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National Race Conversation Pervades the Music of Two Groups at Hyde Park Jazz Festival ’16

Saturday 9/24/16


As I begin to write this, it is day five of the Charlotte protests. Local police there have just released footage of the latest police shooting that sparked the most recent civil unrest. Nobody’s getting the answers they want, and everybody’s Facebook feed is currently aflame with a blend of deeply opinionated status posts, flashy editorial videos trying to be the final word, and the occasional work of actual informative journalism.

It has been roughly 778 days since the Ferguson Riots.

Race is weighing deeply on the national consciousness whether we want it to or not. No matter how we argue the issues, we can’t argue that the issue of minority-police relations has had a lasting impact on the 2016 Presidential Election, the use of social media, the way local government interacts with citizenry, and – from my student experience – the collegiate discussion experience.

Yet as the eyes of the nation dart from tragedy to tragedy, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in South Side Chicago is soldiering on and making itself more relevant than ever. It hopes to achieve – and in my opinion easily does – that relevancy in its artist lineup. One can also fit the larger narrative of a proud cultural showcase in the heat of a suffocating crime epidemic.

It could just as simply be people playing jazz, though area is no stranger to the perils of inner city strife.

In fact, it’s just a couple kilometers away from the occasional 9mm hailstorm that is the Englewood neighborhood. The numbers are different depending on how you draw the lines, but the neighborhoods west and south of the Loop overall continue to be under siege by violent crime that has caught the country’s attention. There have even been calls to bring in the National Guard.

Heartbreak was here long before Michael Brown became a headline.

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Jazz prevails, however. Even in the South Side, jazz prevails because it is art, and like all art, its artists will stand the test of time over what gang held what neighborhood. Its ability to draw the best out of its listeners and stoke the embers of far-flung dreams easily outdo the works of the madman. Art indulges in creation, not destruction.

Now I can’t give you a full report on every single artist that played at this year’s festival. I’m one dinky jazz fan, and there are better outlets for you to access that information. However, I had the distinct fortune of getting a back-to-back taste of what jazz artists are like when they’re deeply moved by the world around them.

Wayfaring

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I arrived at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute having just missed the opening notes of the “Wayfaring” project featuring James Falzone (clarinet) and Katie Ernst (bass, voice). Leaving an hour and a half early apparently did nothing for Windy City traffic and parking availability, but I digress. According to the Hyde Park Jazz Fest website, “what began as a casual meeting between like-minded players has formed into a collective of unusual nuance and depth”. Unusual is correct, at least within the confines of what a majority of fest-goers would come to expect as jazz. The description continues, claiming the duo are “drawing on source material from the jazz tradition, hymns, folk songs, and original compositions from Ernst and Falzone”.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the combination of these two artists. Both of them are skilled explorers of the “pure improvisation” or “avant garde” sub genre that usually finds its home in venues like the Constellation or the Green Mill on a Sunday; Falzone being the old school and Ernst part of the new wave. I caught a performance of Falzone’s Renga Ensemble by chance at my college, and the experience was healthy – this hard bop kid had never seen a contra Eb alto clarinet! – if a little head-tilting in its more dissonant compositions. His impressive rap sheet of other projects shows how much he wants to incorporate the visual arts and full spectrum of sound. Grandiose ambition, humble means.

Then there’s Katie Ernst, who I had the honor and privilege of interviewing a few months back. Her distinct mezzo-soprano voice and clear enunciation paired with a commanding knowledge of the upright bass’ capabilities make her a creative powerhouse in Chicagoland. From her poetry-based Little Words project to the ultra-collaborative trio Twin Talk, you would be hard pressed to find someone better equipped to keep up with her counterpart. Falzone agrees, explaining in an email inquiry how “there is an openness to Katie’s playing that allows me to explore the intersections of what I’m most interested in, which is the balance between form and freedom.”

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What hits you most about artists like these is how much sound they’re capable of putting out at any given moment and how each sound is there for an implicit reason. Contrast that notion to the drummer, bassist, and chordal instrument at a more conventional jam session; how the presence of those instruments are practically a given every time.

Falzone engaged with Bb and Eb clarinets, but also utilized a Native American flute, hand-bells, a pan drum, and even spoken word. Most interesting out of all of these was the Indian shruti box. According to Falzone, it is a drone instrument operated by foot pump, which gave every song it was used in a layer of pedal and tension.

Meanwhile, Ernst’s voice took on the qualities of a horn with her soft, lyrical long tones. Her timbre complemented Falzone’s remarkably in addition to her own physical engagement with her bass. Swaying widely back and forth as she plucked, it seemed at times she was ready to pounce at any moment, and helped to contrast her more stoic posture when she switched to lyrics. When you learn those capabilities, suddenly the lack of sound becomes much more self-evident as well.

Of all the compositions they performed – from Ernst’s more delicate interpretation of folk songs to the earthy sounds of their joint compositions – it was Falzone’s take on the recent high-profile case of police shootings that was the standout of the performance.

Bluntly titled “Alton Sterling”, Falzone explained how the song “could’ve been renamed 5 or 6 times by now,” much to the sordid agreement of the audience. What followed was a furious showcase of raw anger, plucked strings, and instrument screeches. No words were needed, as the music and the body language spoke for themselves.

Phrases like “what the hell is going on with this country?” and “are we seriously doing this again?” were nonverbally broadcast to me. By the time they were finished, both artists were out of breathe and even looked a little surprised they could convey so much, so quickly. It was a gutting of the soul; a lesson on human empathy embracing the darker aesthetic of the Oriental Institute’s Yale-like lecture hall.

According to Falzone in that same email, “with ‘Alton Sterling’, I wrote the tune on July 6 and then left it for a day. I was thinking about my state of mind and I had a lot of anxiety, as we all should, by the killing of this man and the horrific video images that showed, without any doubt, at least in my mind, the outright murder of a black man by the police. So I simply named the piece after him, since I felt my subconscious was dealing with his murder and the implications for our country.”

He finishes, “as one friend of mine said, ‘Dear God, please make it so that James can name his music after something else.’ Amen.”

Quentin Coaxum

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After frantically driving thirteen blocks north out of the University of Chicago campus, I arrived at the Little Black Pearl like a fish-out-of-water. Who the heck thought it was a good idea to schedule a majority of the artists half an hour over each other anyway?

The parking spot I found was two blocks away, but it gave me a chance to soak up the neighborhood more. Nothing could’ve been more dichotomous to the stuffy Oriental Institute than where Quentin Coaxum (trumpet) was performing. Bright, sunny, gleaming – the Little Black Pearl’s smooth, curving walls guided me to the atrium as Coaxum was ending a tune there. I sat down just as he took the mic.

“There’s been a lot of tragedy happening lately,” he opened, speaking about the recent police shooting controversies, “but this recent one sent me over the edge. This is the stuff that keeps me up at night.”

“Goodbye Alton” was the title of the composition, and my pen immediately stopped scribbling as that name once again entered my mind. I was only ten minutes removed from Wayfaring’s stinging, emotional upheaval on the same topic – 13 blocks away, in a different building, and in front of a musician who played worlds away from the experimental duo. Yet there I was, being forced to mentally replay the footage of Alton Sterling getting shot. This led down a mental rabbit hole of footage featuring a dozen other young African American men dying one-by-one stretching all the way back to Ferguson.

But it’s approach to the subject was much more mournful rather than maddening. A statement of remorse rather than rage. I could even hear remnants of “I Remember Clifford” in its melodic contour and graceful delivery.

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The thing about Coaxum however, is nearly all of his compositions have this element of optimism or tinge of hope that brings out the dreamer within all who listen. A hope that oozes out to the musicians, the audience, and the collective spirit of the room. The as-of-yet unrecorded “Goodbye Alton” does the same later in its form. Another closely related original song entitled “Torn Apart” touched on similar themes, but instead utilized a deep, infused groove which morphed into something ethereal.

Rounding out Coaxum’s set was “Lush“, an original straight out of his album Current, which I was fortunate to have the honor and privilege of interviewing him on. In that interview, he shared with me how he first thought of the title and grew the song out of it retroactively. There was a marked difference in this performance compared to what you hear on the album however. This time, the tempo gradually encroached from about 90BPM to 110, much to the puzzled looks of the rhythm section.

Coaxum didn’t seem to mind at all, and embraced the pace as a chance to surge the room with a little burst of joy to balance the tragedy. Whether he meant to go faster or took advantage of a happy accident is irrelevant. It’s moments like those that remind me why we need venues like the Hyde Park Jazz Fest; why we need jazz in the first place.

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I hope my conveyance of brevity doesn’t come off as sensationalist when writing this story. It’s not as if every single song and moment had these overtones, and there were other fantastic artists present that day who made no mention of these themes. And yet, the fact two separate groups of young artists – 13 blocks away and playing completely different subgenres of jazz – thought to honor Alton Sterling is indicative of how these tragedies will continue to haunt the cultural norm on all levels for years to come.

There is simply nothing else I could’ve written that matters more.

Article and Photos by Dominic Guanzon


Special thanks to James Falzone, Katie Ernst, and Quentin Coaxum for their time.

Wayfaring will release their debut recording I Move, You Move in early 2017 on the Allos Documents label.

Quentin Coaxum’s debut album Current is out now on the Skiptone label.

Make sure to check the Interviews section for some insight into these artists as well as other local Chicago musicians!

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Roxy Coss and Sharel Cassity Quintet @ Jazz Showcase

Sunday 8/16/15


I should start off describing how much meaningful content this earnest tribute to Charlie Parker had to offer;

How a rhythm section with ears like this can blossom a complex ecosystem of sound;

How this particular sax duo isn’t making a vocal fuss about gender gaps or stereotypes in the industry. Instead, they’re opting to improvise, compose, and gig their way through the argument – assuming they even believe there’s one to be had.

No, instead of all that juicy discussion, I am forced to start off with a simple plea to try Sunday night shows and help mitigate the problem of having an uphill battle with the room’s energy. That’s two Sunday night shows in a row now where the room has been close to empty, the first being Corey Wilkes’ show two weeks prior. I may be relatively new to the scene, but well-known venues in the middle of summer shouldn’t have nine people left in the audience at 10:00PM.

I do understand that a vast majority of the working world has to get up early the next morning, but this isn’t how an artist should wrap up their weekend residencies. Pardon the pun, but that’s a low note to go on.


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You see, gigging jazz musicians arguably have it harder than then their rock, folk, or pop counterparts in terms of the week-by-week grind. Whereas the other genres I mentioned are lauded for repeat performances, jazz players have to create new melodies for nearly every song they perform every night. They do this through the solo, and I’m willing to bet most of them fear the cliché, the unoriginal, and the boring. If not for their own personal desire for self-improvement, then at least for their marketability. And while jazz is by no means a superior art form than the others, it is a fascinating daily adventure into how deep the well of human creativity runs. It’s also one that I find myself honored to marvel at when I go.

So that’s where I’m coming from when I share my bewilderment with these situations. Please understand that I’m not throwing shame and blame on you, the concert-going public, the business side of the industry, or anyone at all. I’m simply setting up a path of reasoning where I can repeat three tired words:

Support. Live. Jazz.

Now if you could manage to dig deeper past the decaying vigor of the night – and past this gloomy, preachy introduction – I promise there was a world of top-notch musical content on display. A world groomed by a pair of saxophone stars-in-the-making backed by one of Chicago’s most solid rhythm sections.


The Players

Roxy Coss (ts)

Sharel Cassity (as)

Ron Perrillo (p)

Dennis Caroll (b)

Xavier Breaker (d)


The evening kicked off with a pair of original compositions: Cassity’s “Through Line” and Coss’ “Wandering One” off her 2010 album. Cassity displayed rapid wails, five-note flurries, and an immediate in/out. Meanwhile, Coss ascribed to long tones, chromaticism, and a gradual build to the wailing. It was a complimentary contrast that smartly punctuates their instrument’s strengths and shows how well the pair adapted to each other’s’ sound for the gig.

With the Jazz Showcase’s giant Bird portrait looking down on them, the quintet then busted out a 240BPM – or more – version of “Confirmation”. I figured we were getting either that tune, “Donna Lee”, or “Au Privave” at some point in the night considering it was Charlie Parker month. It made even more sense considering the double-sax headliners. “Confirmation” is one of the trickiest melodies in the bebop vernacular, but it was easily handled by both Downbeat Critic Poll “Rising Stars”.

The rhythm section maintained a great hold on the song too, increasing their looks and communication to keep up with the chosen tempo. I especially appreciated Ron Perrillo’s choice of chords for comping. They seemed to hold a nice balance between angular and anchoring. You also can’t beat someone who loudly audiates while they solo. Some people find it distracting or context-breaking humorous, and I definitely see that. Still, it’s a characteristic I’ve grown strangely fond of.


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Cassity’s ingenious choice of back-to-back ballads – Monk’s “Ask Me Now” bleeding into Jimmy Van-Heusen’s “Darn That Dream” – worked astoundingly well together. Both are laden with chromatic II-Vs, setting the stage for some great transposition ideas. Since “Now” has more of them than “Dream”, hearing them in that order also felt like one big release. The moment those first three notes to “Dream” rang across were quite nuanced, and realizing them infused me with excitement. Her use of trills on both songs hit me in just the right places at the right time. Poignant is an understatement.

Following that was Coss’ original “Recurring Dream”, written in honor of a friend who had passed away. Having that in mind, I expected a much darker and sentimental tune. Indeed, that’s how it started, but the band wound up soaring coming out if it. Breaker found a real nice groove pocket with active straight eighths. She may not have expanded on the backstory behind the tune, but I like to think the sense of optimism it brought placed the song’s focus on acceptance rather than the pain.

While I also would’ve loved to have seen Coss shake up the timbre and switch to her soprano, clarinet, or flute a she does on her album, it may not have gelled with the night’s emphasis on Parker. Maybe I’m a sucker for jazz flute, but hearing “Hot House” on the instrument – which they played later – would’ve made things real interesting.



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Now’s the time where I discuss women instrumentalists in jazz today. I’m aware many of you – including women – find this topic exhausting or arbitrary. Nonetheless, it’s a trend that’s only increased over time, and one I think we as an audience must accept as the norm – in active thought and subconscious.

Though speaking as a male, I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to experience chauvinism or female-directed prejudice on any level. Relate? Perhaps. Yet as someone who never wants to be disingenuous, I could never speak on a woman’s behalf about women’ issues.

So I won’t. But they can, and have.

In an interview with Kyla Marshell for Okayplayer, Sharel Cassity shares a restrained outlook: “I’m not into supporting women in jazz just because they’re women in jazz. I’m into supporting people who play good music. If they happen to be women, that’s awesome; that’s great. These days, you’re seeing it more often than not. But it didn’t used to be like that.”

If there was ever a balance between prejudice and activism that wasn’t complacency, then Cassity has found it through actualization. It’s fighting being denied, by being wholly undeniable.

Not everyone is built like that however. Push enough people around and inevitably someone will push back in some manner. Though she lets her instruments do most of the talking, Roxy Coss has a few choice words on this subject.

In her personal blog, Coss writes: “Certainly, being a woman in music, I face even further hardships including bigotry and harassment. Being a woman living in NYC adds more struggle. Being specifically in Jazz adds another level of difficulty, especially in our current social climate. Being a female instrumentalist adds complications, too.” Meanwhile in another post she explains, “I personally have heard from men how I am ‘better’ than another female Jazz Musician. Why would this ‘compliment’ be something I want to hear?”

It’s quite interesting to see these partners-in-jazz differ in approaches to the issue, and I would’ve loved to be a fly on that wall when or if they discussed it.

So there, women in jazz. And however you view the issue – real or not – it’s never a wrong move to go out and enjoy the music live. Because each body in the room empowers the musician’s song and spirit.


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If there was anyone up there who had high spirits for a majority of the concert – or just putting up that front really well – it was Chicago mainstay Xavier Breaker (d) with smiles almost the entire time. The “Salt Peanuts” quote in one of his solos put a smile on my face almost as big as his. Aside from all the praises I can sing write about his ideas both in his own solos and those complimentary to others’, I have to appreciate an attitude that can soldier on past indifference – one of an artist’s worst nightmares.

Actually, I have to appreciate the entire quintet’s soldiering that night. Truth be told they’re all adults, so I’m sure their personal feelings are just fine. Being a Chicagoan however, it was more than a slight embarrassment bidding the New York-based saxophone duo farewell in the manner the room did. Nine people of varying sobriety and cellphone worship is hardly what I’d call an engaged audience.


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But enough of the pity party. I may have started this piece with a plea, but I’ll end it with a firm statement. Roxy Coss and Sharel Cassity are two sax voices you need to look out for if you have even a slight interest in jazz music. Their pairing – their first ever this weekend – is a strong one, and I hope the concert-going public gets to see more of them very soon.

I also hope they make a return to Chicago someday. If they do, I’ll make my show a Sunday for sure.

Roxy Coss’ eponymous debut album as well as Sharel Cassity’s latest, Manhattan Romance, are out now.

Article and all pictures by Dominic Guanzon

Corey Wilkes @ Jazz Showcase

Sunday 7/26/15


When you give the music a chance, it takes you somewhere.

It’s as simple as cause and effect. That should be a general theory of jazz relativity or something. Now whether or not you’ll like where you went is entirely up to you and your tastes, but at least you can say the music didn’t bore you.

In the moments leading up to this concert, I got the feeling the night was going to be a let down. It was a Sunday evening and the vibe was excessively low key. The room – which isn’t very big to begin with – was filled only 1/3rd to capacity. Of the audience that was present, there were some scattered regulars and a pair of older couples. Thankfully, despite my unintentional day-to-day efforts to the contrary, I was not the most awkward person in the room.

Behind me was the obligatory underage teenager musician studiously checking out his heroes as well as the local scene. I could tell he was underage by the timid eight seconds it took to order his “water…that’s it”, and I could tell he was a musician because he had gone by himself. I could also make him out to be an awkward dweeb from his stance, haircut, attire, lankiness and barely-there facial hair all screaming “WAITING FOR THAT ACCEPTANCE LETTER”.

Also because that was me to a “T” two years ago in this very venue. Hang in there guy. We’ll never be cool, but we do get less lame. It’s a very cathartic feeling when you realize it.

I turned around and attempted to make some small talk with him before the band took the stage, partly because I want to believe I’m not afraid of people, but mostly so I could honestly tell you that I tried. I got as far as a greeting and his instrument – trumpeter, like Wilkes – but after that I could tell he was completely focused on what was about to unfold on the bandstand.

I can’t blame him. Because even with a weak room, there was going to be a lot to take in from that stage.


The Players

Corey Wilkes (t)

Justefan Thomas (v)

Junius Paul (b)

Greg Artry (d)


From the moment the quartet took the three foot elevation that was the Showcase stage, I got the sense that it didn’t matter to them if more people were showing up or not. We were getting an overdose of jazz music tonight.

Corey Wilkes’ on stage persona can best be described as completely self-encapsulating. It’s about as “in the zone” as you one can get. Take care not to read that as pompous or pretentious. If you give him the room to work – and there was a lot of extra room at the club that night – he’ll come down hard on the solo with conviction. It probably helps that he looked like he was about to pounce on a II-V any second.

And pounce he did.

Almost immediately the group came out of the gate swinging. 16th note runs, 32nd note bursts for Greg Artry’s drums, and in/out playing galore. I guess that’s what happens when it’s the last day of your residency and most of the room are ghosts. I was about as close to press as they were going to get anyway, so they had little to worry about in that regard. The point is, these guys had chops and it looked like they wanted to establish immediately. Mission accomplished.


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Bleeding out of that opener however, came Ornette Coleman’s free jazz classic “Lonely Woman” as ominous and sublime as I’ve ever heard it. After a long, drawn out intro by the drums going what must have been at least four minutes of unrelenting intensity, the melody came into play. I’ve never actually had the pleasure of hearing this song live. I’m most familiar with the original as well as Brad Mehldau’s take on it, but hearing it with Justefan Thomas’ vibraphone created a unique sound because of the darkness of the composition coupled with the brightness of that instrument. The interweaving, give-and-take textures between vibes and trumpet during the melody and behind each other’s’ solos were exceptionally engaging.

Wilkes went all out for his solo – as if there was any other way for him to improvise – complete with exaggerated wails and bends. At times he would feverishly attack his trumpet valve and his own embrasure. Other times he would bring his trumpet 90o all the way up, down, left, and right quickly past the microphone. All of this with the rhythm section visibly and audibly responding. I swear I could also feel Junius Paul’s bass pulses ride the ebb and flow of the solos yet somehow stay consistent, although I will readily admit that could just be an inaccuracy in my reminiscing.


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I’m slowly figuring out that it takes a certain mindset to successfully experience a free jazz piece. The common misconception from the public – me included – is that it’s a green light for the musicians to play whatever the hell they want. It may be the ultimate rule-breaking subgenre, but it’s still jazz. I’m discovering that free jazz is a conscious effort to remove as many of the conventions from the typical standard while placing even more emphasis on the most basic of jazz necessities: communication and collaboration. No matter the song, when a musician stops listening to what’s going around them, then it fails to be jazz.

Really, just give the music a chance. Anyone is capable of being “smart enough” or “weird enough” to hear it. If the kid raised on Carole King, America, and The Beatles – hint, me – can hear this stuff, so can you.

In this regard, I think it’s actually easier to absorb a song like “Lonely Woman” live because you can visually engage yourself with the music. Truth be told I’m still new to the subgenre, but I’ve found this song in particular to a great place to start. It’s a striking emotional statement that immediately grabs you and has a melody that is comparatively easier to absorb. It’s also the epicenter of the movement from a historical standpoint.


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It really is difficult to not compare Wilkes’ style to Miles Davis’. Playing? No. Wilkes’ sound is too aggressive for that. But stylistically and atmospherically, the two ring much closer. I’ve done my best to avoid it this whole article since nearly everyone else has made the same comparison, but it’d be dishonest of me at this point if I didn’t.

The shiny Adidas sneakers with unnecessarily large flaps. The denim jacket with strategically fashionable rips and tears. The pair of gold chain necklaces. The dark brown shades despite night. The spiked hair under the crookedly-worn trilby. The incessant side-to-side body movements that got so low and exaggerated, I’d swear he missed his daily squat quota and was doubling down. It may not be quite what Miles wore, but the spirit of the pronounced individuality is there.

It probably helps Wilkes released an album in 2011 entitled Kind of Miles: Live at the Velvet Lounge. Containing four tracks of Miles-influenced arrangements, it has a distinct soul and groove tinge Wilkes seems to be partial to. It’s also an excellent snapshot of the atmosphere filling the room that night.


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Another highlight of the evening was Wilkes’ funk arrangement of “Nardis/So What” (I thought August was supposed to be Charlie Parker month?). “Nardis” is one of my all-time favorites due in part to its gorgeous melody and cathartic resolutions. “So What” is…do I really need to explain the gravitas of “So What”?

Again, I cannot stress how well Justefan Thomas’ vibes work complemented Wilkes’ sound, at least with darker modal tunes. All of the soloists seemed particularly aware about the pacing of their improvisations. As I mentioned earlier, they wielded great technical prowess, but chose their moments very well. It was a slow burn juxtaposed with unrelenting drive from bass and drum, and fulfillment was the result. Thomas appeared to agree – he had this habit of casually raising his sticks seemingly in victory after every solo.

Even with the funk pocket, “Nardis” still retained a bit of its fragile atmosphere a la the seminal Bill Evans version. That’s a testimony either to the strength Davis‘ compositional skills, Evans’ staying power on the tune, or Wilkes’ smart sense to exploit the emotions that already come with the song. ”So What” on top of that just felt exciting to hear.


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There were other songs on both sets that I couldn’t name, but not many because of the prolonged length of each song. Wilkes also made the creative decision to not talk until the very end of the sets, and he bled several songs together with Paul or Artry setting up vamps. While a boon to rookie writers trying to recall details, even the lack of talking underpinned the night with a sense of cool and modern mystique not easily found. Say what we all might about the Davis-Wilkes connection, but the latter really has forged something unique.

If Wilkes wanted to name his quartet something else, he might try the “Catharsis Quartet” or something way hipper than anything I can imagine. In the meantime, we’ll just have to settle for his excellent brand of extended hard bop soul.

Article and all pictures by Dominic Guanzon.

Snarky Puppy @ City Winery Chicago

Tuesday 6/23/15 


“Difficulty” was my first thought when eight members of the New York-based jazz fusion band filed onto the stage. Calmly, but all smiles.

Difficulty in believing such a band could get any better than their albums, each one already a meticulous-crafted tornado of sound and exuberance and candid effort.

Difficulty in believing this show could somehow top their bombastic performance at The Metro up in the Northside over a year ago in January ’14.

And difficulty in believing the line for this place didn’t stretch around the block. But that’s an unfair notion. I had gotten there early, and the room packed before I could check outside and not risk losing my spot.


The Players

Michael League (b)

Mike Maher (t, fgh)

Chris Bullock (ts)

Bob Lanzetti (g)

Chris McQueen (g)

Cory Henry (kbd, org, synth)

Nate Werth (perc)

Larnell Lewis (d)


There’s hardly any original remark I can add to the incredible commitment to craft readily on display on Snarky Puppy’s albums. Except maybe that they’re ready to blow up into the mainstream. Not the jazz mainstream where they’ve already stolen hearts and minds of the new generation. The real mainstream (an oxymoron), with talk show appearances and Hot Topic t-shirts.

Am I calling those things the epitome popularity? Of course not. In this new golden of screens and content, overexposure is annoyingly bigger than ever. I’m simply talking about the extent of how far Snarky Puppy can go. The inevitable spread of their appeal.

Their venues already draw musicians and music-lovers from all genres and styles. At City Winery, I met EDM enthusiasts, club DJs, and even death metal players who got curious and are paying the awesome price. And of course, you can always rely on the jazz folks who head bang right in the pocket.

Indeed, there’s a reason they have become the crossover vanguards of the jazz fusion scene. Snarky Puppy’s version of having fun is the same way the rest of today’s youth has its fun: jumping around, head banging to sick music. There is no haughty atmosphere you can sometimes get when an especially older group plays at the Jazz Showcase – although they’ve probably earned it. Underpinning the point is that while you’re two bodies away from the juxtaposed scene of Bob Lanzetti’s hands with Bob Lanzetti’s face, no craftsmanship is sacrificed for the sake of having a good time.

In terms of the music itself, believe everything you’ve heard. The “Pups” are musicians first and everything else second when they’re on the stage. Their communication is top-of-the-line. Their uniformity – more pinpoint than a big band’s. Their ability to work a crowd – absolutely sublime.


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Front man Michael League’s (b) work with the Moog Sub Phatty Synthesizer always adds the subtle kick I now find profoundly missing from every electric bass. I couldn’t tell if he was leading the way or just enjoying the ride and occasionally raising his fist so they didn’t spend the next hour shredding on a one-note vamp – which would have been fantastic. The truth is, his various facial expressions somehow managed to be the most bombastic thing on stage that weren’t Cory Henry’s hands or Larnell Lewis’ arms. Some call it distracting, I call it quirky charisma.

Horn section Chris Bullock (ts) and Mike Maher (t, fgh) always have a habit of making their presence known. While they don’t have the same physical freedom of movement the guitars have or as much room as the keys and percussion need, the Pups never leave their horn section out of the action. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to too many blues bars lately where they treat their horns as an afterthought while the bandanna-wearing guitarist playing tacky blues licks over and behind his back has all the fun, but I’ve been keeping my eye on band cohesion and seeing if they communicate with everyone.

Thankfully, the band has made this issue a marked point. As Snarky Puppy told the AU review’s Charly Lindsay in an email interview, “The guys really serve the music, never themselves. We each find a lane and we stay in it. If someone steps out, the rest of us compensate and give them space. I think of it as an ecosystem, and ecosystems require balance.” There was a lot to take in at face value there. Upon closer inspection though, the natural ebb and flow of each player’s contributions has genuine interconnection.

Surprise of the night Chris McQueen (g) jumped on board the Pups’ tour that very night and was an exciting addition. Again, larger groups hold an inherent danger of imbalance which I’m always conscious of. Perhaps it’s why I’m not too keen on big bands (for shame!), or maybe I’m too keen on smaller hard bop groups (impossible)? But again, two guitarists is a problem they’ve proven solved on their albums and didn’t appear that night. When Bob Lanzetti (g) went to a line, McQueen went to a chord or complimentary line. Their interplay on the ever-ethereal “Flood” exemplified this. Of course, it could all be meticulously rehearsed – which is perfectly fine – but I could’ve sworn I saw a slit-second hesitation of good listening from them. A split-second hesitation of good musicianship.

Fan favorite Cory Henry (kbd, org, synth) once again had multiple show-stealing solos on songs like “Lingus” and “Thing of Gold” – the last of which I always love hearing live because of the crowd singing along to the refrain. You can bet the amount of toys he had to play with – a Hammond, a Rhodes, and three other synthesizers – were squeezed out by his first spotlight solo. My words can only bring you so close. Listen to the albums again. Hell, just re-read this article with “Lingus” in the background and you’ll hear it.


Funny thing too, this was the Pups’ self-proclaimed “old stuff” night. If they already consider some of the concert’s numbers like “Shofukan” and “Lingus” from 2014’s We Like it Here “old”, then it’s a good sign the their musical engine isn’t slowing down for an oil change.

Who knows? Maybe there are other Snarky Puppys out there who’ve already surpassed the Pups in musical complexity and quality live performance, but I have yet to hear of one; let alone one who gives their audience this good of a time.

Here come the Pups – out of the dog house and out of their beautiful minds.

Article and all pictures by Dominic Guanzon.


Check out some of Snarky Puppy’s songs on Bandcamp.

Bobby Broom Organi-Sation @ Green Mill

Friday 7/17/15


It’s not too far of a mental stretch to figure out why jazz – particularly instrumental jazz – can be a scary proposition for many people, even self-proclaimed music lovers of other genres. Everyone’s taste is unique of course, but broadly speaking, there exists a noticeable gap between what artists are capable of and what uneducated audiences understand, let alone enjoy.

That begs a multi-faceted debate: Accessibility vs Innovation; Making a Living vs Artistic Expression; Historic vs Forward. Ideally, truth lies in a balance. Focus too much on the past, and you risk culling originality and treating the medium like an irrelevant museum piece that gets cheaply auctioned from buyer’s remorse city to buyer’s remorse city. Forge too far ahead, and you risk outpacing potential fans and potential paychecks, as well as getting caught up in your own ego.

But jazz is an art, and art can do whatever it wants. Besides, artists like Wynton Marsalis have found great success in reviving the past. Conversely, Ornette Coleman was able to influence countless artists and – eventually – find vindication in his explorative work.

I open with these thoughts because of the Organi-Sation’s incredible ease and comfort in finding that balance through jazz interpretations of popular music from the 60s and 70s. That ease and comfort translated into a very warm reception from the Green Mill’s audience, and sometimes – sometimes – art can actually please its audience. Who knew?

Players

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Set 1

Superstition

Nobody Else But Me

I Can’t Help It

Ode to Billy Joe

Guitar Man

Set 2

Jitterbug Waltz

Tadd’s Delight

The Tennessee Waltz

Come Together

Summer Breeze

Layla


Broom certainly isn’t the first to do this of course. Jazz musicians don’t live in a vacuum, and neither should their music. Ella Fitzgerald recorded an album of Beatles covers. Wes Montgomery scored his biggest commercial hit with “Windy”, originally performed by 60s folk rock band The Association. Miles Davis was known to frequent a few jam sessions with Jimi Hendrix and was interested in collaborating for an album until the latter’s untimely death. Just last year, guitarist Dave Stryker committed to the 60s/70s pop concept on last year’s excellent Eight Track with a similar line-up to the Organi-Sation, plus vibes. Broom himself has had most of these songs in his rep since at least his two album releases in 2001 – Modern Man and Stand! He’s probably played them for longer too, but everything before and since then has largely stuck close to the Songbook and original work.

Luck must’ve been on my side that night. Broom explained how this particular performance was the Organi-Sation’s first full set as a group outside of their main gig opening for Steely Dan. He spoke of how he had been able to “throw something together” after being contacted by the band and how that night was a “new chapter” for the group. I was more than happy to partake in that chapter’s opening sentence. How I managed to get a front-row seat a lean and an arm’s length away from the man is beyond me. Chalk it up to the luck.


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The trio opened with “Superstition”, a song they’ve played “a million times”. Still, the group’s interworking were already apparent. Drummer and Chicago native Kobie Watkins made dynamics a strong tool for himself on the tune. Meanwhile, Broom chose to hold close to the blues, a smart choice for a night opener. It’s often said you should start your gig with a song you can play by heart. That way, you can get used to the sound, the room, and the players on that particular night. Bobby Broom didn’t make himself the exception.

Next was “Nobody Else But Me”, an ABAC Jerome Kern Songbook standard rife with modulations. Surprisingly, Broom still held close to plenty of blues licks, but expanding his rhythmic language with 16th note runs and unique one note ideas. Already I could tell the trio knew how to build more than a song: they knew how to build a night, and that tends to be how a group gets more gigs. I know I’d pay for it. Organist Ben Paterson followed his bandleader’s excellent setup with a chops showcase of his own, later playing around Watkins’ 8 trades.

Their cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” really caught me off guard in the best possible way. This was an up arrangement with Watkins playing an African 12 drum pattern. Being a groove tune, taking things faster might seem detrimental to the spirit of the song, but the melody is strong enough to stand on its own. Both Broom and Paterson always came back to it in their solos after five-note flurries and runs.

Further pushing the jazz set list envelope was Bobbi Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”, and pushing it even further was the 7/4 time signature the trio chose to impose over it. Now I’m someone who’s still fascinated and perplexed by solos in 4/4. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with 7/4 (although many would argue to just “throw yourself into it”). Thankfully, the song is comprised of only three chords: I, V, and a subdominant minor right at the end of the form. Again, smart arranging for a smart group.

Closing their first set was “Guitar Man” by Bread, a composition Broom personally loved. It was during this song I realized just how many intro/outro vamps this group employed. During the pre-song ramble, he remarked that he did love the song, but not as much as Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”. According to Broom, Pat Metheny revered that composition so much that Metheny “tried to make everything sound like Wichita Lineman”. Tragically, the group never got around to playing it. Here’s hoping the next night’s patrons were lucky.


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The second set opened with “Jitterbug Waltz” followed by “Tadd’s Delight” by jazz icons Fats Waller and Tadd Dameron, respectively. More blues licks, more rhythmic-centered ideas, and more good music. The group’s comping and drum fills grabbed my attention. I’ve heard it through the musician grapevine that comping behind a soloist is actually harder than playing the solo yourself. It goes against conventional thought, but it makes sense. A rhythm section’s job isn’t just to play the right chords; it’s to make the soloist sound good. Think about that. How do you make someone sound good when you don’t know what they’re going to play? When they don’t even know what they’re going to play?

After finishing “Tadd’s Delight”, Broom commented on his reverence for great jazz players who also doubled as great composers. He named Herbie Hancock, Stanley Turrentine, and Tadd Dameron as examples. Broom himself mentioned that he was “still writing that Great American standard”. It was at that moment I started toying with the notion if there was another “Great American Songbook” to be found in America’s past.


 

Once jazz players began to find their own voice in the mid-40s away from big bands and simplistic melodies of the Songbook, some started to compose songs built from the ground up as true jazz standards. These tunes eventually formed bebop and individualized the jazz idiom. Concurrently, the number of Songbook standards being composed began to slow down. “Night and Day” and “If I Were a Bell” slowly became dated pop songs without replacement.

Once the 50s hit, American pop music turned to “Johnny B. Goode”, “Hound Dog”, “Rock Around the Clock”, and the rebellious sounds of rock and roll. However, much of it held extremely close to the blues thanks to its country roots – prompting the creation of the term “rockabilly”. Look up the chords of those three chart-dominating singles I last mentioned. You’ll notice their chord progressions are all practically the same with small variations: I-IV-I-V-I. They’re the barebones blues changes.  Since jazz musicians had already been hammering out the blues for decades before the 50s, I can reasonably infer they found early rock to be fairly redundant.

In the 60s and 70s, the genres of Motown, British Invasion, and folk rock dominated popular culture just as rockabilly did. Just as jazz was busy innovating in its own realm, these sounds began to push the boundaries of what rockabilly had established. If not in more complex harmonies and melodies, then in its moods and atmospheres. Bubblegum pop songs like “Chantilly Lace” were phased out by the songs Bobby Broom and the Organi-Sation would bring to the forefront to close their second set. They included “Come Together”, “Summer Breeze”, and “Layla”.

A dark British Invasion classic, a 70s soft rock hit, and a blue-eyed blues tune. Perhaps it’s forced to try and place an overarching label over all these genres; but if the original Great American Songbook lasted from the 20s to the 50s and included songs from Broadway, movies, and commercial hit-makers, then who’s to say it can’t happen again? As the trio demonstrated, they’re just malleable enough to become part of the jazz musician’s repertoire.


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After the second set, I managed to catch Mr. Broom coming off the stage and introduced myself. Without hesitation, he invited me outside of the crowded room to take pictures, ask questions, and lend his voice to a radio sweeper. I had a sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind that he just wanted to feel the evening summer breeze, but his attitude couldn’t have been more genuine.

If you ever catch this blues-leaning, 60s/70s-appreciating jazz guitarist in Chicago or elsewhere, make the effort to check him out. Whether you’re with jazz fanatics or not, everyone is bound to find at least a few tunes to recognize and enjoy.

Article and all pictures by Dominic Guanzon.


Check out some of Bobby Broom’s songs on SoundCloud.

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