Concert review: Romero Lubambo and Peter Martin bring Brazilian ballads and Louisiana licks to the Sheldon Concert Hall, Thursday, December 13

Peter Martin and Romero Lubambo at the Sheldon. Photo by Mike Gualdoni.

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.

Cabaret preview: Women Under the Influence

"Women Under the Influence": L-R: Carol Schmidt, Michlle Isam, Debbie Schuster, and Katie McGrath

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?

Concert review and set list: Norah Jones, whoever she is to us, crept in and got us to come away with her, at Peabody Opera House, Monday, October 15

Norah Jones at the Peabody Opera House. Photo by Kate McDaniel.

The only true voyage of discovery…would be not to visit strange lands 
but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another… 
to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. –Marcel Proust, “Remembrance of Things Past”

Norah Jones did last night what she does best — she sang. Like her or not, she’s good at it, and the Peabody audience loved it.

That’s not to say she didn’t have dissenters — if the alternating shouts of “No more rock!” and “Rock on!” indicate anything, it’s that Ms. Jones draws a diverse, if not polarized fan base. This is no doubt due to the wildly variant aesthetics of her five albums. And true to our own respective aesthetic appreciation, we audience members clapped at various points as if opposing factions voting with some sort of applause-o-meter: “Let me hear it if you love ‘Come Away With Me’!” then “Show your love for ‘Not Too Late’!” and so on.

Indeed, Jones has a varied musical history, first earning five Grammys for her “contemporary adult jazz” piano singing on “Come Away With Me,” then “Feels Like Home” presented a sharp turn west with a much more country sound. But those that caught up with this divergence loved every pluck and twang and relished the discovery of the Dolly Parton and Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits we never knew she had in her. Jones’ first album of mostly self-authored songs, “Not Too Late” — this time shifting more blues — was again a success. Jazz, blues, country — what can’t she do?

Enter “The Fall.” Her first “breakup album,” “The Fall” was the first not to reach No. 1, garnering middling to ambivalent reviews peppered with words like “inoffensive” and “scarcely unoriginal,” suggesting this turn to rock was perhaps too sharp for fans to keep up. Or maybe too dull. But I would argue the problem with “TF” was not that she has no boyfriend; I would argue the problem was that it has no ghosts. OK, she’s got her dog, so she’s not totally alone, but still something was missing. “The Fall” has no history.

And I think her 2012 “Little Broken Hearts” suffers the same lack. This album’s turn to pop is no surprise (what’s left? classical?), various reviewers’ descriptors like “crackerjack” and “bubble gum” are, at least to me, apt. Norah said that “nobody can tell you you’re wrong for writing a song about how you feel — even if you don’t really feel that way.” I disagree; if it didn’t happen, then it’s not honest. “LBH” falls flat for that same lack of history. Yet some think it’s her best; they say you can hear the same old Norah but this time it’s new! It’s original! It’s her! It’s no wonder that the audience at the Peabody was at odds last night.

Here’s the thing: Norah is phenomenal. She has a voice that won’t quit and that has the most amazing range of earthiness and soul and clarity and fullness. I get it, jazz standards may not be as fulfilling as penning this year’s hottest song, and though pretty, a Hoagy Carmichael song is nevertheless “old, really old,” as Norah put it. Many may not relate. And an artist wants to be relevant.

But here’s the other thing: Norah doesn’t just sound pretty; she has the ability to re-cast something old into the most beautiful of new molds. There are plenty of Natalie Coles and Diana Kralls; there are even more pop stars, and surely even more female singers with a good set of lungs. And though I wouldn’t call her a pop sensation, I also argue that Norah Jones is no mere two-bit jazz karaoke crooner. There’s something special about her. She does not parrot, she illuminates; she’s not a soothsayer, but a conduit.

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Concert review: Marco Benevento and Mike Dillon jazz up the Old Rock House on Wednesday, September 26

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Taking the Old Rock House stage with his backing band, a group featuring three-fourths of New Orleans funksters Yojimbo, Mike Dillon immediately tore into a few tracks from his newest album “Urn.”

The first thing that jumped to mind was how much the band sounded like the “Shiny Beast”-era Captain Beefheart and I immediately knew this set wasn’t going to be long enough.

Dillon spent the evening jumping back and forth between his electric vibraphone, glockenspiel and percussion rig containing bongos, a cowbell and a snare drum. When he kicks his playing into high gear, it’s like watching that scene in the “Matrix” where Neo starts dodging gunfire on the roof. You see him going to town but you don’t know how he can move so fast and still make each note clear and distinct. Chris Hines used his guitar as a controller for his bass synth, making sounds that ranged from the funky space bass of Bootsy Collins to an imitation of Optimus Prime during a moment of severe gastrointestinal distress.

Drummer Adam Gerstner held the time perfectly, matching Dillon’s frenetic start-and stop-tempo adjustments with flair, almost making it look easy. Carly Meyers rounded out the group whirling and twirling like a dervish when she wasn’t playing the glockenspiel alongside Dillon or wailing away on her trombone. Tonight I learned that the trombone is the sexiest instrument ever made when it’s in the hands of someone possessed by the music being created on stage.

Once you get out to the fringes of jazz where it starts to blend in with other genres of music you end up with a word salad of terms to describe the music. While it might be tempting to throw out “avant-jazz,” “funk-punk fusion” or any other myriad of hyphenated words, the only true way to describe the sounds coming off the stage is Mike Dillon.

Along with the new material, the band played a few tracks from Dillon’s other projects, including his hip-hop alter-ego MC Silver Ice. I can say that where the hip-hop stuff was good, the band really shone when they were playing the more avant-garde leaning pieces. “I Saw George Porter, Jr. Play Punk Rock with My Friend Skerik at the Jam Cruise” from the Mike Dillon’s “Go-Go Jungle” album “Rock Star Bench Press” was my favorite song of the evening, with the band playing some of the hardest punk this side of 924 Gilman Street. “I’m Gonna Find $100 on the Ground” from the Hairy Apes BMX album “Expatriape” was also a stand out, as was the bouncy rhythm of “Ding Dong the Party Is Over” from the new Mike Dillon album “Urn.”

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Concert review: Terence Blanchard pushes ahead at Jazz at the Bistro, Wednesday, September 19

Terence Blanchard at Jazz at the Bistro. Photo by Wil Wander.

Terence Blanchard is always moving forward in his career. His acclaim has blossomed to the tune of countless nominations in the world of music and film, garnering enough victories to thoroughly decorate his mantle.

Building from a start at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Blanchard was awarded a Grammy by age 22 as part of the celebrated group Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and within another 10 years, he added a half dozen albums, and began composing film scores for Spike Lee.

Blanchard took the next step in his illustrious career right here to St. Louis, where Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis have teamed up to co-commission an original jazz opera. With the world debut of “Champion” approaching next June, he stopped at Jazz at the Bistro to whet our collective appetites for his classic brand of jazz — and to kick off the venue’s 2012-13 subscription season.

After a brief and modest introduction, the quintet nonchalantly took the stage, with Blanchard lagging a moment behind. Without a word, Brice Winston opened the sound on a stylish black and gold tenor sax, and was soon joined by drums, bass and piano in an opening groove for Blanchard’s “Time to Spare.” Winston took the first solo which was filled with many scale-based riffs and built from broken phrases into a frenzy of fluttering fingers, defining the style of much of the night’s set.

Blanchard’s first solo added a bit of pep to the mood. He constantly paced back and forth as he played throughout the evening, rocking and dipping the bell of his trumpet as he played. As the solo intensified, he seemed to attack the kick drum with his most devastating riffs, leaning far enough in to get just a hint of bleed in his microphone, adding emphasis to the beat of his phrases and tempo. As a true veteran, he wasn’t at all afraid to break from his flow and let the groove take lead for a moment before reestablishing his role at the forefront of the songs.

While the trumpet led the band, the dynamic of the quintet also highlighted Winston’s saxophone, as he and Blanchard rarely played at the same time. As the set progressed, he would often step to the far side to yield the stage to Blanchard, and even left the stage entirely for the set’s third song. Blanchard afforded him much of the same courtesy as he played. They concluded the set with “Wandering Wonder,” one of Winston’s compositions, during which he exhibited a deep connection with the music and sheer joy in sharing with the crowd.

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Concert review and set list: Marcus Miller takes Jazz at the Bistro to new musical places, Sunday, September 9

Marcus Miller at Jazz at the Bistro. Photo by Wil Wander.

The line to enter Jazz at the Bistro formed quickly after 9 p.m. as patrons gathered anxiously along Washington Avenue for the sold-out opening night of Jazz St. Louis’ 17th season.

Stories of awe and laughter helped pass the time as patrons slowly filed into their seats for what was sure to be one of the most memorable nights in their collective lives. Marcus Miller, bassist and musician extraordinaire, strayed from his normal diet of jazz fest headlines and packed auditoriums to share an intimate set with St. Louis’ most devout jazz fanatics — 150 seats at a time.

The stage was unusually crowded, decked with extra speakers to properly serve the intensity of Miller’s dynamic style in addition to the instruments for a six-man band. Frederico Gonzalez Peña started the evening with an electronic ambient tone off his Korg keyboard, which rested nicely on the Bistro’s in-house baby grand. He was soon joined by Louis Cato on the drums supplying a peppy break rhythm to accompany Miller’s ascent to the stage. The legend known to many as “M2″ picked up his trademark Fender four-string, played a signature introductory slide-style note, and then the grooves began.

The lineup included Peña covering the full spectrum of organ and synthesizer in addition to the keyboard and piano, and Cato on a fairly standard drum kit. They were joined by Adam Agati playing guitar and decked in Texas souvenirs picked up during the tour’s last stop in Austin, Lee Hogans on trumpet and Alex Han on alto and soprano saxophone. Miller didn’t come packed lightly either, as the back of the stage displayed a four-string fretless and a five-string Fender (graced with his iconic pick guard), a bass clarinet and a professional array of pedals.

Earlier this year, Miller released his ninth solo studio album, “Renaissance,” to compliment six live albums, 22 film scores, and innumerable albums with other musicians including Miles Davis, David Sanborn, and Luther Vandross. The band is touring to promote the album, which is composed of eight originals and five masterful covers, and its set was arranged entirely of songs from the new album.

Miller and company opened with “Mr. Clean,” a mellow funk groove. After the leader laid down the bass line, he defied expectations of a grand display and immediately withdrew to support Hogans on the first solo. The solo was brief, but lively with peppy staccato scales. He soon gave way to Han on the alto sax. Han started with a blank, zombie-like stare to the back of the room and a selection of simple rhythmic licks, but gradually increased the level of skill and energy as the solo developed into a wild display of prowess. This was not the first time Han would impress the audience and lead his bandmates to step it up.

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Concert review: Exter vs. Kimock (with 3 Kings) leaves Pop’s Blue Moon reeling, Friday, July 27

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The night began with local act 3 Kings taking a trip through the land of funk and blues with a few surprise stops along the journey.

Although technically 3 Kings could be tagged as a cover band, there were no real note-for-note covers. Their set at Pop’s Blue Moon was full of interpretations of the source material, easily recognizable but not soulless recreations.

The few songs that were mostly note-for-note still had some attention-grabbing, unexpected twists like the effect-laden bass solo during the Meters’ classic “Cissy Strut” or the “that isn’t Billy Gibbons but it fits” stripped-down guitar solo during their version of ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses.” I especially enjoyed their vocal harmonizing during “People Say” and a fantastic reworking of the Lennon/McCartney track “Don’t Let Me Down.”

About halfway through the set the guys snuck in part of an original piece that they have been working on. If that snippet shows the path they are taking, they’d better get some Speed Stick now because the real deal is going to be funkier than an armpit after gym class.

Shortly after 3 Kings departed the stage, Trevor Exter and John Kimock, also known as Read more

Concert review: Nicolay and the Hot at Nights cook up jazzy experiments at Lola, Friday, July 13

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In the world of music, often producers and songwriters get overlooked in the shadows of the performers they support, but that’s hardly the case with Nicolay.

The crowd at Lola made sure he knew how much St. Louis loves his work and his passion. Every table in the downtown club was reserved well in advance, and the bar was full long before the music started as the staff tried to accommodate the quickly growing crowd, buzzing with stories and expectations for the night’s show.
 
Nicolay, born Matthijs Rook, started his life and much of his musical career in the Netherlands, playing with a variety of relatively-unknown bands starting in his youth. As his delight for music blossomed, he developed as a multi-instrumentalist and started composing and producing his own work. In a testament to the global community created by the Internet, an online forum brought him together with Phonte Cole, a talented emcee with the hip-hop act, Little Brother (with 9th Wonder and Big Pooh), and the Foreign Exchange was born.

Now residing in North Carolina, Nicolay has produced three albums with the Foreign Exchange in addition to a half dozen other releases and is looking for the next step in his musical journey and “bring back the lost art of listening to music.”
 
While live instrumentation has dominated both his production and performances, it’s been calculated and refined to perfection in the studio and rehearsals, and certainly without complaint from the fans. Nevertheless, to advance beyond that, Nicolay joined up with the Hot at Nights, a North Carolina jazz trio that included the Foreign Exchange’s touring guitarist, Chris Boerner, and together they’ve approached many of his original works in a live-jazz interpretation, including releasing the “Shibuya Sessions EP,” a direct reworking of Nicolay’s 2009 “City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya.” With a bit of improvisation and creative detours from the originals, this new arrangement brings a natural element to the performances and a true connection to the audience.
 
The Hot at Nights opened the show with a short set of their own releases. Boerner leads the group playing an eight-string guitar, combining three bass strings with five guitar strings on a single neck, and handles both the bass-line and guitar parts, much like Charlie Hunter and his similarly-fashioned seven-string. To add a special element to his sound, Boerner utilizes a self-made, rotating organ-style amplifier, mixed in at tastefully appropriate times. Matt Douglas joins him with an alto sax, visually dull, but audibly brilliant in tone. Douglas used a variety of delays and other effects through a microphone to create much of the group’s signature, experimental sound. The trio is completed by Nick Baglio on drums and an electric keyboard that often added distinctive breaks and ambient sequences to the mix.
 
Their five-song set included many originals and a groove styled cover of the Police’s “Roxanne,” with Douglas covering Sting’s vocal part on the sax. It offered Boerner a unique challenge as he attempted to handle both the guitar chords and bass-line, but his mastery of dexterity and timing proved the musician capable. They closed their set with a song titled “AC Slater,” a track that brought an extra element of humor to a roller coaster of tempo and style changes. Baglio was given his chance to shine in this closing number, as he mingled poppy drum rhythms with cleverly placed electronic drum beats, much in the style of the ’80s’ Casio keyboards.

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