Tag Archives: jazz

Spring Quartet

The Spring Quartet: Leo Genovese, Esperanza Spalding, Jack DeJohnette, and Joe Lovano. Photo by Robert Torres/courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

It’s been a busy week of live shows — Patricia Barber at Scullers, Seth Meicht’s Big Sound Ensemble at the Lily Pad, a Mardi Gras show with the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble at the Regattabar and, last night, the Spring Quartet at Sanders Theatre.

I won’t offer a blow-by-blow review of any of these shows — each of which was excellent in its own way. But I have some thoughts on the concert-going experience and I’d be interested in any feedback, whether about these shows or about going to shows in general.

My thoughts were spurred by the Spring Quartet show. In a lot of ways, this Celebrity Series of Boston event was a superior presentation: Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding, and Leo Genovese, a multi-generational collaboration of top artists in one of the areas finest venues. The playing throughout this generous show (1 hour, 45 minutes) was beautiful, and often inspired. It was a sold-out house, and that in itself was inspiring.

And yet. . . and yet. I wasn’t blown away. At least, not as blown away as I wanted to be. The tunes were interesting,  Joe played all his horns (including flute), Esperanza sang one of her pretty, wordless songs accompanying herself on bass (the kind of thing she used to do all the time in her Boston days before crossover stardom), and DeJohnette, aside from playing well, got some of the best sound I’d ever heard from a drum set in Sanders Theatre. That is, he was able to play quietly, but with presence, so that individual cymbal hits and soft rim shots registered in the front of the mix.

But on the whole, I found the show a bit tame. I was most drawn to Genovese as a soloist — he’s a stunning player, mixing up rhythms with extended right-hand lines, playing with form, breaking up his fleet runs with unruly chord clusters. He seemed the only one up there constantly of the verge of committing mayhem. And that was part of it. The show seemed like a series of excellent solos, whereas I wanted some kind of group frenzy. By which I don’t necessarily mean chaos. A couple of weeks back I caught Danilo Pérez’s “Panama 500” band and again I was impressed with his core trio — there seemed to be so much going on at once, especially in the way bassist Ben Street created a continuous variety of patterns even as he “accompanied” Pérez’s piano and worked the groove. The Spring Quartet show seemed more like a series of very fine solos.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the show, I would gladly see this band again. They had an amiable stage presence, took turns making introductions, played with humor, and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other. And the sequencing of tunes was thoughtful and varied — a couple of miscues about what tune to play next even provided brief comedy. But — except for a short Spalding  tune where she picked up an alto, Genovese played soprano, and Lovano played tenor, all to shrieking, ecstatic effect — I was missing that sense of unhinged group invention.

The Patricia Barber show, on the other hand, came at live performance from the other end. This was jazz in a club, not a concert hall. But aside from these differences, you could say Barber did everything wrong. She didn’t announce tunes, or even talk to the audience, until deep into her set. She and her band played for little more than an hour, with no encore. And the set had no clear pacing or arc.

Patricia Barber. Photo Jimmy Katz.

Patricia Barber. Photo Jimmy Katz.

But this band was swinging in sync from beginning to end — even in their “mistakes,” which cracked them up a couple of times. At times guitarist Gilad Hekelsman would look back at Barber as if concerned about where to come in. But there was an intensity to this band, the constant pressure of group swing, in drummer Patrick Mulcahy’s springy subdivision of the beat, bassist Ross Pederson freely going in and out of tempo without ever losing the groove, and Barber’s piano lines, which she invented wily-nily, or so it seemed, as the mood struck her.

At some point I thought, this is “jazz.” This is what I think of when I hear that word. It was the type of casual but intense music that you’d expect from the kind of three-set evening you used to be able to catch as a matter of course in jazz clubs but that are now relegated to jam sessions in bars (Wally’s in the South End is a gratifying exception). The fact is, even “clubs” aren’t really clubs any more. The music economy and ticket prices being what they are, every club show — at the Regattabar or Scullers, but also at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York or any other high-end venue — are “concerts.”  You buy a ticket for one show only and the band had better deliver — a narrative arc with calibrated pacing and a big climax as a payoff.

At the end of her show, Barber said something about this being it for “this set.” As though there was going to be another. I think the standing, cheering crowd would have been happy to stay. And, in some time of yore, that’s what you’d do — maybe by promising to buy another drink or two as a “minimum.” Maybe the set didn’t have that “concert arc,” but it was cool, and in another setting I would have ordered another drink and stayed for another set Just in order to hear what might happen next.

I’m reminded of something Revolutionary Snake Ensemble leader Ken Field said after one of their tunes on Fat Tuesday: “I’m sure we’re just as surprised as you are by where that tune ended up.” It would be nice to experience that mutual surprise more often.

Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz at Scullers

Despite what instrumentalists and singers say about wanting to “tell a story” with their music, the fact is that very few of them do. Instead, they simply cycle through a form, wringing whatever musical flourishes they can with each pass. Even though singers have an advantage — the built-in “stories” of lyrics — the effect is often the same: wash, rinse, repeat.

Kate McGarry is something else again. The 51-year-old singer and songwriter, appearing with her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz, 41, at Scullers on Thursday night, had a story to tell with each song. And, in fact, the evening as a whole had the pacing of a shaped narrative.

McGarry and Ganz are working their new duo album, Genevieve & Ferdinand (Sunnyside), and they drew freely from it as well as other material. Though McGarry is nominally a jazz singer, she likes to mix up her genres. At Scullers, there were a few contemporary folk songs mixed in with the jazz standards, as well as a couple of folk originals

They began with Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” McGarry’s phrasing playing into the lyrics without overselling them (the rest in the title phrase: “That was my prelude . . . to a kiss”), and ending on a breathtaking high note. On his acoustic guitar, Ganz provided the detail and delicacy of touch of a latter day Bucky Pizzarelli.

But it was on the second tune, the McGarry original “Climbing Down,” where the narrative really took shape. She said the song was about climbing the family tree of “my potato famine ancestors.” It was essentially a blues — about family, the Church, drink, and all manner of tangled branches. And in the final verse it turned into a softly sung traditional Celtic ballad, “Whiskey You’re the Devil,” haunting, ghostly. Ganz, meanwhile, had moved from blues vamp to “extended” techniques — scraping harmonics from his strings, tapping the guitar percussively. The effect was cinematic and left the room in a hush.

McGarry created a similar structural collage in her “Ten Little Indians.” It’s an elegy for her parents, who died a year apart in 2009 and 2010. The title refers to her and her nine siblings (McGarry is from Hyannis, MA.). The folk song takes in the lives of her parents (“He built a house upon his back; she grew a garden in each room”) and their deaths (“These scenes that life does not rehearse”). And then, in the final verse, it drifts into the melody, and slightly revised lyrics, of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” At Scullers, this again left the room in a hush, followed by a huge ovation.

The narrative turns of McGarry’s performances are not always a matter of radical structural shifts. Most of the time her effects are created entirely musically, working within the given song. It’s not unusual for a singer to follow an instrumental solo by coming in on the bridge, but Ganz’s guitar work was so evocative and varied — tone, timbre, swinging eighth-note runs alternating with folky vamps — that when McGarry returned to sing the final verse of, say, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “We Kiss in a Shadow” or James Taylor’s “Line ‘em Up,” it was startling. Yes, the same familiar melody and words, but something had happened, and the song was in a different place now. The experience of the song had changed it. Even McGarry’s wordless vocals, or the occasional jazz scatting, were never mere embellishment — they were an extension of the emotions of the songs, a different way to feel them.

It’s probably this artistic focus — and McGarry and Ganz’s ability to cross jazz and folk techniques — that made the show all of a piece, even as the two went from Taylor to Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke’s “Pennies from Heaven,” or from the devastating “Ten Little Indians” to Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Close to You.”

Despite the weather, McGarry had a good house, and she joked about the snow and the benefits of a “home court advantage” (she guessed that “eight or nine” of her siblings were in the audience). And her wit offered comic relief without pandering or trivializing the material. (“Can’t Help Loving That Man” didn’t prove that love is blind, but “rather nearsighted.”)

McGarry doesn’t have one of those huge, operatic jazz voices (she’s not Sarah Vaughan or Cécile McLorin Salvant). But the voice is instantly recognizable — strong, muscular, with an appealing butterscotch middle register. Her technique (breath, pitch, phrasing) is just about flawless, and it’s all of a piece with her artistry — personal and peerless. McGarry has her own stories to tell.

(Photo of Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz by Frank Zipperer. Read my Boston Globe feature interview with Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz here.)

Upcoming jazz events

Danilo Pérez plays Scullers February 15 and 16 . Photo by Luke Severn.

Danilo Pérez plays Scullers February 15 and 16 . Photo by Luke Severn.

Plenty of good stuff happening in Boston-area jazz this week. You can find these and other choice arts picks at The Arts Fuse.

Pat Donaher
February 8, 4 p.m.
Lily Pad, Cambridge MA

Alto saxophonist Pat Donaher’s beguiling Who We Are Together lives in that world where jazz crosses over into a kind of classical chamber music.  Or maybe the other way around. With his alternating duo partners, pianists Hwaen Ch’uqi and Camille Barile, Donaher favors spontaneous improvisations, with attractive folk-like melodies and ambiguous harmonies. A Quincy, MA, native, Donaher attended the Eastman School of Music before returning home to complete a master’s degree at New England Conservatory. At the Lily Pad he’ll be joined by fellow Eastman graduate Hwaen Ch’uqi.

Ampersand Concert Series
February 13,  8 p.m.
MIT Bartos Theatre, Cambridge MA

The MIT List Visual Arts Center and WMBR Radio present the seventh in their performance series, this time with the Boston/Amherst jazz group Outnumbered and New Haven bassist and electronic improviser Carl Testa. The Outnumbered features some of the best players in the area: alto saxophonist Jason Robinson, multi-sax guy Charlie Kohlhase, pianist Josh Rosen, bassist Bruno Råberg, and drummer Curt Newton.

Dave Holland’s Prism
February 13-14, 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge MA

Bassist and composer Dave Holland’s always compelling blend of grooving mixed meters and controlled contrapuntal mayhem this time falls into the hands of a new quartet with a homonymous new album on ECM. The players are guitarist Kevin Eubanks (a longtime Holland foil before jumping to direct the Tonight Show band), pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Eric Harland. As usual with Holland’s outfits, everyone contributes original tunes, which makes for an especially alert crew.

Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz
February 13, 8 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston

Kate McGarry has long been mixing jazz with a variety of American pop and folk. Tonight she and her husband, the guitarist Keith Ganz, step out of their usual band format to play as the title alter-ego duo from their new album, Genevieve & Ferdinand (Sunnyside), somehow making Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” Todd Rundgen’s “Pretending To Care,” and Iriving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” all part of the same sound world. You can also expect a couple of McGarry and Ganz’s well-turned originals.

Newport Jazz Festival: NOW 60
February 13, 8 p.m.
Berklee Performance Center, Boston MA

This promotional anniversary tour for the granddaddy of jazz festivals looks on the face of it like a grab-bag of supremely talented, medium-profile all-stars, but the tour producers and bandleader Anat Cohen have declared a specific agenda: to focus not only on music from Newport’s storied history, but also original compositions and arrangements from everyone in the band. And it is a formidable crew. Saxophonist and clarinetist Cohen will be joined by multi-lingual singer Karrin Allyson, trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Peter Martin, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Clarence Penn. This second night of a 21-date tour (a Celebrity Series of Boston event) should be crackling.
Read my Boston Globe piece about the tour here.

“Third Stream Headwaters”
February 13, 7 p.m.
Jordan Hall, Boston MA

Rare offerings at New England Conservatory tonight. The Contemporary Improvisation department goes deep into Third Stream — the term coined by composer and former NEC president Gunther Schuller to describe a blending of classical and jazz musical procedures (and also the original name of the CI department).  Topping the bill are Charles Mingus’s “Half-Mast Inhibition,” the great bassist-composer’s earliest orchestral work (originally recorded in 1960) and the premiere of Schuller’s “From Here to There,” commissioned by NEC. Also on the bill are Darius Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde,” Milton Babbit’s “All Set,” and Frank Zappa’s “Dog Breath Variations.” Charles Peltz conducts

Catherine Russell
February 14, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston MA

No less an authority than Nat Hentoff has called singer Catherine Russell “the real thing.” With a strong pedigree (daughter of Louis Armstrong orchestra music director Luis Russell and guitarist Carline Ray, of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm), Russell made her early career singing high-profile back-up gigs (Paul Simon, David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Cash) before going solo about 10 years ago and delivering one beautifully assured album after another, focusing on vintage swing and blues, with the occasional oddball and apt contemporary choice (the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedyway Boogie”). She has the kind of voice and diction that lend every song a conversational directness and literate clarity even when she’s hitting the high notes and swinging her hardest. Her latest, Bring It Back (Jazz Village), comes out this Tuesday and it’s another well-designed collection, guided by her own taste and by the skill of music director/guitarist Matt Munisteri.

Danilo Pérez’s “Panama 500”
February 15 [8 p.m. and 10 p.m.] and 16 [4 p.m. and 7 p.m.]
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston MA

The 47-year-old pianist and composer’slatest CD, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue), is his most ambitious achievement yet. Looking again at his native Panama, he offers a portrait that mixes folkloric percussion, chants of the indigenous Guna people, modern-chamber music string writing, and, of course, fleet jazz-piano trio sections. At times, all these languages are layered so that history emerges as a living memory. Pérez brings an ensemble from the album to Scullers: violinist Alex Hargreaves, percussionist Roman Díaz, and his longtime trio mates, bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz.
Read my Boston Globe review of the CD here.

The art of the adjective


There are all kinds of ways to describe music — some combination of metaphor, technical detail, tempo, instrumentation — but there’s probably nothing more helpful, or more difficult to find, than a precise adjective. As someone who writes about music, I’m always struggling to come up with something more helpful to the reader than “wonderful,” “superb,” “excellent” or hackneyed vernacular like “killer” or “smoking.” Not that I’ve never never used those or wouldn’t use them again. (I think I have, however, been able thus far to avoid “mind-bending.”)

So I was cheered to see this from Nate Chinen’s review of the Helen Sung album in the Times:
“….Helen Sung, who trained as a classical pianist before turning to jazz, and has released a decade’s worth of crisp, conscientious and decorous albums.”

Not fancy words, and not even especially specific. But those generalizing accolades are the hardest, and these are suggestive in just the right way.

Chinen goes on to give other details about the content of the album, including the basics about personnel, songs, and composers. And he offers some dandy adjective-verb combinations in his descriptions of the performances of particular pieces:  “buoyant lyricism,”
“scrambling intensity,” “brisk textural intrigue.”

And there’s the now standard x-meets-y comparison, but done especially well: the song “Brother Thelonious” suggests “a Monkish idyll as envisioned by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, sometime in the 1980s.” I’m not exactly sure what he means, but I’ve got a pretty good idea. And if you’ve listened to a lot of ´80s Blakey, you probably know exactly what he means. Or maybe just listening to “Brother Thelonious” would do it.

But it was those opening adjectives that caught my eye and made me curious. They raised expectations in a way that “wonderful,” “excellent,” and “superb” might have dampened them.

You might not agree with Chinen’s assessment of the album. But it’s pretty clear at least what he heard.

Miss Tess and Neha at the Lizard Lounge


Miss Tess and the Talk Backs. Photo by Mike Spencer.

Okay, so everyone’s heard me blab plenty about Miss Tess — her singing, her songwriting, her band the Talk Backs — but there’s more reason to crow: a new CD, a show tonight at the Lizard Lounge that you should get yourself too, and a promising newcomer who opened for Tess last night. Oh, and Miss Tess and the Talk Backs are also returning to the Lizard for a special New Year’s Day Show.

First things first. The EP-length CD, The Love I Have for You (Signature Sounds) comprises the original title cut and six covers, including Hank WIlliams’s “The Alabama Waltz,” Willie Nelson’s “NIght Life,” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let It Go.”

At the Lizard, Tess sang all of those, plus the new CD’s opener, “Sorry You’re Sick,” by the late Venice Beach busker Ted Hawkins, with the deathless refrain: “What do you want from the liquor store — something sour, something sweet!” As Tess explained about Hawkins (who released one record on Rounder), “Everybody liked him, but he kept messing up.”

Tess is not messing up. The Talk Backs are lean and swinging, with Tess and Will Graefe on guitars, Larry Cook on bass, and Matt Meyer on drums. This is the line-up she’s had for a while, since she scaled back the more jazzy stylings of her Bon Ton Parade, which at one time featured a full horn section. At the risk of repeating myself (see my earlier post), the band can rock out, swing hard, or play a slinky mambo, and Tess’s singing is right there with them — equal parts vulnerability and confident swagger. She was especially appealing belting out the Raitt hook or the demands on her own “If You Wanna Be My Man” (“Now you’re taking out your little black book/you think you got a fish on a hook”).

Also a treat last night was Neha.


The young singer was raised in New Jersey by strict Indian family (at the Lizard, she distributed a charming postcard in full sari and traditional jewelry with the caption, “This is me as a child and that is my cousin. These outfits are real”). She got an economics degree at Northwestern, did a stint at Google, and then enrolled in the masters program at New England Conservatory. (The photo here is from a performance at Scullers.) She now lives in Brooklyn (natch).

At the Lizard, Neha was in the deep-jazz vein, singing and playing a string of originals that had the classic sound of the Great American Songbook, with her own cheeky lyrics (“Don’t get all boyfriend-y with me/. . . just give me some affection”). She had a warm, pliant voice, and a sharp band (Bobby Spellman on trumpet, bassist Frank Ajeda, and drummer Connor Baker). I’ll look foward to hearing them again soon.

In the meantime, Tess and the Talk Backs will return to the Lizard tonight, with Michael Tarbox opening this time. Then, on New Year’s Day at the Lizard, they join Girls Guns and Glory for that band’s Hank WIlliams Tribute. Catch them while you can.

The return of Bob Mover


Bob Mover at the Lily Pad.

Bob Mover at the Lily Pad.

Bebop is all about rhythm and chord changes, and Bob Mover is all about bebop. But he’s also about songs, something demonstrated in two sets at the Lily Pad on Monday night. Mover played a lot of alto saxophone, a bit of soprano, and sang. On his horns, he ate up chord changes and fashioned complex runs at high speed. But melody was at the core of everything he did, and he made his priorities clear whenever he introduced a tune. He said that he knew Anthony Newley’s “What Kind of Fool Am I” from his childhood, from “one of the last shows that had songs with chord changes” (from Newley’s Stop the World — I Want To Get Off, which played Broadway in 1962). He talked about how most of the vocal performances of the song that he’d heard were “over the top,” but suggested we check out a YouTube clip of the composer singing the piece on Hollywood Palace. Mover played it on alto, understated but Bird-like in its inventiveness. And his singing of the lyrics was understated too: “Why can’t I cast away/this mask of clay/and live my life?”

Mover is 61 now and suffering from emphysema, and he took hits off an inhaler between solos. He played alto nearly doubled over. But his sound was huge and pure and seemingly unfettered. Born in Boston, Mover was a regular on   the scene in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. A former “rising star” in the bands of Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and others, he is now someone best known to aficionados. His latest album, My Heart Tells Me (Motéma), is a double disc, half ballad standards and half originals, with Kenny Barron on piano. Mover’s audience at the Lily Pad was a gratifying mix of old partisans and younger listeners. The 6 pm show at the 93-capacity venue was respectable, but by the time of the 7 pm set the place was crowded.

With Mover was another former Bostonian, guitarist Joe Cohen; the bassist Will Slate, who splits his time between New York and Boston; and drummer Bob Gullotti of the Fringe. The band played four songs in each of the 50-minute sets, all of them spellbinding. There was all manner of bebop derring-do, plenty of trading of 8’s and 4’s in the solo sections. There were upbeat abstractions, but even Mover’s “It’s All Good,” which had a relentless, Tristano-like driving unison line for guitar and alto, was, it turned out, based on the Gershwins’ “’S Wonderful.” (Mover asked us to guess his source material before playing the song and, afterwards, someone did.)  The first set’s opener, a mid-tempo ballad with brushes, was “Shangri-la,” by Matt Malneck and Carl Sigman, and Mover recommended Peggy Lee’s interpretation. Dietz and Schwartz’s “By Myself” had been sung by Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. And Johnny Mercer’s “Dream” was something, Mover said, “I have sung my two daughters to sleep with.”

So, yes, there was a rip-roaring “Tune Up” and an original minor blues, “Erken,” that could have been a hardbop flagwaver. But the binder of the set, the yeast, the stuff that made it hold together and rise, was in those vocal performances: understated, perfectly phrased, in a light voice, so that you could hear every word: “Dream when you’re feeling blue./Dream — that’s the thing to do./Thing aren’t as bad as they seem/so dream.”

Nicholas Payton brings his trio to Scullers September 12

Nicholas Payton. Photo by Michael Wilson.

Nicholas Payton. Photo by Michael Wilson.

Last spring I talked to Nicholas Payton for New Orleans’ OffBeat magazine. He had stated his own record label, BMF, and released a live CD recorded at Washington DC’s storied Bohemian Caverns. Payton was as provocative as ever, talking about his notorious blog entry, “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore,” which included the line, “Jazz died in 1959.” And the live album was provocative too — heavy grooves, with Lenny White on drums, Payton’s longtime bassist Vicente Archer, and Payton himself playing both trumpet and Fender Rhodes, sometimes simultaneously.

On September 24, Payton will release a live concert performance of his interpretation of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration Sketches of Spain, with Dennis Russell Davies conducting the Sinfonieorchester Basel. They’re joined by Archer on bass, Marcus Gilmore on drums, and Daniel Sadownick on percussion. And this Thursday, September 12, Payton brings his trio to Scullers in Boston for an 8 pm show.

“Music is inherently empty,” Payton told me in the OffBeat interview. “It takes a life lived to imbue a note or a set of chords or a rhythm with a feeling.” You can read the rest of the interview here. See you at Scullers!