Sunday, October 31, 2010


Django Reinhardt
At the Michigan Theater Friday night, the Hot Club of San Francisco and the Hot Club of Detroit belatedly celebrated your 100th birthday. The Gypsy jazz movement you co-founded with your pal violinist Stephane Grappelli in 1934 still thrives. There's Gypsy jazz bands spread throughout the United States and overseas as well. Django, I’m happy to announce that your musical legacy remains intact. I want to share some highlights from your 100th birthday bash. I was confident the Hot Club of San Francisco and the Hot Club of Detroit would put on a wonderful show. Neither band disappointed.

The HCSF took the stage first. The quintet started with one of your 12 bar blues followed by two of your medium tempo tunes. Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Isabelle Fontaine sang in French, and while her hubby guitarist Jeff Magidson soloed, she swayed her hips as if seduced by every note Magidson played. The HCSF were loyal to the tenets of Gypsy swing. After they performed the three compositions, the Hot Club of Detroit joined the party.

The HCD opened with the burner “Heavy Artilleries/It’s About That Time”, the title cut from their recent album. When the band finished, I overheard a woman asked her date “How do you follow up that”? Well, Django, the HCD followed up with another hot number “Nostalgia in Time Square”, and saxophonist Carl Cafagna wolfed down the changes like the last supper. The HCD is guitarist Evan Perri’s brainchild. Perri is a fair and undemanding boss, and he gives his band-mates freedom and encouragement to flex their creative will, but Cafagna is clearly the franchise player. I doubt if the HCD would be the same swing conscious group without him. Cafagna’s contribution is that vital.

As a surprise, the HCSF showed two silent films. Paul Mehling, the leader of the HCSF explained Gypsy bands traditionally showed films when they performed. The HCSF accompanied “It’s a Bird” by Harold Muller and “The Land Beyond the Sunset” by Harold M. Shaw. The audience enjoyed Muller’s work the most. The music Mehling scored for Shaw’s film meshed well. Whereas, the music the quintet performed during Muller’s film was mismatch. Both bands were sensational. The encores were unnecessary and over the top. Mehling and Perri never allowed the performance to become a battle. The even was about celebrating your legacy.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Billy Strayhorn
Mr. Strayhorn, are you familiar with Sean Dobbins, Kurt Krahnke and Tad Weed? They’re Michigan based jazz musicians. Around the state, they’re known as the DKW Trio. In 2009, they released “The Music of Ellington & Strayhorn: Swing is the Thing Vol. 1”. At Orchestra Hall, last Wednesday, I interviewed drummer Sean Dobbins for an upcoming article for the weekly newspaper the Metrotimes. Dobbins runs Civic Jazz , a jazz program for kids sponsored by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. After the interview, Dobbins gave me a copy of “Swing is the Thing Vol. 1”. Before I talk about the album, I will share with you bits of each member’s background.Dobbins is a sought after drummer. He was a member of the ultra hip jazz ensemble Urban Transport. A few years ago, he started his own band Sean Dobbins and the Modern Jazz Messengers. The Messengers are popular now, and at their concerts Dobbins has a knack for channeling the spirit of Art Blakey, Dobbins’ musical hero. Bassist Kurt Krahnke studied at the New England Conservatory and graduated from Berklee College of Music. He’s played with some heavyweight jazz musicians such as saxophonist Joe Henderson and Jimmy Giuffre. Krahnke has built a solid reputation. Pianist Tad Weed has the most diverse music portfolio, having done stints with Paul Anka and free-jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd. The DKW is a sophisticated trio, and they did a wonderful job of performing some of the music you co-wrote with Mr. Ellington. The DKW Trio is a democracy. However, on "Swing is the Thing", Weed stands out the most, and it’s easy to mistake him for the leader. Weed has the most Kodak moments. He plays gutbucket blues licks on “Do Nothin’ ‘Till You Hear from Me”. His stride piano prelude on “Daydream” was brilliant. It would’ve made Jimmy “The Lion” Smith a little jealous. There’s an unforgettable moment on “Take the “A: Train” where Dobbins makes his drums talk, but other than that he keeps a low profile throughout the album.
Mr. Strayhorn, I have your P.O , Box address in heaven, so I'll FedEx you a copy of “Swing is the Thing”. I bet you will like it, and the next time the DKW Trio performs, I will let you know in advance. Maybe if you aren’t busy you will attend.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Johnny O'Neal (photo by Frank De Blase)
You covered a lot of ground Friday night at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café’. To recap for those who missed the concert, you opened the set with the Stevie Wonder favorite “Overjoyed”, taking the melody on a few improvisational excursions. Next, you performed the Billy Preston ditty “With You I’ m Born Again”. From there you volleyed from jazz standards to blues tunes you concocted on the spot. The blues you sang kept the crowd pumped. The talkative fellow seated next to me at the bar kept grabbing my shoulder, telling me how great your voice was. This year, I have attended many good jazz concerts, but your set left a mark.

You know how to wow an audience. Plus, you kept your cool when some of rude patrons talked during the show. The talkative fellow’s date asked about your background. She was amazed you could play more than one style of jazz. I explained your dad Johnny O’Neal Sr. was a big shot jazz pianist and vocalist around Detroit. As a teenager, you hung out at many of his local performances. He bought you a piano, and you taught yourself to play. Many years later, you got your big break in New York when the drummer and bandleader Art Blakey hired you. I stopped there because you called “Sudan Blue”, a tune you performed often as a Jazz Messenger, and I wanted to hear Sean Dobbins’ solo. The drummer and bassist Marion Hayden complemented you because they are just as versatile.

Dobbins has matured a lot over the years. Early in his career, he was accustom to showboating when the spirit hit him, making funny faces, and twirling his drumsticks in the air. At first, the showboating was cute, but over time, it became annoying. That changed, however, when Dobbins struck out on his own, and formed the ensemble Sean Dobbins and the Modern Jazz Messengers. Last night, Dobbins soloing was discreet, and he never had a hey-mom-look-at-me flashback.

As for Hayden, a student of hers from the University of Michigan Dearborn attended the show. He asked my opinion of her. I explained Hayden is a priceless jazz bassist. She never grandstands or takes long solos. Musically, she has plenty of mother wit, always giving her band-mate support, but she never babies them. All night long, she kept time better than an alarm clock. Dobbins and Hayden were a dynamic supporting cast. The enthusiastic crowd showered your trio with appreciation all night. The more they applauded the harder you all worked.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Pianist Gerald Clayton
I was concerned I wouldn’t get to hear your final set Saturday night at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café. When I arrived, people were waiting to get inside. Fortunately, I bumped into Andre and Lisa Reid, friends from high school. They were next on the waiting list, and Lisa knew the hostess. She set them at a table with enough room for a third person, so my friends invited me to join them. They’re celebrating their eleventh anniversary. 'Dre even paid for my drink. Lisa picked the restaurant, and 'Dre was anxious to hear your band-mate drummer Justin Brown. Lisa has become a serious jazz fan. Before the set began, she talked about the wonderful time she had at the Detroit jazz fest this year, and she likes saxophonist Stan Getz and Abby Lincoln. My friends heard you’re a promising jazz pianist and bandleader, but that’s all they knew about you, so as an anniversary gift, I shared some of your history. I told them you’re 26-year-old, and you’re born in the Netherlands, but you grew up in California. You served an apprenticeship in trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s band. At the Detroit Jazz fest in 2008, I heard you play for the first time. Your style caught me off guard. Many jazz pianists play the piano as though they’re mad at it. At the jazz fest, you played gracefully. I yapped on and on about your solo performance at the Detroit Groove Society concert series in 2009.

That afternoon, you performed every form of African-American music. I told my friends you come from a musical family. Your pop, John Clayton, is a Grammy winner and an internationally known jazz bassist and composer. Your uncle, Jeff, is an outstanding alto saxophonist. My friends asked about your discography. I explained you’ve only been a bandleader for a few years, so you only have one album on the books as a leader. However, you performed on Hargrove’s excellent album “Ear Food”, and “Brother to Brother” and “The New Song and Dance”, two dates co-led by your pop and uncle. Last year you released a highly anticipated debut “Two-Shade”. I added although “Two-Shade was an impressive coming out album, it failed to capture how gifted you are. Brad Meldau’s influence is evident in your playing. That's all I said about the album of your debut, figuring you’d perform some tracks from “Two-Shade”.

Gerald, I gathered from my friends applauding after each solo, they enjoyed the set. The entire set, Brown’s drum work excited them. 'Dre was hyped. Gerald, I’ve attended many concerts at the Dirty Dog. This was the first time the crowd was attentive. I only have one bone to pick with you. You should've announced the tunes. That’s one of my pet peeves. Oftentimes, jazz musicians neglect to announce or to preface tunes. Anyway, after the set, Lisa asked for my thoughts. Honestly, I’ve heard you swing harder, I told her. The Dirty Dog attracts a conservative crowd. They probably would be unresponsive to a band wilding out. Not to suggest your trio is prone to horsing around. You kept the set respectable. It was ingenious how you stitched together four compositions, playing them as if they’re a suite. It was supernatural how you guys read each other’s thoughts. Your trio was responsible for my friends having a joyous eleventh anniversary although 'Dre complained the $20.00 hamburger he ordered was slightly bigger than a White Castle burger. Nonetheless, they only had wonderful comments about the music.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Mr. Coltrane, excuse me for bothering you. Will you grant me a few minutes of your time? I want to discuss “India & Africa a Tribute to John Coltrane”, the latest recording by Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra. Are you familiar with Brown? If not, I’ll share with you bits of his bio. Brown is a jazz drummer. He’s a Californian, and he has a PhD in ethnomusicology from UC Berkeley. He’s collaborated with greats such as Max Roach, Cecil Taylor and Julius Hemphill. The drummer formed the Asian American Orchestra in the late 90’s and the AAO has performed the works of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. As you can see, Brown is a smart fellow and a serious jazz musician.

This new project is the AAO’s twist on some of the music you made after you put your hard bop roots in storage and began exploring multi-cultural music. Brown recorded “India & Africa a Tribute to John Coltrane” live at Yoshis, a popular jazz club in the Bay Area. Water Baby Records released the project last month. The drummer divided the album into two suites “India Diaspora” and “Suite: Africa. The former is straight ahead jazz, and the latter is avant-garde. My only disclaimer is you have to be patient with this album because it starts slow.

Steve Oda plays the North Indian lute, and Dana Pandey wails on the North Indian drums on “Tabla-Sarod Duet”. Midway through the composition, they trade measures, and it’s really a crowd pleaser. On “Exaltation” Kenneth Nash chants while playing African percussions. Nash tries to channel your spirit. He chants your name, and breaks into a chorus of the spiritual “Amazing Grace”. Frankly, it’s a little weird. “Africa” gets my vote for the best cut on the album. Tenor saxophonist Masaru Koga plays the kind of fat licks you invented. Koga blowing seems effortless. Mr. Coltrane, “India & Africa a Tribute to John Coltrane” is a solid album. It works largely because the AAO feeds off a live appreciative audience.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Composer and Pianist Michel Camilo
Michel, if you had denied the  audience an encore last night at Orchestra Hall in Detroit,  a riot would have erupted. Your big band had the audience that  hyped. Never in my years as a jazz journalist have I witnessed such a spectacle. You proved it is possible for a big band to swing over an hour without coming up for air.  A man seated next to me commented an audience has  to be in  shape to endure a Michel Camilo  concert.  The performance last night exceeded expectation. It would have been impossible to fail with natural born swingers such as Antonio Hart, Gary Smulyan and Conrad Herwig participation. Surely, the crowd appreciated you prefacing each composition with what inspired it.  On “Dream Light” and “On the Other Hand”, the band had a Count Basie-esque swing ethic. The  second set,  I figured you would coast by playing a few ballads, but you increased the swing, starting  with a funky Calypso composition, and then playing “Just Kidding”, blending elements of classical, ragtime, and Caribbean music. Michel, you  have the stamina of a tri-athlete. I heard the Maria Schneider Orchestra a month ago at the Detroit jazz fest. The orchestra was superb , and I wondered if any working jazz big band could rival that orchestra’s intensity. Your big band came really close.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Outside my house, Cory the barber honks his car horn. A few hours ago, Snethkamp Chrysler-Jeep and Dodge delivered his new 2010 Jeep Cherokee. Cory is taking me for a spin. The passenger side window is down. The new Clayton Brothers’ album “The New Song and Dance” booms from the car stereo.
“Man, this is nice”.
“No more catching the bus for me,” Cory says pulling away from the curb as I strap on the passenger seatbelt.
“That’s a big upgrade. Cutting heads must pay well”.
“It’s been a good year,” Cory says turning onto Beaconsfield.
“The new Clayton Brother’s album is nice”.
“Yeah,” Cory says adjusting the volume.
“One of my Facebook friends raved about it.”
“You haven’t bought the album yet”?
“Not yet”.
“I’ll take the Clayton Brothers over the Marsalis’s any day,” Cory says slowing the Cherokee to a crawl. A Harper Woods’ police patrol car sneaks up, and then zooms around us.
“Is that Terell Stafford on the trumpet”?
“Yep, I believe Jeff and John made him an honorary Clayton. Check out this solo on “Battle Circle,” Cory says. He rewinds to track three. Stafford wolfs down the changes like chocolates.
“Is that John’s son, Gerald, on the keys”?
“Yep, he’s on the brink of greatness, and he’s not even 30-year-old,” Cory says.
Cory and I saw Gerald perform with Roy Hargrove’s band at the Detroit Jazz fest three years ago. Gerald shocked us. We liked his style immediately. He babies the piano and takes short solos. He’s unlike most contemporary jazz piano players, who tend to manhandle the piano.
“On this album Gerald changes styles with ease.
“On the Clayton Brother’s last album ‘Brother to Brother’, Gerald sounds like Gene Harris and Brad Melhdau, but Gerald found his voice on ‘The New Song and Dance’. He sounds more self-assured. His dad and his uncle push him. On ‘Soul Tango’ and ‘Chicago Bop Steppin’ they’re riding him like a superintendent. Gerald handles the pressure.
“Gerald and Terell are good together. Terell is a strong trumpeter”.
“He could blow the sun out of the sky”.
“John’s solo on ‘They Won’t Go When I Go’, is outrageous as though Ray Brown’s spirit guides him”.
“John is classy like Ray Brown was.”
“So do you like my new ride”?
“I was so wrapped up in ‘The New Song and Dance’ I wasn’t paying attention to how the car rides. Let me keep the Cherokee for a few days. Then I’ll be able to give you a better review. Deal”?
“I would loan you one of my kidneys before I’d loan you my new car,” Cory says.
“How about loaning me ‘The New Song and Dance” album instead?
“I’d give away the other Kidney before I’d let go of this album.”