Monday, December 28, 2009

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Shay Estes at Jardine's

Let's wrap up the year with some photos.

I don't pretend to know what's the best jazz CD of the year. But I'll tell you my favorite: Shay Estes and Trio ALL's Despite Your Destination. It's a terrific snapshot of the music and musical interplay singer Shay Estes, pianist Mark Lowrey, bassist Ben Leifer and drummer Zack Albetta deliver live.

The group played the late show at Jardine's on Saturday, December 12th, minus Mark Lowrey, who was out at another gig. Sitting in was T.J. Martley, a pianist I had not heard before but who I'm really looking forward to hearing again.

Here's a little of what we saw (clicking on a photo opens a larger version...I think).

Left to right: T.J. Martley on piano, Ben Leifer on bass, Shay Estes singing, Zack Albetta on drums

Ben in the background while Shay sings

T.J. and Shay

Ben, Shay and Zack

Drummer Zack Albetta

The group

Enjoying the piano solo

And this is what they're enjoying

Shay sings some more

Monday, December 21, 2009

This 'n That 'n Jazz Winterlude

This holiday week, a couple of unrelated thoughts.


I write often of the terrific young jazz talent populating Kansas City today. After all, their music inspired the start of this blog. But that means I haven’t raved nearly enough of the outstanding musicians who preceded those young’uns and who still perform some of the best jazz heard anywhere. Now is my chance, thanks to, as far as I know, KC’s first January jazz fest.

Johnson County Community College turns juke joint January 8th through 10th for Jazz Winterlude. And what a chance it is to catch a sampling of KC’s jazz best.

For instance, for decades one of my favorite saxophonists has been Charles Perkins (Eddie Baker first pointed me his way when I chaired the Jazz Commission). He joins Rich Hill on Friday. Same day, the Danny Embry/Rod Fleeman performance doesn’t just pair two magnificent guitarists, but adds most of what was singer Karrin Allyson’s regular group when she lived here. I just pulled out a 1988 LP with Mike Ning and Sherry Jones and put it on the turntable to play while I write. Man, that’s good. Hear them on Saturday. Or at the same time you might choose Stan Kessler and Sons of Brazil. Then later that night, if you’ve ever heard Jim Mair’s Kansas City Jazz Orchestra you already know that here is a big band you do not want to miss.

And that’s just scratching the surface.

The festival web site is here. The complete list of musicians is here. Or, if you want to just take my word for it and head straight to the tickets, go here. And I’m told that students (any area school or college) with a valid student ID can get tickets at the door for just $5.

(A side note: Should you ever see the 1984 Kansas City Jazz Festival poster, you’ll see a shot looking down on a pianist in a Count Basie-style captain’s hat, hands poised over piano keys. The pianist in that photo is Luqman Hamza. Hear him in a group with KC native and current Basie guitarist Will Matthews on Friday.)


So what’s going on with The Majestic?

They talked of Friday and Saturday night jazz downstairs when they reopened. But if there’s an easy way to find who’s playing, I can’t figure out what it is. Their newly redesigned web site (here) doesn’t tell. And they stopped maintaining their Twitter feed.

So I stopped by on a Saturday night a couple weeks back to see. What I saw (and heard): A jazz trio mostly providing what I’d call background lounge music.

When I was hoping to open a jazz club recently, I looked at The Majestic space. The consultants I engaged felt it would work best with a pianist upstairs weeknights and the downstairs club open weekends. Interestingly, that’s exactly what the new owner is doing. A reason I didn’t pursue that spot was that I want a rollicking jazz club every night.

But when I visited, rollicking it was not. Everyone there was extremely friendly and welcoming, and for that part of the experience I’d return. But not for the jazz club, at least based on what I saw that one night.

Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I really don’t understand what will work there. But I still think that space, especially downstairs, could be a jazz club renowned for nightly fun if properly programmed and promoted. I remember when the building was Fitzpatrick’s bar, before it became The Majestic. Fitzpatrick’s was on the Pub Crawl one of the years that I chaired the Jazz Commission. I went in and it was a blast. I’d love to have the chance to experience that, or something like it, driven by jazz, again and again.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Future of Jazz Is This

What is it about the holidays that brings the vultures out to circle?

Last Thursday, our friend and the original KC jazz blogger, Plastic Sax, decried “shockingly small” jazz audiences. “The vast majorities of entire generations of music fans have been lost,” he says (here). “…It is a crisis.”

He cites pianist Mark Lowrey’s Radiohead tribute, last Friday at the Record Bar, as the type of concept which could pave jazz’s future.

Meanwhile, same day (was there something in the water last Thursday?), Newsweek posted an article titled Jazz is Dead. Long Live Jazz (here). The writer largely (though less succinctly) concurs with the Plastic Sax stance. He praises modern stylists “who can speak to that splintering pop audience.” But, he tells us, it’s time to accept that “as a mass-culture force, jazz is dead.”

It’s true: Jazz as a mass-culture force is dead. Has been since before I started listening over a quarter century ago. All that time, jazz has accounted for around 3% of music sales. Chicago’s web site touts the city's rabid jazz fans, but do the math and the number totals 3% of their population. About 3% of us out here are jazz fans. That’s not a mass-culture force. 97% non-jazz fans qualifies as decidedly not winning the vast majority of music fans.

And it’s true: Some KC jazz audiences have been shockingly small. Only 200 at last month’s Folly jazz series show? That’s embarrassing (I wrote about it here). The small crowd at Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Blue Room show still leaves me miffed at an opportunity lost (I wrote about that here).

And I have no objections to expanding the jazz audience through pop appeals. Jazz once was pop music. Charlie Parker turned Slow Boat to China into a bebop standard. Ella and Sarah sang the hits of their day (sorry, Judy Collins, but the best version ever of Send in the Clowns is by Sarah Vaughan). Miles played Michael Jackson hits. So send in the pop if that will draw new fans.

Maybe, then, these guys aren’t circling vultures to deride? Maybe they’re right? Maybe the size of the jazz audience is a crisis nearly lost?

Well, before I join in kicking the jazz bucket, I have a few questions.

* What’s the next step beyond pandemonium?

I have to ask because a couple Saturdays back, KC Star editor Steve Paul tweeted, “Pandemonium between sets for Shay Estes CD release gig at Jardine’s.” Now, had this been a show with a music style not death-bed-bound, no doubt the scene would have raged beyond pandemonium. What would that have been?

* What crowd size exceeds wall-to-wall?

I need to know because that’s how we were sardined into Jardine’s at 10:30 last Saturday night. Every table was filled, every bar stool in use. Yet people kept streaming in. But, of course, if this wasn’t music nobody goes out to hear anymore, I’m sure the crowd would have been larger. How big a crowd would that have been?

* Should I fear the 30-somethings?

Because they were a good percentage of that packed Jardine’s room. And we know they’re part of jazz’s lost generations. So why were they there? What’s their agenda? They’re 30-something jazz fans. And I was sitting next to them. Should I have been afraid?

* Why is Johnson County Community College warping our youth?

I’m concerned because at the Jon Faddis/T.S. Monk performance, which followed a day of mentoring, the upper level of The Blue Room was shoulder-to-shoulder with college students entranced by every note. Why is the college exposing those students to jazz? Don’t the students realize their passion will not be shared by 97% of their peers? Why is the college dementedly allowing this impressionable Johnson County youth to pack a bar at 18th and Vine on a school night?

* One more question: They’re all so young…what is this?

(Top photo: Shay Estes with Ben Leifer and Zack Albetta at Jardine’s; Middle photo: Diverse at the Record Bar; Bottom photo: Megan Birdsall at Jardine's)

Answer: The future of jazz is this.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Lately I've been posting new entries to this blog early in the week. But lately I've had a computer with which to do that. Sadly, mine is currently in the shop for a video card transplant. So until it returns, later this week, my next post is delayed. Because typing out one of my way-too-lengthy diatribes on the phone ain't gonna happen.

-- Post From My iPhone

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Just Had to Tell Someone

I started this blog, last August, because I heard some great music and I just had to tell someone.

It was like this: I knew the names of some of the young jazz musicians making an impact on Kansas City but, for the most part, I’d yet to hear them. I hadn’t been out to a jazz club in some time.

Then one day, last April I think, a friend mentioned a big band playing The Blue Room that night with one of those names I’d heard of but had never gone out and actually heard, a singer. I needed to get down there, Bill told me. He’d seen the band and singer separately, and together he expected to hear something spectacular.

It hadn’t been a good day. If nothing else, getting a drink wouldn’t hurt. So I went, and was at The Blue Room for the third set.

That night, that big band with singer Megan Birdsall blew me away. Turned out it wasn’t the drink that would hammer at my blues, that would make me feel good (no, make me feel great). It was the music. In particular, their up tempo take on Miss Otis Regrets was, well, Bill was right, it was spectacular.

I left The Blue Room knowing I needed to get out and hear those other young jazz musicians I’d been hearing about but had never gone out and actually heard. And when I did, I discovered that the jazz talent in Kansas City today is simply astounding, and by August I had to exclaim that somewhere, and somewhere turned out to be here.

(I had no idea what I’d write about after that post, and some of the entries since read like it.)

Well, these last few weeks I’ve been out and I’ve heard some great music. And I just have to tell someone.

Start with Trio ALL. Pianist Mark Lowrey, bassist Ben Leifer and drummer Zack Albetta each smartly drive the others’ strengths, delivering jazz that’s intriguing and compelling, and downright enjoyable. Solos can be wild yet precise or complex and controlled. A KC Star review last May called the group inventive and propulsive. That still fits.

Now add singer Shay Estes. When I first heard Shay last summer my thought was, fantastic voice on very traditional stylizations. I don’t know if it was just that performance (at The Phoenix, not with Trio ALL) or if her repertoire has evolved, or if Trio ALL just propels a different dynamic, but last month at Jardine’s and backed by Trio ALL, wow. I was taken not just by that voice, but by Shay and the group’s dynamism and wonderfully personal interpretations of jazz and some pop. The way Shay, Mark, Ben and Zack musically play off each other is a night of delight I’ll take any time it’s offered. Every song they perform, they own.

Matter of fact, KC is currently blessed with an abundance of don’t-miss-‘em vocalists, from Ida McBeth to The Wild Women of KC to Shay to Megan Birdsall. Photos of Megan and her group adorned my last post. Her voice turns any song into a unique musical gift, delivered as only Megan will sing it, from tempo-busting versions of Miss Otis Regrets and Lover Man to Wichita Lineman performed like it was meant to be a jazz classic. If you weren’t at Jardine’s last month to hear her version of Fire and Rain, you missed the song done as jazz that’ll break your heart.

And let’s not forget the night internationally renowned trumpeter Jon Faddis and drummer T.S. Monk came to The Blue Room, and our own Roger Wilder (on piano) and Ben Leifer (on bass) fleshed out the group. Ben’s bandmate from the group Diverse, Ryan Lee, played the drum set for a couple numbers before Monk sat down. Each one of them belonged on that stage. I sat in front for the second set, and I could see respect in the way Jon Faddis eyed Roger and Ben. I could see he was seeing talent that could play with anyone, any time, anywhere. I know that’s what I heard.

The quality of jazz in Kansas City today continues to astound me. Sure, the jazz scene now is not what it was twenty years ago. We need more locations to showcase our abundant talent. Then we need those locations and the musicians to market themselves 2010-style so everyone knows. But I don’t need to look hard to see all the pieces -- everything needed for the music to thrive -- out there, ready to grasp. I refuse to believe those pieces will not come together. When I hear the young musicians who this decade have started making their mark, I hear solid reason for optimism for jazz’s future.

Somewhere, I suppose, someone heard better live music these last few weeks than I did.

But I don’t know who. I don’t know where. I don’t know how.