Wednesday, June 5, 2019

NEW MUSIC FROM DETROIT TENORS, BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET & RALPH PETERSON & THE MESSENGER LEGACY


Saxophonists Steve Woods and Carl Cafagna have been mainstays on Detroit’s jazz scene for decades. Cafagna made a bulletproof reputation for himself as a key member of the wildly popular gypsy jazz group the Hot Club of Detroit, and Woods crafted a sound on tenor that calls to mind the era of bop greats Dexter Gordon, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and Coleman Hawkins. About a decade back, Woods and Cafagna formed the duo known as the Detroit Tenors and have performed off and on since. The duo’s growing fanbase wondered when they’d record an album. Last month, the duo released the self-titled “Detroit Tenors” on the Detroit Music Factory label. Finally, a document exists of what a terrific team Woods and Cafagna are. They put their signature touches on 12 beloved standards. The recording is fire from top to bottom, embodying the fervor created decades ago on landmark recordings by tenor duos such as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin and in recent times Eric Alexander and Vincent Herring. The cut on “Detroit Tenors” likely to get played repeatedly is the duo’s rendering of “Blues Up and Down”.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet has been together for over 20 years with only one recent personnel change. The hiring of the outstanding drummer Jason Faulkner who replaced the quartet’s longtime drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Watts was a driving force no doubt, but the quartet never lost any of its muscle when Watts split. Evidence of that is two outstanding albums the quartet made “Four MFs Playing Tunes,” and “The Secret Between the Shadow And The Soul. “The latter recently out nationwide on Marsalis Music/ OKeh. I concur with those who proclaim “The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul” to be the quartet’s best album to date. The album straddles the fence of free jazz. It’s public knowledge the quartet can go both ways. Anyway, there are only seven tracks here. Save for “Snake Hip Waltz,” composed by pianist Andrew Hill, and “The Windup” by Keith Jarrett, the other cuts are originals by members of the quartet. Each cut could be regarded as the standout. And from start to the album’s conclusion the quartet is in lockstep. Amazing how Marsalis, Revis, Faulkner and Calderazzo can read each other’s thoughts. Reckon that’s the result of 20-plus years of swinging together.

Jazz drummer Ralph Peterson is a former Jazz Messenger, the musical institution co-founded by the legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey, and which over the years produced many of the jazz world’s leading bandleaders and soloists. Peterson perhaps more than any ex-member has continued Blakey’s legacy through his playing – true after all these years Peterson still sounds at times like Blakey did during his prime – and his past mentoring of current jazz stars such as trumpeter Sean Jones and saxophonist Tia Fuller, both respected and accomplished bandleaders. The past two months Peterson has been touring the states with ex-Messengers, Bobby Watkins, Geoff Keezer, Brian Lynch, Billy Pierce, and Essiet Essiet, promoting the new live double-disk album “Legacy Alive Vol. 6 at the Side Door.” There’s not much you can comment about this all-star band that has already been documented. So far “Legacy Alive” is the best album I have spent time with. It seems as if Blakey’s ghost was present for every tune chosen for this terrific tribute to the institution Blakey hand-built brick by brick. Warning this recording is so hard-driving it may damage the listener’s eardrums. The finesse and fire that each member developed while in Blakey’s employ remains in tow.

Monday, June 3, 2019

PARADISE JAZZ SERIES WRAPS UP SEASON WITH TERENCE BLANCHARD WSG QUIANA LYNELL & LEDISI PERFORMING SCORES FROM SPIKE LEE'S FILMS

Terence Blanchard

Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall in midtown Detroit the Paradise Jazz Series wrapped up its 2018-2019 jazz season with, in my estimation, the best concert in recent memory. The concert best described as a two-hour extravaganza captained by Grammy-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard, featuring music Blanchard scored for Spike Lee’s films “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X,” “Clockers” “25th Hour, “Miracle at St. Anna,” “When the Levees Broke,” and “BlacKKKlansman.  Blanchard was backed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Damon Gupton and Blanchard's group the E-Collective with special guest vocalists Quiana Lynell and Ledisi. The concert started with two cuts from “Jungle Fever” “Make Sure You’re Sure, "which featured Lynell, and “These Three Words,” which featured Ledisi. Her version would have given its author Stevie Wonder goosebumps. Inarguably, Lynell and Ledisi who is more of a household name in neo-soul and R&B circles were the showstoppers the first half of the concert. Ledisi possesses the kind of vocal range that would fit comfortably in any genre she desires to undertake. And Lynell from the initial note she belted Sunday afternoon proved she was born to sing jazz. Don’t be surprised if decades from now she’s discussed with the same reverence greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn are talked about. Takes a lot of talent to win over Detroit’s discriminating jazz fans. Lynell had the goods. There was plenty of awe-inspired moments attendees won’t forget anytime soon. The vocalists garnered the most ovations. In fact, I don’t have enough fingers or toes to count the total ovations. The vocalists singing was so touching and stirring it would’ve made the toughest critics weep. Lynell is a newcomer to the jazz fans who frequent the Paradise Jazz Series, but she won them over with an angelic voice the covered you like a warm sweater. The first have of the concert was dominated by Lynell and Ledisi, and the concert could have ended there with the audience confident they received their money’s worth. The second half of the concert, however, the emphasis was on Blanchard and the DSO. The most breathtaking moments were them pouring their souls into “Levees,” “Funeral Dirge,” and “Dear Mom” music from Lee’s documentary “When the Levees Broke.” I’ll bet a week’s salary there wasn’t a dry eye in the building at the completion of those compositions. And Blanchard offered the finest trumpeting I ever experienced from him in the many years I’ve been a fan of his work, and the numerous times he’s performed in Detroit.  He seemed to have channeled the spirit and pain of every individual affected by Hurricane Katrina. This was a meticulously executed performance that on the surface seemed overblown with the inclusion of a symphony orchestra and Blanchard’s group, but all the parts snapped together nicely with Blanchard captaining the ship. What a terrific way to end a stellar season of jazz music.

Friday, May 31, 2019

RISING JAZZ STAR TRUNINO LOWE'S QUARTET PLAYS STANDARDS & ORIGINALS AT CLIFF BELL'S


Trumpeter Trunino Lowe
The jazz trumpeter Trunino Lowe is a rising star on Detroit’s jazz scene, having performed at many popular jazz clubs in Detroit and neighboring cities. A few weeks ago, he played the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in suburban Detroit, and in early June he’s booked for a weekend run at the Blue Llama, the hot new jazz venue in Ann Arbor. To date, he’s the youngest jazz musician to work the Dirty Dog where many of the country’s top jazz musicians have held court. Word spread on social media his shows at the Dirty Dog were breathtaking. He's a talented musician who plays the standards with dexterity and amazing proficiency. He proved that much Wednesday night at his concert at Cliff Bell’s in downtown Detroit, performing with his quartet pianist LeRoy Micken, drummer Louis M. Jones, bassist Jonathon Muir-Cotton, and special guest vocalist London Paul. The quartet opened the first set with three standards and closed with two originals. One original composed by Jones and the other by Lowe. The band sounded best on the standards, which Lowe added some polish to, making the oldies appear freshly minted. The originals “Peek-a-boo,” and “Teenage Rage” were less appealing with the former being hard to follow, giving the impression the quartet didn’t rehearse the tune. Vocalist London Paul was a welcomed addition. Paul is a promising young vocalist, and jazz fans should keep an eye on her. She’ll surely get better with age and when she figures out the appropriate songs for her voice and surrounds herself with an experienced rhythm section that’ll push her to heights she never imagined achieving. Jones isn’t a complete drummer or a tasteful one yet. Listening to him soloing, I detected traces of that hey-mom-look-at-me mentality too many young jazz drummers are cursed with.  I wondered if his chops would be better served in a funk band. And Micken lacked fire. Lowe, however, blew with passion and vigor but seemed unconcerned with professionalism. It pains me to say, he didn’t look as sharp as he sounded. It’s worth noting he’s part of a generation of jazz musicians not particular about their onstage appearance. A generation way too comfortable performing in jeans and sneakers. The veteran jazz musicians who’re training these youngsters haven’t instilled the importance of being well-dressed, and it’s sinful to stand before a paying audience sloppily dressed. The great star maker Art Blakey used to tell the members in his ensemble, according to former Messenger drummer Ralph Peterson, the first thing an audience sees before you play one note of music is how you look. They make assumptions about how the music will sound based on that initial impression. To me, that observation makes all the sense in the world. How many times did you see the Jazz Messengers walked on stage sharp as shit and you knew the music was going to be fire? On a YouTube video, the legendary bassist Ron Carter commented he informs students at the beginning of the semester he won’t allow them to perform with him without a dark suit, a crisp white shirt, and a necktie. Jazz musicians have historically been sartorial trendsetters. Frankly, it’s criminal the current generation isn’t hip to that. Honestly, I’m surprised jazz club owners haven’t mandated performers dress professionally. My fingers are crossed; however, as Lowe improves  so will his professionalism. For now, he has a promising future in the music, and he deserves support.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

JASON MARSALIS RETURNS TO THE DIRTY DOG JAZZ CAFE WITH NEW QUARTET, BGQ EXPLORATION


Jason Marsalis
The jazz vibist and drummer Jason Marsalis has a new touring band called the BGQ Exploration, supposedly a modernized version of Benny Goodman’s 1930 quartet with Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton. Friday and Saturday evening Marsalis’ test drove the quartet at Detroit’s Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe not necessarily playing Goodman’s original music but instead tunes his quartet performed regularly. The other music Marsalis featured was from Herbie Nichols, Duke Ellington, Herlin Riley, and several of Marsalis’s original tunes. He's foremost a jazz drummer, a damn good one. He’s also a fantastic vibe player, and during a few of his solos Saturday evening his mallet work reminded me of Detroiter Milt Jackson. For what it’s worth the BGQ Exploration is a competent quartet its members being drummer Gerald Watkins, clarinetist Joe Goldberg, and pianist Kris Tokarski, but the group hasn’t completely gelled yet. Of the concerts I have caught at the Dirty Dog, Marsalis’s was, it pains me to say, the most forgettable. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a set of standards, but what is the point of stripping them down to the would surface than reapplying the same old color. That’s what Marsalis is guilty of doing with such oldies as “I Got Rhythm,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it ain’t Got That Swing,” and “I’m Confessing.” Saturday evening was the first time at the Dirty Dog I saw a good percentage of the audience disinterested in the music before them. They weren’t talking endlessly while the quartet worked, but they were nonresponsive after most of the soloing. The concert wasn’t a total bust. There were moments where the BGQ displayed spunk like on “Harlem Shuffle, and “So Rare,” but those moments were few and far between. It was the kind of uninspired concert you’d likely forget about driving home from it, and wouldn’t take to Facebook to boast about. Midway through the set, I felt I made a mistake skipping the final jazz concert of the Carr Center’s season to catch Marsalis’s new band.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

TRUMPETER NICHOLAS PAYTON'S FIRST APPEARANCE AT THE BLUE LLAMA JAZZ CLUB WAS DISAPPOINTING


Nicholas Payton
Of the great jazz trumpeters from New Orleans, Nicholas Payton is my favorite. For years, the eight terrific albums he made on Verve Records were constants on my playlist. I’ve watched Payton change over the years. Years ago, he eschewed the word jazz and resented anyone who called him a jazz musician. He rebranded jazz Black American Music (BAM), and he started making more fusion-derived recordings such as “Sonic Trance,” “Numbers,” and his most recent date “Afro-Cuban Mixtape.” Gone, unfortunately, was the Nicholas Payton of old who made gems such as “Payton’s Place,” “Nick @Night,” and “Dear Louis.” Over the weekend, Payton’s trio -- bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Marcus Gilmore -- made its first appearance at the Blue Llama, a new jazz club in Ann Arbor Michigan. The club opened last month to glowing reviews. It’s an excellent place for live jazz. Friday evening the capacity crowd experienced Payton as a pianist and a vocalist. He played music from his current catalogue, including three movements from a newly composed suite. I enjoyed some of the concert but was disappointed overall. He spent most of it moving from the Fender Rhodes to the piano, and he closed the concert singing. It pains me to say he’s neither a good pianist nor singer. It appeared he’d just learned to play the piano and he was anxious to play it for whomever willing to listen. I was shocked he spent so much time not doing what he was put on earth for. That's playing the shit out the trumpet. When he did play it, his blowing was majestic. He’s still a brilliant trumpeter, and he could’ve blown the paint off the ceiling if he wanted to. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to attend the concert. I prayed he’d channel his former self and play a few cuts from his Verve recordings. That never happened. Save for some goosebumps-inducing solos from Hurst and Gilmore the concert was a letdown.

Monday, May 6, 2019

THREE JAZZ BASSISTS PAY TRIBUTE TO DETROIT LEGENDS PAUL CHAMBERS, RON CARTER & JAMES JAMERSON AT THE CARR CENTER


Paul Chambers
This concert celebrating the legendary Detroit bassists Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, and James Jamerson was the brainchild of the jazz drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, co-artistic director of the Carr Center. The two-hour concert was the last of the CC’s jazz season that will be held at the Detroit School for the Performing Arts. What a marvelous way to wrap up a terrific jazz concert season. To pay homage to the legendary musicians, Carrington assembled three of jazz’s most accomplished jazz bassists Detroiters Ralphe Armstrong and Robert Hurst, and John Patitucci. For added measures, the rhythm section was Carrington, pianist Ian Finkelstein, and guitarist Mark Whitfield, and the special guests were vocalists, Niki Harris, and Treaty Womack. The concert opened with Carrington calling the bassists to the stage one at a time to perform specific tunes composed by or linked to the musicians being honored. What made this concert feel authentic was each bassist shared recollections of their encounters and associations with the honorees. Hurst and Armstrong talked about studying and stealing musical techniques from Ron Carter, and Patitucci talked about having his mind blown during the formative stage of his career by James Jamerson.  Armstrong had more colorful stories, and he offered throughout the concert some comic relief. Aside from the musicians' recollections, the music for lack of a more colorful expression was smoking. The showstoppers happened when Armstrong, Hurst, and Patitucci were on stage together, and when Armstrong mimicked Jamerson’s style of playing. Other memorable moments occurred the second half of the show, which Carrington seemed to have designed for Jamerson.  Vocalists Niki Harris and Treaty Womack joined the fun singing Motown classics Jamerson helped to immortalize. The concert was the sort of authentic tribute to three Detroit greats that attendees will be thinking about for years to come. And the kind of outside the box programming Carrington has blessed the Carr Center with since signing on as co-artistic director.

THE SPRING QUARTET PUT ON THE BEST CONCERT OF 2018-2019 PARADISE CONCERT SERIES


Spring Quartet
It’s the latest jazz all-star group, and it’s called the Spring Quartet. Pianist Leonardo Genovese, bassist Esperanza Spalding, saxophonist Joe Lovano, and drummer Jack DeJohnette are the members. Friday night, at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall the quartet put on the best concert so far of the 2018-2019 Paradise Jazz Series. What was immediately delightful was the quartet only performed original tunes. There’re too many highpoints during the two-hour concert to list. The concert was broken into two sets. The first set, the emphasis was on Genovese the lesser known of the members but who shouldered the bulk of the workload both sets, and the multi-Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding. Genovese is an energetic pianist with traces of Ahmad Jamal’s and Cecil Taylor’s musical DNA running through his bloodstream. On the numbers which he was featured “Herbie Hands Cocked,”  “Spring Day,” and “Ethiopian Blues,” Genovese had a Simon Says command of the piano. Wonder if this group would be worth checking out if he wasn’t a member. On a different note, this concert was the first time I witnessed Spalding play like a pure jazz bassist. In fairness to her, the other times I caught her she was the leader, performing her original tunes. Spalding crushed all my earlier reservations about her being a bonafide jazz musician. She is the real deal, and it was a delight listening to her craft one delicious solo after the next. The quartet was balanced. The first set served as a warmup for the second where the quartet stretched out on several of DeJohnette’s tunes such as “Ahmad the Terrible,” and “One for Eric.” Genovese and Spalding were the standouts the first set and Lovano was consistently brilliant the entire night. DeJohnette, however, was the most breathtaking soloist when the zoom lens was cast on him.  As far back as memory serves, DeJohnette has been an exhilarating and tasteful drummer, perhaps the most tasteful in jazz. Every lick and rim shot during the concert was spot on and meaningful. The capacity audience was so lit they gave a well-deserved lengthy ovation after the concert, demanding an encore, giving the impression had the quartet refused the audience would’ve burned Orchestra Hall down. That’s the impact the quartet had.

Monday, April 15, 2019

THE MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL BAND FEATURING CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT ENDS TOUR AT THE MICHIGAN THEATER


Vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant
Many jazz singers have complete command of the bandstand. Watching greats such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carmen Lundy, and Rene Marie work the stage, and an audience is like watching a Broadway production. Then you have jazz singers such as Liz Wright and Gretchen Parlato who stand before the microphone and sing their butts off and that’s it. If it weren’t for their seductive and alluring voices, they would bore you senseless, but at their performances, you are enthralled from start to completion by every lyric they sing. The multi-Grammy winner Cecile McLorin Salvant fits in the latter category. Unlike Bridgewater, Lundy, and Marie, Salvant doesn’t possess much flash or sass, but the stagecraft she lacks she makes up with the purest voice in jazz. Salvant played the Michigan Theater Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s all-star touring band, backed by four top jazz musicians on the scene pianist Christian Sands, the band’s musical director, trumpeter Bria Skonberg, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Jamison Ross. The two-hour concert started with Salvant refashioning Betty Carter’s “I Can’t Help It,” getting the near-capacity crowd ready for an afternoon of a hodgepodge of music. After singing two songs, Salvant set in the audience and watched her band-mates stretch out on some standards and some originals. Each member shared equal time in the spotlight. Aldana, a rising talent on the saxophone, showed her virtuosity on her original “Castle,” and Ross, the singing drummer a la the late Grady Tate, gave the audience a taste of his vocal gift, belting “A Sack Full of Dreams.” Sands delivered the singular mic dropping moment, taking the piano through a cross-fitness workout on a classical piece. I interviewed Sands two days before the concert, and he said he initially planned for a career as a classical pianist, but an instructor pushed him into jazz because Sands had a bad habit of improvising while playing classical pieces, which is a felony in classical music circles. This iteration of the Monterey Jazz Festival touring band is the youngest in recent memory and includes more accomplished women musicians than in past tours.  Overall, however, the concert lacked cohesion, and it was clear the band hasn’t been touring together long. Salvant said the band toured for a month, which isn't sufficient time for musicians with such distinct chops to gel as a unit. The set list was all over the place with music by Donny Hathaway, Betty Carter, and standards and originals sprinkled here and there. The saving grace, however, was watching Salvant do her thing.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

PROMISING JAZZ VOCALIST EMMA LEE ABOUKASM TOASTS SARAH VAUGHAN AT THE WILLIS SHOW BAR

Emma Lee Aboukasm
Emma Lee Aboukasm is a promising and daring jazz vocalist making a name for herself on Detroit’s jazz scene at the tender age of twenty-three, performing regularly at some of the top jazz venues. Four years back, she was a finalist in the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Jazz Competition. A year before that she won Detroit's Youth Vocal Jazz Competition. Her debut recording “Rise to It” was a mission statement from a gifted artist. Recently, she received a Detroit Music Award nomination. Wednesday night at  Willis Show Bar, in Mid-Town Detroit, she paid tribute to  vocalist Sarah Vaughn, singing some standards Vaughn immortalized such as “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Tenderly,” and “It Might as Well Be Spring.” An ambitious undertaking given Aboukasm is still in the developmental stage of her career. She has an angelic and intoxicating voice, a veteran level stage presence, and she's comfortable singing standards. However, her concert felt more like a toast than a tribute. She didn’t talk about Vaughan’s accomplishments or if Vaughan was a key influence on her. During a tribute it's perfectly okay to give the audience a history lesson, and even say why the tribute is necessary. Attendees unfamiliar with Vaughan’s legacy left the first set not having learned anything about it. Another issue was Aboukasm scatting during every song. She’s not bad at it. But there was no need for  her to do so much of it because she sings so angelically. She’s still in the formative leg of her career, and self-editing is something she’ll learn and appreciate in due time. A terrific rhythm section backed her pianist Jordan Anderson, bassist Aiden Cafferty, and drummer David Ward. She believes in sharing the spotlight, so she gave each member ample space to flex. A tribute to a legend such as Sarah Vaughan is an endeavor jazz vocalists such as Sheila Landis, Ursula Walker, and Joan Belgrave, who’ve been in the game for decades, would undertake. Aboukasm, however, deserves applauds for daring to tackle some of the music Vaughan put her stamp on.

Monday, March 25, 2019

ANAT COHEN & KENDRICK SCOTT SHOW THEIR MELLOW SIDE AT THE PARADISE JAZZ SERIES


Clarinetist Anat Cohen
I’m not sure if the Israeli native and jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen is considered a household name in jazz circles. If my opinion is worth anything, I dare to assert Cohen deserves to be one. Pressed for proof why she’s deserving, I’d point to her body of recordings, and most recently her debut set at Detroit’s Paradise Jazz Series Friday evening at Orchestra Hall. Cohen shared a double bill with drummer Kendrick Scott. During her hour-plus set, Cohen redefined what’s understood and often belittled by jazz purist as smooth jazz. I’ve heard Cohen on two other occasions. Some years ago, at the Detroit Groove Society’s house concert series, and shortly after that as a headliner at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Cohen is a swinger by nature, and her chops are on par with the greats of the clarinet Pee Wee Russell and Barney Birgard. Friday evening Cohen didn’t swing as much as she’s capable of swinging. Her set was on the mellow side and in spots even melancholic. Cohen had a terrific group pianist Gadi Lehavi, bassist Tal Mashiach, and drummer Ferenc Nemeth. What Cohen offered was a generous helping of prime choice virtuosity, opening her set with “Happy Song,” which has become her anthem, then segueing nicely into “Song Without Words.” She displayed some of her swing ability on “Waltz for Alice” and the set's closer “Jitterbug Waltz.” The concert wasn’t the best context I’ve seen Cohen. Honestly, I readied myself before the concert for some unadulterated swing, but I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Cohen’s mellow side.

Drummer Kendrick Scott
The jazz drummer Kendrick Scott followed Cohen, and the concert was also his first set as a bandleader at the Paradise Jazz Series. The great jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard has called Scott the heir apparent to the great drummers of the past Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Art Blakey. Hearing that comparison, I wondered if Blanchard was bias given Scott is a former student of his, and Scott is a fixture in Blanchard’s award-winning band. Anyway, Scott is a damn fine jazz drummer, and his set was similarly mellow and smooth as Cohen’s set. Scott also had a wonderful group named Oracle guitarist Mike Moreno, pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Harish Raghavan, and saxophonist Walter Smith III. The band has been together a long time. And like longstanding jazz bands, the members were able to delve into each other's musical psyches at will. Scott gave the audience a taste of his new project “A Wall Becomes a Bridge,” due out in early April.  Scott opened with the title cut, and guided the band through amazing tunes such as “Apollo” and “Voices.” The pianist Taylor Eigsti shouldered most of the workload and put together a string of bold solos. Surprisingly Scott only soloed once. Although I was hard pressed to hear the Jones, Williams, and Blakey connection, I awoke the next morning with Scott’s licks ringing inside my head, and I found myself humming some of his tunes throughout the day. Honestly, Cohen’s and Scott’s sets weren’t the most exciting I’ve heard at the Paradise Jazz Series, but it was a lot of damn good mellow jazz presented by two bandleaders deserving of household status.

Monday, March 18, 2019

JOSE JAMES, THE SELF-STYLED JAZZ VOCALIST OF THE HIP HOP GENERATION, SINGS BILL WITHERS' HITS AT THE CUBE



Vocalist Jose James
Jose James started his career as a self-styled jazz vocalist for the hip hop generation. For anybody who’s caught him live during the formative leg of his career understands that title. He used hand gestures peculiar to rappers and even dress like them. It was an odd sight because his voice is a mix of  vocalists Joe Williams and Johnny Hartman. James has outgrown that label. That was clear Saturday evening at the Cube in the Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit during his two-hour concert. He traded the baseball cap fancied by rappers for a retro-seventies inspired look complete with a fierce Afro. James was in Detroit for the first leg of his tour promoting “Lean On Me,” his marvelous album celebrating the music of singer/songwriter Bill Withers.  This stop was the first time he's held court as a collective with drummer Aaron Steele, guitarist Marcus Machado, keyboardist Takeshi Ohbayashi, and guitarist and vocalist Aneesa Strings. They must’ve invested a lot of time rehearsing because the band mixed well with James’ booming voice which he can change on a dime to be gentle as snow melting on cotton.  The set opened with “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Grandma’s Hands,” and it was scary how much James resembled Withers. Midway through James explained how the album came about, noting he initially planned to record 60 of Wither’s hits, but the president of Blue Note Records, Don Was, asked him to whittle the 60 to 12. The songs James went with are beloved such as “Lean On Me,” “Who Is He,” “Better Off Dead,” and “Just The Two of Us,” which James sang with soul and panache. James didn’t see it fit to remake any of the songs. He delivered each as Withers originally conceived them. Over the years, James has developed a ton of stagecraft. He had the capacity audience sprung from the first song to the encore. During one song, he walked through the audience and poked fun at a couple who showed up late. The crowd didn’t seem to mine James' gratuitous cursing one bit. He asked if any children were in attendance, and then apologized for his choice of words. It was all in good fun. James put on a terrific concert complete with a few wardrobe changes. His voice was perfectly suited for Wither’s hits. Doing covers has become James’ forte. A few years back, he released a tribute album commemorating the centennial of the great Billie Holiday. There were too many awe-inspired moments of the performance Saturday night to pinpoint a favorite. But if forced to select one at gunpoint it would be James’ handling of “Hello Like Before.”

Sunday, March 10, 2019

EVEN UNDER THE WEATHER JAZZ VOCALIST DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER DELIVERS AN AMAZING SHOW WITH THE GATHERING ORCHESTRA AT THE CARR CENTER

Dee Dee Bridgewater
Friday evening at the Detroit School of the Arts Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater performed with Detroit’s Gathering Orchestra, which is comprised of some of Detroit’s top jazz musicians. The performance was part of the Carr Center’s 2019 concert series, and Bridgewater was wrapping up a weeklong residency at the DSA, mentoring members of the school’s jazz vocal orchestra. Bridgewater was visibly under the weather although her voice, which is one of the best in jazz, was still in top form. Being sick didn’t hinder Bridgewater from giving the near-capacity audience a wonderful show. Bridgewater divided the concert into two parts, dedicating the first half to tunes the great Ella Fitzgerald immortalized such as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “Undecided,” and the second half to some of Billie Holiday’s staples such as “God Bless the Child.” A few times Bridgewater flubbed. Once starting with the wrong tune, and the second stopping the orchestra to check that she was in the right key. Bridgewater has such a stage-presence the audience didn’t care about her flubs. Each time Bridgewater recovered nicely. It’s amazing watching her work an audience. During the performance, Bridgewater seemed to have tapped the spirits of both Fitzgerald and Holiday. I have never been a big fan of a vocalist backed by an orchestra. Orchestras tend to overwhelm, but that wasn’t the case with the Gathering Orchestra, which has only been around for a few years but sounds as good as any noted jazz orchestra making the rounds these days. What’s wonderful about the Gathering Orchestra is it is comprised of a cross-section of jazz musicians such as vets Michael Deas, Dwight Adams, and Diego Rivera, and some young lions such as Kasan Belgrave, Trunino Lowe, and Ian Finkelstein. The orchestra didn’t step on Bridgewater’s toes as she belted hit after hit.  Hell, it appeared Bridgewater has been touring with the orchestra for years. The evening was full of highlights, and some humorous banter from Bridgewater and the orchestra’s director bassist Rodney Whitaker. One memorable section was when Bridgewater invited the DSA Vocal Jazz Orchestra on stage to perform two selections. The orchestra looked good and sounded even better. It’s good to witness a group of teenage musicians who take the jazz music seriously. The audience rewarded the youngsters with an ovation. After the vocal orchestra exited the stage, Bridgewater returned to work stripping the paint from Billie Holiday staples and modernizing them. Although Bridgewater was under the weather, she delivered a damn good show, which honestly wasn’t surprising

Monday, March 4, 2019

JAZZ VOCALIST URSULA WALKER SEASONED VOICE TAMES CLIFF BELL'S AUDIENCE

Vocalist Ursula Walker

The jazz club Cliff Bell’s in downtown Detroit has never been a vocalist friendly venue. Saturday, the club’s busiest night, the noise can be unbearable for patrons there to enjoy live music from top regional and mid-west jazz acts. Bell’s doesn’t ask that patrons keep talking to a minimum during performances like the jazz club the Dirty Dog Jazz Café demands. Occasionally, however, Cliff Bell’s books veteran jazz musicians and vocalists who know how to tame a noisy audience. One such vocalist graced Cliff Bell’s bandstand Saturday night for two sets. The vocalist was Ursula Walker, who’s been a mainstay on Detroit’s jazz scene over five decades, performing mostly with her husband the jazz pianist and arranger Buddy Budson. Although Walker is in her mid-seventies and she only performs occasionally, she remains of excellent voice and amazingly embodies the stagecraft of a global pop star. Cliff Bell’s was packed and very noisy Saturday, but when Walker hit the bandstand backed by Budson’s quintet trumpeter Dwight Adams, saxophonist Marcus Elliot, drummer Dave Taylor, and bassist Jeff Halsey, Walker had the audience’s undivided attention after her first song. For the past two years, one of Walker and Budson’s pet projects has been writing lyrics for well-known jazz classics by jazz greats such as Wayne Shorter, and Horace Silver. Walker sang of a handful of those gems such as “Footprints,” and “Sister Sadie,” and a few Motown favorites slipped in for good measure. The audience was most attentive while Walker re-worked Smokey Robison’s hit “Shop Around.” Walker is a caretaker of songs. She treats the material she performs as if it’s freshly minted. Her voice is lovely and soothing, so much so when she’s in the throes of a love song, for example, you want to curl up in her lap. Walker was the featured attraction, but she wasn’t shy about putting the zoom lens on her bandmates. There was wonderful soloing by Dwight Adams and Marcus Elliot. Elliot was the youngest band member. In recent years, he’s graduated from a young lion to a bona fide commodity on Detroit’s jazz scene. Elliot could easily be considered the late saxophonist Joe Henderson’s heir apparent. Like Henderson, Elliot has an elegant and expansive tone, and he fits nicely into any musical situation he finds himself in. He’s like the star player who makes his teammates better. Cliff Bell’s wasn’t the best venue to experience a jazz vocalist of Walker’s depth and allure, but like any well-experienced performer, Walker made do.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

PONCHO SANCHEZ & JAMES CARTER DOUBLE-BILL AT THE PARADISE JAZZ SERIES FALLS SHORT OF A REAL JOHN COLTRANE TRIBUTE


Poncho Sanchez
Long live John Coltrane! That’s what the Detroit saxophonist James Carter yelled to a capacity crowd Friday evening at the Paradise Jazz Series at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall minutes before he performed a soul-numbing solo set of some of Coltrane’s signature works. The concert was the third of the 2019 series, featuring a double-bill with Carter and Latin jazz honcho the multi-percussionist Poncho Sanchez and his Latin jazz band. Both Carter and Sanchez were there to pay tribute to Coltrane. The audience got to witness the breadth of Carter’s virtuosity as he put Coltrane’s “Blue Train," ”Naima,” and “ My Favorite Things,” a standard that Coltrane immortalized, through death-defying improvisational feats.  This solo outing wasn’t the first time Carter has tackled Coltrane’s music solo. Carter gave a similar performance two years back in Philadelphia as part of Coltrane’s 90th birthday celebration. The footage is available on YouTube. Carter had the audience wrapped around his horns the entire set, but 30  minutes into making his horns honk, squeal, pop and signify, the improvisational horseplay became redundant, and I felt as if I was watching Carter in the throes of an unnecessarily long practice session. Strangely, though the concert was billed as a salute to Coltrane, neither Carter nor Poncho Sanchez said nary a word about Coltrane's influence on them musically or otherwise. Not one  single word  uttered by the musicians about Coltrane’s massive and lasting stamp on jazz. Sanchez was all over the place, opening his hour-plus set with “Blue Train,” followed by “Trane’s Delight,” the title cut from his upcoming album. From that point Sanchez’s set veered left, but not necessarily in a bad way. The music was wholesome, even delicious at times, and Sanchez’s band was tighter than Super Glue. The band has been together a whopping 35 years. Although the set was supposed to be all about Coltrane, Sanchez didn’t play hardly enough of Coltrane’s music, no "Cousin Mary," no "A Love Supreme,"  no "Alabama" no "Giant Steps". Coltrane favorites you wouldn't be wrong to expect for a Coltrane tribute. Instead, there were some original compositions by Sanchez’s bandmates and a medley of Sanchez’s music. Oddly, what aroused the audience most was the band’s Latin-infused take of a James Brown number. Had me wondering if Sanchez was attempting to make some Coltrane and James Brown connection. And, of course, it wouldn’t have been a Sanchez show without working in some obligatory Salsa music and dancing. To Sanchez’s credit, the audience was all in. Nonetheless, the performance came up short of remotely resembling a John Coltrane tribute.