The Year in Jazz: Twin Cities 2014


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I could join others and come up with a top ten recordings list, or a top ten gig list— although it seems that, save Pamela Espeland, I would probably be alone in the media in naming a best of anything in jazz for 2014. Instead, I am going to try to recap what I think are the year's jazz highlights more generally.

Despite starting on the very down note of the closing of the Artists Quarter, on balance, 2014 was really a bright year for the local jazz scene:

Jazz Heroes

Although we lost the Artists Quarter, the only fulltime “jazz club" in the area, a handful of local entrepreneurial artists were largely responsible for maintaining, even increasing, the number of jazz performances, as well as opportunities for building audiences and supporting student musicians:

Jeremy Walker. Jeremy has long earned the title of Jazz Impresario, since founding Brilliant Corners more than a decade ago, followed by Jazz Is Now. In addition to composing music and releasing the recording for his Seven Psalmsthis past spring, Jeremy successfully proposed a jazz concert series at Orchestra Hall, in the Target Atrium, which got underway in early December and continues through spring 2015.

Zacc Harris. The versatile guitarist and busy bandleader is into a fourth season curating Jazz at Studio Z, putting on a nearly monthly concert and accompanying master class with the top artists and ensembles in the region and sometimes well beyond. Early in 2014, he presented England-based bassist Michael Janisch and his all-star ensemble. Watch for Bill Carrothers and his Irish trio on January 10th.

JT Bates. After a hiatus as a curator (since the closing of the Clown Lounge), JT picked up where he left off when the Icehouseopened in 2013, and his Monday night Jazz Implosion series keeps the avant-garde end of the local jazz scene front and center. And he occasionally brings in artists from the international scene as well, like Tom Rainey and Ingrid Laubrock.

Steve Kenny. Trumpeter and bandleader Steve Kenny brought new jazz programming to two venues in 2014: With a state arts board grant, he presided over a ten-week “All Originals" concert series at Studio Z, bringing a different band every Thursday night to perform original compositions. And starting in late September, Steve launched a weekly Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog series that is on the calendar for every Saturday in 2015. In many ways this series recreates the weekend gigs at the Artists Quarter, featuring many of the same ensembles and same artists who defined the AQ's music. The space is small and the jazz crowds overflowing, but watch for expansion (of both!) in 2015. (Sara Remke, owner of the Black Dog, has increased jazz programming in general — add her to our hero list!) Another contribution from Steve is his support of young up-and-comers. As he did for five years with his Bastids at the AQ, Steve pulls in young talents and nurtures them a la Art Blakey, currently via his Group 47 ensemble which includes three college students. He is also booking young and new ensembles for many of the opening sets on the Black Dog series. And if all the above was not enough, a few weeks ago Steve and Illicit Productions released the Twin Cities Jazz Sampler, highlighting thirteen recordings from thirteen bands from the past few years. There's no better documentation of the vitality of the Twin Cities Jazz Scene. And Steve calls it Volume One.

Mac Santiago. Mac and Tanner Taylor opened Jazz Central Studios about four years ago, and for a couple years struggled to find an audience and a rhythm to the nonprofit space's programming. The space is relatively small, the sightlines relatively poor, and parking challenging. But over the past year things seem to have fallen into place, even as Mac took over sole management with Tanner relocating to Iowa. Jazz Central can now claim to be the only full-time jazz space in the metro, with live music at least five nights per week, and with programming that covers pretty much the full range of jazz, from mainstream featured artists to big bands to improvising ensembles to vocal jazz. And Friday nights offer the Bridge Series, “bridging the gap" left by the closing of the Artists Quarter. Many of the Friday night artists were regular performers at the AQ. Often these Bridge gigs are followed by high school and college student jams. Visiting artists often perform at JC on Saturdays, and the space is used for workshops during off-hours. Mac is like a Jazz Santa with a crew of super elves who curate Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights— Anthony Cox, Pete Whitman, Chris Bates and Graydon Peterson (Wednesday New Music), Maryann Sullivan (Thursday Vocal Jazz), and Zacc Harris (Friday Bridge Series).

Steve Heckler. Producer of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival since its inception, Steve has greatly expanded the opportunities for local and national artists to perform, adding venues throughout the general downtown Saint Paul area and beyond. The 2014 festival had more bands and venues than ever before, and even more is promised for 2015. A few months ago, Steve announced that the festival was awarded the largest of the Knight Foundation grants to support festivals in 2015 and 2016, and named drummer Francisco Mela as the festival's first Artistic Director.

Pippi Ardennia. There are a lot of jazz artists devoting part of their careers to educating the next generation but few, if any, have taken the approach of PipJazz Youth. Vocalist Pippi Ardennia doesn't just invite young artists to perform. She puts them into her concerts as guest artists with her house band. They are paid for the gig, expected to rehearse with the band, solo with the band, and otherwise function like professionals while receiving on-the-job mentoring from seasoned veterans like Billy Peterson and Glenn Swanson. And once a student musicians has appeared with Pippi, there's a strong probability that he or she will be invited back and receive more performance and mentoring opportunities over time.

Jeff Whitmill. Jeff directs the arts programs at St. Barnabas Lutheran Church in Plymouth, and for the past ten years or so, has curated a monthly “Jazz @St. Barney's“ concert series that brings the best of mainstream jazz to the west suburbs. Jeff's guest artists form an extensive “who's who" in metro vocal and instrumental jazz, including the likes of Connie Evingson, Maud Hixson, Rick Carlson, Travis Anderson, Phil Mattson, Butch Thompson, Rhonda Laurie, Mary Louise Knutson and an annual holiday blast “Big Band Christmas." The west metro maintains an active, high quality jazz presence thanks to Jeff.

Jazz Musicians. This is really not a cop out. Anyone who performs and/or teaches this music is not in it for fame or money, but to support the art form. For those of us who take a more passive role in the jazz community, you are our heroes every night.

Jazz Recordings

Can't talk about jazz highlights without mentioning the music that went onto CD or vinyl in the past year. And the easiest way to cover the most music is to point to the Twin Cities Jazz Sampler, produced by Steve Kenny (see above). Of the included tracks recorded in the past year, we enjoyed debut releases from the Adam Meckler Orchestra (When the Clouds Look Like This), Good Vibes Trio, Courageous Endeavors (Prototype), and Group 47 (Straight to Vinyl), as well as the first release from the Chris Lomheim Trio in 20 years (Timeline). But there were more worthy recordings in 2014, including the long-awaited debut from Firebell (Impossible Vacation); the December release of Aaron Hedenstrom's A Moment of Clarity; a duo guitar release from local veteran Joel Shapira and New York partner Jack DeSalvo (Inherence); another duo guitar release from local artist David Martin and his Portland, OR cohort Mike Doolin (Tough Commute); a fun-for-all swingfest from Patty (Patrick Harison) and the Buttons (Mercury Blues); an intriguing assemblage of improvisation and original composition from Steven Hobert (Ocean Eyes); the original epic work from Jeremy Walker, 7 Psalms; and a stunning vocal/piano release from Barbara Meyer and Phil Mattson (Down and Up With Love). Although he now lives in Chicago, Bruce Henry's Live and Natural was recorded while he was a Twin Citian, and we have every reason to claim it. And perhaps most remarkable of all, 95-year-old Irv Williams gave us one more, Then Was Then and Now Is Now. In jazz, in the Twin Cities, Now Is Now.

Jazz Events

Every year we are blessed with diverse events, gigs, and moments in jazz that linger long after the final notes. 2014 was no excepts. In chronological order, and hardly exhaustive, some highlights of the year:

Studio Z Winter Jazz Fest (February 15). Another Zacc Harris brainstorm, this night of nonstop jazz included sets from five of our best modern ensembles— Atlantis Quartet, Zacc Harris Group, Fat Kid Wednesdays, Bryan Nichols Quintet and Graydon Peterson Quartet.

Dakota's “Vocal Showcase" (February-March). During a four-week stretch, the Dakota presented three of the hottest voices in modern jazz— Kurt Elling (February 13), Gregory Porter (February 16) and Cecile McLorin Salvant (March 9). Any one of these artists makes for a memorable night, but hearing veteran Elling and then two of the most lauded newcomers within such a short period of time was inspirational and jaw-dropping.

Good Vibes Trio, CD Celebration at Creation Audio (April 6). One of the landmark band debuts of the past couple years was the launch of Chris Bates' Good Vibes Trio (with Dave Hagedorn and Phil Hey), a modern Modern Jazz Quartet minus piano. The trio released its first recording this spring, starting with a small celebration at Creation Audio where the recording was made. It's an intimate space run by Steve Weise, and the interaction among musicians and audience was the one thing that could not be captured on the recording.

·Matt Slocum and Friends at Landmark Center (April 9-10). Twin Cities native drummer Matt Slocum returned with his trio (Sam Yahel and Massimo Biolcati) for two nights at Landmark Center, celebrating his acclaimed CD, Black Elk's Dream. But this was not jus a Slocum showcase, as each night included not only Slocum's trio but also sets from local pals. Both nights included a drum duel between Matt and mentor Phil Hey; the Phil Hey Quartet appeared on the first night, with a solo set from Bryan Nichols and the Dave Karr Quartet on the second night. It was two nights of pure pleasure .

Ragmala Dance with Rudresh Mahanthappa at Walker Art Center (May 15-18). Jazz often finds its way into multi-media productions, perhaps because it is a relatively elastic art form that can be interpreted to fit diverse contexts. The acclaimed Ragmala Dance company collaborated with Rudresh Mahanthappa (sax) along with guitarist Rez Abbasi for a spectacular run of Carnatic movement and music, Song of the Jasmine. Then they took it on the road.

Jazz Central All-Stars (May-September). A new addition to the Twin Cities Jazz Festival was this ensemble of six musicians connected to Jazz Central Studios. Their mission was to take jazz on tour throughout small towns in Minnesota, to build an outstate audience for jazz and to provide some educational experiences for young musicians as well. Wherever they went (including Sauk Center, Luverne, Montivideo, Fairbault), the all-stars were well received; for many in the audiences this was a rare opportunity to hear live jazz.

Twin Cities Jazz Festival (June). With Steve Heckler leading the way (see above), the Twin Cities Jazz Festival is becoming more widely known and more widely attended. The fest continued its Jazz in the Library collaboration with St Paul Public Libraries, whetting jazz appetites with popular performers gigging in the weeks leading up to the festival itself. There were four outdoor stages this year, each with its own corporate sponsor; there were more than 20 small indoor venue throughout downtown St Paul and, for the first time, along the “Green Line" LRT corridor of University Avenue. Final night rains caused some chaos but all headliners found other venues and the sets with Melissa Aldana, Joe Krown and Dianne Reeves took place in smaller, indoor settings. It was a textbook study of flexible logistics.

Zeitgeist Composers at the Festival (June 26-28). A new feature of the jazz festival was a two-night series of Zeitgeist's commissions, granted to four local jazz composers for new works that were presented during the festival. These composers included Zacc Harris, Chris Bates, Steve Kenny and Davu Seru.

Francois and Sylvan Rabbath (July). Noted bassist and educator Francois Rabbath was in town for the Twin Cities Bass Camp at McNally Smith, and gave a magical performance at the History Theater. A couple nights later, his son, pianist Sylvan Rabbath, gathered some local heavyweights for a gig at The Icehouse. The French Connection was stunning in both settings.

Jazz Night at Khyber Pass Cafe (Thursdays).Jazz keeps popping up in unlikely spaces, and one of the most unlikely would have to be the dining room of Khyber Pass Cafe- -a relatively small Afghani spot near the Macalester campus. At 9 pm on Thursdays, tables are pushed out of the way and some of the most experimental creators take the “stage" in solo or small ensemble configurations. Music is jointly curated by Adam Linz, Davu Seru, Milo Fine and Paul Metzger; the cover is only $5; and you can order an exotic small plate to accompany solo Mike Lewis, a new band led by Adam Linz (Le Percheron) and more. Some of the area's youngest innovators have appeared with the well-established avant garders.

Irv Williams 95th Birthday (July 26, August 17). Taking a break from his weekly happy hour gig at the Dakota, the elder statesman of Twin Cities jazz celebrated his 95th birthday twice this summer: In late July, he released That Was Then, This Is Now with a party at the Russian Museum of Art and with live music from his trio (with Steve Blons and Billy Peterson). A few weeks later, Irv held a birthday party at the Dakota with a lot of surprise guests, including Bobby Lyle. We should all have so much energy in our 60s and 70s let alone 90s.

Chris Lomheim Trio, CD release at Studio Z (October 18). There were a lot of CD release gigs in 2014 but this one was special in many ways. First, the Chris Lomheim Trio had not recorded an album in nearly two decades. Second, Lomheim himself had done very little composing in nearly two decades. Armed with a state arts board grant, Chris set to work on a set of compositions, gathered old pals Gordy Johnson and Jay Epstein, and spent a few sessions at Wild Sound Studios, yielding Timelines. The celebration took place at Studio Z where it sold out in advance.More chairs were squeezed in and the overflow crowd was treated to an night of gorgeous compositions from a threesome that can stand up to any contemporary comparison.

Jazz in the Target Atrium, series launch (December 2). Jeremy Walker's new series began as a late set following the Jazz at Lincoln Center concert with Cecile McLorin Salvant. So it was already a great evening. Walker played with his “Atrium Jazz Ensemble" (Anthony Cox and JT Bates), alongside three JALCO horns (Marcus Printup, Ted Nash and Vincent Gardner), standards and original Walker tunes. With an audience of about 100 and surrounded by windows opening to Peavy Plaza, it felt a little like Dizzy's at JALC.

Dean Granros live! Once a busy performer in the area, over the past few years, guitar master Granros has been seldom heard, typically with How Birds Work. But in the past year, we have seen a lot more of Dean, in particular in duo with Joel Shapira (CD coming next week!) and heading his own double guitar quartet with Zacc Harris, Chris Bates and Jay Epstein, at the Black Dog and Jazz Central. Keep the magic coming, Dean!

Kenny Horst, unretired. Although he is certainly playing less than when he owned the Artists Quarter, any fears that Kenny would retire from the trapset were unfounded. We've had the pleasure of hearing Kenny over the past year at Jazz Central, The Nicollet and the Black Dog, with his own quartet and with Steve Kenny's What Would Monk Do. He's keeping his sticks sharp and there is no more joyful drummer in town.

Leigh Kamman (1922-2014). The passing of Leigh Kamman gave us a chance to remember his lengthy list of contributions to both the local and national jazz scenes through his extensive interviews and broadcasts. We'll start 2015 with a tribute to Leigh and The Jazz Imageat the Saint Paul Hotel (January 25).

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