Caton Castle Jazz Returns: The John R. Lamkin, III Sextet
On April 2, 2022, the Caton Castle presented the John R. Lamkin, III Sextet, featuring Sean Jones on trumpet, Tim Green on alto sax, Robert Gilliam on tenor sax, Allyn Johnson on piano, Michael Bowie on acoustic bass and John R. Lamkin, III on drums. This group of regional all-stars relaunched the Caton Castle's regularly scheduled jazz shows after a two year hiatus due to pandemic restrictions. The pent-up desire to play and to hear the music was palpable, with the full capacity audience enthusiastically applauding John's opening exclamation: “It's been two years!” Then the volcano erupted.
“All Blues,” the modal masterpiece from Miles Davis' classic album, “Kind of Blue,” led off the first set with a distinctive bass introduction that morphed into a three-horn statement of the melodic theme. Sean's muted trumpet then riffed in varying tones, shading the melody against the powerful rhythmic framing of John's pace-setting drums and the spacious comping of Allyn's piano, all anchored by the relentless downbeat of Michael's bass. Sean's extended solo recalled the exuberance of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard more than the “cool” of trumpeter Miles Davis, but both influences were apparent.
Robert is the only relative newcomer in this group, having appeared at the Caton Castle on one previous occasion in a band that included Sean, his teacher at the Peabody Conservatory. At age 22, Robert now flexes a grown man's voice on tenor sax, with a hard tone on “All Blues” that flittered harmonically in a yawning range. Tim Green, on the other hand, has been a Caton Castle regular for more than a decade. It was “long time, no see,” with Tim's alto sax chops dazzling the audience-- his intonation is masterful-- with the musical fruits of his sojourn in academia; his day job is on the same Peabody faculty with Sean.
Thelonious Monk's “Evidence” featured Tim's alto sax in Bird-like (Charlie Parker) flight, rolling notes in the frenetic manner of the bebop master, while Robert's tenor sax articulated the melody in repeated middle-register riffs, with insistent embellishments. Sean's trumpet break was slurred in tone, suggesting the swagger of trumpet icon Lee Morgan. Allyn's piano excursion channeled the off-beat Monk with an element of rhythmic hesitation, building ascending tension that gave way to Michael's bass solo, thematically busy in its restatement of the rhythm. Through it all, the intricate refrains of John's pulsating drums and restless cymbals resounded.
It didn't take long for many of us to realize what we had missed during the extended live music drought. The explosive presence of this group was not just heard, but also felt. Even a few bars of “Happy Birthday” addressed to a lovely lady named Brittany drew an animated audience response.
Sean's trumpet shined on two jazz standards by trumpet masters. “Up Jumped Spring,” Freddie Hubbard's waltz-like impression of breezes and flowers and birds aborning (or so it seems to me), showed Sean's trumpet in a dexterous mode, tone shifting from crisp to blurred to screeching in a sing-song pattern as whimsical as the weather in March. And Lee Morgan's “Ceora” introduced a Latin flavor to the proceedings, with Sean sifting the melody in a lilting solo that contrasted with Tim's harmonically trenchant alto sax and Robert's melody-stretching tenor sax, with its bracing tone peppered by blunted accents.
On “Ceora,” Allyn's piano was typically expansive, with an airy phrasing that included abstract tinkling within the melody and the terse interjection of harmonious themes that were vaguely recognizable. This pattern was repeated on “Straight Ahead,” a galloping Horace Silver-type swing number that included a powerful drum solo.
For those who are partial to ballads, the group delivered two gems. “We'll Be Together Again” showcased the mellow tone of Tim's alto sax, located somewhere on the silky alto sax ballad continuum of “Cannonball” Adderley, “Sonny” Stitt and Jackie McLean. Secondly, “Body and Soul” featured Sean's bravura trumpet performance, captivating from its misty introduction which hinted at the melody of “Stardust Memories” before bursting into clear outlines of “Body and Soul.” Alternating between prolonged notes and brief ejaculations, Sean's lofty trumpet defined the classic ballad, adding flashes of staccato accents. Along the way, there was shadowing of familiar tunes and other melodic conceits that were ultimately resolved in a climactic flourish of the blustery horn. Indeed, the audience was treated to something special, and responded with a standing ovation.
Jazz standards have a reflexive appeal to the predominantly gray-haired Caton Castle audience. They take us back down memory lane. Trumpeter John R. Lamkin, II, the father of this group's drummer, sat-in on a spirited rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a signature tune for Miles Davis in the 1950s. In this same vein, “Moanin',” pianist Bobby Timmons' swinging classic that was popularized by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, closed out the show in a rousing fashion.
We know not what tomorrow may bring, but on this night jazz at the Caton Castle returned in all of its glory.
Gregory L. Lewis
A MEMORIAL TRIBUTE TO
ROBERT "BOOTSIE" BARNES
"Robert 'Bootsie' Barnes, 82, the widely respected tenor saxophone player whose hard-driving sound and restless creative spirit became synonymous with Philadelphia jazz over a six-decade career, died Wednesday, April 22. His wife said he died from the coronavirus (The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 28, 2020)." A frequent Caton Castle performer over the years, "Bootsie" will be sorely missed by his Baltimore fans. The following is a previously published reflection on his last Caton Castle appearance.
Regarding the Caton Castle show on April 29, 2017, saxophonist Paul Carr assembled an outstanding quintet, with an emphasis on the word "assembled." This is the same Paul Carr who masterminds the annual Washington D.C. area Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival; who brought to the Caton Castle on one occasion in the past year vocalist Sharon Clark, and on another occasion a big band; and who is a fixture as a jazz educator and a regular performer in and around the nation's capital. Now, this tireless impresario has done it again, presenting a seasoned rhythm section-- pianist Bob Butta, bass guitarist Wesley Battles, and drummer Harold Summey-- along with a Philadelphia legend, "Bootsie" Barnes, on tenor sax.
Like vintage wine, "Bootsie" is eagerly anticipated by the Caton Castle's saxophone aficionados for the full, lush, teasing tone of his horn-- its sassy familiarity. A quality not unlike that of tenor sax great Dexter Gordon, to whose memory this show was thematically dedicated. Dexter or "Bootsie:" you could hardly hear the difference on "Darn That Dream," a classic ballad.
Parenthetically, another titan of this musical tradition is the subject of a film now playing at the Charles theater: "Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary" (Great photos and home movie footage, insightful narration, but it suffers from a pretentious few of the talking heads, like former President Bill Clinton, for crying out loud).
Before I heard "Bootsie" for myself, someone (Leslie Imes) described him to me as Philadelphia's version of our (Baltimore's) "Mickey" Fields. The comparison was on the money; two contemporary world-class tenor saxophonists who both, basically, stayed at home. Of course, "Mickey" died in 1995, at the age of 63. And where once stood the "Sportsman's Lounge," venue for so many of "Mickey's" scintillating jam sessions, there now sits a supermarket's parking lot. "Progress" is always double-edged.
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In that vein, sometimes a spirited pick-up basketball game on the playground is more interesting to watch than the NBA at midseason-- when the pro players are just mailing it in. Passion matters. The local jazz scene where "Bootsie" and "Mickey" cut their teeth was like that demanding playground, where the rule is "rise and fly" (losers sit down) and "make it, take it" (scorers keep the ball). In contrast to today's crop of scholastically trained jazz musicians, earlier generations honed their game, so to speak, in sharp-elbow competition, without a referee to call fouls.
The point of this basketball analogy is to say that technical proficiency is not the last word in evaluating an artist (or an athlete.) An old shoe may be preferable to a new one. Indeed, the last time I caught "Bootsie" at the Caton Castle, he invited a "sit-in" duet with local saxophonist "Whit" Williams, another old shoe, wherein they perfectly synchronized a medley of "Chelsea Bridge" ("Bootsie") and "Body and Soul" ("Whit" on baritone). You could imagine "Mickey," somewhere smiling.
Not only a zealous ambassador for the art form, Paul Carr puts his music where his mouth is, showing yet again his yeoman's chops on tenor sax, particularly when caressing a sexy melody like "In A Mellow Mood." And the rhythm section responded throughout with a high fidelity (remember records?) cohesion that was fraternal, with pianist Bob Budda's inspired solos rendering him primus inter pares, first among equals.
Admittedly, for dinosaurs like me, a big part of "Bootsie's" charm is pure nostalgia; he's a genuine exemplar (not to say a relic) of a golden musical past. There are not many working musicians left who can name-drop like "Bootsie," recalling on a prior visit, in passing, the greatness of his friend and colleague, the late "Hank" Mobley, another Philadelphia tenor sax legend.
Seated on the bandstand and still blowing away the blues into his ninth (?) decade, "Bootsie" Barnes was there at the creation of modern jazz when the big bands gave way to "Bebop." God bless him.
A CATON CASTLE TRIBUTE TO THE MUSIC
OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT:
On February 22, 2020, the Caton Castle presented a show billed as dedicated to the music of the civil rights movement, featuring a spirited ensemble-- Deborah Bond (vocals), Sam Prather (vocals/electric keyboard), Dante Pope (vocals/percussion), Craig Alston (soprano/alto/tenor sax), Robert "Wa-Wa" LeGrand (electric guitar), Eliot Seppa (bass guitar) and John R. Lamkin, III (drums)-- all harmonizing from a 1960s-era playlist that sampled the songbooks of Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown.
The brainchild of its intrepid drummer, this youthful band's rhythmic reinterpretation of some classic oldies was not just nostalgic, but also a neo-soul fusion of jazz and funk reflecting contemporary sensibilities.
James Brown's (1933-2006) mid-'60s hit, "Cold Sweat," featured Robert's electric guitar riffing over the solid foundation of Eliot's bass guitar against the funky backbeat of John's imperious drums with sizzling cymbal accents. Dante's brusque vocals-- "I break out... in a cold sweat"-- provoked a "boogaloo" dance by a lady in the audience, while Sam's trilling keyboard shadowed Robert's piercing guitar licks (sounding to old ears like Johnny "Guitar" Watson) before Craig's tenor sax intervened, blowing a melodic solo, a soothing afterthought.
Channeling the first beat emphasis of the "Godfather of Soul" playing "on the one" (in this vein, the ensemble also performed "Sex Machine") sounded both a musical and a cultural note. Consider that there was a significant correlation between the chemically-straightened coiffure ("conk") fashionable at the time of the "Southern" James Brown's 1956 hit, "Please, Please, Please" and the "Afro" hairstyle that the "Northern" James Brown (briefly) sported when he released "Say It Loud- I'm Black and I'm Proud" in 1968. To eyes and ears, James Brown's evolving artistry was a metaphor reflecting the societal change in black America known as the civil rights movement. Looking back, soul/rhythm & blues was a cultural change agent.
"Distinguished from jump blues and bebop, early rhythm & blues openly embraced new technologies, including the amplification and electrification of instruments," says Reiland Rabaka in his book, "Civil Rights Music: The Soundtracks of the Civil Rights Movement" (2016). He continued, "In fact, early rhythm & blues introduced and popularized the electric bass in black popular music, in time evolving into a propulsive, dance beat-based music with unrelenting rhythms that seemed to perfectly mirror the migration, mores and socio-political movements of mid-twentieth-century black America."
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018), Sam Cooke (1931-1964), Ray Charles (1930-2004) and even the sometimes risque Marvin Gaye (1939-1984) each blended unique measures of soul and R&B styles with their early "baptism" in the Gospel music of the black Christian church to create a brash new sound, in sync with the upbeat aspirations of the post-World War II black, urban-driven civil rights movement.
Less directly than Sam Cooke's classic, "A Change Is Gonna Come," and Aretha Franklin's emancipation anthem, "Respect," both superbly delivered in Deborah's animated style, Ray Charles' bluesy "Georgia On My Mind" and his "churchy" yet boisterous "What'd I Say" conveyed to popular acclaim a sense of joyous longing, an element in the civil rights movement's moral high-ground. This group's rendering captured that hopeful feeling characteristic of pop music circa 1960. Ditto the later romantic duets of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell on "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing" and "You're All I Need To Get By," wherein the vocals of Deborah, Dante and Sam exuded a wistful high school sweethearts vibe.
Any serious discussion of the music of the civil rights era would have to include Berry Gordy's Detroit-based soul/R&B juggernaut: Motown Records. Indeed, Motown deserves a recognition show of its own. Suffice it to say that the musical home of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Supremes and lots more was a game-changing phenomenon.
Indeed, the fluid tone of Dante's (tenor?) voice against the background harmony of Deborah and Sam harnessed the spirit of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," a landmark 1971 recording that restated civil rights anxieties and established a new musical level of aesthetic protest, post-Motown.
A new age of mass media had arrived. Just as the telegenic John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election partly because Kennedy looked "cool" on the newfangled TV screen whereas the shifty-eyed Nixon's brow sweated over his five o'clock shadow, the polished 1960s sound of Motown drowned out everything "square" (i.e., smacking of "Jim Crow" racism) on urban AM radio. Certainly, the success of the civil rights movement required more than that, but the value of portable and affordable transistor-enabled radio technology was huge. With the widespread accessibility of radio and TV, the new media brought a new message; proof of what pop-culture guru Marshall McLuhan long ago postulated: The medium is the message.
Of course, some musical contributions were more valuable than others. The Hall of Fame can't admit everybody. The likes of Little Richard, for instance, may have to settle for honorable mention. I'm reminded of an old "Peanuts" comic strip where Lucy objected to the grade-school gang's idea of giving a testimonial dinner honoring Charlie Brown for his dedication as manager of their win-less baseball team. Lucy said that she would only agree to a testimonial snack.
On the other hand, Jimmy Heath (1926-2020), a dynamic force behind the jazz component of the civil rights soundtrack, passed away last month at the age of 93. A noted tenor saxophonist ("Little Bird"), composer and sibling to bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, Jimmy Heath was the New York connection providing the top names in jazz-- John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Freddie Hubbard-- for local performances sponsored by the Left Bank Jazz Society in the 1960s. It's only fitting that we pause to remember him since Jimmy Heath (along with co-author Joseph McLaren) didn't forget us-- "I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath" (2010):
"During this period, I also became associated with an organization in Baltimore called the Left Bank Jazz Society, which gave cabaret parties one or two Sundays a month. The organization would provide my transportation to Baltimore, where I would play with a local rhythm section. Since I knew so many musicians, I became their New York connection. Their logo was a little guy with a tenor sax, and I always said that it was an image of me-- and nobody denied it because I was the first one to bring in the musicians."
By their respectful homage-- including Sam Cooke's "Twisting The Night Away"-- to the music of the civil rights movement, these talented young musicians embodied the wisdom of that old fogy hip-hop enthusiast, Harvard professor Cornel West, when he said, "You can't really move forward until you look back."
THE MARK G. MEADOWS ENSEMBLE
On January 25, 2020, the Caton Castle presented the Mark G. Meadows Ensemble performing the music of Stevie Wonder, with Mark G. Meadows on piano and vocals, Ines Nassarra and Deborah Bond on vocals, Trey Sorrells on alto sax, Griff Kazmierczak ("Kaz") on trumpet and violin, Romier Mendez on acoustic bass and bass guitar, and Donte Pope on drums. The scope of Stevie Wonder's musical genius is so vast, varied and enduring that in one aspect or another his music enjoys near universal appeal-- rare air, indeed. This group's jazz/funk/soul stamp enlivened the hit parade.
"Superstition," the rock-tinged 1970s chart-topper from the "Talking Book" album, featured Mark's smooth tenor pipes (who knew?) belting out lyrics to the accompaniment of his bluesy piano against the echoing of female voices in tandem, with brassy two-horn interjections offsetting the funky beat laid down by Romier's bass guitar, thumping within the rhythmic outline of Donte's busy drums. The narrow tone of Trey's alto sax soared on a solo break that showed a fluid dexterity in the middle to high range. Indeed, the group's powerful sax/trumpet duet ornamentation put me in mind of Brass Construction, a jazz/soul/funk/rock fusion band that made hay in the 1970s.
Romier's bass guitar rumbled on "I Wish," a playful romp through an uptempo melody that repeatedly returned to a joyful two-horn refrain in a quirky rhythm. Mark sang the lyrics of wished for childhood frolics and harmonized with the ladies on doo-wop type interludes. Again, Trey's alto sax took a soulful flight, a la Grover Washington, Jr. "Higher Ground," on the other hand, was a tune that spotlighted Kaz's trumpet in an extended solo exploration, blowing rapid-fire notes in angular lines with an unruffled tone.
Stevie Wonder's fan base spans generations. I'm one of those who remember when "Little" Stevie Wonder burst onto the scene around 1963 with his harmonica sensation, "Fingertips," recorded live with a show-stopping crescendo when he was all of 13 years old. Thanks to my Aunt Sue, I caught a Motown Revue that included "Little" Stevie Wonder when it played the old Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore's stop on the bygone "Chitlin Circuit" of Jim Crow racially segregated performance venues.
"Fingertips" was an early hit for the upstart Motown recording label, Berry Gordy's African-American soul music machine that came to rule the urban AM radio airwaves in the 1960s from its headquarters in Detroit. Thanks to advances in transistor radio technology-- the first toy that you could slip into your pocket and use to listen to music-- the 1960s represented a decade wherein Jim Crow's stifling racial segregation grappled with the dancing and romancing sounds of Motown that filled the ears of Baby Boomer America. In hindsight, it was no contest.
Stevie Wonder's influence was mighty, even behind the scenes at Motown, per David Ritz's "Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye" (1991):
"According to his friend Bean Bowles, 'If it hadn't been for Stevie, Marvin probably never would have been a star. You see, we'd always put Stevie on before Marvin, 'cause Stevie was about energy. Stevie would get out there and carry on. He didn't give Marvin any choice. After what Stevie did, Marvin would have to come out there steamin' or he'd lose the crowd. 'Why you always puttin' that little blind sucker on before me?' Marvin would ask me. He really loved Stevie, but that's how he talked. ''Cause that's the only way we got of getting you to really sing,' I'd tell him."
"I Just Called To Say I Love You" and "Send One Your Love" are songs typical of Stevie's romantic side, heartfelt in its simplicity. The ladies traded choruses on these tunes with Deborah's voice teasing the melodies in a tone that tended toward a high pitch, whereas Ines was more fluid in her range, hinting at "Sassy" in the low end. Though they didn't sing it, these charming young ladies brought to mind Stevie's "Isn't She Lovely."
The ensemble threw in a couple of jazz standards, just because. "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)," for instance, featured Romier's pronounced acoustic bass imposing a shifting time-stamp throughout, as Mark's piano soloed in a frenzied eruption that Donte's drums provoked. Moreover, Kaz soloed voluptuously on violin, conjuring that windy mood that connotes the sun and the moon. Violins are like that.
The ensemble's rendering of Stevie's "angry" mid-70s hit, "Living For The City," was a reminder of the parallel tracks of Stevie's growth: Personally, contextually and artistically. That is, life became complicated (marriage, divorce, children, baby-mommas), culture became coarser, and his music became deeper. In fact, you could mark the 1970s as Stevie's mature period, containing a series of thematic albums like "Music of My Mind," "Talking Book" and "Innervisions." These creative productions all reflected a self-conscious mood of existential angst typical of the day. Not to be outdone, Marvin Gaye's 1971 release, "What's Going On," was the prototype of this genre.
It's possible to admire Stevie's body of work through the 1970s and yet, by comparison, think less of what he's done since then without being churlish ("Marked by a lack of graciousness," according to Webster). My musical interests have drifted elsewhere. There's no post-1970s Stevie on my iPod. However, there's some trepidation in my Stevie critique because I'm mindful of a wise man's long-ago admonition on this subject-- churlishness-- that still resonates. Producing an ashtray for me, he explained that he'd stopped smoking cigarettes after many years but didn't mind if others smoked them in his presence because he was not one of those people who gave up some past pleasure and then didn't want anybody else to partake in it either. He said, "There ain't nothing as pious as an ex-whore."
To be sure, Stevie's post-1970s music is admired by many. The Grammys and other awards just keep on coming. Arguably, Stevie's artistic light shines as brightly as it ever did, but the times may have passed him by. The 21st century "social justice" agenda (identity politics) is a parody of Martin Luther King (subject of Stevie's "Happy Birthday" tribute song) and the civil rights movement that informed the 1970s. In the new "social justice" dispensation, "equality" means "sameness" and all discrimination (drawing practical distinctions) is viewed as wrong. Gay marriage, gender-neutral bathrooms and unfettered abortion demands "equal" respect with childbirth, Male & Female bathrooms, and mom and dad-- or else.
There can be no 21st century equivalent of Motown because relatively few are in a mood to dance (or romance?) in this hip-hopping cultural cesspool. "You Haven't Done Nothin'" could be a hit for Stevie in 1974 because back then, unlike today, there was a discernible consensus on the meaning of right and wrong:
"And we are sick and tired of hearing your song/ Tellin' how you are gonna change right from wrong/ 'Cause if you really want to hear our views/ You haven't done nothin'/ Jackson 5 join along with me say/ Doo doo wop-- hey hey hey/ Doo doo wop..."
What would Marvin think? Since he died in 1984, Marvin Gaye only knew an earlier Stevie. According to "Divided Soul:"
"'Of course I was jealous of Stevie,' Marvin admitted. 'How could I not be? He won Grammys the way Disney used to win Oscars-- by the truckload. But Stevie deserves them. He'd become a great artist, and even though I'd been there as an influence for him and maybe even as an inspiration, his songwriting was in a class by itself. I was envious, but believe me, I was also very proud. [...] Lou Rawls, though, was another matter. When he won again in '77 I knew I was going to punch him out on national television. God intervened on Rawls' behalf and kept me in my seat.'"
A tribute to a musical genius like Stevie Wonder is always in order, and the Mark G. Meadows Ensemble made joyous work of it. Bravo.
THE RON SCOTT
On January 18, 2020, the Caton Castle hosted a birthday celebration--75th-- for proprietor Ron Scott, featuring trio fireworks from Benjie Porecki on electric organ, Brad Collins on tenor sax and vocals, and John Lamkin, III on drums. A boss tenor straddling a driving drumbeat to meet a thrusting organ; yeah, you could say that sparks flew.
Out of the gate, Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" spotlighted Brad's tenor sax marshaling middle-range bluesy notes with fluid precision in an uneven pattern of rhythmic swing. Benjie's melodic organ comped with a saturating refrain that led to rising organ riffs of ascending notes, then a solo break in extended lines colored by staccato bursts and high-pitched accents, shades of organ master Jimmy Smith. All the while, John's shifting drumbeat moved in a waltz-like stride.
Of course, excitement shadowed Ron Scott from the nursery. The "Sunpapers" of January 1945 bristled with news from Europe's Western Front because in that month the German army suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of the Bulge in a last-ditch counter-offensive to America's D-Day invasion, sealing the Allied victory in World War II.
On the home front, the music scene was changing. According to clarinetist Tony Scott (from "Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by The Men Who Made It," by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, 1955):
"Yes, more and more of the modern guys began to come onto The Street [New York's 52nd Street]. ...Al Haig had come in with Bird and Dizzy. That was in 1945. It was a fabulous thing-- Bird and Dizzy both blowing together and blowing great. Dizzy finally got a big band together-- with Kenny Clarke on drums-- and that hit The Street toward the tail-end of The Street's importance in the jazz scene."
And in 1945, cigarettes cost about 15 cents a pack.
Smoke-filled public rooms may have come and gone but the musical dynamism-- swing, bebop and beyond-- that once filled those storied venues still remains. For instance, "On Green Dolphin Street," the jazz standard indelibly associated with trumpet icon Miles Davis, wherein Brad Collins' polished treatment brought a tenor sax tone like Baby Bear's porridge-- not too hot and not too cold-- to bear on the sentimental strains of the soothing melody over John's rustling brushes and the counter-rhythmic vamping of Benjie's brooding organ.
Recalling the era when smoke-filled music venues were the norm, I recently read "Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings" (by Peter Pettinger, 1998), a biography of the virtuoso jazz pianist that proves the old adage: You can't judge a book by its cover. While Pettinger's account of Bill Evans' life (1929-1980) was superficial-- little more than an annotated performance schedule and a discography-- the cover photo speaks volumes about the pianist and his times.
The revealing cover consists of a 1950s era close-up of a gaunt, slightly-hunched Evans engaging his keyboard--hands at the ready-- with a nonplussed facial expression, eyes at half-mast behind dark-framed glasses and a lit cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. An acknowledged heroin addict, that photo could be labelled "So What?" Of course, that's the name of a famous tune on the top-selling jazz album-- "Kind of Blue" (1959)-- recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet which featured Bill Evans' piano on four of its five tracks, displacing the group's regular pianist, Wynton Kelly.
Again, the cover photo speaks to topical controversies inasmuch as Wynton Kelly was black and Bill Evans was not. The book provides some insight from Miles Davis, himself:
"Miles was having a problem with substance abuse in his band [according to composer George Russell] and he asked me if I knew of any pianist who could play the job. I recommended Bill. 'Is he white?' asked Miles. 'Yeah,' I replied. 'Does he wear glasses?' 'Yeah.' 'I know that motherf***er. I heard him at Birdland-- he can play his ass off.'"
To be sure, Wynton Kelly could also "play his ass off." The recurring social issues that vex us, like racial strife and substance abuse, defy solution and cause many people-- then and now-- to withdraw into a private reality. The checked-out photo of Bill Evans on the book's cover shows what that looks like.
However that may be, Ron Scott's birthday bash was a festive affair. Brad Collins sang some songs-- "Body And Soul," "You Don't Know Me," "Day By Day"-- and a waitress served cupcakes. Also, the pride of Washington D.C., tenor saxophonist Paul Carr, sat in on a couple of tunes, including Duke Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood." On top of all that, Ron is a young 75.
In the reference above to New York's 42nd Street in the 1940s, Tony Scott spoke of the "modern guys" in jazz. While I understand the distinction he's making between bebop and what preceded it, there are no corresponding "ancient" guys because jazz is entirely a phenomenon of the 20th century. The distinction that Tony Scott makes is essentially between jazz that emphasizes collective improvisation versus an approach that prizes solo virtuosity.
While the general consensus is that the various schools of jazz evolved from an untold number of musical innovators, Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941), the legendary pianist, would beg to differ (from "Hear Me Talkin' To Ya"):
"I have been robbed of three million dollars all told. Everyone today is playing my stuff and I don't even get credit. Kansas City style, Chicago style, New Orleans style-- hell, they're all Jelly Roll style. I am a busy man now and have to spend all of my time dealing with attorneys, but I'm not too busy to get around and hear jazz that I myself introduced twenty-five years ago, before most of the kids were even born. All this jazz I hear today is my own stuff, and, if I had been paid rightfully for my work, I would now have three million dollars more than I have now."
Like reparations for slavery, Jelly Roll's compensation claims were studiously ignored. However, all should acknowledge a debt to the Caton Castle for helping to keep jazz (if not hope) alive in Baltimore for nearly the past three decades. Of that fact, the spirited performance by this trio--Benjie Porecki, Brad Collins and John Lamkin, III-- provided a resounding affirmation.
From one jazz fan to another, Happy Birthday Ron.
The John R. Lamkin, II "Favorites" Quintet
On December 14, 2019, the John R. Lamkin, II "Favorites" Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, with John R. Lamkin, II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Bob Butta on piano, Michael Hairston on sax, Michael Graham on acoustic bass and Jesse Moody on drums. This was an encore performance of last year's Christmas show-- the last set in December-- that showcased the same personnel, plus John's lovely wife, Eartha Lamkin, on vocals.
Indeed, last year's sizzling performance debuted "Transitions," the group's ten-track CD excursion through the post-bop jazz world, incorporating swing, funk, blues, ballads, and assorted whimsy-- both solemn and profane at the same time on "Down by the Riverside," a "jump" (uptempo) blues arrangement of the venerable Gospel hymn. "Transitions" is this band's signature project. Check it out.
Is it Christmas again, already? It must be: Nat "King" Cole is singing about "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" and Charlie Brown's "Peanuts" comic-strip companion, Linus, has once again reminded us on TV of what the heavenly angel said: "...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 Saviour, which is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10&11).
To be sure, Christmas is for everyone, but salvation is only for believers.
There were eighteen Caton Castle shows that I attended (and commented upon) in the year now ending, and a few that I missed. All were enjoyable, even though some were a challenge to jazz-oriented ears. For instance, there were performances at various times reprising the sound of such R&B/pop stars as Phyllis Hyman, Anita Baker, Donny Hathaway, and Stevie Wonder. As to the latter two artists, the musicianship of the Dennis Chambers Band, featuring keyboardist/vocalist Frank McComb, was thumbs-up, but I nonetheless observed:
"...Just as a certain all-roads-lead-to-god syncretism characterizes the religious temper of our times, the prevailing musical aesthetic embraces a similar amalgamated stew of jazz, pop, rock, R&B, soul, funk, Gospel and assorted odds and ends. It's a parody of taste, like when a glutton mixes up different dishes on a plate before eating because, he says, 'It's all going to the same place, anyway.'"
Of course, music in the straight-ahead jazz tradition dominated the Caton Castle lineup last year, including pianist Anthony Wonsey reconstructing alto sax legend Charlie "Bird" Parker's rhythmic frenzy on "Relaxin' at Camarillo;" John R. Lamkin, II's "Favorites" Quintet's sublime take (thanks to Bob Butta's delicate keyboard touch) on pianist Horace Silver's "Peace;" Trombonist Frank Lacy riffing on "Moanin'" like he did decades ago with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers; Tim Warfield stretching out on a soprano sax rendition of John Coltrane's iconic "Giant Steps," and many, many other instances of such rooted jazz artistry.
Then there are those whose musical performances have been a perennial source of delight for Caton Castle audiences but for whom, sadly, the music stopped this past year. I'm talking about two of the baddest pianists to ever tinkle the ivory: Harold Mabern (1936-2019) and Larry Willis (1942-2019). Back in the day, it was proper alley etiquette to pour out onto the ground a little from the top of the wine bottle in salute to the memory of cherished brothers like these. May God rest their souls.
Alas, everything has its season, according to the preacher. The past year also brought some fresh faces to the Caton Castle, including organist Akiko Tsuruga, by way of Osaka, Japan. A protege of alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, in Akiko's electric organ style I heard flashes of "...the soul of Richard 'Groove' Holmes, the bop rhythm of Jimmy Smith, the simmering intensity of Charles 'The Mighty Burner' Earland, and some blues licks worthy of Jimmy McGriff or Jack McDuff.'" Impressive, she was.
There's an abundance of great musicians in the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area. Responding to Akiko's organ panache, local drumming stand-out Eric Kennedy played, at times, uncharacteristically "soft," prompting in my mind a story related to jazz drummer extraordinaire, Philly Joe Jones. In Burt Korall's book, "Drummin' Men" (2002), clarinetist Jimmy Guiffre reported the following:
"One night, I asked Philly Joe: 'Don't you ever play softly? You're so busy and play so loud.' 'I know what you mean,' Philly said. 'But I can't do it in Miles' band. He wants me to play "up there"-- surround the music with the cymbal sound and play a lot of stuff on the drums.' Philly thought for a minute and then made me an offer: [...] 'I'm going to play soft, down low with the band. You watch what Miles does.' Sure enough, after Philly began playing softly with brushes that Sunday, Miles [Davis] turned around and, in that raspy voice of his, angrily made his feelings known: 'What the f*** you doing man? Play!'"
Yes, 'tis the season to be jolly. I heard a joke about a jazz-loving marriage counselor who devised a unique way of dealing with uncommunicative couples. He would break out his acoustic bass, commence to play a solo and, invariably, the silent ones would begin to talk and talk and talk over the bass solo.
In the past year, Caton Castle audiences have talked over the solos of some of the finest acoustic bassists on the scene today: Michael Graham, Kris Funn, Amy Shook, Dimitri Kolesnic, Alex Blake, Curtis Lundy, Blake Meister, and Steve Kirby.
My, how time flies. Proprietor Ron Scott has been presenting regularly scheduled live jazz performances at the Caton Castle since the early 1990s. Closing out the year (once again) with the straight-ahead jazz styling of the John R. Lamkin, II "Favorites" Quintet is becoming a Caton Castle tradition, a figurative present under the tree for those with echos of bebop-- not visions of sugar plums-- dancing in their heads.
On November 9, 2019, the Caton Castle hosted a birthday bash (40th) for vibraphonist Warren Wolf, with a musical performance featuring Warren and a host of his friends, including bass guitarist Cory Baker, drummer John Lamkin, III, keyboardist Vince Evans, and spotlighting vocalist Mia Simone. With plugged-in instrumentation behind raucous R & B vocals, a good time was had by all.
Warren got it started with "Butterfly," keyboardist Herbie Hancock's mid-1970s jazz/funk/rock fusion joint that later crossed over in adaptations (particularly Norman Connors') to the "Quiet Storm" FM radio format and in Warren's treatment conjured up images of vibraphonist Roy Ayers and the uncomplicated (many birthdays ago) sensuality of his earthy band, "Ubiquity." Warren's bluesy approach to the vibraphone showed itself on a protracted solo with an uptempo linear rhythm punctuated by choppy departures, with the motion of blurring mallets providing a visual echo. Indeed, Warren's velvet tone was a continuing contextual presence.
On "Butterfly," Vince's electric keyboard produced a profusion of modulated notes in harmonic contrast to the powerful funk beat of Cory's bass guitar, while pumping out the melody to the rhythmic refrain of John's rocking drums. On a role-reversing solo excursion, Cory's bass guitar commandeered ("Bogarted," we used to say) the melody, augmenting it with the sound of a wah-wah pedal.
In a confident and energetic tone, vocalist Mia Simone gave a danceable treatment to an assortment of R & B classics-- e.g., Anita Baker's "Sweet Love," Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody" and "Sweet Thing"-- as she connected with the audience by the force of her passionate persona.
Happy birthday, Warren. One can hardly say "birthday" without saying "happy." A repetition that never becomes repetitious, anticipating birthdays is musical. "Repetition in black culture finds its most characteristic shape in performance: rhythm in music, dance and language," says James A. Snead. "...Black music sets up expectations and disturbs them at irregular intervals: that it will do this, however, is itself an expectation" (from "The Jazz Cadence of American Culture," ed. by Robert G. O'Meally, 1998).
Birthdays can be brooding, like with the leave-taking of the twenties at age thirty or the specter of the sixties at age fifty. Even so, the birthday beat is prone to be bubbly, as in iconic bandleader Duke Ellington's colloquial quatrain: "Into each life some jazz must fall/ with after-beat gone kickin'/ with jive alive, a ball for all/ Let not the beat be chicken!" (from "Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies," ed. by Robert G. O'Meally, et al., 2004).
Sixty is the new forty, say the envious. Of course, this self-mocking is not serious, but a joyous reflection on life as a standard jazz ballad with a marvelous transitional time-change-- a bridge, as the musicians say-- at about age forty. Novelist Ralph Ellison, author of the critically acclaimed "Invisible Man" (1952), had something like this self-mockery in mind when he penned "Homage to Duke Ellington on His [70th] Birthday:"
"Then there is also the fact of Ellington's aura of mockery. Mockery speaks through his work and through his bearing. He is one of the most handsome of men, and to many his stage manners are so suave and gracious as to appear a put-on-- which quite often they are. [...] However, Ellington's is a creative mockery in that it rises above itself to offer us something better, more creative and more hopeful, than we've attained while seeking other standards" (from "Living With Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings," ed. by Robert G. O'Meally, 2001).
"It's a Man's, Man's World," James Brown's ode to a world that "wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl," found poignant expression from Mia's lips to my ears. Yes, birthdays remind us of two irreducible facts: Birth from the womb is one of them.
Even without a cake, Warren Wolf's birthday show was a musical blast. Insofar as they are life-affirming, you could say of birthday celebrations what a lush once said of fine brandy, "Too much is barely enough."
THE STEVE KIRBY QUINTET
On November 2, 2019, the Steve Kirby Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, with Steve Kirby on acoustic bass, Allyn Johnson on piano, Steve Carrington on tenor sax, Theljon Allen on trumpet, and Eric Kennedy on drums. Recently relocated to this neck of the woods from his longtime Canadian stomping ground, the veteran bassist brought a sophisticated rhythmic approach to the straight-ahead sound of this first-rate ensemble, consisting of three Caton Castle regulars plus Baltimore native Steve Carrington.
Indeed, most of the group's repertoire consisted of original compositions or arrangements by Steve Kirby, like "Wicked Grin," the title tune from his 2008 CD. With a rumba beat highlighted by the knocking of Eric's rhythmic cowbell over Steve's pronounced bass line, this tune flowed in a quirky pattern. Introduced by both horns in uptempo tandem, the pace downshifted on a solo trumpet break wherein Theljon's tone was crisp and sharp. With elongated notes delivered in waves of varying dimensions, Theljon's trumpet blasts were lively yet restrained and with very little vibration, shades of Miles Davis.
Steve's tenor sax delivered a spirited solo in a festive mood, swinging in time with the shifting beat of Eric's driving drums, while Allyn's piano treatment of the melody was spacious and layered, defining its contours through flashes of repeated notes in an ascending scale of intensity. This garrulous style of jazz piano brought to mind pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007), the Canadian virtuoso of whom critic Scott Yarnow wrote: "[He] plays 100 notes where other pianists might have used ten, but all 100 usually fit, and there is nothing wrong with showing off technique when it serves the music" ("All Music Guide," ed. by V. Bogdanov, et al., 2001).
Throughout, drummer Eric Kennedy kept Latin-flavored time with his usual aplomb. Known for his resounding cymbal work, Eric pushed the pace relentlessly. On a solo break, his forte emerged in a rousing percussive display, with busy movements all over the drum kit.
In our Internet Age, information about everything is at your fingertips, including performance samples for most working musicians. To get a sneak preview of Caton Castle shows, I often resort to "YouTube." However, instead of music videos, what the search-engine produced about bassist Steve Kirby was details of a feminist horde screaming slanderous accusations of sexual misconduct that resulted in Steve's employment blacklisting by at least two colleges, without any finding of guilt in a court of law. On the face of it, Steve is yet another target of the purity police of the Internet Age, the "MeToo" feminist mobs.
"Bill" Cosby, the 82-year-old black comedian, now sits bushwhacked in a Pennsylvania prison following conviction on a 14-year-old sex assault charge that one prosecutor had declined to prosecute, a second prosecutor's efforts ended in a hung jury, but a re-trial resulted in his conviction. The difference? The last prosecution was based on "MeToo" court proceedings whereby five "MeToo" witnesses whose irrelevant testimony (no first-hand knowledge of the case on trial) claiming that Cosby had "also" sexually assaulted them at some other places and decades earlier was allowed as proof that Cosby was guilty of the crime charged in Pennsylvania. Before the last trial, evidence of other uncharged crimes-- the "also"-- was not generally allowed to prove guilt as to a present crime charged, even in Pennsylvania. Such "evidence" was paraded in the last trial under "MeToo" standards. Gobsmacked, "Bill" Cosby awaits the outcome of his appeal to a higher court.
Think what you will of the accused, a throng of self-identified "victims" hollering "MeToo" proves nothing. Of course, judgment in the Internet Age is increasingly impervious to proof. It's thumbs up or thumbs down, like in the ancient Roman Colosseum.
Thankfully, Steve Kirby's solid artistry makes it easy to separate the music from the background noise. His bass line raced on "Health Science Hypertension Clinic," from his latest CD, "All Over The Map." Steve explained that this original music employed an odd mixture of instruments, combining the components of a symphony orchestra with jazz and other vernacular music to form a synthesis of sounds akin to what composer Gunther Schuller once called "Third Stream." However, this group's rendition amounted to post-bop improvisation played within the melodic lines.
Theljon's trumpet solo was a cascade of bracing notes with more scatter than flow, and a slurred tone that hinted of trumpeter Lee Morgan's trademark swagger. Theljon hit upper register squeaks offset by low-end growls, demonstrating a nimble trumpet dexterity. And Steve Carrington's tenor sax shined, using a broad and insistent tone at a vibrant pace and in a meandering pattern of variations that built-in momentum, carrying the listener along.
The rhythm section was cohesive throughout, with Allyn pushing the tempo via accelerated piano comping ahead of Eric's wailing drums, cymbals leading against thumping bass drum exclamations and cross-rhythmic snare drum accents, as Steve's bass line persistently lurched forward with harmonic vigor, preceding a climactic resolution in a cacophony of dissonant sounds.
As sometimes happens, a surprise addition stole the show. In this case vocalist Anna-Lisa Kirby, Steve's lovely wife. With a silky and resonant voice suggestive of the Big Band era's June Christy combined with horn-like timing, Anna-Lisa displayed perfect diction and palpable pathos on "Hallelujah," a haltingly-paced song about an element of doubt contained in faith, with biblical allusions. Likewise, "The Shadow of Your Smile" captivated with a romantic feeling that moved at a dancing pace on the whim of Anna-Lisa's phrasing, including scat. And "Cold" (perhaps I misheard the title) had a lyrical funk/rock feel that receded in the face of Theljon's fervent trumpet solo.
A last word on the politically correct background noise that competes in the Internet Age with hate-filled hip-hop to drown out healthy cultural expression. Note that the Canadian variety of culture smog goes so far as to criminalize as hate speech the publication of Bible verses in a newspaper ad, as in the notorious case of evangelist Hugh Owens (2002) concerning, among others, the following quotation:
"For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use to that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another: men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet" (Romans 1:26 & 27).
In Canada, yours truly might be in the cross-hairs of a politically correct mob for repeating those forbidden Bible verses. Thank goodness Steve Kirby escaped.
Howling mobs be damned! The Steve Kirby Quintet plus vocalist Anna-Lisa Kirby delivered a top-flight musical performance to an appreciative Caton Castle audience. I, for one, look forward to Steve's return.
6th ANNUAL ART BLAKEY
JAZZ MESSENGERS EVENT
On October 12, 2019, the Caton Castle hosted an Art Blakey (Oct. 11, 1919 to Oct. 16, 1990) birthday celebration with a sextet featuring Frank Lacy on trombone, Sean Jones on trumpet, Robert Gilliam on tenor sax, Mark Meadows on piano, Ameen Saleem on acoustic bass and John Lamkin, III on drums. Present in his absence, drummer Art Blakey's brand brings out the best in straight-ahead jazz musicians. "Our thing is to swing, and it's nothing to be ashamed of," Blakey told drummer/chronicler Arthur Taylor. "It's something to be proud of" ("Notes and Tones: Musician to Musician Interviews," 1977).
Considering that his influence spans generations, this annual celebration has been fortunate to spotlight alumni from the Jazz Messengers-- "JM"-- (Blakey's revolving-personnel band that continued for decades as a sort of performance grad school) that included alto saxophonist Donald Harrison last year and trombonist Frank Lacy this year, both with solid reputations that preceded them. And Frank brought an added touch with his comical impersonations of Art Blakey's gravelly voice.
Typically, "JM" instrumentation included a front line of two or three horns that created a brassy context-- often introducing the tune in poly-rhythmic combination-- with a piano and acoustic bass that would feed off of Blakey's propulsive drums.
With an engaging solo on "Moanin'," pianist and "JM" alum Bobby Timmons' middle-swing tempo standard, Frank's trombone demonstrated that note-stretching elastic sonority characteristic of this brass instrument, combined with an exaggerated manipulation of the pitch-adjusting slide mechanism to create unusual sound effects (I detected incoming missiles) that resolved into angular flourishes of slurred notes, abrupt departures and pregnant pauses. Indeed, in his deft use of hesitation, Frank brought to mind another "JM" trombone standout, Curtis Fuller.
Likewise, following a protracted solo introduction by John's mustering drums on "JM" alum Benny Golson's "Blues March," a three horns chorus led to a solo break by Sean's soaring trumpet. Ensconced in the top academic perch of the jazz department at the downtown Peabody Institute, Sean's local presence has set a high bar for trumpet proficiency hereabouts. Fluid in his delivery, there is an aggressive edge to the tone of Sean's trumpet, with a high gear that's piercing in its intensity.
In turn, the understated quality of Robert's tenor sax offset Sean's trumpet tour-de-force with a nuanced and nimble solo, shifting melodically behind the swinging beat of John's drums, which moved the rhythm with a lurching force. A Peabody student (twenty-ish), Robert has precocious skill. Being more glove than fist, his approach is similar to Hank Mobley's, whom one critic memorably dubbed "the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone."
This birthday tribute to the music of Art Blakey and his "JM" comes on the heels of last month's similar retrospective show honoring tenor saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967). Both performances were well-attended. It has been said that "nostalgia" is a mood whereby memory is dearer than hope. Perhaps. Just as all of Western philosophy is arguably a footnote to Plato and the ancient Greeks, the wellspring of jazz enthusiasm is, I think, nostalgia for its storied virtuosos (Those were the days!) remembered in live performance and/or recordings.
Personally, the "JM" concert that sticks out in my mind is from the mid-1970s at a Left Bank Jazz Society show at the old Famous Ballroom across town on Charles Street that featured a sizzling front line of Bobby Watson on alto sax and Dave Schnitter on tenor sax. Bobby, Dave and I were all twenty-something at the time.
Soon to join the ranks of the ceremonially recollected are two giants of jazz piano who, sadly, died within the past month: Harold Mabern (1936-2019) and Larry Willis (1942-2019). Over the years, both have performed many times at the Caton Castle, leaving a lasting impression. For instance, I was present at a show where Larry, a prolific recording artist (Amazon lists 130 CDs featuring him), sat in (happened to be in the neighborhood, he said) and treated the audience to a solo rendition of "My Funny Valentine" that was breathtaking in its symphonic sweep, projecting emotions from a whisper to a shout. Larry's music was free-swinging, reflecting his personality.
In recent years Harold Mabern, who recorded with a "who's who" of jazz over a six-decade career, had usually played the Caton Castle with the New York-based Eric Alexander Quartet. In addition to a style that combined bluesy swing rhythms and playful melodies with bebop quirks, Harold was a repository of jazz history which he generously imparted, gratis. During an intermission at one show, I called to Harold as he walked near my table and asked if that was him on Lee Morgan's "Search For The New Land" album (1966). He responded, "No, that was Herbie Hancock," without ever breaking stride. I read in an obituary where certain colleagues called Harold "Big Hands," due to the size of his mitts. Indeed, "Big Hands" left some big shoes to fill.
Throughout this Art Blakey tribute show, the drummer figured prominently in the rhythm section. For example, "Aquarius Rising," Frank's original composition, featured John's drums setting the uptempo pace for Mark's spirited piano-- from blues-tinged comping to a rocking solo run-- while also allowing space for Ameen's dexterous bass line as it shadowed the melodic sketching of Mark's piano before soloing with rhythmic flair. Finally, John delivered a frenetic solo of his own, smashingly.
Actually, John's drum performance was not unlike jazz critic Whitney Balliett's description of Art Blakey's chops from a half-century ago ("The Sound of Surprise," 1959):
"He is a raucous, uneven, and sometimes primitive performer who gets a stuffy, closeted tone and who plays, now and then, with such nervous power that he is apt to drown the stoutest musicians under florid, steamy cymbal work and jubilant, circus-like snare-drum rolls. Since he uses the [Max] Roach sort of embroidery only sparingly, the result can be devastating. [...] It is intense, perfectly spaced, declarative drumming that can, in its strongest moments, rattle one's jowls."
When asked if he was on-board with a certain piece of controversial legislation, Louisiana's U.S. Senator John Kennedy (no relation) smilingly replied, "Yes, like a hobo on a ham sandwich." That's the sort of enthusiasm that was generated at the Caton Castle by this group's masterful tribute to the music of jazz icon Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers.
THE HERB SCOTT QUARTET
On September 28, 2019, the Herb Scott Quartet appeared at the Caton Castle, with Herb Scott on alto sax, Hope Udobi on piano, Charlie Himel (first set) and Blake Meister (second set) on acoustic bass, and Terence Arnett on drums. Following on the good vibes from his first Caton Castle appearance three months ago with the Quincy Phillips Quartet, Washington, D.C. native Herb Scott returned with this talented group for a high-energy sequel.
With one exception, the first set was devoted to original music by Herb with an explanation as to his motivating thought: The shock of physical relocation. In literature, the late V.S. Naipaul, the grandson of indentured servants in Trinidad transplanted from the Indian subcontinent, won a Nobel Prize (2001) for exploring this same relocation theme in novels like "The Enigma of Arrival" (1987), "In a Free State" (1971) and "A Bend in the River" (1979).
At a capricious pace, "Freedom Walking" gave musical expression, Herb said, to contrasting conceptions of freedom-- communal versus atomistic-- that differ according to time and place. This up-tempo blues number (jump blues?) featured Herb's alto sax blowing shifting patterns of fluid notes in a cadence suggestive of Dixieland march rhythms, with a drawn-out phrasing filled with lyrical figures that fluctuated in texture and tone. Hope's piano comping was a subdued prelude to a solo piano run, loping just ahead of Charlie's walking bass line and answering to the insistent beat of Terence's drums.
The second set featured the music of tenor sax legend John Coltrane (1926-1967), including "Moment's Notice," from the "Blue Train" album (1958). Herb's alto sax was in exuberant mode, riffing around the melody on a sharp-tone solo that soared in asymmetrical lines of rapid middle-register notes, punctuated by accents from low-end grunts to high-pitched squeals.
The rhythm section was cohesive throughout, with Blake's densely structured bass work binding Terence's methodical drums to Hope's tempestuous piano by the force of a seemingly magnetic beat. On "Moment's Notice," Hope's nuanced piano solo sketched the melody with repeated patterns of notes that varied in pitch and intensity against the competing thrust of Terence's prompting drums. With a counter-melody that created ascending tension, Hope's tinkling piano climbed to a crescendo.
"Naima," John Coltrane's ballad in tribute to his first wife, displayed the versatility of Herb's horn in negotiating the richly layered melody and lush harmony of this tune. Herb's middle-weight lyricism was offset by the solidity of Blake's prominent bass line, shifting imperiously in a protracted solo that suggested the resolute force of an immovable shoreline against the spent waves of the sea.
Curiously, Herb reconfigured pianist Dave Brubeck's classic number, "Take Five," so as to eliminate the odd (5/4) time-stamp for which it is well known. Why? Artistic license. Interestingly, Herb said something that also falls under the rubric of artistic license: He performs hip-hop music at other venues.
Of course, Herb was not threatening the Caton Castle audience with hip-hop, but I wonder what would happen if Herb employed artistic license to combine jazz timing and instrumentation with hip-hop's rhyming vocal ranting to a droning beat. Could it produce marketable results in that gold mine of a musical genre?
Presently, hip-hop resists jazz like oil resists water. The ambiguous relationship between these two musical categories dominated by black artists has become "an elephant in the room," so to speak.
According to "Rolling Stone" online (Jan. 3, 2019): "Hip-hop tracks were already more popular than any other kind in 2017, accounting for 20.9 percent of song consumption. That number jumped to a stunning 24.7 percent in 2018, meaning that nearly a quarter of all tracks listened to in the U.S. came from rap."
Meanwhile, according to a headline from "JazzLine News" online (March 9, 2015): "Jazz Has Become The Least Popular Genre In The U.S."
The present lopsided reality represents the latest stage in a continuing estrangement between jazz and popular music that began with the end of the "Swing Era" synthesis, the pre-World War II days when Big Bands defined popular music. Thereafter, the Blues that begot Jazz sowed some other seeds, birthing an unruly (stubbornly peculiar) but wildly popular progeny: Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, Soul, Gospel, Country (yes, an outside child) and today's Rap (from a tryst in the 1970s with The Last Poets: "Jazzoetry is poetry").
All the while, jazz has maintained fidelity to roots that stretch back more than a century to the New Orleans of Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong through "Duke" Ellington through Coleman Hawkins & Lester Young through Charlie "Bird" Parker through Miles Davis & John Coltrane through "Sonny" Rollins (check out his 2006 CD, "Sonny, Please") to a present predicament where unheralded but high-quality jazz musicians like Herb Scott's quartet play to a niche audience.
Statistically, jazz's loss is hip-hop's gain. As the sophisticates say, "Que sera, sera" (Whatever will be, will be). The caustic "Jazz Age" wit, Dorothy Parker, fashioned a pun on an old adage-- "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink"-- that is a perfect analogy to the present jazz/rap conundrum: "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think."
Generally speaking, the phenomenon of mass appeal-- "McMusic"-- raises an age-old question about the relationship between the individual and the group, not unlike the freedom dichotomy that prompted Herb's above-discussed original composition, "Freedom Walking." In the time and place that we live in, freedom is more of a group thing than it used to be.
When Herb can express his musical ideas in a hip-hop idiom before a jazz crowd or in a jazz idiom before a hip-hop crowd, he will have squared the circle, and put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
At the Caton Castle, the Herb Scott Quartet delivered a spirited performance straight out of the jazz tradition to an appreciative audience, relatively few in number but by no means extinct.
THE TIM WARFIELD QUARTET
On September 21, 2019, the Tim Warfield Quartet appeared at the Caton Castle, with Tim Warfield on tenor and soprano sax, Lawrence Fields on piano, Ameen Saleem on acoustic bass and John Lamkin, III on drums. Billed as the first annual tribute to jazz master John Coltrane (1926-1967), this skillful group rose to the occasion as typified by their take on the title tune from "Giant Steps" (1960).
Tim's soprano sax rendering recalled Coltrane's harmonically trenchant style of piercing lyricism--an urgent and unmistakable tone (customarily on tenor sax) whether at warp speed or crawling-- with an unorthodox mix of melody and rhythm (Thelonious Monk-influenced) loosely bound by an open-ended, searching approach. Behind Tim's fluid phrasing, Lawrence's piano comped in bluesy hints before soloing in a propulsive blast of high-pitched runs against an ascending counter-rhythmic refrain that created gaps filled by John's challenging drumbeat over Ameen's solid bass line. In turn, bass and drums soloed with flair.
Universally acclaimed in retrospect, Coltrane's rise to the top was meteoric, yet it took time. Born in Hamlet, North Carolina on September 23, 1926, Coltrane played saxophone in his high school band before moving to Philadelphia, PA in 1943. He took a day job, studied music casually and played his first paying gig prior to entering the U.S. Navy in 1945. Coltrane was a Navy band member and became fluent in the bebop innovations of alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker by the time he returned to civilian life in 1947.
Whereupon, Coltrane's career as a working musician took root with a stint in saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's band in 1948, followed by two years in trumpeter "Dizzy" Gillespie's big band. Thereafter, Coltrane paid his dues as a versatile sideman, playing a lot of forgettable music before inattentive audiences, while honing his chops. When he joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955, Coltrane began the first of three distinct phases of his jazz stardom: The Bebop Phase.
Notably, "Giant Steps" (1960), with its dazzling chord changes, and "Blue Train" (1958), with its "sheets of sound," per critic Ira Gitler, were recorded without Miles in this first phase. Their relationship was rocky at times-- Miles fired Coltrane for issues related to substance abuse (ironic?) but Coltrane subsequently returned teetotal abstinent and spiritually renewed-- yet the collaboration between Miles and Coltrane produced one of the top-selling jazz albums of all times: "Kind of Blue" (1959).
This band's rendition of the title tune from the album "Impressions" (1963) featured Tim's hard-tone tenor sax riffing up-tempo with cascading notes on this permutation of the post-bebop "modal" format that Coltrane would pursue in his next musical phase; that is to say, the Miles Davis-inspired musical methodology organized by scales (modes) rather than typical chord progressions. Bass clarinetist Todd Marcus sat in on this number with a zesty solo suggestive of Coltrane's stylistic alter-ego, Eric Dolphy (1928-1964), who was singularly inventive on this unusual jazz instrument.
Ameen's extended bass introduction resembled the bass line's staccato rhythmic shuffle on "So What," from the above-mentioned "Kind of Blue," before supplying a rapid pulse as John's drumbeat pushed the tempo against a cross-current generated by the repeated melodic conceit of Lawrence's vamping piano. Tim's protracted tenor sax solo eventually engaged John's dynamic drums in a raucous clash, reminiscent of the muscle-flexing duels between Coltrane and his preferred drummer, Elvin Jones.
The second phase of Coltrane's jazz stardom began when he permanently departed from Miles Davis to front his own band, which recorded "My Favorite Things" (1961), a best-selling album that was remarkable in three respects. First, it took a fluffy Broadway/pop ditty and transformed it into vintage jazz; second, the title tune had a duration of thirteen minutes, a harbinger of hyper-extended solos to come; and third, Coltrane performed the title tune on soprano sax, a jazz instrument that had fallen into disuse since the heyday of Dixieland soprano sax virtuoso Sidney Bechet (1897-1959).
With the addition thereafter of bassist Jimmy Garrison, Coltrane's band would perform for the next several years with the same personnel, including Elvin Jones on drums and McCoy Tyner on piano. Often called the "classic quartet," this group defined the second stage of Coltrane's jazz stardom (The Classic Quartet Phase), reaching its climax with the pivotal album, "A Love Supreme" (1965), a four-part musical suite of extended improvisation in various moods, from agony to ecstasy, reflecting a religious consciousness elaborated upon by Coltrane in the liner notes.
While "A Love Supreme" did, in fact, remain marvelously this-worldly, what followed that recording was a mystically oriented "free form" or avant-garde music. By the beginning of 1966, both Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner had left Coltrane's band due to artistic differences. Thereafter, Coltrane reconstructed his band with an outlook toward "free form" jazz as typified by saxophonist Ornette Coleman's total abandonment of traditional chord structure (the basic unit of harmony). This third phase might be called Coltrane's New Thing. In introducing the tune "Ascent," Tim Warfield commented that "Ascent" was on the border.
In its short-lived final phase, Coltrane's music had mutated from the intricate chord structure of "Giant Steps" to no chords at all. Musically speaking, Coltrane had reached what 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described as "the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think" ("Philosophical Fragments," edited by Howard & Edna Hong, 1985).
Sax player, club owner and raconteur Ronnie Scott visited this subject in a joke. A guy walks into a pet store wanting a parrot. The store clerk shows him two parrots. "This one's $500.00 and the other is $1,000.00," the clerk said. Buyer: "What does the $500.00 one do?" Clerk: "Sir, this parrot can sing every solo Charlie Parker ever played." Buyer: "What about the other parrot?" Clerk: "Well, this one can sing every solo John Coltrane ever played. We've got another one in the back room for $4,000.00." Buyer: "You're joking! What does that one do?" Clerk: "Nothing that I can tell, but the other two parrots call him 'Maestro.'"
Tim Warfield's band artfully delivered to the warm applause of a near capacity audience many fan favorites from Coltrane's first and second phase, such as "Lonnie's Lament," "Central Park West" and "In a Sentimental Mood," the latter from the eponymous album collaboration, "Duke Ellington and John Coltrane" (1962). As to Coltrane's last phase, opinions differ. In "Take the Coltrane," an essay originally published in the "Village Voice" on February 18, 1992, music critic Francis Davis recalled the fan rejection that Coltrane experience in the last year of his life:
"I heard Coltrane in person only once, a concert he gave at Temple University in the fall of 1966. [...] The walkout began 15 minutes or so into the evening's first tune, which lasted approximately an hour-- I think it was 'Naima,' although it hardly mattered, because Coltrane had abandoned song form, even if still playing songs. What was shocking about the exodus was that these were Coltrane addicts presumably undaunted by the turbulence and complexity of his music to that point, but grief-stricken by what they were hearing now: a spew of untempered and unmetered sound. [...] Those who walked out on him in Philadelphia did so thinking that he had, in effect, already walked out on them by turning his band into an open forum for a despised and divisive avant-garde to which he seemed both role model and acolyte."
(Sadly, I pause to acknowledge news of the recent death at age 83 of Harold Mabern [1936-2019], the Elder Statesman of post-bebop piano. Like Coltrane, he has earned a place in jazz history.)
By their splendid performance in this first annual tribute to the music of John Coltrane, the Tim Warfield Quartet served notice that over a half-century later the spirit of John Coltrane still lives, provocatively.
THE EBBAN & EPHRIAM DORSEY QUINTET
On August 24, 2019, the Ebban & Ephraim Dorsey Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, with Ebban Dorsey on alto sax, Ephraim Dorsey on tenor sax, Warren Wolf on piano, Michael Graham on acoustic bass and Quincy Phillips on drums. This was the second time in three years that sister (age 15) and brother (age 16) Dorsey have headlined a show at the Caton Castle. In both artistry and demeanor, they've blossomed.
The front line was surrounded by a solid rhythm section, with Warren's nimble piano styling substituting for his customary vibraphone, along with the trenchant drums and intrepid bass of Quincy and Michael, respectively-- all Caton Castle regulars.
On a generic blues number, the full and bracing tone of Ephraim's tenor sax delivered the melodic theme in a thrusting solo chorus with lower register inflections that provoked a complementary response from Ebban's alto sax in a thin but resonant timbre, propelling a flow of notes that shifted in an irregular pattern, moodily. The interplay of the two horns was almost conversational, creating suspense about the last word.
The downbeat of Michael's bass line was a palpable presence as Quincy's locked-in drumbeat offset Warren's bluesy piano comping, a prelude to Michael's solo bass statement-- the rhythmic rendering of a crying shame.
Both Ebban and Ephraim addressed the audience with confidence, wit, and charm. Like a gentleman, Ephraim even expressed love for his sister. However, as anyone with a near-age sibling can attest, that doesn't preclude a healthy rivalry.
Consider the case of former amateur and pro basketball stars Cheryl and Reggie Miller, as reported in the Los Angeles Times on December 13, 1993: "Taking Her Shot: A Funny Thing Happened to Cheryl Miller Who Went From the Booth to the Bench at USC:"
"It is 1982 and Riverside Poly High prep star Reggie Miller bounds through the front door of his parents' home, yelling, 'Cheryl, Mom, Dad-- I got 39! Everything I put up went in!' Cheryl Miller recalls that Reggie smirked just a bit. But big sister Cheryl played that day, too. As Cheryl recalls it, the conversation continued like this: Reggie: 'How many did you get today, Cheryl?' Cheryl: 'A lot, Reggie.' Reggie: 'How many? Forty? Fifty?' Cheryl: 'A hundred and five.' Reggie: 'You gotta be kidding.'"
On "In A Sentimental Mood," Duke Ellington's languorous ballad, Ephraim's tenor sax carried the day inasmuch as Ebban sat out. In a fluctuating line of notes punctuated by a breathy vibrato (a trembling whisper) a la tenor sax legend Dexter Gordon, Ephraim's tone was brooding and sensuous, caressing the melody in the spacious embrace of warren's vamping piano. Michael's bass line was invigorating, a pronounced pulse that ebbed and flowed around Quincy's shifting drumbeat, with brushes.
A two-horn chorus introduced "Firm Roots," pianist Cedar Walton's uptempo vehicle for outside-the-melody inventiveness with an urgent flow. Michael's bass line sprinted between the driving beat of Quincy's drums and Warren's feathery piano runs that increased in an ascending intensity corresponding to the high-velocity pace of Quincy's drumming, peppered by flourishes of cymbals and snares.
On a solo break, Ephraim's tenor sax led out with a spate of husky notes that were somewhat subdued but steadily increased steam to a boiling point. Ebban's alto sax answered in kind, juggling rolling notes in a zigzag pattern that sporadically gained in pitch to an ecstatic release.
Manifestly, there's mutual joy in this sibling competition, unlike the case of those rivals who found themselves trapped in a flimsy shack by a rampaging bear. One suggested that they make a run for it, but the other protested that they couldn't outrun the bear. To which the first responded, "I don't have to outrun the bear; I only have to outrun you."
The band's repertoire included a bevy of jazz standards like "Resolution," "My Favorite Things" and "A Night In Tunisia." Indeed, this latter tune also included a sit-in performance by Steve Kirby on bass and Devron Dennis on drums, both with talent to spare. Moreover, Ms. Brianna, a Dorsey cousin, gave us a spirited vocal take on "Summertime."
This show was enthusiastically received by a nearly full house. However, applause can be deceptive. There's no shortcut to excellence in music, or otherwise. In "Life Lessons From The Horn: Essays on Jazz, Originality and Being a Working Musician" (2015), soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome offers, among other things, the following advice to fledgling musicians:
"Finding one's own voice as Coltrane and all of the jazz masters have done is a life-long journey not to be rushed or taken lightly. It requires mastery of your instrument, mastery of your mind and spiritual enlightenment. [...] Trumpeter Donald Byrd once told me, after he'd heard me play some generic Coltrane licks, 'Don't do what we did, do as we did.' In other words, don't chase the Trane."
This sassy rhythm section put an excellent frame around the precocious horn play of Baltimore School for the Arts students Ebban & Ephraim Dorsey. May they continue their vibrant growth as musicians and as individuals. According to the ancient proverb, "Well begun is half done."
THE GEORGE GRAY JAZZ COALITION
On July 13, 2019, the George Gray Jazz Coalition appeared at the Caton Castle, with George Gray on drums, Sharp Radway on piano, Alex Blake on acoustic bass, David Lee Jones on alto and soprano sax, and Robert Rutledge on trumpet. Listeners who dig rhythmic innovation in the context of jazz standards with a free-floating lyrical edge had their ears tickled by this talented quintet.
A native son, George's seasoned approach to his craft brought to mind bygone local drumming standouts like Johnny Polite and Hugh Walker, who live on in old-school Baltimore jazz lore.
On "If I Were A Bell," trumpeter Miles Davis' wistful middle-swing tempo composition, George's extended drum introduction drove a cohesive rhythm section that defined the melodic contours of this tune around Sharp's pronounced piano comping and Alex's buoyant bass line.
Robert's muted trumpet led off with a flutter of notes in an insistent tone that channeled Miles Davis' recorded rendition on the "Live at the Blackhawk" albums (1961). Indeed, the muffled sound of Robert's trumpet fluctuated in tandem with his variations in lyrical approach; a combination of soaring high-pitched linear statements offset by mid-range pithy rejoinders.
David's soprano sax answered with a solo chorus of measured phrases, probing in alternate but connected directions that established a harmonic counter-point of increasing intensity, ultimately leading to a sustained flow of flute-like notes in the higher register, punctuated by dissonant accents.
Sharp's piano contribution was integral throughout, with complementary riffs adding depth and flavor to the playful melody that became even more so in his solo treatment. Starting with spare figures in a slow tempo, Sharp's piano chorus increased in both pace and density, employing "boogie woogie" licks as a counter-rhythmic device that created a swirling mix of sound before erupting in a high volume melodic flourish, dramatically.
All the while, Alex's bass play was exceptional. From a seated position, he laid down a sustaining bass line when not plucking, slapping or strumming his acoustic bass fiddle to achieve guitar-like effects. Moreover, Alex coaxed out notes via syncopated nonverbal utterances (grunts?) in a solo interval, while George's drums kept time with a clapping high-hat cymbal before launching into a spirited percussive elaboration on a funky beat.
"Time Will Tell," a composition by alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter's "One By One" recalled the sound of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the group that included both of these artists as alumni. However, added to Blakey's characteristic brassy swing element was a touch of the avant garde. With its outside-the-melody harmonic freedom, Sharp's approach in particular was suggestive of pianist Don Pullen, a master of rhythmic dissonance and melodic deconstruction.
The musical mood shifted on "You Don't Know What Love Is," Sharp's mostly solo piano take on the standard ballad. It was a bravura performance made more engrossing because it only hinted at the melody, rendering it in silhouette, so to speak, against a background of inventive harmonic and rhythmic digressions that varied in volume, tempo, direction and tone.
The moderate size of the Caton Castle audience (half capacity) reminded me that my enthusiasm for this music might qualify as peculiar. I wonder, does the apparently waning popularity of jazz portend anything more significant than the shifting wind of fickle popular tastes? More generally, the times may be a-changing: An "Axios" poll that surveyed 2,277 U.S. adults between January 16 and 18, 2019, found that "61% of Americans aged between 18 and 24 have a positive reaction to the word 'socialism'-- beating out 'capitalism' at 58%" ("Gen Z prefers 'socialism' to 'capitalism,'" Jan. 27, 2019 at axios.com).
My guess is that both cultural developments are passing fads. Having long ago experienced age twenty-something for myself, I know first-hand the accuracy of the old saw: "Anybody who is not a socialist at age twenty has no heart, but anybody who is still a socialist at age forty has no brain."
Along with the imaginative author, I'm convinced that music of some sort would survive even a virulent socialist interlude like the totalitarian dystopia of ubiquitous surveillance described (speed cameras not mentioned) in George Orwell's seventy-year- old literary classic, "1984:"
"Something changed in the music that trickled from the telescreen. A cracked and jeering note, a yellow note, came into it. And then-- perhaps it was not happening, perhaps it was only a memory taking on the semblance of sound-- a voice was singing: 'Under the spreading chestnut tree/ I sold you and you sold me.'"
Of course, Orwell's 1949 novel was a prophetic warning against the contagious nightmare of Soviet Russia's totalitarian socialism, which eventually collapsed under the excess of its own regimented weight in the early 1990s. Significantly, that was before the socialist-leaning "Gen Z" was born.
The novel's hero, Winston Smith, was a functionary in the "Ministry of Truth," whose job it was to help re-write yesterday's newspapers and other publications to conform with the up-to-date dictates of political correctness; a task not unlike our contemporary vogue for removing Confederate statues.
Winston's life was collateral damage (wasted potential) in the book and analogously for millions of Winston Smiths in the tragic reality of the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), a grotesque historical aberration, the product of a feverish and recurring adolescent fantasy:
"He gazed up at the enormous [portrait]. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin- scented tears trickled down the side of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right. [Winston] had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."
Rest assured, jazz will survive the folly of socialist flirtations and "elevator music" (not to mention "hip-hop") because it's made of sterner stuff. Exhibit A: This band's take on "One By One," an up-tempo vehicle for harmonic fireworks that featured David's alto sax in dazzling flight, with a lean and edgy tone on blues-inflected streams of rolling notes-- sometimes staggered-- at a sprinting pace, shades of "Bird" (alto sax icon Charlie Parker) himself.
The George Gray Jazz Coalition brought a potent musical brew to the Caton Castle; straight, no chaser.
THE CURTIS LUNDY QUINTET
On June 29, 2019, the Curtis Lundy Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, with Curtis Lundy on acoustic bass, Oscar L. Williams, II on piano, Josh Evans on trumpet, J.D. Allen on tenor sax and Victor Jones on drums. Fronting an excellent musical mix, Curtis Lundy's unleashed bass fiddle set the tone for an inspired performance.
"Summertime," the George Gershwin show tune turned jazz standard, was emblematic. Paraphrasing the plucky introductory bass beat from saxophonist Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," Curtis' bass line established the foundation for an engaging rhythmic conceit ahead of a fortifying drumbeat that accented Oscar's vamping piano, defining the contours of a halting groove before the tempo picked up with Josh's trumpet solo in a high-pitched, piercing tone with soaring linear notes that shifted irregularly at an increasing pace.
Josh's approach was intense, manipulating the tone of his horn in an almost conversational way, suggesting multiple trumpet influences: a swaggering Lee Morgan, a plaintive Miles Davis, an exuberant Freddie Hubbard.
J.D. Allen's tenor sax response began in a duet with a fitful bass line that established rhythmic space before launching an extended harmonic exploration full of verve-- lyrically acrobatic-- and in a bracing tone that figuratively grabbed the listener in the collar, betraying the brash influence of tenor sax great John Coltrane. Of course, Coltrane possessed that ineffable quality of genius; a gift of God that skips whole generations and always causes a stir.
Mindful of a controversy concerning his hyper-extended saxophone solos-- measured in minutes, not bars-- that one prominent critic dubbed "anti-jazz," in a 1962 interview with Don DeMichael of "Downbeat" magazine, John Coltrane was asked what happens when he's played all of his ideas:
"'It's easy to stop then,' Coltrane said, grinning. 'If I feel like I'm just playing notes...maybe I don't feel the rhythm or I'm not in the best shape that I should be in when this happens. When I become aware of it in the middle of a solo, I'll try to build things to the point where this inspiration is happening again, where things are spontaneous and not contrived. If it reaches that point again, I feel it can continue-- it's alive again. But if it doesn't happen, I'll just quit, bow out.'"
The creative process was on display in J.D. Allen's tenor sax treatment of Lee Morgan's Latin-flavored ballad, "Ceora," with his full-tone statement of the melody ornamented by lilting harmonic figures that flowed in whimsical ways before merging seamlessly into Oscar's rhythmic piano comping. Those complementary keyboard phrases led to a cryptic restatement of the melodic theme in a piano solo built on layers of rhythmic refrains wafting over Curtis' unflinching bass line that kept time with Victor's passionate drums.
"Bye Bye Blackbird," an uptempo signature number for Miles Davis, showcased Curtis' bass with an extended solo, dramatic in its manipulation of staggered intervals between notes of provocatively spare precision, emoting passive aggression. After demonstrating his soft side with brush work, Victor held forth in a display of percussive artistry, with a throbbing bass drum propelling an array of clashing cymbals and drums of varying tonality that built in intensity from a simmer to a boil before erupting in a volcanic diffusion of tension that released the listeners from its grip.
The sparse audience enthusiastically applauded, perhaps in recognition of the music's magical power. As the philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, put it in "Either/Or" (1843):
"The sensuous in its essential nature is absolutely lyrical, and in [Mozart's] music it erupts in all its lyrical impatience. That is, it is qualified by spirit and therefore is power, life, movement, continual unrest, continual succession. But this unrest, this succession, does not enrich it; it does not unfold but incessantly rushes forward as in a single breath. If I were to describe this lyricism with a single predicate, I would have to say: It sounds."
Yes, music is capable of expressing what the French happily call "Joie de Vivre," but a tone-deafness ensues (volume is all) where music's joy is isolated and not otherwise reflected in community life. Every great jazz performance (like this one) before a meager Caton Castle audience (like this one) leaves me with a nagging feeling that it may be the last. Relatedly, note that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is currently locked in a labor dispute that is said to threaten its (government subsidized) existence as a "world class" orchestra. Musically, all is not well.
Though Caton Castle ticket prices are relatively modest ($35.00 for this show) with cabaret seating, an open bar, and kitchen for a performance that lasts, with breaks, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., I doubt that attendance would greatly improve even if the government issued Caton Castle vouchers. The problem lies elsewhere.
This short-circuit between music and life is not new, but reflects a deeper alienation from life's authoritative principles. Ancient Israel experienced it in literal exile-- "How can we sing the Lord's songs in a strange land?" (Psalm 137:4)-- and, to me, a despairing modern world seems metaphorically exiled from any source of ultimate meaning (spiritually lost) as evidenced by the marginalization of musical traditions that once brought joy.
Still, the Bible is the roadmap: "So then, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17).
In any event, J.D. Allen brought a smile to the face of this grizzled jazz fan with his stylistic similarity to tenor sax master John Coltrane. A jazz legend, I would say of Coltrane what the old Houston Oilers' NFL football coach, "Bum" Phillips, once said of his star running back, Earl Campbell: "I don't know if he's in a class by himself but I do know that when that class gets together, it sure don't take long to call the roll."
The Curtis Lundy Quintet delivered a joyful musical message to those with ears to hear.
QUINCY PHILLIPS QUARTET
On June 22, 2019, the Quincy Phillips Quartet appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Quincy Philips on drums, Herb Scott on alto sax, Delorean Fullington on acoustic bass and Allyn Johnson on piano. A fan favorite, Quincy's ad hoc bands (like last January's two-trumpet sextet that kicked off a new year of Caton Castle shows) always bring a certain pizzazz, and this group was no exception.
"I'll Remember April," the venerable uptempo standard, typified the band's approach by spotlighting the mellow tone of Herb's alto sax in full flight, riffing on the melodic theme in a flowing pattern of jostling notes in the middle to upper register. Later, Herb also unveiled two original compositions: "Freedom Walking," a Dixieland-flavored polyrhythmic number, and "New Ground," with a fast-speed vibe driven by Quincy's percussive abandon, shades of drum legend Elvin Jones' relentless style.
Indeed, Quincy's drums anchored a solid rhythm section, pumping the beat on "I'll Remember April" with an active bass pedal and busy cymbals in coordination with Delorean's shifting bass line that parried tom-tom flares, filling space in the frame created by Allyn's comping piano, anticipating a frenetic keyboard chorus.
Along with Delorean, this was Herb's Caton Castle debut.
Allyn demonstrated his affinity for the music of pianist Mulgrew Miller, the late master of melody-bending misdirection, on a horn-less trio rendering of three tunes from Mulgrew's recordings, including "Carousel," with a seductive lyrical phrasing that Allyn's piano repeatedly teased to a climactic release.
On "Moment's Notice," from tenor sax icon John Coltrane's "Blue Train" album, the band moderated the pace with Delorean's bass line supplying a bluesy mood behind Herb's alto sax's wailing lament, tapping into my own unambiguous blues about the raging black-on-black violence that has engulfed Baltimore city. In terms of murders in proportion to the size of an urban population, we're number one! While this vexing mayhem is not new, it's nonetheless pathetic.
"Violence is as American as cherry pie:" H. Rap Brown.
As a musical genre, the blues itself was rooted in the institutional terror of American slavery-- the call and response pattern of work songs and African-influenced religious expression-- and it required a gory fratricidal conflagration to end that peculiar institution in the 19th century. Even so, the war-torn 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. When President William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901, Charley Patton (1891-1934), the founding father of the down-home "Delta" blues, was a young boy on the Dockery Plantation in southern Mississippi where, according to Robert Palmer's "Deep Blues" (1981):
"[He] saw a world of change during the 50-odd years of his life, but the system [Jim Crow sharecropping] was in effect in the Upper Delta before he was born, and it outlasted him by several decades. He adapted to it well enough despite his lingering rage, which he tended to take out on his women, sometimes by beating them with a handy guitar. [...] And he created an enduring body of American music, for he personally inspired just about every Delta bluesman of consequence, and some blueswomen as well."
In our day, "Muddy" Waters (1913-1983) and John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) were direct links to the gritty drive and undistilled spirit of Charley Patton's "Delta" blues by way of Chicago and Detroit, respectively. Of course, all of the popular music that came after-- jazz, pop, gospel, R&B, rock-- employed a variation on the basic twelve-bar blues pattern. Likewise, the subsequent social strife is also related. Karl Marx, the apostle of political violence (i.e., Marxism), once presciently observed that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce."
While it reads like something from today's news headlines, the intra-racial violence on the Dockery Plantation happened in the context of Jim Crow racial oppression, the tragic repetition of slavery's historic evil. According to "Deep Blues:"
"Sometime during this period someone attempted to slit Patton's throat. Cleveland [Mississippi] gossips blamed Bertha Lee; their many violent arguments were a matter of public record. But a niece of Charley's told researcher David Evans that a man (probably a jealous man) attacked him with a long, wicked knife when he was singing one night in Merrigold. It wasn't an uncommon sort of occurrence. Leadbelly had his throat cut in a Texas juke joint and survived, but with an ugly scar that ran almost from ear to ear. Patton was scarred, too, and after this cutting scrape his voice seemed to grow more gravelly."
On closer inspection, today's black-on-black carnage differs from that of the Jim Crow era in two salient respects. First, the prevalence of handguns makes today's violence more deadly, pervasive and impersonal. Second, the shrill protestations of post-Jim Crow racial victimization (race hustling) that excuses black perps rings hollow, even farcical by historical comparison. Destructive of the civil rights of individuals, 21st century identity-group politics is arrant nonsense.
Today's mindless black-on-black violence (genocidal, when abortion is included) demonstrates Marx's point about history repeating itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce." The old adage is true: Even a broken clock-- Karl Marx-- is right twice a day.
The band started the second set with "Moanin'," pianist Bobby Timmons' middle-swing tempo composition popularized by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Of course, Quincy's propulsive drumbeat set the pace behind Allyn's articulation of the melody with a spare piano introduction that morphed into a clamoring solo. Delorean's bass line was crisp and pronounced, a palpable presence as Herb's alto sax soloed with a paraphrasing rhythm, raucously. The intensity of Quincy's drumbeat steadily increased to a solo break, punctuated by a Blakey-style drumroll.
Crime statistics notwithstanding, Quincy Phillips' band communicated a musical sense of well-being to a woke, if sparse, Caton Castle audience-- yet again.
THE PAUL CARR ENSEMBLE
On June 1, 2019, the Paul Carr Ensemble with special guest Jeremy Pelt appeared at the Caton Castle, featuring Paul Carr on tenor sax, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Antonio Parker on alto sax, Allyn Johnson on piano, Amy Shook on acoustic bass and Aaron Seeber on drums. All standout performers, this group delivered in spades.
As the moving force behind the annual Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in the Washington, D.C. area, Paul Carr must have a smartphone contact list (what used to be called a Rolodex) of working musicians that would print out to book-length. The Caton Castle has benefited from the Paul Carr connection with shows that he orchestrated in the recent past featuring such jazz luminaries as Louis Hayes (drums), Bobby Watson (alto sax), "Bootsie" Barnes (tenor sax) and Sharon Clark (vocals)-- to name a few.
Old-timers will recall that a similar relationship existed in the 1960s and '70s between the Left Bank Jazz Society's Sunday shows at the old Famous Ballroom and legendary tenor saxophonist/composer Jimmy Heath, the conduit for local booking of the biggest names in jazz, the likes of John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Freddie Hubbard. This was a point of pride in the nonagenarian's book co-authored with Joseph McLaren, "I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath" (2010):
"During this period I also became associated with an organization in Baltimore called the Left Bank Jazz Society, which gave cabaret parties one or two Sundays a month. The organization would provide my transportation to Baltimore, where I would play with a local rhythm section. Since I knew so many musicians, I became their New York connection. Their logo was a little guy with a tenor sax, and I always said that it was an image of me-- and nobody denied it because I was the first one to bring in the musicians."
Jeremy Pelt ranks among the top trumpeters on the jazz scene today, as he demonstrated with an artful rendering of "Pensativa," a Latin flavored staple of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. His distinctive tone sets Jeremy apart; it's full and clear without much vibration or slurring. Crisply articulating the melody, Jeremy's trumpet alternated between flowing lines and ejaculated phrases before Allyn's comping piano was redirected in a solo flourish of exuberant notes, stretching the melodic contours with airy figures against the background of Amy's solid bass line tracking the beat of Aaron's rhythmic drums, with tapping cymbals and snare accents.
On this tune, Antonio's alto sax solo began in a sporadic and chirpy fashion that led to lines of rolling notes defined in scope by dissonant accents, asymmetrically. Paul's tenor sax chorus was a complementary voice, crafting patterns of elongated notes in the middle to lower register with rhythmic deviations and a stray high note or two.
Jeremy's style is reminiscent of trumpet great Freddie Hubbard with its broad-- high/low, fast/slow-- range, melodic inventiveness and distinctive sonorous blending of bebop and swing influences, particularly on ballads like "What's New," "Speak Low" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." His highly lyrical approach recalls a time when melody was central. Like Michael Jordan in basketball, who elevated the game of the players around him, Jeremy's ballad prowess had a spillover effect as evidenced by Antonio's dynamic alto sax solo on "You Don't Know What Love Is," matching Jeremy's brilliance.
Jeremy had already made a believer out of me with "Jazz Incorporated" (2010), his sizzling live CD collaboration at "Smalls" jazz club in Greenwich Village with a quartet that featured drummer Louis Hayes, the ageless bebop innovator, wherein Jeremy's mastery of a traditional groove is showcased.
Ah, nostalgia. The familiar is welcome wherever you can find it when, to quote Shakespeare's Hamlet, "the times are out of joint." Like thousands of other licensed drivers, I recently received notice from the Motor Vehicle Administration to present myself before a date certain with specific proof of my identity: An original birth certificate, an original social security card, mail addressed to me from a government agency, a utility company or a bank. No such proof, then no driver's license. Talk about an identity crisis!
I felt like a character in "The Castle" (1926), Franz Kafka's surrealist novel about an outsider's efforts to settle in a village where the sole criterion for belonging was approval by the incomprehensible functionaries of a mysterious castle situated high above it. When, for example, a family was shunned by neighbors because of unfounded rumors of misbehavior toward the castle, the paterfamilias appealed to random officials for a pardon: "Yet before he could be forgiven he had to prove his guilt, and that was denied in all the departments."
Here and now, a sea of anonymous humanity, thousands upon thousands of unidentified individuals, flows daily into this country over an open southern border to the complete indifference of the Motor Vehicle Administration. Don't all identities matter? Anyway, I supplied the required identity papers and, thereafter, drove triumphantly to the fort, a/k/a the Caton Castle.
This band's entire rhythm section is well-known to Caton Castle regulars from past performances. Returning after a long absence, Amy's bass line walked again on "Pensativa." In a confident style, Amy carved out rhythmic space with a pronounced beat between the fluid time-stamp of Aaron's drums and Allyn's abstract piano framing, before soloing in a flowing cadence that carried the listener along.
Setting the pace, Aaron's busy drums (shades of Winard Harper) took the lead on "Music Endures," Paul's original uptempo vehicle composed in tribute to tenor sax great Joe Henderson, with clashing cymbals and a pounding bass drum that raced after Amy's fleet bass beat with snare drum flourishes attuned to Allyn's comping piano. Then Antonio's alto sax launched into a searching chorus in the upper register that twisted and turned, showering notes.
Alternately, Paul's tenor sax and Jeremy's trumpet gave this tune a harmonic workout. The abrupt and angular tone of Paul's horn was offset by a lilting edginess in the protracted notes of Jeremy's trumpet, augmented by fluttering phrases.
Alto sax great Gary Bartz, a Baltimore native, proclaimed in song that "Music Is My Sanctuary" (1977) and for those of like mind the Caton Castle is a refuge from a cultural storm. Of course, Gary's improvisational music (jazz) can only work its magic when properly digested-- it's an acquired taste-- and some folks lack the right listening technique. They're doing it wrong, like the guy who said he's no fan of Viagra because it gives him a stiff neck.
The Paul Carr ensemble with special guest Jeremy Pelt brought a straight-ahead musical style that fit with a laid-back Caton Castle audience, just so. Bravo.
THE KRIS FUNN QUARTET
On May 18, 2019, the Kris Funn Quartet appeared at the Caton Castle, with Kris Funn on acoustic bass, Brent Birckhead on alto sax, Allyn Johnson on piano and John R. Lamkin, III on drums. The straight-ahead jazz artistry of each of these returning performers is familiar to Caton Castle regulars and, collectively, they did not disappoint.
A frequent sideman, this was the first Caton Castle appearance of bassist extraordinaire Kris Funn as the band leader. What was the difference? More Kris: As a soloist, as a composer (four original compositions from his "Corner Store" CD), as a raconteur (including amusing tales about copyright royalties high-jinks and the late trumpet great Roy Hargrove's vocal limitations) and also (who knew?) as a singer, semi-seriously crooning "September in the Rain," shades of Roy Hargrove.
On "Invitation," an uptempo version of the oft-recorded standard adapted to a Latin beat that zigzagged around a fitful bass line, Kris shined. His solo introduction articulated a spacious foundation--a melodic rhythm-- with a bold tone as John's drums manipulated a shadowing beat that was conversant with harmonizing hints from Allyn's comping piano. A brisk piano solo followed with waves of running notes offset by counter-rhythmic refrains, creating ascending tension that reached a crescendo.
Brent's alto sax erupted with a lyrical treatment of the melodic theme in bursts of colorful notes preparatory to sloping linear figures in a shifting middle to upper register timbre with abrupt and angular deviations, his effervescent phrasing suggestive of alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune.
Charles Mingus notwithstanding, the acoustic bass fiddle is an unusual lead instrument, especially since the advent of the electric bass guitar. Historically, when the New Orleans Dixieland marching bands of old came indoors, the measured pulse that had been supplied by the tuba was transferred to the upright bass. Given the subtlety of the string instrument (with no breathing limitations), the rhythmic potential of the bass function was increased along with its melodic possibilities.
"At one time, the bass just provided a thump, thump, thump accompaniment," [bassist] Buster Williams observed. "Now the bass is a voice to be reckoned with, a voice that helps form the music" (from "Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation," by Paul F. Berlinger, 1994).
Parenthetically, in the classical music tradition, for special effects the string bass has occasionally been played pizzicato, picking or plucking the strings with fingers, but it's usually played arco, with a bow. However, the "slap" style of pizzicato bass playing was invented by New Orleans proto-jazz musicians in the first two decades of the twentieth century. It is said that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. Likewise, many bass players of that era claim paternity for "slapping."
In an online article, "New Orleans String Bass Pioneers" (August 1, 2010), Daniel Meyer highlighted a plausible progenitor: "Bill Johnson [1872-1972] claimed to have invented slap style while playing a job up in Shreveport [in 1910], when his bow broke and he was temporarily unable to get a replacement." This account rings true because it's well known that necessity is the mother of invention.
And one thing led to another. Superficially, contrasting the acoustic and the newer electric bass (the design qualities of a sailboat versus a spaceship) is like comparing those before and after pictures that cosmetics merchants use to sell their products. The shiny artificiality of "after" always looks better than the face "before" Botox.
However, the musical comparison is an illusion because the electric bass is not a glorified acoustic bass, but a different instrument entirely. According to electric bassist Monk (brother of guitar legend Wes) Montgomery, "When there's an upright bass in the band, you don't really hear it as much as you feel it...the instrument blends into the music, it isn't dominant" (from "The Bass Book," by Tony Bacon & Barry Moorhouse, 1995).
Like blending versus dominance, must hearing and feeling be mutually exclusive? Judging by his refined execution and animated demeanor, Kris bids us to do both, and not to dismiss the distinction between our various senses as fussy hair-splitting like a certain Don Juan wannabe who declared himself indifferent to looks because, he said, "I turn out the lights."
On "I Can't Get Started," a brooding ballad, Kris' quirky bass introduction set the mood for Allyn's orchestral piano chorus that explored the melody in varying formulations of notes, from densely packed exclamations to singular whispers, against a background of rhythmic exchanges between Kris' granite bass line and John's shifting drumbeats-- filling, accenting and punctuating the musical exploration-- before subsequently accelerating the pace when the melody of Benny Golson's "Killer Joe" was interpolated at a faster tempo. Indeed, it's fair to say that these two tunes became a medley.
Brent's alto sax soloed in flowing lines with a broad tone and passionate intensity, as if in hot pursuit of something elusive which, ultimately, he seemed to have found in the new melodic figure.
On a bass solo, Kris demonstrated the instrument's flexibility by plucking apart the melody in high-pitched tones while maintaining the rhythmic rudiments in low-end clusters of repeated notes. Here again, Kris struck a poised equilibrium, somewhere between the "too much" of, say, Stanley Clarke's electric bass guitar fireworks and the "too little" of the tuba's superseded grunts.
This show also featured a sit-in performance by Charles Funn, longtime music educator at Dunbar High School and Kris' dad, who gave a delightful vocal rendering of "Mumbles," trumpeter Clark Terry's novelty song mixture of scat and indecipherable "words." As an aural pantomime, it was a musical variation on comic Professor Irwin Cory's academic gibberish schtick.
For the record, Kris Funn is a thirty-something member of the jazz instructional staff at the downtown Peabody Conservatory of Music-- a real professor of musical knowledge. Presuming to grade the teacher, this group received generous applause from an attentive audience.