Here Come The Docs (Movies, That Is)

They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! And I ain’t talkin’ about nail salons or Buffalo chicken wings or right-wing crazies.

Documentaries, that’s what I’m here to discuss. Docs are out there by the thousands, old ones and new ones. You can catch them on the small screen on HBO, SHOWTIME, PBS (NOVA and Independent Lens, are two of its documentary series), CBS (60 Minutes), etc., etc. Not to mention the oceans of docs you might peruse via Netflix.

Now, I’ve seen various documentaries on the tube over the last few years, but I’ve watched more on the silver screen than at home. That’s partly because I haven’t been partial to plopping myself in front of the magic box too much. On the other hand, my cinema attendance always has been robust. Another reason, the more important of the two, is that, starting in the early aughts, many documentaries have found their way into theaters around much of the globe. That’s very true in the Philadelphia region, which I call home. My wife Sandy and I, fans of the genre, approve.

Here’s a cool thing about documentaries, which tend to be low-cost affairs and never rake in dough à la, say, Logan or La La Land: Once in a while one of them will settle into the theatrical marketplace and take nearly forever to depart. In saying this, I have in mind a doc that Sandy and I saw with friends in Philadelphia last November.

The Eagle Huntress, the film to which I refer, opened in The States one month before we viewed it. Remarkably, it’s still in some theaters across this fair land and still in the Top 100 of money grossers, as measured by the fascinating website Box Office Mojo. That’s staying power, folks, that few movies of any sort possess.

A nice movie, The Eagle Huntress spins the tale of a young Mongolian girl who is drawn to the historically male-only endeavors of taming and bonding with eagles and training them to race and to hunt in specific ways. Its central Asian scenery is gorgeous (what’s not to like about deserts and glacial mountains?), and the story line is not your everyday fare. But, to me, the plot didn’t ring quite true. I’m convinced that the final test of the girl’s gifts — to have her eagle chase down and kill a fox on treacherous mountain slopes  — didn’t go as neatly and smoothly as the director hoped for. I believe he’d have stayed out in the wilderness, filming take after take, until the desired outcome was achieved. Otherwise the movie would not have had a clean and tidy ending.

Enough quibbles. On to the three docs that Sandy and I went out to see in the past month: Kedi; In Search Of Israeli Cuisine; and I Called Him Morgan. As with The Eagle Huntress, they are playing here and there in cinemas around the USA and other countries. And if they haven’t yet made their way to Netflix or the like, indubitably they fairly soon will.

In a nutshell, I recommend these movies highly. Kedi tells the tale of street cats (felines, not hipsters) in Istanbul that have developed beneficial relationships with various humans with whom they share space. In Search Of Israeli Cuisine is a flick for foodies and for travel buffs. The goods on display in this movie, and the rural and urban settings in which they are grown, cooked, and consumed, look great. As for I Called Him Morgan, well, it made my knees go weak, as it is about one of my jazz heroes, trumpeter Lee Morgan. It also is about Helen Morgan, Lee’s common-law wife who shot him to death in a Manhattan jazz club in 1972. When Lee passed, the world lost a magnificent talent. He could play like nobody’s business and penned irresistible songs, from the nimble and fleet to the panoramic.

It’s a funny thing about Kedi. Sandy, a cat lover, liked it, but not as much as I did. That’s saying something because I decidedly am not a cat person. You’d have to pay me a few thousand dollars weekly to house one in my abode. But Kedi put me under a spell. I suppose it was the cinematography, more than the story, that got to me. I don’t know where, other than in Kedi, you’re going to see the world from cats’ perspectives. What did the director do, train a coterie of cats to become cinematographers and to follow their feline buddies around town?  Wow, seeing Istanbul from inches above the ground was, I thought, the coolest. On the opposite hand, so were the aerial shots of the city, for which feline cameramen had no input. Those images served no particular purpose, as far as I could tell, other than to look amazing. And amazing they did look.

After viewing In Search Of Israeli Cuisine I started thinking about a movie that hasn’t been made but could be: In Search Of American Cuisine. That is, it’s not easy to define what a nation’s cuisine is. Or was, for that matter. As with most issues and subjects, things often are more complicated than you might at first assume. In the Israeli case, culinary traditions from many dozens of countries and cultures have been brought to, or already existed in, the land of Israel. There they have intermingled, evolved, and been experimented upon. I went into the movie thinking that there would be an emphasis on Eastern European Jewish cooking (brisket of beef, smoked meats, kugels, etc.), but in Israel those dishes are not dominant in the least. Today’s Israeli cuisine draws more from Middle Eastern and North African cultures than from any others. Fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and seafoods are what Israelis, as do many peoples the world over, place into their mouths. I left the movie hungry for grilled fish and for hummus, Israeli staples.

What can I say about Lee Morgan? I’ve been listening to his recordings for almost 50 years. I’ve been in the long-defunct, grubby jazz club, Slugs’, where he was murdered. And for years I’ve wondered about the circumstances that led to his death. Possibly I’m wrong, but it always seemed to me that not much information ever came out about his shooting. If it did, I don’t know where. But now, lo and behold, Kasper Collin, a Swedish director and jazz lover, has seized upon and told Lee Morgan’s story, its bright beginnings and sad ending. But not fully, because that ending does not fit itself into a tight package. It never will be completely understood.

Would you have to be a jazz fan to enjoy I Called Him Morgan? Well, I’m going to say that even the non-aficionado will go for this one. The movie has a brooding, moody quality, especially in the snow-filled wintery sequences leading up to and following Lee’s death. And, in marvelous film clips, it shows off his bristling musical chops. What got to me the most, though, was the telephone interview, captured on cassette tapes, that Helen Morgan gave to Larry Reni Thomas in North Carolina, where she lived after serving hard time in New York for her crime. Thomas, who has worked as a writer, teacher and radio host, conducted the interview in 1996, a few months before Helen’s death. The slow relating of her life story in her creaky voice and her explanations of why she came to pull the trigger were, I thought, the movie’s core and backbone. And maybe its heart. Without the interview there’d have been not much of a movie.

Lee Morgan, famed though he once was (his hard-bopping song The Sidewinder was a pop hit in 1965), has faded into semi-obscurity. I Called Him Morgan might help to reverse that truth a bit.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article)

Advertisements

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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments, or about sharing this article with others)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)

Killer Joe: The Song That Gave Me Pause

You know, I’m not exactly the poster boy for being cool. I mean, the last time that a hot chick couldn’t keep her eyes off of me was . . . was . . . was . . . yeah, now I remember. I was about two years old, being pushed around in a baby carriage. “Oh, he’s absolutely adorable,” the girl cooed, bending down to get a better look and never taking her gaze from mine. Wow, that was the best!

But I’ll tell you something. I do know how to be cool once in awhile. Like when I hear a great tune on the radio, one so finger-snapping and head-bopping fine that I can’t contain myself. Just watch me as I rise from the sofa and strut across the living room, the dining room, the kitchen and back again. Fingers snapping. Head a-bopping. Cool, man, cool. It happens now and then.

Killer Joe. That’s the tune that got me off the couch one recent evening. As usual I was doing not much of anything, except half-listening to the radio and counting the number of Cheez-Its crumbs stuck to the sofa’s cushions. I had counted 87 of them when — POW! POW! — Quincy Jones’ version of Killer Joe came on the air. It sounded spectacular. Next thing I knew, I was stepping.

killerjoebenny the-jazztet-featuring-art-farmer-and-benny-golson-killer-joe-argo
Killer Joe, a jazz standard, was composed around 1959 by jazz saxophonist Benny Golson, who has written many other songs (I Remember Clifford, Whisper Not, Stablemates) covered by scads of jazzbos. And Benny’s 1960 recording of Killer Joe is absolutely ace (click here to listen). Benny put the tune on wax with The Jazztet, the group that he co-led with trumpeter Art Farmer, and it came out on their album Meet The Jazztet. But Quincy’s KJ is better. It’s just too, too much, though it took me awhile to settle permanently into that opinion (click here to listen). I like it more than The Jazztet’s version because it has more slinky sizzle. Quincy himself didn’t play on the tune, which is from his 1969 album Walking In Space. But he arranged and conducted it and hired some monster guys to send out the sounds. Ray Brown (bass), Hubert Laws (flute) and Grady Tate (drums), to name a few.

To me, Ray Brown’s confident, strutting upright bass is the key to Killer Joe. From the opening bass lines straight through to the song’s end, Ray Brown is walking the walk. He’s under control, yet swaggering. He’s keeping things tight and tense, but jaunty too. And Tate, his steady high-hat cymbal work somehow loose as a goose, ambles arm-in-arm with Brown. Beyond the purring Brown/Tate engine, I couldn’t get enough of the airy flute solo, the piercing trumpet interludes and the pleading voices of the female chorus. Man, my fingers were snapping big time as I did my household shuffle.

KillerJoeQuincyR-2139078-1368881598-7835_jpeg
It wasn’t till the next day, though, relistening to the song on YouTube, that I paid attention to the lyrics that the ladies sing. “Killer Joe, don’t you go/Hurt me slow, please Joe.” Whoa, what did that mean? Is this a song about physical abuse? Had I been slow-marching and bopping to a composition that contains a really nasty notion? It took me a good long while to grasp the meaning of the words. They don’t paint a pretty picture, but I believe that the hurt referred to is emotional, not physical. Killer Joe (the character, not the song) is a cad, a heel, a self-absorbed jivester whom some women just can’t resist. Smitten, they know it’s a certainty that he will leave them. And that their hearts face a sad destiny: to be broken. The ladies want to be let down easy, not hard.

Now, The Jazztet’s recorded version of KJ basically is an instrumental piece. It has no lyrics, though Benny Golson felt the need to open the proceedings with a spoken introduction to let the world know that KJ ain’t a swell guy. Nine years later, on Quincy’s version, lyrics, brief as they are, were added. Who wrote them? I’ve scoured the Web, coming up unsure as to the answer. Could have been Golson, could have been Jones, could have been both or neither of them. Regardless, Quincy’s 1969 take on the song expanded Golson’s equation. What had been an instrumental description of a me-first, ponies-playing ladies’ man became deeper, something to ponder. Quincy Jones’ Killer Joe is a swinging statement tempered with reminders about how doleful and strange and complicated life can be.

Speaking from my me-first perspective, it’s a good thing that Quincy’s KJ isn’t about women who like their bad boy to whup them. If it were, into the deep freeze it would go, never to be listened to again. I’d be a chump to support any tune that goes that far to the dark side, even if it grooves like a champ.

But all is well in my music world. Onward!

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments, or about sharing this article with others)

Thumbs Partly Down, Thumbs Way Up: Reviews Of Sing Street And Miles Ahead

Movies, movies, movies. They make good fodder for opinions. I never knew I had so many opinions about movies, and about all kinds of things for that matter, till I started writing this blog. Now I can’t shut myself up. When I retire from blogging I plan to go back to my former ways, which involved a vow of near-silence and rigorous mental training to keep opinions at an unmeasurably low level. For now, though, here we go again:

IMG_0317
My wife Sandy and I caught two movies, their themes heavily musical, in suburban Philadelphia on a recent weekend. First we saw Sing Street. The next day it was Miles Ahead. Sing Street came with a three and a half star rating from The Philadelphia Inquirer. I took a look at The Inquirer’s 50-word summary of the movie and at some words of praise quoted in the film’s newspaper advertisement, and I was sold. I mean, here was a story, set in 1985, about an Irish lad infatuated with the idea of forming a rock and roll band, and also infatuated with a girl. Undoubtedly it would be a charmer. Count me in.

Turns out that Sing Street ain’t da bomb. Very surprising, since John Carney, its director and author, previously turned out way solid fare with two music-infused films, both of which he also wrote and directed. Is there anybody who didn’t like Once, the lower-than-low budget love story from 2007 that brought the world to tears with dazzlingly tender songs such as Falling Slowly? And what was there to dislike about Carney’s 2013 opus Begin Again? It starred Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, and it did nothing but snap, crackle and pop.

Now, Sing Street isn’t the worst. It’s watchable. It’s pleasant. But halfway through I began scratching my head, wondering if I was viewing the same flick that the Inquirer’s reviewer had fawned over. Admittedly, on paper the set-up seems good: Fifteen-year-old Conor, a nice, directionless kid, is living in Dublin with his sister and older brother and squabbling parents. He is introduced to emotive, big hair 1980s rock and roll (The Cure, Duran Duran) by his slacker brother. Then he meets a cute 16-year-old girl who knocks his socks off, and decides to become a musician and put together a rock band to impress said girl. Conor, natch, will be the band’s big-haired lead singer. So, what’s my gripe? In two words, sloppy screenplay.

Example number one: This is a movie partly about a boy and his band, yet only one of Conor’s four bandmates gets to do much yapping. Whatever personalities the three others possess are pretty invisible. Collectively those three lads recite maybe 60 words during the movie.

Number two: Family-wise, the movie delves only into Conor’s relationship, which is strong, with big brother Jack. But Conor seems to get along pretty nicely with the other family members. Which is why I was lost at sea when Conor, permanently leaving the parental household near the end of the film, directs moving words toward his mother but not a syllable toward good ol’ Dad or Sis.

Miles_Ahead_Poster UK_Quad-e1459359065654
That’s enough examples. Hey, sometimes you lose. But sometimes you win, and I can’t say enough good things about Miles Ahead. This is a most unorthodox and highly creative take on Miles Davis, the superb jazz musician whose aura blanketed the globe for over 40 years. Miles was a force musically and sartorially, and set the standard, if you can call it that, for hipster cool. He was a singular talent, a complicated guy, multisided. Not everybody he knew necessarily saw the same sides. And he was a prolific and hardworking musician, recording many dozens of albums as a leader, starting in 1951. His final studio sessions took place in 1991, the year he died at age 65.

A strange thing happened, though, during the second half of Miles’ career. Due to health problems and drug addictions and who-knows-what-else, he went into near-seclusion in 1975, holing himself up in his Upper West Side townhouse in Manhattan. And for the next several years apparently he didn’t do much of anything worth noting. Eventually he felt the urge to make new music, and returned to the recording studio in 1980. The next year he began to tour again. But what was life like for Miles during his period of withdrawal from public life? What was going on inside his head? Those are the questions that Miles Ahead grabs hold of. Fantasizing some answers, the movie takes the audience on a wild ride.

Miles Ahead is Don Cheadle’s baby. He plays Miles in the movie. He looks a lot like him, nails the raspy voice, and constructs a cinematic Miles so natural and believable I have a feeling that he comes damn close to the real thing’s personality. Not only that, Cheadle directed the movie — to me, flawlessly — and co-wrote the screenplay. Yeah, you bet this guy is talented.

Frances Taylor Davis is on the covers of these two Miles albums.
Frances Taylor Davis is on the covers of these two Miles albums.

During his self-imposed confinement, was music ever far from Miles’ mind? Probably not, though he had hit a huge creative roadblock. The movie opens in 1979 or so, in Miles’ spacious and disheveled home, where he has yet to come out of his lengthy funk. And where he dwells on the past, on the music he had made. In flashback scenes throughout the film, covering the late 1950s through about 1966, we see Miles at work. And in love. That was a fecund musical period for Miles, and during it he was head over heels for Frances Taylor, a professional dancer who married (and divorced) him and helped inspire him. Seamlessly blended with the past is an invented scenario in which 1979’s Miles becomes involved in a loopy caper that has some good results: It gets him out of his house and ultimately leads him to reclaim his misplaced musical mojo. His semi-trusted companion in the adventure is a music journalist (done just right by Ewan McGregor) who has edges as flinty and unpredictable as Miles himself. And that is why Miles comes to like him.

I won’t say more about the plot. What I’m wondering, though, is if a viewer needs to be a Miles Davis fan to enjoy this movie. Me, I’m a big fan. But I think I’d have loved the movie even if I weren’t. It seems so real. It breathes like Miles Davis trumpet solos . . . on the trumpet, Miles might dartingly probe the outer planets of the solar system, or might ruminate bittersweetly. And it’s the opposite of the standard biopic in more ways than its fantastical caper. After all, it entirely skips about 55 years of Miles’ life. If Miles, a forward thinker, were alive to view the flick, no doubt he’d say something like this to Don Cheadle: “Man, I don’t know how you came up with this crazy plot, but it slays me. Motherf**ker, that’s me up there on the screen.”

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments, or about sharing this article with others)

Vinyl Night: Collapses Will Happen

“What’s a good night for Dave to come over for Vinyl Night?” I asked my wife Sandy recently.

She rolled her eyes magnificently and exclaimed “Vinyl Night? There is no good night for Vinyl Night!”

And why did she say that? Because when my excellent pal Dave comes over for Vinyl Night, as he does once or twice a year, we listen to a genre of music that Sandy, to say the least, hates. “I don’t consider it to be music,” she explained to me succinctly during dinner not long ago. Understood.

And you know what? Boatloads of people would agree with her, but they can’t, because most folks have never experienced this kind of music. Don’t know that it exists. Here’s what I’m talking about: On Vinyl Nights, Dave and I gorge on jazz of the avant-garde variety. The wild and aggressive type in which melody often is minimal and screeching horns and thrashing drums are the norm. The type that might well be described as seismic in quality and in effect, as will become apparent.

Free jazz. That’s the name that has stuck to this fringe music which began to emerge in the mid-1950s. And liberating it is. The musicians are free to roam far and wide. And the music opens the minds and loosens the emotional chains of those listeners who like it, such as Dave and I, tossing us around like hold-on-for-your-lives roller coaster riders.

Sandy relented and Dave ended up coming over on a Wednesday night, because that was when she had plans to watch a lot of prime time television in the upstairs bedroom. Dave and I, in the living room, would be free to crank up the stereo system’s volume as high as we might. Turns out that wasn’t a good idea.

Vinyl Night's albums photographed on bunker floor before Vinyl Night began.
Vinyl Night’s albums photographed in basement before Vinyl Night began.

In preparation for each Vinyl Night I head to the basement room where my most prized possession resides: my vinyl album collection. I’ve got a ton of albums. Lots of musical styles. Never got rid of any of them, one of the smart calls I’ve made in life. On the afternoon of this most recent occasion I  walked to the shelves holding the discs and made the selections for that evening’s Vinyl Night. Albums by Jimmy Lyons, Roswell Rudd, Grachan Moncur III, Art Ensemble Of Chicago,  Archie Shepp, John Carter/Bobby Bradford, and Albert Ayler. Household names, no? As always, Dave and I would listen to one side of each album.

The three albums that caused problems. Photographed in bunker before Vinyl Night began.
The three albums that caused problems. Photographed in basement before Vinyl Night began.

Dave arrived around 8:00 PM. Sandy gave him a hug and walked upstairs, not to be seen again for a couple of hours. I placed side one of Jimmy Lyons’ Other Afternoons (recorded in 1969) on the turntable and an evening of fun, then mayhem, began. Jimmy Lyons no longer is with us, but his recordings live on with force. And force is what soon blew through the stereo speakers in my living room. The title track, Other Afternoons, began calmly enough. Didn’t take long however for alto saxophonist Lyons and his cohorts to wail and fly as though demons were on their tails and gaining fast (click here to listen). That’s when Dave and I thought we heard the sounds of wood and plaster creaking a bit more than they should in an old house. We put those thoughts out of our minds.

Several albums later a firestorm hit the turntable, Archie Shepp’s The Magic Of Ju-Ju (recorded in 1967). The title song, occupying all of side one, made Other Afternoons sound like a wimp. Shepp, whose career began in the early 1960s and who is alive and kicking, hit the ground at Usain Bolt speed, screaming on his tenor saxophone for 18 minutes over a drumming cacophony (click here to listen). I was amazed, mesmerized and kind of in a daze. Dave too. That’s the power of Shepp. We definitely heard those creaking sounds again, some rumbling ones also, but put them out of our minds.

The problems became undeniable a couple of albums after Shepp’s. Tenorman Albert Ayler, long gone, went stratospheric at around the six minute mark of Spirits Rejoice (recorded in 1966), which takes up all of side three on The Village Concerts double album (click here to listen). My house couldn’t take it any longer. Plaster started falling from the living room ceiling. The living room floorboards began to buckle and give way. Good things weren’t happening upstairs either. Sandy came running down the stairs. “I really, really hate this music,” she yelled as she and I and Dave bolted out the front door. We stood in disbelief on the sidewalk as Sandy’s and my suburban home dropped to the ground. The house’s descent took a long time and was extremely jarring, just like the saxophone, trumpet and other instrumental solos that Dave and I grooved to on that most infamous of Vinyl Nights.

The next day I called my Allstate agent. I described the bizarre situation to her. She said, “You’re out of luck, Neil. Your homeowners policy specifically prohibits you from playing any free jazz above the 80-decibel level. Allstate isn’t going to pay you a cent. We may be the ‘you’re in good hands’ people, like our logo says, but we’re not fools like you!”

(If you enjoyed this article, don’t be shy about sharing it. Sharing buttons are below)

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.

(If you enjoyed this article, then don’t be shy about sharing it. Sharing buttons are below)

Q: How Cool Is The Philadelphia Museum Of Art? A: Very

The Philadelphia Museum Of Art, PMA to its friends, is one of our fair nation’s best museums. My wife Sandy and I visit pretty often. Its holdings are fantastic. What’s more, for years the museum has presented concerts on Friday nights, and we’ve been to a crazy number of them. During our Fridays at PMA we look at art for awhile and then hear music in the majestic Great Stair Hall. For artsy nerds like me, that’s usually a winning combination.

As we headed museumward on a recent Friday, we found ourselves in traffic hell. Our car windows were fogging up from steam coming out of our ears, but we wound up having a heck of a good time once we arrived. No pain, no gain, or something like that. Late-ish as it was though, we didn’t have barrels of time to check out art if we were to snare seats at a ringside cocktail table for the evening concert. Those seats ordinarily are claimed 45 minutes or more before concerts begin. When the preferred seating is taken, your option is to place your rear end upon the Great Stair Hall’s grand marble steps. And YOW, that’s a numbing backside experience.

And so we navigated to a modestly-sized and time-friendly exhibit, works by the not particularly well-known Dave Heath. To me and Sandy, he wasn’t even that, as we’d never heard of him. This show (it closes on February 21, 2016) is entitled Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs Of Dave Heath, and comprises numerous 35 mm photos, all in black and white, that Heath took from 1949 to 1969. Also on display is Heath’s multimedia slide show from 1969. This is the first major presentation of his early and midlife creations, and one of the few museum exhibitions that he ever has had. It was organized by The Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, with plenty of PMA input.

Sandy and I had the same reaction after looking at Heath’s photos for the first few minutes: “This guy is great,” we agreed. And I’m convinced that he is, or in any case was in the 1950s and 60s. The photographs are very beautiful and very dark, shades of black heavily predominating over those of white. I’ve always felt that this approach allows photographs to breathe emotionally, gives them depth and resonance.

New York City (1964), by Dave Heath. Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art, Kansas City, MO; Gift of Hall Family Foundation
New York City (1964), by Dave Heath. Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art, Kansas City, MO; Gift of Hall Family Foundation
Washington Square, New York City (1960), by Dave Heath. Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art, Kansas City, MO; Gift of Hall Family Foundation
Washington Square, New York City (1960), by Dave Heath. Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art, Kansas City, MO; Gift of Hall Family Foundation

Heath isn’t a chronicler of the natural world. He’s a people observer, usually in urban settings. And he is a lover of the close-up, often capturing folks deep in thought or in seeming isolation. His childhood was dreadful, and his work frequently reflects the hurt that probably never went away. But not all is aloneness or sadness in the Heathscape. Joyful images are here and there in the exhibit.

Dave Heath lives in Canada and is 84 years old. There’s not a lot of info about him in cyberspace. He was born in Philadelphia, grew up in foster homes and an orphanage, took up the camera in his late teens, and has had a full career as a photographer and photography teacher. His greatest fame and acclaim occurred in the 1960s, the decade in which he won two Guggenheim Fellowships and created the book for which he is best-known, A Dialogue With Solitude. The final pre-production copy of Dialogue is at PMA. Its 100 or so pages, mostly photographs, ring several gallery walls. Dialogue is divided into ten sections, among them Fate, Fragility And Diversity; Youth; Childhood; Ends And Beginnings. Dialogue is a deep photographic rumination on many aspects of the human plight.

Sandy and I ended up spending much more time with Heath’s images than we had anticipated. They are powerful. By the late 1960s though, Heath apparently felt that he had said all he could in black and white. He turned to color Polaroid picture-taking and later to digital photography. None of this is on PMA’s walls, and from what I gather isn’t well-known by the arts community. It’s a fine thing, though, that someone (the good folks at Nelson-Atkins and at PMA) has championed black and white Dave and decided to let the spotlight shine on him.

Before the concert in the Great Stair Hall. Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin
Pre- concert in the Great Stair Hall. Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

Show time was approaching. Sandy and I lucked out after Heath, grabbing two empty seats at a stage left cocktail table in the Great Stair Hall, a mere six feet from where Arun Ramamurthy soon would be bowing his violin. Arun Ramamurthy? Sandy and I knew as much about him as we had about Dave Heath an hour earlier. Brooklyn-based Ramamurthy, though, is a growing name to be reckoned with in classical Indian music and in musical cross-pollinations. At PMA he brought along Perry Wortman, on upright bass, and drummer/tabla player Deep Singh. The Arun Ramamurthy Trio began its first set at 5:45 PM.  They played a hybrid of South Indian classical music and jazz.

When it comes to music, I’m an appreciator, not a scientist. I understand little about any musical genre’s technical side. Scales, chords, the inter-relationships of notes and how they shape harmonies . . . forget it, I’m at sea. But the big picture I understand, as did the 200 others listening to the Ramamurthy group. We all clapped madly after each piece. Sure, Arun’s melodies and voicings on violin would be pretty unfamiliar to most American ears, but they were beautiful.

In the Great Stair Hall, Arun sat on a platform, chairless and shoeless. He held his violin vertically, bowing with his right hand, working the strings with the fingers of his left. The trio played five songs in the first set, three of them originals, all drawn from or reflecting traditional South Indian classical ragas, melodies and motifs. The music was elastic, minor-keyed and highly improvised, improvisation being a major component of both classical Indian music and jazz.

Arun began song number one unaccompanied, coaxing mournful sounds from his instrument for three minutes. Wortman’s bass then entered — low, gripping notes played slowly, repeatedly — and Singh’s drums too. Singh played carefully, tantalizingly, creating a steady and simmering beat. One drumstick tapped a drum’s rim. The high hat and cymbals shimmered just so. All the while Arun stroked melancholy lines. This was Ramamurthy’s original song, Conception. I was reminded of All Blues, and other numbers, from Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue album.

The Arun Ramamurthy Trio. Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin
The Arun Ramamurthy Trio. Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

The fifth song, an Arun original whose title I missed, found Deep Singh on tabla. The tune was energetic, Arun going pretty wild on violin, Wortman choosing notes eloquently and perceptively, as he did on each tune. Another thing I noticed was that Arun and Deep barely could keep their eyes off each other. They were in a strong musical relationship. And Singh’s fingers were absolutely flying, maybe wearing grooves in his tabla’s skins.

There was a sixth song, but it was not a full trio number. It was a classical raga played by two humans, Arun and tablaist Deep. They were joined not by Wortman but by a droning electronic accompaniment provided via an app on Arun’s smart phone. Amazing.

Dave Heath and The Arun Ramamurthy Trio. Another several hours well-spent at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art.

(If you enjoyed this article, then please don’t be shy about sharing it)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Tony Bennett Is A Wonder

I’m not an expert on the subject. However, if someone asked me to name the 20th century’s best singers of the so-called Great American Songbook, I’d reel off names such as Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire. My list is hardly complete or definitive. But it contains excellent talent without a doubt.

All the entertainers on my list were contemporaries, their careers overlapping one another’s during various decades. A sad note is that only one member of the list is still with us, Tony Bennett, whose professional musical life took hold in 1949 (1949!). Sixty-six years later he continues to go strong. The man is 89 years old now and in good voice. He records regularly and likewise tours the world. He, to me, is a phenomenon. A wonder.

Tony Bennett (left) and Bill Charlap. (Photo by RPM/Columbia Records)
Tony Bennett (left) and Bill Charlap. (Photo by RPM/Columbia Records)

A few weeks ago I caught a track on the radio from one of his albums. It was a melancholy song, beautifully sung. His accompaniment was only one instrument, a piano. I thought that the selection probably came from The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, a 1975 release pairing Bennett with the esteemed jazz pianist. That album has achieved iconic status over the years. But I was wrong. The song — and I can’t remember which one I heard — was a brand new recording from the lovely album by Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap titled The Silver Lining: The Songs Of Jerome Kern.

Recently I listened twice to The Silver Lining in its entirety. And I listened to a few cuts from the Bennett/Evans duet album too. These albums are separated by 40 years. And you know what? Tony’s voice is nearly as good now as it was then. It has lost a little power, strains a bit occasionally. But it remains quite great. I find this most incredible. Has there ever been another gifted vocalist whose pipes have held up so well in his or her very advanced years? I can’t think of anyone. Please let me know if you can.

Jerome Kern was a top composer during the first half of the 1900s. He wrote with a host of smart and classy lyricists, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields and Ira Gershwin among them. The Silver Lining presents some of Kern’s best-known, and best, compositions. For example, The Last Time I Saw Paris, All The Things You Are, I Won’t Dance.  There are 14 tracks on the record. Bennett sings on all of them. Bill Charlap, a refined and tasteful jazz piano player, is Tony’s sole partner on three. Charlap’s jazz pianist wife, Renee Rosnes, adds a second piano on four songs. On the remaining tracks, Charlap is joined by his longtime collaborators, Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington (no relation) on drums.

Overall I find this album to be sublime. The instrumentation is understated. Bennett’s vocalizing is poignant and incisive. He plumbs the depths of the tunes’ lyrics and adds some explosive high notes at the conclusions of a few songs to show that he still has it. If you’re a Tony fan, you should own The Silver Lining.

So, what’s the deal with Tony Bennett? How has he managed not only to survive, but to thrive? Well, genetics more than anything probably accounts for Tony’s long life. As for thriving, we all might learn from his outlook on and approach to life. Tony Bennett always has seemed to me to be a down-to-earth and nice guy, and also in possession of wisdom. There is a fine article about him in the December 2015 issue of DOWNBEAT magazine (the article is not online, so I can’t provide a link). Two quotes from the piece are very telling.  In one he says: “I can’t believe that I’m 89. I stay in shape. I take good care of myself. I got rid of all bad habits. When I was younger, I was pretty wild, doing a lot of foolish stuff. I stopped all of that and I got back to how to sing properly.” And in another he says: “I think life is a magnificent gift. We should all enjoy the fact that we’re living on an unbelievable planet that’s loaded with education and love and beauty.”

It’s not coincidental that the song Look For The Silver Lining concludes the Bennett/Charlap album. George “Buddy” DeSylva’s lyrics are fully in tune with Tony Bennett’s take on the human situation. Give a listen:

(If you enjoyed this article, then please don’t be shy about sharing it)

I Never Met Thelonious Monk, But . . .

The front cover of the author's copy of Criss-Cross.
The front cover of the author’s copy of Criss-Cross.

I loved Thelonious Monk’s music from the first time I heard it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. The year was 1964, maybe ’65. I was a high school senior entranced by rock and roll, R & B, some folk music, and by standards singers such as Sinatra and Bennett. But not by jazz, which was foreign territory to me at that time. My high school buddy Dave had just obtained his New York State driver’s license and one day informed me that he was going to take a ride to a local Sam Goody’s, a popular record store chain that sadly is no longer with us. For whatever reason, I didn’t accompany him. Dave asked me if I wanted anything from Goody’s. I must have been feeling adventurous because I requested a jazz album. Any jazz album would do, since I didn’t know one from another. The record that Dave a day or two later placed in my hands was Criss-Cross, Monk’s 1963 release. I doubt if I had ever heard of Monk before, though he was one of the most famous jazz pianists in the world. And I doubt if Dave knew much about him either. How, then, had Dave come to select this album, which to this day I consider to be magnificent? I don’t know. Dave possessed powerful intuitive talents, still does, and it seems that choosing great music from out of the blue was one of them. On the other hand, maybe he just liked the album’s cover. It is très cool.

I listened to jazz in small amounts over the next few years and in 1969 began to become the jazzhead that I am when I started heavily to inhale the outpourings of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and an ocean of others. And Thelonious Monk too, of course. Monk is one of my all-time favorites.

There’s something peaceful about Monk’s playing, even on the upbeat numbers. Something mesmerizing. Something irresistible in the way he’d offer the unexpected note, the tantalizing trill. Monk had an instantly recognizable sound on the piano, an intriguingly off-center approach. He didn’t play overly fast, just fast enough, and he put his heart and soul on display. He didn’t compose a lot of tunes (73 is the official count), but the unadorned and undeniable beauty of many of his compositions have connected with millions of listeners and with his peers. During the 1980s and ’90s it seemed that every month brought forth a new Monk tribute album. Even now, many jazz albums include one or two Monk works. Great compositions such as ‘Round Midnight, In Walked Bud, Ruby My Dear, Hackensack. Monk died in 1982, and remains a giant.

Thelonious Monk was someone I wish I had met and talked to, though I gather he wasn’t a man of many words, at least at times. I suspect that his song titles indicate this. Fifty of the 73 are either one or two words in length. Still, how fine would it have been to ask Thelonious Monk some questions: Have your piano practice habits changed over the years? Which of your songs mean the most to you? Do you ever listen to Top 40 radio? As a New Yorker, whom do you like best, the Yankees or the Mets?

But I never met Monk. In the 1960s and ’70s, however, three people I knew had up-close Monk experiences, which as a Monk fan I always have looked upon fondly. And in a sense have made my own. The earliest involved one of my high school friends, a young lady. We had graduated in 1965, and soon after that she and her family moved from Long Island to an apartment building in Manhattan near Lincoln Center. Amazingly, this was the building in which Thelonious Monk and his family resided, and had for years. More amazingly, my friend and her family occupied an apartment either directly above or below the Monk pad, I’m not sure which. I recall my classmate telling me, not long after our high school careers ended, that she often would hear Monk playing the piano, which, to say the least, was incredible to me. And enviable.

Back cover of the author's copy of Criss-Cross.
The back cover of the author’s copy of Criss-Cross.

The second occasion involved my friend Dave, who got my Monk ball rolling, with Criss-Cross, in the first place. He once had a brief encounter with the man. Dave thinks the meeting took place in 1966 or ’67. The location was a New York City subway car on which Dave spotted somebody who looked awfully familiar. This somebody was clothed in what Dave described to me as pajamas. Pajamas? Sure, why not? Intrepid soul that Dave was and is, he walked over and asked “Are you Thelonious Monk?” “Yeah, I’m the Monk,” came the reply. End of conversation.

The third Monk event was the topper. My mother was part of it, and I was there when it happened. The month was March, the year was 1976. WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station that programmed jazz in its classic and far-out varieties, was holding a Thelonious Monk marathon, playing his recordings nonstop over a multiday period. I imagine that the station’s intense tribute was timed to coincide with a concert by Monk and his band that same month at Carnegie Hall. My mother was a devoted jazz fan and WKCR listener because her son (my brother) Richard was in attendance at Columbia and was a WKCR jazz DJ. As such, he was on the air for portions of the Monk fest. But not on the evening in question, during which I sat with my mother in the kitchen of her Long Island home as the Monk celebration emanated from a small radio on a counter between the sink and the stove. Concerned about others as she always was, she said something like “I wonder if Thelonious Monk knows what KCR is doing.”

She went to the telephone and dialed 411, the number for directory assistance. Did Monk have a listed number? Somewhat surprisingly, he did. My mother called. Someone on the other end picked up. “Is this Mr. Monk?” she asked. “Yes,” was the reply. “Hello,” my mother said. “I wanted to ask if you know that WKCR is playing all of your music. It’s a wonderful tribute.” “Yes, thank you,” replied Thelonious Monk. My mother probably then complimented Monk on his talents, and Monk probably said “thank you” again. And that was that. I sat there semi-stunned. My mother, to my recollection, had never done anything like this before. She keenly followed the world of celebrities, but always from afar. Of all the stars that she admired, from Mary Tyler Moore to Lena Horne to Paul Newman, I never would have guessed that her one personal contact would be with a jazz pianist.

I was a mere bystander to my mother’s bold move. I, however, had one engaging and in-person Monk experience of my own. This occurred on March 26, 1976 from a balcony seat  at Thelonious’ aforementioned concert at Carnegie Hall. Sitting next to me were my brother Richie and his wife-to-be, Sara. I can’t recall if the performance took place just before or after my mother’s conversation with Monk. Likely, after. Monk didn’t play often in public those days, so the Carnegie gig was a highly anticipated event. In fact, two appearances in July of that year would be his last ever. He was on stage with four musicians, including his son T.S. Monk on drums. Thelonious said little, maybe nothing, to the audience. What mattered was his playing, and he was in superb form. Strong, poignant, totally on the money. His fingers did the talking.

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

(If you enjoyed this article, then please don’t be shy about sharing it)

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)

(If you enjoyed this article, then please consider sharing it. Thanks.)