Concert review: Unlikey duet of masters Béla Fleck and Chick Corea brings the Touhill crowd to its feet, Saturday, March 23
The crowd filled the lobby of the Touhill Performing Arts Center in waves, pouring down the stairs in a cascade of diversity.
Easily spanning over seven decades of age disparity and donning attire ranging from flannel and tie-dye to evening dresses and three-piece suits, the eager patrons mingled their way through the sounds of the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars to take their place in the ever growing line at the concession stand. This came as little surprise as this unusual combination of musicians was bound to stir up fans from all walks of life.
Béla Fleck‘s career most closely reflects the variety of cultures in attendance that night as the innovative banjo player has garnered Grammy nominations in more categories than any other performer in the history of music, diving into the realms of country, jazz and pop. Perhaps best known for leading his band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, including the now celebrated bassist Victor Wooten, Fleck has generated an infectious love the of the banjo that continues to inspire young musicians and impress the masters.
Joining Fleck on stage was Chick Corea, one the aforementioned masters of the jazz world. Performing and recording with Miles Davis during his early career and leading a number of bands including the eminent fusion act Return to Forever, Corea has been active in the scene for over 50 years and has continually helped progress the roll of the piano in modern jazz. He has also become well accustomed to the fading duet format, recording and performing with contemporary Herbie Hancock and rising phenom Hiromi Uehara among other notables.
After a generous and excited introduction from Jazz St. Louis’ Gene Dobbs Bradford, the performers took the stage to an instant uproar from the near capacity crowd. Making a humorous spectacle out of the simple actions of sitting down and setting up the sheet music, the duet soon began with one of Corea’s compositions, “Señorita.” This choice set the tone for the night well, as it demonstrated many of the best aspects of the duet form including many call and responses, unified riffs and syncopated grooves. Fleck’s feet generally illustrated the mood of each segment, staying still when trying to support Corea’s lead parts, tapping one foot on his own leads and bouncing them both during the most natural jams.
The duet treated the crowd to two lengthy sets full of twists and surprises. Often the initial style of the song disappeared into a natural flow of form and design. The pair mixed the sounds of straight-forward jazz, blues, funk, bluegrass, folk and a little dabble of rock and country at times, taking the audience on a journey through the depths of music. They largely tackled their own compositions, but included the Stevie Wonder ballad “Overjoyed,” regarded by Wonder as a “new standard” in a conversation recollected by Corea. Throughout their sets, most songs ended with Corea standing quickly from his bench with the appearance of accomplishment; the duo received countless standing ovations throughout the night in response.
Humor made a constant appearance throughout the night as both performers were rather comfortable on the microphone between songs. They made jokes about the unintelligible song names the other came up with, and Fleck poked fun at a song titled “Waltz for Abby,” which was written for his wife, who he teased may be an axe murderer. There were even times when one musician would go off into such a frenzy of notes that the other would simply sit and stare, offering single notes and chords with a smirk and look of amazement in accompaniment. While not their first time appearing as a duet, the two performers seemed to have a chemistry built on mutual respect and the other’s reputation, both honored and amazed to share the stage together.
They closed the night with a two-song encore, adding a substantial treat to the night and demonstrating their chemistry vividly as they attacked even the speediest phrases in unison and sometimes finished each others’ riffs, sounding not like a duet but a single, four-handed creature. Perhaps a few Flecktones fans were taken back by the jazzier format of the night, but not a person left without a look of astonishment and admiration.
Concert review: Willie Akins and the Montez Coleman Group define the sound of St. Louis at Jazz at the Bistro, Saturday, February 23
The “late” set at Jazz at the Bistro starts at 9:30 p.m., about the time other jazz clubs are getting ready to open.
The Bistro does call itself a listening room — not a club — a place where besides a few aspiring players and Webster jazz students, the listeners are what the jazz demographic has become over the years: people interested in what they call culture, dressed on the conservative side, listening quietly, one glass of red deep, and sometimes a little tired.
And there’s Willie Akins, one of the greatest active tenor players of his generation, sitting wide and stately in a small chair onstage, his eyes deep and distant. He and the band surrounding him represent all that is real and good in St. Louis jazz — no-bullshit, solid stuff, rooted in the blues.
It’s a multi-generational and undeniably great band made up of elite, St. louis-grown (though not all-born) players: co-leader and drummer Montez Coleman, bassist Bob DeBoo (who you can see every Friday night playing at Mangia with the Dave Stone Trio), vibraphonist Peter Schlamb, and guitarist Eric Slaughter. With Akins blowing the sole horn in the group, the sound is spaced-out and dynamic, not so different from the musical effect of a trio.
This spacing also allowed each member ample room to open up and find the grooves in their solos. They started with a busy Victor Feldman tune (didn’t catch the name) that Schlamb carried with his brainy, more-is-more approach to the vibes — angular showers of notes punctuated by weird rests and sudden chordal counter-melodies. The crowd got into it.
Next, the group shifted fluidly into a funky Yusef Lateef tune called “Nubian Lady.” Coleman settled way deep in the backbeat, sometimes stretching the straightforward 4/4 groove to its extreme limits and driving it home with lightning handwork. Here, it became clear that the rhythmic chops of Coleman and DeBoo were at least as important to each tune as Akins’ solid swing. Slaughter, who’s made a name for himself playing with Bobby Womack and the O’Jays as much as in jazz, complemented this and every tune of the night was his jabby rhythmic riffwork.
On Errol Garner’s ballad, “Dreaming Over You,” Mr. Akins found his best solo of the night. Akins seems to favor the roominess of more straightforward compositions for soloing, which allow his dry, bluesy tone to resonate, his strong harmonic ideas to take shape even over Schlamb’s sometimes meandering vibes-accompaniment. I could finally confirm the critics’ comparisons of Akins to Coltrane in that he is a comfortable master-balladeer. Coleman and Schlamb put down there sticks, allowing DeBoo’s tender, tune-closing solo to hang soulful over the room.
During the last few tunes, Montez Coleman invited various buddies onstage to sit in, including an incredible, ambidextrous, 15-year-old drummer named Christian McGhee. What the set lost in momentum, it gained in making the room more friendly and loose.
All the players, foremost Mr. Akins, are humble men and great teachers, perhaps the two most valuable and respected aspects of great jazzmen: the elite who welcome everyone onstage, no room for stuffiness.
Concert review: A packed Sheldon Concert Hall gets carried away by Bucky Pizzarelli and Denise Thimes, Friday, February 15
At 87 years young, Bucky Pizzarelli, along with St. Louis’ Denise Thimes, ad-libbed his way through two hours of infectious swing and a five-minute standing ovation before relinquishing the stage back to the Sheldon.
Bucky, his white-shirt distinguishing him as leader on the night from the all-black ensembles of the quintet, has been a major figure in the music industry for his entire adult life. Mr. Pizzarelli, after starting professionally at 17 and working his way onto “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, found himself regularly touring with Benny Goodman. He even shares the distinction of being invited to perform at the White House — twice for Reagan and once for Bill Clinton.
Having performed for George W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth II herself, Denise Thimes proved a flawless accomplice for this “Be My Valentine” bill. Consistently compared to the legends such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, the singer also cites her father, St. Louis radio personality and BBQ restaurateur Lou “Fatha” Thimes, among her biggest influences.
Playing his signature guitar, the Benedetto Bucky Pizzarelli Signature seven-string, the musician set another high mark for the intimate Sheldon Concert Hall. It was jazz in the purest, with simple nods instigating solos and solos finding entire new directions for each timeless composition. Damrius Hicks, the trio’s standout drummer, took the plunge first before making his case for star status the rest of the night. Relentless, it felt as if his sheer exuberance would swallow the stage whole at any moment; he pushed his playing further and further, as if his parents were coming out to the garage to shut him down for the night.
The night’s muse also made her presence known rather immediately. Wordless, Denise prompted three rounds of boisterous applause for the band during her walk to the microphone. Speaking on behalf of the musicians, Denise put it simply, “Proud to be St. Louisans, nothing better than the Sheldon.” Making the impossible possible, Denise embodied yet another legend, Nina Simone, for the highlight of the night, “I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl.” With the band taking a second to indulge in our adulation at the end, the smartest woman in the crowd loudly requested a repeat. Indulging the fans, the set on stage hit a more raucous reprise.
However, it was Bucky whose lighthearted fingerprints were all over the show. From making his bandmates repeatedly laugh at the utter audacity of his improvisations, to the child-like joy that washed over his face in response to the crowd, it was clear there wasn’t a place he’d rather be. He even cupped his hands and yelled to preempt the cover of “Sing Sing Sing” with a little tongue-in-cheek, “The next one you all know, so sing along.”
Showcasing the theme of the night, the group took the classic well off the beaten path, earning one of many thoroughly merited, full-house standing ovations.
Concert review and set list: Dave Holland captains a captivating quintet at Jazz at the Bistro, Wednesday, January 30
Despite a half-empty room, the chatter filled Jazz at the Bistro with an energy thick enough to feel as patrons moved slowly to their seats.
Those that had stayed from the first set made proclamations and promises of transcendental experiences to each new face that entered the room. It was obvious that an authentic legend and master was in the building. Dave Holland would soon prove his reputation as both a musician and band leader by directing this quintessential quintet.
Holland emerged to the world of jazz in no subtle manner as he was a stable member of Miles Davis’ band for the span of five years and nine albums including the eminent “Bitches Brew.” He’s performed and recorded with many of the other great names in jazz throughout his career and began to lead his own bands when he was just 25. Now, with over 40 years of experience in his role, Holland leads a truly superior quintet that has settled down in St. Louis for a four-night stay.
Even before the music started, the presence of a vibraphone and marimba at the side of the stage suggested an escape from a standard arrangement. Steve Nelson, a band leader and composer himself, manned these giant, chromatic percussion instruments with athleticism. While he featured the vibraphone, he would seamlessly turn 180 degrees for a quick, single bar riff on the marimba before turning back, and often shuffled his feet to reach the highest and lowest bars. His solo during “Cosmosis” featured fluid streams of cascading riffs as he bounced with the rhythms, but it was his dexterity with the mallets that truly stood out as magnificent, seemingly able to hit four octaves simultaneously to create vibrantly dynamic chords.
As the set continued, Robin Eubanks stood out among the quintet, often taking the lead melodies and the widest selection of solos. They were all well merited as he handled his trombone with both finesse and agility, milking the slide for drawn out, slurred segments and even matching the speed of a drum-roll with a frenzy of tongue taps not often found in the bass register. He worked very well with Mark Turner on the saxophones, who stands in for Chris Potter on this tour. The two didn’t behave like a horn section, but rather played off each other and the band much like a piano duet. They would bounce riffs back and forth, and at times would seem to finish each others’ phrases and even improvise in syncopation.
The backline of the quintet was composed of Holland on his short bodied, double bass and Nate Smith on drums. Holland proves to be one of the more modest band leaders touring today. Showing his experience and wisdom, he rarely took a solo or assumed an attention grabbing style, but he was always playing something that fit the song beautifully while continually defying expectations. Smith filled a similar role, often locked on with other members of the band, accentuating the rhythms perfectly with well selected tones from the drumset and a high-energy style.
As a quintet, they meshed with a well established familiarity with each other and the song selections, which were largely cheerful in mood throughout the set. While Dave Holland may be the master, every bit of the show was a group effort. Every musician’s part was necessary to create the sound and the flow of each piece, which further demonstrated Holland’s prowess as a leader. He remains a treasure in the world of jazz and a role model to all who play a note.
Set list (including composer):
Looking Up (Eubanks)
The Sum of All Parts (Eubanks)
Go Fly a Kite (Nelson)
The Eyes Have It (Holland)
“January has officially arrived because the Bad Plus is in St. Louis,” remarked Jazz at the Bistro‘s Bob Bennett as he introduced the trio on this, their seventh annual stay at the prized listening room.
By the time the band finishes its current four-night stint, the Minnesota-based crew will have shared 56 different sets with their fans and supporters in our fair city, and we just can’t get enough. This year’s tour is packed with new material from the recent studio album “Made Possible,” as well as classic favorites and legendary covers, all in the Bad Plus’ unmatched avant-garde style.
Bassist Reid Anderson emceed the evening, seasoning the mood with barrage of wryly humorous, improvised anecdotes. Delivered with a friendly placidity that resembled the late Mr. Rogers, these stories and introductions stirred the audience (and his bandmates) into a slow-building chuckle each time he took the microphone. Most notably, they connected everyone in the room together into a single mood and mindset and seemed to mirror the design and even thought process of the music. It’s not only the sounds that turn a concert into an experience and there are few that demonstrate that with more proficiency than Reid Anderson.
While the spoken excursions were more than enjoyable, this was a jazz show after all, so the gentlemen played a little music while they were there. Their sets often include a handful of covers, but this time they elected to go almost entirely original, largely from the new album, but also reaching as far back to their 2003 release “These Are the Vistas” for the finale. Dave King started the evening on the drum set with a fast and fierce introduction to “Cheney Piñata,” but the song soon settled as Ethan Iverson joined with a cheerful, major-key part on the piano and Anderson evened out the rhythm on bass.
The early songs served as an introduction to their style and individual talents, just in case there were any first time attendees. Anderson may take the spotlight with a microphone in his hand, but while standing next to a bass, his style is far more about finesse and wisdom. With their regular voyages into the world of experimental sound and rhythm, his bass lines offer a backbone of stability for the band and audience alike. Often, it’s one beautifully selected note that diverges from the expected, but Anderson seems to know exactly what needs to be done and precisely when, and then even more precisely disregard that thought entirely for just that moment.
Ethan Iverson’s parts offer a similar touch. While many would expect the piano to be at the forefront of a trio with a bass and drum set, like Anderson, he proves to be quite cunning at balancing an established and relatively predictable groove with intense deviations and a peppering of piercing chords. His play was very peaceful and even resembled a ballad at times, while at other times, his fingers would scurry up and down the octaves in a flurry of bebop like riffs, even pulling him off the bench to crouch at the high end of the house piano. Regardless of his moments of intensity, his expression remains serene throughout the performance as if exhaling the music slowly after a deep breath.
However, anyone that’s seen a single performance of this trio knows that Dave King personifies the band’s sound above the others. Virtually a source of perpetual energy, the drummer plays as if every performance is a joyful out-of-body experience. King not only pulls from a bottomless pit rhythms and variations but expertly expands a simple drum kit’s sound with some truly creative methods. Often mid-song, he would constantly switch between brushes, mallets and both ends of the drum sticks, as well as striking a variety of points on the rims and sides of the drums and cymbals.
During “Sing for a Silver Dollar,” the entire trio experimented with various sounds as Iverson played the inside of the piano and Anderson brushed his palm up and down the strings of his bass. However, it’s King’s ingenuity that is without comparison as he forcefully scraped the blunt end of his drumsticks across his muted cymbals and even brought out a number of children’s toys. Most notably was the guest appearance of two E.T. walkie-talkies that used variations of feedback in conjunction with the acoustics of the floor tom to create the desired sound.
Perhaps it was at this moment that the musicians best defined who they are. They are the unparalleled, the avant-garde and the masterfully wise; they are the Bad Plus.
Joined by a well-crafted quartet, Gregory Porter has been dropping jaws around the world since his well-received debut album “Water” was released in 2010.
While the modern jazz scene is often dominated by the most finely educated musicians, Porter’s path included a football scholarship to San Diego State University. When a shoulder injury extinguished his hopes for a career in athletics, the world of music serendipitously received this soulful baritone, and after appearances at the world’s finest jazz havens, including the North Sea Jazz Festival and Jazz at Lincoln Center, the entire globe is quickly becoming aware of his rare vocal gift. On a seemingly perpetual tour since his 2012 album “Be Good,” Porter came to St. Louis for a delightful four-night stay at Jazz at the Bistro.
The quartet included the same line-up that recorded the recent album and did plenty to impress the crowd on their own. For the 9:30 p.m. set on Sunday, they took the stage without their vocalist to open up with an instrumental piece and set the tone for the evening. While there were no weak members of the group, Yosuke Sato seemed to lead the crew on his alto sax, delivering masterful solos on almost every song. The introductory piece showed off his speed and deep arsenal of licks in a quick, bebop style. But as the show progressed, he continued to amaze the crowd with demonstrations of finesse and a masterfully light touch. Beyond his pure skill and capabilities, Sato had a strong connection to the music, which spread throughout the crowd during his groovy and melodic-styled solo during a slightly up-tempo performance of “On My Way to Harlem.”
Also included in the cast were pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James and drummer Emanuel Harrold; each offered their own influence on the performance. Like Sato, Crawford was fairly active with solos and varied the style just as much, all accompanied by a bright, childlike facial expression. His solo during “1960 What?” brought an immediate uproar of applause as he reached inside the Bistro’s piano with his left hand while jamming out a broken chord rhythm with his right. Harrold also took a couple solos to shine, working from a simple drum set-up, but was highlighted by his selection of cymbals, manicured with drilled holes and electrical tape and all played with a very deliberate touch. James’ part on the bass was perhaps easy to overlook, but not at all insignificant. While he never soloed or had a lead part in any song, his bass lines gave each song a stable foundation that allowed the others to be more free. It was clear he loved plucking every note of his parts.
Wearing his iconic headwear and a smile that seemed wider than his face, Gregory Porter appeared to start singing before he even stepped up to the microphone. Towering above the crowds, he demonstrated a remarkable feel for using distance and direction to precisely create his desired tone and intensity, sometimes standing as far as four feet from the microphone as he did. Additionally, Porter wasn’t afraid to dabble with a few methods and styles that might be considered taboo to many of his vocalist peers, including emphasizing and holding selected consonant sounds and cracking his voice momentarily. This all contributed to the inimitable performance the Porter served the crowd.
While the show favored songs from the newer album including performances of “God Bless the Child,” “Imitation of Life,” “The Way You Want to Live” and a finale of the title track “Be Good,” in addition to “On My Way to Harlem,” the most notable performance of the night was unarguably “1960 What?,” from the album “Water.” After having a little bit of extra fun during the introduction, the band started the main verse with a little less tempo than the original, but the energy built quickly. It included a call and return segment that had the entire audience singing back to him, a rarity in this listening room. As the song developed into a hard groove jam, crowd members along the walls and in the back began to stand and dance, while the rest rocked back and forth in their chairs, filling the room with a symphony of snaps, claps and foot stomps in what became venue-wide jam session.
The show concluded with a couple more soulful and smooth songs to calm the sizzling crowd, leaving the audience in a state of blissful elation as Porter and the quartet descended the stage. Never retreating to the green room, the band took the time for a final meet and greet before their stay at the Bistro was finished. While a return seems more than likely, everyone is sure to remember the first time Gregory Porter came to Jazz at the Bistro.
Concert review: Romero Lubambo and Peter Martin bring Brazilian ballads and Louisiana licks to the Sheldon Concert Hall, Thursday, December 13
On a cold winter’s night, the soothing sounds of Brazilian finger-style guitar and festive New Orleans jazz warmed up St. Louis as Peter Martin returned to the Sheldon with friend Romero Lubambo for a memorable merger of two different yet soulful flavors of music.
Martin and Lubambo were welcomed to the Sheldon Concert Hall with a hearty round of applause as they took their places on the American bandstand. Before the music began, the two introduced themselves and led a natural conversation that allowed the audience to get to know the duo. The guitarist, originally hailing from Rio de Janeiro, and the St. Louis native pianist, who spent much of his 20s soaking in the culture in New Orleans, have been long performing together, learning each other’s styles and teaching each other much more. The two told stories and cracked jokes at each other’s expense in a display of genuine connection that only two close friends can have — their banter had the audience laughing out loud. That feeling of connection became even more apparent as they began speaking with their other voices.
The concert opened with a fierce Brazilian jazz number composed by Lubambo himself. The reflection from the stage light off his guitar danced around the wall as he swayed with the energy of the song, totally enveloped in the music. Rapid fire finger picks plucked seamlessly up and down the neck of the guitar accompanied by the powerful sounds from the Steinway & Sons piano as the two artists fed off each other’s creative energy, trading glances and joyous expressions. Their synchronicity and vitality received roars of applause after every improvisational solo by Lubambo, who nonchalantly and calmly scratched his nose between parts. It seemed the audience let out a collective sigh from the adrenaline rush after the song reached its climax — and the night was only beginning.
While Lubambo brought his bossanova style from his homeland, Martin shared his love for New Orleans style jazz. The electric guitar replaced the acoustic for some commanding jazz licks that marked the change of scenery from the warm beaches of Rio de Janeiro to the party cove that is Bourbon Street. Martin rose and fell in his seat with the notes as he rediscovered his days living in the Big Easy, with many members of the audience doing the same in their seats. Through the jovial melody, one could almost imagine a colorful parade marching through the streets with confetti in the air and smiles on faces, celebrating the universal and uniting sounds of music. Lubambo’s strings were able to keep up with Martin’s keys with ease in a sound that very much contrasted its Brazilian counterpart, but at the same time shared its vivacious vibe.
The alternation between styles continued through the night, with more natural conversation and the two teasing each other in between. The night was highlighted by a tranquil number entitled “Song for Kaya” — inspired by the news of the birth of Lubambo’s niece that left a woman in the audience softly weeping — which featured a brilliant moment of improv and spontaneity when Martin began strumming the piano strings with a guitar pick for a flamenco-style guitar piece. A touching rendition of “In Your Own Sweet Way,” played in memoriam of the late great David Brubeck, offered another standout performance.
The two hour set seemed to go by much too quickly as the pair played their encore and took their final bows. The audience buzzed with excitement after the standing ovation as they filed out of the hall after such a display of musical mastery. It is not too often St. Louis gets the chance to see such a diverse pair of skilled musicians perform such a rich range of tunes, but Romero Lubambo and Peter Martin delivered.
Ask most folks what kind of music they associate with cabaret and you’ll likely get some mix of “great American songbook” and “show tunes”. No surprise there; the Golden Age of American songwriting is, in fact, well represented on the small stage. Tim Schall’s entertaining and informative “Rodgers and Hart Songbook” from a couple weeks ago was a classic example.
But the cabaret tent is a big one, and in just the past year here in St. Louis alone we’ve had shows based on such diverse sources as contemporary country (Jeff Wright’s Southern Roots), 1950s and ‘60s TV themes (Ken Haller’s The TV Show), and turn-of-the-last-century vaudeville (my own Just a Song at Twilight).
I bring all this up because last night (Monday, November 12) I had the pleasure of sitting in on a rehearsal by a new quartet, Women Under the Influence (three of the members of which I’ve worked with on stage in the past), that also takes its inspiration from performers whose work is not particularly well represented on the cabaret scene: the girl groups and soul sisters of the 1960s. Pop and R&B classics like “Met Him on a Sunday,” “He’s So Fine,” “Come See About Me,” and “He’s a Rebel” make up most of the set list, but there are also a few nods to contemporary stars like Adele (“Rumor Has It”), Rhiana (“Take a Bow”), and even Dolly Parton (“Jolene”).
This isn’t just a nostalgia trip, though. The essence of cabaret is the way in which the artist puts his or her own stamp on the music and makes it into something new. The members of WUI—Carol Schmidt and Michele Isam of “Jasmine” fame, along with local cabaret stars Debbie Schuster and Katie McGrath—are well-established performers with their own unique styles. Carol is pianist and music director for the show, with Michele filling in on other instruments (percussion and harmonica at the rehearsal I attended). They’re making all of those tunes their own—with tight vocal harmonies and even a bit of swingin’ ’60s choreography—and, in classic cabaret style, telling a story in the process.
By artfully arranging the songs, WUI’s show moves from the first crush, through true love, down into betrayal and back up into independence. It’s could be the story of one woman or of late 20th century women in general. It might even be a little of both. WUI are creating a space for ambiguity there, and ambiguity is where art lives.
The Women Under the Influence show is being produced by singer Robert Breig’s Mariposa Artists (the increase in local cabaret producers is a positive trend I may address in a future post) and will be presented this Saturday, November 17th, at 8 PM in the Showroom at Joe Buck’s Restaurant at 10th and Clark downtown. The space, I’m told, seats around 120 in a very “night clubby” ambience. And, of course, the bar and restaurant are there for your dining and drinking needs.
Tickets are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/281908. There’s even a good cause involved; a portion of the evening’s proceeds will be donated to Places For People, whose mission is “[t]o provide innovative and effective mental health services to people in need while creating a system of care that promotes personal recovery.”
It’s just another reminder that there’s a lot more to the cabaret scene than one might suppose. It’s why I love going to cabaret shows; you never know when you’re going to encounter something new and surprising. And who doesn’t like a good surprise?