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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Delmark 60th Anniversay Show @ SPACE in Evanston

I went to the Delmark 60th anniversary show on Friday, August 23.  It was a serious gathering of Chicago's blues community (which includes the die-hard fans).  Delmark is the record label founded and managed by Bob Koester.  Bob has kept this label going and it is now the oldest independent jazz/blues record company in the country.  Bob is over 80 years young, and he was at the show last Friday.  He spoke to the crowd at some length.  He is a spry old fella.

Delmark assembled a crowd of its artists - at least nine headliners led bands during the evening ("young bucks" Toronzo Cannon, Mike Wheeler and Dave Spector; "veterans" Linsey Alexander, Byther Smith, Jimmy Burns, Taildragger - pictured above, Lurrie Bell and Sharon Lewis).  This led to short sets and a long show.  In addition to the "stars," a small army of sidemen held forth, including major heavyweights such as E.G. McDaniel on bass, Kenny Smith on drums and Martin Lang on harmonica.  There were some outstanding moments - Byther Smith uncorked a great set, for example.  But all the artists were trumped by Eddie C. Campbell, recovering from a stroke he suffered during a winter tour to Europe, in his wheelchair in the audience, singing Little Walter's "Last Night" and playing the harmonica while Lurrie Bell and the band dug deep to support the old bluesman.  It was an intense experience, and the audience responded with a full-throated roar.

And the audience was full of musicians from the Chicago blues community - I counted at least a dozen folks that could have been on the bandstand with the headliners.

I am a fool for blues music, but even I was cooked by the time the 9th artist stumbled up on stage.  The same sidemen backed several artists with no break and they were getting really tired.  I finally left at the beginning of the last set.  The energy level had fallen, the crowd had thinned and the show fell on its face at the finish line.

Having said that, it did feel like "the old days" to have a sizable venue crammed with knowledgeable, enthusiastic blues fans.  Thanks to Delmark and SPACE for putting on this show.

Note to Delmark - your next big show should be limited to four headlining artists over a 2-3 hour period.  Always leave the audience begging for more, right?

Monday, August 26, 2013

First wet, then dry - the not so hot, not so long summer

Elmore Leonard  passed away recently.  The number one rule on his list, "10 Rules of Writing" is "Never open a book with weather."  Well, I am writing a stinking blog post, not a book, so I am going to talk about the weather.  RIP, Mr. Leonard - at least you didn't live to see this post.  Of course, you wouldn't see this post even if you were alive and well.

Here in Chicago, we had the wettest six months on record (since 1882) from January 1, 2013 through June 30, 2013.  We had 28.46 inches of rain, which is more than Chicago received for the entire year in 2012.  Then on July 1, some Cosmic Hand turned off the Big Sprinkler.  We have had 3.24 inches of rain from July 1 through August 21, the least amount of rain to have fallen over that time in 69 years.  The vegetation is browning out, the guys out in the Corn Belt are grousing a bit.  And now we are expecting the temps to ascend to the 90's again - we had a cool stretch, but that is probably over.  It feels like summer started late and now is cranking up trying to make up for last time.

The weather always grabs our attention because we experience it everyday and we can't control it. 

Warning - metaphor approaching! 

Have you ever had something that was impacting you every waking second, gnawing on your psyche, something you were adjusting to, trying to prepare for but couldn't really change in any way?  We wander around with personal weather in our heads.

You can't change the way someone else thinks and behaves, really.  You can't control any of random events that wash over you every day.  Through preparation and attitude, you can avoid some of frustrations caused by lack of control, but many outcomes are not in our hands.  We hate that, and most of us can't accept it.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Good bye, George Duke - and thank you, thank you very much

Today I got the news - George Duke died at the age or 67, which is too young, too young.  George Duke changed me.  Here is the story.

I was 13 years old, in eighth grade at John Muir Junior High School in San Leandro, California.  George was about 22 years old at that time, one year out of college,  with some great gigs under his belt (Don Ellis Orchestra, Carmen McCrae, Jon Hendricks, Anita O'Day, Bud Shanks, Clark Terry, and on and on).  I was a mediocre trombone player who was recruited to be in the junior high jazz band - a world was opening to me (Charles Mingus, Don Ellis, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, J.J Johnson and many more), but my interest was mild at best.  In late 1967, I learned that the George Duke Trio was going to play a free concert at my junior high school after the new year.  And, sure enough, on Saturday, January 13. 1968, George Duke and his two colleagues showed up in the multi-purpose room at my junior high.  I was front and center.  After 15 minutes, I was amazed, eyes as big as pie plates, jaw hanging open.  The talent and stunning beauty of the music created by these three young adults shook and changed me.  George was still playing quite a bit of mainstream jazz back then, but he did drop a couple of contemporary tunes on us ("Last Train to Clarksdale" was one of the funkier tunes he did that night, I think).  I resolved that night to practice my trombone every day (fat lot of good it did me).  More importantly, George Duke's performance that night caused me to love jazz, blues, R&B and funk - that love has sustained me through my life's turbulence.

George grew up in Marin City, the one poor, black town in ritzy Marin County California.  His mom took him to see Duke Ellington when he was four years old, and he demanded to play piano and he started lessons.  He went to high school in Mill Valley - Mount Tamalpais High School - one of the few black kids there.  He played many instruments, including trombone (he majored in trombone performance in college). 

George went on to be a founding member of the funk fraternity.  Check out "Dukey Stick" from 1978!! He tapped the deep soul of the African American musical tradition by playing piano in gospel churches. He toured with the jazz-rock violinist, Jean-Luc Ponty, in 1969.  George joined the Frank Zappa band in the early 1970's.  He was tapped by Cannonball Adderly in 1971 to fill the keyboard chair in the that pioneering soul/jazz group. In the mid-70's, George launched his solo career in earnest, but  he still played on Michael Jackson and Phil Collins  records, and also worked with Quincy Jones. George was a major factor in the development of jazz fusion, playing with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer  Billy Cobham.  He played with Miles Davis!  He loved Brazilian music and played with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. He became a much sought-after record producer.  He was frequently sampled by the current generation of musical artists, including Kanye West, Common, Ice Cube,  Daft Punk and even Vanilla Ice!

So, good bye George, and thank you for making me a better person.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Real Man Tenor Sax Player

The tenor saxophone has had many days in the sun, but not so much lately.  The jazz giants - Coltrane, Dexter, Prez, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster and the rest - gave way to the R&B giants - Junior Walker, King Curtis, Clarence "Big Man" Clemmons, Lenny Pickett.  It is tough to come up with a monster tenor player who is part of the popular music culture of the United States right now; there is no hip hop tenor sax star (although there should be). 

But there was one real man tenor sax player that tied the jazz guys to the R&B guys.  He was on top of the popular culture for a while. He was the Real Man tenor sax player. His name was Jean Baptiste Illinois Jacquet.

He is most famous for playing the classic tenor solo on Lionel Hampton's "Flyin' Home.  Every tenor player has to learn that solo note for note.  Illinois was all of 19 years old the day he played that solo, and he had never recorded prior to that day - but he had been playing professionally for 4 years by then!  He was a full-grown man, and had the full-throated roar that became THE sax sound of the late 20th century.

While Flyin' Home is awesome, I think Jacquet's solo on the Philharmonic Blues Part II is even more amazing.  Here is the YouTube link.  Check out Illinois' shift to the upper register at the 5 minute mark.  I think Illinois was the first tenor sax player to spend lots of time in the "squeal zone" of the instrument.

We need a successor to Illinois Jacquet to enthrall us with the tenor sax again.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Jazz in Naptown - Inspiring and depressing, at the same time

Indianapolis is one of those cities that isn't very famous.  Yes, they have the Colts and the Pacers and the Indy 500 which gives the Hoosier city visibility in the sports world.  But most people outside of Indiana don't know about the musical history of the city.  Both Freddie Hubbard (the great jazz trumpeter) and J.J. Johnson (the man who invented bebop trombone technique) are Naptown guys. Albert Von Tilzer also hailed from Indianapolis - he wrote " Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

I was in Indianapolis in mid-July on business, and had to spend the night.  After my meetings and business functions were completed, I went for a walk through the Broad Ripple Village neighborhood, a very pleasant artsy area with the usual amusements - brew pub, fine dining, dance clubs, art galleries etc.  I heard music in the distance so I wandered toward the sound.  As I got nearer, I recognized John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," being ripped out at a breakneck pace by a very fine tenor saxophonist and a backing group.  On the second floor porch of a bar and grill called "10-01 Food and Drink," Jared Thompson and a 2-man rhythm section were killing it.  Jared is known in the Indy jazz scene, but not well known elsewhere.  He is a towering talent on the tenor; has the technical aspects of hard bop sax nailed and is a wildly creative and sophisticated improviser.  His backing band was a keyboard player (who handled the bass chores via a separate bass keyboard) and a very cool drummer playing a mini-kit (snare, ride, high-hat and bass drum).  Jared led his team through a tour of mainstream jazz, circa 1950 - 1980.  I requested "Naima" (my favorite Coltrane ballad);  Jared smiled and unspooled a lovely version the tune.   They were tucked away in the corner of the porch.  I felt like I had discovered a treasure.  Oh, and there was no cover charge - I just sat there sipping my Diet Coke and blissed out.  I was inspired.

Of course, I was the only person paying attention.

The patrons at 10-01 were busy eating, drinking, talking, laughing, texting, fiddling with smart phones and ignoring the beautiful music that was being created in the sultry Indiana summer evening.  I wanted to shout at everyone to shut up and listen!!!  But I didn't.  This is America, and people have the right to attend to their own amusement when dining out (as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else).  So my inspiration was tempered with a little depression. How could people ignore what these supremely gifted musicians created for their benefit?

I applauded loudly; a couple of people joined in, Jared smiled and the set ended. He was reserved; walked away without talking.

It is crazy hard to be a jazz musician in the country that invented jazz.