Monday, June 27, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Sons of Brazil 20th Anniversary

I think we take them for granted, because they’ve always been here.

After all, just how many jazz groups stay together for 20 years? And how many jazz bands in Kansas City can claim to have performed Brazilian jazz every week since their inception two decades ago? How many hold a twice monthly gig at a premiere jazz club? How many celebrated their anniversary June 6th at that jazz club?

Just one: Sons of Brazil.

I saw founder Stan Kessler introduced once, jokingly, as an elder statesman of KC jazz. Stan laughed (though if looks could kill, Mark Lowrey might not be here today). Yet, there’s something to that. Not an elder statesman, but a mainstay, one of this city’s hardest working jazz musicians since before I grew aware of KC jazz in the 1980s, and today Kansas City’s premiere jazz trumpeter.

Ask anyone who knows KC jazz to make a short list of our best jazz pianists and Sons of Brazil keyboard man Roger Wilder will be on it. Now make a list of best jazz guitarists, and in KC it will include Danny Embrey. Doug Auwarter is noted for educating as well as drumming, while he and percussionist Gary Helm complement each other, often as if they’re one complex instrument. All the while, bassist Greg Whitfield is providing the perfect underlying glue.

I started this blog to celebrate discovering the tremendous young jazz talent in Kansas City today. But too often that’s been at the expense of the tremendous jazz musicians who I may just take for granted because they’ve always been around. But with twenty years of outstanding musicians playing outstanding Brazilian jazz, it’s past time to celebrate Sons of Brazil.

Here’s a look at how they celebrated to a packed house at Jardine’s earlier this month. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Sons of Brazil. Left to right: Roger Wilder, piano, Stan Kessler, trumpet, Greg Whitfield, bass, Danny Embrey, guitar, Doug Auwarter, drums, and Gary Helm, percussion.

Trumpeter, and Sons of Brazil founder, Stan Kessler

Bassist Greg Whitfield

Stan and Greg

Guitarist Danny Embrey

Drummer Doug Auwarter

Danny and Doug

Pianist Roger Wilder

Percussionist Gary Helm

Greg and Danny

Monday, June 20, 2011

3 New KC Jazz CDs

Her voice soars.

I first met Millie Edwards some fifteen years ago, when her husband and I worked at the same ad agency. He was an art director and I was the production manager. Then she was working days and singing nights, often with Everett DeVan. Today she’s best known as a Wild Woman, singing with Myra Taylor, Geneva Price and Lori Tucker as one of the Wild Women of KC, a jazz favorite (photographed here).

But each Monday you’ll find her at The Phoenix (one of that bar’s last links to its jazz heritage). And on the new CD, Mike and Mille Live, you’ll find her with pianist Michael Pagán in vocal and piano duets recorded live at Jardine’s.

From the perfectly hit soaring notes on In a Mellow Tone and Just In Time to the tenderness of The Very Thought of You and Someone to Watch Over Me, Millie’s voice caries each song with power and emotion, vicarious hurt or fervent joy.

Michael Pagán’s piano is more than a complement to the singing. It sets its own voice, imaginatively playing out its own twists and takes on traditional numbers, weaving in and out and around Millie’s contribution. It is supportive of the singing without just establishing a base for the voice, but imbuing each piano and voice duet with its own, always swinging, often complex, vigor and interest.

I don’t usually care for piano and singer duets. Too often, they strike me as too simple, lacking depth. But not this one. When Millie cries out, “There’s a joy unknown/When you do it in a mellow tone,” my reaction is: Amen!

Millie and Mike Live is available on iTunes, here, at Amazon, here, and at CDBaby, here. And I’m betting you can find it Monday nights at The Phoenix.


His EVI can swing and soar and soothe.

It’s been 24 years since I first met Mike Metheny. He was living in Boston when we brought him in as one of the two headliners of the 1987 Kansas City Jazz Festival in Volker Park. Wynton Marsalis was the other. Mike’s performance was better received. Wynton’s trumpet bordered on clinical while Mike’s trumpet, flugelhorn and EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) were more accessible, more personal and more vibrantly engaged the audience.

You hear those qualities in Mike’s latest CD, Old Wine/New Bossa, a compilation of what he considers his best recorded work from nine previous CDs.

Yes, I’ve Met Miss Jones, backed by Kansas City’s PBT Trio (Paul Smith, piano, Bob Bowman, bass and Todd Strait, drums) opens the CD with swing as Kansas City knows it. Mike’s simultaneously sublime and beautiful flugelhorn on How Insensitive (complemented by Rod Fleeman’s guitar solo), delivers a fresh tenderness to a song I discovered when Karrin Allyson sang it in KC clubs. That same flugelhorn followed by EVI pull me into the soothing yet intriguing world of the CD’s title track, Old Wine/New Bossa. And on Benny Golson’s Are You Real? with Roger Wilder's piano solo followed by Mike's coronet followed by Danny Embrey’s guitar solo, you have a snapshot of some of Kansas City’s best jazz musicians at their best.

The more complex paths of Three for Boston, the haunting uneasiness of Farmer’s Trust, the tranquil and dreamlike Deceptive Resolution, and the placid joy of Ta-Ta For Now (with little brother Pat) cement this collection.

You can hear Mike at the Prairie Village Jazz Festival on September 10th. Until then, you can find Old Wine/New Bossa on Mike’s website, here.


Her voice will break a heart.

I met Karrin Allyson over fifteen years ago when every Tuesday night she and Rod Fleeman played The Phoenix (back when The Phoenix was a legitimate jazz destination, when the neon “Live Jazz” sign in the window wasn’t, on most nights, false advertising). Nearly every week, I was there. Karrin played piano and sang while Rod accompanied on guitar. It was obvious then that Karrin’s voice was extraordinary.

Her voice is still extraordinary. And on her new CD of ballads, ’Round Midnight, she plays piano, something we’ve heard only occasionally on her recordings in recent years. Add Rod Fleeman on guitar on all but three of the cuts and Randy Weinstein, who would sometimes sit in on harmonica in Karrin’s KC days, on a couple numbers, and it's just like The Phoenix.

But it’s not like at The Phoenix. Karrin’s voice is even better today, with a virtuosity and depth built from experience. Take Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, a song I heard her sing often in her Kansas City days. Here it’s delivered with smoothness punctuated by a mature playfulness. There’s a precision to Sophisticated Lady, an intimacy which, on this CD, makes it Karrin Allyson’s song. You don’t hear that in a noisy bar. And at the end of Goodbye, listen when she sings, “Kiss me when you go, goodbye.” She’s singing that to you, just to you, and she’s breaking your heart.

Karrin Allyson’s ’Round Midnight is available from Amazon , here, or can be downloaded from iTunes, here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Know Thy Audience

I've actually never been to one of them, these jazz and hip-hop shows. Others proclaim them the future of jazz, a way to engage a younger audience, an audience which knows hip-hop, in a music which evolved, in Kansas City anyway, some ninety years ago.

I don't dismiss their popularity. I applaud their exposing a broader range of enthusiasts to the spectacular young jazz talent dominating Kansas City's jazz scene today. I find the excitement those young jazz musicians bring to the shows to be contagious.

But I don't see them as a future path for jazz. They're a curiosity of the moment. Like Allison Krause with Robert Plant. Like Betty Carter with Ray Charles. Hip-hop with jazz.

Part of the jazz audience will embrace a degree of experimentation and outrageousness (evidenced in KC by the growing popularity of the People's Liberation Big Band). But too many who will pay more than a nominal cover charge attend a show, in part, for familiarity. That's a point which struck me as I watched the one concert of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra which I managed.

I wrote several months ago that I was taking over as manager of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. I have since moved on to another job which was too good an offer to pass up. But before moving on, I managed the business end of the orchestra's April 30th concert.

Don’t get me wrong. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is incorporating no hip-hop. But the latest concert took a left turn into a preponderance of more modern big band compositions than the regular crowd expected. Incorporating music by Lennie Tristano and Toshiko Akiyoshi hardly brings the selections into the 21st century. But they bring the music further into the 20th century than many regulars in the $35 seats expected when they walked through the doors.

Is pulling the audience a few decades forward from what they have come to expect such a bad thing? The music was still performed with exceptional precision by some of Kansas City’s finest jazz musicians. The orchestra still presented itself with impeccable professionalism. A repositioning of musicians on stage balanced the sound in the auditorium more evenly than previous shows. The guest artist, Gary Foster, was a superb soloist.

So was it a distraction to present to the staid audience The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra attracts, a greater abundance of music more modern than they’ve heard here before?

Yes, it was.

There are places in town where musicians can pander to their tastes. When they’re playing a club for proverbial pennies, when they’re promoted as a group trying something new (like the young musicians of The Sound Collective at Jardine’s last week), when the expectation is properly set for something new(er), few will complain if musicians indulge.

If promotion proclaims a show is jazz and hip-hop, for example, I’m staying away. There’s nothing wrong with that combo. It draws an enviable audience. But there’s some music I don’t enjoy, and that includes hip-hop, so I will not be there. And that’s okay, because in that situation I know what to expect.

But when an orchestra has spent eight seasons playing a particular kind of music, largely swing, largely traditional big band, peppered with a few more modern compositions, it has set an expectation. It has established what returning patrons anticipate. And when that orchestra turns the type of music which previously peppered a set list into the music which dominates the second set, musicians are indulged at the expense of an audience paying up to $35 a seat.

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra presents itself as the jazz equivalent of the symphony. They succeed through a completely professional presence and presentation – every male musician is dressed in black coat and blue tie – and a well-rehearsed repertoire performed by extraordinary musicians. They attract a mostly older, largely well-heeled audience. And that audience comes for the familiarity of music they know, and a set list which mostly swings them in their comfortable seats.

There’s nothing wrong with that scenario. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra has established itself as one of this city’s premiere arts organizations, artistically outstanding and supremely deserving of the community financial support it receives. I’m proud to have been its manager, if only for a few months.

But it must recognize the proclivities of the audience which has grown with it, an audience looking for the familiar and just a few surprises. Of course, the orchestra needs to grow that audience. That happens by expanding the selections to those familiar to a younger crowd. Not the hip-hop crowd, obviously, but initially to Kansas Citians who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Hey, that includes me. And I didn’t grow up knowing who the heck was Lennie Tristano or Toshiko Akiyoshi. Their tunes may please the musicians, and in a more eclectic circumstance would fit perfectly well. But musicians comprise little of this audience. For this audience, the music needs to go easy on the eclectic.

Know the audience. Know their expectations. Know why they came to your show. That’s how this orchestra needs to be performing.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Classic Shots: Bobby Watson & Claude Williams

Later in his career, Claude “Fiddler” Williams released several CDs, some live recordings, some studio dates. Unquestionably, my favorite of the bunch was his 2000 release, Swingin’ the Blues. Bobby Watson sits in on a couple of numbers.

Following up on that CD, the 2000 Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival put Claude and Bobby Watson together for a set. It was scheduled in the heritage tent, not on the main jazz stage. Maybe that was to keep the then 92-year old Fiddler out of the afternoon sun. But if it was because someone thought this performance would be lesser to whatever was on the main stage at the time, the scheduler could not have been more wrong.

This was KC jazz at its magnificent best. The chance to hear two generations of Kansas City jazz legends swinging that packed tent was one of those never-to-be-repeated thrills that sometimes happens with live music, one that you’re occasionally lucky enough to be there to hear and still talk about more than a decade later.

I sat on the ground in front of the stage with my camera. Actually, I regret that. I wish, instead, I’d brought a tape recorder so I could listen again. I still remember, after one brought-down-the-house violin solo, Bobby turning to the crowd and exclaiming, “I want to be just like Claude when I grow up!”

Me, too.

Here’s how it looked on that July, 2000 afternoon. Clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.