Monday, March 28, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: The Matt Otto Quartet (But With Six Musicians)

It was billed as the Matt Otto Quartet, but there were six musicians on stage. So that doesn’t work.

And there’s the complete list of what didn’t work that night.

What did work, I wrote about in another post about a month ago. To quote myself:

“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….

“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.”

This is a collection of Kansas City jazz all-stars. All but Matt are better known in KC in other groups. Yet in this configuration, they blend their talents into a unique voice for Matt’s compositions (and some by Monk and others) to fill the room with musical wonder.

In case you didn’t pick up on it, I like this group.

On the night of February 9th, the six musicians of the Matt Otto Quartet (hey, I didn’t name the group) performed at Jardine’s. It snowed that night, and few patrons braved the weather. But I was there, with camera, and below you’ll see how it looked. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The Matt Otto Quartet. Left to right: Beau Bledsoe on guitar, Shay Estes, vocals, Jeff Harshbarger on bass, Matt Otto on tenor sax, Michael Warren on drums, Gerald Dunn on alto sax

Matt Otto

Gerald Dunn

Shay Estes

The front line: Shay, Matt and Gerald

Beau Bledsoe

Jeff Harshbarger

Michael Warren

Shay admires Matt's solo

Matt Otto on tenor

The Matt Otto Quartet enjoying Jeff's bass solo

Monday, March 21, 2011

The World is Ending. No Band-Aid Required.

11th Annual Jazz Lovers Pub Crawl screams the poster dominating one wall of my office. It was 1992, and listed across the bottom of that poster are thirty-one clubs. That’s right. That night in 1992 thirty-one night clubs throughout Kansas City featured live jazz.

Wow. You mean to tell me that in 1992 I could have gone to thirty-one different places in Kansas City and heard jazz? And today there’s what, two clubs? Three? There you go, case closed, jazz is dead.

Wait a minute. I said that one night – one night – for the Pub Crawl, thirty-one clubs showcased jazz.

The Pub Crawl then was sponsored by the Kansas City Jazz Commission. I served as chairman of the Jazz Commission between 1987 and 1989. I was responsible for a couple of crawls. And club owners told me that the Pub Crawl – buses taking listeners and drinkers from one jazz night spot to the next – was so big that, when it happened, they were forced to book jazz and be on the crawl or nobody would come to their bar.

I don’t recall any of those club owners concluding their tale with, “Thank you for making me book jazz. I’ll do it again.”

So, how many clubs are on the Jazz Commission’s Jazz Lovers Pub Crawl today?

Jazz Commission? Jazz Lovers Pub Crawl?

A couple weeks back our friend Plastic Sax surveyed Kansas City jazz club calendars for March (here). He determined that, at best, 61% of the jazz club bookings were actually some form of jazz. “If this trend continues” he wrote, “– and there's no reason to believe that it won’t – jazz will eventually become a secondary consideration in these rooms.”

There you go, case closed, the end of the jazz world as we know it.

Wait a minute. I’ve heard this refrain.

Last year, a friend, a local musician who plays several clubs around town, bemoaned Jardine’s booking cabaret shows on Monday nights. Cabaret moves in and takes over a club, this friend railed. Soon there will be no jazz at Jardine’s.

A year or so later, what I don’t see on Jardine’s latest schedule is cabaret shows.

In fact, on the day I wrote this, I surveyed the April schedules of Jardine’s and The Blue Room. The schedules were not yet complete, but on this day included 44 acts so far set for the month. Under my big tent, 42 of them count as a variation of jazz.

March, apparently, had less jazz in the jazz clubs. April seems headed towards more. An off month doesn’t constitute a world-ending trend. There’s more to consider.

Patrons may turn out once or twice for something quirky or different. But how often will they return if the overall experience is flawed? Ignore The Blue Room for the moment. Since my post about Jardine’s in January (here), several people have mentioned they would go there more often (or at all) if it was a better restaurant. Maybe the music isn’t the issue. Maybe the question is whether the restaurant could thrive without the jazz.

I’m seeing more restaurants and clubs around town sampling jazz, from West Chase Grill in Leawood to bars in the Crossroads district. Some of that is attributable to musicians hustling for work. But maybe, just maybe, some of it is also attributable to the audience seeking out new venues to hear jazz.

Times evolve. Today there’s no Jazz Commission. Today you couldn’t convince thirty-one clubs to devote a night to jazz in Kansas City. You could argue that proves jazz is dead. But it would be another false argument. The Jazz Commission developed a successful, well-marketed event, a one night mini-festival staged in buses and clubs, which drew a significant following of twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Even in 1992, most clubs participated not to support jazz, but as a stunt for a night of business (the principal support for jazz came from the $15,000+ profit the Jazz Commission – at least during my years as chairman – turned on the event). How else to explain, among those thirty-one clubs, participants like Fuzzy's South Sports Bar and Grill (yes, they were on the 1992 crawl)?

Today’s audience for jazz, clearly, is not the size it was then. But the audience is there. Cabaret hasn’t usurped the jazz world. If jazz clubs sometimes book nights of quirk, not jazz, maybe it’s because they need modern stunts to, at least for a night, overcome other perceptions.

Jazz has seen healthier days. That’s not a revelation. But spectacular musicians and a devoted audience seeking new opportunities keep it alive. Jazz is not trending towards second-tier status in Kansas City’s jazz clubs.

Plastic Sax opened his post with, “This is going to hurt a little bit.” He concluded it with, “Would you like a Band-Aid?”


Monday, March 14, 2011

In Lieu of 1000 Words: Steve Lambert Quartet at Jardine's

Maybe a year ago, I first heard him. He sat in and jammed on the last set of someone else’s show (I don’t remember whose), and this kid was good.

I heard Steve Lambert again, jamming with others. He’d sometimes get flustered, but watching and listening, you knew that would be overcome, in time, with confidence built through experience.

He emailed me last summer, suggesting I might like a show at The Blue Room that week, pianist Chris Clarke’s group, with Steve joining on sax. I went, and that’s the night I saw a corner turned. Trumpeter Hermon Mehari sat in much of the night. Drummer Ryan Lee joined for a few numbers. Anchored by veteran pianist Clarke, Steve and the other young musicians flew, one musically bouncing off the next for a wonderful night of music. I left there recognizing that in these young hands, the future of jazz is solid.

Steve Lambert’s music has continued to mature, playing in Crosscurrent (photographed here) and The New Jazz Order Big Band (photographed here) and other groups around town. And now with his own quartet and compositions, Steve has released his first CD, Subject to Change, with TJ Martley on piano, Seth Lee on bass and Matt Leifer on drums.

You can catch the Steve Lambert Quartet at the 10:30 show on the 26th of this month at Jardine’s, and pick up a CD from him there. Until then, here’s how it looked at the CD release party at Jardine’s on January 31st. Clicking on any photo should open a larger version of it.

The Steve Lambert Quartet. Left to right: TJ Martley on piano, Seth Lee on bass, Steve Lambert on tenor sax, Matt Leifer on drums.

Steve Lambert on sax

TJ and Seth

Pianist TJ Martley

Steve backed by Seth and Matt

Drummer Matt Leifer

Steve and Seth

Bassist Seth Lee

For the last set, Micah Herman, who produced the CD, sat in on bass

Steve Lambert

Monday, March 7, 2011

This 'n That 'n KC CDs

I know the date because I still have the poster. It was April 21, 1985. The Count Basie Orchestra played in the ballroom of what was then the Vista International Hotel, on 12th street, downtown, where rows of small shops and jazz clubs once stood. They played a set, and then Jay McShann took the orchestra’s piano seat.

With an impish grin, McShann started playing classical music. The band, silently, watched and listened. Then the classical music flowed into Moten Swing. Every member of the Count Basie Orchestra smiled, even Freddie Green, and joined McShann on the most classic of Kansas City jazz.

That moment came to mind as I listened to the start of the last recording by Kansas City piano great Pete Eye (and others), Live From JCCC’s Yardley Hall. It starts with a Mozart Improvisation. But this is Mozart by jazz pianist. This Mozart swings with a jazz sensibility. This Mozart makes me smile. All of the music on this CD makes me smile.

At the end of last year, I wrote a post playfully summarizing (in quite bad verse) some the year’s CDs by Kansas City jazz musicians. It wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather a mention of those new KC jazz CDs which, over the year, I’d acquired.

It turns out there were a few released last year which I hadn’t acquired.

Such as the joyous recording capturing Pete Eye and Scott McDonald on piano, Tyrone Clark on bass and Tommy Ruskin on drums. Next month will mark a year since Pete’s passing, and this live recording was captured about 13 months before that. Here’s a musical illustration of the talent we lost. Here’s piano which swings with delight, with a gets-under-your-skin-and-dares-you-to-resist-smiling pure jazz bounce. Here is jazz meant to engage and entertain.

Kansas City’s jazz history has a continuity. We’re more than just the legends who birthed a unique style here in the 1930s or the fantastic young talent here today. Pete Eye obtained his union card in 1957. Here’s proof that great jazz talent and Kansas City have been continuously synonymous.

But while Pete may be gone, other pianists carry on the Kansas City excellence, among them Michael Pagán. And Michael released two CDs last year.

12 Preludes & Fugues is written by a jazz pianist and performed by a saxophone quartet. But the 24 short compositions strike me as too structured to call this album jazz.

Not so with Three for the Ages. Here, the Michael Pagán Trio, with Michael on piano, Bob Bowman on bass and Ray DeMarchi on drums, plays a more sophisticated brand of jazz. This isn’t the consistently upbeat, free-wheeling swing of Pete Eye. This is jazz of a more precise, more purposeful bent. Some numbers certainly exude a similar playfulness – How Deep is the Ocean, for instance – but much of the CD swings in a more exacting manner.

Michael Pagán, Bob Bowman and Ray DeMarchi at Jazz Winterlude in January

If Pete Eye’s music is jazz which builds emotion, Three for the Ages is more often more serious and contemplative music. One style is not inherently superior to the other. Rather, here are styles in elegant contrast. And here is proof that in Kansas City, jazz is not just one thing. Kansas City jazz covers a wide breadth of brilliance.

Michael Pagán’s Three for the Ages is available from Amazon here, from CD Universe here, and on iTunes here. His 12 Preludes & Fugues is on Amazon here, on CD Universe here, and on iTunes here.

Live From JCCC’s Yardley Hall with Pete Eye and Scott McDonald is a little harder to get your hands on but well worth the effort, in part because its sales help to fund the free weekly noon jazz concerts at Johnson County Community College. You can purchase it at those concerts, or you can email or or phone 913-469-8500, ext. 3605, to arrange to obtain a copy.


Speaking of those free noon jazz concerts, they kicked off last week with Shay Estes singing, Mark Lowrey playing piano, Dominque Sanders on bass and Sam Wisman on drums. It was a blast.

The concerts continue each Tuesday through April 5th in Johnson County Community College’s Carlsen Center, and with one exception are in the Center's Recital Hall. Each concert starts at noon and is free.

(And you can buy the Pete Eye CD there.)

Here’s the remainder of the schedule:

March 8 – Killer Strayhorn

March 15 – David Basse and the City Light Orchestra, in Yardley Hall

March 22 – Dennis Winslett Quartet

March 29 – James Ward Trio

April 5 – Rob Whitsitt Quartet

Parking is free. And note that next week’s concert with David Basse and the City Light Orchestra is in the exceptional setting of Yardley Hall.