On December 15, 2018, the John Lamkin II Ensemble appeared at the Caton Castle, with John Lamkin II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Michael Hairston on tenor and soprano sax, Bob Butta on piano, Michael Graham on acoustic bass, Jesse Moody on drums, and Eartha Lamkin on vocals. Celebrating the release of a new CD, "Transitions," this group put its best foot forward.
John's musical approach is traditionally oriented, imposing his personal stamp on tunes that were stylized in the post-World War II bebop years and subsequently refined, for better or worse. I once read a review that knocked a jazz performance as sounding like it stepped out of a 1950s time machine. It took a moment for those disparaging words to sink in because, from my point of view, riffing in the footsteps of the revolutionary musicians of that era-- "Bird," "Dizzy," "Klook" (Kenny Clarke), Monk, and others-- is a good thing. In fact, the real disappointment for me is the trendy jazz of the present that presumes to go beyond, say, Charlie "Bird" Parker without the capability of playing what "Bird" played.
Pianist Horace Silver's composition, "That Healin' Feelin'" was typical of John's approach, with a two-horn statement of the melodic theme to a funky Latin rhythm which flowed from a pronounced bass line that was staggered on the descent, against Jesse's busy drum flourishes with rim shot accents. On a solo trumpet statement, John picked up the tempo with a thin tone in the middle to the upper register, blowing notes that vibrated hardly at all, shades of Miles Davis.
Michael's tenor sax solo formed a complementary balance with a hard tone and elongated notes at shifting angles. As the horns traded extended phrases, Michael Graham's bass line maintained an assertive beat that provoked a spirited response from Jesse's drums-- a slow rumble that elevated to crashing cymbals-- as Bob's melodious piano comped, abstractly.
"Why Not!," a bluesy composition by tenor saxophonist Houston Person, provided more of the same, with a spotlight on Bob's piano. Like John, Bob has been a fixture on the local jazz scene for decades and, musically speaking, he's no worse for the wear. In fact, his running keyboard pursuit of the melodic figure with tinkling high notes accented by dissonant counter-licks on this tune made me flash back forty years or so to when Bob was part of the house band that backed alto sax great Gary Bartz at "The Closet," Henry Baker's long-ago jazz club that was located downtown on Franklin Street. "The Closet" may be long gone, but Bob ain't. From the bandstand, John fondly recalled "The Closet," too.
On "Fine and Mellow," a blues number notably recorded by "Billie" Holiday, John's wife, Eartha, brought that sensuous lady's touch that can transform the blues in dreamy ways, invoking the aura of Ruby Glover and Ethel Ennis, legendary local jazz divas who likewise charmed us in days gone by.
Note: Let us acknowledge the recent death at age 81 of Nancy Wilson, perhaps the loveliest jazz diva of them all.
At the break following the first set, there was a brisk sale of the newly released CD, "Transitions," near the brightly decorated Christmas tree next to the bandstand. For some of us who have been around the block a few times, nostalgic recollections pretty much sum up the Christmas spirit, which puts us on a par with the reformed Ebeneezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens' classic novel, "A Christmas Carol." We don't say, "Bah, Humbug," but neither do we shout "Hallelujah."
Then there are those of us who superstitiously acknowledge an other-worldly dimension to Christmas, like George Bailey, the James Stewart character in the iconic yuletide movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," but limit our theological imagination to something like that story's quaint conceit: Every time a Christmas bell rings, an angel gets his wings.
But with the passion of faith, a relative few of us hold fast to the biblical meaning of Christmas as reiterated annually by Linus, the child cartoon figure in the perennial TV showing of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," featuring the animated denizens of Charles Schultz's famous "Peanuts" comic strip, with a jazzy boogie-woogie theme song by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Quoting from chapter two of the Gospel of Luke, Linus says:
"And the angel said to [the shepherds], Fear not; behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
Alas, Christmas is for everybody, but salvation is only for believers.
In a pale comparison, traditional jazz likewise seeks the many but finds few true enthusiasts. The modest-sized audience for this show heard a mixed bag of jazz offerings, including John's original composition, "Transitions," the title tune from the just-released CD.
On this tune, Michael's soprano sax whimsically adjusted the shape of the melody to a sort of "Cha Cha" rhythm before launching a prolonged stream of fluid notes with an evenness of tone that alternated between the middle and upper register of his horn.
Then, with sudden eruptions reminiscent of flugelhorn great Art Farmer, John picked up the melodic statement, parsing it at a slower pace with audible pauses before accelerating. All the while, Bob's piano comping tracked Michael Graham's expressive bass line, a soulfully halting beat that ran parallel to Jesse's drums. Individually and collectively, this rhythm section shined.
In addition to John's "Transitions" CD, you might consider a gift-book for that jazz fan on your holiday list, like "Louis Armstrong in His Own Words: Selected Writings" (1999), edited by Thomas Brothers. Therein, the great trumpeter, "Satchmo," said something profound about humility, a scarce commodity, when explaining why he never spoke ill of inferior musicians with whom he played:
"I've always lived like that sister that was in my mother (Mary Ann's) church [who explained why she was so attentive to a substitute preacher by saying] 'When our Rev. Cozy is preaching, I can look right straight through him and see Jesus-- and when the Sub Preacher was preaching surely-- I realized that he wasn't as good as our pastor-- so I looked over him and saw Jesus just the same.' That's the only way I wanted to be-- just like that sister."
Jazz critics take heed: "Satchmo's" charitable wisdom-- accentuate the positive-- applies to the art of playing music as well as the art of listening to it. A remarkable man, "Satchmo" was in the habit of ending personal letters on a light note, like: "As the little boy who sat on a block of ice said, my tale is told."
THE ROMEIR MENDEZ QUINTET
DECEMBER 8, 2018
Christie Dashiell (Vocals), Allyn Johnson (Piano), Terrell Stafford (Trumpet/Flugelhorn), Romeir Mendez (Bass), Corey Fonville (Drums), Tim Warfield (Tenor/Soprano Saxophones).
On December 8, 2018, the Romeir Mendez Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Romeir Mendez on acoustic bass, Terell Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn, Tim Warfield on tenor and soprano sax, Allyn Johnson on piano, Corey Fonville on drums and a surprise addition, vocalist Christie Dashiell. Some somber notes can be detected amidst the joy of this Christmas season, and in that context this show was inspirational.
The band performed Allyn's original composition provisionally entitled "Roy Hargrove" in tribute to the critically acclaimed trumpet and flugelhorn player who died last month at age 49. May God rest his soul.
At a moderate but fluctuating pace, the horns unfolded the melody of this memorial tune against a spare rhythmic statement, drums filling space between the bass' prompting beat and the piano's lagging response until Tim's soprano sax intervened with an understated yet lofty solo excursion that set the stage for Terell's flugelhorn flexing, a fitting echo of Roy Hargrove's sound containing lyrical phrasing that was bracing in its bell-like timbre-- crisp and resonant-- with lingering notes in soothing combinations. Likewise, Allyn's piano solo was majestic.
Christie Dashiell redirected the mood with her take on another original composition by Allyn, "Somalia Rose." This tune had a hint of Oriental rhythm, as Christie scatted the melody at a constantly increasing pace, a step ahead of Corey's racing drums and Romeir's thumping bass line, offset by Terell's flugelhorn riffs and Allyn's pronounced piano comping. Tim's soprano sax solo employed an urgent tone in the high register that eventually matched the dynamic energy of Corey's drums-- wailing. This tune exhausted the audience.
Christie is a charming young lady with a lovely voice, who gave a fragile warmth-- preciousness-- to the lyrics of "When I Fall in Love" that would surely melt the coldest heart. And yet, notwithstanding her reminder in song, "Joy to the World, The Lord has Come," a sour note intrudes in this Christmas season when I consider the heartlessness on the streets of predominantly black Baltimore.
The per capita murder capital of the entire nation, "Charm City" out-did its vicious self recently when a panhandling woman apparently holding a baby played decoy for her knife-wielding accomplice who accosted a middle-aged mother after she rolled down her car window to offer help, and killed her when she resisted a robbery. Evident from TV news reports, the victim was black but the racial identity of the at-large perpetrators remains unstated. Yeah, unstated.
Black on black crime: The hate that dares not speak its name.
Race is such a vexatious subject. It goes without saying that cultural ambivalence about race has a historical analog in contrasting perceptions of jazz, but a closer look suggests that "race" is really a substitute term for something else-- perceptions of freedom.
In a 1963 essay, "Jazz and the White Critic," poet and author LeRoi Jones, later Amiri Baraka (1934-2014), said, "Failure to understand, for instance, that [the white] Paul Desmond and [the black] John Coltrane represent not only two divergent ways of thinking about music, but more importantly two very different ways of viewing the world, is at the seat of most of the established misconceptions that are daily palmed off as intelligent commentary on jazz or jazz criticism." Jones continued, "The music is the result of the attitude, the stance; Just as Negroes made blues and other people did not because of the Negro's peculiar way of looking at the world" (from "Black Music," 1967).
So what? By this logic a black man is confused (sociologically and therefore musically) if he prefers Paul Desmond's famous solo on the Dave Brubeck Quartet's rhythmically innovative number, "Take Five," to the "deep" eccentricities of anything that John Coltrane recorded with his second wife, Alice, on "free form" piano. Why? Because LeRoi Jones, a self-proclaimed arbiter of "blackness," said so.
On the other hand, Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), black author of the canonized novel, "Invisible Man," took another view of the matter in a 1969 West Point commencement speech: "Now, the jazz musician, the jazz soloist, is anything if not eclectic [...] and he can draw upon an endless pattern of sounds which he recombines on the spur of the moment into a meaningful music experience, if he's successful." Ellison continued, "And I have a sense that all of these references of [Nobel Prize winning white poet T.S.] Eliot's, all of this snatching of phrases from the German, from the French, from the Sanskrit, and so on, were attuned to that type of American cultural expressiveness which one got in jazz and which one still gets in good jazz" (from "Going to the Territory," 1986).
According to Ellison, whites are as capable of mastering jazz as blacks are of mastering baseball, the sport that gave us the profundity of "Yogi" Berra, as in, "You can observe a lot by watching." And you can hear a lot, I might add, by listening.
As to the uncertainties that lurk at the intersection of race and music, "Yogi's" advice is as sound as any: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." The decision is yours.
Freedom presupposes the power of choice, and knowledge is power. In music and in East Baltimore, the problem with racial blinders is that they make us less perceptive and, therefore, less free. Cultural pressure that bids us to deny the obvious is a form of bondage.
"Incandescent Spirit," another original composition by Allyn Johnson, provided a lively example of improvisational freedom, with musical voices jostling for expression. Terell's solo trumpet statement shaped the melodic outline with impressionistic riffs, bursts of notes that formed a coherent whole, against a corresponding barrage from Tim's tenor sax, with guttural accents in the lower register, shades of tenor sax great Joe Henderson. And Romeir's agile bass adjusted the beat around a bluesy conceit with Allyn's piano runs and Corey's drum refrains in competitive coordination.
Freedom is an attitude. Romeir Mendez's uplifting ensemble showed us what it sounds like.
SHARON CLARK QUINTET
December 1, 2018
SHARON CLARK, CHRIS GRASSO, MICHAEL BOWIE, PAUL CARR, LENNY ROBINSON
On December 1, 2018, the Sharón Clark Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Sharón Clark on vocals, Paul Carr on tenor sax, Chris Grasso on piano, Michael Bowie on acoustic bass and Lenny Robinson on drums. Sharón's voice instrument was in fine form.
Though a near-neighbor at her Washington, D.C. area home base, it's been a "minute," as they say, since Sharón last appeared at the Caton Castle. A versatile performer, I particularly looked forward to an encore of that aspect of Sharón's vocal persona that resembles the "Divine One," the great Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990), a/k/a "Sassy."
This show's "take two" motif, featuring an older and a newer song connected by a common theme, did not include any of "Sassy's" signature numbers in the first two sets, like "Send in the Clowns" or "Misty" or "Lullaby of Birdland," but "Sassy's" style was evident none the less in Sharón's musical bearings. I refer to Sharón's yawning vocal range from low to high so stark and fluid that at times it affects a duet, and her lyrically manipulated tempos-- favoring the lower gears-- with horn-like fluctuations.
On "Don't Go to Strangers," Etta Jones' yearning masterpiece, Sharón vocally slow-danced amidst the spacious dimensions of Chris' lean piano statement of the melody, simpatico with the lulling rhythm of Lenny's brush strokes and Michael's embracing bass line, while Paul's interspersed tenor sax riffs and understated solo provided a contrasting tone, accenting the melody and softly offsetting Sharón's vocal dexterity, like a velvet echo.
To me, Sharón's take on "Don't Go to Strangers" sounded more like "Sassy's" moaning than Etta's lilting, but that might be a misperception due to my "Sassy" fixation. Perhaps I'm like that psychiatric patient who exasperated the doctor by continuously describing every ink-blot sample as showing some sort of sexual act until the doctor finally demanded to know if the patient ever thought of anything besides sex. How can I, the patient responded, when you keep showing me these dirty pictures?
As to "Sassy's" exalted stature, however, I am not delusional. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then it is small wonder that so many singers pay homage to "Sassy's" style. She inhabits the pantheon of jazz divas, along with "Billie" Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Etta Jones, and Betty "Bebop" Carter.
But the "business" of music requires imitation of many lesser lights than these because a certain repetitive "sameness" is a prerequisite of popular appeal. "Sassy," herself, recognized the phenomenon: "'My contract with Mercury is for pops, and my contract with EmArcy [a jazz recording subsidiary] is for me,' she would tell Record Whirl [magazine] in July 1955" (from "Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan," by Leslie Gourse, 1993).
The task that serious music (and art more generally) sets for itself is to lure the individual away from the collective competition-- "keeping up with the Joneses"-- that defines life for too many, in order to stimulate comparisons that are more refined. This is no small task because human nature is so bound up in petty group envy that even the biblical Ten Commandments pronounced against it: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17).
Given our proclivity to covet, to desire what someone else possesses mainly because he or she has it, there's a thin line separating wholesome admiration from destructive resentment. While their music bids us to compare the artistry of, say, "Sassy" versus "Billie" Holiday (1915-1959), the artists themselves were not above the covetous fray in their personal relations. In her autobiography as told to William Dufty, "Lady Sings the Blues" (1959), "Billie" spoke of "Sassy" in bitter/sweet terms.
"Sarah Vaughan was singing with Billy [Eckstine] then and just getting started [... so] I went to see a dame I knew who sold me a beautiful three-hundred-dollar evening gown for a song [and] I went out to the Plantation [nightclub in Los Angeles] and gave it to Sarah," "Billie" recalled. "But the moment she put it on she looked more like a girl who was going somewhere; And she did and I was happy she did."
However, after "Billie" served a prison sentence for drug offenses, she noted a later encounter with "Sassy"-- "She turned up her nose and walked straight by me to her dressing room without a sign"-- and contrasted it to a contemporaneous meeting with singer Lena Horne: "We talked about [Lena making the movie "Stormy Weather"] and more, and I was so happy I cried," said "Billie," adding that "people like Lena took the sting out of other little people."
Needless to say, "Billie" had no tears of joy for "Sassie." What happened? The answer, I think, is revealed in a line from a song on Sharón's CD, "Do it Again: My Tribute to Shirley Horn." Specifically, I refer to "He's Out of My Life," a tune previously recorded as "She's Out of My Life" by the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, wherein Sharón put her brooding touch on a lyrical phrase encapsulating the devilish problem that Christians call sin; to wit, "Damned indecision and cursed pride/ Kept my love for [her] locked deep inside." That's what, I think, came between "Sassie" and "Billie."
In any event, Sharón paid due respect to pop tunes in this performance, including Carly Simon's "You Belong to Me," the Bee Gees' "How Deep is Your Love" and Burt Bacharach's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." Also, Sharón threw in a funky blues number, "Oh! Darling," by the Beatles, for good measure. As to pop music, you could say that Sharon covered the waterfront.
"I'll Remember April," an uptempo jazz vehicle that featured Sharón in scat mode, also spotlighted her excellent rhythm section. Chris Grasso's solo showed his piano assertively framing the melody before conjuring up creative combinations of licks that provoked a busy response from Lenny's drums, establishing a fluid pattern of beats with frequent bass drum punctuation amidst pace-setting cymbal flourishes. And Michael's bass line was an anchoring presence throughout, collaboratively keeping rhythmic time or distilling the melodic essence, solo.
Hat tip to Ms. Toni Denise recently arrived from the West Coast, who sang a spirited "sit-in" rendition of "Route 66."
Like "Sassy" before her, Sharón Clark demonstrates a mastery for melding pop music to a jazzy idiom, changing water into wine, so to speak. Once again, she left me ready for more.
MARK GROSS QUARTET
Saturday, November 17, 2018
Back Row: Todd Simon, Michael Bowie, John R. Lamkin, III.
Front Row: Tavifa Cojocari, Jerry Tong, Mark Gross, Ismael Guerrero, and Guanlun Li.
MARK GROSS QUARTET + STRINGS with MARK GROSS-Alto Saxophone, Todd Simon-Piano, Michael Bowie-Bass, John R. Lamkin, III-Drums, and STRINGS, Tavifa Cojocari-Violin 1, Jerry Tong-Violin 2, Ismael Guerrero-Cello, Guanlun Li-Viola.
The Mark Gross Quartet featuring a performance with Baltimore's own Ephraim and Ebban Dorsey!
On November 17, 2018, the Mark Gross Ensemble appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Mark Gross on alto sax, Todd Simon on piano, Michael Bowie on acoustic bass, John Lamkin, III on drums, and a string section from the Peabody Conservatory: Tavifa Cojocari on first violin, Jerry Tong on second violin, Guanlun Li on viola, and Ismael Guerrero on cello.
Billed as a celebration of the music of Charlie "Bird" Parker with strings, this show was proof that there's something to the urban legend: "Bird Lives!"
In a representative way, Mark Gross' commanding alto sax channeled "Bird" (1920-1955) on "Just Friends," a middle-tempo ballad from the iconic "Charlie Parker with Strings" recordings produced around 1950, with a buoyant statement of the lyrical theme-- "Just friends, lovers no more/ Just friends, but not like before"-- in a tone of wistful pathos that fit neatly into the sugary texture of the string accompaniment, which was more of an atmospheric presence than a complementary refrain.
The rhythm section was solid, as John persistently inserted his drums via brush strokes between Michael's searching bass line and Todd's piano comping in melodic hints.
To say the least, the "Charlie Parker with Strings" recordings were a departure from the usual instrumentation associated with bebop, featuring brief versions of selections from the Great American Song Book-- "Laura," "I'll Remember April," "I Didn't Know What Time it Was," etc.-- to the accompaniment of a string chorus, in an obvious attempt by "Bird" to broaden the appeal of the deconstructed big band sonority known as bebop. Of course, as one of its main innovators (along with trumpeter "Dizzy" Gillespie), every artistic move that "Bird" made was groundbreaking.
Parenthetically, the "Charlie Parker with Strings" recordings were among the first wave of the new "magnetic tape" recording technology that facilitated the long-playing (LP) album. Characterized by a slower "rotations per minute" speed (33 1/3) than the previous discs (78 rpm), LPs allowed for improved sound quality ("Hi-Fi") in addition to a much longer song duration. Prior to the advent of LPs, each entire side of a recorded music disc was, for technical reasons, limited to three minutes. In keeping with the old aesthetic, the "Charlie Parker with Strings" LPs similarly limited the duration of each song. The result may sound repetitive and cramped to ears accustomed to the long (too long?) playing improvisational solos typified by, say, John Coltrane's epochal recording, "A Love Supreme" (1964).
While a musical genius, it is well-known that "Bird," a Kansas City native, was also a tortured soul who suffered from the demons of drug/alcohol abuse and mental illness. He died at age 34, a victim of burning the candle at both ends.
"Bird's" predicament was not unlike those unfortunates in the Greek legend of the tyrant Phalaris' bronze bull, a gift offered by a sycophant: "If you wish to punish anyone, make him get into this contrivance and lock him up; then attach these flutes to the bull and have a fire lighted underneath," said the sycophant. "The man will grown and shriek in the grip of unremitting pain, and his voice will make you the sweetest possible music on the flute, piping doleful and lowing piteously; so that while he is punished, you are entertained" (cited in "Either/Or," by Soren Kierkegaard, edited and translated by Howard & Edna Hong, Princeton, 1987).
In that the artistic result of his pain provided his listeners pleasure, you might say that "Bird" shared the fate of a prisoner in Phalaris' bull, as epitomized by a 1946 episode where "Bird" was incarcerated in California's "Camarillo" psychiatric asylum following a mental breakdown. Upon his release, "Bird" rolled out an exemplary new bebop tune: "Relaxin' at Camarillo."
While the combination of a jazz quartet with a string chorus is unusual, the violin has been employed to great effect as a lead jazz instrument by the likes of "Stuff" Smith (1909-1967) and Stephane Grappelli (1908-1997). There is an enchanting quality to both the tone and range of those vibrating strings, stirred by a bow that can express joy and sorrow in more varieties than Baskin-Robbins' ice cream.
Indeed, the rich texture of the strings on "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)" added a far-away dimension to Mark's alto sax solo, as he highlighted the contours of the melody like points of a distant constellation. Likewise, Todd's understated piano was a stellar melodic force, conversant with the muted beat of John's drums and Michael's imperturbable bass line.
Here the strings provided a complementary presence without becoming intrusive, the ever-present danger of a heterodox element. Like the exception that swallows the rule, the orchestral quality of multiple string instruments can dominate the subtle balance of a jazz ensemble, making it all about the strings.
For related reasons, there were many detractors when the "Charlie Parker with Strings" recordings were originally released. Some regarded it as a commercial gimmick, an attempt to dress jazz up in symphonic clothing in order to sell a novelty. Others, like tenor sax legend Sonny Rollins, reportedly saw "Bird's" strings collaboration as a crowning achievement.
This is one of those perennial family disagreements in the jazz clan, like whether avant-garde tenor saxophonist Ornette Coleman's melody-phobic "free form" jazz is really jazz at all or just noisy pretension. Tenor sax notwithstanding, Ornette strikes some of us like a man playing the ukulele; it's hard to tell whether he's being serious or just fooling around.
Well, as the lawyers say, "res ipsa loquitur;" Latin for "the thing speaks for itself."
While a string chorus can add contextual spice to a ballad, it seems less the case with an uptempo march number like Duke Pearson's "Jeannine," the show's finale that featured a very mature sit-in performance by teenagers Ebban Dorsey on alto sax and Ephraim Dorsey on tenor sax. The strings sat out, as a three-horn chorus defined the melodic theme before each horn engagingly improvised on a solo statement, and each member of the rhythm section was likewise spotlighted. The three-horn chorus was a stark contrast to its string counterpart, almost like different languages. In a musical sense, "Bird" was multilingual.
Without a doubt, "Bird" left a classic model of jazz as an improvisational art. The Mark Gross ensemble gave us a vivid reminder. Yes, "Bird Lives!"
THE TODD MARCUS GROUP
Saturday - November 3, 2018
Kris Funn, Silvano Monasterios, Todd Marcus, Don Bryon, Byung Kang
On November 3, 2018, the TODD MARCUS QUINTET appeared at Caton Castle, featuring Todd Marcus on bass clarinet, Don Byron on clarinet, Kris Funn on bass, Byung Kang on drums and Silvano Monastarios on piano. This show had an exotic flavor.
Todd's music presents something stylistically fresh by combining an aura of Middle Eastern rhythms (his Egyptian heritage) with the rarity of a leading clarinet, a seminal but superseded jazz instrument, notwithstanding Eric Dolphy's 1960s-era edgy profundity on bass clarinet, e.g., the "Far Cry" CD.
Todd's arrangements vary in format from, say, his nine-piece ensemble recording, "In Search of the Ninth Man" (2006), to smaller units like the instant quintet. Paired with the acclaimed and idiosyncratic clarinetist, Don Byron, this show featured two birds of a feather.
On the familiar ballad, "My Foolish Heart," the rhythm section laid down a palpable vibe wherein the subdued tempo of Kris' bass complemented Byung's trembling cymbals and drum accents with brushes, against the skeletal vamping of Silvano's melodic piano.
With a joint woodwind statement of the theme, poly-rhythms gave way to Todd's solo pursuit of the melodic figure, mostly in the bass clarinet's middle register and in a spiraling ascent that was seductive in its hollowed timbre.
Byron, on the other hand, picked up the tempo as his solo covered the range of his clarinet, fusing notes together in chirping phrases of varying duration that in the melodic repetition suggested the snake-charmer's art, before melding seamlessly with Todd's rejoinder into a combined woodwind restatement of the sensuous theme, confirming the clarinet's power as a lead instrument.
Looking back, the clarinet was in the forefront of aborning jazz. New Orleans native Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) put the Dixieland variety on the international map, achieving critical recognition for a 1919 European performance that established him as a virtuoso on jazz clarinet.
Emerging from the same primal milieu that produced trumpet master Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, Bechet later added the brassy heft of the soprano sax and eventually moved to France. Music critc Henry Pleasants recalled a 1934 concert in "Serious Music and All That Jazz: (1969): "What [Bechet] whispered and shouted and sang on that curious soprano saxophone of his came right through me," said Pleasants. "It was a kind of inspired minstrelsy--joyous, despairing, hopeful, tender, exultant, compassionate--and always eloquently communicative."
This two-clarinet front line is musically provocative, self-consciously contrary to certain formulaic accretions--stale patterns--of a jazz tradition that has arrived at an uncertain present. With a return to instrumental origins, these assertive jazz clarinets smack of the preacher's call for religious revival, a return to the convert's fervor for the faith. Weighing in on the perennial "what's next" controversy, Sidney Bechet, himself, once opined: "Water is freshest at its source" (quoted in Andre Hodeir's "Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence," 1956).
Indeed, "Bye Bye Blackbird" was a fresh take on an old standard, with a Thelonious Monk style herky-jerky beat that followed Kris' funky bass line. Starts and stops signaled a varying tempo wherein Todd's hard-toned chorus outpaced Byron's trilling melodic statement, yet the two clarinets shared such a harmonic affinity that they sounded like one instrument with a very broad range.
As was the case all night, Byung's drums were ubiquitous: driving the rhythmic time, filling space and adding spice. Byung reminds me of drummer Winard Harper, Baltimore' s heralded native son.
Silvano's piano solo made good use of repeated melodic figures offset by keyboard runs that remained within the rhythmic boundaries set by Kris' irregular bass line and Byung's response in kind. Ultimately, this tune resolved itself in a cacophony of sounds.
Not for the first time, jazz stands at a crossroads. Bebop followed the big band swing that followed Dixieland rhythms; but what has followed bebop? As jazz performance venues like the Caton Castle continue to dwindle, the "what's next" question should not be ignored.
One response has been jazz preservation programs like that personified by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' stewardship of repertory jazz at the deep-pockets Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. The object is to assure the perpetuation of traditional jazz through the propagation of a certified and adademically teachable canon, based on accredited (by Wynton?) works of designated jazz giants--e.g., "Duke," "Satchmo," "Bird", and "Trane"--that would be analogous to the institutional arrangements supporting European classical music.
After bebop, academic jazz may be "what's next." However, even those who applaud such preservation programs would have to concede their insufficiency. Jazz might be "preserved," but largely in the mortician's sense of the word. Like th spirit of freedom that informs it, the dimensions of jazz cannot be settled once and for all.
Responding to a question, Don Byron gave a poignant expression of "jazz freedom" in a 1990 "Jazz Times" interview: "To me a bass player is somebody that you don't have to sense where they are or where they're going even if they're playing some tricky [stuff}, you know that they're there."
"Ground Zero," Todd's original composition inspired by events surrounding the "Freddie Gray" riots, showed bassist Kris Funn in a trick mode, indeed, with his racing bass line leading the charge on this frenetically paced tune. The relentless tone of Todd's surging bass clarinet conveyed a message of urgency, socially and musically.
"What's next" is overdue. With its clarinet revival, the post-bop creativity of the Todd Marcus Quintet is pointing the way.
THE LOUIS HAYES SEXTET
Saturday, October 27, 2018
Pianist Allyn Johnson, Saxophonist Bobby Watson, Trumpeter Theljon Allen, Bassist Michael Bowie, Saxophonist Paul Carr, Drummer Louis Hayes, and Event Producer, Ruth Binsky.
Caton Castle was the place to be for swinging hard bop on Saturday night with the legendary Louis Hayes on drums, Bobby Watson on alto, Paul Carr on tenor, Theljon Allen on trumpet, Michael Bowie on bass and Allyn Johnson on piano. Jeanine, Invitation, Del Sasser, High Fly, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, Now's The Time. They knew Bertrand Uberall was in the house and had Theljon do beautiful rendition of Body and Soul. The Castle was packed and it was great being greeted warmly by Bobby Watson. Louis Hayes was in great form leading this superb ensemble. Thank you Ruth Binsky for bringing this jazz legend to Baltimore.
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Kudos to Ruth Binsky for putting together this outstanding event. It really doesn't get much better than that.
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It was Baltimore's Jazz past, present and future at Caton's Castle last night! The legendary Louis Hayes, my old friend, let the spot out with a lineup that included another master, Bobby Watson, Paul Carr, Theljon Allen, Michael Bowie, and Allyn Johnson. The gig bought out a lot of the Baltimore-based Jazz Fans who would come to the Famous Ballroom, the Bandstand, and other Jazz venues back in the 70's and 80's. Ran into many friends, some I haven't seen in years. Among those in attendance where Rusty Hassan, Doc Manning, Maxine Smith, Larry Jeter, Leslie Imes, Elrita Cook-Harmeling, Ruth Binsky, Kathleen Matthews, just to name a few among the many. It was a sold-out gig! A great night had by all!
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"Legends of America's Classical Music, Jazz" played Baltimore's Caton Castle led by drummer LOUIS HAYES (of Cannonball Adderley, Wes Mondgomery, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, etc. fame) with BOBBY WATSON (music educator, Art Blakey Messenger alumni, Horizon bandleader, etc.) joined by Paul Carr, Allyn Johnson, Theljon Allen, Michael Bowie. Many thanks to Ruth Binsky for assembling these "master craftsmen" and BIG thanks to Caton Castle's Ron Scott for being Baltimore's Premier Jazz Venue!
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Playing with "The Great Louis Hayes" last night was like playing with ancestors of the music we call "JAZZ." I heard them speaking from his ride cymbal and snare! He is truly a master. Thanks, RUTH BINSKY for the opportunity to learn from Louis Hayes!!
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On October 27, 2018, the LOUIS HAYES SEXTET appeared at the Caton Castle, with Louis Hayes on drums, Allyn Johnson on piano, Theljon Allen on trumpet, Bobby Watson on alto sax, Paul Carr on tenor sax, and Michael Bowie on bass. This group was fine-tuned, hitting on all cylinders.
As he's been doing since the middle of the last century, drummer Louis Hayes drove the rhythm section on Duke Pearson's "Jeannine," an uptempo swing standard (the late Eddie Jefferson nailed it, vocally) that featured a formidable front line of harmonically attuned horns, collectively stating the melodic theme before trading spirited solo phrases. A veteran of Art Blakey's "Jazz Messengers," where such multiple horn choruses were a staple, Bobby Watson's tone-varying alto sax strung out the melodic figure in a shifting and ascending form, embellishing it with an irregular cadence amidst Louis' leading cymbals and snare drum accents, Allyn's comping piano and Michael's pulsating bass line.
Theljon Allen, a talented young trumpet voice, preceded Bobby's excursion to lofty regions with a blistering succession of high notes culminating in an abrupt slur that in the measured repetition became its own staccato rhythm. There's a certain swagger to Theljon's style. He's like a young Miles Davis, according to a gray-haired lady at the table next to mine.
Paul Carr, Washington, D.C.'s jazz impresario, par excellence, showed once again that he plays the music as well as he promotes it. His husky tenor sax intonation in the three horn chorus propelled him in a different solo direction, playing the melody at a trotting pace behind the drumbeat. After starting out in the middle register, Paul colored his thematic exploration in modulating tones that bottomed out with smooth vibrations.
In recent times, the Caton Castle audience has been privileged to partake of the musical charm of an exclusive fraternity of jazz artists; that is, top-flight performers who are in their ninth decade on the planet. Namely, pianist Norman Simmons (89), pianist Harold Mabern (82), tenor saxophonist "Bootsie" Barnes (80), tenor saxophonist Houston Person (83), tenor saxophonist George Coleman (83), and now, drummer extraordinaire Louis Hayes (81).
In each instance, these vintage stars brought time-tested talent in the form of straight-ahead jazz by some of the artists who helped to create it. This particular show was sold out, but that's the exception, not the rule. In music as in life, the tendency in every generation is to disregard the old in favor of the new.
While understandable, this fixation on novelty can take on absurd proportions, as in the case of "Obergefell vs. Hodges" (2015), wherein the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the constitution prohibits enforcement of any "marriage" law that excludes two persons of the same gender. In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said, "The court today not only overlooked our country's entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it, preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now. And he asked rhetorically, "Just who do we think we are?"
Think about it, the heterosexual essence of marriage as recognized over thousands of years of recorded civilization was disregarded three years ago by five lawyers in robes (four judges dissented) presuming to speak for us all on the grounds that the old definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman is, well, old. The "wise men" of this generation are either culturally superior to all who have gone before them or they are the new cave men.
This fanatical exaltation of the "here and now" didn't start three years ago. Pioneering sociologist Max Weber remarked upon such presumptuous wise guys at the dawn of the twentieth century in his book, "the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: (1905): "Spiritualists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved."
To be sure, there may be ample reasons to reject what's old in music and elsewhere, but not merely because it's old. That kind of thoughtlessness makes people turn a blind eye to -- excluding without ever considering -- the ancient Holy Bible, God's revelation of Truth in Jesus Christ: " ... thou hast the words of eternal life" -- John 6:68. Has the Bible gone past its "sell-by" date?
Listening to the masterful chops of octogenarian drummer Louis Hayes made me think of that clever fellow who observed: "The older I become, the smarter my father gets." The band's take on "Invitation" would be hard to improve on, revolving around Louis' engaging drums -- quietly intense, firm and reactive -- creating space for Michael's expressive bass line, with a complementary beat that outlined Allyn's bluesy piano chorus -- an exercise in rhythmic counterpoint as Allyn's dexterous use of limited notes exploited pauses, melodically.
As between the soulful brass chorus with its three spirited soloists and the cohesive rhythm section on "Invitation," it would be hard to say which was the picture and which was the frame.
Bobby Watson's light shined brightest on Mal Waldron's melancholy ballad, "Soul Eyes," wherein Bobby's alto sax solo exhibited a tone of familiar ease while exploring a harmonic line that lilted and moaned around the melodic theme with just-right points of emphasis, as if reciting a poem by heart.
Likewise, Theljon's rich trumpet tone stood out on "Body and Soul." His solo rendition of the enduring standard was lyrically creative, precisely articulating angular notes at a leisurely pace that were enhanced by Allyn's accompanying piano, tinkling inside the melody, and Louis' rasping brush strokes.
Detroit native Louis Hayes emerged on the jazz scene in the mid-1950's with pianist Horace Silver's innovative bebop ensemble, known for its lively mix of blues, funk and Latin-tinged rhythms. From this auspicious beginning, Louis played and recorded with a "Who's Who" list of jazz stars, including pianist Cedar Walton's 1974 recording, "Firm Roots." The band's rendition of the up-tempo title tune featured Michael's sprinting bass line bolstering a rhythmic pattern that was made to order for Louis' percussive interjections - a tapping cymbal, a fluttering snare, a thumping bass.
All of this against the poly-rhythmic phrasing of the three horn chorus, again adding brassy adornment over and above dueling solo statements. In this context, Louis' compact yet compelling drum solo was a relaxing force. Indeed, for his passionate "cool," this elder statesman of the drums received a standing ovation.
"Youth is wasted on the young," according to writer George Bernard Shaw. Thankfully, it ain't necessarily so. I saw a fetching young lady heartily applauding this sensational performance by the Louis Hayes Sextet.
THE ERIC REED QUARTET
SATURDAY - OCTOBER 13, 2018
TIM GREEN, ERIC REED, BILLY WILLIAMS, JR., HAMILTON PRICE
On October 13, 2018, the ERIC REED QUARTET appeared at the Caton Castle with Eric Reed on piano, Tim Green on alto sax, Hamilton Price on bass, and Billy Williams, Jr. on drums. Except for the Los Angeles-based Eric, these players are familiar faces at the Caton Castle. They're all seasoned pros who delivered.
"Voyage," by pianist/composer Kenny Barron, an acknowledged influence, demonstrated Eric's commanding keyboard presence, strikingly. His straight-ahead style on this uptempo number articulated the melody in a linear profusion of notes, projecting phrases that built up with symmetrical force to a tentative resolution, promising more. Eric's style reminded me of Sonny Clark, the swinging bebop pianist who made some impressive "Blue Note" label recordings coming out of the 1950s.
Hamilton Price's sprinting bass line was a perfect complement to Eric's persistent piano, sure-footed and elaborate in his bass solo statement of the rhythmic theme. In this context, Tim's alto sax work ranged from strained high notes to honking in the lower register, with a tone that was characteristically thin. Incidentally, Tim and Hamilton appeared together at the Caton Castle last March in an ensemble that paid tribute to the music of tenor sax great, Wayne Shorter.
Billy Williams' energizing style of drumming fit in neatly while remaining distinct, negotiating a fluid timestamp on "Voyage" that favored snare drum accents, before briefly soloing-- cymbals flashing. Billy last appeared at the Caton Castle with a quintet that included pianist Larry Willis and trombonist Steve Davis.
The tension between the individual and the collective-- our Greek tragedy (or soap opera) called "Life"-- is ever-present in jazz. From his 19th century musing at a remote New England pond, Henry David Thoreau's book, "Walden," coined an apt expression: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
Billy Williams exemplifies the different drummer that perceptive jazz fans gladly hear. In addition to fulfilling the traditional role of timekeeping, Billy's style reflects the straight-ahead trend set by drum innovators like Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and Philly Joe Jones, whereby the drum set-- bass, cymbals, snares, etc.-- is made to busily interact with its own constituent parts, enabling creative ornamentation for a sort of rhythmic undertow that can give the music a fresh sense of unity. Individualist in its essence, the design intends to let the drummer (and the listener) "step to the music that he hears however, measured or far away." Musically, it's possible to be explosive without being a loose cannon.
For critics who would rap the drumming of, say, Philly Joe Jones, as too loud, "big-eared" jazz fans would respond like that connoisseur of fine brandy who said: "Too much is barely enough."
Tim's identifiable alto sax sound is versatile and equally engaging on uptempo tunes as well as ballads, like trumpet great Freddie Hubbard's composition, "Up Jumped Spring." Curiously, Eric's piano introduction employed the melody of "The Old Rugged Cross," a Gospel hymn, as a prelude to similar chords played softly by Tim's alto sax in the middle register, with a tone and tempo equally solemn. Hamilton's bass line pronounced the beat, ecumenically, over against Billy's temperate brush strokes. Luxuriating in the relaxed tempo, Tim's horn lingered on a fluttering note here or a trilling tone there, building to a crescendo. Yes, "Up Jumped Spring."
On Thelonious Monk's "Evidence," Eric's tour-de-force piano solo focused attention by furiously accelerating the tempo of this familiar tune and thereby eliminating Monk's signature rhythmic ticks. Following Eric's breathless introduction, Tim blew his alto sax in the same vein, bending high notes, "Bird"-like, as Hamilton's bass line throbbed in step with Billy's pace-setting cymbals. In the nick of time, Billy's masterful drum solo provided a counterpoise to the dynamic tension of this tune, a welcomed release.
Eric slowed down the tempo on "I Didn't Know What Time it Was," a Rogers & Hart show-tune collaboration. The rhythm section defined the moody contours of this tune, with Hamilton's bass line dissecting the rhythmic flow while Billy's brush strokes restored it. Tim and Eric traded choruses, caressing the lovely melody in a way that captured its lyrical theme: "...I didn't know what year it was/ Life was no prize/ I wanted love and here it was/ Shining out of your eyes/ I'm wise and I know what time it is now."
Similarly perplexed about the sensual, Saint Augustine, the 4th century Christian sage, searched in his "Confessions" for a higher unity: "...thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee."
One last observation about Thoreau, who became a hermit for fear of second-hand contamination by walking among a conformist crowd. From his perch near 19th century Walden pond, Thoreau predicted the coming trivialization of the individual in a mindless verbal wasteland of mass communication: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but," he warned, "Maine and Texas it may be, have nothing important to communicate." As to a then-proposed trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, Thoreau mocked the potentiality that "the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."
And what has the behemoth of mass communication in the Internet age actually yielded? Of recent prominence, the puny spectacle of televised "#MeToo" feminist mobs shouting in unison, "We believe survivors."
Thank goodness for the beat of a different drummer; to wit, the Eric Reed Quartet's stellar performance at the Caton Castle.
THE JOHN LAMKIN, III SEXTET
Saturday - October 6, 2018
"5th Annual Tribute to
ART BLAKEY and the JAZZ MESSENGERS"
featuring . . .
JOHN LAMKIN, III - DRUMS
Donald Harrison - Alto Saxophone
Elijah Easton - Tenor Saxophone
Sean Jones - Trumpet
Mark Meadows - Piano
Kris Funn - Bass
with special guest performances by . . .
Brinae Ali - Tap Dancer
Ephraim Dorsey - Tenor Saxophone
Ebban Dorsey - Alto Saxophone
On October 6, 2018, the John Lamkin, III Sextet appeared at the Caton Castle, with John Lamkin, III on drums, Donald Harrison on alto sax, Sean Jones on trumpet, Mark Meadows on piano, Elijah Easton on tenor sax, and Kris Funn on acoustic bass. This show was a musical treat.
The texture of three horns as a rhythmic foil against the drums was perfect instrumentation for the occasion at hand: A birthday tribute for the late Art Blakey (1919-1990), master drummer and iconic leader of the Jazz Messengers. A highly spirited affair it was, with a "JM" alumnus-- Donald Harrison-- included for good measure.
"Free for All," the title tune from a 1964 recording by the Jazz Messengers, was the rousing straight-ahead number that served as the show's finale and typified this band's dynamism: The sparks that flew when volleys of notes hit a percussive wall. The uptempo pace featured Sean's trumpet in full flight, soaring to harmonic heights in an even tone that contrasted with the modulating timbre of alto saxophones on each flank, trading extended solos. Donald affected a strained and pleading tone in the upper register of his horn, while Elijah's staccato accents produced an arrhythmic quality with guttural sounds on some low notes that put me in mind of Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet.
This was no disjointed collection of solos; the swinging rhythm section saw to that. Mark Meadows' energetic piano defined the melodic figure in spacious phrasing that he neatly embellished against the background of Kris Funn's pulsating and animated bass play. While they both admirably soloed, Kris included some upper-body dance moves.
John's adept use of a busy interplay between his drum and cymbal options (a lot of bass pedal), put the drums into the melodic mix, over and above maintaining the rhythmic time stamp. In that way, John's high-volume flourishes of dissonant tom-tom accents would sneak up on you, Blakey-like. Yes, John channeled Blakey on "Free for All" to such an extent that he even threw in a Baptist shout.
Moreover, the swinging multiple horn chorus freely interjected itself in poly-rhythmic fashion, a characteristic feature of the Jazz Messengers that hints of Dixieland antecedents. In fact, pianist/composer Horace Silver, another "JM" alum, was known for adding a Latin flavor to such a brassy configuration.
On Horace Silver's "Peace," a pensive ballad, Sean's muscular trumpet was exquisite, with a pitch-perfect tone and yawning range reminiscent of trumpet great Clifford Brown, yet another "JM" alum. Indeed, their stylistic affinity led me to at first mistake this tune for Benny Golson's somewhat similar jazz standard in tribute to the venerated trumpeter: "I Remember Clifford."
Obviously, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers have had an out-sized influence on the development of jazz. In basketball terms, Art Blakey was a point guard capable of scoring at will but saw his main function as maximizing the play of others. He understood that optimum success requires a team effort-- in jazz, in basketball or in life. Whether leading the fast break, setting up the hot performer, or feeding the bass line, Art Blakey is alone at the top in the category of "Assists:" Upwards of 200 musicians over four decades have passed through Art Blakey's training camp, many achieving star status as members of the Jazz Messengers. For what it's worth, there were 6 named Sonny, 7 named Bill and 11 named John-- one surname Coltrane.
Pianist/composer and "JM" alum Bobby Timmons' bluesy composition in march-time, "Moanin,'" is a favorite jazz standard recorded by the Jazz Messengers on a 1959 album of the same name. Listening to this band's rendition, I was again struck by the artistry of the horn section (the teen-aged Dorsey siblings, Ebban and Eprahim, on alto and tenor sax, respectively, sat in on this tune--splendidly!), particularly Elijah Easton's searching alto sax excursion that whimsically twisted and turned the melodic phrase as if examining something vaguely familiar.
Jazz standards have a way of focusing our attention by forcing a comparison between now and then. Listening to a jazz standard like "Moanin'" for the umpteenth time is a repetition only in the sense that experiencing a new love may repeat the old emotion, but not the old facts. If nothing else, the listener/lover has changed. Each listening is new in a way that the ancient Greeks understood, denying the possibility of repetition from opposite perspectives. Heraclitus believed that there is no "being," as such, but only a continuous "becoming;" He said, "You can't walk through the same stream twice."
On the other hand, Parmenides maintained that static "being" (Mind) is the only true reality (as in mathematics) and that all motion is an illusion; Thus, you can't walk through the true stream even once.
Of course, Christians believe that the only repetition that ultimately matters comes from God: "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
But, whether understood as an imperfect earthly illusion or another stream-crossing, jazz fans know that it's possible to enjoy-- anew -- a jazz standard like "Moanin'," again and again, with each well-played hearing.
As if to second that emotion, The band played a charming rendition of "Misty," pianist Erroll Garner's classic ballad, wherein Donald showed himself to be an alto sax master, improvising an engrossing musical construct that seemed true to the lyrical mood of the familiar song while touching on the actual melody hardly at all, and mostly without accompaniment. John added to the soulful vibe with timely brush strokes.
There was a celebratory atmosphere throughout this captivating performance. Along the way, "Ms. Ali," a tap-dancer, also entertained the sold-out audience. Three cheers for Art Blakey, the spirit behind it all.
THE PAUL CARR GROUP
On September 22, 2018, the Paul Carr Group appeared at the Caton Castle, with Paul Carr on tenor sax, Tom Williams on trumpet, Bob Butta on piano, Amy Shook on acoustic bass, and Lenny Robinson on drums. This collection of regional all-stars did not disappoint.
Duke Ellington's swinging classic, "In a Mellow Tone," was emblematic of a musical approach whereby Paul's versatile tenor sax teased out the melody in the horn's lower register, punctuated with dissonant inflections behind the beat, while Tom's trumpet alternated the pattern in a contrasting timbre-- crisp or slurred-- against a background of rhythmic piano and drum repartee over an intrepid bass line.
Duke Ellington's music harkens back to the days when melodies were hummable. That's fitting, since this show was billed as "A Tribute to Ben Webster" (1909-1973), the legendary tenor sax player from Kansas City, of whom Whitney Balliett, a noted jazz critic and author of "The Sound of Surprise" (1959), said in one of the book's essays: "A heavy, sedate man, with wide, boxlike shoulders, who holds his instrument stiffly in front of him, as if it were a figurehead, Webster played in various big bands before the four-year tour of duty with Duke Ellington that began in 1937." Shifting gears, Balliett continued, "In a slow ballad number, Webster's tone is soft and enormous, and he is apt to start his phrases with whooshing smears that give one the impression of being suddenly picked up by a breaker and carried smoothly to shore."
On "Our Love is Here to Stay," a slow ballad, Paul's full-tone tenor sax recalled something of the sweep if not the whoosh of Ben Webster's style, with a relaxed phrasing that ebbed and flowed within the contours of Bob's piano comping, a sort of counter-melody that embellished the joyful mood, as Tom's trumpet interludes maintained a measured pace in a moderate tone. Shades of Ben Webster, Amy's chiseled bass solo seemed to emote the lyrics: "...In time the Rockies may crumble/ Gibraltar may tumble/ They're only made of clay/ But our love is here to stay."
Another Duke Ellington composition, "Caravan," showed Paul's up-tempo chops, accenting a torrent of notes with honks and squawks, complemented by Tom's briskly piercing trumpet licks, reminiscent of a bebopping "Dizzy" Gillespie. And Amy's plucky bass line neatly coincided with Lenny's rhythmically fluid drumbeats, staggering the pace of "Caravan," with Bob's expansive piano runs in figurative pursuit.
There's a solidity to Ben Webster's style that is typified in his various renditions of "Body and Soul," a repertoire stalwart that he recorded with Billie Holiday on a 1957 album of the same name. Tom's trumpet interpretation of this seminal jazz standard was majestic.
However, there is an aspect of Ben's music-- his unhurried pace-- that does not translate well in our high-tech era, where the byword is "instantaneous" (not to be confused with "speed," which lasts beyond the instant). Ben's luxurious tones and lingering notes maintain the continuity of a coherent whole, a storytelling quality that is increasingly beside the point in an era where disjointed fast talk, the acoustical equivalent of fine print, is the coin of the realm.
I am convinced that the mind-numbing din of pettifogging lawyers, jack-leg politicians and assorted other TV infomercials makes us less and less able to hear and appreciate music like Ben Webster's, in all of its connected parts. Sociologist Neil Postman's intriguing book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" (1985), explores a related idea, contrasting a past era informed by print with the present visual era informed by television.
"My point," said Postman, "is that we are by now so thoroughly adjusted to the 'Now...this' world of [TV] news-- a world of fragments, where events stand alone, stripped of any connection to the past, or to the future, or to other events-- that all assumptions of coherence have vanished."
Notice that Postman's provocative conclusion about the disorienting effect on our sensibilities of a TV-informed world-- in other words, "Just one damn thing after another," historian Arnold J. Toynbee's apocryphal description of history-- was published in 1985, well before the onslaught of 24/7 cable/satellite TV and the Internet!
In any event, Ben Webster's penchant for understatement--calculated restraint-- is not a lost art. Amy Shook's walking bass line on "My Romance," for instance, was an object lesson in such patient elegance, building an enchantingly rhythmic sequence one step at a time.
In this neck of the woods, Paul Carr is a tireless ambassador for the jazz tradition exemplified by Ben Webster, as well as its other permutations, through formalized teaching (he founded the "Jazz Academy of Music" in Washington, D.C.), organizing and performing in memorial concerts at regional venues like the Caton Castle, plus moving and shaking the annual "Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival." Wherever the tenor sax is the subject, Ben Webster's artistry is bound to be in the mix, along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young-- jazz music's "Founding Fathers" of the tenor sax.
While the negative dimension of our high-tech world-- a fetish for the isolated instant-- has already been noted, the same technology has a redeeming quality: Recorded music of all kinds is more accessible than ever before. Indeed, it is something of a paradox that serious music is made both more available and less desirable by the same digital technology. By and large, symphony orchestras could not exist nowadays without government subsidies-- either directly, on the European model, or through tax breaks (uptown food stamps?). It looks like Mozart and Beethoven are in the same neglected boat as Ben Webster.
In sum, a cornucopia of affordable recorded music by tenor sax virtuoso Ben Webster is there for the asking. Hopefully, this splendid tribute performance by the Paul Carr Group will whet some appetites with the cyberspace posting of a sampling on the Caton Castle website, over and above the sparse but lively audience in attendance.
THE JOE FARNSWORTH QUARTET
On September 8, 2018, the Joe Farnsworth & Vincent Herring Quartet appeared at the Caton Castle, with Joe Farnsworth on drums, Vincent Herring on alto sax, Keith Brown on piano, and John Webber on acoustic bass. This New York-based collaboration was top-notch.
Out of the gate, the ballad "There is No Greater Love" displayed Vincent's heavyweight credentials as his full-tone alto sax trilled the melody with a sonority similar to alto sax great Lou Donaldson's soulful swing, while Keith's expansive piano flourishes blended with Joe's rhythmic drumbeats and John's throbbing bass line, binding them like a gravitational force. It was a musical "Hello" from Vincent and Keith, newcomers to the Caton Castle.
On "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," Stevie Wonder's pop hit set to a Latin beat, Vincent's angular yet lyrical phrasing brought to mind those past tenor sax masters-- Lester Young, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster-- for whom the words of the song were all-important. I read someplace that in a long-ago recording session Ben Webster once stopped playing a ballad in mid-chorus, explaining that he had forgotten the lyrics. All saxophonists blow notes, but the elite also play the sounds, moods, and ideas provoked by the words to a song.
Speaking of lyrics, let us note the recent passing at age 76 of Aretha Franklin, the universally acknowledged "Queen of Soul." A versatile singer, Aretha was equally at home performing pop, Gospel, R&B, soul, and even jazzy blues-- as in "Unforgettable" (1964), her tribute album to the music of Dinah Washington. A cut from that record--"Drinking Again"-- epitomizes for me Aretha's bitter/sweet persona.
Its opening line-- "I'm drinking again"-- holds the high-pitched "I" in an extended single note that lasts so long that it grabs you in the collar with anticipation of its ending, then lyrics to a moderate tempo blues beat describe the despairing mood of a bar-scene denizen who bemoans the sorry lot of love's losers before finally exclaiming abjectly: "I ain't got nothing but a bottle of Seagrams and just a mem-o-ry." Such pathos!
I think that Aretha's Detroit grittiness was the key to her mass appeal. I knew somebody dear to me like that lady in the sad song, and Aretha probably did too. Over and over, my dear one tried to drown her sorrows in booze but, sadly, her sorrows knew how to swim. And it often started with a half-pint of Seagrams gin or, as we used to call it, a shorty of "Knotty Head."
"I'm in the Mood for Love," a ballad that first appeared in an old "Little Rascals" movie, was dedicated to Harold Mabern, the octogenarian Dean of Jazz Piano, who is Joe Farnsworth's regular pianist and, in that capacity, has frequently performed (with John Webber also) at the Caton Castle. On this tune, Keith's piano molded the melody with a Mabern-like ornamental touch that was echoed in John's boisterous bass solo, a calculated effusion of notes.
Both Joe and John performed on the CD, "Mr. Lucky," Harold's tribute to the music of Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990), a consummate black entertainer whose posthumous image is unsettled in a way that Aretha Franklin's is not. Their publics were different. Aretha's music crossed over from Detroit R&B (Incidentally, the term "Rhythm and Blues" was coined to replace "Race Music" as a commercial recording category by "Billboard" magazine in 1959), whereas Sammy sang and danced from the Great American Songbook, channeling mainstream pop culture. His was a token non-white presence in the post-World War II America of glittering show-biz writ large: Hollywood, TV, Las Vegas, Broadway. Blazing a trail in an alien environment can be a thankless job. In his day, some accused Sammy of being insufficiently "black," an Uncle Tom. Of course, the same racial spitball was hurled at Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong (1901-1971), the greatest trumpeter of all time.
Without a doubt, the "Queen of Soul" crossed over to mainstream acclaim on a road paved by others. Kudos to Harold Mabern for his CD shout-out to the trailblazing "Mr. Lucky," especially Harold's bravura piano take on one of Sammy's signature ballads, "What Kind of Fool am I?"
Vincent shifted into his high-speed gear on "Inception," pianist/composer McCoy Tyner's up-tempo harmonic vehicle, and the rhythm section was up to the full-throttle challenge, Joe Farnsworth's drums especially, with a bass drum uncharacteristically audible amidst the clashing of a single ride cymbal and clapping high-hat. Indeed, Joe's drum kit was notably spare, proof that less can be more.
On a long-ago road trip, I once surprised some jazz-averse companions by playing the sultry standard, "You Go to My Head," from tenor sax legend Gene "Jug" Ammons' "Angel Eyes" CD. My captive audience warmed to the tune, one person in particular who observed, "That kind of music makes you want to light up a cigarette." Yeah, the Joe Farnsworth & Vincent Herring Quartet was like that.
THE JOHN LAMKIN, II
JOHN LAMKIN, II FAVORITES 18AUG2018
THE ALLYN JOHNSON QUINTET
August 11, 2018
On August 11, 2018, the Allyn Johnson Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, with Allyn Johnson on piano, Antonio Parker on alto sax, Theljon Allen on trumpet, Herman Burney on bass, and Kelton Norris on drums. As a frequent sideman at the Caton Castle, Allyn's feisty piano customarily sets a high bar for the rhythm section, and on this night the entire ensemble excelled in following their leader.
"Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" was typical. On this up-tempo standard, Herman's rock-solid bass line pulsated with a vibrancy that laid claim to rhythmic space beside Kelton's challenging drumbeats, cymbals setting the pace with snare drums flaring behind Allyn's elliptical statement of the melody, a shifting trickle of notes that gained momentum in the restatements until waves of piano licks finally subsided.
Theljon's bracing trumpet solo, slurring high notes but generally maintaining an even tone with lyrical phrasing that hinted at the garrulous style of trumpet master Freddie Hubbard, was complemented by Antonio's alto sax, responding at a sprinting pace in a mellow flow of notes, punctuated by subtle dissonance.
While Allyn's style defies easy categorization, it showed itself in a definitive way at a performance in tribute to the music of the late and great pianist, Mulgrew Miller, that took place at the Caton Castle last summer with a quintet headed by drummer Aaron Seeber. Abrupt tempo transitions, creative modulations in volume, interposing a melody within the melody-- Allyn played Mulgrew's characteristic piano licks to a "t." And in this latest show, Allyn expressly acknowledged Mulgrew's influence as the band performed "Another Type Thang," a brassy swing tempo number recorded by Mulgrew.
There's yet another arrow in Allyn's stylistic quiver; that is, music with an overtly religious dimension as contained in his CD entitled "Grace: The Transforming Journey," by Allyn Johnson & Divine Order. By happenstance, I received a copy of this CD as abandoned property from a disappointed fan of Allyn's music who could not abide such lyrics as, "There's not a friend like the lowly Jesus, no not one, no not one."
Such a spiritual disaffection between musician and fan is not unheard of. In the 19th century, composer Richard Wagner's (pronounced "Vagner") celebrated operas based on Germanic folklore made him a rock star forerunner in Europe and chief among his groupies (see the effusive praise in "The Birth of Tragedy") was none other than Friedrich Nietzsche, the writer whose philosophical atheism laid the intellectual foundation for a demonic secularism (men who live by bread alone) dominant in today's Western world. Famously, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God.
Well, as it turned out, Wagner seemingly had an epiphany and changed the focus of his operatic concern (notably in "Parsifal") from Germanic folklore to something resembling the Christian redemption story. In response, Nietzsche denounced Wagner as decadent.
Alas, reports of the death of God have not been confirmed, but we have it on good authority that Nietzsche died on August 25, 1900.
"A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" was a trio performance that spotlighted Herman Burney's dexterous bass. Isolating single notes, Allyn's solo reminded me that jazz piano may involve the same musical scale that is employed in the classical music tradition but playing jazz means that Allyn does something radically different with it, in that a time-keeping jazz drumbeat is always implied. However, some perceived differences in musical categories are more apparent than real. At a recent Caton Castle performance, local drum phenom John Lamkin, III observed from the bandstand that all of our popular musical forms are based on a jazz beat. Given the many distinctions that are drawn within jazz, not to mention the contrasts with everything else on the radio, John's statement requires some digesting.
From a broader perspective, John's observation is indisputable. While the drumbeat's tempo accounts for a night and day difference between jazz and classical music, only shades of gradation distinguish jazz from blues, rock, pop, R&B, and even Gospel music. They're all, generally speaking, variations on the generic (12 bar) blues pattern that underlies even the Gospel staple, "Amazing Grace" (sample the three different iterations on Allyn's aforesaid CD). Fans may not see it, but the family resemblance between jazz and its pop music progeny is as obvious from a classical music perspective as the similarity between all of the world's nationalities would be to a Martian.
Like Allyn's disgruntled fan (and Nietzsche), people sometimes demand more from music (and artists) than it is possible to deliver. "Beauty" is an inadequate substitute for "Truth." What will you do when the music stops? In the quaint expression of piano legend "Fats" Waller, "One never knows, do one?"
In any event, music is king of its own domain. In my estimation, Allyn's "Gospel" CD does not represent his best work. That has nothing to do with references to Jesus Christ ("...the way, the truth, and the life..." John 14:6). What the CD lacks is more of Herman Burney (he's on the CD) on bass, with his remarkable ability to articulate a melody while maintaining the beat (especially when he hums or scats), and the crisp accents-- shades of "Philly" Joe Jones-- of Kelton Norris' dynamic drums. Their rhythmic interplay with Allyn's raucous piano on the quintet's rendition of saxophonist Hank Mobley's "This I Dig of You" was exquisite, with Allyn delivering some shrill notes suggestive of steel drums.
For good measure, the audience was treated to a sit-in performance by trumpet sensation Sean Jones, head of the Peabody Conservatory's jazz department, on "Bags' Groove," vibraphonist Milt Jackson's bluesy jazz standard. Sean, whose style is so explosive that at times he doesn't play notes so much as launch them, is scheduled to appear at the Caton Castle on October 6, 2018, with a group that includes saxophonist Donald Harrison and drummer John Lamkin, III.
All in all, Allyn Johnson's quintet delighted the Caton Castle crowd. Surely, I could get an "Amen" to that.
ABRAHAM BURTON QUARTET
Saturday - July 28, 2018
JOHN LAMKIN, III QUARTET
July 14, 2018
On July 14, 2018, John Lamkin, III's quartet appeared at the Caton Castle, with John Lamkin, III on drums, Grant Langford on tenor sax, Herman Burney on acoustic bass, and Dave Manley on electric guitar. This show was high octane.
John is the beneficiary of two generations of refinements in jazz drumming. Big band drummers like "Chick" Webb, "Big Sid" Catlett and "Papa" Jo Jones had already embellished the drums' time-keeping function with solo pyrotechnics before the post-World War II generation-- Max Roach, "Philly" Joe Jones, Art Blakey, and others-- moved the drums to the forefront of bebop ensembles. In addition to improvisation, what distinguishes jazz in its various incarnations from other musical forms is its drum-driven rhythm, a stylized pulse that sustains a structural force against which the other musicians continuously react. You could say that in a shifting sort of way the drums are to jazz what the net and boundary lines are to tennis.
Indeed, John was the leading light on "Duke" Ellington's "Caravan," an uptempo vehicle for a barrage of cymbal strokes amidst snare drum eruptions-- mesmerizing solo interjected-- that set the pace for Grant's even-toned tenor work, exploring the contours of a familiar melody in adventurous ways, rising to John's challenge. Herman's steady hand on bass and Dave's extended guitar riffs, his powerful strumming, rounded out a solid performance.
The unannounced appearance of Grant (a Charlie Parker look-alike) and Dave was a pleasant surprise. Last minute additions/substitutions are not uncommon in the jazz world. In fact, "sit-in" performances involving visiting musicians from the audience are a common occurrence at the Caton Castle. It has always amazed me how jazz musicians who play together for the first time are able to produce a collective sound that is cohesive and spontaneous as if it were the product of prolonged mutual acquaintance. Of course, top-notch players practice their craft relentlessly-- saxophonists "Sonny" Rollins and John Coltrane are legendary in this regard. However, it appears that the possibility of a "first take" blending of musicians of varying talent levels and styles derives from the existence of a common musical language, the embracing of which is the key to the jazz kingdom.
Some light on the mystery was shed in a jazz insider's memoir by saxophonist Richard Terrill-- "Fakebook: Improvisations on a Journey Back to Jazz" (2000). Talking out of school, the author describes the written technical prop-- the "fakebook"-- as "a collection of melodies or 'heads' with the chord changes, so that musicians can read the tunes and changes instead of having to play solely by ear and memory." Terrill continued, "The name 'fakebook' comes from the old coinage that a musician who is improvising over a set of chord changes is 'faking,' making up his or her own melody."
The term "fakebook" is apparently used ironically, in that Terrill calls it "a place to start, the structure upon which music is composed;" thus providing the basis for very real improvisation by putting all of the players on the same page. Even so, experience from the Caton Castle and elsewhere teaches listeners that given their common musical language, playing jazz by ear and memory suffices for many, even without the "fakebook." Indeed, there are noteworthy examples of extraordinary jazz musicians who could not read music at all; pianist Erroll Garner comes to mind.
Reading is not a prerequisite for singing. Clearly, Grant's lyrical tenor sax serenade on "My Foolish Heart," a brooding ballad memorably recorded by saxophonist Stan Getz, came straight from the heart and found an echo in Herman's soulful bass solo.
As is its nature, art imitates life. Just as a common language enables musical harmony, the lack of a common language is always attendant to social disharmony. When the same word means different things depending upon your perspective, strife follows. There is a story in the Bible about two clans of brothers (more precisely, cousins, the grandchildren of brothers) who came to blows about some perceived affront to group dignity. Problem was, they all resembled each other so much that it was hard to identify the enemy. The only telltale distinction was a difference in speech patterns whereby one group could not pronounce the word "Shibboleth" without spitting.
In their internecine warfare (something similar to Rwanda in 1994), a slight variation in language sufficed to determine who lived and who died: "Then they took him [who mispronounced], and slew him at the passage of the Jordan; and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand" (Judges 12:1-6).
Surely, nothing of the sort could happen in red state/blue state 21st century America-- right?
According to the poet, music has charms to sooth a savage beast. Perhaps. Whereas serious music involves a deliberate balance of contrasts, a person in a rage-- a savage beast-- loses all sense of proportion. Consider the yarn about the scorned wife who determined to kill her husband; so she poisoned him, strangled him, stabbed him, shot him, held him under water, then squatted down and urinated in the river. When asked why she felt the need to pee in the water, the forlorn lady responded: "Every little bit helps."
Nonetheless, music can be a tonic for the civilized. Dave's delicate guitar solo on "Peace," pianist/composer Horace Silver's pensive ballad, created a certain tension with Herman's bass line (so much more pronounced in the absence of a piano) and John's sensuous brush strokes, before a melodic resolution released the small but attentive audience from the collective grip of this solid rhythm section, playing in the pocket.
In music and life, not every discordant note is unwelcome. "Shibboleths" appeal to the snob in us all. For example, devotees of classical music cannot utter the word "jazz" without contempt; that is to say, without figuratively spitting. And jazz fans return the favor whenever they deign to mumble something about "classical" music.
Of course, we jazz snobs are justified. John Lamkin, III's spirited quartet was proof of that.