Guys With The Same Initials: Terell Stafford, Thomas Shields And Thomas Sully

The Philadelphia Museum Of Art is loaded, duh, with works by famous folks. Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Manet, Cassatt, O’Keefe, etc., etc. The other day at the museum I walked past creations by all of them with barely a second glance, not to mention a first glance. Instead, on a goofy mission I spent a bit of time looking at objects produced by the hands and minds of Thomas Shields and Thomas Sully, names that ring a bell with just about nobody. That’s all I wanted to see before settling down with my wife Sandy in the museum’s Great Hall for an evening jazz concert led by the very a-ok trumpeter Terell Stafford.

Here’s why I did what I did: “Does the museum have anything on display by people with the same initials as tonight’s bandleader?” I wondered at home a few hours before Sandy and I headed museumward. “If it does, that’s what I’ll look at before the show.” Had any PMA visitor ever had the same sort of game plan as this? Yeah, right. Why did I come up with this idea? Uh, our orb is awash with cockeyed people.

PMA has a searchable online database. I scoured it. There were 33 artists whose first names and surnames began, respectively, with T and S. Of them, only three had works on display in the galleries (in other words, not in storage), according to the database. But one of those works, by a guy named Thomas Stretch, was the inner mechanism of an old grandfather clock. Stretch hadn’t designed the parts of the clock that anyone cared about. Namely, its cabinet or face. I’d have to disassemble the clock to see the gears et al that Stretch had fashioned, and I had a feeling that the museum’s guards, let alone its CEO, wouldn’t approve. Ergo, I scratched Stretch’s name off my list and, at the museum, went to check out what Shields and Sully were all about.

img_1013img_1031A silver sugar bowl. From the 1770s. Made in Philadelphia. That’s the Shields piece I looked at and admired. It’s beautiful. Shields was a well-known Philadelphia silversmith in his time and obviously damn good. If he were alive today I’d buy one just like it from him. It would look a whole lot better sitting next to Sandy’s and my Mr. Coffee machine than the bowl we’re currently scooping out of.

img_1016-2And Sully? Long ago he was a successful Philadelphia portrait painter. A few of his oils were on display at PMA. Mostly I looked at the one he did in 1833 of Thomas Cadwalader, a lawyer, landholder and military general. Man, Thomas looks great in this picture. Can you believe it, though? He was in his early 50s when Sully put him on canvas yet looks to be . . . what? . . . 35 at most? His skin glows with dewy freshness. His sun-lightened locks are enviably tousled. Bummer: TC might appear to hold the key to eternal youthfulness, but he lasted only eight more years before saying goodbye to Planet Earth.

Okay, show time was approaching. Back I went to a cocktail table in the Great Hall where Sandy sat. We have been to many dozens of jazz concerts at this venue since discovering the museum’s Friday night music series in 2002, one year after it launched. But we don’t go anywhere near as often as we used to, because you have to arrive at least an hour early to nab a decent seat. Which is a pain that we got tired of enduring. The show’s first set began right on time (5:45 PM), a miracle in the music world, and ended exactly one hour later. Being kind of anal, I admired those examples of precision and efficiency. And I also admired the limited amount of between-song patter that Terell Stafford engaged in. Out of the 60 minutes that he and his mates were on stage, sounds came out of their instruments for about 55 of them.

img_1028But what I admired above all was the quality of the music that the Stafford quintet produced. They played with a whole lot of heart and soul. They were into it. You could tell by watching Terell arching his back, his knees pushing forward — all in the name of generating thrust — when he ripped hard and fleet notes from his horn during certain solos. And by watching pianist Bruce Barth’s noggin bopping side to side, front to back, when he reached the heady parts of his improvisations. And by watching Stafford and tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield smiling big smiles and nodding their heads in lockstep as they watched drummer Billy Williams unload a wham-bam solo near the end of the set’s first song (Hocus Pocus).

img_1567Hocus Pocus, composed by the late, fantastic and Philadelphia-born trumpet player, Lee Morgan, began with Stafford and Warfield pouring out the tune’s careening, irresistible melody with panache. After which Terell took the tune’s first solo, Barth pounding out heavy chords behind him. Cutting loose, TS spent mucho time in his instrument’s high register. Next to grab the solo spotlight was Warfield. He began studiously, exploring and probing, and when he found the door he was looking for the hot notes began to fly. A few minutes later Barth’s turn arrived. His left hand struck broad, loud chords while his right danced exuberantly. Throughout the tune the band was tight and relentless. Hard to believe that the upright bass player, Drew Gaunce, was a last minute fill-in for the gig. He, to my amateur ears, was rock solid all night.

Speaking of Lee Morgan, I realized after the fact that he composed four of the set’s five numbers. And that the remaining tune (Candy) was a song that he covered on his 1958 album of the same name. And I also was late to learn that the songs that TS and company played comprise the first five tracks on Brotherlee Love, the fine Morgan-honoring album that Stafford released last year. Of the four Stafford compadres appearing with TS at the museum, two of them (Barth and Warfield) played on that album. If you click right here you’ll hear Hocus Pocus as it appears on Brotherlee Love. And if you click here you’ll catch the Brotherlee Love version of Candy. On the album, Candy is performed by a trio, sax and drums sitting it out. At the museum the Candy personnel shrank even further. And the performance was lovely, a languid and captivating two-person discussion between Stafford and Barth.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Terell Stafford is known to jazz musicians and jazz fans in many places on the globe. Ditto for Barth and Warfield and Williams. And that TS, BB and TW also have long histories as jazz educators (all three teach at Philadelphia’s Temple University, for example). As for Gaunce, well, he’s in the wee stages of his career, so we’ll find out where the winds and his talents take him. After the first set ended, those winds carried me and Sandy out of the museum to a nearby tavern. There, we chowed down on good pub grub and drank good beer (me) and wine (her) before motoring home to the burbs.

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Mann Oh Mann: Richard Thompson And Bonnie Raitt In Concert

Philadelphia’s Mann Center For The Performing Arts is a great outdoor concert venue that can be a bitch getting to and leaving from, depending on where you live and what mode of transport you opt to use. The Mann, built into a hilly section of enormous public parklands, is decently accessible for those who reside not too far from it and who visit using foot power or public transit. Not so for just about everyone else. That’s because just about everyone else drives. For them, the traffic jams they usually run into and the post-concert nightmare of trying to exit the parking areas at the same time as thousands of their fellow citizens . . . oy frigging vey, to say the least. In the early 1990s, an incredibly awful Mann traffic experience sent my now-wife Sandy’s and my blood pressures to Guinness World Records levels. And, amid the type of shouting matches in the car that would have made us stars on The Jerry Springer Show, nearly caused us to divorce one another, even though we weren’t even married yet! Shell-shocked, we stayed away from The Mann for eons after that memorable night. Until a week and a half ago, that is, when we learned about a pleasant method of Manning-it, and took in a terrific show.

In Philly, we boarded the bus at 12th and Market Streets.
In Philly, we boarded the bus at 12th and Market Streets.

The concert-in-question’s headliner was Bonnie Raitt. The opening act was Richard Thompson. Double bills as strong as this one are not everyday events. Sandy and I were there with our great pals Cindy and Gene. The two couples ended up sitting in different sections of The Mann, but arrived at the scene in the same vehicle. Turns out that SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s transit authority, runs a dedicated bus on Mann concert nights. Sandy and I never knew about this till Cindy clued us in. And thus we took a train from our home in the burbs to central Philadelphia and hopped on the special bus soon after arriving in the city. Several stops later, Cindy and Gene, Philadelphia residents, hopped aboard too. Mannward we headed. Calmly.

Raitt and Thompson are pushing 70 and, judging from the crowd at The Mann, don’t exactly have a huge fan base among Generations X and Y. Despite this, they can sell plenty of tickets. Between them they stimulated about 6,000 bodies to lay down dough for seats the other night. As opening acts are prone to do, Richard played first. I’ll come back to him soon, but have decided to say a few things now about Bonnie Raitt.

IMG_1540For two hours Bonnie was on stage with her backing band of four (drummer, electric bassist, keyboardist and electric guitarist/mandolin player), a well-oiled and flexible machine. She was wonderful. Bonnie’s music goes down easy and brings together currents of the blues, singer-songwriter, rock, gospel and folk music streams. She is famed for her electric slide guitar work, but to me, to tell you the truth, she seemed not a guitar slinger. And she didn’t emphasize her songwriting efforts. Though she has written or co-written a decent number of songs during  her 48-or-so-year career, she hauled out only two of them (What You’re Doin’ To Me and The Comin’ Round Is Going Through, both from her new album Dig In Deep ) for her 20-song set. What she had going for her, more than anything, was her voice. Warm and natural, Bonnie’s pipes drew the crowd into each song’s lyrics. And, without strain, she belted out whatever needed to be belted out whenever the occasion arose. I held on tight when I knew that high and powerful notes were a-comin’, expecting to be swept up into the clouds. And that’s what happened. Her voice may have burnished oh so slightly since her younger days, but basically Bonnie sings as well as she ever has. Which is saying something.

Take John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, for instance. This song about a beat-down elderly woman began with only Bonnie and her acoustic guitar. She sang majestically, probing Prine’s chilling narrative. Halfway through the tune the rest of the group entered. Ricky Fataar’s cymbal and high-hat work was simple and quiet and appropriate. George Marinelli’s mandolin solo was sweet. Goosebumps, I think, swelled throughout The Mann, whose audience jumped into a standing O, the evening’s second, at Angel’s end. You will find a recent live version of the song by clicking here.

I have a feeling that most people have heard of Bonnie Raitt, and that far, far fewer know about Richard Thompson, though his abilities are extraordinary and his career long (he was a founder of the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention in 1967). Me, I believe that RT is one of the greatest musical talents among us. What a singer. What a songwriter. What a guitar player. In a fair and just world he’d be a megastar. Poor guy, he has to settle for truckloads of praise instead of ocean liner loads, and for making a really nice living instead of raking in countless millions. Life’s tough.

This is probably the worst photo ever of Richard Thompson, who is on the left.
This is probably the worst photo ever of Richard Thompson, who is on the left. Mea culpa.

Well, if I ran The Mann, BR would have opened for RT, not the other way around. Forty-five minutes of him and his band (Taras Prodaniuk on electric bass, Michael Jerome on drums) weren’t enough. Sandy and I have seen Richard in performance a number of times, and he hasn’t lost a beat. His steely, deep voice cut like a knife at The Mann. His electric guitar playing snarled, jabbed and tunneled into realms so dense he left me in disbelief. During some RT solos, Sandy said she thought I was going to give myself whiplash, what with my head pivoting and swiveling so much. Such as on his piercing song If Love Whispers Your Name, during which he went atomic on his guitar (click here for a version of this tune from three years ago, and note that RT’s long, amazing guitar solo begins at about the 3:20 mark).

Back to Bonnie. She is more than a Richard Thompson supporter. She said to the audience that he is one of her heroes, and brought him onstage in the middle of her set for two songs. In case you were wondering, the guy has a delicate side that adroitly examines life’s heartbreaks and mysteries in some of his quieter compositions, such as 1952 Vincent Black Lightning and Dimming Of The Day. To be sure, Dimming Of The Day is a remarkable creation. When in the correct hands it will stun you. Which is what occurred when Bonnie and Richard, each working an acoustic guitar, intertwined their voices in a heavenly manner and, totally deservedly, received the evening’s first standing O when Dimming’s final notes slipped into the air. A beautiful version, from some years ago, of Bonnie and Richard performing Dimming Of The Day exists on YouTube. By clicking here you will see what I mean.

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I Was Destined To See Israel Nash In Concert, Wasn’t I?

IMG_0842Everything was going smoothly. The train I’d boarded in the suburbs deposited me in downtown Philadelphia at 8:30 PM. Four minutes later the blazing neon sign of one of rock and roll’s heavenly venues, MilkBoy Philly, stared me in the face. I snapped its picture. Then I entered MilkBoy and climbed the stairs to the second floor music hall. A band was playing, undoubtedly the opening act. They were loud, man, loud. I stopped two stairs shy of the top and took in the scene, the little of it that I could make out. The place was so dark my eyes would’ve performed no worse in the dead of night in Amazonian jungles. One light, the only light anywhere near me, turned towards me. It was attached to the forehead of the keeper of the gate, the guy who used the light to check IDs and sell tickets at the top of the stairs, and maybe to do some mining in his spare moments. I couldn’t make out his face or body. “How’s it going? Didya find any promising coal seams tonight?” I almost started to say, but decided against it. In half an hour or so, no doubt, I’d be watching Israel Nash in concert. Destiny, which had begun spinning its threads five weeks earlier, was playing out. That’s a swell word, isn’t it? Destiny. How sweetly it rolls off the tongue.

Here’s where this little saga began: On the final night of our stay in Amsterdam in June, my wife Sandy and I had dinner in a great, intimate place named Tomaz. A gastropub is what we’d call it in the States, but I don’t know if that term is used in The City Of Canals And Marijuana. Hardly matters. Sandy drank wine, I downed a couple of beers, and we each had a steak dinner and, for dessert, a chocolately, moussey concoction. A delicious meal. Our waiter was the bistro’s owner. I didn’t ask his name, but maybe it’s Tomaz.

Anyway, Maybe It’s Tomaz is a music lover. Has been for decades, like me. As soon as Sandy and I sat down I was taken with the song playing in the restaurant. I commented on this to MIT. “That’s Israel Nash,” he said. The tune was the type that will carry you away on a long, spacey ride. MIT purposely had programmed it, via Spotify, because, as MIT told me, the music he liked best these days are the dreamy, atmospheric sorts that emerge from various just-so combinations of country, folk, rock, blues and sometimes other styles. And he mentioned two more practitioners of the amorphous genre whom, as with Nash, I’d heard of but knew next to nothing about: Harry Manx and Jonathan Wilson. MIT played multiple tracks by all of them for my listening pleasure. Between bites and between conversation with Sandy and MIT, I half-listened to the songs. And eventually Sandy and I bid our music-drenched host our adieus.

Back home in the States I did some barebones research into Messieurs Nash, Manx and Wilson and checked out a handful of their tunes on YouTube. What I heard sounded very good (click here and here and here for the smallest of samples). Perhaps I’d get to see one or more of them on stage some day. That would be nice, I thought. And then my short attention span kicked in and I moved on to other important topics, such as pondering how many new varieties of Cheez-Its I might give a whirl, and whether my shampooing regimen needed an update.

I should have seen it coming. A few weeks ago, checking out a local music website, the name Israel Nash jumped out at me. Good gawdalmighty, he would be at MilkBoy in three days, it indicated. And when, in the blink of an eye, the third day arrived I looked at MilkBoy’s website to see when the show would begin. The site said 7 PM. What? The last time a show began that early at a rock club was . . . well, never. Must be a misprint. I called MilkBoy for clarification. No answer. Called again and again and again. No one picked up. It figured.

But I had a good feeling all along. It wasn’t by chance that five weeks earlier I had heard, for the first time ever, a song by Israel Nash. And in a foreign land, no less. Some elusive guiding force had befriended me that night in MIT’s restaurant and was leading me to the proper culmination of the storyline. I was meant to see Israel Nash in concert. At MilkBoy.

“Who’s this? The opening act?” I inquired of the gatekeeper. The light attached to his forehead was tremendously focused. Only a few strands of illumination were able to make their ways sidewards. But those faint rays revealed to me that MilkBoy was incredibly packed with human bodies. That night, the phrase Standing Room Only didn’t apply. Standing Room Nearly Impossible did. Not only that, the air was thicker than thick with perspiration and other inspired body odors. Any high school gym’s boys’ locker room smelled a lot better.

“No, this is Israel Nash,” said the man with the light. “He has only half an hour left in his set. Do you have a ticket?”

“Uh,” I mumbled, and turned around. Down the stairs I went.

So, what’s the thrust of this story? Is there a moral? Something to be learned? Well, those questions usually are pretty much out of my league. I’m not all that bright. However, I have a half-decent answer in this case: When destiny appears to be knocking on your door, do what the man with the light would do — check its ID.

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Great Fortune Smiled Upon Me When Willie Nile Came To Town

I had no doubt that something celestially-inspired was happening when my once-Greek-god-like hair began to move most unusually, each strand inching upward rapidly till they all pointed straight . . . straight . . . towards the stars! Yo, was anybody staring at me? I looked a mess. But at times like that, who gives a flying fig? This incredible occurrence meant only one thing: The stars had aligned themselves for me. I was in the right place at the right time. In Philadelphia. At funky, small and narrow Tin Angel, a music club where my wife Sandy and I sat 40 feet from the stage. Upon which Willie Nile and his band, only seconds into their set and ablaze from the first whack of the drum kit, were transporting me to — yeah man, as clichéd and dumb as this sounds, I’m gonna say it — rock and roll heaven. I was so jazzed I started to drop to my knees to kiss Tin Angel’s floor. Sandy held me back. “What, are you nuts!” she wisely exclaimed. “There’s a bacterial frat house party going on down there. Stay in your seat, young man.”

willie IMG_1280
And I did, as Willie and his pals commandeered the stage for nearly two hours. They took no prisoners, blasting out 20 holy crap-that’s-catchy songs (17 of them fully or co-authored by Willie), not even offering up a medium-paced number until halfway through the show. What they unleashed was unadulterated rock and roll. The kind of rock that any lover of  The Clash, The Pogues, The Ramones, Petty and Springsteen would go wild for. Rock propelled by Matt Hogan’s lean, soaring electric guitar and Alex Alexander’s huge drum poundings and Johnny Pisano’s electric bass lines that bobbed and bubbled. And what about Willie? Why, he led the way, packing his lead vocals with brio and strumming madly on his low-in-the-mix acoustic guitar. He showed off his ace songwriting skills, delivering righteous social anthems (such as Let’s All Come Together and One Guitar) and acutely-detailed observations about love (Beautiful You). And he owned the stage, because he’s one of those cool guys with way natural magnetism.

Man, how long had it been since I’d been rocked to the bones like this? Too long, partner, too long. And it wasn’t only the hooks and riffs and pounding drums and great songs and Willie’s lead singing that made the night special. The band possessed a secret weapon, one so astonishingly good my ears opened up like sink holes. We’re talking here about exuberant harmony vocals that deliriously dressed nearly every song’s chorus. The chorus of Forever Wild, for instance, the set’s opener. Leaning into their mics, Nile, Hogan and Pisano whooped and let loose: “Forever wild — uh-uh-uh uh-uh/uh-uh-uh uh-uh/Forever wild!” Throughout the set, like a bunch of half-drunk revelers, they sent the songs into outer space, Pisano reaching crazily-high notes almost out of the range of human hearing.

I should have kissed the floor.

In another lifetime maybe I’ll tackle writing Willie Nile’s biography. For now I’ll mention but a few things about him, starting with the obvious fact that he is one of the hordes of musicians whom the average Joe or Jen never heard of. He definitely has his fans though, quite a few, actually. But he deserves to have mucho more of them. And throughout his career, which began in the 1970s, he has been a darling of many music jounalists. They have loved his albums and his concerts. Still, that never has translated consistently into lots of gigs at good-sized venues, or into much airplay for his songs. Hell, Tin Angel can squeeze in maybe 140 bodies, and it was only half-filled when Sandy and I saw him there this month. As with much of life, I don’t get it. I mean, Willie should be a star.

Willie seems undaunted, though. He’s closing in on 70 and has been on a creative roll, churning out studio albums with little pause. His latest, World War Willie, just came out, and it’s his fifth since 2009. Willie and band played nearly all of it at Tin Angel, every song sounding fine as can be to my sink hole ears.

Left to right: Matt, Alex, Willie, Johnny.
Left to right: Matt, Alex, Willie, Johnny.

Flanked with cartoony murals that look like modern day caveman art, Tin Angel welcomed Willie and band in the right way. Meaning, a person with talent and good judgment was at the sound board. Isn’t often that you can make out more than 40% of the lyrics at a loud rock and roll show. The other night, the sound lady balanced everything just right and I deciphered most of the lyrics no problem. And they were cool. “Grandpa rocks, Grandpa rocks/He listens to the Stones on the waterfront docks,” Willie happily shouted on the set’s second song. And on the eighth he warned, “I’m a bad boy/I ain’t no good/When I was born they said ‘knock on wood’.” Those pithy rhymes came from songs on World War Willie whose titles are easily guessed.

Not only that, Tin Angel has the vibes and layout that full-frontal rock and roll needs in order to flower. It’s cramped. it’s sweaty, and it puts its audience in potential danger. Halfway through the show, Johnny Pisano sidled to the edge of stage left, his electric bass’s neck gleefully bopping around and sticking far out into the skinny corridor that leads to the bathrooms. A guy, fresh from relieving himself, sauntered from the loo and headed back to his seat. A collision awaited. Watch out, mate! You’re about to get whacked in the head!

I don’t think that Pisano ever saw him. But the guy nimbly ducked. And all was well.

(Click here to watch Willie and his band performing Grandpa Rocks one week before I saw him at Tin Angel)

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The Night I Made A Cocktail Table Go “Boom”

You should count your lucky stars when you act like a nitwit and are forgiven for your sins. That is what happened to me about ten years ago at a jazz concert. It was the night when talentless me accidentally became part of the show.

I hadn’t thought about that infamous evening in a long time, but for some reason was reminded of it recently when my wife Sandy and I took in a Friday night concert at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art (PMA), which had been the scene of my crime. The museum calls its Friday night concert series Art After 5, and it’s a good one. Art After 5 began in 2001 with a jazz-only format, but has morphed over the years to include a wide range of genres. Sandy and I have been to a crazy number of music shows at PMA since we discovered the series in 2002.

Picture this: It is February 2006. Sandy and I are seated in the first of several rows of tables ringing the performance area in PMA’s Great Stair Hall. The hall is enormous, maybe 80 feet high, and is dominated by, yes, a great stairway that connects two levels of the museum. The Great Stair is 20 feet behind us and stares regally at the performance area. Many concertgoers are seated on its marble slabs . . . uncomfortably. Sandy and I prefer comfort. So we made it a point to arrive way before showtime in the hopes of nabbing one of the cocktail tables, which are squeezed together pretty closely. Compared to marble stairs, the chairs at the tables are a blessing for butts. At our table we don’t have much to do except twiddle our thumbs. We order soft drinks and sip at them. We are waiting for jazz vocalist Carmen Lundy and her band to start their show.

Carmen Lundy in performance six years after my cocktail table went "boom." (Photo by Daniel Sheehan)
Carmen Lundy in performance eight years after my cocktail table went “boom.” (Photo by Daniel Sheehan)

At 5:45 PM Carmen and the guys are introduced by Art After 5’s curator. Minutes later they begin to play. They are very fine, and only eight feet in front of our excellent seats. Carmen Lundy, a justly acclaimed performer, is singing with a lot of flair and swagger. Sandy and I are enjoying the show. But halfway through the set something begins to bother me. I feel as though my space is being impinged upon. Someone at a table behind me has inched up a tad too much and is putting pressure on the rear of my chair. I have the solution, of course. All I need to do is slide my cocktail table forward ever so little, after which I’ll be able to move my chair forward too. I push the table very very gently, maneuvering it carefully. But alas, this is a plan not destined to work out. The frigging table loses its balance and topples heavily, its edge creating an enormous sound when it smashes onto the floor. The noise echoes throughout the Great Stair Hall. And everything that was on the table flies off and finds a new home inches from the performers’ feet.

I felt like a schmuck. I was a schmuck. Oy vey, was there anywhere to hide? No way. All I could do was sit there as a couple of servers scampered over, set the table upright, and on their hands and knees quickly swept up ice cubes and pieces of broken glass. They mopped up the soft drink liquids from the floor and retrieved my eyeglasses, which once had been on the table but now were beneath the piano bench. Yet, all the while the band played on as if nothing had happened. Carmen Lundy continued to deliver her song with full emotion. Harold O’Neal’s fingers were flying on the keyboard. Jason Brown’s drums went rat-a-tat-tat and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, and Curtis Lundy, Carmen’s brother, plucked fervent notes on his upright bass.

The set finally ended. Was anyone in the audience staring at me? Probably. But I was too embarrassed to look around and find out. I knew one thing I had to do though. Apologize. Carmen Lundy was standing near the sound board, 20 feet to the right of the performance area. I stood up and made my way to her.

“Ms. Lundy,” I said. “I’m the idiot who knocked over the table. I’m very sorry. I feel like a fool.”

Carmen Lundy gave me a good hard look for a few moments and then did the darndest thing. She put a hand on one of my shoulders, looking me straight in the eyes, and said “Don’t worry about it, honey. It didn’t bother us. In fact it gave us energy to play even harder.”

Man, I didn’t know what to say in response to such a stellar attitude. I mumbled my thanks and probably a few other words and shuffled to my seat.

Looking back on all of this the other day I realized once again that I had been in the presence of classiness and graciousness. If our places had been reversed I doubt if dopey me would have been so wonderful. Carmen Lundy, in my book you’re very much okay.

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Sunday In The Park With Duane (Jazz Concert Review)

Some outdoor summer music series are better than others, but not everyone would agree on which are the good ones. Personally, I most like those that have an eclectic mix of musical genres and that also avoid tribute bands. Luckily for me and my tastes there are a number of summer series in the Philadelphia region that hire the kinds of acts that I’m a sucker for. One of those is Cheltenham Township’s Concerts In The Park, whose shows are staged in the sprawling and meticulously maintained Curtis Arboretum. There, a mile or two from Philadelphia, musicians mount a modest stage at 5 PM on five summer Sundays. They and their audiences are surrounded by, and are under, many large trees.

I’ve been impressed for years by some of the Cheltenham bookings. In 2014 my wife Sandy and I, accompanied by two of our friends, went to the Curtis Arboretum to see and hear Geoff Muldaur, who has been crisscrossing the USA and other countries as a musician for decades. Geoff began to make his name in 1963 as a member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. And there he was, so many years later, performing his folky-bluesy-jazzy repertoire on acoustic guitar at the arboretum.

The pre-show crowd at Curtis Arboretum.
The pre-show crowd at Curtis Arboretum.

On a recent Sunday, Sandy and I, with the same two friends, sat beneath some leafy limbs at Curtis to take in another example of thinking-outside-the-box scheduling, the Duane Eubanks Quintet. This jazz outfit is more commonly witnessed in clubs. Somehow I didn’t hear Duane say from the stage that he wasn’t used to playing at settings such as Curtis, but my friend assured me that he did. Eubanks, a suburban New York City-based trumpeter with a first-rate résumé, brought along with him four fine and established members of the jazz world.

Duane Eubanks comes from a very musical family. He grew up in Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy section, so his Curtis gig wasn’t far from his childhood home. His pianist mother, who gave lessons to prominent jazz players, helped spark a musical flame in some of her children. Look at the results: Duane’s oldest brother, Robin, is a well-regarded jazz trombonist. Duane’s second-oldest brother, guitarist Kevin, became famous as the band leader for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Of the four male Eubanks offspring, only Shane, Duane’s twin, is not motoring on the professional musician highway.

Duane plays trumpet really well. Throughout the Curtis show I gave a mental thumbs-up to his imagination and clean lines. He wasn’t flashy, didn’t spend inordinate amounts of time swirling around in his instrument’s nosebleed zone. What he did was this: He spun worthy tales with his horn, filling his solos with strong ideas, and balanced that with terrific technique. I don’t think I had ever seen him in concert before. I was impressed.

Duane Eubanks Quintet at Curtis Arboretum.
Duane Eubanks Quintet at Curtis Arboretum.

Eubanks and company primarily stayed in the hard bop bag, with two excursions, which I wasn’t crazy about, into the borders of smooth jazz territory. The tough and driving stuff and the one unadulterated ballad, though, were terrific and had my head swaying. On board with Duane was tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton. Burton’s robustness and energy owed debts to John Coltrane, his more meditative moments to Dexter Gordon. David Bryant was a whiz on electric keyboard, an attentive musician filling spaces deftly when Duane or Abraham soloed, his fingers flying fast and furious when he himself took the lead. Corcoran Holt, on upright bass, helped power the band with notes that sometimes boomed, sometimes cooed. I thought that he was great. And the in-demand drummer, Eric McPherson, was all over his kit, rat-a-tat-tatting on his snare drum, whacking à propos accents on his cymbals. I didn’t particularly enjoy his work on the two aforementioned smoothed-out numbers, but let’s put them aside. I already have.

The tune I maybe liked the best was the first set’s opener, a Eubanks original titled Slew Footed. It went on for 20 minutes. Slew Footed was a hard romp, a controlled yet convulsive affair. Each musician took long propulsive solos. Each listened carefully to what the others were saying. The onstage musical conversations were animated and keen.

Guest vocalist TC III with Duane Eubanks' group.
Guest vocalist TC III with Duane Eubanks’ group.

Halfway through the second set Eubanks brought to the stage a guest vocalist, TC III. I used to see him perform at venues all over Philadelphia, but hadn’t in 20 or more years. He sang on two songs. TC III took hold of the first tune, Moanin’, from its opening notes. I had forgotten just how fine a singer he is, bluesy and direct. Think Eddie Jefferson. Think Joe Williams. Moanin’, a gutsy marriage of the blues and gospel, was a staple of Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers. I loved the way that TC III and the Eubanks group belted it out.

I’m a stickler for good audio projection. Too often at concerts, in venues small to enormous, the sound quality doesn’t cut the mustard. At Curtis the sound guy got it right. Every instrument, and TC III’s vocals, came through loud and clear. There was no muddiness in the mix. All of this added to my enjoyment of the show. As did the weather. For much of the late afternoon and early evening, dark clouds massed and inched along far overhead. I was certain that a downpour was in the works, especially after a dozen or so raindrops plunked me around 6:30 PM. Amazingly though, not another drop fell after that.

(Photographs by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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John Gorka Brings Love To The Philly Burbs

The audience, before twilight set in, at Bryn Mawr Twilight Concerts.
The audience, before twilight set in, at Bryn Mawr Twilight Concerts.

I’m always on the lookout for live music. My musical tastes are wide, so my antenna is open for jazz, rock, Celtic, classical  . . . the list keeps going. One series I keep tabs on is Bryn Mawr Twilight Concerts, held on mid-year Saturday evenings at a park in the center of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a handful of miles west of Philadelphia. This series brings in some rock and R&B bands, but primarily sticks to acoustic folkie singer-songwriter types, most of the latter well known in that genre’s circles. The musicians set up shop in the park’s large gazebo. I had noticed a few weeks ago that the series opener on June 6 would be John Gorka, a singer-songwriter road warrior with over 30 years’ worth of original material to draw from. On Gorka Day, I checked the Bryn Mawr weather forecast. It emphasized a zero chance of rain. Bryn Mawr here we come. As the sun began approaching the horizon, my wife Sandy and I plunked ourselves down in our folding chairs, joining about 200 others at the park, and settled in for what we expected would be a night of good music. The skies were filled with friendly clouds, the air cool and dry. Hardly a better place to be.

I’ve been familiar with John Gorka for many years, but had seen him in person only once. That was about six years ago at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where he was part of a round-robin song swap with other musicians on a small stage. I knew his backstory a bit, how he had honed his craft at the legendary Godfrey Daniels folk music club in Bethlehem, PA, and how his career began to take off around the time his first album, I Know, came out in 1987. Since then, he has logged too many miles to count in North America and overseas. The Bryn Mawr show probably was somewhere around the 3,000th concert performance of his career. During that career, Gorka has tended to take the solo route — Have Guitar, Will Travel — but on this refreshing Bryn Mawr night he brought along a friend.

Music critics often note the fine quality of Gorka’s baritone. That’s true. His voice is deep and burnished, but he doesn’t go for extra volume. Soothing and comforting are words I’d use to describe his singing.  He’s like a lower register version of James Taylor. Between songs he is funny and somewhat jittery, slyly putting himself down and reminding me a bit of Woody Allen. The Bryn Mawr audience loved his on-stage personality, which might very well be his real life personality too.

John Gorka with guitar, backed up by Russ Rentler with mandolin.
John Gorka with guitar, backed up by Russ Rentler with mandolin.

From within the gazebo he sang only self-penned songs, 20 in all. Four came from I Know, and five from his latest release, 2014’s Bright Side Of Down. The newer material was as smart and flavorful as the songs from his young man days. His pool of inspiration hasn’t dried up. For the ninth song of his 100 minute set he brought to the stage Russ Rentler, his mandolin-playing pal since the late 1970s. I figured that Russ would garnish a couple of tunes and then depart. Better, he remained till the concert’s end. The mandolin’s tight and high tones, the swirling notes from Russ’s fingers, added a lot of energy and contrast to the music. Gorka’s vocal and guitar work through the first eight songs were just fine, but Russ took the performance upward.

John Gorka’s makeup leads him to produce songs that unfold mostly at slow or medium paces. Which is fine with me. He examines love and relationships regularly, as do nearly all songwriters. And he also writes about people’s day to day struggles. I connected with nearly all of the songs he sang. I’ll mention some lines that made my ears bend stageward.

Love Is Our Cross To Bear is a gentle song about falling in love. It comes from I Know. As the air began to chill with descending twilight, and I realized how wise Sandy had been to tell me to bring along a light jacket, Gorka sang, “I didn’t know that I would find a way to find you in the morning/But love can pull you out of yesterday as it takes you without warning.” Beautifully put, John. And five tunes later he reached into Bright Side Of Down and gave us Outnumbered, a love song for his wife. Gorka’s voice, steady and strong, was something you could believe in. He sang, “Suddenly you were there behind a smile, behind a name/After that summer day I’d never be the same.”

John Gorka is a romantic. And he put on a good show.