Monday, October 27, 2014

Two Trumpets and a Trombone

The younger generation of musicians continues to stake a major claim to the future of jazz in Kansas City. Their often exceptional talent dominates gigs around town. The best have learned how to thrive, how to cultivate an audience. They’ve learned when and where to play standards and when and where the audience will embrace their own compositions. And the Kansas City jazz audience, these last few years, has embraced the extraordinary opportunity to watch these musicians grow professionally, to hear ever more intriguing compositions and more finesse in their performances.

Thriving venues like The Blue Room and like Take Five – which just more than doubled its space and designed a coffee shop around the acoustics of jazz – add to a sense of excitement. A what’s next anticipation pervades the Kansas City jazz community. There’s an unspoken optimism not felt here in at least fifteen years.

Not everything is ideal. None of this city’s jazz festivals have been embraced by the city as a whole and, based on attendance, remain relatively trivial events. At least one mis-located club is fighting to thrive. And while the community is displaying unprecedented cohesiveness, not every institution is on board.

Peg me as an old-timer who marvels at the new generation’s talent and energy and how Kansas City’s jazz community has wrapped itself around them. A few of the younger groups have released CDs in the last several months. In some cases, these serve as snapshots of growing maturity.

Let’s take a look.

Diverse, Our Journey

From the opening title track, Our Journey, you’re struck by the subtle sophistication of the compositions and the performances. This music isn’t meant to show off anyone’s prowess. Rather, it plays like an instrumental conversation between musicians. Each instrument has the opportunity to build its case, to speak its part, and to respond to what the other instruments musically express. This isn’t just a rhythm section supporting a horn or two. There’s emotion in the music, but it’s emotion sealed in thought.

This is the second CD from Diverse. While some members of the group have come and gone, the core remains and plays often in Kansas City. Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Ben Leifer on bass and Ryan Lee on drums know each other like brothers in a close-knit family. That chemistry, evident in musical anticipation and response, invites the listener into the music and into sometimes complex compositions.

They’re joined on five of the fourteen tracks by Logan Richardson, also a Kansas City native, whose alto saxophone expertly slips in and intrigues as if he was always a part of this club. Parisian pianist Tony Tixier joins all but three of the tracks. The anticipation he builds in his solo on the opening track immediately establishes him as a welcome part of the conversation.

Our Journey doesn’t necessarily break new ground as much as it captures refinement and growth among a core group of Kansas City’s young jazz musicians.

Our Journey is available on CD Baby here and on iTunes here.

The Project H, We Live Among the Lines

You’ll walk away from the Project H CD, We Live Among the Lines recognizing at least this: Ryan Heinlein understands how to pair and harmonize multiple instruments into a single magnificent voice. And he knows how to write musical phrases that stick in your head.

The third number on the album, Devolver, is a perfect example: a bass line repeats to open. It captures your attention and pulls you in. Other Instruments join, building into a single exciting voice before the saxophone breaks through for a solo running over and under and around that initial phrase. The music plays with you – it’s fun, you let it – and it sticks.

Of course, it helps when you’re writing for the seven of Kansas City’s best young jazz musicians who comprise Project H Heinlein on trombone, Clint Ashlock on trumpet, Brett Jackson on tenor sax, Jeff Stocks on guitar, Andrew Ouellette on keyboards, Dominique Sanders on bass and Matt Leifer on drums.

Traditionalists may question whether this music counts as jazz. It’s not Count Basie swing. But it is jazz for the twenty first century done right. Some other contemporary groups find new voices that squeal and repel and offend, that don’t invite a listener in but dare you to comprehend. Not The Project H. This is entirely accessible jazz filtered through contemporary ears and influences, a melded voice in compositions and sound that reaches its own generation. The experience of hearing We Live Among the Lines is more visceral than listening to Our Journey, but no less thought went into getting there.

We Live Among the Lines is available on Amazon here and on iTunes here.

Shades of Jade, Fingerprinted Memories

This one is all about the trumpet. Josh Williams’s tone remains even and inviting, whether the playing is melancholy or soaring or anywhere in between. But while piano, bass and drums all claim their moments, this is a trumpet showcase.

The music lacks the emotional intimacy between instruments that pushes Our Journey to another level. The jazz is enjoyable, but without the engagement and emotional Wow of We Live Among the Lines. Everyone here is a solid musician, and each musician properly supports the other, but there’s little sense of conversation, of interaction, of more than here’s the trumpet, now here’s the bass, now here’s the piano.

Heard from a download, I could not find credits for the musicians besides bandleader and trumpeter Josh Williams. The Shades of Jade web site (here) lists band members as Eddie Moore on keyboards, Dominique Sanders on bass and Julian Goff on drums. But I have seen the group in various configurations around town, and I don’t know whether those are the musicians performing here.

Fingerprinted Memories is available on iTunes here.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kansas City's 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival 2014

The event’s name, Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival, at nine words, is semi-officially the longest title of any jazz festival anywhere. On Wikipedia’s page of jazz festivals around the world (here) – a listing of hundreds of jazz events – only two others are as long as eight words: the United Kingdom’s Glenn Miller Festival of Swing, Jazz and Jive and Northern Ireland’s City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival. Two are seven words long. The rest run three to six words. Organizers, there’s nothing wrong with a succinct title.

Especially when organizers at the American Jazz Museum present such a stellar music event. Staging and sound at the festival’s three venues clustered around 18th and Vine (the outdoor Main Stage and the indoor Blue Room and Gem Theater) were excellent. The flow through the grounds is well planned and executed. The friendliness and helpfulness of volunteers makes you feel like the event’s most important guest. The assortment of food and other vendors adds a welcome variety that other festivals lack. The one element out of organizers’ control, beautiful fall weather, capped the day.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the photos below of local acts from each of the venues and the jazz and blues headliners on the main stage. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The main stage with Hearts of Darkness

Hearts of Darkness commands the main stage early in the afternoon

The Groove Axis with Houston Smith on sax in The Blue Room

Book of Gaia. Left to right: Michael Warren on drums, Eddie Moore on piano, D'Andre Manning on bass, Nedra Dixon, vocals, Pam Watson, vocals, Angels Hagenbach, vocals, Karita Carter on trombone.

Book of Gaia in the Gem Theater

The vocalists: Nedra Dixon, Pam Watson and Angela Hagenbach

Blues headliner Lucky Peterson

Lucky Peterson mugging on the main stage

Lucky Peterson, with guitar, leaving the main stage...

...and joining the audience.

Lucky Peterson surrounded by hundreds of fans

Lucky Peterson

Jazz headliner Roy Hargrove. Dig those shoes.

Roy Hargrove enjoys his quintet, with Larry Willis on piano, Justin Robinson on sax, Ameen Saleem on bass and (not seen) Willie Jones III on drums.

Justin Robinson and Roy Hargrove

Unexpectedly, Roy Hargrove sings

Pianist Larry Willis

Roy Hargrove on the main stage

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Week Away

A death in the family precludes me from offering a new post this week. I hope to be back next week with photos from this weekend's festival at 18th and Vine.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Take Five, Version 1.0

Four years ago, Lori Chandler offered up her six month old Leawood coffee shop to host a fundraiser for a jazz band trying to go to Paris. Up until then, she had made a seat available for a guitarist, just as coffee shops are supposed to do, I suppose like Phoebe on Friends. But a jazz band? Lori didn’t really know what to expect.

She was blown away by the music of Diverse – Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Ben Leifer on bass and Ryan Lee on drums – and by the acoustics in her little coffee shop. Soon, Take Five was hosting bi-weekly Sunday night jam sessions. Musicians asked if their groups could perform there, too. And Take Five Coffee + Bar developed into a quaint coffee shop by day and a serious jazz club on weekend nights. Many nights, bodies squeezed into every corner of the room, to the delight of musicians and the crowd.

At 151st and Nall, in Leawood, Kansas, audiences turned out for jazz.

Jazz fans weren’t the only people to notice. So did developers of nearby shopping centers. Later this month, Take five moves into more than double the space in the Corbin Park shopping center at 135th and Metcalf, behind the Von Maur department store.

On Sunday, August 28th, Taske Five closed its original space with its first jazz band, Diverse. Below are photos of how it looked. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

Take Five Coffee + Bar on its last night in its original location with the band that started it all, Diverse.

Diverse. Left to right: Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Ben Leifer on bass and Ryan Lee on drums.

Trumpeter Hermon Mehari

Bassist Ben Leifer

Early in the evening on the original Take Five’s last night.


Drummer Ryan Lee

Hermon and Ben

Diverse on the last night in the original Take Five

The last night in Take Five, Version 1.0