Steve Carrington, Allyn Johnson, Clarence Ward, III, Ephraim Dorsey, Ebban Dorsey, Eric Kennedy, Blake Meister, Ed Hrybryk
THE QUINCY PHILLIPS SEXTET
Saturday, January 19, 2018
Freddie Hendrix & Josh Evans
On January 19, 2019, the Quincy Phillips Sextet appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Quincy Phillips on drums, Josh Evans on trumpet, Freddie Hendrix on trumpet and flugelhorn, Antonio Parker on alto sax, Kris Funn on acoustic bass, and Todd Simon on piano and electric keyboard. With a bang, this dynamic ensemble launched a new year (the 29th!) of jazz performances at the Caton Castle.
The rhythmic footprint of the drums distinguishes jazz from other musical forms and, since prototypical modern drummer Max Roach (1924-2007), the drums' time-keeping function has constantly extended in the direction of harmony and melody, such that coordination within its own constituent parts-- snare, bass, cymbals, tom-tom, etc.-- has become integral to the drums' interaction with other instruments. For sophisticated drummers like Quincy Phillips, the drums are either a minor or a major partner, depending on the demands of a particular tune.
This show focused on the music of trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008) with particular emphasis on tunes from the "Double Take" album, a collaboration with fellow trumpet stand-out Woody Shaw (1944-1989).
On "Skydive," the Latin-tinged title tune from Freddie Hubbard's 1972 album, Quincy's driving drumbeat was tempered by the passive aggression of Kris' insistent bass line, repetitious in the manner of a gathering storm. Like a thunderclap, Josh's trumpet broke forth from a polyrhythmic three-horn chorus with a searching solo in a low pitched tone that contrasted with the shrillness of his trumpet counterpart and Josh's melodic command at an uneven tempo was exemplary. Against Josh's edginess, Antonio Parker's alto sax solo formed a perfect complement, with a broad sweep and silky tone that smoothed what Josh had ruffled.
Based in New York, it's been a few years since Josh last visited the Caton Castle, but he left a lasting impression as an up-and-coming artist with an under-the-radar sensational CD-- "Portrait"-- to his credit. Well, Josh has arrived.
And New Jersey-based trumpeter Freddie Hendrix showed a kindred spirit on "Lotus Blossom," from the aforesaid "Double Take" album. Todd's laid-back piano sketched the melody with bursts of notes at an uptempo pace while Kris' bass line raced with Quincy's drumbeats in a prelude to Freddie Hendrix's trumpet foray of rapid notes in a flowing rhythmic pattern. Antonio's alto sax chimed in with rolling melodic lines marked by abrupt shifts, while Josh's trumpet statement, in turn, interjected amorphous slurs in the manner of trumpeter Bill Hardman (1933-1990).
It's fitting that a two trumpet ensemble would herald the start of a new year of jazz performances at the Caton Castle. Tracing its lineage to antiquity, the trumpet has traditionally been used to signal all sorts of important events, from celebratory occasions to the imminence of war, long before attaining its familiar folded form in the Middle Ages or its pitch-varying moving valves in the 19th century. In the first century, the biblical Apostle Paul wrote, "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (I Corinthians 14:8).
Of course, Saint Paul spoke of a spiritual battle which would, for the victors, culminate in an eternal reward: "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (I Corinthians 15:52).
In mundane ways as well, the trumpet and its hybrids often signal rescue. For instance, in 1950s West Baltimore, my childhood pals and I delighted in Saturday afternoon shoot-em-up Western movie matinees at one of the three racially segregated theaters within a mile and a half of my house-- the Harlem, the Capitol and the Bridge. A recurring dramatic motif involved settlers circling the wagons in a desperate attempt to fend off attacking Indians. Then, faintly in the distance but ever more distinctly, a sound could be heard that caused uproarious cheers in the theater. It was the rescuing cavalry approaching as manifested by the frenetic tempo of the bugler sounding "Charge!" It gave us goosebumps.
To today's politically correct (and scornful) eyes, this surely looks like we were a bunch of misguided (reprobate?) black kids in a Jim Crow theater applauding the annihilation of Native Americans by white soldiers. It might look that way, but in reality, we were cheering the bugle.
Like the Jim Crow theaters of yesteryear, one can thankfully say of today's self-righteous form of political correctness: This too shall pass.
In his flexibility, Baltimore native Quincy Phillips incorporates the style of many great drummers. On a composition identified as "Calling Kadeshia," Quincy channeled the incomparable Art Blakey (1919-1990). Propelling a hard-driving swing rhythm with frequent bass drum accents, Blakey-like, that bracketed the two trumpets trading riffs-- a "cutting contest," of sorts-- Quincy's drums played hand-in-glove with Todd's imaginative piano comping and Kris' reflexive bass rejoinders, before launching into a rousing drum solo.
January always has an air of new beginnings, with New Year's resolutions aplenty and the first round of "Happy Birthday" wishes to January babies like Caton Castle proprietor Ron Scott: How old are you now?
I resolved that this year I will stay musically alert ("woke," in the urban patois) and I will, therefore, give rap music on FM radio another hearing. Like my great great aunt's snuff dipping, enjoying rap's rhymed obscenities to a monotonous beat is obviously an acquired taste.
Maybe rap music is, as I've been told, the offspring of Rhythm & Blues, itself the progeny of jazz. Perhaps, but I'm not alone in my skepticism. When presented with rap music's paternity claim, the late spoken-word blues icon who brought us "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Gil Scott-Heron, said, "I don't know if I can take the blame for it" ("New York Times," Obituary, May 28, 2011).
With commendable style, the Quincy Phillips Sextet kicked off the Caton Castle's lineup of jazz performers in this new year. My ears are "woke" to the possibility that there may be some rappers among them.
THE JOHN LAMKIN II
CD RELEASE PARTY
December 15, 2018
On December 15, 2018, the John Lamkin II Ensemble appeared at the Caton Castle, with John Lamkin II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Michael Hairston on tenor and soprano sax, Bob Butta on piano, Michael Graham on acoustic bass, Jesse Moody on drums, and Eartha Lamkin on vocals. Celebrating the release of a new CD, "Transitions," this group put its best foot forward.
John's musical approach is traditionally oriented, imposing his personal stamp on tunes that were stylized in the post-World War II bebop years and subsequently refined, for better or worse. I once read a review that knocked a jazz performance as sounding like it stepped out of a 1950s time machine. It took a moment for those disparaging words to sink in because, from my point of view, riffing in the footsteps of the revolutionary musicians of that era-- "Bird," "Dizzy," "Klook" (Kenny Clarke), Monk, and others-- is a good thing. In fact, the real disappointment for me is the trendy jazz of the present that presumes to go beyond, say, Charlie "Bird" Parker without the capability of playing what "Bird" played.
Pianist Horace Silver's composition, "That Healin' Feelin'" was typical of John's approach, with a two-horn statement of the melodic theme to a funky Latin rhythm which flowed from a pronounced bass line that was staggered on the descent, against Jesse's busy drum flourishes with rim shot accents. On a solo trumpet statement, John picked up the tempo with a thin tone in the middle to the upper register, blowing notes that vibrated hardly at all, shades of Miles Davis.
Michael's tenor sax solo formed a complementary balance with a hard tone and elongated notes at shifting angles. As the horns traded extended phrases, Michael Graham's bass line maintained an assertive beat that provoked a spirited response from Jesse's drums-- a slow rumble that elevated to crashing cymbals-- as Bob's melodious piano comped, abstractly.
"Why Not!," a bluesy composition by tenor saxophonist Houston Person, provided more of the same, with a spotlight on Bob's piano. Like John, Bob has been a fixture on the local jazz scene for decades and, musically speaking, he's no worse for the wear. In fact, his running keyboard pursuit of the melodic figure with tinkling high notes accented by dissonant counter-licks on this tune made me flash back forty years or so to when Bob was part of the house band that backed alto sax great Gary Bartz at "The Closet," Henry Baker's long-ago jazz club that was located downtown on Franklin Street. "The Closet" may be long gone, but Bob ain't. From the bandstand, John fondly recalled "The Closet," too.
On "Fine and Mellow," a blues number notably recorded by "Billie" Holiday, John's wife, Eartha, brought that sensuous lady's touch that can transform the blues in dreamy ways, invoking the aura of Ruby Glover and Ethel Ennis, legendary local jazz divas who likewise charmed us in days gone by.
Note: Let us acknowledge the recent death at age 81 of Nancy Wilson, perhaps the loveliest jazz diva of them all.
At the break following the first set, there was a brisk sale of the newly released CD, "Transitions," near the brightly decorated Christmas tree next to the bandstand. For some of us who have been around the block a few times, nostalgic recollections pretty much sum up the Christmas spirit, which puts us on a par with the reformed Ebeneezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens' classic novel, "A Christmas Carol." We don't say, "Bah, Humbug," but neither do we shout "Hallelujah."
Then there are those of us who superstitiously acknowledge an other-worldly dimension to Christmas, like George Bailey, the James Stewart character in the iconic yuletide movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," but limit our theological imagination to something like that story's quaint conceit: Every time a Christmas bell rings, an angel gets his wings.
But with the passion of faith, a relative few of us hold fast to the biblical meaning of Christmas as reiterated annually by Linus, the child cartoon figure in the perennial TV showing of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," featuring the animated denizens of Charles Schultz's famous "Peanuts" comic strip, with a jazzy boogie-woogie theme song by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Quoting from chapter two of the Gospel of Luke, Linus says:
"And the angel said to [the shepherds], Fear not; behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
Alas, Christmas is for everybody, but salvation is only for believers.
In a pale comparison, traditional jazz likewise seeks the many but finds few true enthusiasts. The modest-sized audience for this show heard a mixed bag of jazz offerings, including John's original composition, "Transitions," the title tune from the just-released CD.
On this tune, Michael's soprano sax whimsically adjusted the shape of the melody to a sort of "Cha Cha" rhythm before launching a prolonged stream of fluid notes with an evenness of tone that alternated between the middle and upper register of his horn.
Then, with sudden eruptions reminiscent of flugelhorn great Art Farmer, John picked up the melodic statement, parsing it at a slower pace with audible pauses before accelerating. All the while, Bob's piano comping tracked Michael Graham's expressive bass line, a soulfully halting beat that ran parallel to Jesse's drums. Individually and collectively, this rhythm section shined.
In addition to John's "Transitions" CD, you might consider a gift-book for that jazz fan on your holiday list, like "Louis Armstrong in His Own Words: Selected Writings" (1999), edited by Thomas Brothers. Therein, the great trumpeter, "Satchmo," said something profound about humility, a scarce commodity, when explaining why he never spoke ill of inferior musicians with whom he played:
"I've always lived like that sister that was in my mother (Mary Ann's) church [who explained why she was so attentive to a substitute preacher by saying] 'When our Rev. Cozy is preaching, I can look right straight through him and see Jesus-- and when the Sub Preacher was preaching surely-- I realized that he wasn't as good as our pastor-- so I looked over him and saw Jesus just the same.' That's the only way I wanted to be-- just like that sister."
Jazz critics take heed: "Satchmo's" charitable wisdom-- accentuate the positive-- applies to the art of playing music as well as the art of listening to it. A remarkable man, "Satchmo" was in the habit of ending personal letters on a light note, like: "As the little boy who sat on a block of ice said, my tale is told."
THE ROMEIR MENDEZ QUINTET
DECEMBER 8, 2018
Christie Dashiell (Vocals), Allyn Johnson (Piano), Terrell Stafford (Trumpet/Flugelhorn), Romeir Mendez (Bass), Corey Fonville (Drums), Tim Warfield (Tenor/Soprano Saxophones).
On December 8, 2018, the Romeir Mendez Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Romeir Mendez on acoustic bass, Terell Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn, Tim Warfield on tenor and soprano sax, Allyn Johnson on piano, Corey Fonville on drums and a surprise addition, vocalist Christie Dashiell. Some somber notes can be detected amidst the joy of this Christmas season, and in that context this show was inspirational.
The band performed Allyn's original composition provisionally entitled "Roy Hargrove" in tribute to the critically acclaimed trumpet and flugelhorn player who died last month at age 49. May God rest his soul.
At a moderate but fluctuating pace, the horns unfolded the melody of this memorial tune against a spare rhythmic statement, drums filling space between the bass' prompting beat and the piano's lagging response until Tim's soprano sax intervened with an understated yet lofty solo excursion that set the stage for Terell's flugelhorn flexing, a fitting echo of Roy Hargrove's sound containing lyrical phrasing that was bracing in its bell-like timbre-- crisp and resonant-- with lingering notes in soothing combinations. Likewise, Allyn's piano solo was majestic.
Christie Dashiell redirected the mood with her take on another original composition by Allyn, "Somalia Rose." This tune had a hint of Oriental rhythm, as Christie scatted the melody at a constantly increasing pace, a step ahead of Corey's racing drums and Romeir's thumping bass line, offset by Terell's flugelhorn riffs and Allyn's pronounced piano comping. Tim's soprano sax solo employed an urgent tone in the high register that eventually matched the dynamic energy of Corey's drums-- wailing. This tune exhausted the audience.
Christie is a charming young lady with a lovely voice, who gave a fragile warmth-- preciousness-- to the lyrics of "When I Fall in Love" that would surely melt the coldest heart. And yet, notwithstanding her reminder in song, "Joy to the World, The Lord has Come," a sour note intrudes in this Christmas season when I consider the heartlessness on the streets of predominantly black Baltimore.
The per capita murder capital of the entire nation, "Charm City" out-did its vicious self recently when a panhandling woman apparently holding a baby played decoy for her knife-wielding accomplice who accosted a middle-aged mother after she rolled down her car window to offer help, and killed her when she resisted a robbery. Evident from TV news reports, the victim was black but the racial identity of the at-large perpetrators remains unstated. Yeah, unstated.
Black on black crime: The hate that dares not speak its name.
Race is such a vexatious subject. It goes without saying that cultural ambivalence about race has a historical analog in contrasting perceptions of jazz, but a closer look suggests that "race" is really a substitute term for something else-- perceptions of freedom.
In a 1963 essay, "Jazz and the White Critic," poet and author LeRoi Jones, later Amiri Baraka (1934-2014), said, "Failure to understand, for instance, that [the white] Paul Desmond and [the black] John Coltrane represent not only two divergent ways of thinking about music, but more importantly two very different ways of viewing the world, is at the seat of most of the established misconceptions that are daily palmed off as intelligent commentary on jazz or jazz criticism." Jones continued, "The music is the result of the attitude, the stance; Just as Negroes made blues and other people did not because of the Negro's peculiar way of looking at the world" (from "Black Music," 1967).
So what? By this logic a black man is confused (sociologically and therefore musically) if he prefers Paul Desmond's famous solo on the Dave Brubeck Quartet's rhythmically innovative number, "Take Five," to the "deep" eccentricities of anything that John Coltrane recorded with his second wife, Alice, on "free form" piano. Why? Because LeRoi Jones, a self-proclaimed arbiter of "blackness," said so.
On the other hand, Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), black author of the canonized novel, "Invisible Man," took another view of the matter in a 1969 West Point commencement speech: "Now, the jazz musician, the jazz soloist, is anything if not eclectic [...] and he can draw upon an endless pattern of sounds which he recombines on the spur of the moment into a meaningful music experience, if he's successful." Ellison continued, "And I have a sense that all of these references of [Nobel Prize winning white poet T.S.] Eliot's, all of this snatching of phrases from the German, from the French, from the Sanskrit, and so on, were attuned to that type of American cultural expressiveness which one got in jazz and which one still gets in good jazz" (from "Going to the Territory," 1986).
According to Ellison, whites are as capable of mastering jazz as blacks are of mastering baseball, the sport that gave us the profundity of "Yogi" Berra, as in, "You can observe a lot by watching." And you can hear a lot, I might add, by listening.
As to the uncertainties that lurk at the intersection of race and music, "Yogi's" advice is as sound as any: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." The decision is yours.
Freedom presupposes the power of choice, and knowledge is power. In music and in East Baltimore, the problem with racial blinders is that they make us less perceptive and, therefore, less free. Cultural pressure that bids us to deny the obvious is a form of bondage.
"Incandescent Spirit," another original composition by Allyn Johnson, provided a lively example of improvisational freedom, with musical voices jostling for expression. Terell's solo trumpet statement shaped the melodic outline with impressionistic riffs, bursts of notes that formed a coherent whole, against a corresponding barrage from Tim's tenor sax, with guttural accents in the lower register, shades of tenor sax great Joe Henderson. And Romeir's agile bass adjusted the beat around a bluesy conceit with Allyn's piano runs and Corey's drum refrains in competitive coordination.
Freedom is an attitude. Romeir Mendez's uplifting ensemble showed us what it sounds like.
SHARON CLARK QUINTET
December 1, 2018
SHARON CLARK, CHRIS GRASSO, MICHAEL BOWIE, PAUL CARR, LENNY ROBINSON
On December 1, 2018, the Sharón Clark Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Sharón Clark on vocals, Paul Carr on tenor sax, Chris Grasso on piano, Michael Bowie on acoustic bass and Lenny Robinson on drums. Sharón's voice instrument was in fine form.
Though a near-neighbor at her Washington, D.C. area home base, it's been a "minute," as they say, since Sharón last appeared at the Caton Castle. A versatile performer, I particularly looked forward to an encore of that aspect of Sharón's vocal persona that resembles the "Divine One," the great Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990), a/k/a "Sassy."
This show's "take two" motif, featuring an older and a newer song connected by a common theme, did not include any of "Sassy's" signature numbers in the first two sets, like "Send in the Clowns" or "Misty" or "Lullaby of Birdland," but "Sassy's" style was evident none the less in Sharón's musical bearings. I refer to Sharón's yawning vocal range from low to high so stark and fluid that at times it affects a duet, and her lyrically manipulated tempos-- favoring the lower gears-- with horn-like fluctuations.
On "Don't Go to Strangers," Etta Jones' yearning masterpiece, Sharón vocally slow-danced amidst the spacious dimensions of Chris' lean piano statement of the melody, simpatico with the lulling rhythm of Lenny's brush strokes and Michael's embracing bass line, while Paul's interspersed tenor sax riffs and understated solo provided a contrasting tone, accenting the melody and softly offsetting Sharón's vocal dexterity, like a velvet echo.
To me, Sharón's take on "Don't Go to Strangers" sounded more like "Sassy's" moaning than Etta's lilting, but that might be a misperception due to my "Sassy" fixation. Perhaps I'm like that psychiatric patient who exasperated the doctor by continuously describing every ink-blot sample as showing some sort of sexual act until the doctor finally demanded to know if the patient ever thought of anything besides sex. How can I, the patient responded, when you keep showing me these dirty pictures?
As to "Sassy's" exalted stature, however, I am not delusional. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then it is small wonder that so many singers pay homage to "Sassy's" style. She inhabits the pantheon of jazz divas, along with "Billie" Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Etta Jones, and Betty "Bebop" Carter.
But the "business" of music requires imitation of many lesser lights than these because a certain repetitive "sameness" is a prerequisite of popular appeal. "Sassy," herself, recognized the phenomenon: "'My contract with Mercury is for pops, and my contract with EmArcy [a jazz recording subsidiary] is for me,' she would tell Record Whirl [magazine] in July 1955" (from "Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan," by Leslie Gourse, 1993).
The task that serious music (and art more generally) sets for itself is to lure the individual away from the collective competition-- "keeping up with the Joneses"-- that defines life for too many, in order to stimulate comparisons that are more refined. This is no small task because human nature is so bound up in petty group envy that even the biblical Ten Commandments pronounced against it: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17).
Given our proclivity to covet, to desire what someone else possesses mainly because he or she has it, there's a thin line separating wholesome admiration from destructive resentment. While their music bids us to compare the artistry of, say, "Sassy" versus "Billie" Holiday (1915-1959), the artists themselves were not above the covetous fray in their personal relations. In her autobiography as told to William Dufty, "Lady Sings the Blues" (1959), "Billie" spoke of "Sassy" in bitter/sweet terms.
"Sarah Vaughan was singing with Billy [Eckstine] then and just getting started [... so] I went to see a dame I knew who sold me a beautiful three-hundred-dollar evening gown for a song [and] I went out to the Plantation [nightclub in Los Angeles] and gave it to Sarah," "Billie" recalled. "But the moment she put it on she looked more like a girl who was going somewhere; And she did and I was happy she did."
However, after "Billie" served a prison sentence for drug offenses, she noted a later encounter with "Sassy"-- "She turned up her nose and walked straight by me to her dressing room without a sign"-- and contrasted it to a contemporaneous meeting with singer Lena Horne: "We talked about [Lena making the movie "Stormy Weather"] and more, and I was so happy I cried," said "Billie," adding that "people like Lena took the sting out of other little people."
Needless to say, "Billie" had no tears of joy for "Sassie." What happened? The answer, I think, is revealed in a line from a song on Sharón's CD, "Do it Again: My Tribute to Shirley Horn." Specifically, I refer to "He's Out of My Life," a tune previously recorded as "She's Out of My Life" by the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, wherein Sharón put her brooding touch on a lyrical phrase encapsulating the devilish problem that Christians call sin; to wit, "Damned indecision and cursed pride/ Kept my love for [her] locked deep inside." That's what, I think, came between "Sassie" and "Billie."
In any event, Sharón paid due respect to pop tunes in this performance, including Carly Simon's "You Belong to Me," the Bee Gees' "How Deep is Your Love" and Burt Bacharach's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." Also, Sharón threw in a funky blues number, "Oh! Darling," by the Beatles, for good measure. As to pop music, you could say that Sharon covered the waterfront.
"I'll Remember April," an uptempo jazz vehicle that featured Sharón in scat mode, also spotlighted her excellent rhythm section. Chris Grasso's solo showed his piano assertively framing the melody before conjuring up creative combinations of licks that provoked a busy response from Lenny's drums, establishing a fluid pattern of beats with frequent bass drum punctuation amidst pace-setting cymbal flourishes. And Michael's bass line was an anchoring presence throughout, collaboratively keeping rhythmic time or distilling the melodic essence, solo.
Hat tip to Ms. Toni Denise recently arrived from the West Coast, who sang a spirited "sit-in" rendition of "Route 66."
Like "Sassy" before her, Sharón Clark demonstrates a mastery for melding pop music to a jazzy idiom, changing water into wine, so to speak. Once again, she left me ready for more.
MARK GROSS QUARTET
Saturday, November 17, 2018
Back Row: Todd Simon, Michael Bowie, John R. Lamkin, III.
Front Row: Tavifa Cojocari, Jerry Tong, Mark Gross, Ismael Guerrero, and Guanlun Li.
MARK GROSS QUARTET + STRINGS with MARK GROSS-Alto Saxophone, Todd Simon-Piano, Michael Bowie-Bass, John R. Lamkin, III-Drums, and STRINGS, Tavifa Cojocari-Violin 1, Jerry Tong-Violin 2, Ismael Guerrero-Cello, Guanlun Li-Viola.
The Mark Gross Quartet featuring a performance with Baltimore's own Ephraim and Ebban Dorsey!
On November 17, 2018, the Mark Gross Ensemble appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Mark Gross on alto sax, Todd Simon on piano, Michael Bowie on acoustic bass, John Lamkin, III on drums, and a string section from the Peabody Conservatory: Tavifa Cojocari on first violin, Jerry Tong on second violin, Guanlun Li on viola, and Ismael Guerrero on cello.
Billed as a celebration of the music of Charlie "Bird" Parker with strings, this show was proof that there's something to the urban legend: "Bird Lives!"
In a representative way, Mark Gross' commanding alto sax channeled "Bird" (1920-1955) on "Just Friends," a middle-tempo ballad from the iconic "Charlie Parker with Strings" recordings produced around 1950, with a buoyant statement of the lyrical theme-- "Just friends, lovers no more/ Just friends, but not like before"-- in a tone of wistful pathos that fit neatly into the sugary texture of the string accompaniment, which was more of an atmospheric presence than a complementary refrain.
The rhythm section was solid, as John persistently inserted his drums via brush strokes between Michael's searching bass line and Todd's piano comping in melodic hints.
To say the least, the "Charlie Parker with Strings" recordings were a departure from the usual instrumentation associated with bebop, featuring brief versions of selections from the Great American Song Book-- "Laura," "I'll Remember April," "I Didn't Know What Time it Was," etc.-- to the accompaniment of a string chorus, in an obvious attempt by "Bird" to broaden the appeal of the deconstructed big band sonority known as bebop. Of course, as one of its main innovators (along with trumpeter "Dizzy" Gillespie), every artistic move that "Bird" made was groundbreaking.
Parenthetically, the "Charlie Parker with Strings" recordings were among the first wave of the new "magnetic tape" recording technology that facilitated the long-playing (LP) album. Characterized by a slower "rotations per minute" speed (33 1/3) than the previous discs (78 rpm), LPs allowed for improved sound quality ("Hi-Fi") in addition to a much longer song duration. Prior to the advent of LPs, each entire side of a recorded music disc was, for technical reasons, limited to three minutes. In keeping with the old aesthetic, the "Charlie Parker with Strings" LPs similarly limited the duration of each song. The result may sound repetitive and cramped to ears accustomed to the long (too long?) playing improvisational solos typified by, say, John Coltrane's epochal recording, "A Love Supreme" (1964).
While a musical genius, it is well-known that "Bird," a Kansas City native, was also a tortured soul who suffered from the demons of drug/alcohol abuse and mental illness. He died at age 34, a victim of burning the candle at both ends.
"Bird's" predicament was not unlike those unfortunates in the Greek legend of the tyrant Phalaris' bronze bull, a gift offered by a sycophant: "If you wish to punish anyone, make him get into this contrivance and lock him up; then attach these flutes to the bull and have a fire lighted underneath," said the sycophant. "The man will grown and shriek in the grip of unremitting pain, and his voice will make you the sweetest possible music on the flute, piping doleful and lowing piteously; so that while he is punished, you are entertained" (cited in "Either/Or," by Soren Kierkegaard, edited and translated by Howard & Edna Hong, Princeton, 1987).
In that the artistic result of his pain provided his listeners pleasure, you might say that "Bird" shared the fate of a prisoner in Phalaris' bull, as epitomized by a 1946 episode where "Bird" was incarcerated in California's "Camarillo" psychiatric asylum following a mental breakdown. Upon his release, "Bird" rolled out an exemplary new bebop tune: "Relaxin' at Camarillo."
While the combination of a jazz quartet with a string chorus is unusual, the violin has been employed to great effect as a lead jazz instrument by the likes of "Stuff" Smith (1909-1967) and Stephane Grappelli (1908-1997). There is an enchanting quality to both the tone and range of those vibrating strings, stirred by a bow that can express joy and sorrow in more varieties than Baskin-Robbins' ice cream.
Indeed, the rich texture of the strings on "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)" added a far-away dimension to Mark's alto sax solo, as he highlighted the contours of the melody like points of a distant constellation. Likewise, Todd's understated piano was a stellar melodic force, conversant with the muted beat of John's drums and Michael's imperturbable bass line.
Here the strings provided a complementary presence without becoming intrusive, the ever-present danger of a heterodox element. Like the exception that swallows the rule, the orchestral quality of multiple string instruments can dominate the subtle balance of a jazz ensemble, making it all about the strings.
For related reasons, there were many detractors when the "Charlie Parker with Strings" recordings were originally released. Some regarded it as a commercial gimmick, an attempt to dress jazz up in symphonic clothing in order to sell a novelty. Others, like tenor sax legend Sonny Rollins, reportedly saw "Bird's" strings collaboration as a crowning achievement.
This is one of those perennial family disagreements in the jazz clan, like whether avant-garde tenor saxophonist Ornette Coleman's melody-phobic "free form" jazz is really jazz at all or just noisy pretension. Tenor sax notwithstanding, Ornette strikes some of us like a man playing the ukulele; it's hard to tell whether he's being serious or just fooling around.
Well, as the lawyers say, "res ipsa loquitur;" Latin for "the thing speaks for itself."
While a string chorus can add contextual spice to a ballad, it seems less the case with an uptempo march number like Duke Pearson's "Jeannine," the show's finale that featured a very mature sit-in performance by teenagers Ebban Dorsey on alto sax and Ephraim Dorsey on tenor sax. The strings sat out, as a three-horn chorus defined the melodic theme before each horn engagingly improvised on a solo statement, and each member of the rhythm section was likewise spotlighted. The three-horn chorus was a stark contrast to its string counterpart, almost like different languages. In a musical sense, "Bird" was multilingual.
Without a doubt, "Bird" left a classic model of jazz as an improvisational art. The Mark Gross ensemble gave us a vivid reminder. Yes, "Bird Lives!"
THE TODD MARCUS GROUP
Saturday - November 3, 2018
Kris Funn, Silvano Monasterios, Todd Marcus, Don Bryon, Byung Kang
On November 3, 2018, the TODD MARCUS QUINTET appeared at Caton Castle, featuring Todd Marcus on bass clarinet, Don Byron on clarinet, Kris Funn on bass, Byung Kang on drums and Silvano Monastarios on piano. This show had an exotic flavor.
Todd's music presents something stylistically fresh by combining an aura of Middle Eastern rhythms (his Egyptian heritage) with the rarity of a leading clarinet, a seminal but superseded jazz instrument, notwithstanding Eric Dolphy's 1960s-era edgy profundity on bass clarinet, e.g., the "Far Cry" CD.
Todd's arrangements vary in format from, say, his nine-piece ensemble recording, "In Search of the Ninth Man" (2006), to smaller units like the instant quintet. Paired with the acclaimed and idiosyncratic clarinetist, Don Byron, this show featured two birds of a feather.
On the familiar ballad, "My Foolish Heart," the rhythm section laid down a palpable vibe wherein the subdued tempo of Kris' bass complemented Byung's trembling cymbals and drum accents with brushes, against the skeletal vamping of Silvano's melodic piano.
With a joint woodwind statement of the theme, poly-rhythms gave way to Todd's solo pursuit of the melodic figure, mostly in the bass clarinet's middle register and in a spiraling ascent that was seductive in its hollowed timbre.
Byron, on the other hand, picked up the tempo as his solo covered the range of his clarinet, fusing notes together in chirping phrases of varying duration that in the melodic repetition suggested the snake-charmer's art, before melding seamlessly with Todd's rejoinder into a combined woodwind restatement of the sensuous theme, confirming the clarinet's power as a lead instrument.
Looking back, the clarinet was in the forefront of aborning jazz. New Orleans native Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) put the Dixieland variety on the international map, achieving critical recognition for a 1919 European performance that established him as a virtuoso on jazz clarinet.
Emerging from the same primal milieu that produced trumpet master Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, Bechet later added the brassy heft of the soprano sax and eventually moved to France. Music critc Henry Pleasants recalled a 1934 concert in "Serious Music and All That Jazz: (1969): "What [Bechet] whispered and shouted and sang on that curious soprano saxophone of his came right through me," said Pleasants. "It was a kind of inspired minstrelsy--joyous, despairing, hopeful, tender, exultant, compassionate--and always eloquently communicative."
This two-clarinet front line is musically provocative, self-consciously contrary to certain formulaic accretions--stale patterns--of a jazz tradition that has arrived at an uncertain present. With a return to instrumental origins, these assertive jazz clarinets smack of the preacher's call for religious revival, a return to the convert's fervor for the faith. Weighing in on the perennial "what's next" controversy, Sidney Bechet, himself, once opined: "Water is freshest at its source" (quoted in Andre Hodeir's "Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence," 1956).
Indeed, "Bye Bye Blackbird" was a fresh take on an old standard, with a Thelonious Monk style herky-jerky beat that followed Kris' funky bass line. Starts and stops signaled a varying tempo wherein Todd's hard-toned chorus outpaced Byron's trilling melodic statement, yet the two clarinets shared such a harmonic affinity that they sounded like one instrument with a very broad range.
As was the case all night, Byung's drums were ubiquitous: driving the rhythmic time, filling space and adding spice. Byung reminds me of drummer Winard Harper, Baltimore' s heralded native son.
Silvano's piano solo made good use of repeated melodic figures offset by keyboard runs that remained within the rhythmic boundaries set by Kris' irregular bass line and Byung's response in kind. Ultimately, this tune resolved itself in a cacophony of sounds.
Not for the first time, jazz stands at a crossroads. Bebop followed the big band swing that followed Dixieland rhythms; but what has followed bebop? As jazz performance venues like the Caton Castle continue to dwindle, the "what's next" question should not be ignored.
One response has been jazz preservation programs like that personified by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' stewardship of repertory jazz at the deep-pockets Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. The object is to assure the perpetuation of traditional jazz through the propagation of a certified and adademically teachable canon, based on accredited (by Wynton?) works of designated jazz giants--e.g., "Duke," "Satchmo," "Bird", and "Trane"--that would be analogous to the institutional arrangements supporting European classical music.
After bebop, academic jazz may be "what's next." However, even those who applaud such preservation programs would have to concede their insufficiency. Jazz might be "preserved," but largely in the mortician's sense of the word. Like th spirit of freedom that informs it, the dimensions of jazz cannot be settled once and for all.
Responding to a question, Don Byron gave a poignant expression of "jazz freedom" in a 1990 "Jazz Times" interview: "To me a bass player is somebody that you don't have to sense where they are or where they're going even if they're playing some tricky [stuff}, you know that they're there."
"Ground Zero," Todd's original composition inspired by events surrounding the "Freddie Gray" riots, showed bassist Kris Funn in a trick mode, indeed, with his racing bass line leading the charge on this frenetically paced tune. The relentless tone of Todd's surging bass clarinet conveyed a message of urgency, socially and musically.
"What's next" is overdue. With its clarinet revival, the post-bop creativity of the Todd Marcus Quintet is pointing the way.
THE LOUIS HAYES SEXTET
Saturday, October 27, 2018
Pianist Allyn Johnson, Saxophonist Bobby Watson, Trumpeter Theljon Allen, Bassist Michael Bowie, Saxophonist Paul Carr, Drummer Louis Hayes, and Event Producer, Ruth Binsky.
Caton Castle was the place to be for swinging hard bop on Saturday night with the legendary Louis Hayes on drums, Bobby Watson on alto, Paul Carr on tenor, Theljon Allen on trumpet, Michael Bowie on bass and Allyn Johnson on piano. Jeanine, Invitation, Del Sasser, High Fly, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, Now's The Time. They knew Bertrand Uberall was in the house and had Theljon do beautiful rendition of Body and Soul. The Castle was packed and it was great being greeted warmly by Bobby Watson. Louis Hayes was in great form leading this superb ensemble. Thank you Ruth Binsky for bringing this jazz legend to Baltimore.
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Kudos to Ruth Binsky for putting together this outstanding event. It really doesn't get much better than that.
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It was Baltimore's Jazz past, present and future at Caton's Castle last night! The legendary Louis Hayes, my old friend, let the spot out with a lineup that included another master, Bobby Watson, Paul Carr, Theljon Allen, Michael Bowie, and Allyn Johnson. The gig bought out a lot of the Baltimore-based Jazz Fans who would come to the Famous Ballroom, the Bandstand, and other Jazz venues back in the 70's and 80's. Ran into many friends, some I haven't seen in years. Among those in attendance where Rusty Hassan, Doc Manning, Maxine Smith, Larry Jeter, Leslie Imes, Elrita Cook-Harmeling, Ruth Binsky, Kathleen Matthews, just to name a few among the many. It was a sold-out gig! A great night had by all!
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"Legends of America's Classical Music, Jazz" played Baltimore's Caton Castle led by drummer LOUIS HAYES (of Cannonball Adderley, Wes Mondgomery, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, etc. fame) with BOBBY WATSON (music educator, Art Blakey Messenger alumni, Horizon bandleader, etc.) joined by Paul Carr, Allyn Johnson, Theljon Allen, Michael Bowie. Many thanks to Ruth Binsky for assembling these "master craftsmen" and BIG thanks to Caton Castle's Ron Scott for being Baltimore's Premier Jazz Venue!
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Playing with "The Great Louis Hayes" last night was like playing with ancestors of the music we call "JAZZ." I heard them speaking from his ride cymbal and snare! He is truly a master. Thanks, RUTH BINSKY for the opportunity to learn from Louis Hayes!!
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On October 27, 2018, the LOUIS HAYES SEXTET appeared at the Caton Castle, with Louis Hayes on drums, Allyn Johnson on piano, Theljon Allen on trumpet, Bobby Watson on alto sax, Paul Carr on tenor sax, and Michael Bowie on bass. This group was fine-tuned, hitting on all cylinders.
As he's been doing since the middle of the last century, drummer Louis Hayes drove the rhythm section on Duke Pearson's "Jeannine," an uptempo swing standard (the late Eddie Jefferson nailed it, vocally) that featured a formidable front line of harmonically attuned horns, collectively stating the melodic theme before trading spirited solo phrases. A veteran of Art Blakey's "Jazz Messengers," where such multiple horn choruses were a staple, Bobby Watson's tone-varying alto sax strung out the melodic figure in a shifting and ascending form, embellishing it with an irregular cadence amidst Louis' leading cymbals and snare drum accents, Allyn's comping piano and Michael's pulsating bass line.
Theljon Allen, a talented young trumpet voice, preceded Bobby's excursion to lofty regions with a blistering succession of high notes culminating in an abrupt slur that in the measured repetition became its own staccato rhythm. There's a certain swagger to Theljon's style. He's like a young Miles Davis, according to a gray-haired lady at the table next to mine.
Paul Carr, Washington, D.C.'s jazz impresario, par excellence, showed once again that he plays the music as well as he promotes it. His husky tenor sax intonation in the three horn chorus propelled him in a different solo direction, playing the melody at a trotting pace behind the drumbeat. After starting out in the middle register, Paul colored his thematic exploration in modulating tones that bottomed out with smooth vibrations.
In recent times, the Caton Castle audience has been privileged to partake of the musical charm of an exclusive fraternity of jazz artists; that is, top-flight performers who are in their ninth decade on the planet. Namely, pianist Norman Simmons (89), pianist Harold Mabern (82), tenor saxophonist "Bootsie" Barnes (80), tenor saxophonist Houston Person (83), tenor saxophonist George Coleman (83), and now, drummer extraordinaire Louis Hayes (81).
In each instance, these vintage stars brought time-tested talent in the form of straight-ahead jazz by some of the artists who helped to create it. This particular show was sold out, but that's the exception, not the rule. In music as in life, the tendency in every generation is to disregard the old in favor of the new.
While understandable, this fixation on novelty can take on absurd proportions, as in the case of "Obergefell vs. Hodges" (2015), wherein the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the constitution prohibits enforcement of any "marriage" law that excludes two persons of the same gender. In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said, "The court today not only overlooked our country's entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it, preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now. And he asked rhetorically, "Just who do we think we are?"
Think about it, the heterosexual essence of marriage as recognized over thousands of years of recorded civilization was disregarded three years ago by five lawyers in robes (four judges dissented) presuming to speak for us all on the grounds that the old definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman is, well, old. The "wise men" of this generation are either culturally superior to all who have gone before them or they are the new cave men.
This fanatical exaltation of the "here and now" didn't start three years ago. Pioneering sociologist Max Weber remarked upon such presumptuous wise guys at the dawn of the twentieth century in his book, "the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: (1905): "Spiritualists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved."
To be sure, there may be ample reasons to reject what's old in music and elsewhere, but not merely because it's old. That kind of thoughtlessness makes people turn a blind eye to -- excluding without ever considering -- the ancient Holy Bible, God's revelation of Truth in Jesus Christ: " ... thou hast the words of eternal life" -- John 6:68. Has the Bible gone past its "sell-by" date?
Listening to the masterful chops of octogenarian drummer Louis Hayes made me think of that clever fellow who observed: "The older I become, the smarter my father gets." The band's take on "Invitation" would be hard to improve on, revolving around Louis' engaging drums -- quietly intense, firm and reactive -- creating space for Michael's expressive bass line, with a complementary beat that outlined Allyn's bluesy piano chorus -- an exercise in rhythmic counterpoint as Allyn's dexterous use of limited notes exploited pauses, melodically.
As between the soulful brass chorus with its three spirited soloists and the cohesive rhythm section on "Invitation," it would be hard to say which was the picture and which was the frame.
Bobby Watson's light shined brightest on Mal Waldron's melancholy ballad, "Soul Eyes," wherein Bobby's alto sax solo exhibited a tone of familiar ease while exploring a harmonic line that lilted and moaned around the melodic theme with just-right points of emphasis, as if reciting a poem by heart.
Likewise, Theljon's rich trumpet tone stood out on "Body and Soul." His solo rendition of the enduring standard was lyrically creative, precisely articulating angular notes at a leisurely pace that were enhanced by Allyn's accompanying piano, tinkling inside the melody, and Louis' rasping brush strokes.
Detroit native Louis Hayes emerged on the jazz scene in the mid-1950's with pianist Horace Silver's innovative bebop ensemble, known for its lively mix of blues, funk and Latin-tinged rhythms. From this auspicious beginning, Louis played and recorded with a "Who's Who" list of jazz stars, including pianist Cedar Walton's 1974 recording, "Firm Roots." The band's rendition of the up-tempo title tune featured Michael's sprinting bass line bolstering a rhythmic pattern that was made to order for Louis' percussive interjections - a tapping cymbal, a fluttering snare, a thumping bass.
All of this against the poly-rhythmic phrasing of the three horn chorus, again adding brassy adornment over and above dueling solo statements. In this context, Louis' compact yet compelling drum solo was a relaxing force. Indeed, for his passionate "cool," this elder statesman of the drums received a standing ovation.
"Youth is wasted on the young," according to writer George Bernard Shaw. Thankfully, it ain't necessarily so. I saw a fetching young lady heartily applauding this sensational performance by the Louis Hayes Sextet.