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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Yoko Noge and Jazz Me Blues at the Velvet Lounge

I finally made it out to see Yoko Noge and her "Japanesque" Jazz Me Blues band last weekend - they had a date at the Velvet Lounge in Chicago. The Velvet Lounge is operated by the great saxophonist, Fred Anderson; he has run the joint since 1982 - it moved from its spot on S. Indiana around the corner to Cermak about a year ago. I am ashamed to admit that this was my first visit to the Velvet. Fred was at the door, collecting cover charges, last Saturday night. My jaw dropped - this would be like Charile Parker covering the door at Birdland.

The picture above is Yoko with her husband, soprano saxophonist Clark Dean. Clark didn't play with the band during the set I saw at the Velvet Lounge - Jimmy Ellis was playing alto. Mr. Ellis is up there with Fred Anderson, Sonny Rollins, Von Freeman and other senior practioners of the jazz saxophone art. He has performed with a huge range of talented people - from Nat King Cole to Sun Ra. His work with Yoko Noge last Saturday was stunning - his tone was keening and beautiful, his demeanor was joyful.

The rest of Yoko's band was equally killer. The regular bass player with my band, E.G. McDaniel, was in the rhythm section; Jimmy Burns, the blues superstar, played guitar and contributed some vocals, and Joe Junkins was on drums. Rounding out the band were some Japanese instrumentalists. Tatsu Aoki played the shamisen (the traditional Japanese 3-stringed cross between a guitar and banjo - you would recognize its sound if you heard it). It was a total hoot to hear Aoki-san jamming away on the shamisen, plinking out blues riffs. He usually plays bass in Yoko's band. There were also two taiko drummers in the band - I didn't catch their names - but they contributed much drive and flash to the music.

Yoko Noge is a unique musician. She plays piano with authority and power - not surprising since she learned her craft from the legendary Erwin Helfer. And her voice - wow! It is hard to describe. Very soulful, not "sweet" - Yoko is not a typical crooning female vocalist. At times, she reminded me of the late, great Betty Carter - adventerous, unconventional and delightful. Yoko projects a warm, kind aura - you feel better about life when you are in the same room with her

So now I am an offical Yoko Noge fan. Anyone who has not heard this great musician needs to get with the program. She plays every Monday at Andy's in Chicago. Go see her!

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