Category Archives: reviews

CUJE feat. James Carter @Claflin1869 #CALABASH2016

Note: our local newspaper, the Times and Democrat, picked up this review online with an offering by Claflin student photographer Jordan Geddis. It’ll hit the print version Friday.

What a tour de force! Tonight Orangeburg experienced the Claflin University Jazz Ensemble featuring James Carter under the direction of one Mr. Vincent A. Chandler. Well, a fortunate cadre of Orangeburg cognoscenti did, anyway. For Claflinites, Orangeburgers, and others who did not get that privilege, let me highlight some of what y’all missed.

Chandler arranged and curated a program tightly focused on the development of his students and of a meaningful jazz scene at Claflin. The Music Department’s burgeoning jazz concentration within the music major bolsters a small but scrappy instrumental program, which means that the Jazz Ensemble often consists of dedicated students who work within irregular instrumental arrangements. Not to be discouraged, Chandler takes what most would consider to be a formidable challenge as his opportunity to create beautiful arrangements for this group.

Kicking off this group’s portion of the program with “African Flower” came through as Chandler channeling his inner Ellington: he writes arrangements with specific players and their strengths in mind. Carter exploded onto the stage, laying his gigantic tone over the gorgeous, reedy textures already crying poignant trans-Atlantic trade winds early in this powerful performance. With only a day’s interaction behind them, Carter and the ensemble coaxed a beautiful bloom from the frame of Chandler’s thoughtful arrangement. The Duke proved to be a unifying theme later in the show as the audience panted and screamed its way through thoroughly sensuous collaborations on “In a Sentimental Mood” and Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” What a way to hear the history of this musical idiom through the voices of its heirs!

Chandler and friends did not stop there, however. His trademark scat on Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” made perfect sense opposite Carter’s hat tips to Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, the Prez, Hawkins, ‘Trane, and so many others. We have grown accustomed to Chandler’s standout trombonifications here at Claflin, but they took on even more power in context with one of his mentors. Seeing that interaction on what Carter calls the “sacred space” of the stage was pure fun, but it also had an organic creative authenticity that characterizes truly profound performances.

 These were not the only interactions that mattered in that space tonight, either. The show opened with a trio out of Columbia that nurtures a South Carolina Midlands jazz scene. For students to trade choruses and tunes with the Jay Ware and friends offers them and the audience an important reminder that we need to support local artists. These cats fully deserve that support for their classy warm-up of a crowd whose numbers betrayed the enthusiasm in the concert hall, for their devotion to the art form, and for the fine example they set for younger players and listeners. One of those young listeners sat rapt on my lap for the entire two-hour show.

Mr. Chandler, Mr. Carter, Dr. McGee and Friends, if musicians can get a five-year-old to do that on top of everything else this concert offered, they can do just about anything. “Music in its most profound state,” as James Carter observed in an earlier masterclass yesterday, “produces life.” It definitely produced a bouncing, happy spark of life for my son and me, as for the crowd that hung around for a half hour after the show.

The only questions left now have to do with how Claflin and Orangeburg can get more listeners of all ages into those seats. There’s good news here: #CALABASH2016 has only just begun. Orangeburg, check out the other FREE festivities and join this vibrant campus in celebrating Arts and Letters!

 

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Featured Artist: Tedeschi-Trucks Band

Last night my wife and I witnessed a marvel of postmodern blues-making at North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center. Since shortly before the release of their June 2011 release of RevelatorSusan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks have led the Tedeschi Trucks Band. They’ve been busy since then, building on a solid foundation to remain the biggest, baddest blues outfit I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing live. We’ve been closely watching Tedeschi’s career since her 2002 record, Wait For Me. Trucks we’ve only discovered more recently, but last night the band made a believer out of this listener.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band understands two things thoroughly: how well the distinction between bandleader and singer can work, and how to value every single contributor. While he’s soloing or listening to Tedeschi, Trucks calmly participates in various ongoing communications within the band. Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson stay locked into a singular groove–a formidable task for any band with two drummers–while they also manage to keep out of each other’s way and support the band with tasty exchanges. Brand new bassist Tim Lefebvre holds down the rhythmic and harmonic foundations with impeccably restrained taste. Kofi Burbridge wields his multi-keyboard setup masterfully, laying down basic harmonies on keys here, amping up the texture with a Hammond B3/Leslie combo there. Kebbi Williams, Maurice Brown, and Saunders Sermans each bring distinctive, entertaining personalities to the horn line. Behind them, a duo of highly versatile singers Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers alternate between providing stylized harmonic flavor and coming out front for their own features. Just don’t call them backup singers. Mattison began paying his dues well before singing lead on another Trucks project, and Rivers goes well beyond holding his own during shining moments in this band.

Meanwhile, capable leadership from Trucks keeps everything cued up and tight for Tedeschi, who has ample space to focus on bending phrases and wailing her way through blues idioms that make originals sound like classics. It is truly rare to hear a singer with rhythm as solid and consistent as hers. Every ornament, every nuance, every single rasp seems purposeful, but she delivers it all with a nonchalant humility, signaling to the audience that mastery is just part of her personal style.

To say that husband and wife both handle their instruments well as soloists would be a dramatic understatement. Tedeschi’s straightforward blues style has always served her well, and it’s a perfect compliment to the harder edge of her husband’s slide solo sound. Together with their collaborators they can bring the band from Metheny-esque soft subtlety to face-melting fever pitch, often within the same twelve-bar solo chorus.

This is unapologetic Blues with a capital B. Yes, they can funk it up with some tight horn lines, a good deal of interplay between their two drummers, and some good clean fun from a self-choreographed horn line. Yes, Derek Trucks can get his rockstar on with a bit of distortion, harmonics, and the help of some professional lighting that pales in comparison to his guitar lightning. But this music articulates a genealogy of American rock beginning with the Blues and only then moving through Jazz, Rock, and Funk in that order. The diverse backgrounds and personalities of the band come through this sound mightily. This music understands that all truly American art needs that variety in order to participate in moving sonic representations of who we are as a nation.

Tedeschi Trucks Band offered an evening of transcendent Americana last night. Soon they’ll take the show to Japan, India, and several European nations. They will make excellent emissaries for the venerable tradition of American Blues.

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Monheit was magnificent on Valentine’s Day

My wife is the coolest. Monday afternoon, she calls me and says, “hey, want to see Jane Monheit tomorrow night?” I had totally written off going to the performance for the usual reasons: too much to do, not enough money for a ticket, we’ll put the baby to bed and have a nice dinner at home, etc. I’m the worst kind of romantic: between workaholic tendencies and not wanting to rock the boat of routine, my good intentions rarely turn up something this exciting. She knows this about me, so it’s the exact swift kick I need to enjoy Valentine’s Day on an actual date with my wife.

We’ve been listening to Monheit since she released her second record, and we loved her third, In the Sun. Last night she delivered the kind of totally unsurprising brilliance that we’ve come to expect from her. She punctuated with honest humor, and she allowed a sizable audience into the rather intimate musical interaction that she enjoys with her backing trio.

These are marks of musical refinement that come from her total dedication to practicing the craft of song interpretation. Monheit has a huge instrument, but most of the time she manipulates it with such great care and restraint that it makes the larger swells all the more exciting. Her technical mastery feeds the tremendous musicality that she demonstrates in every interaction with her sidemen.

On that score, she surrounds herself with a totally capable trio. The pianist, Michael Kanan, shows both sensitivity to Monheit’s every ornament and flexibility to her stretch of phrase. Neal Miner lays down a solid foundation for the group and throws in a few tasty bass solos in the mix. Rick Montalbano holds his own on drums, emulating his wife’s vocal restraint with a rather unorthodox cymbal technique. Montalbano plays through the cymbals, both lengthening and softening his attack. Much as it contributes to the overall finesse and restraint of the group, the very same technique leaves his sound on the skins rather flat. In his louder punctuations, these sounds blurt outside the otherwise tightly controlled sound envelope. These profane interjections don’t detract terribly from the gestalt songcraft in which this ensemble engages. The group is comfortable together: Monheit extends her family affair through the musical and personal closeness she clearly feels with the other musicians. They’ve cultivated this kind of proximity on her latest record, Home.

Guest trumpeter and FSU faculty member Scotty Barnhart stepped in for a couple of tunes last night, giving Monheit’s group opportunities to shine with one of the best soloists of his generation. Barnhart put is usual sensitivity and musical tact on display, and Monheit’s group responded both musically and respectfully.

These were the rules of the evening: restraint, respect, and musical sensitivity. Monheit sets that tone from note one as a strong bandleader. Some of the most aurally delicious moments of the whole show derived from the trio and Scotty’s decisions not to play something, instead staying out of Monheit’s way to let her vocal explorations flourish. That particular brand of classy taste proves rare, and it endowed Valentine’s Day in Tallahassee with a healthy dose of romance.

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Zakir Hussain and Rakesh Chaurasia at FSU

Rarely have I ever seen live the unbridled virtuosity that Zakir Hussain Alla Rakha Quereshi and Rakesh Chaurasia demonstrated last Wednesday night in Florida State University’s Opperman Music Hall. They played to a hall so packed that people were hanging from the rafters, most of whom understood Hussain’s international reputation and his status as a world music demi-god. To say that these players were amazing would be a disservice. No one familiar with Hussain’s musicianship was surprised in the least with the dexterity, precision, and sensitivity they heard from either musician. The pleasant surprise here – thanks to Seven Days of Opening Nights and their Director, Steve MacQueen – was to see such a global drumming giant diversify the fall concert lineup at FSU. A sizeable Indian/Indian American sector of the audience expressed delight not only that Hussain was here in Tallahassee, but also that he played with the nephew of the great flute maestro Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.

During their whole visit, Hussain and Chaurasia demonstrated a forward looking approach to the contemporary practice of Indian “classical” music. During the concert, we watched sons of masters, two musicians who had never played together, meet each other musically. They communicated clearly according to the systems they had learned so well as younger men. They improvised within those boundaries, at once honoring their gurus and pushing the envelope with tremendous technical prowess.

Hussain explained the next day during a masterclass that he had played with Chaurasia’s uncle and teacher. Chaurasia, for his part, had watched the tabla player onstage with his uncle for years before playing with Hussain. The pair sounded as if they had been born playing together. At other points in his masterclass, Hussain emphasized that “the purists in India” had little to do with the kind of musician that drummers like Airto Moreira, Babatunde Olatunji, and Giovanni Hidalgo inspired him to be. His reverence for Indian masters paralleled this respect for other virtuosi. His comparisons of Indian musical systems to jazz made perfect sense of the fluidity he had with Chaurasia onstage.

Starting with the long view – a historical backdrop about where tabla music had come from – Hussain explained how relatively new it is and how the instrument is still changing and developing in terms of its technique. He made crystal clear that he strives to stay within the musical and theoretical boundaries that his musical pedigree demands while simultaneously revolutionizing tabla technique.

In both the concert and the masterclass, these technical elements surfaced in the complex counterpoint not only between raga and tala or between tabla player and flutist, but also between right and left hands. What Hussain plays with either hand could be food enough for even the most sophisticated ears; what we hear when they play together is something that neither hand plays on its own. The ears respond with similar mesmerizing bewilderment as when listening to good Indonesian gamelan music, a pointillistic string quartet, or the intricacies of Kisoga embaire (wood slab idiophone) music from eastern Uganda. Unlike these, however, Hussain and Chaurasia’s collaborations are so highly improvised as to be fleeting, leaving the feeling that even if precisely the same combination of sounds was never made again, we became somehow more enlightened having heard them at all.

It was also no surprise then that two musicians with this ability to affect audiences so profoundly proved to be so personable and kind. People think this doesn’t matter, but the truth is that it reflects a kind of social intelligence consistent with these artists’ highly developed musical sensibilities. For what is music if not a social experience, and what is performance but the demonstration of thorough competence and elegant improvisation within particular social spheres?

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Dylan Rolls Through Tallahassee

So this afternoon my wife calls me at work. At first I’m worried, because she rarely calls me at work. She gets right to the point:

“Do you want to go see Bob Dylan tonight?”

Now, we have other plans–family plans that we have every Monday night–but the way she asks, I know there’s only one answer, and it’s the one we both want:

“YEAH!”

We walk into the Civic Center to hear Dylan’s aging voice scratching out one of his more recent tunes, but the night turns out to be a mix from his whole songbook. It doesn’t seem to matter much what he’s singing: his delivery tells listeners he’s as sure of who he is and what he wants now as when he set out to make Woody Guthrie his guru.

When he’s not behind the keyboard, Dylan creeps up to the mic like some old man around a campfire getting ready to frighten the bejesus out of some unsuspecting grandchildren. His voice ghastly and only rarely with any pitch at all, he spins his tales as a master storyteller. He smiles with the awareness that his audiences know all the tunes, but his poetry does not suffer a lack of urgency for it.  In his encore performance of “Like a Rolling Stone,” as Dylan asks his old question again–“How does it feel?”–we wonder if we should have kept the part of those frightened grandchildren the whole time. The tune has as much haunting resonance now as it always has.

It comes as no surprise that a man who’s been on the road as long as Bob Dylan has this kind of creative command over both audience and band. A tiny nod cues enormous tempo changes, his subtle squint a complete change in lyrical mood. At seventy, the textual and visual poetics of his performance still satisfy with all kinds of relevance for a generation still in the midst of discovering him.

On top of all that, my spouse still has the ability to surprise me with a totally unexpected gift: a soulful dinner with friends, a fantastic show, and all on a Monday night! What a gem.

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Back on BlackGrooves

This week over at the Indiana University Archive of African and African American Music review blog, check out my review of Erykah Badu’s latest offering, the hotly anticipated New Amerykah, Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh. Then go out and pick up this record. It’s vintage Badu at her best.

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Meet Me at the Fair

Well, it’s that time of year again: all over the country, prize pies and blue ribbon bulls from county fairs are going to compete at State Fairs.  But unless you’re a long-time member or advisor of your local chapter of FFA, that’s probably not why you attend.  I never chased a prize pig around the pen so judges could compare it to next year’s other pork chops on a stick, but some of my friends did.  I did, however, love fairs of all kinds as a kid, and I still do.  Today I got a chance to tell Neal Conan and the rest of the country a little bit about why.

My answer was predictable: it’s about the soundscape.  Conan’s guest today was Garrison Keillor, who also commented on hawkers and barkers as essential elements of the Fair experience.  But my memories of fairs both local and state would not be complete without music wafting through the midway from the carousel or, later in the day, popular tunes shouted from loudspeakers at the teenagers getting cheap thrills while trying to keep their corn dogs down.

I only went to the Iowa State Fair a few times, and there are two musical experiences that stick out in my mind.  The first is the one that I mentioned on Talk of the Nation today: the Iowa State Fair Singers and Jazz Band.  I first saw this group in a high school gym in Pocahontas, Iowa.  An ambitious young musician with interests in jazz and singing, I was floored by the quality of the musical product.  I saw them the next year at the Fair, and it was even more polished.  A couple years later, I saw their show and then went to a larger stage with some of the cast members to see the Count Basie Orchestra.  Among a cacophony of ambient sounds that generally characterize the Fair, these eclipsed the noisy atmosphere during their brief performances.

The State Fair Singers and Jazz Band don’t perform at the Iowa State Fair anymore.  Now they’re called Celebration Iowa.  They still take their show on the road each summer to many communities throughout the Tall Corn State, and they still produce a fantastic show.  So today on my first and so far only successful NPR call-in, I had to come up with another artistic favorite from memories of the Iowa State Fair: the butter sculpture.  It was supposed to be Michael Jackson, but apparently the idea has been “vetoed,” as Conan put it.  The butter sculpture of a cow will be there as always.

I missed the Fair again this year, though I have just spent a week in Iowa.  One of these years I’ll get my timing right and behold the great butter cow before consuming roughly half that much animal fat in the form of corn dogs and funnel cakes.  For now I’ll have to be content with an old Oscar winner and some other good Iowa memories.  More to come on the latter tomorrow…

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