Friday, March 06, 2015

All That Jazz...

Hi everyone,

I got my ear for jazz from my dad, who has always listened to it. Whenever he visits me in D.C., we make sure to see a show. Whenever someone tells me that they don't like jazz, I wonder if they've ever experienced it. Being in a tiny club, only a few feet away from talented, passionate musicians and seeing them get lost in their music is different from listening to them play the same song on a CD. Instead of focusing on the performer, jazz focuses on the instruments. They all get their solos and may fly off on their own at times, but they always reunite in unexpected ways to play together again. Each show is unique, shared only with the rest of the audience. Here are some jazzy highlights from 2014.

February 21: Kris Funn (bass) and Cornerstone, Bohemian Caverns. 

I first saw bassist Kris Funn playing a free performance on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. I was there to see another bassist, Ron Carter, and just happened to catch Kris Funn because of my early arrival. He looked like a lanky 12-year-old next to his gigantic upright bass but had magic fingers that blurred while he played. I became an immediate fan, so when I read that he'd be performing at Bohemian Caverns, I even convinced some friends to come with me. Bohemian Caverns has a cool cave-like atmosphere that impressed them, and Kris Funn and Cornerstone impressed us all even more. Keep an eye out for this up-and-comer and, some day soon, you'll be able to say you knew him way back when...

Check out Kris Funn's Music page for performance video clips.

May 23: Ron Carter (bass), Bohemian Caverns. 

A few days after I got hired for my current job, my supervisor discovered that I knew about jazz because I recognized Thelonious Monk on the cover of one of her books. I explained that he was one of my dad's favorite jazz musicians. Because of this revelation, she began inviting me to jazz shows, and 74-year-old Ron Carter – the most recorded bassist of all time – was one of our first outings. "You've got to see this guy," she said. Immediately after the show, I called home, "Dad, you've got to see this guy!" 

Now, we always see Ron Carter whenever he's in town. He's a class act, a professional who has lived his music. One time, after a set, I ran into him going out the front door for a smoke. That was exciting. At this show, last year, he plugged his just-published biography, which he asked up to buy so that he wouldn't have to lug all of the copies around with him. I dutifully bought one and, as he signed it, mentioned that I was a big fan and see him every time he's in D.C. He stopped mid-signature, looked me in the eye, and nodded a sincere thank you. I'm relieved that his stare wasn't concern about a stalker; the police haven't come for me yet. All I meant by it was that when you see Ron Carter on the calendar, you've got to see that guy.

Browse the Videos page on Ron Carter's website for performances and interviews. 
May 24: Sharon Clarke (vocals), Blues Alley. 

The day after my dreamy experience with Ron Carter, Dad and I saw Sharon Clarke, who we had first heard in Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southeast D.C. The church's Jazz Night is every Friday (with a buffet). Dad and I both saw Sharon Clarke's name on Blues Alley's calendar and mentioned it to each other: "Hey, isn't that that lady..." Jazz night at Westminster Church has a line up of performers, and Sharon Clarke was one of many. Her voice and presence got our attention in the somewhat chaotic atmosphere of regulars focused on their trays of food and catching up with their friends with the latest local news. 

Unlike Westminster Presbyterian Church, Blues Alley is a listening club so, during performances, talking above a whisper is discouraged and cell phone use is blasphemous. You're supposed to be quiet and attentive to the musicians. When Sharon Clarke started singing there, though, the feisty church atmosphere returned: the show was practically a stand-up comedy routine, only with lots of singing. Everyone laughed heartily at all her jokes, called out commentary about her anecdotes, and sang along to her chosen standards, many of which I didn't recognize. Many of those that I did recognize were unexpected songs that I couldn't imagine her performing. For example, I was afraid she'd ruin "Hey Joe," my favorite Jimi Hendrix song. But Sharon Clarke's got style, and she made this and all of the other songs she sang that night her own. "Hey Joe," seemed like a strange choice for the last song of the night, but her growled rendition was so exciting that may people stood to cheer, sing, and dance along. She bedazzled us; I guess that's what divas do. 

I don't think Sharon Clarke has a website, but I found a video of her here to give you an idea of her lovely voice. Google her for more. Sharon Clarke just participated in the mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in Rockville, Maryland, February 13-16, 2015. I'm sure she'll pop up again somewhere soon.
June 27: Ginger Baker (drums) Jazz Confusion, Howard Theatre. 

A couple of years ago, I saw a fascinating documentary about Cream drummer Ginger Baker called Beware of Mr. Baker. It revealed his talent and temper, and when the documentary ended, I recommended it to Dad (and all my other friends who are into music). "I always thought Ginger Baker was talented," Dad said. "On those Cream records, I always noticed the drums." Because Ginger Baker's lived in Africa for so many years, his music has evolved with a unique African flavor. Surprised to discover that he is still touring, I considered making a quick trip to New York to see him at an upcoming gig. I talked myself out of that, so luckily, Ginger Baker came to me!

Howard Theatre shows are general admission, so I convinced Dad that we should arrive early. We joined a handful of hippies who were apparently more eager than me. When we were seated, we were surrounded by hippies who seemed trapped in the '60s. Dad joked that I was the youngest person there, but I think it was true. 

When Ginger Baker first shuffled feebly on stage, he got into his seat behind the drums and welcomed us with, "I'm not feeling very well today, so we'll see how this goes." Throughout the performance, he introduced songs, saying things like, "My doctors told me not to come, but here I am because I don't let people down." And, "We'll try to play this one. This one might be it. This one might be the Baker killer." (Concerned, I Googled Ginger Baker's age and health status during the intermission in case we should find a doctor in the house.) My favorite moment of the show came when, amid mumbling a tale about his hard life that inspired his next song, a guy from the audience yelled out well-intentioned encouragement: "We love you, Ginger!" In response, Ginger snarled, "Aw, stop yelling! Just shut up and listen to the music!"

When Ginger Baker played his drums, he transformed. His posture straightened, his focus sharpened, and he became years younger before our eyes. When he finished a song, he shrank back down, heaving, wheezing, and when helped out of his seat, wobbling on his feet. He played every note perfectly and with every bit of energy he had, making this one of the most memorable concerts of the year. Don't worry, he's not dead yet. 

Find a ton of Ginger Baker performances through his website archive. Hot off the presses: Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion is scheduled to return to Howard Theatre on June 19, 2015. Get your tickets, mark your calendars, and see you there!
August 16: Ellis and Delfeayo Marsalis (piano and trombone), Bethesda Blues and Supper Club.

I went to this show with a group of strangers. For the first time, I joined an event with the Washington Jazz and Blues Meetup Group. I'd never been to the Bethesda Blues and Supper Club, a large renovated movie theatre, and now I can recommend it – especially when any member of the Marsalis Family is in town. Father Ellis Marsalis, Jr., plays the piano. Son Delfeayo Marsalis plays the trombone. Most familiar with Branford and Wynton Marsalis, I'd never seen these two family members before. This fantastic show, sprinkled with the music of their hometown of New Orleans, included old standards like "My Funny Valentine" and surprises like the theme from "Sesame Street." The Marsalis Family is cool like that.  

Check out Delfeayo Marsalis website's Videos page for performances.  

September 26: Terence Blanchard (trumpet), Blues Alley. 

Terence Blanchard is a consummate trumpeter, who Dad and I always plan to see when his name shows up on any schedule. Unfortunately, Dad's train to D.C. was so delayed that he gave up on it and missed this show. Terence Blanchard shows feel modern, powerful, and all-encompassing. I remember leaving one of his sets feeling unsettled and frantic because that's how the music played. At another, we heard the voice of Dr. Cornell West, who had contributed to Terence Blanchard's latest CD at the time.You're never sure what you'll get with Terence Blanchard, and that's exciting. 

Check out Terence Blanchard website Photos/Videos page for clips. He will return to Blues Alley June 16-21, 2015. Do you have your tickets yet?

December 31: Branford Marsalis (saxophone) Harry Connick, Jr. (vocals/piano), The Kennedy Center. 

Branford Marsalis is my favorite member of the Marsalis Family, mainly because I've known him since 1987 when I discovered Sting, whose band at the time was filled with the best jazz musicians around. When I saw that Branford was going to give a special New Year's Eve concert at the Kennedy Center, I got tickets as soon as they went on sale. I'm not a fan of New Year's Eve because of the cold weather and the excessive drinking, crowds, and noise. Going to the Kennedy Center to see Branford Marsalis is worth these risks. I even found two friends to join me; for once, I have new year's plans! Then, 30 seconds before the show started, the Kennedy Center chairman greeted us and announced that Branford Marsalis was under the weather. Everyone gasped. To make up for it, he asked a childhood friend to fill in for him: Harry Connick, Jr. Everyone screamed! 

I like this guy very much. I even got his autograph once at a record store in New York, starry-eyed about meeting the cute guy who sings all those songs in Sleepless in Seattle. I see his movies and I like his music, but – aside from both being from New Orleans, Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr., are very different people with very different styles of music. This was not the concert I was expecting. When the curtain came up, our pinch hitter knew it and greeted us with relief, "Oh, I'm so glad you're all here. If bought a ticket to see Branford, and I found out that Branford was sick and not coming, I probably wouldn't show up....That's probably why they didn't tell you!" In the middle of the show, he noticed some new faces in the front row, "You're new," he said. "Hello, I'm not Branford." 

It's okay, Harry Connick, Jr., because you and your band are fantastic! He sang standards and played New Orleans jazz. We had no information about his lively band of excellent musicians in our playbills. (Our original headliner must have cancelled at the last minute.) They were all expressive characters with choreographed moves, supporting a multitalented (still cute) singing musician and movie star. When the show ended, we were exhilarated by the concert's party atmosphere and left with broad smiles on our faces. Okay, Branford, he'll do. 

Check out Harry Connick, Jr., performances on his website's Videos page. Branford Marsalis has a Videos page on his website too, so check him out because he's feeling better these days.

Harry Connick , Jr., just gave a concert at Strathmore on February 20, and Branford Marsalis performed at the Bethesda Blues and Supper Club on March 1. Sadly, I can't always go to everything, but I do have my eye on another Marsalis I've never seen before – Jason, who will be at Blues Alley playing vibes on April 15! Want to go?


Credits: Kris Funn © Ronald Weinstock; Ron Carter  © Bohemian Caverns; Sharon Clarke  © unknown;  Ginger Baker © Brian Hineline; Ellis and Delfeayo Marsalis  © unknown; Terence Blanchard  © Shannon Brinkman; Harry Connick, Jr.  © unknown 

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