On June 1, 2019, the Paul Carr Ensemble with special guest Jeremy Pelt appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Paul Carr on tenor sax, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Antonio Parker on alto sax, Allyn Johnson on piano, Amy Shook on acoustic bass and Aaron Seeber on drums. All standout performers, this group delivered in spades.
As the moving force behind the annual Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in the Washington, D.C. area, Paul Carr must have a smartphone contact list (what used to be called a Rolodex) of working musicians that would print out to book-length. The Caton Castle has benefited from the Paul Carr connection with shows that he orchestrated in the recent past featuring such jazz luminaries as Louis Hayes (drums), Bobby Watson (alto sax), "Bootsie" Barnes (tenor sax) and Sharon Clark (vocals)-- to name a few.
Old-timers will recall that a similar relationship existed in the 1960s and '70s between the Left Bank Jazz Society's Sunday shows at the old Famous Ballroom and legendary tenor saxophonist/composer Jimmy Heath, the conduit for local booking of the biggest names in jazz, the likes of John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Freddie Hubbard. This was a point of pride in the nonagenarian's book co-authored with Joseph McLaren, "I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath" (2010):
"During this period I also became associated with an organization in Baltimore called the Left Bank Jazz Society, which gave cabaret parties one or two Sundays a month. The organization would provide my transportation to Baltimore, where I would play with a local rhythm section. Since I knew so many musicians, I became their New York connection. Their logo was a little guy with a tenor sax, and I always said that it was an image of me-- and nobody denied it because I was the first one to bring in the musicians."
Jeremy Pelt ranks among the top trumpeters on the jazz scene today, as he demonstrated with an artful rendering of "Pensativa," a Latin flavored staple of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. His distinctive tone sets Jeremy apart; it's full and clear without much vibration or slurring. Crisply articulating the melody, Jeremy's trumpet alternated between flowing lines and ejaculated phrases before Allyn's comping piano was redirected in a solo flourish of exuberant notes, stretching the melodic contours with airy figures against the background of Amy's solid bass line tracking the beat of Aaron's rhythmic drums, with tapping cymbals and snare accents.
On this tune, Antonio's alto sax solo began in a sporadic and chirpy fashion that led to lines of rolling notes defined in scope by dissonant accents, asymmetrically. Paul's tenor sax chorus was a complementary voice, crafting patterns of elongated notes in the middle to lower register with rhythmic deviations and a stray high note or two.
Jeremy's style is reminiscent of trumpet great Freddie Hubbard with its broad-- high/low, fast/slow-- range, melodic inventiveness and distinctive sonorous blending of bebop and swing influences, particularly on ballads like "What's New," "Speak Low" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." His highly lyrical approach recalls a time when melody was central. Like Michael Jordan in basketball, who elevated the game of the players around him, Jeremy's ballad prowess had a spillover effect as evidenced by Antonio's dynamic alto sax solo on "You Don't Know What Love Is," matching Jeremy's brilliance.
Jeremy had already made a believer out of me with "Jazz Incorporated" (2010), his sizzling live CD collaboration at "Smalls" jazz club in Greenwich Village with a quartet that featured drummer Louis Hayes, the ageless bebop innovator, wherein Jeremy's mastery of a traditional groove is showcased.
Ah, nostalgia. The familiar is welcome wherever you can find it when, to quote Shakespeare's Hamlet, "the times are out of joint." Like thousands of other licensed drivers, I recently received notice from the Motor Vehicle Administration to present myself before a date certain with specific proof of my identity: An original birth certificate, an original social security card, mail addressed to me from a government agency, a utility company or a bank. No such proof, then no driver's license. Talk about an identity crisis!
I felt like a character in "The Castle" (1926), Franz Kafka's surrealist novel about an outsider's efforts to settle in a village where the sole criterion for belonging was approval by the incomprehensible functionaries of a mysterious castle situated high above it. When, for example, a family was shunned by neighbors because of unfounded rumors of misbehavior toward the castle, the paterfamilias appealed to random officials for a pardon: "Yet before he could be forgiven he had to prove his guilt, and that was denied in all the departments."
Here and now, a sea of anonymous humanity, thousands upon thousands of unidentified individuals, flows daily into this country over an open southern border to the complete indifference of the Motor Vehicle Administration. Don't all identities matter? Anyway, I supplied the required identity papers and, thereafter, drove triumphantly to the fort, a/k/a the Caton Castle.
This band's entire rhythm section is well-known to Caton Castle regulars from past performances. Returning after a long absence, Amy's bass line walked again on "Pensativa." In a confident style, Amy carved out rhythmic space with a pronounced beat between the fluid time-stamp of Aaron's drums and Allyn's abstract piano framing, before soloing in a flowing cadence that carried the listener along.
Setting the pace, Aaron's busy drums (shades of Winard Harper) took the lead on "Music Endures," Paul's original uptempo vehicle composed in tribute to tenor sax great Joe Henderson, with clashing cymbals and a pounding bass drum that raced after Amy's fleet bass beat with snare drum flourishes attuned to Allyn's comping piano. Then Antonio's alto sax launched into a searching chorus in the upper register that twisted and turned, showering notes.
Alternately, Paul's tenor sax and Jeremy's trumpet gave this tune a harmonic workout. The abrupt and angular tone of Paul's horn was offset by a lilting edginess in the protracted notes of Jeremy's trumpet, augmented by fluttering phrases.
Alto sax great Gary Bartz, a Baltimore native, proclaimed in song that "Music Is My Sanctuary" (1977) and for those of like mind the Caton Castle is a refuge from a cultural storm. Of course, Gary's improvisational music (jazz) can only work its magic when properly digested-- it's an acquired taste-- and some folks lack the right listening technique. They're doing it wrong, like the guy who said he's no fan of Viagra because it gives him a stiff neck.
The Paul Carr ensemble with special guest Jeremy Pelt brought a straight-ahead musical style that fit with a laid-back Caton Castle audience, just so. Bravo.
THE KRIS FUNN QUARTET
Saturday - May 18, 2019
On May 18, 2019, the Kris Funn Quartet appeared at the Caton Castle, with Kris Funn on acoustic bass, Brent Birckhead on alto sax, Allyn Johnson on piano and John R. Lamkin, III on drums. The straight-ahead jazz artistry of each of these returning performers is familiar to Caton Castle regulars and, collectively, they did not disappoint.
A frequent sideman, this was the first Caton Castle appearance of bassist extraordinaire Kris Funn as the band leader. What was the difference? More Kris: As a soloist, as a composer (four original compositions from his "Corner Store" CD), as a raconteur (including amusing tales about copyright royalties high-jinks and the late trumpet great Roy Hargrove's vocal limitations) and also (who knew?) as a singer, semi-seriously crooning "September in the Rain," shades of Roy Hargrove.
On "Invitation," an uptempo version of the oft-recorded standard adapted to a Latin beat that zigzagged around a fitful bass line, Kris shined. His solo introduction articulated a spacious foundation--a melodic rhythm-- with a bold tone as John's drums manipulated a shadowing beat that was conversant with harmonizing hints from Allyn's comping piano. A brisk piano solo followed with waves of running notes offset by counter-rhythmic refrains, creating ascending tension that reached a crescendo.
Brent's alto sax erupted with a lyrical treatment of the melodic theme in bursts of colorful notes preparatory to sloping linear figures in a shifting middle to upper register timbre with abrupt and angular deviations, his effervescent phrasing suggestive of alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune.
Charles Mingus notwithstanding, the acoustic bass fiddle is an unusual lead instrument, especially since the advent of the electric bass guitar. Historically, when the New Orleans Dixieland marching bands of old came indoors, the measured pulse that had been supplied by the tuba was transferred to the upright bass. Given the subtlety of the string instrument (with no breathing limitations), the rhythmic potential of the bass function was increased along with its melodic possibilities.
"At one time, the bass just provided a thump, thump, thump accompaniment," [bassist] Buster Williams observed. "Now the bass is a voice to be reckoned with, a voice that helps form the music" (from "Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation," by Paul F. Berlinger, 1994).
Parenthetically, in the classical music tradition, for special effects the string bass has occasionally been played pizzicato, picking or plucking the strings with fingers, but it's usually played arco, with a bow. However, the "slap" style of pizzicato bass playing was invented by New Orleans proto-jazz musicians in the first two decades of the twentieth century. It is said that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. Likewise, many bass players of that era claim paternity for "slapping."
In an online article, "New Orleans String Bass Pioneers" (August 1, 2010), Daniel Meyer highlighted a plausible progenitor: "Bill Johnson [1872-1972] claimed to have invented slap style while playing a job up in Shreveport [in 1910], when his bow broke and he was temporarily unable to get a replacement." This account rings true because it's well known that necessity is the mother of invention.
And one thing led to another. Superficially, contrasting the acoustic and the newer electric bass (the design qualities of a sailboat versus a spaceship) is like comparing those before and after pictures that cosmetics merchants use to sell their products. The shiny artificiality of "after" always looks better than the face "before" Botox.
However, the musical comparison is an illusion because the electric bass is not a glorified acoustic bass, but a different instrument entirely. According to electric bassist Monk (brother of guitar legend Wes) Montgomery, "When there's an upright bass in the band, you don't really hear it as much as you feel it...the instrument blends into the music, it isn't dominant" (from "The Bass Book," by Tony Bacon & Barry Moorhouse, 1995).
Like blending versus dominance, must hearing and feeling be mutually exclusive? Judging by his refined execution and animated demeanor, Kris bids us to do both, and not to dismiss the distinction between our various senses as fussy hair-splitting like a certain Don Juan wannabe who declared himself indifferent to looks because, he said, "I turn out the lights."
On "I Can't Get Started," a brooding ballad, Kris' quirky bass introduction set the mood for Allyn's orchestral piano chorus that explored the melody in varying formulations of notes, from densely packed exclamations to singular whispers, against a background of rhythmic exchanges between Kris' granite bass line and John's shifting drumbeats-- filling, accenting and punctuating the musical exploration-- before subsequently accelerating the pace when the melody of Benny Golson's "Killer Joe" was interpolated at a faster tempo. Indeed, it's fair to say that these two tunes became a medley.
Brent's alto sax soloed in flowing lines with a broad tone and passionate intensity, as if in hot pursuit of something elusive which, ultimately, he seemed to have found in the new melodic figure.
On a bass solo, Kris demonstrated the instrument's flexibility by plucking apart the melody in high-pitched tones while maintaining the rhythmic rudiments in low-end clusters of repeated notes. Here again, Kris struck a poised equilibrium, somewhere between the "too much" of, say, Stanley Clarke's electric bass guitar fireworks and the "too little" of the tuba's superseded grunts.
This show also featured a sit-in performance by Charles Funn, longtime music educator at Dunbar High School and Kris' dad, who gave a delightful vocal rendering of "Mumbles," trumpeter Clark Terry's novelty song mixture of scat and indecipherable "words." As an aural pantomime, it was a musical variation on comic Professor Irwin Cory's academic gibberish schtick.
For the record, Kris Funn is a thirty-something member of the jazz instructional staff at the downtown Peabody Conservatory of Music-- a real professor of musical knowledge. Presuming to grade the teacher, this group received generous applause from an attentive audience.
DENNIS CHAMBERS BAND
featuring . . .
A TRIBUTE TO STEVIE WONDER and DONNY HATHAWAY
Saturday - May 4, 2019
On May 4, 2019, the Dennis Chambers Band appeared at the Caton Castle, with Dennis Chambers on drums, Frank McComb on electric keyboard and vocals, Eddie Baccus, Jr. on saxophones, Craig Alston on bass guitar, along with percussionist Nicole Ross-Sterrett, better known, she said, as "The Lady Conga Player."
This show was billed as a tribute to the music of Donny Hathaway (1945-1979) and Stevie Wonder, with the added attraction of DJ Lampdawg (a/k/a drummer John Lamkin, III) as master of ceremonies and party mixing (disco?) DJ between sets. The sold-out crowd was enthusiastic.
However, from another perspective, there was a fly in the ointment. Just as a certain all-roads-lead-to-god syncretism characterizes the religious temper of our times, the prevailing musical aesthetic embraces a similarly amalgamated stew of jazz, pop, rock, R&B, soul, funk, gospel and assorted odds and ends. It's a parody of taste, like when a glutton mixes up different dishes on a plate before eating because, he says, "It's all going to the same place, anyway."
In this vein, a Forbes magazine online article announced on March 7, 2019: "Rolling Stones Highlight This Year's New Orleans Jazz Festival." The Rolling Stones?!
So it's not entirely surprising that the "Real Jazz Live" logo on the Caton Castle website would include under that banner the music of Phyllis Hyman, Anita Baker, Donny Hathaway, and Stevie Wonder, all pop/R&B music icons whose reprised sound has been the focus of Caton Castle performances over the past few months. However, when it all becomes "Real Jazz Live" the term will lose its meaning by excluding nothing. Are we there yet?
My admiration for the aforesaid artists-- Phyllis, Anita, Donny, Stevie-- is second to none, but that does not render them jazz artists. If my admiration were the sole criterion then Mozart would be a jazz composer.
As an old dog incapable of new tricks, I can't shake the habit of making categorical distinctions: A Christian is not a Muslim, opera is not rap and everything with a drumbeat is not jazz. In my hidebound ways, I even disagree with the local politician who recently declared that everybody is responsible for Baltimore's crime problem; No, I say criminals are responsible for crimes.
In my house, "discriminating" is not a fault, it's a virtue. "For as he thinketh in his heart," says the Scripture, "so is he" (Proverbs 23:7). Confusion breeds confusion.
In any event, the Dennis Chambers Band did a creditable job in recreating the music of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, both accomplished instrumentalists as well as singers, mainly on the strength of Frank McComb's vocal chops, his lithe and broad-ranged alto sonority that reflected Donny's gospel influence on "For All We Know" and also channeled Donny's lyrical sensuality on lovely ballads like "The Closer I Get to You" (a duet sit-in performance with Karen Linette) and "A Song For You." Moreover, Frank closely mimicked Stevie's vocal inflections on "Superstition."
The rhythm section was solid throughout, with stellar drum work by Dennis, setting time crisply through active cymbals and methodical drum accents that generally outpaced the funky beat of Craig's assertive bass guitar. And Dennis' solos were captivating.
Eddie's alto sax, in particular, added a soulful, complementary touch when not soloing to a danceable beat, like on Donny's funk/rock/soul tour de force, "The Ghetto." On this tune, Nicole's busy conga drums recalled the delightful way in which that instrument added spice to the original rendition on Donny's "Live" album (1973), courtesy of percussionist Earl DeRouen.
Stevie, Donny and I were part of the African-American baby-boomer cohort that reached age twenty-something in the 1970s. While Donny was like a spectacular meteor that flashed glowingly across the night sky, Stevie was the morning sun-- perpetual, bright and warm. Starting a decade earlier, I first saw "Little" Stevie Wonder perform "Fingertips" on harmonica at the old Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue (thanks to my Aunt Sue).
It's no coincidence that Stevie's "Living for the City" and Donny's "The Ghetto" both commented on the perceived oppressiveness of the inherited social order of 1970s America because an attitude of protest was ubiquitous; but Donny's joyful sorrow was more intense, a whole musical and emotional tone deeper than Stevie's. Of course, we learned after the fact that Donny was troubled by demons of mental disorder that apparently contributed to his suicide in 1979, at age 34.
As a social phenomenon, the frequency of suicide is trending upwards according to an April 19, 2018 post on the American Council on Science and Heath website: "Suicides Outnumber Murders 6 to 1 for Whites; Murders Outnumber Suicides 3.5 to 1 For Blacks." This subject transfixed French philosopher Albert Camus ("The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays," 1955):
"Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering. [... and concluding 33 pages later...] But the point is to live."
Of course, the Christians among us would smile at Camus' perplexity, recognizing that life is its own reward when accepted as a gift from God, with thanksgiving. In the words of "Great is Thy Faithfulness," the Baptist hymn: "Morning by morning new mercies I see; All I have needed Thy hand hath provided, Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me."
On tunes like "I Wish," from the album "Songs in the Key of Life" (1976), Stevie's music often contained a secular appropriation of this religious principle: "Looking back on when I was a little nappy headed boy/ Then my only worry was for Christmas what would be my toy/ Even though we sometimes would not get a thing/ We were happy with the joy the day would bring."
The first tune of the second set, an unidentified jazz fusion offering similar to the fare on electric keyboardist Herbie Hancock's "Head Hunters" album (1973), featured a sit-in performance by the teenage Dorsey siblings, Ephraim and Ebban, on tenor and alto sax, respectively. My, how they've grown! They both soloed imaginatively with a harmonic flair on their acoustic instruments that gained heft by contrast with Frank's plugged-in groove. Their day is on the horizon.
Again, this show was enthusiastically received by a full house. "Real Jazz Live?" No, that's fake news.
THE WARREN WOLF QUINTET
Saturday - April 20, 2019
Alex Brown, Christian McBride, Warren Wolf, John R. Lamkin, III, Sean Jones,
and tap dancing sensation Alexandria Brinae Ali Bradley.
JOHN R. LAMKIN,II - 2019 Annual JAZZ Appreciation Month Show
Bob Butta, Michael Graham, Dr. John R. Lamkin, II, Jesse Moody, Michael Hairston
On April 13, 2019, the John R. Lamkin, II "Favorites" Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, with John R. Lamkin, II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Michael Hairston on tenor sax, Bob Butta on piano, Michael Graham on acoustic bass and Jesse Moody on drums. Having rolled out their new CD, "Transitions," at the Caton Castle last December, this group's polished sound is both familiar and welcome.
Indeed, amidst my list of everyday irritations-- pet peeves-- concerning such things as robo-calls and telephone answering machines that require a voice response (artificial intelligence, so-called), anonymous local sports teams (following the revolving-door lineups of the football "Ravens" and the baseball "Orioles" is dizzying) and the general nonchalance about babies being aborted after birth to effectuate a woman's "right" to choose who lives and who dies (it bothers me that so many are not bothered)-- amidst all that sort of culture smog, this group's straight-ahead jazz vibe (bebop revisited) is a breath of fresh air for the musically "woke."
On "Peace," pianist Horace Silver's slow-tempo cerebral ballad, Bob's opening statement of the melodic theme channeled Silver's light and expansive piano style, delivering notes with guitar-like particularity and shaping elaborate phrases in a solo interlude that tracked Michael Graham's pronounced bass line, ahead of the rasping brush strokes of Jesse's drums.
Jesse's brushes also got a workout on other soft ballads, like saxophonist Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford," a tribute to trumpet great Clifford Brown, but such was not the case on "A Night in Tunisia," trumpeter "Dizzy" Gillespie's uptempo bebop anthem with the famous introductory trumpet lick: "Dah Dah Dee Dah Dee Dee Dah Dah."
On this number, Jesse's drumsticks pounded the beat, maintaining a shifting pace in rhythmic sync with Michael Graham's racing bass line and Bob's comping piano refrains. Like "Dizzy," the insistent tone of John's trumpet soared above the cacophonous rhythm section in waves of notes, repeating the melody in an ascending pattern.
Michael Hairston's tenor sax soloed with a hard tone and choppy phrasing reminiscent of "Junior" Cook, tenor sax sideman (along with trumpeter "Blue" Mitchell) on many great Horace Silver recordings. And the twisting scope of Michael's horn reinforced the flowing power of this tune.
"Dizzy's" contribution to bebop went beyond the music. For instance, his trademark black beret established a fashion etiquette for jazz clubs-- guys sporting a hat indoors-- that has endured to this day. Indeed, not only was Bob Butta's piano performance exceptional, but his customary stingy-brim fedora wasn't bad either. I prefer a cap.
On "Transitions," the title tune of the quintet's new CD, Michael Graham's vibrant bass set the tone for this cha cha style rhythmic excursion. Jesse's busy drum work with tapping rim shots mediated between Michael's bossy bass line and Bob's feisty piano before Michael Hairston's tenor sax solo took flight along edgy contours with a varying tone, methodically sifting the melodic theme down to its essence.
John's flugelhorn solo employed a laid-back approach with elongated phrases that accentuated his mellow tone. He used pauses to create a sense of anticipation that was followed by sustained melodic riffs, in the manner of Art Farmer, a flugelhorn master.
This show's repertoire-- Miles Davis' "Seven Steps to Heaven," Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring," Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring"-- paid tribute to great trumpeters who blossomed in post-World War II urban America, a hothouse of creativity, musical and otherwise, that could provide some needed guidance to a present generation that insists on looking elsewhere.
In a 1969 interview, bassist Ron Carter commented on the volatility in the musical fashion of a half-century ago:
"Music is in a circle; it's going back to swing. Right now bands are meandering, trying to check out the rock path. I came to New York about a year before freedom [saxophonist Ornette Coleman-style avant-garde jazz] really got hot. If you check which bands are functioning now, playing the same music, you'll be surprised to see how few are left. [...] If you hear some guy play freedom who does not know bebop and is not hip to swing, he is just playing off the top of his head. He's not really as free as someone with a musical background" (from "Notes and Tones" (1977), by Arthur Taylor).
The perennial disconnect between the old and the new reminds me of a joke about a drunk crawling around on all fours under a streetlamp when a policeman happened upon the scene:
Policeman: What are you doing?
Drunk: Looking for my keys.
Policeman: Where did you lose them?
Drunk: Over there (pointing to the darkness).
Policeman: Well, if you lost them over there, why are you crawling around under this streetlamp?
Drunk: Because this is where the light is.
The future of jazz looks bright, as exemplified by a sensational young female organist, Akiko Tsuruga, a native of Japan, who appeared at the Caton Castle a few months ago with guitarist Charlie Sigler's straight-ahead quartet. Japan has a robust jazz scene, unlike the closed society of its mainland cousins, the Chinese. Coincidentally, the public policy of both China and the USA promotes abortion, whereas the public policy of Japan does not. Yes, the future of jazz looks bright... in Japan.
Once again, the John R. Lamkin, II "Favorites" Quintet showed the enduring vitality of straight-ahead jazz, the heir to the bebop throne. Judging by the enthusiastic reception, they were, to shift the metaphor, preaching to the choir.
THE ANTHONY WONSEY QUARTET
Saturday - April 6, 2019
Grant Langford, Anthony Wonsey, Melanie Charles, Dimitri Kolesnic, John Lamkin, III
On April 6, 2019, the Anthony Wonsey Quartet appeared at the Caton Castle, with Anthony Wonsey on piano, Grant Langford on tenor sax, Dimitri Kolesnic on bass, John Lamkin, III on drums, and featuring vocalist Melanie Charles. This show was fine art, blending a decorous musical montage.
Currently based in the "Big Apple," Anthony is no stranger to the Caton Castle. On a previous visit, I purchased his ad hoc quartet's CD recorded live at Greenwich Village's "Small's" jazz club, dubbed "Jazz Incorporated" (2010), a swinging straight-ahead offering by a smoking rhythm section-- drummer Louis Hayes (yes, that Louis Hayes!) and bassist Dezron Douglas-- backing Anthony's nimble piano styling that alternated solos with the dynamic trumpet of Jeremy Pelt, who is scheduled to appear at the Caton Castle on June 1, 2019.
This CD figures prominently among my I-pod favorites, especially "We Kiss in a Shadow," a Rogers & Hammerstein ballad performed at a crawling pace that epitomizes Anthony's dramatic dimension, his characteristically roomy thematic statements filled with intimations of counter-melodies punctuated by bluesy single notes or extended tinkling, deliberately creating a repetitive tension that builds anticipation to a point of release, if not eruption. Yes, the aforesaid CD is Exhibit A in my case for Anthony Wonsey as one of the top jazz pianists on the scene today.
This latest show featured a fine rhythm section complement to Anthony's piano, with the scintillating pace of John's driving drumbeat offsetting Dimitri's muscular bass line on a trio rendering of "Relaxin' at Camarillo," an uptempo composition by bebop's pioneering alto saxophonist, Charlie "Bird" Parker, with a curious backstory in that Camarillo is the name of a California psychiatric facility where "Bird" had been committed.
On this tune, Anthony stretched out in a flight of linear piano runs that bobbed and weaved in the manner of "Bud" Powell, the prototype bebop pianist. Notably, this trio configuration also performed an adventurous, outside the melody take on Rogers & Hammerstein's sing-song ditty, "It Might as Well be Spring." Anthony described his version as a "derangement."
Melanie Charles, a Brooklyn, New York native of Haitian descent, shifted the focus and the pace with her vocal gymnastics on the venerable standard, "There is No Greater Love," conveying a soaring melody in improvised scatting--"Rhythm-a-Ning," in Thelonius Monk's expression-- between tossed and tumbled lyrics in a style suggestive of edgy vocalist Cassandra Wilson. Grant (a Charlie Parker lookalike) followed by playing "Bird"-like figures in a profusion of notes that flowed from his tenor sax in a light and (hinting of Lester Young) mellow tone, with angular variations.
Subsequently, Melanie sang something dissimilar in what sounded like French-- "Damballa Wedo," described as a Haitian folk song. Is Melanie a jazz singer? Carmen McRae, jazz diva par excellence, deemed this question to be beside the point as relayed in author and drummer Arthur Taylor's musician-to-musician interview book: "Notes and Tones" (1977):
"Either people like what I do or they don't. [...] I know what people expect when you sing a song, and if you scat, that's jazz; that's understandable. I hear people who are not categorized as jazz singers [... and] I haven't heard them sing one song the way it was written yet. If they can deviate from the melody, which is what is categorized as jazz, where does it begin and where does it end? What makes one person a jazz singer and another one not a jazz singer? Is it a question of how much improvising they do? I don't understand it."
Indeed, the definition is fuzzy. It does not help to say that jazz is art whereas pop music is mere entertainment because that just shifts the definitional problem from the word "jazz" to the word "art." Yet, I cling to this distinction and cite the authority of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's rule-of-thumb. Considering pornography, and when does it cross the line to unlawful "obscenity," the good judge said that he could not give a definition beforehand, "but I know it when I see it."
Likewise, I know jazz when I hear it. Ipso facto, Melanie Charles is a jazz singer!
On "The Nearness of You," Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington's enduring ballad, Anthony's soulful piano accompaniment (with a Ray Charles sway) established a ponderous, lighter than air mood with ascending notes that swirled around the melody as John's drums maintained a steady rhythm, rustling brushes against cymbals and snares. Like a gravitational force, Dimitri's bass line exuded solidity before soloing briefly in a spare and vigorous tone.
Against this background, Melanie's vocal approach was enthralling, shifting range effortlessly from high to low, extending and contracting phrases--indeed, words and syllables-- in sync with the lyrical pathos: "I need no soft lights to enchant me/ If you will only grant me/ The right to hold you ever so tight/ And to feel in the night/ The nearness of you."
Reminds me of "We Kiss in a Shadow." Once again, Anthony Wonsey's ensemble defined the art of jazz, to the delight of a tuned in audience.
THE CHARLIE SIGLER GROUP
Saturday - February 23, 2019
Elijah Balbed, Akiko Tsuruga, Charlie Sigler, Eric Kennedy
On February 23, 2019, the Charlie Sigler Group appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Charlie Sigler on electric guitar, Akiko Tsuruga on electric organ, Elijah Balbed on tenor sax, and Eric Kennedy on drums. The unusual instrumentation of this quartet piqued curiosity and then rewarded attention, lavishly.
Charlie gave notice on the opening tune, "Broadway," a swinging bebop standard memorably recorded by tenor sax great Dexter Gordon, that this performance would be high octane, establishing the melody with soaring guitar licks that framed measured and repeated phrases, shades of guitarist Grant Green, an acknowledged influence.
Charlie's guitar then explored the melodic contours with a spacious strumming that served as background for Eric's insistent drumbeat counterpoint to Akiko's organ riffing, a prelude to some quirky yet rhythmic keyboard runs that paralleled the guitar lead, before Elijah's tenor sax broke forth in a fluid solo with a sassy tone in the middle register, more in the temperate vein of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz than the brash Dexter Gordon.
Organist Akiko Tsuruga is the only newcomer to the Caton Castle in this group. A native of Japan, her style reflects a long-term association with jazz/soul/blues alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson and the apparent influence of other notable organists: the soul of Richard "Groove" Holmes, the bop rhythm of Jimmy Smith, the simmering intensity of Charles "The Mighty Burner" Earland, and some blues licks worthy of Jimmy McGriff or Jack McDuff.
To say the least, Akiko is impressive. On "Frame for the Blues," also recorded on her CD, "So Cute, So Bad," Akiko demonstrated the electric organ's unique capacity to speak with multiple voices at once, delivering a bass line while comping with powerful chord bursts on one hand and flurries of notes on the other, as she manipulated the volume so that selected repetitions increased harmonic tension to the point of a sustained high note crescendo, screeching.
Unfortunately, organists are relatively sparse on the current jazz scene. Except for local stand-out Greg Hatza, the last organist to perform at the Caton Castle was Pat Bianchi on April 8, 2017, with the Tim Warfield Organization. Historically, the organ has been associated with church music and, as such, a line has been maintained between the sacred and the secular with respect to styles of play as well as venues.
In general, a dance beat has traditionally been prohibited in the sanctuary, even in religious congregations prone to emotional and ecstatic outbursts. Also, any excessive show of non-vocal virtuosity, on any instrument, is piously frowned upon. However, within those parameters but outside the church building, excellent organ jazz has been played from the hymn book, as evidenced by tenor sax legend Gene "Jug" Ammons' masterpiece of the genre, "Preachin'" (1961), featuring Clarence "Sleepy" Anderson on organ, and to a lesser extent, organ master Jimmy Smith's "The Sermon" (1959).
As with the jazz scene, churches are also experiencing such a dearth of organists nowadays that an article on the Baptist Press website (April 10, 2018) was entitled: "Where have all the organists gone?" Well, the short answer is that the organists followed the departing congregation, inasmuch as church membership across the board has increasingly dwindled over generations. Baltimore is no exception.
But there are sensational organists aplenty to be found around town, playing church music out of church. Where? At funeral establishments, the ad hoc sacred ground of an increasing legion of the unchurched. Most every reputable black funeral home has a polished professional on organ, fluent in jazzy nuances within the bounds of solemn propriety.
This is not new. A similar confluence of jazz music and ceremonial burial goes all the way back to when Dixieland bands of old played funeral dirges en route to New Orleans cemeteries and rollicking march tunes (e.g., "When The Saints Go Marching In") on the return trip home.
"Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24).
On "Mack the Knife," a tune popularized by Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, New Orleans' favorite son, Akiko and Charlie traded thematic statements before Akiko took an extended turn with ascending orchestral licks (sound waves) that reached their peak just short of a scream.
Eric's drum work was steady, softly keeping time with a shifting beat that complemented Akiko's irregular harmony, using brushes. That's noteworthy because Eric is known for his bravura approach to the drums, cymbals and bass foremost. He has a quiet side. Who knew? This puts me in mind of another drummer whose reputation for playing "loud" preceded him: the legendary Philly Joe Jones.
In his book, "Drummin' Men" (2002), Burt Korall related a story of how Philly Joe Jones became trapped in his own legend. Clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre reported the following:
"One night, I asked Philly Joe: 'Don't you ever play softly? You're so busy and play so loud.' 'I know what you mean,' Philly said. 'But I can't do it in Miles' band. He wants me to play "up there."-- surround the music with the cymbal sound and play a lot of stuff on the drums.' Philly thought for a minute and then made me an offer: [...] 'I'm going to play soft, down low with the band. You watch what Miles does.' Sure enough, after Philly began playing softly with brushes that Sunday, Miles [Davis] turned around and, in that raspy voice of his, angrily made his feelings known: 'What the f*** you doing man? Play!'"
Likewise, Eric soon returned to his customary form, wailing on "Jean De Fleur," an uptempo vehicle from guitarist Grant Green's "Idle Moments" CD. Flowing organ licks against clashing cymbals set the stage for an exchange of extended solos featuring Charlie's piercing guitar, plucking notes with pauses and prolongations that stretched the melody, against the irascible tone of Elijah's tenor sax, growling at the low end and straining at the opposite extreme to punctuate elastic melodic impressions from multiple angles. This somewhat discordant mixture of sounds resolved its tension in a rambunctious drum solo, showcasing Eric in his element.
Indeed, the Charlie Sigler Group came to play. I, for one, bought a CD.