilton on drums. His pure swing style perfectly suited the Just Jazz sensibility. He's also the drummer-of-choice for Diana Krall and Barbra Streisand. Here's hoping that Ginny and Ruth are well enough to catch Hamilton at Jardine's on November 18 and 19.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*Angela Hagenbach chats with Joe Klopus about her new album.

*KCJazzLark published a scathing editorial titled "Fairness Folly". His stern lecture makes Plastic Sax seem like a comparative pushover.

*James Hart notes the 29th anniversary of the murder of jazz musician Steve Harvey.

*Jason Harper begins a blindfold test on Pandora's Nolan Gasser with vintage Jay McShann.

*Kansas City is represented several times on The Telegraph's new list of the 100 Best Jazz Recordings.

*Sue Vicory has amassed quite a collection of recent and vintage photos of Kansas City jazz and blues musicians at the Facebook account for her forthcoming documentary.

*Steve Penn notes that Lonnie McFadden is in a film project.

*The Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival hits Sedalia, Missouri, June 2-6, 2010.

*I'm loving my Kansas City Jazz Twitter feed. For those who prefer a version that doesn't include Miles Bonny's incessant stream-of-consciousness postings, I recommend KC Jazz Lark's KC Jazz list.

(Original image of sign outside the Drum Room by Plastic Sax. Too bad their online calendar stops at October 31.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: The New Vintage Big Band

I expected to see nothing but crusty old men when I stepped inside BB's Lawnside BBQ last Wednesday evening. While a few geezers were among The New Vintage Big Band's members, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the ensemble also includes plenty of young faces. At least one member, in fact, is still in high school.

By my count the ensemble included six trumpets, five saxophones, five trombones, one guitarist, one keyboard player, one bassist and a drummer. They were loud. Very loud. I smiled sympathetically when I spotted one member desperately fiddling with earplugs.

Their diverse repertoire ranged from Stan Kenton to Steely Dan. Boulevard beer and plates of burnt ends were on special. Needless to say, I loved the entire scene.

The New Vintage Big Band returns to BB's on December 2.

(Original images by Plastic Sax.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Now's the Time: Lionel Loueke

I defy viewers of this video of Lionel Loueke, Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth to comment that they wouldn't like to be at The Blue Room on Thursday, November 12, to catch the trio in person. Although I"m not a fan of the percussive effect the celebrated musician makes with his mouth, the concert promises to be one of the most memorable events of 2009.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*Here's a bit of welcome news. According to an article in the Star, the Majestic is reopening under new ownership. Jazz, apparently, is still in the mix. "The Sebrees put a 1910 piano in the dining room for live jazz during happy hour. The basement jazz club will be open on Friday and Saturday nights."

*Kim Park has returned. "It is great to be back in Kansas City after spending two years in Nashville," Park writes. "There is a thriving jazz community here, and it is a pleasure to be back." He performs this Saturday afternoon at Jardine's.

*I learned of a major schedule change at the Blue Room through the KCJazzLark blog. The November 5 appearance by Pat Martino has been canceled. It's been replaced by an all-star bill of T.S. Monk, John Faddis and Bobby Watson.

*The Star's Tim Finn profiles The Hearts of Darkness.

*KCUR program KC Currents featured pianist Bram Wijnands.

*A song from Angela Hagenbach's new album is available for free download here.

*Here's the Star's review of Saturday's stunning Afinidad concert at The Folly Theater.

*Guitarist Will Matthews is recognized in Steve Penn's column.

*Mark Edelman's weekly jazz column runs here and here.

*From a CampKC guide to Kansas City nightlife: "My lover and I were urged to leave the Mutual Musicians Foundation for holding hands. Not fun. How we miss bar Natasha, where we could always pay the servers to camp it up and sing 'Defying Gravity' before closing."

*From Gary of AfterGroove: "This has been another good week for us receiving national airplay. For the 2nd week, we made to top 10 for "new adds" and "spincrease", according to We are also on . We have a web radio interview scheduled in December with"

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

I Will Follow

It's as if you're not even trying.

Dear members of Kansas City's jazz community- I respectfully implore you to wake up!

As I watched the Yankees defeat the Phillies last night, I compiled a list of representatives of Kansas City's jazz community on Twitter. The immensely popular social media site rolled out the new "list" tool about ten days ago.

I came up with a pitifully small 30 accounts. Take a look at the Kansas City Jazz Twitter List.

Why should you care? Twitter's new list tool allows the viewer to cut through the noise to see only a particular subset of users. In this case, my list provides a snapshot of the activity that is- or isn't- happening in Kansas City's jazz community.

Twitter isn't anything new. I first mentioned Twitter at Plastic Sax in June of 2008. It's now safe to say that it's not a fad.

Here are two case studies that demonstrate why Twitter matters.

A major jazz concert took place in Kansas City on Saturday. Only about 200 people showed up. Four out of every five seats was empty. And guess what? Neither the venue nor any of the seven musicians featured that night employ Twitter.

Meanwhile, a couple hundred people payed a hefty cover charge at a nearby club for local band The Hearts of Darkness. (The band was featured at Plastic Sax four weeks ago.) Bandleader Les Izmore used his Twitter account (and Facebook) to encourage fans to buy tickets in advance. He posted regularly on the day of the show. His topics ranged from suggesting that fans take naps to complaining that the venue's pre-show music was inappropriate. Sure enough, the gig sold out. Izmore later thanked fans for their support.

While Twitter wasn't the only factor, there's no doubt that it played a role in the choices made by Kansas City's most passionate music fans on Saturday. Still unconvinced? I also created a Kansas City Hip Hop Twitter List as I watched the great CC Sabathia. It contains 105 accounts and scrolls so quickly it reads like a stock ticker.

Love it or loathe it, it's clear that Kansas City's hip hop community demonstrates significantly more energy and enthusiasm than the members of Kansas City's jazz scene.

Is Kansas City a jazz town? It looks more like a hip hop town this morning.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)