Monday, February 28, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Junior Mance Quintet at The Blue Room

From here they headed West, winding up in Colorado. Here’s how The Denver Post previewed their performance:

“Julian Clifford ‘Junior’ Mance is a living, thriving link to the history of jazz. When he was a teenager, the Chicago pianist backed up saxophonist Gene Ammons. From there he toured with another saxophone king, Lester Young, as well as singer Dinah Washington, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley.”

That link to jazz history returned to Kansas City’s link to jazz history – 18th and Vine – on February 5th with his quintet for what will undoubtedly be one of The Blue Room’s funnest shows of the year, just as last April’s show (which I photographed here) was last year.

With tenor saxophonist and Paola native Ryan Anselmi and drummer and Hutchinson native Kim Garey, Junior’s current quintet arrives with strong Midwestern ties. Add bassist Hide Tanaka and baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro, and I’m betting you can’t find a jazz group which swings harder than this one.

Here’s how it looked earlier this month. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The Junior Mance Quintet. Left to right: Junior Mance on piano, Hide Tanaka on bass, Ryan Anselmi on tenor sax, Kim Garey on drums, Andrew Hadro on baritone sax.

Junior Mance plays piano

Hide Tanaka

Ryan Anselmi solos...

...Which Junior both accompanies and enjoys.

The rhythm section

Kim Garey peers over the drums

Andrew solos while Junior (and all of us in the audience) love it

Andrew Hadro on baritone sax

Junior Mance at the piano

When Junior solos, everyone listens

Ryan solos while a ghostly Coltrane (via a photo on the wall) listens

The Junior Mance Quintet at The Blue Room

A very happy Junior Mance. We all left happy.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Extraordinary as the Norm

It was a Kansas City jazz festival in the mid-1980s – I no longer remember the exact year – at the end of a long day of acts, concluding with what we billed as a jam session. The rhythm section started to play. I was standing near the back of the stage, to assist. A tired staff worker turned to me and said, Let’s not let anyone else join the session, let’s just wrap this up. Sure, I answered.

A young saxophonist walked up to the stage. I stepped out of the way and motioned for him to join the jam. Why did you do that? the tired staff worker barked at me. I shrugged my shoulders and turned away to hear the music.

The truth is, I had been hearing this saxophonist’s name repeatedly. He was new to town then, and people were talking about how outstanding he was, and I wanted to hear him play.

He drove that jam and the crowd loved it.

His name is one that anyone familiar with Kansas City’s jazz scene today will know. The young saxophonist was Kim Park.

I have no training in music. I know it as Duke Ellington described it: “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” That's me: Just a simple, emotional response. But lacking training sometimes leads me to wonder, do I truly understand which music stands out, is extraordinary?

CDs and touring musicians provide a frame of reference.

I heard Kim Park for the first time in a while last month, playing at Jazz Winterlude. There I heard an alto of ideal tone, playing solos which jumped from one imaginative idea to the next. The large Yardley Hall stage placed too much separation between the musicians and the audience, so the intimacy of a good club or a smaller hall was missing. But the music was technically ideal and peppered with fresh phrasings.

Compare that to the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Ensemble the next night in the same hall. Here was a name from the East coast, playing the music of Ellington. Their presentation was impeccable, their music technically perfect. But they were recreating Ellington recordings. I knew these numbers. Often, I heard in my head the next note before it was played, because this was a live recreation of the recording, and those recordings were on the phone in my pocket. Only the trumpeter seemed to stretch.

I’ll take the imagination of Kim Park over this group any day. I would since that day I first heard Kim on that jazz festival stage.

I often rave in this blog about the young jazz talent populating Kansas City today. But I recognize some are still growing, musically. One who too often showed frustration on stage after a good solo now shows confidence after a better solo. Another who performed as well or as poorly as the group surrounding him is now maturing into a musician who sets the level of excellence for a band. It’s fascinating to hear these musicians climb musical tiers, to know I’m an audience to something special. For some of these musicians, the top tier has not yet been grasped.

Yet other Kansas City jazz musicians I’d not hesitate to judge against anyone who accompanies a jazz headliner on the Folly or Gem stage. And some I’d take over the headliners. I hear the performances in the halls. I hear the performances in the local clubs. Certainly, some headliners perform at another level which leaves an audience in awe. But others are distinguished from some amazing KC jazz musicians only by charisma or history or a magazine article or ticket price.

Here’s what I mean.

Earlier this month I heard Matt Otto’s sextet at Jardine’s. It snowed that night, so perhaps 25 people attended. I shot photos, and will have them on this blog in the coming weeks.

The musicians included Matt on tenor sax, Gerald Dunn on alto sax, Jeff Harshbarger on bass, Michael Warren on drums, Beau Bledsoe on guitar, and Shay Estes vocalizing. Compositions were originals by Matt.

I’m not sure, sans training, I have the vocabulary to correctly describe just what I heard, but I’m going to try. The vocalizing – no words, but rather the voice as an instrument – added a unique layer of depth to the sound. To my ears, which only know how to respond emotionally, the bass and drums carried rhythms. On top of that I heard tenor, alto, guitar and voice blending, harmonizing, into the wonder of a single complex instrument, creating often beautiful, often smoothly opaque, detailed, yet consistently extraordinary waves of music, of jazz, unlike any I’ve heard elsewhere.

One solo sticks with me, on bass, where the sound initially jarred against the expected, yet naturally fit the composition. It surprised, as I cocked my head to listen closer. Isn’t that an emotional response only the most imaginative music elicits?

I can’t believe anyone else could have walked into that club that night and played superior jazz.

(The group performs again March 10th at The Blue Room.)

Kansas City is not the jazz mecca it was eighty years ago. Larger cities offer musicians a larger mesh of opportunities and interactions in which to grow their craft. But somehow, Kansas City has cultivated musicians in the art for which this city is known, since before Basie. And KC continues to be home to jazz musicians who set an extraordinary standard. My ears may lack training, but I know what I hear.

Because Duke Ellington also said of music, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

So, by extension, if it sounds extraordinary….

Monday, February 14, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Diverse Trio at Winterlude

They shrunk Diverse. Then they started popping up all over over the place.

I suppose it’s inevitable that, as schooling ends for a band formed in college, members take divergent paths. It happens even if that band won a competition and recorded a CD which rose impressively in the jazz charts. That’s the course Diverse, which I photographed previously (here), took. But when bassist Ben Leifer returned to town for a visit in January, he and trumpeter Hermon Mehari and drummer Ryan Lee reunited as a sort of mini-Diverse. Or, as they call themselves, Diverse Trio.

And reunited, they were playing all over town. I caught them at R Bar on a Thursday night, at Jazz Winterlude on Saturday, with Harold O’Neal at The Blue Room on Monday. They also had a Saturday show at Jardine’s, anchored a jazz/hip-hop show the next Wednesday, and probably had other gigs I didn’t hear about (I don’t know if they do weddings or bar-mitzvahs).

I must admit, I had doubts about a trumpet, bass and drum trio. The idea struck me as likely to result in a sparse sound. And in less skilled hands, no doubt it would. But Ben’s bass solos, as good as he was before he moved to New York City, have grown in depth. Ryan’s drums fill the spaces. Hermon’s trumpet carries the melody then investigates new places. The familiarity as musicians these guys hold with each other propels this trio to a fullness I didn’t expect.

(However, Harold O’Neal’s piano brought depth and an additional dimension to the music, especially the way Harold and Ryan, then Harold and Ben, played off each other. I want to hear Diverse Trio plus Harold O’Neal again, soon. Can somebody make that happen?)

Students were in the crowd at Jazz Winterlude, January 22nd in Polsky Theatre, taking a break from their educational sessions to hear pros not all that far from their age. Their enthusiastic applause and wonder in their eyes said this show had an impact. Below are photos of just how that Winterlude set looked. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Diverse Trio. Left to right: Hermon Mehari, Ben Leifer, Ryan Lee.

Trumpeter Hermon Mehari

Drummer Ryan Lee

Bassist Ben Leifer

Diverse Trio, on the Polsky Theatre stage at Winterlude

Hermon on trumpet, backed by Ben and Ryan

Ryan drums (he has since cut his hair and looks nothing like this.)

Ben on bass

Diverse Trio

Monday, February 7, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Bram Wijnands Trio at Winterlude

I first saw the name Bram Wijnands on the 1994 CD, Stand By. I bought the CD because it featured the wonderful KC vocalist Richard Ross. Bassist Lucky Wesley and drummer Tommy Ruskin were well known. But who was the pianist on this CD? Who was the kid who, on the insert photo, looked like a young Harpo Marx?

Whoever he was, on that CD he was a helluva a piano player.

Still is. According to his bio, Bram Wijnands, born in Eindhoven, the Netherlands and graduated from Hilversum Conservatory in the Netherlands, moved to Kansas City in 1991, which places him here now for 20 years. His style of barrelhouse piano, boogie woogie, is unique in Kansas City today but fits in this city which was home to Pete Johnson and Jay McShann,

I make no secret that it was discovering the outstanding young jazz talent populating Kansas City today that inspired me to start this blog. But I’ve overlooked too often the greats who have kept jazz swinging here for decades. Bram is one of them. So are the other two members of this trio.

I first heard Rod Fleeman’s name when I was helping to stage jazz festivals in the 1980s. There was a terrific young guitarist in town, that was the word then going around. But when I got to know him was on his gig every Tuesday with Karrin Allyson at The Phoenix in the 1990s. Whether helping anchor the rhythm section of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra or thrilling the audience with a solo as part of a trio, Rod Fleeman is an anchor of the Kansas City jazz scene.

As is drummer Tommy Ruskin. It’s probably quicker to name the jazz stars Tommy hasn’t backed. But if I mention he was part of Marilyn Maye’s group during her KC years, or in Pete Eye’s Trio at the Playboy Club, or that he organized the rhythm section for the Friends of Jazz series (which pre-dated the Folly jazz series), you know we’re talking top-tier drumming which KC is lucky to still enjoy.

So, Bram plus Rod plus Tommy, together on the Polsky Theatre stage for Jazz Winterlude, equals jazz about as good as it gets. You can hear them together some nights at The Majestic (check The Majestic’s calendar, linked in the column at the right). As far as how they looked on January 21st, we have a record of that below. Clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The Bram Wijnands Trio. Let to right: Bram, Rod Fleeman, Tommy Ruskin

Bram Wijnands at the piano

Rod Fleeman on guitar and Tommy Ruskin on drums

Bram also sings

When he solos, Rod can be, um, expressive

Bram Wijnands

The Bram Wijnands Trio