The Paul Carr Quintet, with Vanessa Rubin at The Caton Castle:
Saturday, April 30, 2022
Paul Carr, Vanessa Rubin, Michael Bowie, Allyn Johnson, Chris Latona
On April 30, 2022, the Caton Castle presented the Paul Carr Quintet, featuring vocalist Vanessa Rubin. The personnel included Paul Carr on tenor and soprano sax, Allyn Johnson on piano, Michael Bowie on acoustic bass and Chris Latona on drums. Vanessa's reputation as a top-notch jazz vocalist preceded her, and the winsome lady did not disappoint.
Of course, Washington, D.C.-based impresario Paul Carr assembled the players for this date from his vast list of music industry contacts developed over more than a decade of shepherding the annual Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, and an even longer stint of teaching and performing America's only indigenous art form in and around the nation's capitol.
Over the years, Paul has been a pipeline for exceptional musical performances at the Caton Castle, in the same way that saxophonist/composer Jimmy Heath (1926-2020) was once the New York connection for the bygone Left Bank Jazz Society, supplying the biggest names in jazz for local shows at the old Famous Ballroom, back in the day (1960s to 1980s); see, “I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath” with Joseph McLaren (2010).
Several instrumental tunes set the stage for Vanessa's vocals. On “Invitation,” Paul displayed his seasoned tenor sax chops, twisting the simple melody of this old movie theme inside-out with long, searching lines of middle-tempo angular notes in a full and unruffled tone that shifted abruptly in pace and intensity, offsetting high notes with lower register dissonance. Paul also used repeated riffs-- “arpeggio”-- to create an ascending straight-ahead vibe with punctuating licks that fluttered, spurted and ultimately resolved in a long-held high note.
Slowing down the pace, Paul brought this same sensibility to a John Coltrane (1926-1967) signature ballad, “I Hear A Rhapsody,” shading the melody in different tones against the bluesy vamping of Allyn's piano. Indeed, Allyn's bouncy piano break was reminiscent of Erroll Garner (1921-1977) with its swinging rhythm that shifted in pace to allow for intervals of spacious tinkling against a recurring sort of boogie woogie refrain.
Chris' laid-back drum work was solid throughout, keeping steady time when not soloing brilliantly, as on “Invitation.” And Michael's bass was imperturbable, the north star in relation to a rhythmic compass, with remarkable solos on “I Hear A Rhapsody” and pianist Mulgrew Miller's ( 1955-2013) “Soul-Leo.”
That is, Michael's bass solo work takes on a melodic quality, almost guitar-like with its pronounced plucking in a staggered rhythm that incorporates countervailing high/low note inflections. Plus, he characteristically interpolates harmonious themes, like inserting the melody from the churchy “Down By The Riverside” into the middle of his “Soul-Leo” solo.
Also, “Musically Yours” was Paul's up-tempo original composition in tribute to saxophone great Joe Henderson (1937-2001). Such straight-ahead instrumental tunes set the stage for Vanessa's jazzy vocal styling, typified by the mid-range (Soprano?) elasticity of her be-bop inflected phrasing of the lyrics on “Senor Blues,” pianist/composer Horace Silver's (1928-2014) Latin-tinged “jump blues” classic.
A veteran performer on the national scene, Vanessa has recorded multiple albums over her long career, including her latest, “The Dream is You,” a tribute to fellow Cleveland, Ohio native and prolific jazz composer, Tadd Dameron (1917-1965). From her newest CD, Vanessa sang “Next Time Around,” a melancholy ballad framed by Allyn's voluptuous piano vamping over the hesitating downbeat of Michael's bass and the soulful brush strokes on Chris' drums, while Paul's tenor sax accompaniment faintly hugged the melody. “On A Misty Night” was another torch song rendering from the newest CD. Incidentally, the CD also features Tadd Dameron's calling card: “If You Could See Me Now.”
Her repertoire placed Vanessa squarely in the tradition of acclaimed jazz divas, a fact she acknowledged with regard to “Now Baby Or Never,” taken from a Billie Holiday recording with Count Basie, wherein Vanessa credited her “scat line” as coming from “Sassy's Blues” by Sarah Vaughn (1924-1990). Moreover, Vanessa sang “Save Your Love For Me,” a tune popularized by Nancy Wilson (1937-2018) and “You've Changed,” a lover's lament recorded by Billie Holiday (1915-1959) and later by her protege, Etta Jones (1928-2001): Check out the CD entitled “Etta Jones Sings Lady Day.”
Vanessa's grandmother must have told her what my grandmother told me: “You're classed by the company that you keep.” In this regard, Vanessa's sonority resembled that of Carmen McRae (1920-1994) on Duke Ellington's (1899-1974) “I Love You Madly” and she lilted ever...so...slowly, like Washington, D.C. native Shirley Horn (1934-2005), on “Never Let Me Go.”
For good measure, a handful of other tunes were thrown in, including “What'll I do,” composed by Irving Berlin (1888-1989), “Are You Ready For Me?,” a naughty blues number, “Moonglow,” a Big Band-era staple, and “Down Here On The Ground,” the theme song from Paul Newman's movie, “Cool Hand Luke.”
A consummate performer, Vanessa charmed the audience by teasingly referring to pianist Allyn Johnson as her uncle, when he's clearly a generation younger than she is. Showmanship point well taken: You're only as old as you feel. In full-throated form, Vanessa Rubin is still the belle of the ball.
Kudos to Paul Carr for engineering another sensational Caton Castle performance.
Gregory L. Lewis
The Sean Jones Quartet at The Caton Castle: A Reflection
Saturday, April 23, 2022
On April 23, 2022, the Caton Castle presented the Sean Jones Quartet, featuring Sean Jones on trumpet, Pat Bianchi on electric organ, Robert Gilliam on tenor sax and Eric Kennedy on drums. Following a two-year layoff due to pandemic restrictions, the Caton Castle audience has delighted in a banquet of improvisational jazz for the past three Saturday evening in a row. With the addition of the Hammond B-3 organ sound, this group cooked up something spicy.
The playlist opened with a nod to Woody Shaw (1944-1989), whose trumpet virtuosity helped define the East Coast jazz scene in the 1970s. A two-horn chorus introduced Shaw's uptempo staple, “The Moontrane.” From there, Pat's organ broke into bluesy riffs at a staggered pace that countered Eric's insistent drums, pushing the tempo with briskly accenting cymbals in the busy style of drum legend “Philly” Joe Jones (1923-1985).
As a top performer and chair of the jazz studies department at the Peabody Institute, Sean's role as a mentor to upcoming musicians makes him, at age 44, an heir to the legacy of Woody Shaw's generation of trumpet masters, including Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008) and Lee Morgan (1938-1972). You could hear all of those influences in Sean's trumpet solo on “The Moontrane,” with its brooding approach building in intensity and adding fluttering pauses in an ascending pattern that adjusted in tone from slurred to piercing.
Robert's tenor sax break was complementary, almost deferential to Sean, his teacher at the Peabody Institute, with its gently rolling introduction that picked up the pace in response to Eric's driving drumbeat, a propulsive force that Robert countered with quirky accents within the melody-- alternating high and low notes-- punctuated by high-pitched trilling licks. In his understated approach to the tenor sax, Robert reminds me of how jazz critic Leonard Feathers once characterized a kindred spirit, Hank Mobley (1930-1986): “the middleweight champion of the tenor sax.”
Eric's energetic drum work was a defining presence, including a solo on “The Moontrane” that began with measured rim-tapping-- like one might tap on a glass before making a toast-- then proceeded to belabor the snares at a quickening pace, accented by restless cymbals and an active bass drum pedal that peaked in a crescendo. In introducing Eric, Sean noted that whatever its other shortcomings, Baltimore's stock of jazz drummers represents “an embarrassment of riches.”
The same holds true for acoustic bass players. Whereas the past two shows featured extraordinary performances by bassist Michael Bowie, the bass work in this group fell to Pat's organ. This dual function is a peculiarity of the instrument. It's not a matter of a programmed time-stamp, like a self-playing piano, but requires keyboard/foot pedal coordination that can be mysterious to the listener. The guy at the next table was probably not the only one in the audience to wonder out loud: Where is the bass?
“No Blues,” from Miles Davis' (1926-1991) recording “Live at The Blackhawk,” showed Pat's dexterity in manipulating the bass line as he comped and soloed. Beginning with a slow-paced blues pattern, organ notes rolled in an ascending sequence with staccato embellishments-- shades of jazz organ pioneer Jimmy Smith (1925-2005)-- in an irregular rhythm, hypnotic in the repetition. There is a reserved quality in Pat's approach, the polar opposite of the great organ extrovert, Charles “The Mighty Burner” Earland (1941-1999).
Freddie Hubbard's “D-Minor Mint” was an uptempo vehicle (a race car!) with both Sean and Robert fortunate that there are no speed cameras in the Caton Castle. Of course, Eric's drums were to blame, pushing a relentless pace before soloing seismically, while Pat's organ riffs maintained a rhythmic frame. Lee Morgan's “Speedball” continued in this vein, with organ chords that reached a boil. Wayne Shorter's “United” also falls into this category. And Joe Henderson's (1937-2001) “In 'N Out” picked up the “hard bop” focus in the second set.
While he has appeared as a sideman at the Caton Castle on many occasions, Sean noted that this was his first appearance as the leader. Calling the tunes, Sean leaned heavily on his forte: Ballads. He performed two original ballads-- “Sharon” and “Gretchen”--dedicated to special women. Both tunes had an ebb and flow which teased a sultry trumpet tone that might be described in many ways-- all a variation on a single word, “sexy.” However, Jimmy Van Heusen's enduring ballad, “Darn That Dream,” showed Sean at his finest. With an unruffled tone as clear as a bell, his horn's articulation of the melody recalled jazz diva Billie Holiday's (1915-1959) take on the lyrics, filled with pathos. On a particular high note, Sean's intonation channeled the progenitor of the jazz trumpet: Louis Armstrong (1901-1971).
In another original composition, “Liberty Avenue Stroll,” Sean pays a foot-tapping tribute to his Pittsburgh, PA musical connection; namely, its native son Roger Humphries, the drummer on Horace Silver's (1928-2014) classic recording, “Song For My Father.” Finally, the show also featured sit-in performances on “Speedball” and “On The Trail” by some young musicians associated with the Peabody Institute; that is, tenor saxophonist Ephraim Dorsey, alto saxophonist Ebban Dorsey and trombonist Christian Hizon. All passed the test. You could see that reflected in Sean's professorial smile.
Yes, jazz at the Caton Castle is back. Come and hear for yourself.
Gregory L. Lewis
The Ephraim & Ebban Dorsey Quintet at The Caton Castle: A Reflection
Saturday, April 16, 2022
On April 16, 2022, the Caton Castle presented the Ephraim & Ebban Dorsey Quintet, featuring Ephraim Dorsey on tenor sax, Ebban Dorsey on alto sax, Allyn Johnson on piano, Charles Wilson on drums, and Michael Bowie on acoustic bass. From the first note, this performance was high-octane.
That's what you'd expect from a group led by the teen-aged Dorsey siblings, already veteran performers at the age of 18 (Ebban) and 19 (Ephraim). They are also exemplars of the efficacy of academic music programs that picked up where jam sessions and on-the-gig training in the bygone jazz club era left off. Both are alumni of the Baltimore School for the Arts, and Ebban will be joining her brother this fall at the Peabody Conservatory. This is the third show at the Caton Castle headlined by the precocious duo, going back to 2016.
Off the bat, the group established its post-bop credentials on “Moanin',” pianist Bobby Timmons' (1935-1974) bluesy classic that swings in irregular march time. With a piano intro that flowed into a run of repeated refrains in “block chord” voicing reminiscent of pianist McCoy Tyner (1938-2020), Allyn gave notice of a brilliant rhythm section that included Michael's adventurous bassline and the powerful drumming of Caton Castle newcomer, Charles Wilson. Indeed, the rhythm section soloists beguiled all night.
Rising to his full six-foot, four-inch stature, Ephraim's tenor sax excursion on “Moanin'” was bracing in its hard tone and angular delivery, with long notes that emerged from the bottom of the horn before bursting into impressionistic licks that surrounded the melody. With harmonic sophistication, both Ephraim's height and his attack brought to mind tenor sax icon Dexter Gordon (1923-1990).
In a complementary fashion, Ebban's alto sax solo began in an understated fashion, with a leisurely flow of middle-register notes that took melodic form in repeated riffs punctuated by dissonant accents. The smooth tone of Ebban's horn increased in intensity until high-pitched notes formed a thematic contrast, a wave of rising and falling melodic inflections ahead of the beat. Unlike Ephraim, you might say that Ebban's approach colors within the lines, shades of alto sax great Paul Desmond (1924-1977).
Thelonious Monk's “Straight, No Chaser” featured a remarkable drum solo (there were others!) that channeled the percussive drive and energy of the great Art Blakey (1919-1990). On song after song, the counterpoint between Charles' drums and Allyn's piano was a pace-pushing drama. What jazz critic Whitney Balliett said of Art Blakey in “The Sound of Surprise” (1959) also applies to Charles:
“He will then resort entirely to the snare, playing a hard, on-the-beat pattern, as if he were traveling very fast over a bumpy road, before departing on a second roundelay, which dissolves into staccato beats on the bass drum, executed with such rapidity that they blur into one prolonged beat, and climaxed by a crescendo snare-drum roll that calls the horns back from lunch. It is intense, perfectly spaced, declarative drumming that can, in its strongest moments, rattle one's jowls.”
Michael's bass solo on trumpeter Roy Hargrove's (1969-2018) “Top of My Head” was also remarkable, wherein vaguely familiar rhythmic fragments were interpolated into an intricately woven and plucky solo theme, offset by dissonance at the bottom end. Correspondingly, Allyn's piano break made a zig-zagging run that incorporated a profusion of abstract notes, connecting harmonious refrains.
The playlist included a couple of tunes by tenor sax legend Joe Henderson (1937-2001); namely, the Latin-flavored “Recorda Me” and “Black Narcissus,” a pensive tune in a relaxed flow defined by a lingering lament. The interplay of tones on the latter tune was engaging, with a tenor sax break that shifted time from mellow to edgy riffs, ascending to Coltrane-like intensity. Ebban's alto sax, on the other hand, flittered here and there like a melodic hummingbird. And at its creative limit, Michael's bass solo hinted at the Eastern sound of the sitar, or Indian guitar.
Similarly, John Coltrane's (1926-1967) affecting ballad, “Naima,” and Lee Morgan's (1938-1972) Cha-Cha themed “Ceora” provided vehicles for solo muscle-flexing by both horns; while “You Don't Know What Love Is” featured the rhythm section alone, following Allyn's piano lead that began with a shower-of-notes prelude, in the manner of the lyrically verbose Oscar Petersen (1925-2007).
The band also performed Ebban's original composition, “For Mom and Dad.” She introduced the tune with a statement of gratitude to her parents, who were present in the audience. One can imagine how proud they are of their two well-spoken and talented children since everybody in the audience, I dare say, shares that pride.
Being in such short public supply these days, I thought of a lighthearted tribute to “gratitude” supplied in the 1970s by the old Houston Oilers NFL football coach, “Bum” Phillips. When asked if he would continue to run star running back Earl Campbell repeatedly up the middle in an important playoff game, “Bum” replied in a thick Texas drawl, “Well, you gotta dance with the one that brung ya.” Yes, gratitude is a virtue.
“For Mom and Dad” has an odd timestamp, somewhere between a ballad and a waltz. Following an alto sax statement of the melody in an unruffled tone, the tenor sax riffed methodically, building from a simmer to a boil with licks reminiscent of a soaring Dexter Gordon. And Allyn's piano comped spaciously while Charles' drums beat quirky time, with splashing cymbals.
Finally, Monk's “Rhythm-A-Ning” showed Ephraim and Ebban trading fours against the background of Charles' driving drumbeat and the spirited response of Allyn's piano. The tempo increased to the point of a tumultuous drum solo explosion, a fitting finale to a splendid performance.
Along with this sensational group, Ebban and Ephraim Dorsey showed off their mature musical voices. It was a joy to behold.
Gregory L. Lewis
CATON CASTLE JAZZ RETURNS
SATURDAY, APRIL 2, 2022
THE JOHN R. LAMKIN, III SEXTET
Caton Castle Jazz Returns: The John R. Lamkin, III Sextet
On April 2, 2022, the Caton Castle presented the John R. Lamkin, III Sextet, featuring Sean Jones on trumpet, Tim Green on alto sax, Robert Gilliam on tenor sax, Allyn Johnson on piano, Michael Bowie on acoustic bass and John R. Lamkin, III on drums. This group of regional all-stars relaunched the Caton Castle's regularly scheduled jazz shows after a two year hiatus due to pandemic restrictions. The pent-up desire to play and to hear the music was palpable, with the full capacity audience enthusiastically applauding John's opening exclamation: “It's been two years!” Then the volcano erupted.
“All Blues,” the modal masterpiece from Miles Davis' classic album, “Kind of Blue,” led off the first set with a distinctive bass introduction that morphed into a three-horn statement of the melodic theme. Sean's muted trumpet then riffed in varying tones, shading the melody against the powerful rhythmic framing of John's pace-setting drums and the spacious comping of Allyn's piano, all anchored by the relentless downbeat of Michael's bass. Sean's extended solo recalled the exuberance of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard more than the “cool” of trumpeter Miles Davis, but both influences were apparent.
Robert is the only relative newcomer in this group, having appeared at the Caton Castle on one previous occasion in a band that included Sean, his teacher at the Peabody Conservatory. At age 22, Robert now flexes a grown man's voice on tenor sax, with a hard tone on “All Blues” that flittered harmonically in a yawning range. Tim Green, on the other hand, has been a Caton Castle regular for more than a decade. It was “long time, no see,” with Tim's alto sax chops dazzling the audience-- his intonation is masterful-- with the musical fruits of his sojourn in academia; his day job is on the same Peabody faculty with Sean.
Thelonious Monk's “Evidence” featured Tim's alto sax in Bird-like (Charlie Parker) flight, rolling notes in the frenetic manner of the bebop master, while Robert's tenor sax articulated the melody in repeated middle-register riffs, with insistent embellishments. Sean's trumpet break was slurred in tone, suggesting the swagger of trumpet icon Lee Morgan. Allyn's piano excursion channeled the off-beat Monk with an element of rhythmic hesitation, building ascending tension that gave way to Michael's bass solo, thematically busy in its restatement of the rhythm. Through it all, the intricate refrains of John's pulsating drums and restless cymbals resounded.
It didn't take long for many of us to realize what we had missed during the extended live music drought. The explosive presence of this group was not just heard, but also felt. Even a few bars of “Happy Birthday” addressed to a lovely lady named Brittany drew an animated audience response.
Sean's trumpet shined on two jazz standards by trumpet masters. “Up Jumped Spring,” Freddie Hubbard's waltz-like impression of breezes and flowers and birds aborning (or so it seems to me), showed Sean's trumpet in a dexterous mode, tone shifting from crisp to blurred to screeching in a sing-song pattern as whimsical as the weather in March. And Lee Morgan's “Ceora” introduced a Latin flavor to the proceedings, with Sean sifting the melody in a lilting solo that contrasted with Tim's harmonically trenchant alto sax and Robert's melody-stretching tenor sax, with its bracing tone peppered by blunted accents.
On “Ceora,” Allyn's piano was typically expansive, with an airy phrasing that included abstract tinkling within the melody and the terse interjection of harmonious themes that were vaguely recognizable. This pattern was repeated on “Straight Ahead,” a galloping Horace Silver-type swing number that included a powerful drum solo.
For those who are partial to ballads, the group delivered two gems. “We'll Be Together Again” showcased the mellow tone of Tim's alto sax, located somewhere on the silky alto sax ballad continuum of “Cannonball” Adderley, “Sonny” Stitt and Jackie McLean. Secondly, “Body and Soul” featured Sean's bravura trumpet performance, captivating from its misty introduction which hinted at the melody of “Stardust Memories” before bursting into clear outlines of “Body and Soul.” Alternating between prolonged notes and brief ejaculations, Sean's lofty trumpet defined the classic ballad, adding flashes of staccato accents. Along the way, there was shadowing of familiar tunes and other melodic conceits that were ultimately resolved in a climactic flourish of the blustery horn. Indeed, the audience was treated to something special, and responded with a standing ovation.
Jazz standards have a reflexive appeal to the predominantly gray-haired Caton Castle audience. They take us back down memory lane. Trumpeter John R. Lamkin, II, the father of this group's drummer, sat-in on a spirited rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a signature tune for Miles Davis in the 1950s. In this same vein, “Moanin',” pianist Bobby Timmons' swinging classic that was popularized by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, closed out the show in a rousing fashion.
We know not what tomorrow may bring, but on this night jazz at the Caton Castle returned in all of its glory.