Sunday, July 31, 2016

Grading the 2016-17 Folly and Gem Seasons

The American Jazz Museum unveiled its forthcoming concert season at the Gem Theater last week.  Formerly known as Jammin’ at the Gem, the series has been renamed Jazz at the Gem, a change that “reflects the Museum’s renewed emphasis on making jazz central to its range of programming offerings.”

I hope the change is accompanied by needed improvements.  Addressing the spotty sound in the Gem Theater may pose a formidable challenge, but fixing basic production elements like the failure to turn off the house lights during a performance (Patti Austin, March 26, 2016) and providing patrons with more than a 75-minute show in exchange for their $50 tickets (The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, April 16, 2016) shouldn’t be difficult.

Every year I fear that the Folly Theater’s venerable jazz series will be discontinued due to dwindling attendance.  The outstanding blend of big names and forward-thinking artists in its 2016-17 season indicates that the presenters at the 12th Street venue are in it to win it.

My initial assessment of each concert follows.

Jonathan Butler
Gem Theater, September 30
Jonathan Butler is a proven crowd-pleaser in Kansas City.  The versatile South African’s combination of gospel, soul and smooth jazz kept a capacity audience on its feet at the Gem in 2011.
Grade: C+

Folly Theater, October 15
Bob James, Nathan East, Chuck Loeb and Harvey Mason are smooth jazz behemoths. 
Grade: B-

Karrin Allyson
Folly Theater, November 18
Although it bears the decidedly unpromising appellation of “Holiday Fundraising Concert,” appearances by the one-time Kansas City artist Karrin Allyson are always welcome.
Grade: B

Bobby Watson and the American Jazz Orchestra with Ernie Andrews
Gem Theater, November 19
Longtime readers of Plastic Sax may suspect that the author of this site believes that Bobby Watson can do no wrong.  That’s not entirely true.  Watson’s work as the leader of a big band doesn’t particularly appeal to me.  Even so, the presence of vocalist Ernie Andrews, 88, is a nice touch.
Grade: B

Tim Warfield
Gem Theater, December 9
“Jazzy” is one of my least favorite words.  Tim Warfield’s concert at the Gem is saddled with the unfortunate title "Jazzy Christmas."  Yet the saxophonist’s all-star band is anything but cloying.  He’ll be joined by vocalist Joanna Pascale, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Rodney Whitaker, drummer Clarence Penn and Joanna Pascale.
Grade: B

Cécile McLorin Salvant
Folly Theater, December 10
Cécile McLorin Salvant is the most fashionable vocalist in jazz.  Her Kansas City debut qualifies as a major event.
Grade: A

Ramsey Lewis
Gem Theater, January 14, 2017
Ramsey Lewis, 81, is a brilliant soul-jazz pioneer.  Fans should note that his appearance is “part of a series of events in connection with Martin Luther King Day by the Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” so a lot of tickets are probably already spoken for.
Grade: A-

Pieces of a Dream
Gem Theater, February 11, 2017
The jazz-tinged R&B group Pieces of a Dream was nightmarishly dull when it headlined the 18th & Vine Jazz and Blues Festival in 2013.
Grade: C-

Robert Glasper
Folly Theater, February 18, 2017
By finding a rewarding new way to incorporate hip-hop with jazz, Robert Glasper may be the most influential jazz artist of the last ten years.
Grade: A

Aaron Diehl and Warren Wolf
Folly Theater, March 4, 2017
Many old guard partisans of mainstream jazz probably won’t realize it until ten minutes into the concert, but the sublime pairing of pianist Aaron Diehl and vibraphonist Warren Wolf will be one of their favorite concerts of 2017.  
Grade: B

Dianne Reeves
Gem Theater, March 25, 2017
While younger artists like Gregory Porter and Cécile McLorin Salvant receive more attention, Dianne Reeves has been one of the most elegant vocalists in jazz and soul music for 30 years.
Grade: B+

Donny McCaslin Trio
Folly Theater, April 7, 2017
The profile of Donny McCaslin received an enormous boost when he and his band contributed to the late David Bowie’s swansong Blackstar.  The imaginative saxophonist will be promoting an album that includes a cover of the Bowie/Eno composition “Warszawa.”
Grade: A-

Jack DeJohnette Trio
Gem Theater, April 22, 2017
Jack DeJohnette is precisely the sort of jazz giant I seek out when I travel to either coast.  The drummer is responsible for a large swathe of the most interesting music of the last 50 years.  He’ll be joined by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and the bassist and electronic musician Matt Garrison, his collaborators on the adventurous new album In Movement.
Grade: A+

Eliane Elias Quartet
Folly Theater, May 19, 2017
The Eliane Elias Trio drew about 700 admireres to the 1,050-capacity Folly Theater for a satisfying concert in 2013.  Compared to most shows in the venue’s woefully under-attended jazz series, the turnout was a home run.  I can’t blame organizers for bringing the native Brazilian back to Kansas City.
Grade: B

I conducted similar exercises in 2015, 2014 (here and here), 2013, 2012, 2011 (here and here), 2010 (here and here), 2009 and 2008 (here and here).

(Original image by Plastic Sax)

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