in performance: keigo hirakawa trio

keigo hirakawa.

It was until a set closing version of “Stardust” that Keigo Hirakawa took a musical breath. Up to that point, his swiftly paced and even more briskly executed performance Saturday evening at Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Lounge (specifically, the first of two sets in this Origins Jazz Series presentation) darted along with a light, effortless but unrelenting drive.

In terms of flow, this Tokyo-born, but Dayton-based pianist, was like McCoy Tyner, but without the latter’s muscular, modal intensity. Nearly every corner of the seven compositions he played were filled with melodic swing and boppish mischief. It was technically dazzling, from the full – make that, very full – runs that distinguished the set opening “Myth of Poseidon” to the discreetly forceful fluidity and rhythmic playfulness that sparked the closing “Unmarked Path.”

But it wasn’t until “Stardust” that one sensed just how exhausting the performance was at times. There was likely a classical upbringing at work in Hirakawa’s playing to go along with an obvious and good-hearted playfulness. On an earlier cover of “Summertime,” Hirahawa threw out the playbook entirely, utilizing a tasteful bossa-flavored groove before slamming on the accelerator. On “Stardust,” though, you got a sense of space and dynamics that reached beyond the technical acceleration.

Bassist Eddie Brookshire and drummer Jeff Mellott had nuance to spare, especially Mellott, whose playing was full of light, but commanding color, whether it was through the tasteful propulsion underneath the piano attack on “Whatchamacallit” or the way he navigated through the turns and gradual melodic launch of “Home Somewhere.”

Brookshire’s playing was exquisite – what could be heard of it. Hirakawa played an electric piano, but with a sound that mimicked a grand as opposed to, say a Fender Rhodes. Still, the modest amplification and busy piano comping robbed the audience of the attractive detail in Brookshire’s soloing. It was only during the first half of “Summertime” that some of the rubbery depth of the bassist’s playing could be appreciated.

Obviously, an electric keyboard was favored for its portability, but a modification to the volume might have helped bring out the complete color of this fine trio. Hirokawa may have been the pilot, but this was a group where everyone deserved to be fully heard.

in performance: rempis/lopez/packard

Brandon Lopez, Dave Rempis and Ryan Packard, Photo by Erika Raberg,

With every band that brings Dave Rempis to Lexington – and in the 17 year history of the Outside the Spotlight series, there have been a dozen or more – has come an almost expected level of musical combustion. The Chicago saxophonist brings not only a fierce physicality to his playing, but a level of fearlessness within the intensity of his improvising that makes the temperament of his musicianship all the more volatile.

That was certainly the case with a new trio he brought to an OTS performance at the Kentucky School on Tuesday evening. Aided by New York bassist Brandon Lopez and Chicago drummer Ryan Packard (last seen here as part of another Rempis trio, Gunwale, in 2016), the saxophonist summoned the trademark volcanic intensity, whether it was through bold, corrosive jabs on alto saxophone, the scalding wail he worked up to on tenor or the layers of baritone color that filled the Kentucky School like an approaching fog.

But the difference in the Rempis/Lopez/Packard trio proved to be dynamics. Part of that came from the rest of the group, be it the fractured ambience Packard added on melodica and some primitive electronics (like a single amplified speaker that created a variety of curious distortions when placed on a drum head) and the extensive bowed bass vocabulary Lopez would regularly call upon over the course of the hour-long set’s three extended improvisations.

Mostly, though, what distinguished this group were the ways those dynamics mingled with Rempis’ playing. That especially came into focus during the program’s final improv, highlighted by a drone-like unison of bowed bass and baritone sax that became oddly but beautifully harmonic. Then the finale blissed out with Packard reducing the percussion to quietly tribal rhythms implemented by mallets before the entire set came to a spacious, almost meditative landing.

Rempis confided after the show that snippets of Thelonious Monk tunes and even a portion of the standard “April in Paris” where slipped in at various points, but none were outwardly detectable save for a general Monk-like playfulness in the ensemble interplay. What was instead apparent was a tireless improviser in full muscular form. But this time, he also showed just how intense a little hushed unrest can be alongside all the fireworks.

the patriarch of the festival

Bob Cornett at the Festival of the Bluegrass in 2013. (Herald-Leader file photo.)

Even though he effectively retired from overseeing the Festival of the Bluegrass some years ago, Bob Cornett never disappeared. In recent summers, he would quietly roam the grounds, greet longtime patrons and chat with musicians that have made the event a performance priority during the summer touring months. With a manner cordial and reserved, he didn’t draw attention to himself. To those that knew him and understood the kind of festival he established, along with its lasting cultural importance to Central Kentucky, he was royalty and was respected as such. But when Cornett came within view, no sense of ceremony was required or expected. It was more like a neighbor calling.

“There’s Bob.” Those were the words you heard trickle within the audience throughout the festival. There was no small sense of comfort in hearing them, too. With wife and festival co-founder Jean Cornett having died in 2015, Bob was the last prominent link to the event’s beginnings when another bluegrass generation reigned in Central Kentucky.

With Cornett’s passing yesterday at the age of 89, Lexington lost one of string music’s most honored torchbearers. If Bill Monroe was the rightly dubbed Father of Bluegrass, then the Cornetts were monarchs of the music in our corner of the bluegrass world. No one has done more for giving bluegrass such a prominent, lasting performance platform. More importantly, no one has stressed the need for using that platform, traditional in design as it was, to transcend generations. Anyone who remotely knew Bob Cornett will acknowledge that among his primary passions relating to the festival were the offstage camp sessions that allowed young, eager musicians the opportunity to experience his own passion and devotion for bluegrass.

Sad as Cornett’s passing is, he leaves behind something more than a mere legacy. The Festival of the Bluegrass continues to thrive under the direction of succeeding generations of the Cornett family. At least from an outsider’s perspective, there is no need to ask the usual panic question, “How will it continue without him?” The answer is it will do fine. Bob and Jean Cornett instilled in their children and grandchildren a very visible will and need to carry on with the event. They long ago took the management reins so that the founders, in their final years, could enjoy their well-earned emeritus roles and attend essentially as patrons – patrons, mind you, with a homespun, yet unavoidably royal aura.

in performance: tim daisy and raleigh dailey

Tim Daisy.

About half way through a 20-minute duo improvisation, Tim Daisy let loose with a detonation on a drum head – a swift, sudden pronouncement that instantly shifted the mood and pace of what had been, up to that point, a loose and playfully fragmented exchange with pianist Raleigh Dailey. The effect and functionality of this outburst was like thunder. It was sudden, dramatic and tore open a space for the rains that followed. In this case, the storm was an exchange that briefly flirted with swing before later subsiding into percussive interplay that placed both players on mallets. For Daisy, that meant concocting almost tribal, code-like rhythms on drums. For Dailey, that meant transforming a grand piano into a more basic (but less obvious) percussion utensil as he rattled the mallets off the inside frame of the instrument.

Such was the sense of adventure undertaken Friday evening at the Niles Gallery on the University of Kentucky campus. This was home turf for Dailey, a familiar local jazz ambassador and educator with a sterling track record as an instrumentalist, arranger and composer, although he has been afforded few onstage opportunities to roar purely as an improviser. For Chicago drummer Daisy, Lexington long ago became a second performance home through numerous appearances in the Outside the Spotlight Series in over a dozen different ensemble settings (although this outing marked his first local visit in roughly two years).

Together, each played to their strengths – Daisy, as a tireless improviser constantly shifting between various brushes, sticks, cymbals and gongs in seemingly frenzied displays that regularly fell into an astonishing sense of drive and order. Dailey, a versed classical player, didn’t shy away from his background by utilizing a piano vocabulary both vast and versatile, from single note flourishes that countered Daisy’s wilder forays with almost minimalistic calm to broader, colorful flourishes that often reflected, despite their improvisational design, a compositional accessibility.

The duo improvisations constituted the second of the evening’s two sets. The first let both players go it alone. Daisy’s improv opened and closed with almost prayer-like rumblings on mallets interspersed with splinters of rhythms augmented by the curious electric static of a transistor radio – a device that laid in pieces on the gallery floor at the end of the evening. Dailey, again drawing on classical inspiration, used space and pace to guide his segment. While he didn’t draw upon free improvisation as regularly as Daisy, he offered numerous harmonic surprises. Among them was a fascinating one-man dialogue where Dailey’s left hand fueled a bright but subtle melodic stride while the right reached inside the piano to scratch the strings with a bottleneck slide.

It should be noted that the evening’s final duo improv was dedicated by Daisy to the great Kentucky visual artist Henry Faulkner and his famed “bourbon loving goat” Alice. Daisy was long ago accepted as a kind of honorary Lexingtonian, but nothing reaffirms one’s neighborhood appeal more concretely than acknowledging (and embracing) the local, folkloric legacy of a true artistic eccentric.

in performance: friends & neighbors

Friends & Neighbors. From left, Andre Roligheten, Oscar Gronberg, Jon Rune Strom, Thomas Johansson and Tollef Ostvang.

For a band from Norway, Friends & Neighbors began its Outside the Spotlight concert Saturday at the Kentucky School sounding remarkably American. Well, it did for about a minute or so.

Maybe it was a bit of a tease or simply a touch of tradition at play, but the introduction to the concert-opening ballad “Influx” employed the band’s traditional quintet instrumentation (trumpet, sax, piano, bass and drums) to provide a spaciousness that would not have been out of place in Miles Davis’ classic groups of the early and mid ‘60s. The atmosphere was cool and open while the band interplay seemed conversational. But Friends & Neighbors never fully boarded the flight to America. The tune, one of six pieces in an hour-long program devoted the new “What’s Next?” album, preferred to stay in a state of musical wanderlust, maintaining a setting where short bursts from trumpeter Thomas Johansson and tenor saxophonist Andre Roligheten colored a canvas where fragments of melody and a few boppish turns were enhanced in almost dance-like fashion by pianist Oscar Gronberg. The result was music that, despite the initial greeting, sounded solidly European.

Given its references to more free-oriented jazz (the band’s name comes from an overlooked 1972 album by Ornette Coleman), the rest of this very enjoyable set regularly operated from a strong compositional base, whether it was through the Monk-ish piano accents and deliciously fractured trumpet swing on “Mozart” or the way bassist Jon Rune Strom propelled the closing “Headway Heat” as much through the tension and tone of his playing as through groove.

Moments of pure abstraction were pretty much absent. Instead, “Kubrick’s Rude” let a bouncy, circular horn pattern play off a piano melody that sounded playfully classical while “Reflection” revisited the same hushed, ensemble spaciousness of “Influx.” Roligheten’s took a few modestly scalding turns on the latter, but that was as corrosive as this inviting performance got.

Adding to the charm of the evening was the setting. The performance was held outdoors at what was the Beer Garden at Al’s Bar (now part of the still-under-construction Kentucky School). The coolness of an early spring Saturday made Friends & Neighbors’ Euro-flavored music sound all the more, well, neighborly.

in performance: boneshaker/timothee quost

Boneshaker. From left, Paal-Nilssen-Love, Mars Williams and Kent Kessler. Photo by Marek Lazarsk.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Boneshaker titled its new album “Fake Music.” Well, there’s parody at work, too, given the redacted text that serves as cover art. But when giving a listen to this Chicago trio, which offered a very inviting set Friday evening at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall for the Outside the Spotlight Series, you sensed at once how fake the “Fake” element was. Led by saxophonist Mars Williams and sporting two veterans of numerous OTS performances, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Kent Kessler, Boneshaker summoned a sense of jazz interplay and immediacy that was real, present and vital.

While Williams has long demonstrated an instrumental potency that borders on the volcanic, this performance was distinguished by considerable instrumental dynamics. In a single 45 improvisation that formed the foundation of the concert (although it was likely a mash-up of several singular pieces, as is the case on “Fake Music”), the trio took flight with the blues. But the music also remained open enough for the drive of Kessler and Nilssen-Love to fortify Williams’ more daring runs on tenor sax. From there, the sounds continually shifted from slow to brisk, from dense to sparse and from a hearty shout to a bare whisper. At times, that meant the trio broke off into various duet formations, highlighted by a quiet exchange between Kessler on bowed bass and Williams on alto sax.

The vocabulary was considerable, as well, whether it was displayed by Nilssen-Love doubling the rhythm on shakers for a Pharoah Sanders-like feel or Williams coloring sections with kalimba, percussive bells and even squeaky toys. That this entire collage returned to earth with a soulful but underscored groove cemented the trio’s broad sense of invention.

French trumpeter Timothee Quost opened with a half-hour improvisation that was better appreciated as a performance piece than a purely musical one. Playing on a novel makeshift stage in the bed of a pickup truck parked on the store floor of the Fun Mall, his performance was largely an abstract fabric of electronic pops and flourishes that seldom called on the trumpet’s natural sound. That, luckily, was placed on display when he joined Boneshaker at the show’s end, trading aggressive stabs with Williams and generally enhancing the trio’s already resourceful musical arsenal.

 

in performance: los lonely boys

Los Lonely Boys. From left, Henry Garza, Ringo Garza and Jojo Garza.

The club shows that introduced Los Lonely Boys to Lexington some 15 years ago were exhibitions of bluesy, electric exuberance – three brothers out of San Angelo, Texas serving up hearty power trio guitar rock with the spirits of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan never far from view. What it perhaps lacked then in invention was compensated for with boundless performance vigor.

On Wednesday night, before a sold out crowd at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, the brothers Garza – guitarist Henry, six string bassist Jojo and drummer Ringo (seriously, that his name) – delivered a set that, if anything, packed an even greater sense of affirmation and energy. But the difference this time was how securely the trio had found its rock, blues and soul sea legs. This was a band fascinated with the possibilities of power trio voltage, its own Chicano heritage and the sheer joy of stage performance. Though brief (the show barely clocked past 70 minutes), it possessed a level of drive and freshness that, frankly, was a little unexpected.

The Garzas threw down their psychedelic cards before the crowd at the show’s onset by opening with a searing cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou.” Henry Garza embraced the tune’s killer bayou guitar riff, but dragged it over to Texas terrain, making it more bluesy than swampy. Jojo Garza wisely avoided John Fogerty’s gutbucket vocal lead from the song’s original 1968 version, supplanting it instead with a rich, rootsy shout and an occasional cultural shift in the lyrics (“I can still hear my chihuahua barking”).

Henry and Jojo split lead vocal duties as the program tore through four consecutive tunes from the most recent Los Lonely Boys album, 2014’s “Revelation.” Here is where the band’s stylistic breadth came into play. “Don’t Walk Away” and “Blame It on Love” incorporated just enough of a pop flourish (especially within the percussive Latin strut of the latter) to make Los Lonely Boys sound vastly more orchestrated than a conventional power trio. Ditto for the funk accents, especially in Jojo’s bass work, that fueled “Give a Little More” and the lighter paced, conga-flavored groove of “So Sensual.”

But there was still ample guitar fire from Henry to keep the show moving at a solid, rocking pace, from the intriguing Santana-like coda to “I Never Met a Woman” to the bass and drum-led jam that ignited a giddy cover of the Steve Winwood staple “I’m a Man.”

The evening concluded with the band’s breakthrough 2004 hit “Heaven.” Here, 15 year old Ringo Garza Jr (the drummer’s son) joined in, playing guitar confidently with his dad and uncles, adding to a pop-soul vibe already inherent in the tune.

It was a telling moment, as the three elder Garzas got their professional start decades earlier under the tutelage of their father. Sewing a family thread into music that has grown richer over time enforced the only false aspect of Los Lonely Boys – its name. The communal spirit revealed last night was way too fun and inviting for anyone at the Lyric to feel like they were even remotely alone.

in performance: mumford & sons/cat power

Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons performing Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Matt Goins.

The dichotomy sitting within the music of Mumford & Sons revealed itself the moment the lights went down Tuesday night at Rupp Arena.

After a preshow arsenal of vintage soul favorites from Aretha Franklin, The Contours and The Four Tops blasted through the venue to put the crowd of 8,500 in a celebratory mood, Marcus Mumford and an expanded eight member version of the British pop-folk brigade took to the stage with the first two tunes from their recent “Delta” album. The songs, “42” and “Guiding Light,” quickly iced over the any impending party mood with an atmospheric disparity that was rather chilling.

The two works are essentially companion pieces. The first seeks a path out of darkness, the second finds it. It was an opening that left the Rupp crowd transfixed, seated and somewhat deflated.

But then the party started. With “Little Lion Man,” Mumford & Sons turned back the calendar a full decade to the stomping, folk-informed pop sound rich with fiddle and banjo that first opened the world’s ears to the British band. The audience shot to its feet as if a switch had been thrown.

The band shuffled back and forth between regions of dark and light for the rest of the performance. The latter mostly won out, whether it was through the more elegiac and acoustic inclined “Beloved,” the drummer-less rhythmic drive of “Roll Away Your Stone” or those more rocking instances where Mumford and banjoist Winston Marshall opted for electric guitars, as during the high voltage charge of “Believe.”

Perhaps the most fascinating blend of the two extremes surfaced during “Picture You,” which blew in with synthesized layers of finger popping cool before yielding to the full ensemble charge of “Snake Eyes.”

This was a visually arresting performance. Presented in the round (well, actually on a rectangular stage in the middle of the rectangular Rupp floor), it allowed the band to perform under two massive banks of lights that regularly descended near the stage like probing spaceships.

But the staging also allowed for intimacy. During an encore set, the band gathered around a single microphone for a brief set highlighted by the almost gospel-esque “Sister” that revealed Mumford & Sons at its most appealing and familial.

Mumford proved utility man of the evening, as well. Aside from diverting to drums and percussion for a few tunes, he also sat in for roughly one-third of a fascinating opening set by Chan Mitchell, better known by her professional nom de plume of Cat Power.

A recording artist for over two decades, Mitchell still plays with the wonderment – and, at times, distance – of a hopeful newcomer. The set opening “Cross Bones Style” and later entries such as “Robbin Hood” were wrapped in a spacious electric wash for which her vocals operated more as an additional color as opposed to a lead voice. Singing often with two microphones and wandering in and out of stage shadows, Mitchell echoed the dark chanteuse ambience of artists like Nico while her songs were seldom inhibited by standard verse/chorus structure. They instead unfolded more as ongoing meditations.

There were curious elements of accessibility thrown in, like snippets of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” and the folk staple “He Was a Friend of Mine.” Similarity, Mumford’s extended cameo brought a broader pop palette to original works like “Manhattan” while offering a hint of the dark/light dichotomy the evening’s headliners would soon explore in detail.

in performance: ross whitaker

Ross Whitaker.

Approximating the jazz tone and temperament of John Scofield is no easy task. One of the most versed and recognizable jazz guitarists of the past four decades, his electric playing cruises effortlessly through bop, blues, funk and fusion but isn’t afraid to dig into dark corners during the ride. That’s why underneath all the lyrical candor in Scofield’s music sits a restlessness that toys with tempo and phrasing to create a sense of woozy fascination. Then again, when a tunes calls for it, his playing can tear like a torpedo through the mightiest senses of swing and groove.

Lexington guitarist Ross Whitaker took it upon himself to explore and interpret a sizable chunk of Scofield’s catalog – 32 years’ worth, to be exact – for an Origins Jazz Series concert Saturday evening at Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Lounge. The results offered a musical overview that was as complimentary to Scofield’s stylistic breadth as it was comprehensive.

To his credit, Whitaker didn’t rush the music or force its intent. Scofield has never been intrigued with flash or speed. As such Whitaker, took his time in offering a faithful take on Scofield’s high, wiry tone. It unfolded with modestly aggressive but abundantly playful clarity on “I’ll Take Les,” coalesced for the more outwardly boppish “Eisenhower” and eased for the gentler, bossa nova-flavored “Keep Me in Mind.”

Working with tenor saxophonist Doug Drewek and trumpeter/cornetist Sam Flowers helped color the more expansive extremes of the concert, from the hushed phrasing of “Still Warm” (a tune that reached back to a 1986 Scofield album of the same name) to the blues/soul lullaby “Uncle Southern” (the performance’s newest entry, coming from Scofield’s 2018 recording “Combo 66”).

Then there were times Whitaker’s patiently paced musicianship openly embraced groove. On “Hottentot,” one of Scofield’s numerous collaborations with the avant funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood, the bounce in his playing turned more jagged as the ensemble sound became more rhythmic. Since horns didn’t figure into Scofield’s original version, it was both refreshing and inventive to hear them play off the composition’s central guitar hooks so readily. The jovial sound that resulted sounded less like Medeski Martin & Wood and more like James Brown.

 

in performance: los lobos

Los Lobos. From left: Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo, Steve Berlin, Cesar Rosas and Louie Perez. Photo courtesy of Paradigm Music Library.

Now here is an audience cheer you don’t often encounter at your everyday rock ‘n’ roll show.

“Everybody cumbia!”

That was the invitation from guitarist Cesar Rosas as Los Lobos headed into the home stretch of a jubilant career overview concert Thursday evening at Manchester Music Hall.

Of course, with Los Lobos, even seemingly foreign sounds as cumbia are no more presented as novelties than they are as purist reflections of musical tradition. As such, the Columbian dance rhythms at the heart of “Chuco’s Cumbia” mingled with shades of rockish psychedelia, courtesy of the myriad guitar voicings of Lobos co-frontman David Hidalgo and the boppish glee of baritone saxophonist Steve Berlin. So, in short, expecting an audience to break into cumbia-inspired dance was as unlikely as it was thinking Los Lobos wouldn’t liberally borrow from a pantry full of ethnic accents.

Ironically, the 90 minute set began on pretty traditional terms with the same four players that began Los Lobos in 1973 – Rosas, Hidalgo, Louie Perez and Conrad Lozano – taking to the stage alone with a sampler of acoustic tunes that accelerated from the brisk and brittle Mexican folk stride of the show opening “Canto A Veracruz” to the Tex Mex drive of “Mexico Americano” with Berlin and drummer Bugs González entering the lineup.

From there the cross pollination began as the show turned to rock ‘n’ roll. Rosas piloted the giddy, roots-savvy “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” while Hildalgo took charge on a majestically orchestral “Angel Dance” as well as a keenly noir-flavored “Kiko and the Lavender Moon”.

A few kindred inspirations were also channeled. A set closing cover of the Grateful Dead staple “Bertha” surrendered fully to jamming instincts revealed more sparingly earlier in the performance, while the hit 1987 cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” (presented as a festive mash-up encore with the vintage Rascals hit “Good Lovin’”) offered the band’s most recognizable and accessible nod to its Latin heritage.

It was all good fun, even though everyone onstage – save for the continually grinning Lozano – looked like pokerfaced dads as they played. But don’t judge Los Lobos by its stage presence. All you needed to hear was the block party pairing of the Tex Mex romps “Anselma” and “Let’s Say Goodnight” late in the set to understand just how hard at play these rocking patriarchs truly were.

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