Monday, December 29, 2003

I caught up with saxophonist, flutist and vocalist Karl Denson on a mid-December morning, phoning him at his home in San Diego, where he was just finishing his tai chi exercises and was getting ready to fix breakfast for his kids. A gifted musician and composer, Denson has played straight-ahead and groove jazz with giants such as Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Andy Bey, Melvin Sparks, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis. He also helped pioneer the acid jazz movement of the 1990s, working with The Greyboy Allstars. However, mainstream audiences are most familiar with Denson's work as a sideman with Lenny Kravitz, with whom he recorded and toured during the height of his fame in the late '80s-early '90s. (That's his sax solo on "Let Love Rule.")

On his 2002 recording The Bridge, Denson and his current band, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, paid homage to great '70s soul music, recalling the tight horn arrangements and superb musicianship of artists such as Earth, Wind and Fire, Curtis Mayfield and the Brothers Johnson. Right now, Denson is back on the West Coast, preparing for a New Year's Eve reunion show with the Greyboy Allstars in San Francisco and looking forward to a tour that brings him to Fort Lauderdale's Culture Room on Jan. 5, and the ensuing Jam Cruise that leaves the following day. Featuring some of the genre's top bands, the Jam Cruise proved so popular that organizers added a second one, leaving Fort Lauderdale Jan. 10. For more on Denson, check out the Dec. 31 edition of City Link, also available at www.citylinkmagazine.com. Here, Denson discusses his jazz influences and describes his experiences working with some legendary artists.

BW: There seems to be a lot of anticipation for a live album from you guys.

KD: Yeah, we've been working on it for a while. We couldn't get it right the first time out, and now, we've got the tapes, and everything's recorded. Actually, I'm going in the studio today to start deciphering ... Kind of going through all the material, figuring out what's good and what's worth mixing.

BW: Some of your fans have commented that The Bridge best captured the live vibe of the band.

KD: Yeah, for sure. That's a definite. That was kind of the point. I spent about three years kinda dialing the band in, and getting the right musicians and the right situation, so finally, with The Bridge, we had the band that I wanted and it was a worthwhile thing to do.

It's really going great now. We've actually got one new member, the drummer, since The Bridge. [Zak Najor has returned to The Greyboy Allstars.] The drummer's name is John Staten. He's amazing, and he's a huge acquisition. ... [Bassist] Ron Johnson was a bartender at a club in San Jose, and he had a band. He was actually the first call I made for the Tiny Universe. But he was doing a play at the time up in Seattle. So, I trudged along without him for a couple of years and then he finally became available.

BW: It's funny, I just picked up a re-release of Archie Shepp's Attica Blues [from 1972], and it struck me how similar it sounded to what you're doing now.

KD: Me and [manager Erik Newson] were just talking about that record a couple of days ago! I listened to a lot of Archie Shepp as a kid, and I met him several years back when I was touring with my straight-ahead group in Europe. I did a couple of festivals with him.

BW: Music has become so compartmentalized now. It seems like there's not as much fluidity between genres as there was before, when someone like Shepp could release an album that crossed over from avant-garde jazz to funk and soul.

KD: You definitely have more rock 'n' roll/pop people listening to jazz and more jazz people listening to rock 'n' roll and pop. I think it's one of those fortunate events where the musicians are really steadily borrowing from each other and you get this kind of interplay. You have this whole kind of Grateful Dead playing with Branford Marsalis and Ornette Coleman, and that kind of spurred a little bit of a movement of kids starting to take these guys seriously. And for the jazz guys playing to those audiences, it made them take it a little bit more seriously, and it's kinda going back and forth in a really positive way right now.

BW: It seems like the jam-band genre is one of the few places where that kind of fluidity does exist.

KD: It's pretty amazing right now, because you have like the hardcore bluegrass movement in there, and those guys are rippers, and I think eventually you start listening to each other, and thinking outside of your own little box, and you start seeing, 'Wow, these guys actually play really great!'

One of my new favorite bands, even though I've been hearing them for quite a few years, is Béla Fleck. It was one of those things where I heard them and I thought they were great, but I never really listened to them, because they're so different from my interests. And then over time, I started playing with them more and more and went, 'Wow, these guys rip!'

BW: Is your background in straight-ahead jazz?

KD: My early listening was kind of a cross between the late John Coltrane stuff and the Eddie Harris/Yusef Lateef kind of groove jazz. I didn't get into pure bebop until about midway through college. But I started listening to that other stuff as a little kid, and it totally got me.

Blue Note was definitely the label that kept things alive. The Blue Note/Prestige/Atlantic connection, for me, was where it was at.

BW: So, it must have been a thrill when you got to work with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. How did that all come about?

KD: [German-based Minor Music label chief Stephan Meyner] said, 'I'm thinking about doing a trio record. Who would you want for your rhythm section?' So, I was like, 'Well, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette.' And he actually made it happen. We sent them the first two records and they liked them and they agreed to do it. It was pretty amazing.

BW: Were you intimidated at all?

KD: [pause] Yeah. My analogy of that is it's kinda like fighting Godzilla with a broom handle. I really wish to God that I had the foresight to multitrack that record [Chunky Pecan Pie]. Because we did it all live. I basically wrote the record for those guys and I had never played the material. So I went in the studio and learned the material with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. They're a little faster than I am. [chuckles] They actually learned my material faster than I could.

It kind of had that live vibe of old Blue Note records. Very traditional in a way, but I wrote some funky grooves so that I could hear Jack bash.

Dave Holland ... he's my favorite guy right now, as far as making new records. The writing is better than everybody's, I think. And it's so nice to have real melodies. You're not just writing the melodies to get to the solos.

BW: You also toured and recorded with labelmate and former James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley. How did that all come about?

KD: I actually met Fred back in like 1987-88. A friend called me from L.A. and told me they were auditioning for Coke commercials. They were using musicians, so I went down. And they paired us up with different cats, and I ended up getting paired up with Fred Wesley. We put together a little groove and a little dance, and we kind of auditioned for the Coke commercial together. And I didn't see him for another 5-6 years and then I ended up on his record, and playing in his band. I was totally honored. He did remember me, but you know, he was just trying to get a gig. Those guys are old school. They were just working. They were grown men and I was just a kid trying to get a job. These were grown men who had already been through it and they were just trying to get a little extra money.

BW: Was there any pressure on you to continue making straight-ahead jazz records, as opposed to veering off into other directions?

KD: No, not at all. I went to New York back in the '80s and I got to see George Coleman, Art Blakey and Gil Evans, hung out and saw all this great music for a week. And George Coleman was totally ripping it up, and I remember thinking, 'This is their music. The whole idea of playing standards, this was their music. It's not my music. Even though I love the music, it's not my music, so I have to create my own music.' So that kind of freed me up from worrying about what I'm supposed to do. It's more about what you're led to do.

BW: And you certainly created music of your time with Dance Lesson No. 2, which incorporated DJ Logic's turntables into your groove jazz.

KD: I think it turned out well. It was definitely an experiment.

BW: Did Blue Note encourage you to use a turntable artist?

KD: I brought the record to Blue Note; it was done without the label in mind. They really liked 'The Rumpwinder,' you know, which was [an homage to] Lee Morgan's 'Sidewinder,' and that being a Blue note thing, they were totally stoked. But that record was like, 'We need to put something out. Let's go in the studio and record.' I called those guys because they're all great and I knew they could work fast.

BW: Was that the first time you played with bassist Chris Wood?

KD: Yeah. He's the new Dave Holland. Him as a musician, man ... it was insane. Like that 'Shorter Path.' I was playing that melody, I had that melody written out and it's a really hard melody, a lot of time-signature changes, just weird stuff, and he sat there and just read it. We've since then done a duo record called Peasant Chicken, and I don't know when that will be released. We recorded it about a year and a half ago.

BW: Obviously, 'Shorter Path' was a shout-out to Wayne Shorter. Was he a big influence?

KD: That guy, he's the king for me. We got to do some shows with him a couple of summers ago in Japan. That's really my hero right there, as far as what I eventually would like to leave [behind], writing wise. And as far as the whole transformation. If you look at Wayne Shorter's history, it's kind of like Miles, but -- no disrespect to Miles -- but it's actually a little richer in that he did all the writing. Every situation he was in, he was the main writer. You had Art Blakey before Miles, he did most of the writing in that band, and then with Miles, and then his own stuff. And he started that whole Brazilian thing. There was that album from 1973-74, Native Dancer, and he introduced the world to Milton Nascimiento. And then the Weather Report thing ... . The guy is The Chameleon. He's my very favorite artist of all time, if I had to pick one person. Having that kind of consistency. To be popular is one thing, but to cross over the timeline is another thing. To able to never get stale.

BW: Do you think jazz that incorporates the sounds of its time, say turntables or hip-hop, or even some '70s and '80s fusion, becomes dated quickly?

KD: That kind of cracks me up because sometimes I'll go to play something for a friend that's really close to my heart, and it's really kind of laughable, when you take a record that is totally classic and it sounds a little dated. I think that's more ... that's electronics. When you're dealing with a record that's acoustic piano, acoustic bass, acoustic drums, you have that timeless quality automatically. It's electronics -- there's obviously a problem of listening to that forever.

BW: So, you're currently mixing a live album. What's next?

KD: The next studio album is going to be very much pop-formatted. My next goal is to see if we can actually get some radio play. So, we're kinda cutting the songs down; we're gonna make it more of a vocal record. People get confused really easy in the record industry. You send them a record with vocal and instrumental tunes, they get all confused. We're gonna break with tradition and go with a straight vocal record.

Coming soon: The Best Concerts of 2003, part II

Housekeeping: Feel free to give me a shout at bobweinberg@mac.com if you have any questions or comments about anything you read here. Also, you can now access this blog at www.bobweinberg.com. Have a happy, healthy and peaceful new year.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Best concerts of 2003, part I

1. Pat Metheny, Oct. 25, Dreyfoos Hall, Kravis Center, West Palm Beach. Competing with game six of the World Series -- you know, the one in which the Marlins clinched -- Metheny drew an avid if somewhat slight crowd. The one-time South Floridian rewarded loyal listeners with a two-and-half hour tour-de-force. For the first half hour or so, Metheny went it alone, playing with great warmth and dexterity selections from his vast discography. Highlights included a beautiful version of "Minuano," and several tunes from his intimate new acoustic recording, One Quiet Night, such as his sweeping "For the Boys" and a lyrical and melancholy take on the Norah Jones hit "Don't Know Why." Switching among a variety of guitars, Metheny also hefted the 42-string Pikasso, on which he produced a stunning array of sounds and rhythms. Joined by bass phenom Christian McBride, who evinced a beautiful tone on upright, and the very exciting and coloristic drummer Antonio Sanchez, the guitarist plugged in and again delved into material old and new -- one so recent that it had yet to be titled. The threesome's chemistry was nothing short of magical, and took some of the sting out of missing the Marlins' well-earned victory.

2. John Hiatt and the Goners, Oct. 16, Pompano Beach Amphitheatre. The Robert Cray Band opened the show with a somewhat workman-like performance, the frontman singing and playing beautifully but somehow failing to strike too many sparks, as he pretty much stood in one spot and just worked and worked his instrument. Then it was Hiatt's turn. The gasoline-voiced singer-songwriter was champing at the bit as he strode centerstage, strapped on his acoustic guitar and started playing before his bandmates even had a chance to put down their backstage buffet plates. The song was the rollicking "Lincoln Town," from Hiatt's excellent Crossing Muddy Waters album, which started out with just Hiatt strumming and singing and then built in intensity as the band pitched in for a raucous jugband stomp-down. The singer pulled out lots of favorites from his deep catalog, rocking out on tunes such as "Tennessee Plates" and "Memphis in the Meantime," and doing a damn near perfect rendition of "Feels Like Rain," which it kinda did. Slide-guitar virtuouso Sonny Landreth was simply spectacular -- you could see how much Hiatt enjoyed playing with him -- as was the veteran Goners rhythm section of bassist Dave Ranson and drummer Kenneth Blevins. The band also performed cuts from its exceptional recent albums, including an archly satisfying "Almost Fed Up With the Blues," from the new Beneath This Gruff Exterior. Hiatt returned to the stage and performed one of his best tunes, "Have a Little Faith in Me," alone on piano and in which he invested so much conviction, you'd think he'd just written it. Hiatt and the Goners, who've been playing together off and on for 20 years, shoot a big middle finger at the youth-worshipping entertainment industry by rocking harder and better than just about anyone.

3. Marshall Crenshaw, Sept. 11, Bamboo Room, Lake Worth. Crenshaw's latest album, the lovely and melancholy What's in the Bag? was certainly influenced by 9/11, so it was fitting that he play an intimate solo show at the Bamboo Room on the second anniversary of the event (which also happens to be Bamboo Room owner Russell Hibbard's birthday). Attired in his trademark short-brimmed hat, specs and 1950s-style two-tone shirt, the singer-songwriter played heartfelt versions of "Where Home Used To Be" and "A Few Thousand Days Ago," tunes not overtly about 9/11, but absolutely colored by the longtime New Yorker's perceptions and emotional reactions to that day. Of course, Crenshaw is also an incurable, heart-on-his-sleeve romantic, which was evidenced in the beautiful new tune, "Alone in a Room" and "The Spell Is Broken." Dipping into his songbook, Crenshaw revisited tunes such as "Bad Luck," "You're My Favorite Waste of Time," "Cynical Girl" and, of course, "Someday, Someway." The ultimate pop craftsman? Oh yeah.

Coming soon: Best Concerts of 2003, part II, plus a Q&A with funky saxman Karl Denson.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

As promised, the Year's Best Roots Recordings, Part II (scroll down a couple of posts for Part I):

6. What's in the Bag? by Marshall Crenshaw (Razor and Tie). The supremely gifted pop craftsman reflects on life post-9/11 with a set of highly hummable, melancholy melodies. While not overtly about the World Trade Center attacks, "Where Home Used To Be" and "A Few Thousand Days Ago" raise the spectre of immutable change with imagery that's hard not to associate with the aftermath of that horrible event. In a voice that's almost ageless, Crenshaw also sings poignant and catchy grownup love songs such as "Long and Complicated" and "Alone in a Room," the hooks of which will embed themselves deep in your gray matter. Textures from steel guitar (yup, Greg Leisz once again) to mellotron to vibraphone echo the layered popcraft of masters such as Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach, maybe with a little post-Sweethearts of the Rodeo Roger McGuinn, as well.

7. Delbert McClinton Live (New West). This is Delbert the way he was meant to be heard: on-stage in front of a hard-driving band with a couple of horns. Over the course of two discs, the Texas honky-tonker gleefully rips into throaty renditions of songs old and new, dipping into the songbook of frequent collaborator Gary Nicholson for fingerpoppers such as "Old Weakness (Comin' On Strong)" and "Leap of Faith," which sound like they could be vintage Stax sides. Of course, there are also plenty of McClinton's original redneck blues, and it just wouldn't be a document of his live show without classics such as "Giving It Up for Your Love," "B-Movie Boxcar Blues" and the Otis Redding tune he still knocks out of the park each time, "I've Got Dreams To Remember." McClinton's in excellent form, and it's hard to imagine a better backing band.

8. Rock 'n' Roll City by Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater (Bullesye). It's wonderful to see an underappreciated Chicago legend like Clearwater receive a Grammy nod for Blues Album of the Year, but as the title indicates, this is a rock 'n' roll joint. Backed by surfabilly experts Los Straitjackets, Clearwater revels in his rock and R&B roots, opening with a couple of jukebox jumpers in "You're Humbuggin' Me" and "Ding Dong Daddy." He tips his hat (or headdress) to Chuck Berry with his own "Hillbilly Blues" and Fats Domino with a raveup of "Let the Four Winds Blow," and in case you didn't get it yet, he tells you straightup "I'm an old time rocker" on the self-penned song of the same name. But best of all is the countrified "Back Down to Earth," which contains the line "I'm sittin' on a hollow stump/Out here in a Mississippi swamp." And yes, there are some fine blues tunes here, as well, such as Straitjacket Eddy Angel's homage to The Chief's West Side sound on "Lonesome Town," and a great slowdance tune in "Before This Song Is Over."

9. Thickfreakness by The Black Keys (Fat Possum). Is it blues? Is it hard rock? Who cares? Guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney get pretty damn close to the grungy Hill Country majesty of Junior Kimbrough, whom they cover here on "Everywhere I Go," as they churn a dense, backwoods din. Auerbach possesses a powerful, misanthropic growl that's amen'd by his acidic guitar, and Carney's drums are just plain scary. Better -- and less contrived, to my ear -- than the North Mississippi Allstars.

10. One Quiet Night by Pat Metheny (Warner Bros.). Hushed and intimate, this CD delivers exactly what its title promises: It's just Metheny and his acoustic guitar laying down tracks in the studio as if the rest of the world didn't even exist. The jazz great indulges his love of melody as he plays mostly original compositions on a sonorous baritone guitar in a low Nashville tuning. Standouts include the uplifting "Song for the Boys" and the chiming "Over on Fourth Street," as well as the jewel-like and introspective "I Will Find a Way." His covers of the Norah Jones pop tune "Don't Know Why" and the old Gerry and the Pacemakers hit "Ferry Cross the Mersey" add depth and dimension. This is simply a beautiful record for anyone who loves acoustic music and delicious melody.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

With the energy and endurance of a man half his age, John Hammond conducted a typically masterful two-hour tour of classic blues Friday night at Lake Worth's Bamboo Room. Trading among an acoustic, a vintage National steel and a shiny new tri-cone, and sucking on a racked harmonica like a wino drawing the last drop from a bottle, Hammond revisited blues from the Delta and the Piedmont, as well as Chicago, displaying not just technical expertise but a deep emotional connection to the music. He also regaled the near-capacity crowd with tales of the bluesmen he encountered in his 40-plus-year career, including Big Joe Williams, Howlin' Wolf and Billy Boy Arnold.

One of the greatest (not to mention earliest) white interpreters of Robert Johnson, Hammond performed stellar renditions of "Come on in My Kitchen," "Kindhearted Woman" and "Hellhound on My Trail," which can be found on a new compilation from the Vanguard label, which released Hammond's recordings for years. The veteran bluesman also delivered a raucous "Get Behind the Mule" and a wistful "Fannin Street," the only tunes he included from last year's excellent Wicked Grin album, on which he interpreted songs by Tom Waits. He also featured a couple of numbers from this year's Ready for Love: a sly and lively romp through the Rolling Stones' "Spider and the Fly" and his own "Slick Crown Vic," which, surprisingly, is Hammond's first original tune and a damned fine one at that.

Still, this was no advertisement for new product, and Hammond dug deep on longtime favorites such as the slow-burning "My Time After a While" (which got laughs and whoops at lines such as "I got a look through my window, and guess what I seen/My baby sat with another man in a long black limousine") and a stunningly beautiful turn on Blind Willie McTell's "Love Changin' Blues," from his great Trouble No More recording. Simply put, Hammond's among the most-affecting acoustic blues players alive, and an opportunity to see him now, at the height of his abilities, should not be missed.

An exceptional guitarist and songwriter, Mem Shannon turned Alligator Alley into "Funkville" Saturday night, as the former N'awlins cabbie and his four-piece Membership grooved hard on mostly original tunes. Noted for his clever songwriting and distinctive nasal vocal delivery, Shannon is often overlooked as a simmering and supple guitarist who lays down grooves you could set your watch to and solos with liquid-fire fluidity, full of jazzy chords and bluesy sting.

Funk was the main dish on the menu, as Shannon sang about the life of the traveling musician with the wry "Paying My Dues," which actually contains a story about driving all night to make a gig only to find the place had closed down when he got there, and the infectious "SUV," which bemoans the lane-hogging, air-clogging behemoths and the "SOB's" who drive them.

I'm not sure why Shannon doesn't draw better in South Florida. I've seen him three times at Alligator Alley (once in its former location out west), and I'll never understand why local blues, funk and New Orleans music fans don't come out for his shows. The guy is excellent and certainly deserves to be playing to packed houses, even outside the Big Easy.

Still coming soon: The Best Roots Recordings of the Year, Part II.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

OK, so I've counted up the year's best jazz recordings (scroll down a couple of posts) and the year's best blues recordings (in my Dec. 3 column for City Link magazine; my deepest thanks to everybody who wrote in and expressed their dismay with the column's cancellation). And every year that I've engaged in this exercise, there are always more than a few notable albums that fall through the cracks, often because they're not strictly jazz or blues. Now, thanks to the wonder of blogging, I can devote some space to what I like to call "The Year's Best Roots Recordings, Part I."

1. Train Home by Chris Smither (HighTone).
Careworn, whiskeyed vocals? Check. Deft acoustic fingerpicking? Check. Deeply philosophical lyrics set to gorgeous melodies? Check. Not only does Train Home feature some of Smither's finest writing ("If love is the meal for the hunger you feel/Call for the waiter/We're all gonna feed on whatever we need/Sooner or later"), but also contains thoughtful covers of Dylan's "Desolation Row" (with Bonnie Raitt singing harmony), Dave Carter's "Crocodile Man" and Mississippi John Hurt's "Candy Man." Deep, but fun.

2. Beneath This Gruff Exterior by John Hiatt and the Goners (New West).
Hiatt's gift has always been his ability to show the tender, beating heart beneath his crusty rock 'n' roll bravado, which he does with plenty of humor. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have his longtime backup band providing the crunch, especially the fanged leads of guitarist Sonny Landreth. Hiatt's songs resound with the ring of truth, from the impossibility of shedding emotional baggage ("The Nagging Dark") to the simple joy of walking your dog ("My Dog and Me"). Tunes are catchy and the lyrics reflect a positive worldview, no matter how the curmudgeonly Hiatt might try to disguise it.

3. Soul Journey by Gillian Welch (Acony).
I can't help it; I hear Welch's voice, and my heart just aches, pining for that girl in the sundress lying in a field of wildflowers. But that's my problem. Although Welch's voice still contains that lonely mountain glade quality, she's somewhat more upbeat here than on previous outings, having some fun in front of a rootsy band including longtime cohort David Rawlings on guitar and harmonies, Greg Leisz on Dobro and Ketcham Secor on fiddle. In addition to just-plain gorgeous renditions of traditional tunes such as "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor" and "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father," Soul Journey also contains Welch's first stab at solo writing (sans Rawlings) with the very beautiful "One Little Song." And for those of us still picturing the girl lying in the flowers, be sure to cue up the sigh-inducing "I Made a Lovers Prayer." Sigh.

4. Slingshot Professionals by Kelly Joe Phelps (Ryko).
This was not my favorite Phelps' recording (that would be 1999's Shine Eyed Mr. Zen), but intriguing nonetheless. An oblique and imagistic songwriter with a passionately raspy voice, Phelps has been expanding his songcraft, lyrically and tonally, from his early days as a canny acoustic blues interpreter. He continues to borrow from blues and folk traditions, but like Dylan, refuses to see them as stylistic straitjackets, whether he's imaging a mythic past as on "Not So Far to Go" ("The littles can't decide which to lust for, which to desecrate/Imagination sits with the marbles in a drawer") or sketching a decidedly modern tableau as on "Cardboard Box of Batteries" ("I've a cardboard box of batteries hidden in a tire swing/A miners hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings"); both somehow manage to transcend chronology. Rootsy backing includes Steve Dawson on Weissenborn guitar, Chris Gestrin on piano, organ and accordion and Jesse Zubot on violin and mandolin, as well as the exceptional drums and percussion of Scott Amendola and the distinctive guitar of Bill Frisell on a couple of tunes.

5. The Intercontinentals by Bill Frisell (Nonesuch).
And speaking of Mr. Frisell, this guy continues to astound. Traveling abroad from his recent incursions into Americana, the guitarist enlists a truly interncontinental crew to back him on one of his best recordings of recent years. Varying textures and colors weave a sensuous tapestry, from Christos Govetas' oud and bouzouki to Greg Leisz's lap and pedal steel to Jenny Scheinman's violin to Sidiki Camara's exotic percussion and Vinicius Cantuaria's lively drums and vocals. Melodies are evocative and beautiful, and Frisell's playing is as dexterous and full of wonder as ever.

Coming soon: The Year's Best Roots Recordings, Part II.
Welcome back, blogger

Sorry for the long layoff, jazz and blues lovers. Over the past six months since my last entry, I have been freelancing for the Sun-Sentinel and Jazziz magazine, in addition to working my day job at City Link magazine. But now it's season again in South Florida, and there's much to report. The past couple of months have brought some excellent shows to the area.

DAVE LIEBMAN. Ever-creative saxophonist Dave Liebman stopped in for a pickup gig at Alligator Alley, having come down from his home in the Poconos to conduct a clinic on free jazz at FAU with Coral Springs-based drummer Abbey Rader. Blowing tenor for the first set, Liebman was accompanied by a sterling quartet of South Florida musicians including pianist Silvano Monasterios, bassist Leo Brooks and drummer Jimmy Strassman, an old New York bandmate now living in Boca. Although the set comprised standards, Lieb's playing, as always, was fresh and full of fire.

The saxophonist switched to soprano, the instrument upon which he's considered a master, during the second set, when his and Strassman's former bandmate -- and Van Morrison's current bandmate -- Pee Wee Ellis, sat in, offering a big, romantic tone on tenor. Lieb's take on "Green Dolphin Street" was particularly intriguing, as was a lengthy excursion through "All Blues." Strassman showed no evidence of rust, despite what he said was a 12-year layoff.

PATRICIA BARBER. What an unexpected treat Patricia Barber provided! I had heard a couple of her recent albums and was less than enthusiastic about the singer and pianist, who's been garnering rave reviews from many listners and critics whose opinions I trust. So, not knowing what I was in for, I attended the show a couple of weeks ago at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts' Amaturo Theater.

Sponsored by the Gold Coast Jazz Society and wedged in between a tribute concert to Tommy Dorsey and Fats Waller and the upcoming Nov. 10 Duffy Jackson Big Band show, I'd venture that many of the attendees were equally surprised, if not as delighted as I was. The elderly couple next to me offered this priceless commentary. She: "Why does she have to make those faces?" He: "I think she's on something." They didn't return after the intermission, and I missed them terribly.

An extremely unpretentious performer, Barber did look a bit disheveled as she sat down at the piano and proceded to kick off her sandals. She bent her head low to the keys, and her face reflected an artist deeply immersed in her music. With her mouth agape, her fingers flourishing and fluttering in the air as she sang -- involuntarily I imagine; I can just picture her piano instructors over the years saying, "Patricia, darling, please, that's sooo unflattering" and indeed, at times, she even clutched her hands behind her back, as if yielding to censorious pedagogues -- she appeared almost savantlike. I couldn't take my eyes off her.

Oh, yes, there was a band, too, the same one that appears on her most recent recording, Patricia Barber Live, a Fortnight in France. Particularly memorable was guitarist Neal Alger, who provided everything from angular Bill Frisell-like lines on electric to airy, Pat Metheny-inspired acoustic strum.

Barber sang many of the tunes from the new recording, including the lovely "Dansons la Gigue!" with lyrics adopted from a text by Verlaine, and her own pointed songs of romantic disappointment such as the quite bitter "Gotcha" and the staccato "Pieces." A slow and nearly obsessive version of "Laura" was riveting, sung in a Dietrich-like whisper contralto, and a rendition of "Norwegian Wood" simply fascinated, almost unrecognizable by all but the lyric and wringing new emotional resonance from the old Beatles fave.

CHRIS SMITHER. Singer-songwriter Chris Smither returned to the Bamboo Room two weekends ago, performing typically wry and emotionally absorbing tunes on his signature blue Ibanez acoustic. Smither turns a phrase like a fry cook flips flapjacks, and the results are equally satisfying. The whiskey-voiced songster performed several tunes from his wonderful 2003 recording Train Home, including the haunting and metaphysical title track, the whimsical "Lola" and "Never Needed It More" and the crowd-pleasing "Confirmation" with sure-to-get-a-laugh-and-a-whoop lines like "Cuz I don't pick no cotton, I never pick my nose, I couldn't pick a pocket in a dirty pile of clothes." An encore of the sigh-inducingly beautiful J.J. Cale chestnut "Magnolia" provided an elegant coda to the evening, as Smither's voice trailed off with the final "You're the best I ever had." The guy draws increasingly larger audiences to his shows and gives me hope for South Florida yet.

CHICAGO BLUES ON HARRISON. Finally, last Saturday, despite a near-constant drizzle, the Chicago Blues on Harrison Street party drew blues loyalists to the far end of the renovated block in downtown Hollywood. Sushi Blues and Blue Monk Lounge owner Kenny Millions played host, as audiences jammed the club early on to hear funky blues legacy Chris Beard, whose band was joined by Millions on saxophone. Next up, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater and his fine Chicago band (including former South Floridian Heather Tackett on bass) kept audiences dancing in the street as the rain fell steadily. Attired in his usual glittering stage outfit and cowboy hat, his colorful Indian headdress on prominent display behind him, Clearwater proved again his old-school credentials, as he played everything from Chuck Berry duckwalkers to the West Side Chicago blues of which he's a pioneer, and sang in a strong, clear vibrato. His versions of "Slow and Easy" and "Back Down to Earth," from the Grammy-nominated Rock 'n' Roll City with Los Straitjackets, were particular favorites.

Alvin Youngblood Hart never fails to surprise, and he did so again this evening. Fronting his power trio, Muscle Theory, the dreadlocked Oakland native performed a very heavy and electric set that crackled with energy. Although I was unfamiliar with much of the material, which I assume will be on Alvin's next recording, I did recognize a few selections from his Start With the Soul recording, including the understandably angry "Manos Arriba," about his run-in with the cops when he was just out walking his son in a stroller, and the hilarious "Cowboy Boots," which comes across almost like a punk country tune. He also ripped on a killer read of the Stones' classic "Sway."

No question Hart is sincere about what he's doing, although some blues fans might think his turn to rock is a commercial capitulation; however, he's been mostly moving in that direction with each successive recording. Still, it's interesting to note he was nominated for a Grammy for his wonderful all-acoustic solo album, Down in the Alley, on which he expertly performed traditional classics on acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin. Although I'd rather hear Alvin that way, he definitely offers a different kind of energy and rawness when he's plugged in.

COMING UP IN NOVEMBER: David Lindley; the return of the Riverwalk Blues Fest with headliners including Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Hot Tuna; the Hollywood Jazz Fest, featuring McCoy Tyner, Stanley Clarke and Bobby Hutcherson; and Spider John Koerner.

QUESTION? COMMENT? Send me an e-mail at bobweinberg@mac.com.

Monday, December 08, 2003

My pal Kenny e-mailed concert promoter Don Cohen regarding last night's Etta James show and learned that the singer was using a motorized wheelchair to get to and from the stage. This might explain why she remained seated throughout the show and didn't come back for an encore, as I noted in the review below.
A full moon, a nip in the air, a nip from the flask and Etta James and the Roots Band on-stage at Delray's Old School Square amphitheater: my kind of Sunday. The concert was somewhat low-key. James remained seated throughout, but was in fine voice as she revisited tunes from her lengthy discography. The Roots Band, including longtime guitarist Josh Sklair and a three-man horn section, provided journeyman backup. As always, James excelled on the ballads and her reads of Otis Redding's "One More Day" and her signature "At Last" transported listeners to jukebox slow-dance nirvana. Also true to form, at least the few times I've seen her, James did not return to the stage for an encore.

A blues legend from a generation before James, Alberta Adams delivered a knockout performance Friday night at Lake Worth's Bamboo Room. Resplendent in a red-spangled cocktail dress and rhinestone-studded shades, the 80-something singer was helped on-stage by her granddaugher, where she proceeded to charm the small audience with style and sass, even woofing and whipping her arms a la Arsenio. "Let me hear the ladies scream," she commanded, like the veteran entertainer she is. "All you dogs bark," she ordered the men. Who could resist?

Backed by drummer RJ Spangler's Rhythm Rockers, including South Florida's own Al Rude on bass -- Detroit boys all, these guys have known each other for decades -- Adams belted the blues in a voice that defied her chronological years. Standouts included her own "Remember Me" and Detroit pal Doug Deming's "Mr. Blues," both of which can be found on her excellent new recording I'm on the Move for the East Lawn label (www.eastlawn.com). She also killed with the Count Basie staple "I Left My Baby" which provided a taste of another era, when Adams sang with the bands of Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan and Cleanhead Vinson. Jazzy leads and fills from guitarist Paul Carey and some beautiful shuffle-drumming from Spangler provided the perfect backdrop. Adams is a real treasure; be sure to catch her next time she's in town.

Attendence at Saturday's City Link Music Festival in downtown Hollywood didn't seem to drop with the temperature, aided no doubt by the fact that no admission was charged this year. But it also leads me to believe that folks are hungry to hear good local music now that there are so few venues to play (original music, at least).

Some highlights: Way of the Groove, easing into the infectiously upbeat "John and Mary," from Jaco's classic Word of Mouth recording, and seamlessly seguing into Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance" -- these guys just get better and better; the Funkabilly Playboys warming the chilly outdoor street crowd with a dynamic read of the Charles-Brown-as-done-by-Otis-Redding season's greeting "Merry Christmas, Baby"; Miami blues vet Fleet Starbuck fingerpicking, blowing textured harp and keeping time with a miked board beneath his stomping foot as he sang his singular mix of Texas and Delta blues, including an intriguing version of Mance Lipscomb's "High Temperature" and a longtime staple of his set, the dark and folky "Shady Grove."

Alternative singer-songwriter Maria Marocka was transcendent as she delivered highly personal tunes on electric guitar, backed simply and sensitively by bass and drums, the latter played by Matt Sabatella, who also squeezed a tiny accordion. A great songwriter with a beautiful voice, Marocka seems poised for bigger things if anyone with a national label and a lick of sense hears her.

Coming soon: The year's best roots recordings and a few holiday suggestions for the blues and jazz lovers on your list.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Every year about this time, I frantically dig through all of the jazz and blues CDs I've purchased or received over the past 12 months and try to come up with a short list of the best ones. Some years it's easier than others; sometimes tough choices are required and additional listening is needed to make that final determination that places, say, Kurt Elling ahead of Chick Corea or James Blood Ulmer over John Hammond. I tallied up the best of the blues in my final column for City Link this week (check out www.citylinkmagazine.com), but sadly, had no room to include more than a listing of the best jazz titles.

Here, then, are brief descriptions of the 10 Best Jazz Albums of 2003:

1. New Conceptions by Chucho Valdés (Blue Note). Cuban pianist and
composer Valdés takes listeners on a breathtaking musical journey through rhythmically engrossing Latin and American jazz. Along the way, he nods to Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, and spices the mix with exotic percussion and Santería chant. Intoxicating.
2. The Bandwagon by Jason Moran (Blue Note). Daring young pianist Moran and his trio are captured at their inventive best, performing live at the Village Vanguard in New York. Elements of hip-hop and spoken word - including someone conversing in Turkish - are woven into the trio's dazzling improvisations. Sound levels are wildly uneven, requiring constant adjustment of the volume knob, but it's well worth your participation.
3. Man in the Air by Kurt Elling (Blue Note). The Chicago vocalist once
again proves to be among the most ambitious singers in the idiom today. Elling's exquisite taste is evident in selections by Pat Metheny and Bobby Watson, as is his seminary-honed intellect, which contributes to deeply spiritual lyrics he penned for John Coltrane's "Resolution" and Courtney Pine's "Higher Vibe."
4. Nightlife in Tokyo by Eric Alexander (Milestone). Tenor saxophonist
Alexander continues to follow in the giant steps of Coltrane and Sonny
Rollins, blowing brawny and brainy on excellent original compositions.
Frequent collaborator Harold Mabern sparkles on piano, and veterans Ron Carter and Joe Farnsworth provide plenty of excitement on bass and drums respectively.
5. Sublime: Honoring the Music of Hank Jones by Geoffrey Keezer (Telarc). Pianist Keezer engages in a series of gorgeous duets with Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Mulgrew Miller and Benny Green. These stylistically and generationally diverse artists come together to play the lyrical compositions of piano legend Hank Jones, for whom the word sublime was coined.
6. Cape Town Shuffle: Live at HotHouse by Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble (Delmark). Chicago saxophonist Dawkins and his brassy quintet borrow from their hometown's traditions of avant-garde jazz and broad-shouldered blues on this free-wheeling live set, which encompasses raucous, Mingus-like evocations of tent-revival meetings and Saturday-night jukes. Spoken-word artist Kahari B. free-styles a convincing argument about jazz's centrality in the black cultural continuum on "Jazz to Hip Hop," concluding that "It's ... not ... just ... music."
7. Ayaguna by Omar Sosa (Otá). Cuban-born pianist Sosa weds Santería and folkloric music with modern-jazz sensibilities (he percussively plucks the strings inside his instrument) and electonic manipulation in his mysterious yet upbeat compositions. For this live set, he's joined solely by the exciting and exceedingly simpatico percussion of Gustavo Ovalles.
8. Humidity by the Matt Wilson Quartet (Palmetto). Drummer-composer Wilson and an exceptional quartet evoke avant-gardists Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler on this very free-sounding session. Edgy saxophonist Jeff Lederer is a stand-out.
9. Live at the Village Vanguard by The Fred Hersch Trio (Palmetto). In
a live setting, accompanied by trio mates Drew Gress on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums, pianist Hersch allows his funky, propulsive side to shine through in a way not often heard on his hushed studio albums. However, quietly luminescent gems such as the Hersch-penned "At the Close of the Day" and "Endless Stars" play to this thoughtful artist's strengths.
10. Four Compostions (Gtm) 2000 by Anthony Braxton (Delmark). Braxton returns to Delmark after 30-plus years, and he's as thorny and cerebral as ever. Offering another helping of his "ghost trance music," the saxophonist and his quartet work out on a set of extremely angular tone poems that define the term organized chaos. Not for everyone.

Runners up: Rendezvous in New York by Chick Corea; All Alone by Jessica Williams; Land of Giants by McCoy Tyner; A New Life by Omar Sosa; Rosslyn by John Taylor; Still Evovled by Ted Nash; Word of Mouth Revisited by the Jaco Pastorius Big Band; Live at the Village Vanguard by Bruce Barth; Up for It by Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette; Universal Syncopations by Miroslav Vitous

Monday, December 01, 2003

Well, it's been a great run. For the past eight years, I've covered the South Florida jazz and blues scenes in a column for the Fort Lauderdale-based City Link magazine. Now, due to editorial changes -- the publishers are chasing that all-important youth market and have decided that said demographic has no interest in jazz and blues -- my column has been kicked to the curb. Although I'll still be writing for City Link, my last official column appears Dec. 3. (If you're in South Florida, be sure to pick up a copy; if not, check out www.citylinkmagazine.com. It's our annual Music Issue.)

Keep your eyes on this spot for reviews of all of the latest jazz and blues CDs (Jimmy Burns' fine new Delmark release Back to the Delta is playing on my stereo as I type this), as well as concert reviews, previews and commentary. I'll be including some holiday gift ideas for the jazz and blues lovers on your list, as well as tallying up the year's best CDs and concerts.

Jazz and blues are my passion, not just my beat, and I look forward to serving like-minded listeners, as I've been doing in print for the past 14 years. Hope you'll join me.

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