Monday, December 15, 2014

Take Five, Take Two

I’m not a journalist, I’m a blogger. As much as some bloggers on the national scene try to blur the distinction, I hold too much respect for Kansas City’s journalists to pretend to be something I’m not. Nonetheless, I contribute an occasional article to The Pitch, KC’s alternative weekly. A couple months back I wrote an introduction to the new location of Take Five. The editors wisely adjusted the focus of the article from the space and acoustics, as I wrote it, to the people. And they were right. The editors at The Pitch are among the professionals I respect.

The story is a bit dated now. Many of Kansas City’s jazz aficionados have experienced the wonderful new space, and all of the references to upcoming shows are shows which have passed. However, some may yet find this alternative take interesting. And since I have this blog where I can share it, below it is shared.

*****

Walk into the new Take Five Coffee + Bar and immediately you notice the stage.

Customers knew Take Five by its lantern lights dangling from the ceiling and slanted wood beams. But at 26 feet across, defined by stacked stone, surrounding a house piano and drum kit, and visible from any seat in the room, the stage is the new Take Five’s visual signature.

“We never have been, at least after the first six months, your average coffee shop,” says owner Lori Chandler.

Six months into its original location at 151st and Nall, in July, 2010, Take Five held a fundraiser for local jazz ensemble Diverse. Four years later, Take Five had built a reputation as a suburban mecca for jazz. With superb acoustics and a living room ambiance, weekends might find wall-to-wall fans delighting in Kansas City's renaissance of young and veteran jazz talent. People were going out to listen to jazz in Johnson County.

“We’re either a coffee shop with a night job or a jazz club with a day job,” explains Chandler. “I don't know which. But they all work together and they have to work together. The music business is hard. The coffee shop business is hard. Putting them together has made it not so hard.”

Then last November, developers of Corbin Park called. The once-stalled shopping development at 135th and Metcalf, anchored by Von Maur, envisioned a strip of shops along a curving drive behind the department store as a mini entertainment district. From the initial discussion, developers understood the unique coffee shop-bar-jazz club that Chandler and her husband Doug had built. Lori remembers, “They were like, we know what you’ve been doing. We know how hard it is to have done that in the shopping center where you are. We know you have a great customer base. We know you do live music.” Corbin Park offered more than double the space.

Musicians and fans were delighted over Take Five’s success, but also felt trepidation. The jazz community had something special here. The acoustics were delightful happenstance. Nobody, not even Lori or Doug, expected jazz in that little shop to sound so perfect. And the cozy atmosphere was integral to the experience. Downtown’s Green Lady Lounge is another jazz club where the audience becomes a part of the stage, nearly sitting in musicians’ laps. But Green Lady isn’t a listening room. Take Five is. Could Take Five really be replicated in a larger space?

“I think we did it,” says Lori. “It was 100 percent by design. This orange is the exact same color as we had at the shop over there. We knew we needed the stacked stone. The only thing we’re missing is the wood beams.” Lori continues. “We wanted the low rise, so we still had that intimacy. It’s not a three foot or four foot stage. You’re still right there with the musicians, but they have a more defined space to work in. And we put in wood floors instead of tiles, which helps acoustically, but also all of the woodwork here brings the element of the beams that we had before, just in a different place. That was the goal.” The wood floor can also be used for dancing.

The front door opens to a bar at your right, to order drinks and food. Stools line one counter. Booths are tucked in by the windows, an area where people can talk. Then, to the left, is the living room, with plush chairs in front of the stage and tables and seats spread about. This area faces the stage. Over here, when musicians perform, don’t talk.

The entire shop is designed for acoustics. “The room is set on a whole bunch of different angles,” Lori explains. “The stage is angled. The acoustic tiles are slanted six inches back to front. This here” – she points to a slanted beam descending from the ceiling, over the ordering counter on the right – “breaks up the room. All of those things serve to trap sound.” She points towards another beam, facing the windows, designed to suppress sound from the espresso machine. “That was one of the problems we had in the old space. If you’re trying to make drinks, especially run a blender in the middle of a bass solo, we would have to take the blender back into the kitchen. The goal is we could be making drinks and the sound from the espresso machine goes up into the acoustic tiles and gets caught by that beam.”

More than double the space brings advantages. The old location had 32 seats before folding chairs were brought out. The new location seats 80. Lori adds, “We’ll have stacking chairs available. If we fill this place up and need to bring those out, that will be a wonderful problem.”

More space also means a complete kitchen. “We’re going to have an expanded appetizer menu,” Lori says. “We’re going to have expanded sandwich menus as well. We’re going to do Cubans, we’re going to do pulled pork. We’re going to have daily specials. We’re going to have expanded salads. We’re going to have options so you can get breakfast for dinner if you want to.”

Take Five will add a Sunday brunch from 10:00 to 2:00 starting November 2nd with Mark Lowrey. “It will always be a piano ensemble. No vocals. Brunch is an opportunity for families to gather together and talk. It will be the one music event where we don’t ask people to be quiet.”

Weekend jazz begins Friday, September 24th when saxophonist Rob Scheps returns with Steely Dan saxophonist Roger Rosenberg. Stan Kessler's double drummer group Parallax performs on Halloween night, in costume. And Sunday, November 2nd is the official reopening (they’re calling it a housewarming) with the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City.

And while you’re there. just try to think of another coffee shop designed to hear bass solos.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Two Bassists, Two CDs

At first I thought it was mournful, perhaps becuase of its deliberate pace, but that's wrong. The opening tune of Bob Bowman’s new CD, Songs for Sandra is a statement of respect. The Very Thought of You, a musical conversation between Bowman on bass and Laura Caviani on piano, like friends in a living room tossing stories back and forth, evokes a feeling of delicately smiling at a memory.

Bowman lost his wife Sandra last year. This album remembers her through music of grace and joy.

Take guitarist Danny Embrey's composition, Another Time. Solos by Embrey, pianist Roger Wilder and Bowman build from a quiet playfulness to shaking your head with delight, and with respect. There’s an abundance of delight here. Bowman’s composition, Sandra’s Gait, conjures an image of someone who doesn't walk but jauntily skips through her day. Wilder’s song, Street Cartwheels, musically paints a picture of friskiness and mirth. The final number, Caviani’s Sandra in the Flinthills, brings the CD to a close with a tender gracefulness.

Bowman is joined by some of Kansas City’s best musicians. Besides Wilder and Embrey, numbers include guitarist Rod Fleeman and drummer Todd Strait. Singer Karrin Allyson and drummer Eliot Zigmund are among the contributing guests.

This is not a somber CD. It sketches a portrait with deference but, more than that, with an abundance of glee. I saw Sandra at many of Bowman’s performances. I can’t say that I knew her. But after smiling through this CD, I wish I did.

Songs for Sandra is available on CD Baby here.

*****

I praise Kansas City’s jazz musicians regularly for their performance, but don't recognize often enough their stellar compositions. I heard it Saturday night, as Rich Wheeler’s group performed music by T.J. Martley and Bill McKemy. You hear it on the new releases from Diverse and The Project H. You hear it on numbers on Bob Bowman's new CD, as mentioned above.

And throughout Tyrone Clark's new CD, Music in the Grain, you delight in intriguing, sometimes complex but always captivating original compositions, performed by some of the finest musicians playing jazz in Kansas City today.

The opening track, Hello Alaadeen, pays tribute to Clark’s mentor, Ahmad Alaadeen, starting with guest Bobby Watson’s saxophone then smartly building with Charles Gatschet’s guitar, Joe Cartwirght’s piano, Michael Warren's drums and Clark's bass. It swings in a slightly perverse yet highly inviting way. Fay Fay swings like Basie, opening with Clark’s playful bass and Warren’s driving drums, before Gatschet’s guitar and Cartwright’s piano join the party. The celebration jumps into Temptations-style funky soul on Midwest Girl with Everett Freeman’s keyboards and Watson’s sax peppering the mix. Nutty Peach turns the funk up a notch. Guitar blithely soars over vibrant rhythm on Traveling and Brazilian Dance, with a sway of funk returning to the attitude on Drive Thru. The pace is reigned in a bit on the last two numbers, a contemporary ballad and a gospel with an attitude.

Mostly, this is music inviting you to party and dance with joy. To some the styles may seem to stray from a strict definition of jazz. But maybe they don’t. Because, after all, while the beats here may mirror 2014 sensibilities, isn’t music inviting you to dance with delight where jazz in Kansas City began?

Music in the Grain is available on CD Baby here and on iTunes here. The official CD release party is this Thursday, December 11th, at The Blue Room.


Monday, December 1, 2014

The Magic Jazz Fairy Calls It a Career

It chuckled. There was the bar on Locust, about 13th Street, it recalled. Didn’t last long. When the musicians walked in for their gig, the manager asked how big a crowd he should prepare for. He hadn’t promoted anything. He just expected bands to arrive with an entourage. That place was probably the worst.

So many years and so many clubs. The Magic Jazz Fairy leaned forward in its chair, wings folded neatly behind its back, smiling at the memories. It was about to leave on one last flight. Tonight Kansas City’s Magic Jazz Fairy would make a final visit to all of the area’s sleeping jazz fans and whisper in their ears. Then it would retire.

Five years ago the Magic Jazz Fairy couldn’t imagine retiring in peace. Five years ago, Kansas City’s jazz scene was mired in turmoil, and the Fairy only made the situation worse.

*****

But first, the basics. Historically, some bar and restaurant owners have booked jazz but failed to promote it. You can’t blame them. Just running that establishment fills their day. You also want them to market the music they book to draw guests? For pity’s sake, if these owners wanted to be music promoters they would have gone out and discovered the Beatles.

No, they expect word to get out despite their not helping. They expect jazz fans to know where jazz can be heard and to show up. And if we don’t, they proclaim that jazz is dead.

Because they know word will be spread by the Magic Jazz Fairy.

In every city, the Magic Jazz Fairy ferrets out where and when jazz is happening. Then late at night, while jazz fans sleep, it flies quickly and quietly into every fan’s home and whispers into their ear where to find the music, so we wake up knowing, just knowing, where to go.

That must be how it happens. No other explanation makes sense.

*****

Five years ago in Kansas City, jazz struggled, trapped in a deadly spiral. Few jazz clubs promoted their schedules. Sure, one or two would post them online. But most found maintaining public calendars a mundane, even evil, burden. One club would give the wrong day and time for special performances to The Kansas City Star’s columnist. Fans, confused, didn’t know where to go. Clubs closed or abandoned jazz in a fit to survive. You wanted to hear jazz in Kansas City? Right. Now quit being a troublemaker and go find yourself a nice country bar.

Our Magic Jazz Fairy looked out over the Kafkaesque landscape and murmured, yeah, like I can make a difference. In fear and despair, it started to drink. Soon it was spending its days and nights in dark urban bars, shirking responsibilities, flying nowhere and whispering nothing.

Few dared to promote jazz. Few dared to face the community’s scorn. From all appearances, jazz in Kansas City was doomed.

*****

From the wilderness, in one of the city’s few remaining jazz clubs, a stunning young voice sang standards. Another mixed jazz with pop, swinging late at night with a vibrant, contemporary lilt.

Another musician reached out with his saxophone, another with his trumpet, a couple more with a bass, a few on piano, and on drums. Their talent was extraordinary. What was wrong with these young musicians? Didn’t they understand that nobody played jazz anymore?

These young musicians didn’t just want to play jazz. They approached jazz with a 21st century sensibility. Sure, a club owner stands to reap the greatest benefit from drawing a crowd and has the greatest incentive to promote. But these young sprites understood that they they could promote, too, by establishing a following and telling that following where they could be heard. Selling yourself is part of building any career. They recognized that today, for a musician offstage, that’s largely accomplished online. They recognized it’s not 1930 anymore.

Kansas City’s jazz scene started to capture attention, to nudge those who would listen, with the energy of youth. A new club featuring jazz opened. Then another. Then one more. And these new owners, these jazz entrepreneurs, were equally 21st century savvy. Their online presence prominently featured calendars and schedules. Finally, people could go online and find out when and where to hear jazz at a variety of locations. And fans turned out for it. The remaining established clubs reworked their web sites and started updating their calendars, too.

The Magic Jazz Fairy looked around, amazed at the activity swirling around it. Quickly, it sobered up.

*****

The night air was a bit chilly for this final flight, so the Magic Jazz Fairy pulled on a jacket.

Put the jazz resurgence in perspective, it thought. No bars are giving up country for big band music. But the growth is real. Real enough that an aging mystical being can again look out on a self-perpetuating scene. Young talent continues to populate it. At some venues, younger faces are filling the audiences, too. Weeknights can be iffy, but clubs are drawing crowds on weekends. Calendars are easy to find online, and mostly maintained. The smarter owners and musicians are finding just enough time to tease performances with social media. This isn’t the 1930s, or even he 1980s. But jazz in Kansas City is, modestly, starting to thrive.

Kansas City jazz had outgrown a need for the Fairy’s services. The public was finding the music without its help. Now was the right time to relax and retire.

Then a thought hit it. The mystical being’s eyes narrowed. “If anyone starts screwing up,” thought the Magic Jazz Fairy, “I’ll be back.”

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Week Off

No thoughts, profound or otherwise, on Kansas City and jazz as I take a week off. So instead, go out and hear some music. That's what I plan to do. Musings should return next week.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Jazz Clubs Last Saturday Night

The surrounding shopping center is still being built. And if you try to find a parking spot right out front, but none are available, you have to circle around and drive back to the street to reach the other lot – the one you see right there, in plain sight, but can’t get to – from another entrance. I expect someday this will all connect and the planning for that lot will make sense. But today, it doesn’t. It’s that new.

I walked in five, maybe ten minutes after the music started, and nearly every seat was filled. There were a few open ones in the booths by the espresso machine, the area where talking over the music isn't discouraged. I snagged one in the back. Before the end of the set, folding chairs were being set up for the crowd continuing to flow in. That's how it's been since the place opened, I’m told.

The audience was overwhelmingly young. I wasn’t the only gray-haired guest, but I sat largely surrounded by high school students. Most others in the audience looked like twenty- and thirty-somethings. And everybody was listening. The few conversations heard here and there while musicians played were short. These people came for jazz.

135th and Metcalf is as suburban as life on this earth gets. And out here in a glistening new Johnson County club, the current and next generation of jazz's audience is turning out to hear Kansas City’s extraordinary musicians. The next time someone tritely proclaims "jazz is dead," escort them to Take Five on a Friday or Saturday night. Then see if they can still honestly mouth those words.

*****

By 10:15, I assumed, the dinner crowd will have eaten and many will have left. No problem, I was certain, in finding a seat at this time. But the parking lot was still mostly filled. That was odd, I thought. And when I opened the door to The Broadway Jazz Club, I was greeted by a packed house, easily as many people as had crowded Take Five. They sat focused on the music on stage. I claimed a small table up front. A musician later told me the club had been like this all night.

Nothing is new or glistening at 36th and Broadway. As you approach from the west, on Valentine Road, or from the south, driving up Broadway, you pass Hookah Haven and a Sprint store with its front windows covered by cris-crossing metal bars. This part of town wears a rugged, gritty feel.

The parking lot around back is well lit. It’s easier to figure out how to get to than that new one at the mall. But I walked from the suburban lot to the club’s front door along a path of clean, freshly-laid bricks. Here, I trek up a concrete sidewalk, steam blowing over it through an old vent in the building, and lines spray painted on it, I assume outlining utilities. I’m aware that I’m not in Kansas anymore.

This neighborhood has been The Broadway Jazz Club’s albatross since it opened. This isn't just up the street from the Country Club Plaza location where Jardine’s ruled for years. This is midtown. This club clearly needed to capture the love of all the patrons who frequented Jardine’s. But with a glistening new bar in the suburbs, many of those people don’t need to drive to an area where they feel uncomfortable to enjoy jazz. Scream that this neighborhood really is safe all you want. A storefront with cris-crossing metal bars in the next group of shops doesn't imply safe.

The Broadway Jazz Club needed to build its own following. This night it appears to be succeeding at exactly that. The crowd is older than the crowd at Take Five. Nobody here is a high school student. This is an audience which wants to hear jazz and which is comfortable in an urban locale that isn’t The Plaza. It includes some of the old Jardine’s audience. But mostly, The Broadway Jazz Club is uncovering its niche.

*****

The owner of a Westport restaurant once told me that his venue’s success came in large part by turning the crowd three times each day. For breakfast, he draws businessmen on their way to work or stopping in for a power meeting. At lunch, he attracts a diverse midtown crowd getting out of their nearby offices for a good meal. Then in the evening, Westport twenty-somethings looking for the next fashionable bar flow through his doors.

The Take Five business model appears to count on drawing different crowds at different times of the day. In the mornings, they offer gourmet coffee and good breakfasts. At lunch, they offer all that plus a selection of salads and sandwiches. On weekend nights, add jazz and alcohol to the mix.

The Broadway Jazz Club is only open for dinner and late at night. They serve more expensive (but fairly priced) and more complete dinners. They operate within a narrower window for generating income, leaving less room for errors or off nights. The Jardine’s business model was to fill and turn the room twice on weekends. I suspect Broadway brings similar weekend goals.

Both models appear to be working. These are two very different clubs. One is fresh and new and attracts a family audience. The other carries the grit of an older Kansas City neighborhood and draws an older and more diverse crowd that feels at home there.

But for all their differences, on Saturday night I noted two points in common. Both clubs were filled with people listening to jazz. And the music was spectacular.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Focus

I don’t remember the numbers now. It was probably 80,000 or 100,000. But whatever it was we claimed for attendance at the two day Kansas City Jazz Festival in Volker Park in 1987 or 1988, The Kansas City Star wouldn’t print it. Our media person went to their offices to argue our case. They showed her photos they had taken, with large gaps of space between clusters of people. That park couldn’t hold 40,000 or 50,000 bodies a day unless they were packed in far tighter than that, The Star’s editors argued. They wouldn’t budge.

Those were the days when the Spirit Festival filled Penn Valley Park around Independence Day and claimed a quarter million visitors to their event. That, too, was a gargantuan exaggeration. But The Star published their self-proclaimed crowd estimates. If the newspaper was  going to let that festival get away with those kinds of numbers, they owed us upper five figure to low six figure crowd estimates. That’s how we saw it.

Probably realizing everybody was feeding them heaping plates of crowd size bull, for a while The Star switched to publishing police estimates.

One year, after that switch, several of us helping with the 18th and Vine Festival decided among ourselves that 5000 people probably passed through the district for the weekend event. On Sunday evening, as the festival was winding down, we offered to police officers working as security some hot dogs. No, we shouldn’t, they said. Go ahead, we told them, we’ll just throw them out otherwise. As the grateful officers finished the hot dogs, one asked us, “So what do you want for your crowd estimate? 15,000?” Sure, 15,000 sounded good. And 15,000 people was the official published crowd estimate for that year’s 18th and Vine Festival.

Published crowd estimates to jazz events today today feel more credible. In part because it’s easier to count a smaller crowd at a shorter event.

Last year, The Kansas City Star published that 8000 people attended Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival. 4000 people bought tickets and 4000 were there free (sponsors, volunteers, etc.), the article reported. I attended, and those numbers feel about right. It was a year when the originally announced headliner (George Duke) died, forcing a talent and promotion reboot. That’s an incredibly tough gut kick from which to recover. But if you accept that the range of music offered truly fits a self-described jazz and blues festival, organizers staged a stellar event.

This year, the weather cooperated perfectly. Promotion was excellent, from a persistent online presence, through printed posters and handouts, to media appearances, to ads, to billboards (let’s be honest: by comparison, promotion for the Prairie Village Jazz Festival, which I help with, looks embarrassing). The festival faced unexpected competition from a Royals playoff game, but that might be competition for an October festival forevermore. For the 2014 Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival, the stars aligned.

I’ve seen no announcement of attendance numbers. But the crowd appeared smaller than last year.

Why?

I’ll argue lack of focus. I’ll argue that booking acts across a broad musical spectrum, apparently in the hopes of attracting a broader audience, leads to an insufficient focus on any music style and a blurred identity.

Lucky Peterson was the main stage blues headliner. His performance was terrific. But it was a mid-afternoon show before maybe a few hundred fans. It wasn’t enough for a blues aficionado to justify spending $25 on this festival.

Roy Hargrove was the main stage jazz headliner. His show was outstanding. But as the only main stage jazz act, in an early evening time slot, it wasn’t enough to draw a preponderance of jazz fans, no matter what the event is titled.

A few years ago, this revived festival attracted its biggest crowd for the pop group War. The audience that filled the lawn that night came to hear a live performance of The Cisco Kid and other songs still played on the radio by the last vestiges of the original group, or they came for the festival experience. But they didn’t come for jazz or blues. It’s the same reason those 1980s Spirit festivals booked groups like The Temptations.

And there’s the image this event is building. It’s an outstanding music festival. The staging, organization and promotion are as professional as any festival you’ll find. But by trying to be a music festival with a broad appeal, I see a festival that has diluted its appeal. You can argue that a $25 ticket is a bargain for this much music. But you can also argue that $25 is a push for a jazz fan when offering this little headline stage jazz.

The current format appears to have reached its potential in audience appeal. If this event wants to be recognized as a jazz and blues festival, focus on jazz and blues. Give those listeners more reason to come and they will. If the Prairie Village Jazz Festival can draw thousands of fans to a suburban park on a Saturday night to hear jazz, this festival can surely draw a bigger crowd to one of the music’s key birthplaces.

There is a place in Kansas City for a major jazz festival. No event will again presume to claim 100,000 fans. But the tickets sold at Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival and The Prairie Village Jazz Festival combined wouldn’t fill Starlight Theater for a night. They’re both relatively minor events in Kansas City’s music equation. Done right, with the proper focus and at the right location, this city will support a more significant celebration of jazz and blues. We did before. We would again.

After all, it was Count Basie who walked our streets, not the Cisco Kid.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The People's Liberation Big Band at the New Take Five

Let’s say you’re one of the community’s most beloved jazz spots, but you’ve outgrown your space. Let’s say you move to a new location more than double the size. Let’s say you pick a night as your official grand re-opening. So what group do you choose to baptize the new space?

Wait, before you answer, two more caveats. Let’s say you’re located in Johnson County. And let’s say putting a 26 foot long stage in a coffee shop establishes you as unconventional.

Now who do you pick?

The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City. Of course.

Last Saturday night I sat in the new location of Take Five Coffee + Bar with over a hundred other jazz fans, some of whom had heard People’s Lib before and some of whom came to hear a big band thinking that’s what Count Basie ran, right? At my table sat a couple of ladies who fit the latter group. It took a set for them to understand just what this not-your-grandpa’s big band was all about. But by the second set, these ladies were thoroughly enjoying the night.

If you missed the evening, below is a sampling of what a packed coffee house/bar/jazz club at as-suburban-as-this-world-gets 135th and Metcalf in Johnson County, Kansas looks like on its official Saturday night premiere. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City at the new Take Five Coffee + Bar

Leader Brad Cox directs the band

Shay Estes with James Isaac and Jeff Harshbarger

Matt Otto plays a really big saxophone

Pat Conway joined the band on the second set. After all, how can you baptize a coffee shop/bar/jazz club without a bassoon?

Shay and Jeff sing

James Isaac and, behind him, Sam Wisman

Brad Cox directing The People’s Liberation Big Band

A full house, listening

Brad subtly announces who wrote the next number (he wrote it)

Shay Estes sings

Apparently, Brad Cox zaps Sam Wisman’s drumstick

Monday, October 27, 2014

Two Trumpets and a Trombone

The younger generation of musicians continues to stake a major claim to the future of jazz in Kansas City. Their often exceptional talent dominates gigs around town. The best have learned how to thrive, how to cultivate an audience. They’ve learned when and where to play standards and when and where the audience will embrace their own compositions. And the Kansas City jazz audience, these last few years, has embraced the extraordinary opportunity to watch these musicians grow professionally, to hear ever more intriguing compositions and more finesse in their performances.

Thriving venues like The Blue Room and like Take Five – which just more than doubled its space and designed a coffee shop around the acoustics of jazz – add to a sense of excitement. A what’s next anticipation pervades the Kansas City jazz community. There’s an unspoken optimism not felt here in at least fifteen years.

Not everything is ideal. None of this city’s jazz festivals have been embraced by the city as a whole and, based on attendance, remain relatively trivial events. At least one mis-located club is fighting to thrive. And while the community is displaying unprecedented cohesiveness, not every institution is on board.

Peg me as an old-timer who marvels at the new generation’s talent and energy and how Kansas City’s jazz community has wrapped itself around them. A few of the younger groups have released CDs in the last several months. In some cases, these serve as snapshots of growing maturity.

Let’s take a look.

Diverse, Our Journey

From the opening title track, Our Journey, you’re struck by the subtle sophistication of the compositions and the performances. This music isn’t meant to show off anyone’s prowess. Rather, it plays like an instrumental conversation between musicians. Each instrument has the opportunity to build its case, to speak its part, and to respond to what the other instruments musically express. This isn’t just a rhythm section supporting a horn or two. There’s emotion in the music, but it’s emotion sealed in thought.

This is the second CD from Diverse. While some members of the group have come and gone, the core remains and plays often in Kansas City. Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Ben Leifer on bass and Ryan Lee on drums know each other like brothers in a close-knit family. That chemistry, evident in musical anticipation and response, invites the listener into the music and into sometimes complex compositions.

They’re joined on five of the fourteen tracks by Logan Richardson, also a Kansas City native, whose alto saxophone expertly slips in and intrigues as if he was always a part of this club. Parisian pianist Tony Tixier joins all but three of the tracks. The anticipation he builds in his solo on the opening track immediately establishes him as a welcome part of the conversation.

Our Journey doesn’t necessarily break new ground as much as it captures refinement and growth among a core group of Kansas City’s young jazz musicians.

Our Journey is available on CD Baby here and on iTunes here.

The Project H, We Live Among the Lines

You’ll walk away from the Project H CD, We Live Among the Lines recognizing at least this: Ryan Heinlein understands how to pair and harmonize multiple instruments into a single magnificent voice. And he knows how to write musical phrases that stick in your head.

The third number on the album, Devolver, is a perfect example: a bass line repeats to open. It captures your attention and pulls you in. Other Instruments join, building into a single exciting voice before the saxophone breaks through for a solo running over and under and around that initial phrase. The music plays with you – it’s fun, you let it – and it sticks.

Of course, it helps when you’re writing for the seven of Kansas City’s best young jazz musicians who comprise Project H Heinlein on trombone, Clint Ashlock on trumpet, Brett Jackson on tenor sax, Jeff Stocks on guitar, Andrew Ouellette on keyboards, Dominique Sanders on bass and Matt Leifer on drums.

Traditionalists may question whether this music counts as jazz. It’s not Count Basie swing. But it is jazz for the twenty first century done right. Some other contemporary groups find new voices that squeal and repel and offend, that don’t invite a listener in but dare you to comprehend. Not The Project H. This is entirely accessible jazz filtered through contemporary ears and influences, a melded voice in compositions and sound that reaches its own generation. The experience of hearing We Live Among the Lines is more visceral than listening to Our Journey, but no less thought went into getting there.

We Live Among the Lines is available on Amazon here and on iTunes here.

Shades of Jade, Fingerprinted Memories

This one is all about the trumpet. Josh Williams’s tone remains even and inviting, whether the playing is melancholy or soaring or anywhere in between. But while piano, bass and drums all claim their moments, this is a trumpet showcase.

The music lacks the emotional intimacy between instruments that pushes Our Journey to another level. The jazz is enjoyable, but without the engagement and emotional Wow of We Live Among the Lines. Everyone here is a solid musician, and each musician properly supports the other, but there’s little sense of conversation, of interaction, of more than here’s the trumpet, now here’s the bass, now here’s the piano.

Heard from a download, I could not find credits for the musicians besides bandleader and trumpeter Josh Williams. The Shades of Jade web site (here) lists band members as Eddie Moore on keyboards, Dominique Sanders on bass and Julian Goff on drums. But I have seen the group in various configurations around town, and I don’t know whether those are the musicians performing here.

Fingerprinted Memories is available on iTunes here.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Kansas City's 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival 2014

The event’s name, Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival, at nine words, is semi-officially the longest title of any jazz festival anywhere. On Wikipedia’s page of jazz festivals around the world (here) – a listing of hundreds of jazz events – only two others are as long as eight words: the United Kingdom’s Glenn Miller Festival of Swing, Jazz and Jive and Northern Ireland’s City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival. Two are seven words long. The rest run three to six words. Organizers, there’s nothing wrong with a succinct title.

Especially when organizers at the American Jazz Museum present such a stellar music event. Staging and sound at the festival’s three venues clustered around 18th and Vine (the outdoor Main Stage and the indoor Blue Room and Gem Theater) were excellent. The flow through the grounds is well planned and executed. The friendliness and helpfulness of volunteers makes you feel like the event’s most important guest. The assortment of food and other vendors adds a welcome variety that other festivals lack. The one element out of organizers’ control, beautiful fall weather, capped the day.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the photos below of local acts from each of the venues and the jazz and blues headliners on the main stage. As always, clicking on a photo should open a larger version of it.

The main stage with Hearts of Darkness

Hearts of Darkness commands the main stage early in the afternoon

The Groove Axis with Houston Smith on sax in The Blue Room

Book of Gaia. Left to right: Michael Warren on drums, Eddie Moore on piano, D'Andre Manning on bass, Nedra Dixon, vocals, Pam Watson, vocals, Angels Hagenbach, vocals, Karita Carter on trombone.

Book of Gaia in the Gem Theater

The vocalists: Nedra Dixon, Pam Watson and Angela Hagenbach

Blues headliner Lucky Peterson

Lucky Peterson mugging on the main stage

Lucky Peterson, with guitar, leaving the main stage...

...and joining the audience.

Lucky Peterson surrounded by hundreds of fans

Lucky Peterson

Jazz headliner Roy Hargrove. Dig those shoes.

Roy Hargrove enjoys his quintet, with Larry Willis on piano, Justin Robinson on sax, Ameen Saleem on bass and (not seen) Willie Jones III on drums.

Justin Robinson and Roy Hargrove

Unexpectedly, Roy Hargrove sings

Pianist Larry Willis

Roy Hargrove on the main stage


Monday, October 13, 2014

A Week Away

A death in the family precludes me from offering a new post this week. I hope to be back next week with photos from this weekend's festival at 18th and Vine.