Sunday, September 29, 2019

Grand Larson-y

The arrival of Adam Larson on Kansas City’s jazz scene is one of the most momentous developments of 2019.   Am I exaggerating?  Listen With Your Eyes, Larson’s new album on Ropeadope Records, is one of the year’s most exciting mainstream jazz albums. 

Consequently, I was only partly mistaken when I recently asserted that not a single album released in 2019 by a jazz musician based in Kansas City has been reviewed anywhere but Plastic Sax.  Larson and his accomplished New York based cohorts including keyboardist Fabian Almazan, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jimmy Macbride presumably recorded Listen With Your Eyes in Brooklyn before Larson moved to Kansas City.  Yet I’m now willing to claim it as a Kansas City album.

Something Else raved that Listen With Your Eyes is “stellar” while Stereogum called it “a fierce, stabbing blend of hard bop, funk, and weirdness.”  I concur.  I’m less willing to cosign an All About Jazz review that insists that Larson’s album contains “celebratory music for active intellectuals.”  I’m proof that even a sluggish dullard is capable of relishing Listen With Your Eyes.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Friday, September 27, 2019

Now's the Time: Pablo Masis

The Brooklyn based trumpeter Pablo Masis is touring with guitarist Dave Juarez and bassist Jeff Koch.  The trio will be joined by saxophonist Adam Larson and drummer John Kizilarmut at Westport Coffee House on Monday, Sept. 30.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*Jackie Myers pitched her new album in an interview with Joe Dimino.

*Kurt Wheeler discusses societal issues in a StoryCorps segment on NPR.

*Bird at 100, an album featuring Bobby Watson, Vincent Herring and Gary Bartz, will be released by Smoke Sessions Records on November 29.

*A performance by the Boulevard Big Band is documented by Joe Dimino.

*Tweet o’ the Week: Wing Walker Music- I'm delighted to finally perform some brand new "solo" music I've been working on for the last four years featuring saxophone, synths, pedals, and tape loops.

*From the American Jazz Museum: In celebration of John Coltrane's September 23rd birthday, AJM is proud to present a new exhibition, on display through the end of October, 2019… Featured objects in the exhibit include a letter written by Coltrane to Congressman John Conyers, and a telegram sent by Floyd B. McKissick, the National Director of CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) to Naima Coltrane after the artist's death on July 17th, 1967.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Freed by Free Jazz: The 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival, Part Three

Let me make this clear at the outset of the third and final installment of my analysis of the Chicago Jazz Festival: I’m not unhappy with what’s readily available on Kansas City’s jazz scene.  Instead, I’m deeply frustrated by the infrequency of performances of homegrown progressive sounds and by the apparent boycott of Kansas City by adventurous touring artists.  I’m obligated to leave town to experience much of the music I love.  During my trek to Chicago- my third music-oriented trip of 2019- I verified that the city’s jazz scene is thriving.  Kansas City is stuck in a rut.  Why?

Critical Mass
Chicago’s greater metropolitan area is five times the size of Kansas City.  A performance by an all-star band led by Vijay Iyer can’t sell 100 tickets in Kansas City, but the same group likely to draw 500 paying customers in Chicago.

The ghost of Charlie Parker is an oppressive presence in Kansas City.  Chicago jazz legends like Ramsey Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell are living symbols of innovation.  And Kansas City has no equivalent to the Chicago based AACM.  The improvised music created in each city reflects those dynamics.

The decrepit buildings scattered throughout the Jazz District aren’t the only things crumbling in Kansas City.  Self-inflicted wounds have impaired three of the most prominent Kansas City jazz organizations.  Advocacy groups such as the Jazz Institute of Chicago efficiently coordinate their efforts with like-minded concerns to achieve large-scale successes including the Chicago Jazz Festival.

The Void
Try to find a review of a 2019 album by a locally based jazz musician anywhere but Plastic Sax.  Not one exists.  Yet releases by Chicago artists- especially those by the hugely influential International Anthem Recording Co.- are regularly given serious consideration at prominent outlets including Downbeat, The New York Times and Pitchfork.

If you talk to almost any Kansas City jazz musician for more than five minutes, he or she will bemoan the lack of rooms for unconventional sounds.  In addition to renowned straight-ahead clubs including Andy’s Jazz Club & Restaurant, the Green Mill and Jazz Showcase, Chicago has spaces designed for innovation including Constellation, Elastic Arts and Hungry Brain.

Plastic Sax is the sole forum in Kansas City reporting on jazz every week.  Howard Reich writes extensively about jazz for The Chicago Tribune.  The Chicago Reader is also dedicated to covering the scene. Chicago Jazz Magazine is among the specialty publications.  KKFI- the only viable radio outlet for jazz in Kansas City- plays 15 hours of jazz a week.  Chicago’s WDCB- one of several Chicago stations programming jazz- offers more than 15 hours of jazz every day.

Case Study
On Saturday, September 28, jazz fans in Chicago will attend performances by groundbreaking touring artists including Ambrose Akinmusire, Chico Freeman and Mary Halvorson.  Angel Bat Dawid and Ari Brown are among the Chicago based musicians with international reputations who have hometown shows.  And in Kansas City?  No touring acts are in town, but I highly recommend guitarist Rod Fleeman’s regular matinee gig at Green Lady Lounge.

The first and second parts of this three-part series were published earlier this month.

(Original image of Sam Harris, Ambrose Akinmusire, Harish Raghavan and Justin Brown at the Chicago Jazz Festival by Plastic Sax.)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Now's the Time: Ben Markley

Ben Markley, a Wyoming based pianist from Denver, will perform with trumpeter Hermon Mehari and bassist Bob Bowman at Capsule on Thursday, Sept. 26.  Markley is best known in Kansas City for The Return, his winning 2014 collaboration with Clint Ashlock.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*KCUR aired an audio feature about Robert Castillo and the Sextet.  The Sextet also performed on The Star Sessions.

*Eddie Moore made an appearance on the weekly Thursdays with Timothy Finn radio show.

*Pat Metheny’s relationship with the Montreal International Jazz Festival is considered by NPR’s Jazz Night in America.  A cranky Australian journalist gets the scoop on Metheny’s next album.

*Tweet o’ the Week: Jewell Omaha- One of Kansas City's best jazz acts brings its sound to the stage at The Jewell Friday, Sept. 27th. Bob Bowman & Bowdog featuring Bob Bowman, Hermon Mehari, Ben Markley, Peter Schlamb, and Brian Steever. A show for true jazz lovers.

(Original image of the Sextet’s album release show at RecordBar by Plastic Sax.)

Monday, September 16, 2019

Freed by Free Jazz: The 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival, Part Two

One of the most prominent figures on Kansas City’s jazz scene insists that his town is home to “the best jazz musicians in the world.”  It’s a lovely thought, but even the staunchest advocates of hometown pride would have been disabused of that notion had they joined me at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend.  Twenty-two of the 30 jazz acts I heard during my 72 hours in Chicago were locally based.  All but a handful were at least as auspicious as their counterparts in Kansas City.

It’s also worth noting that Camila Meza is the only one of the approximately 500 musicians featured at the festival who have made an appearance in Kansas City this year.  The scarcity of concerts by the world’s most important jazz musicians is a galling reflection of the low demand for their talents in Kansas City.  The following assessments of every set I caught at the Chicago Jazz Festival are ordered by my personal preference.

Friday, August 30

1. The Art Ensemble of Chicago
After catching the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s incendiary outing at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville in March, I was eager to verify my sense that the legendary group led by Roscoe Mitchell truly managed to reassert itself as one of the most essential groups on the planet by expanding its size, sound and repertoire.  Brilliance confirmed!

2. The Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet
The trumpeter- a contender for my favorite musician of the decade- dedicated his set to the late Roy Hargrove.  The simmering playing of Akinmusire, pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown exuded indignant rage.  The sirens of nearby emergency vehicles heightened the sense of urgency.

3. The Juju Exchange
The young Chicago group led by Nico Segal, a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet of Chance the Rapper fame, didn’t play by the rules.  No two selections sounded alike.  In the oddest- and by extension the most exciting moment- guest artist Jamila Woods contributed to an exuberant interpretation of Chris Tomlin’s Contemporary Christian Music standard “How Great Is Our God”.

4. Joel Ross
I’m still dizzy.  The young vibraphonist is so disconcertingly quick that my Instagram clip appears to be in fast motion.  Far more than a showcase of accelerated chops, Ross and his band married the sophisticated elegance of the Modern Jazz Quartet with the 21st century beats of J Dilla.

5. George Freeman and Billy Branch
The venerable Chicago blues harpist Billy Branch’s recollection that he first encountered the blues when he heard Willie Dixon at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1969 was the sole moment in the set in which he was paired with the 92-year-old guitarist George Freeman that wasn’t entirely bonkers.  The men were joined by an interpretive dancer and a woman who exhorted the audience to chant “George the bomb.”  I happily obliged.

6. After Dark
Although it’s billed as a Von Freeman tribute band, the Chicago group After Dark played a set of prime Kansas City jazz that included jumping readings of Lester Young’s “Every Tub,” Charlie Parker’s “Quasimodo” and Mary Lou Williams’ “Mary’s Waltz.”

7. The Metropolitan Jazz Octet featuring Dee Alexander
While the Chicago fixture Dee Alexander has a fine voice and a vibrant personality, I was floored by the ingenious in-house charts played by the Metropolitan Jazz Octet.

8. The Miguel de la Cerna Trio
The Chicago pianist works in the elegant vein of Oscar Peterson.

Saturday, August 31

1. Jeremy Cunningham’s The Weather Up There
I’ve long admired the undefinable Chicago band Tortoise.  Drummer Jeremy Cunningham’s Chicago band featuring Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker flaunted similarly futuristic sounds.

2. Christian McBride's New Jawn
As if watching the transcendently powerful Nasheet Waits in action wasn’t enough, bassist McBride, saxophonist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter John Evans matched the genius of my favorite drummer.

3. Cécile McLorin Salvant
The profoundly imaginative vocalist makes most of her peers seem like dullards.

4. The AACM’s Great Black Music Ensemble
I left the festival grounds to catch the AACM’s Great Black Music Ensemble at Fred Anderson Park two miles south of Millennium Park.  The ramshackle (an unidentified but remarkable young keyboardist excepted) group of venerable elders and unconversant understudies were conducted by a furiously demonstrative bandleader.  Although the troupe resembled a minor league version of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, their sincerity was deeply moving.

5. Ryan Cohan's Originations
The Chicago based Ryan Cohan explained that he was “born of an Arab and a Jew” as he presented his Originations suite.  The masterful Third Stream outing by the ten-piece ensemble was slightly sinister.

6. Ben Wendel's Seasons
I expected the outing by saxophonist Ben Wendel, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Kendrick Scott to be my favorite set of the festival.  Yet after I was struck by Wendel’s passing resemblance to a young David Sanborn and his similar form of studied showmanship, I couldn’t get past the notion that Wendel, like Sanborn, is able to recognize and exploit the leading edge of the current sonic landscape.  I felt as if I’d been duped.

7. The Andy Brown Quartet
Imagine John Pizzarelli without the showbiz razzle-dazzle.  That’s the impeccably tasteful Chicago guitarist Andy Brown.

8. The Chris Madsen Quartet
The Chicago saxophonist sounds exactly like a buttoned-down member of a prestigious university’s jazz faculty.

9. Carolyn Fitzhugh
Brunch music.

10. The ChiArts Honors Jazz Combo

Sunday September 1

1. The Eddie Palmieri Sextet
Frail and understandably blue, Eddie Palmieri was grieving the death of his wife when I caught him at the Blue Note in 2017.  Palmieri was clearly in the mood to party in Chicago.  He moaned with the primal passion of a young lover and grunted with the don’t-give-a-damn indifference of an authoritative star.

2. Ben LaMar Gay
A skeptical announcer dismissively introduced the experimental Chicago artist Ben LaMar Gay as a performer of “real, real artistic music.”  As if in response to the hater, Gay suggested that he and his band intended to “make a sound and be curious together.”  Gay is one of the transgressive Chicago musicians who is breathing new life into jazz.  He recalled that his brothers bullied him at the Chicago Jazz Festival when he was seven.   “The songs that you’re hearing are the songs my brothers sung to me about getting the last piece of chicken,” Gay said.  “If they sound kind of weird, they should be.”  His best songs combined Chicago footwork with Mardi Gras Indian chants.

3. The Russ Johnson Quartet
Knowing only that Russ Johnson is the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, I had low expectations for the trumpeter.  I was astonished.  Abetted by the stellar saxophonist Greg Ward, bassist Clark Summers and drummer Dana Hall, Johnson’s imaginative subversion of swing resulted in one of the most dexterously adventurous sets of the festival.

4. Rempis/Flaten/Ra + Baker Quartet
I didn't fall in love with the Chicago Jazz Festival until a deliberately provocative free jazz quartet made a dissonant racket on the main stage.  Thousands of people were forced to either flee the churlish assault of saxophonist Dave Rempis, keyboardist and electronic manipulator Jim Baker, substitute bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Avreeayl Ra and risk losing their seats or withstand the attack and hold their ground.  I cheered when Ra’s violent pummeling buckled a cymbal stand and Håker Flaten brutalized his instrument as if it owed him money.

5. Latino-America Unida
The estimable jazz critics Howard Reich and Howard Mandel hailed the supergroup’s first public performance in their respective reviews for The Chicago Tribune and Downbeat, but the quintet's highly-anticipated debut struck me as a massive disappointment.  The aggregation of saxophonists Melissa Aldana and Miguel Zenón, pianist David Virelles, bassist Ricky Rodriguez and drummer Antonio Sánchez was definitely less than the sum of its parts.  I would have preferred to hear any one of the stars lead his or her own band.

6. Camila Meza and the Nectar Orchestra
Camila Meza knocked me out each of the three times I’ve heard her perform with the road warriors in the Ryan Keberle-led band Catharsis.  Yet I don’t care for the fussy chamber-jazz on her new album Ámbar.  Acknowledging the presence of a string quartet, Meza said “with this album I made my dream come true.”  I was nonplussed until her ensemble interpreted the David Bowie, Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny composition “This Is Not America.”  The sweeping Jimi Hendrix-inspired cover salvaged Meza’s set.

7. Sharel Cassity Quartet
Sharel Cassity could only come from Chicago.  The exciting young saxophonist is my happiest discovery.

8. The Joan Collaso Sextet
I didn’t attend church on Sunday morning, but a gospel-infused reading of “Love’s in Need of Love Today” reduced me to faith-based tears of gratitude.  The stirring vocals of Joan Collaso and her superlative backing vocalists on the tragically topical Stevie Wonder song compelled me to shout “amen.”  Collaso doesn’t shy away from the secular.  She joked about her devotion to one of her primary influences: “I really did try to marry Al Jarreau.”

9. The Dakarai Barclay Sextet
It’s terribly unfair to burden young musicians with next-big-thing tags, but this young trumpeter and his bandmates were extremely impressive.  Bonus: the ensemble covered Carmell Jones’ “Beepdurple.”

10. Juli Wood's Big Bari Band
A hard-swinging de facto Gerry Mulligan tribute.

11. Paulinho Garcia
In a frustrating anomaly, the demure set by the Brazilian guitarist was spoiled by loud chatter throughout the tent housing the Jazz & Heritage Pavilion stage.

12. Zach Rosenstiehl Nacht Group
The tentative young men played as if they were auditioning for their first professional gig.

Part one of this three-part analysis of the Chicago Jazz Festival is here.

(Original image of the Art Ensemble of Chicago by Plastic Sax.)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Now's the Time: Marilyn Maye

At 91, Marilyn Maye remains a wondrously energizing entertainer.  Her five-night stand at Quality Hill Playhouse runs through Sunday, Sept. 15.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*Robert Castillo and Forrest Fowler of the Sextet were guests on KTGB’s weekly Eight One Sextet program.

*Bobby Watson’s concert at Legacy Park Amphitheater was documented by Joe Dimino.

*Ralph Caro, the interim director of the American Jazz Museum discusses his background and his goals for the institution in a 23-minute video.

*David Valdez was interviewed by Joe Dimino.

*Dan Thomas performed on a television talk show to promote the Prairie Village Jazz Festival.

*Downbeat reports on Jon Poses’ We Always Swing series in Columbia, Missouri, and reveals the lineup of the 2019-20 season.

*NPR published a lengthy essay about Mary Lou Williams.

*Tweet o’ the Week: Doug Maltby- Pat Metheny and Side Eye live at the Dakota tonight...amazing. The woman front and center came from Costa Rica for the show!

*From a press release: The Italian jazz piano maestro and composer Dino Massa returns to Kansas City to perform and record original music with his long-time friend, saxophonist/composer Christopher Burnett and an all-star ensemble of KC-based jazz musicians.  Burnett and Massa have written original music to perform in concert at Westport Coffeehouse on Wednesday (March 11, 2020) and to record at BRC Audio Productions in sessions on Thursday and Friday (March 12-13, 2020).  The new album will be released on the ARC label.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Freed by Free Jazz: The 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival, Part One

The Chicago Jazz Festival radicalized me.  Never before have I attended a jazz-centric, multi-day festival showcasing the full spectrum of the form.  After taking in the audaciously uncompromising jazz festival over Labor Day weekend, I’m more intolerant than ever of inferior knockoffs.   

Mark Kelly, the Commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, explained the novel concept from the stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

“Because it’s a free festival we’re not pandering to the audience,” Kelly said.  “We’re giving you the best.”

The stellar lineup merited Kelly’s gloating.  I’ll critique individual performances by the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Christian McBride and Cécile McLorin Salvant next week.  I’ll also examine Kansas City’s inability to host anything remotely resembling the Chicago Jazz Festival in a future post.

Rather than offering a vague endorsement of the Chicago Jazz Festival, I'll list a few of the reasons my experience was galvanizing.  I’d like to think that the weather wasn't a factor in my wholehearted embrace of the outdoor festival, but the dry conditions and moderate temperature couldn’t have been better.  The festival staff and volunteers were just as nice.  And the convenient setting in Millennium Park is stunning.  Even so, I didn’t have much time to admire the beautiful foliage or the imposing skyline.  The set changes between each of the stellar acts were amazingly quick.

The festival gets most things right, but it isn’t quite a jazz utopia.  The subterranean public bathrooms at Jay Pritzker Pavilion are atrocious.  Long lines and the absence of soap matched the outdated plumbing.  I was also dismayed by the indifference of the food and beverage vendors that contemptuously played prerecorded music that drowned out live music for everyone in line or seated nearby.  Sound bleed is the bane of outdoor festivals.  The music at Rooftop Jazz stage regularly interfered with the performances at the Jazz & Heritage Pavilion stage.  And the soundchecks at Jay Pritzker Pavilion were audible at all of the other stages.

Yet those are minor irritants.  Let the (jazz festival) revolution begin, and let it begin with me.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Now's the Time: The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra at Muriel Kauffman Theatre

As hundreds of thousands of people in the Kansas City area watch the second half of the Kansas City Chiefs’ season opener on television, hundreds of old-school big band enthusiasts will take in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra’s “Tribute to Frank Sinatra” at Muriel Kauffman Theatre on Sunday, September 8.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Confirmation: Weekly News & Notes

*A television station’s report about the American Jazz Museum amplifies the talking points of the institution’s interim director Ralph Caro and Mayor Quinton Lucas.

*The Prairie Village Jazz Festival and Al Di Meola's concert at VooDoo are among the The Kansas City Star’s weekly concert recommendations.

*Downbeat reviewed performances by Lakecia Benjamin, Fred Hersch, George Coleman and Carl Allen at New York City’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival.

*Details about Karrin Allyson’s new project Shoulder to Shoulder: Centennial Tribute to Women’s Suffrage are revealed by Melinda Newman in Billboard magazine.

*Merrliee Trost has died.

*Tweet o’ the Week: Cat Reid- This is the new board for the museum. Chair acknowledges there are “mountains left to climb.” They’re in the process of selecting a new permanent exec director #jazz #kansascity #18thandvine

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Plastic Fantastic

If someone absolutely had to appropriate the name of my Kansas City jazz blog, I’m glad the culprit is Ted Nash.  Beginning with his 2012 album The Creep, the outstanding saxophonist has issued recordings on his in-house record label label Plastic Sax.  (This site was founded in 2007.)  The new Plastic Sax album Somewhere Else is a trio recording featuring Nash, the Kansas City guitarist Steve Cardenas and bassist Ben Allison.  It features sublime interpretations of eleven selections from “West Side Story.”  The name of Nash’s record label may be borrowed, but the ideas explored on Somewhere Else are admirably original.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)