Archive for December, 2015

bonus tracks: the brubeck brothers quartet

two generations of brubeck: sons chris (left) and dan (right) with father dave (center).

two generations of brubeck: sons chris (left) and dan (right) with father dave (center).

Our preview piece on tonight’s performance by the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and the Lexington Philharmonic had to exclude, for reasons of length, a wonderful remembrance by Chris Brubeck of when his famous father, jazz titan Dave Brubeck, was inducted into the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009. As this year’s Honors ceremony was telecast earlier this week, we thought we would share Chris’ story of how the four Brubeck sons kept their performance at the telecast a secret from their dad until show time.

“Oh my God, we went to such amazing lengths for him to not know we were going to be there. For example, when my wife and I rode with my sister all the way from Connecticut to Washington, we didn’t even let my sister know that we were going to be doing it. And two of my brothers were actually hiding in different hotels in Washington so they couldn’t possibly run into my dad.

“My brother Darius and I… our dad knew we were in Washington because of a different ceremony that we were invited to. But dad also knew that the people getting the Kennedy Center Honors don’t get to play at the ceremony. It’s all done as a tribute. He said, ‘Oh, I’d sure love it if my sons would be the people that would play to honor me.’ The producers said, ‘We’re sorry, we really can’t do that. We’re going in a different direction.’

“The different direction was this incredible all-star band with Christian McBride and Bill Charlap and Bill Stewart, Miguel Zenon – all these great guys. And Herbie Hancock was in there. It was just unbelievable. But even live, my brothers and I were hidden behind this piece of scenery onstage. So our dad really, really had no idea we were also going to be there until we began playing.

“The producers always want to have what they call the ‘gotcha’ moment, emotionally, from the recipients. They want to catch that on camera. They told me that was one of their very favorite all-star takes of that moment. It was just so great. At the time, I thought that was probably the pinnacle of my dad’s life, the culmination of the whole mission our family has been working in during his lifetime, and it turned out to be true. He only played a few more years after that.”

brubeck time

chris and dan brubeck.

chris and dan brubeck.

Peruse the list of artists Chris Brubeck has composed music for and you will discover names that span generations and styles alike.

There is the concerto he wrote for a trio of genre-specific violinists (classical virtuoso Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, jazz stylist Regina Carter and Irish-American fiddler Eileen Ivers), a quintet piece recorded with the heralded woodwind ensemble Imani Winds and a work for the Americana-friendly trio Time for Three performed this fall with the Lexington Philharmonic.

While all of that has established the multi-instrumentalist as a premiere composer, arranger and performer, there is a name his most formidable musical talents always seem to answer to – his own. That’s because Brubeck is the son of jazz icon Dave Brubeck, the pianist whose inventive use of time signatures was the basis of a far-reaching career that spanned over 60 years. But the father-son relationship was also a professional one. Chris and brother/drummer Dan Brubeck were regular bandmates of their father beginning in the ‘70s, playing together at the inaugural concert of the University of Kentucky’s Spotlight Jazz Series in 1978. So it’s of little surprise the music the siblings will perform for a New Year’s Eve concert tonight with the Philharmonic will focus less on Chris’s compositions and more on the music penned and popularized by father Dave.

“Part of the reason I have the courage and insanity to do what I do is because I grew up listening to my father do it,” Chris said. “My dad and Leonard Bernstein were some of the first guys in the jazz world and the classical world to try to put things onstage together and to try to work together. Since I grew up in a household where I saw it happen, it didn’t seem like a totally impossible thing for me.

“So my brother Dan and I really enjoy playing this music along with (guitarist) Mike DeMicco and (pianist) Chuck Lamb. We’ve played with quite a few orchestras over the years, some as far flung as the Russian National Symphony Orchestra in Moscow. We played a sold out performance at Tchaikovsky Hall, and that was really thrilling – to think, ‘Wow, we’re on the other side of the world and they have Dave Brubeck fans there.’ So to be able to play that music and bring the same basic mission, which is to have really cool music and then improvise on top of it, through, up and around it, is really great. That’s what we’re going to be doing on New Year’s Eve, too.”

While Dave Brubeck was best known for combo hits like Take Five (a composition by Brubeck Quartet saxophonist Paul Desmond), Blue Rondo a la Turk and Unsquare Dance, he composed numerous works for orchestra. One of his most prominent orchestral pieces, Brandenburg Gate (featured on Brubeck Quartet albums in 1958 and 1963) is scheduled to be part of the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve program.

“It’s one of those seminal pieces,” Chris said of Brandenburg Gate. “Frankly, people in the audience probably will not have heard it or will have compared it to Blue Rondo a la Turk or Take Five. But it gets a good reaction. It’s rather Bach-like and has room for improvisation. It’s really just a theme with variations.

“I’m always reminded of how important this was at the time in terms of where my dad wanted to go with his music. He used to get really nervous playing with orchestras. My dad used to be so nervous that he wouldn’t announce things to the audience or introduce guys in his band. It’s funny, because if you saw him later on in his life, he got much, much looser. Some nights, he would have what I call the Will Rogers Syndrome, where he would just have this funny face when he was talking and it was really hilarious. It was like seeing a standup comedian who would play piano. It’s hard to believe that he could have been so completely uptight about it when he started.

“I’ve played with orchestras with my father for probably 40 years. There used to be this feeling of unwelcome-ness when we would show up to play with some of them. A lot of old European-schooled immigrants thought mixing these two genres of music was a sin, although my dad would always try to remind the classical musicians, ‘Hey, remember that the greatest improvisers of the time were Bach and Mozart.’ Going to see Mozart play then would probably be like going to see Chick Corea play today. You have that same kind of thrill.”

The Lexington Philharmonic with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets: $25-$155. Call 859-233-4226 or go to

critic’s pick 306: john abercrombie, ‘the first quartet’

john abercrombieThere is an assessment within the bio materials accompanying John Abercrombie’s The First Quartet that the three vintage albums making up the box set stand as “seminal documents” in the development of the guitarist’s abilities as a bandleader. If anything, “seminal” is an understatement in this music’s resurfacing.

Cut in rapid succession between 1978 and 1980, the trio of recordings making up The First Quartet certainly chronicle Abercrombie’s rise from a solo and collaborative performer for ECM, the Munich-based label that came to define a heavily impressionistic slant on what was then contemporary jazz (the package is the latest in the label’s Old and New Masters series). The band Abercrombie assembled came initially from established affiliations with bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald. Later came the addition of esteemed pianist Richie Beirach, who the guitarist met upon moving to New York.

But The First Quartet also serves an extraordinary dual purpose. First, for those unfamiliar with Abercrombie or even to the ECM sound as it existed 35-plus years ago, this set is an ideal primer. The musicianship’s overall scope is light and lyrical but spacious in a way that unites elements of fusion and even chamber music. Upon first listen, Abercrombie’s guitar tone is atmospheric enough to recall Pat Metheny’s early records. The comparison is further underscored by the way Abercrombie locks into ballet-like exchanges with Beirach (whose ECM records as a leader are equally deserving of an Old and New Masters treatment) and the way the latter, in turn, buoys his more melodic phrasing to the rhythm section. But where Metheny (who also recorded for ECM at the time) was more fusion based, this music from Abercrombie shifted between echoes of bop and rich yet lightly accented ensemble orchestration.

The other big achievement of The First Quartet will appeal to longtime Abercrombie fans. None of the set’s recordings – Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1980) and M (1981) – have previously received a domestic release on compact disc (Arcade was available briefly as a Japanese import). They have been out of print completely for years, so hearing them again on CD is a bit of an occasion.

None of the music sounds at all dated– a testament to ECM founder Manfred Eicher’s crystalline production as well as to the entire design of the compositions, from the mysterious bounce on Arcade’s title tune to the light but restless swing of Stray (from Abercrombie Quartet) to Beirach’s gorgeously plaintive set up for Abercrombie’s darting guitar chatter on the M finale song Pebbles.

It all makes The First Quartet an enticing welcome to novice fans as well as a series of brilliant missing chapters for diehards. Either way, the music it contains is nothing short of enchanting.

the best recordings of 2015

It was, as Sinatra coined, a very good year for popular music. Not the disposable programmed product that often topped the charts and took home the awards, but honest and organically cultivated pop, rock, soul and – in one of its most surprisingly artful runs in ages – country.

We heard formative artists break through with their finest work, new acts astound with their debut records and some still-vital music being generated by a few old, and in some instances, forgotten names.

Here then is my critic’s pick look at the best popular music recordings of 2015, presented in no particular order. All should be considered equals.

rhiannon+ Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow is My Turn – It’s difficult to overstate how involving this recording is. Known as one-third of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens teams up with Americana chieftain T Bone Burnett to pursue an organic, roots-informed soundscape that covers blues, folk, gospel and even country. But at the helm is a voice that remains profoundly clear, regal and soulful.

alabama shakes+ Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color – As arresting as the Shakes’ 2012 debut album was, Sound & Color is far wilder. It whips the soul charge of Brittany Howard’s singing into a psychedelic cocktail of torrential funk and deep pocket grooves. She channels James Brown one minute and croons like Billie Holiday the next. But the fury and serenity of Sound & Color always sounds blissfully original.

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free+ Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free – Something More Than Free boasts the lightest and perhaps sweetest tone musically of any record Isbell has cut. But it’s not built on the promise of happy endings. These are songs seasoned with folkish invitation and country intent. As such, much of the album flirts with combustion as it confirms Isbell’s status as a masterful Southern storyteller.

keith richards+ Keith Richards: Crosseyed Heart – Not so much a studio album as it is a block party, Crosseyed Heart shows off the ragged Richards as a Stone still on a roll. The album discovers warmth within the darkest recesses of rock ‘n’ roll, yet it boasts everything from sun drenched reggae to a boozy duet with Norah Jones. This is the work of a defiantly` cheerful and ageless spirit.

Chris-Stapleton-Traveller+ Chris Stapleton: Traveler – As you read this, Lexington-born, Pikeville-reared Stapleton is the hottest thing in country music. But what’s important about Traveler isn’t the singer’s celebrity status or even his Kentucky roots. What matters is the rich, refreshing sense of pure country tradition, laced with Southern soul, fueling this sublime record.

leon-bridges-coming-home1+ Leon Bridges: Coming Home – He sounds like the reincarnation of Sam Cooke, full of old school soul finesse surrounded by gorgeous and tastefully reserved arrangements. Like Cooke, Bridges’ first love was gospel. While there is an undeniable spiritual cast to much of Coming Home, what sells the record is the singer’s exquisite sense of cool, clarity and unpretentious charm.

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material+ Kacey Musgraves: Pageant Material – The Texas born singer spins yarns of family, smalltown life and restless romance that have long been thematic staples of country music. But Musgraves is also a subtle rebel. Her music champions a human level of imperfection that rings out any sense of false sentimentality, leaving songs filled with humor, candor and sobering reality.

devil music+ Randall Bramblett: Devil Music – Some four decades into his career, Bramblett remains one of the South’s keenest song stylists, but also one of its most neglected. Devil Music is simply more of the same – songs full of often restless human narratives wrapped in grooves and hooks where soul, rock and funk accents glisten. In Bramblett’s case, the Devil you know seriously rocks.

los lobos gates of gold+ Los Lobos: Gates of Gold – Los Lobos remains such an astoundingly unassuming band that it becomes sadly easy to overlook the expert albums it continues to release. Gates of Gold is another quiet triumph – reflective and contemplative at one end, richly rocking at the other, along with the odd twist of Tex Mex and psychedelia that makes their songs so distinctive.

amy helm+ Amy Helm: Didn’t It Rain – A record of effortlessly loose vigor and drive, Didn’t It Rain conjures the kind of rock and soul feel Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat cooked up for Warner Brothers Records over four decades ago. But her singing is also infused with rhythmic, Woodstock-driven groove and gospel-esque fervor, not to mention her own scholarly confidence.

critic’s pick 305: bruce springsteen, ‘the ties that bind – the river collection’

bruce_springsteen_ties“We drove on, fueled not by the future but by a past we could never touch.”

So recounts Bruce Springsteen during The Time That Never Was, one of the many unearthed gems that make up The Ties That Bind – The River Collection, the third and finest in a series of boxed set re-examinations of The Boss’ most pivotal albums. That’s a telling line in many ways as Springsteen’s early songs were consumed with the restlessness of youth and how it led into an uncertain and often darker adulthood.

The original 1980 double LP The River, which takes up two of the seven discs on The Ties That Bind, instigated that search with steadfast confidence. On the surface, the record was full of celebratory rockers that represented a thematically lighter and musically looser slant than the music from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge Town, the album that slammed the door shut on Springsteen’s youth. Out in the Street, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), Hungry Heart, Sherry Darling, Cadillac Ranch, Ramrod, Crush on You and more – The Boss had fashioned enough rock ‘n’ roll cheer during these sessions to make The River sound like a frat party.

But there was also a different darkness from different outskirts pervading The River. You heard it in such somber remembrances as Independence Day, The River, Point Black, Stolen Car, and the piece de resistance finale, Wreck on the Highway, whose shattered images disturbed even from a seemingly safe distance.

That, of course, only tells what we already know. The Ties That Bind is a remarkable broadening of The River. The remainder of its considerable contents include the original single disc version of the record yanked from release by Springsteen, complete with tunes like Be True that would surface later only as B-sides, and a full disc of outtakes.

The latter is the real find. While some of its contents have surfaced through the years on bootlegs, B-sides and other boxed sets (most notably, 1998’s Tracks), their inclusion on The Ties That Bind nicely flesh out the original record’s balance, as in the pairing of the boardwalk instrumental Paradise by the C with the anthemic pop romance of Mary Lou.

But the rarities – the pensive, piano-led Night Fire, the turbulent Chain Lightning (a pre-cursor of sorts to State Trooper from 1982’s Nebraska) and the Byrds-like Party Lights – are masterful works representing the spirits of E Street past. Toss in three DVDs that encompass an inexhaustible concert from Tempe, Ariz in 1980 and a full documentary and you have a powerfully insightful look into Springsteen’s ascension into megastardom.

From familiar hits to hidden treasures, The Ties That Bind offers joyride on a River truly gone wild.

critic’s picks 304: nick lowe and los straitjackets, ‘the quality holiday revue’ and rhiannon giddens, ‘factory girl’

Normally, you wouldn’t catch me dead recommending a digital recording over a physical, CD version of a music product. It’s a matter of principle. Sadly, that rule goes out the window on two new releases by Rhiannon Giddens and Nick Lowe teamed with Los Straitjackets. Aside from a very limited vinyl run tied to Black Friday/Record Store Day promotions, both recordings have only been issued digitally. Then again, add in the convenience of quick downloading as opposed to another trip to the mall during the final days of the seasonal shopping marathon and it’s pretty tough not to recommend these two little gems.

quality holiday revueThe Quality Holiday Revue revisits British pop vet Lowe’s concerts this time last year with the instrumental party pros of Los Straitjackets. In part, it brings the music of Lowe’s 2013 Yuletide album Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family to Life in a performance setting. But with the surf-inclined sounds of Los Straitjackets at his back, new live renditions of the gospel-heavy and roots-rock saturated Children Go Where I Send Thee, the hapless crooner Dollar Short of Happy (performed as a solo serenade), the jolly rocking The North Pole Express and Lowe’s own jet-setting Christmas at the Airport possess an animated drive that wasn’t always registered on the studio versions.

But The Quality Holiday Revue has a lot more on the menu. Los Straitjackets takes the wheel for a surf and ska treatment of Linus and Lucy while Lowe excavates a few gems from his ‘70s (I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass) and ‘80s records (Ragin’ Eyes and Half a Boy and Half a Man) that the Straitjackets crew have a field day with. The highlight is a super fun reading of the 1965 Uniques hit Not Too Long Ago that Lowe and his masked men convert into a tasty hybrid of British and American pop.

giddens-factory-girl-450sqGiddens’ Factory Girl is an EP companion piece to her remarkable solo debut album Tomorrow is My Turn (which, in case it isn’t already, should be in every household). The five T Bone Burnett-produced tracks include Underneath the Harlem Moon (a regal version of the 1932 jazz celebration by Ethel Waters), a stark and sadly topical take of the working anthem title tune, the original Moonshiner’s Daughter (a kind of equal opportunity tale of a rum-runner) and That Lonesome Road (a jubilant slice of Sister Rosetta Tharpe-inspired salvation).

The killer, though, is Mouth Music, a cross-cultural mash-up of Celtic inspired lilting, American beatboxing and, at its conclusion, outrageous scatting. Leave it to Giddens, the breakthrough solo star of the year, to sound so confidently but profoundly soulful on a tune without uttering a single word.

a walk in the trackless woods

iris dement.

iris dement.

It’s common practice for champion songwriters to detour slightly from their own work on occasion to cover the music of other favored artists. Similarly, it has become a favorite workman’s holiday activity for songsmiths to fashion new compositions out of unpublished song lyrics from such pioneers as Woody Guthrieand Bob Dylan.

Iris DeMent traveled another route altogether in constructing her sublime new album The Trackless Woods. A vocalist of regal Americana beauty and a writer of brilliantly reflective songs steeped in often heartbreaking detail (the rural eulogy Our Town, one of her first compositions, remains a prime example), DeMent looked to another shore and a different time for the source material behind her newest songs. Specifically, she became engrossed in the works of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose early 20th century writings served as lyrics for DeMent’s newly composed melodies.

DeMent downplays the feat, though, saying the music and poetry for The Trackless Woods were a natural and almost effortless fit.

“For reasons I can’t explain, it felt very familiar to me, really from the first poem I read,” DeMent said by phone last week. “I instantly heard melodies with her poems. So it was not a struggle. By my standards, it was surprisingly easy. There were just a lot of pieces that went together that made this feel very natural. It was a joy to set these poems to music.”

In some ways, the seemingly novel practice of weaving ages-old poetry together with freshly composed music was a proven strategy to DeMent. Her husband, veteran folk stylst Greg Brown, set the poetry of William Blake to original music on his 1986 album, Songs of Innocence and Experience. But DeMent noted there was a significant difference between the inspirations for that album and The Trackless Woods.

“Greg had grown up with Blake,” she said. “I wasn’t familiar with Anna Akhmatova’s poetry or her name for that matter until the very first poem I read, which was Like a White Stone. I read it and a minute later I read it again and set it to music. So my introduction to her happened right along with the introduction of the poems to the melodies. These were not poems that I carried around with me. I was meeting them for the first time. I would say at least half of these poems I had only read once or twice when I set them to music.”

So what drew one the most cherished American songwriters of her generation to the works of a poet who, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, lost family and friends to the gulags, creating poems of lightness and being in the wake of human atrocities?

“I feel I should be able to answer that. I’ve drummed up a few things that would sound good in print. But the truth is, I don’t know. It was just an instantaneous connection that I felt. To be perfectly honest, I read one poem and it was like somebody walked in the room and told me to set it to music. That all happened before I had any emotional sense of connection to this writing. I felt directed to do it. It was after reading those first poems that I started to do some research. I went to find out who this lady was and certainly developed a great interest in her life and her personality and her story. But I can’t put my finger on it. I just can’t.

“I grew up with a lot of hymns and old church music. Some of those hymns have been around a hundred years, the ones that rose to the surface and lasted. I know that when I read Anna’s poems, I had that same sort of experience that I’ve had singing those timeless hymns. I know that I experience them that way. I don’t know if she was writing them that way, but I know the words and the sounds and the melodies I heard with them all seemed so tied up with that hymn structure and style and emotional quality.

“I suppose you say the same thing about many poets. But one thing I really like about Anna is you can really hear in her poetry that it’s very personal, but she also has this quality that ties her into this big world, to nature and place. She has this sense of where she is at in history and her connection to the things, the people and the land around her. It’s broad in that way. They say that some of the things that are most personal can be the most universal. Anna has that quality for me in her writing.”

The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour featuring Iris DeMent and Leyla McCalla performs at 6:45 p.m. tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets are $20. Cal (859) 280-2218 or go to

in performance: mark o’connor, ‘an appalachian christmas’

mark o'connor.

mark o’connor.

The songs that opened Mark O’Connor’s An Appalachian Christmas concert last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts were all dutiful, decorative sound ornaments for the season. A spry Jingle Bells, a stately Beautiful Star of Bethlehem and a swing-savvy Winter Wonderland were all suitably festive. Yet for an artist of O’Connor’s vast stylistic reach, they sounded a touch safe.

Then, four tunes in, the Grammy winning violinist, composer and educator turned to a contemporary piece penned by Kentucky favorite son Steve Wariner called Now It Belongs To You. After a typically deft and virtuosic turn on the strings, O’Connor dropped nearly all of the country accents that pervaded the work to let a three member violin team – himself, Kate Lee and wife Maggie O’Connor – transform the music into shimmering chamber chatter that eventually possessed Pachelbel-like brightness.

The true charm of An Appalchian Christmas, as it turned out, far exceeded the program’s obvious holiday intent. It gathered a handful of styles – bluegrass, country, classical, swing and jazz – that O’Connor has employed more sparingly and specifically in past Lexington performances. Last night, you pretty much got everything, and what a feast it all became.

Carol of the Bells, for instance, again used the violin trio to play off of the chime-like playing of banjoist Cia Cherryholmes and mandolinist Forrest O’Connor (the headliner’s son) for a sound that nicely approximated the genre-bending progressive grass music father O’Connor and his contemporaries explored during the ‘80s. Blue Christmas utilized the hushed vocal appeal of Lee, who regularly recalled the singing of Alison Krauss. Then, at the start of the show’s second set, Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor performed a duet mash-up of the former’s classical/bluegrass hybrid favorite Appalachian Waltz and Silent Night that was rich in improvisational depth, technical command and wonderfully intuitive interaction.

At what was arguably the performance’s high point, the band took on Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas staple Linus and Lucy, pumping it full of bluegrass gusto and jazzy expression while keeping the tune’s very child-like wonder intact as fiddles – er, violins – appropriated the melody lines Guaraldi designed for piano. A jovial, but way too brief bass solo by Michael Rinne enhanced the fun even more.

In summing up the second set, O’Connor and band reversed the flow established earlier in the program by the letting the patient beauty of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring shed its classical frame to fully embrace the festive Americana/Appalachian spirit that drove – but by no means commandeered – this beautifully inventive holiday celebration.

critic’s pick 303: jazz at lincoln center orchestra with wynton marsalis, ‘big band holidays’

big band holidaysAt the very onset of Big Band Holidays, the new Yuletide album by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, two requisite initiatives are set in motion. First is a sense of playfulness, an essential exponent in providing any sense of invention to tunes that have been recorded and interpreted with merciless frequency. The other is instrumental command, a crucial element to a jazz take on holiday music and an attribute the Lincoln Center orchestra, with chieftain Wynton Marsalis still at the helm, has displayed abundantly through the years.

Both collide the instant the album-opening take on Jingle Bells swings into action. Perhaps the most overcooked of all Christmas classics, the tune commences with a piano roll from Dan Nimmer that sounds like a mash-up of Count Basie sass and Jelly Roll Morton locomotion. Bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson then stir up the rhythmic pot before a chorus of muted horns dash in to underscore the band’s most steadfast influence, the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding heats the music further with roaring blasts while the ensemble fully ignites in giddy exchanges. In just over two minutes, the whole party has concluded, the audience on this concert recording applauds and Marsalis offer his usual stoic summation of what we have just heard: “We are the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Talk about making spirits bright. The festive mood never relents from there, although Marsalis isn’t the only one playing Santa. Saxophonist Victor Goines’ arrangement of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas sneaks a snippet of Welcome Christmas (from How the Grinch Stole Christmas) into its intro before Cecile McLorin Salvant joins the orchestra for a serenade of lush, hushed cool. For sheer invention, Rene Marie helps set a mood for ‘Zat You, Santa Claus? that befits Halloween more than Christmas. Gregory Porter also pilots a bountiful but nicely mannered dose of the blues that cues the orchestra’s collective sass on Merry Christmas Baby.

Marsalis has shown a fondness for holiday music ever since his early quintet cut a Creole-inspired cover of We Three Kings for the excellent 1981 collection God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen (an essential holiday record). Here Ted Nash revamps the tune again with a deep percussive drive and a calliope of reeds that honk about like geese as the melody constructs and deflates. Nash’s later soprano sax solo drives the more spacious section of the arrangement with Coltrane-ish fervor.

Bringing the whole party home is What Child is This? arranged by Marsalis alumnus and current Lexingtonian Wycliffe Gordon. It’s built around another sleek and exact vocal performance by Salvant and a rolling round of brass that sounds soulful, solemn and more than a little mysterious.

a home for the holidays on the road

mark o'connor. photo by mitch weiss,

mark o’connor. photo by mitch Weiss,

Among the core themes of holiday songs – and, indeed, to Christmastime, in general – are family and home.

Mark O’Connor has expanded on that idea. Since the heralded violinist has been on the road this time every year since his Americana-flavored An Appalachian Christmas album was released in 2011, he has chosen to take his family with him as he creates his sounds of the season. Of course, the fact that wife Maggie (also on violin) and son Forrest (on mandolin) are both versed musicians doesn’t hurt.

“It’s hard to describe, but I think there is a natural element to a project like this,” said O’Connor, who brings his An Appalachian Christmas program to the Singletary Center for the Arts on Friday. “Some families might play together. But my wife and I just have this chemistry with the violins. When we play together, we know we really like it and we can see our audiences really like it. To be able to extend that duo chemistry with the violins to a larger group and then have everybody just fall into that closeness of sound and style… it’s really just a catalyst for good music making.”

“Playing with my son and my wife offers a whole new dimension that I have never really imagined before. I mean, how can you plan that? It’s not like a career development path. It just happened. It was just right there. We just put it onstage like any good musician would do with any good idea.”

Bred on bluegrass, but with a far-reaching vocabulary that reaches into classical, jazz, country, fusion and swing, O’Connor has been championed equally as an instrumentalist, composer and, thanks to a teaching method that bears his name, educator. An Appalachian Christmas, however, picks up on what was perhaps his most visible career during the ‘80s and ‘90s – that of a sideman on scores of predominantly country music recordings.

“I’ve played with a lot of singers as a sideman. But to kind of switch it around and have the focal point of An Appalachian Christmas be the fiddle and then have the songs and the album’s incredible guest singers (Renee Fleming, Jane Monheit, James Taylor, Alison Krauss and Russell Springs favorite son Steve Wariner) to combine for a sequence of beautiful songs that support that central element is something I also feel very lucky to be part of.
“You get this real feeling that the American violin is central to this project. The style of music, in a real general sense, has bluegrass instrumentation stretching to include the sounds of classical, the sounds of swing, the sounds of ethereal and New Age, the sounds of Appalachia. Then to make that a cohesive whole has really been a rewarding experience, something that brings generations of audiences together at a really special time of the year in American life.”

But O’Connor has a dual purpose for his Lexington visit. He will be in town a day early to present a workshop on the O’Connor Method, an instructional regimen that employs American music as a primary source and reference for teaching.

“It will be a community of music learning. We want kids to learn American music. It’s powerful and it’s inspirational. We want kids to play instruments again, you know? Maybe spend less time on video games and more on playing actual instruments. People like us are the ones to deliver that message. We can sing great, we can look great, but the important thing is we’re playing our instruments. We cherish that.

“We want to make sure that message gets to kids. We want to appeal to kids. We don’t want to just tell them, ‘Do this scale over and over until it’s perfect.’ They’ve already tried that for generations. It works for some but not for the many. We think we have a different and better approach for strings with the O’Connor Method where we are using American music and its cultural diversity. It incorporates music from all eras, all these different styles that are so inspirational. And creativity – creativity and improvisation. We’re definitely doubling down on string orchestra, but we’re not leaving out bluegrass bands or jazz ensembles or rock. We want strings to be in every part of music culture.”

Mark O’Connor: An Appalachian Christmas performs at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Tickets: $15-$32. Call 859-257-4929 or go to

O’Connor and his band will present a workshop on the O’Connor Method at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 10 at the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCAPA), 400 Lafayette Parkway. Tuition is $60, registration fee is $35. For more information, go to

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