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Anest, Kendrick, & McKinney: Live at the Blue LLama, Volume 1 & 2

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When it comes to talent, there's no shortage of gifted jazz artists that call Michigan their home. The Jones brothers long ago put Detroit on the map, but water-tight music programs at Michigan State and the University of Michigan have produced a thriving community of vital musicians. On any given evening, there's live jazz to be found in many night spots from Northport to Kalamazoo.

A veteran of the Ann Arbor scene for many years, guitarist Alex Anest can boast a healthy catalog of some fifteen albums as a leader and a couple dozen more as a sideman. With big ears and far reaching interests, Anest has learned the vernacular of not only the jazz genre, but also other styles such as progressive rock. His sound is distinguished by a warm and ringing tone, yet he doesn't shy away from the use of pedals and other effects.

For years Anest had wanted to form an organ trio and just prior to the pandemic he pulled together the one heard here on two volumes recorded live at Ann Arbor's premier jazz club, The Blue LLama. Organist Corey Kendrick is a Midwesterner with a Michigan connection via time spent at Michigan State. He has also worked with an A-list of leaders including Etienne Charles and Rodney Whitaker. The daughter of Detroit legend Harold McKinney, drummer GayeLynn McKinney first caught attention as a member of the all-female jazz group, Straight Ahead. A first-call musician, she boasts a special touch that makes her a favorite of vocalists, including Martha Reeves, Freda Payne, and the late Aretha Franklin.

Anest, Kendrick, & McKinney
Live at the Blue LLAma Vol. 1
Self Produced
2021

Culled from performances in April, June, and November of 2019, the first volume of Live at the Blue LLama was issued in 2021 by Anest himself and features seven chestnuts gathered from a variety of sources. The opening "Chitlins Con Carne" is an obvious nod to Detroit jazz luminary Kenny Burrell. Anest makes the music his own with a driving beat and linear phrases of great interest. The opening vamp is then used as a platform for a sagacious drum statement from McKinney.

Two classics from the pen of Duke Pearson are part of the line-up and are highlights of the set. Both "Nomad" and the title track from Grant Green's Idle Moments are far from staples in the jazz books of most musicians, although they should be. Anest and crew do them both proudly, with McKinney's toms joining the stabbing accents of "Nomad's" prickly opening line.

A sprightly bossa beat propels Anest's resourceful version of Chick Corea's "500 Miles High." However, the most intriguing choice of material has to be the inclusion of saxophonist Ernie Krivda's "Panhandle Hook." The tune was released on the Cleveland legend's notable 1986 album Tough Tenor,Red Hot. The piece's raggedy, old-world hook is indeed the kind of earworm that will stick with you for days and the trio bristles with excitement as they eat up the changes.

The closing "On the Midnight Special" is from the pen of Pat Martino and makes for a perfect nightcap, not to mention a great example of Anest at his best. As his solo builds in intensity, his stinging, single-note runs tastefully lead into a series of lush octaves delivered with a tip of the hat to the renowned Wes Montgomery.

Anest, Kendrick, & McKinney
Live at the Blue LLama Vol. 2
Self Produced
2023

Delving further into tapes from 2019, Anest recently released a second set of performances from the Blue LLama as a vinyl exclusive. The two-record set was mastered by Clinton Holley and Dave Polster at Well Made Music and then pressed at Gotta Groove Records in Cleveland. This limited release features a random selection of colored vinyl, making each set unique.

Anest waxes poetic on a smoldering take of "Angel Eyes," with McKinney punctuating key moments with her classy ride cymbal hits. The tempo steps up for the following "Where's Timmy?," the lone Anest original. The rollicking number gains momentum thanks to McKinney's rim clicks on all four beats. As Anest cultivates his solo, one can hear strains of the blues and country music for a palate akin to some of Bill Frisell's music. Kendrick clearly finds the changes to his liking as well, delivering a solo full of resourcefulness and spirit.

The shadows of Duke Pearson and Grant Green again loom large in the selection of material on this second volume. There's another version of "Idle Moments" here along with two new pieces. "Chant" might be Pearson's most known compositions, and Kendrick comes out of the gate eating up the complex changes with an incendiary solo that is one of his best. The sunny disposition of "Jean De Fleur" cooks from the first note, with Anest recalling Green in guitar tone by the time his fiery solo takes flight.

Anest has managed to mix up his material in a way that brings variety and leads to a natural ebb and flow. The Sonny Rollins' trinket "St. Thomas" gets the pots on for a romp where Anest cooks repeated phrases to perfection. The trio also brings a fresh outlook to "Sweet Georgia Bright," another number that finds good, old-fashioned swinging at a premium. A piece by Anest contemporary Peter Bernstein, "Just a Thought," is also worthy of mention as the trio shines in the manner that they support each other. Clearly this is an organ trio with great potential. As such, further developments will be highly anticipated.

Tracks and Personnel

Live at the Blue LLama Vol. 1

Tracks: Chitlins Con Carne; Willow Weep for Me; Nomad; 500 Miles High; Panhandle Hook; Idle Moments; On the Midnight Special.

Personnel: Alex Anest: guitar; Corey Kendrick: organ; Gayelynn McKinney: drums.

Live at the Blue LLama Vol. 2

Tracks: Angel Eyes; Where's Timmy?; Chant; Jean De Fleur; St. Thomas; Sweet Georgia Bright; Just a Thought; Dolphin Dance; Idle Moments.

Personnel: Alex Anest: guitar; Corey Kendrick: organ; Gayelynn McKinney: drums.

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