Friday, October 30, 2009


Dear Jeff Lavenson,

The new James Carter album "Heaven on Earth" recorded live at the Blue Note jazz club in New York came out in late August unbeknownst to many of Carter’s hometown fans. Why wasn’t there a media blitz? As a jazz journalist and as a James Carter fan, I was disappointed. By the way, I'm Charles L. Latimer I write about jazz for the Metrotimes, a weekly newspaper in Detroit. Folks around town were in the dark about “Heaven on Earth”.

I discovered the album on months after it hit the streets. Why didn't I buy it from Amazon? I don't care to order music online. I support neighborhood record stores, which nowadays are an endangered species. Car City Records and Melodies and Memories, record stores near Detroit that sale jazz music didn’t stock the album. They didn’t know it existed. Jeff, why didn't Half Note Records have an aggressive marketing campaign? The people who handle publicity for the label dropped the ball.

Detroit is a jazz town with a rich jazz history, and most Detroit jazz fans consider Carter royalty. We should’ve known about this new album months in advance. For weeks, I search locally for the album. I finally tracked it down over the weekend at Street Corner Music, a record store in Southfield, MI. "Heaven on Earth" is Carter’s best live album.

Live is the best context to experience him. In his live performances, he holds nothing back. Carter is like a ventriloquist, making his sax talk. The liner notes said you put together this album, handpicking Carter's sidemen. Bassist Christian McBride, organist John Medeski, drummer Joey Baron, and guitarist Adams Rogers are Carter's equals. I replayed "Blue Leo" and the title cut many times. Organist John Medeski had me spell bounded. It was the first time I heard him. He has a churchy sound on the organ like a gospel choir lives inside it. Medeski could’ve been easily mistaking as the leader. He scrambled through the tunes like a college quarterback.

"Heaven on Earth" is an excellent jam band record without the egos. Each player had his moment in the spotlight, and they didn't disappoint. McBride, for example, handled his bass like a debutante on "Diminishing". Rogers had the six stings on his guitar groaning on "Blue Leo". The players never tried to outfox Carter. Carter is a middle-aged saxophonist now. The past five years his playing has matured. He’s no longer unnecessarily rambunctious. He’s learned how to edit himself, especially when improvising. His maturity is evident on “Slam’s Mishap” and “Street of Dreams”. His soloing and improvising is pointed.

Jeff, what's next for this band? Will they tour? Are you planning to do a studio recording with them? If you are, give us James Carter fan some advance notice.


Thursday, October 29, 2009


Pianist Oliver Jones and Hank Jones
Twice a month, Hank I take my mother out on the town. Sometimes we catch a movie. Sometimes we go shopping. Sometimes we have lunch, and talk for hours. My mother name is Ernestine. She turns 62 next month, but she looks decades younger. She likes being flattered. Five years ago, Hank, she retired from Chrysler. Thirty-two years she toiled at their gear and axle plant on Van Dyke and Lynch Rd, in a dilapidated neighborhood. Mom is generous, cynical, and strong. I attended her retirement party that her co-workers organized it.

That was the first time I stepped foot in the plant. The plant was noisy. The floors were greasy. The workers moved like zombies. I don't know how mom survived working there all those years. She had some great co-workers she treated like family. Be bop, mom’s main running-buddy. She retired two years after mom. Her friends nicknamed her Be bop because she talks fast than Charlie Parker played the changes to "Confirmation".

-At Thanksgivings dinner last year, for example, Be bop yapped for two hours straight. Listening to her carry on, I thought about how John Coltrane could solo for hours. Mom and Be bop travel often because they’re retired. I love to spend time with mom. My brother and sister live in North Carolina. Mom doesn’t get to visit them often. They call her weekly, and mom will spend Christmas with them.

-Hank, you’re probably wondering why I’m sharing this with you. Sunday, we went to the AMC Star Gratiot theater to see comic Chris Rock’s new movie "Good Hair", a documentary about African-American women obsession with their hair. The movie was good. You should check it out. Driving to the AMC Star, we listened to your new album “Pleased to Mee You”, which you co-led with pianist Oliver Jones. Is Oliver a relative? The liner notes didn’t say. DL Media sent me the album, but not a press release. Mom isn’t a jazz buff, but she loves music. She thinks smooth jazz saxophonist Boney James and Najee are jazz musicians. Currently, she loves Keyshia Cole, an R&B singer.

-Mom adored “Pleased to Meet You”. She was curious about your background. I told her you’re from a prestigious jazz family. Your brother’s trumpeter Thad and drummer Elvin accomplished a lot musically. You all grew up in Pontiac, Michigan. Looking at the “Pleased to Meet You” album cover, she couldn't believe you're 92. I took her about your hot performance at the Detroit International Jazz Festival last month.

-Mom patted her right foot and bobbed her head from track one "What Am I Here for" to track 11 "Lonely Woman". She also enjoyed Oliver Jones playing, but I couldn’t give her any information about him. It was the first time I'd experienced Oliver. He’s a fine piano player with a sophisticated left hand, and a right hand that gallops across the piano keys.

On the standard "Making Whoopee", it appeared you and Oliver played one piano at the same time. Mom’s favorite tracks were "Blues for Big Scotia" and "Monk's Mood". At some point, I thought I'd have to stop my car, let her out so she could dance. You and Oliver had her in a trance. I'm going to buy her a copy of "Pleased to Meet You". I’ve noticed; as she’s gotten older, her musical taste has changed. From Keyshia Cole to a budding Hank Jones fan that’s a big leap. I might turn mom onto Thad and Elvin’s music next.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Carl Cafagna, Jeremy St. Martin, Nicci Der-Stepanian, and Meri SlavenAfter the Metro Jazz Voices second performance, Meri you asked me for feedback. Normally, Baker’s features straight ahead acoustic jazz. I like the idea of having a jazz quartet comprised of vocalists in the tradition of Lambert, Kendricks, and Ross, and the Manhattan Transfer with a strong presence on the Detroit jazz scene. At Baker’s Keyboard Lounge last night, the MVJ show promised, performing songs such as Frank Sintra’s “Look of Love”, Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn of Freedom” and Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar”. MVJ has some strengths and noticeable weaknesses that should be addressed.

Of the four singers, you and Nicci Der-Stepanian were more polished. On "Over the Rainbow”, Der-Stepanian was divine, and you stayed poised when the microphone kept fading in an out while you sang of "Pennies from Heaven". Meri, your voice is sweet. You are the more polished singer. I believe you know that, but you never tried to upstage your band-mates.

Founder Jeremy St. Martin and Carl Cafagna were the loose links. Cafagna-the front man of Carl Cafagna & Northstar Jazz, and a key member of the Hot Club of Detroit--is a wonderful tenor saxophonist, but he’s not a natural singer. His attempt to riff like vocalist John Hendricks was brave, but Cafagna flopped. MJV’s founder, Jeremy St. Martin, was shy. I would've never guessed the quartet is his brainchild. Cafagna behaved like the ringleader. Maybe St. Martin dislikes the spotlight. Maybe from day one he decided to delegate the workload.

Hiring the Scott Gwinnell trio was smart. They know how to back vocalists. Gwinnell is multi-faceted. This summer, he released the album “Brush Fire” His orchestra rocked the Detroit International Jazz Festival last month. The album, I bet, will make many jazz critics best of 2009 list. It’ll be on mine. Meri MJV has promise. With more rehearsing, and a year or two of gigging steadily, the quartet will be tighter. Conventional jazz bands have overpopulated the Detroit jazz scene. It needs more diversity. The MJ V has a sturdy foundation to build on

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Wendell, when did you start singing? I planned to question you after your opening set at the jazz club Cliff Bell's Saturday night. I couldn’t because some fans had you cornered. Wendell, I know some saxophonists past and present liked to sing. Several years ago, for example, I heard Archie Shepp sing. It was an ugly site. Recently, I watched video footage of the late saxophonist George Adams singing. He was a remarkable free-jazz saxophonist, but Adams singing was underwhelming. Skeeter Shelton, another gifted free-jazz sax-man, sang during his gig in 2007 at the Bohemian National Home. It was embarrassing.

The crowd at Cliff Bells was noisy. I could barely hear you. So I cannot say how you fared. You seemed confident. Your knack for sashaying through chord changes with the clarinet was comparable to Pee Wee Russell and Benny Goodman, clarinetists I'm sure influenced you. If they were alive, Russell and Goodman would consider you a peer. I couldn't hear your singing voice, but I could hear your rhythm section They were like enthusiastic disciples setting at the feet of a jazz sage. In fact, I set at a table on the stage, close enough to bassist Jef Reynolds I could see the notes floating away from his bass strings, and melting in the crowd ears.

During the intermission, I chatted with guitarists Bourassa and Niko Pittman. He shared the ensemble's history, saying you formed the Detroit Swing Ensemble five years ago, mixing big band era swing and be bop, which explained why your sets included material by Louis Jordan and Charlie Parker.

Wendell you sounded complete like on your solo album "The Eight House Riding with Pluto". I overheard you tell someone you've been touring in London and Japan with a band called "Tribe". Doing so keeps you alive. Pittman said closed his law practice to play music full-time. Bourassa gives guitar lessons online. He has students overseas. They gushed about your generosity. Reynolds retired to the dressing room before I had a chance to question him.

The rhythm section was tight knit like firefighters. On the Charlie Parker selections the ensemble performed, Reynolds walked the upright bass around the club as if the bass was a show pony. On a ballad, tears streamed down guitarist Rob Bourassa's guitar strings. Pittman's guitar spoke fluent 1930-ish swings and be bop. The group switched from swing to bop quicker than a couch potato changing television channels. I hate the audience chatter muffled your voice. Maybe the next time the Detroit Swing Ensemble performs in Detroit it'll be at a club where the audience is there is experience great jazz music.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009



The John Coltrane box set "Side Steps" arrived last week. I hope things are going well for you at DL Media, and the company is keeping you busy. I appreciate you getting me the box set soon after I requested it. Yesterday, I finally had a chance to give it my undivided attention. The five-disc set shows Coltrane from 1956 to 1958 as a reliable hired gun for established jazz marksmen pianists Red Garland, and saxophonist Gene Ammons, for example,

"Side Steps" will not excite many long time John Coltrane enthusiasts. Chances are, they have “Informal Jazz”, "Tenor Madness, "Mating Call", “All Alone The Red Garland Quintet”, "Mal/2", "The Big Sound", "Soul Junction" "Groove Blues", classic albums Prestige Records released in the late 50’s that make up this box set.

However, the set is a good starting point for individuals new to Coltrane legacy and music. Those individuals will experience Coltrane as a valued employee. Years before the saxophonist became an innovator, a revered improviser, and a jazz spiritualist. On tenor saxophonist Gene Ammon's date "The Big Sound", which Prestige released in 1958, shows the saxophonists were, pardon the pun, from the same gene Pool. Then on pianist Red Garland's "Soul Junction"-which was the first jazz album I loved unconditionally- the Coltrane and pianist have a kinetic bond.

Jordy, diehard Coltrane fans probably will not have this box set on their Christmas list. However, newcomers to Coltrane music will have a chance to hear the saxophonist during his formative years honing his technique and developing his sound.

Stay hip,

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Eric, at Border’s Book and Music last week, my friend Ron recommended I buy your new album “Revival of the Fittest”. Yesterday, I bought the album at Car City Records in St. Clair Shores, MI, and I listened to it this evening. Ron said this was a great album. I agree with his assessment. He knew I would like the album. I like tenor saxophonists who have a knack for playing ballads.

“The Island” is a prettiest song on the album. You know how to expose the soul of a ballad like tenor saxophonists such as Ike Quebec, and Dexter Gordon did. Like them, you play ballads with a puppy love kind of innocence. You wrapped your arms around the waist of the ballads “My Grown-Up Christmas List” and “Love-Wise and slow dragged with the chord changes. Pianist Harold Mabern was the right accompanists. His playing was tight knit, but he cut loose a few times. Mabern jumped into the blues number “Blues for Phineas” with both feet.

“Revival of the Fittest” is only the second album I have of yours. The other is the live album you co-led with alto saxophonist Vincent Herring four years ago “The Battle” Live at Smokes”. It is an exciting album, but the title is misleading.You guys didn’t really battle. Both of you played your butts off. Your styles are different. Herring is an alto player with a sturdy chin, but matching him against you would’ve been unfair like pitting a welterweight against a heavyweight.

Eric, I almost decided aganist going to the bookstore last Friday. I’m glad I went, and saw my friend Ron. If I decided to stay home, Ron could not have recommended “Revival of the Fittest”.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Jon Irabagon welcome to my blog. Come in. Let me take your coat. Make yourself comfortable. Would you care for anything to drink? The wife went shopping yesterday so I have soda, fruit juice, soymilk and spring water. Would you mind if I played your new album “The Observer” while we talk? I invited you to my blog because I’ve listened to “The Observer” off and on for three weeks, and I want my readers to meet you. I want to tell you face-to-face how much I like this new album. It’s old school acoustic jazz indeed. Moreover, you are a charismatic alto saxophonist in the tradition of Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges. Your playing is unpretentious, clean, and you have put out an album that can be to listened daily.

On your website I read that last year you won the Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition. You have been playing the sax since age 4. You graduated from DePaul University, and in 2001 one you moved to New York to continue your music studies at the Manhattan School of Music.
You’re, indeed, a dedicated jazz musician. You got pianist Kenny Barron, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer VictorLewis to perform on “The Observer”. I'm sure if you weren't dedicated those cats would have declined your invitation to play on this project. You have a knack for ballads. Your blowing on the ballad “Bar Fly” was pretty and as lovely as a prom dress.

Jon, on selections such as “Joy Secret”, “Cup Bearers” and “Big Jim’s Twins” you are a thirsty improviser. When you improvise, you aren’t carried away, blowing as if you’re having a fit. Your improvising is thrilling. You take your listeners on a musical joyride. You governed this album with an iron fist not allowing any meaningless horseplay.You didn't encourage the musicians to try to outfox each other. You doled out the assignments, and the band stuck to the script. Their soloing was poignant not flashy.

Jon thanks for making time to visit this blog. I will make it a priority to tell as many of my readers about “The Observer”. The doors of this blog are always open, and you’re welcome to visit whenever you have a new project.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Mr. Wilson, if I ask to see your birth certificate would it offend you. It may seem like an unusual request, and I understand if you deem it inappropriate. I caught part of your performance at this year’s Detroit International Jazz Festival, and I’ve listened to your new album “Detroit" for two weeks now. I’m having a tough time believing you’re 91.

Where do you find the energy to craft such highly charged swing music? You’ve made music over six decades, and I figured your best work was behind you. You have to right to rest on your considerable accomplishments, but you're too proud a musician to do so. “Detroit” proved you have a lot more to offer the world musically. Maybe the prospect of creating more great music keeps you going and youthful.

You run your orchestra like a man 50 years younger. Have you been lying about your age, or do you have the key to the fountain of youth? I told a friend during the jazz fest that each year your performance gets better, and you always seem to get younger. The musicians on “Detroit”, which is an homage to your home town, are different from the cats you played with at the Detroit jazz fest. However, the energy and swing levels were identical.

It was thoughtful you named five of the tunes on “Detroit” after some popular Detroit landmarks such as “Blues on Belle Isle” (the park where many Detroiters congregate during the summer) “Cass Tech”(The high school you attended and one of the finest schools in the country.)

“Detroit” has the earmarks of the great big band albums produced during the swing era by Duke Ellington and Count Basie, for example. Any of the eight compositions on “Detroit” could be some listener's favorite. “Detroit” sung from top to bottom. This album will not fix any of Detroit’s woes.

The last few years the media has beat up Detroit’s image. Mr. Wilson Detroit needed this album, and I hope you will continue to celebrate this wonderful city by composing great jazz music in its honor.