Archive for April, 2019

in performance: the chicago plan/keefe jackson, christoph erb, jason roebke and tim barnes

Steve Swell of The Chicago Plan. Photo by John Rogers.

Jazz became a music that literally brought people together – well, at least the ones onstage Tuesday evening at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery – as the Outside the Spotlight series concluded a mammoth month-long run of five concerts on Tuesday evening.

It began with two esteemed reed players – Keefe Jackson from Chicago and Christoph Erb from Switzerland – at opposite ends of the Niles Gallery stage area. Jackson was stage left, using a chair as a resting perch for his left leg as he shot out short, punctured phrases on tenor saxophone. Erb was seated stage right, his soprano sax pointing to the ceiling as if the instrument possessed sonar abilities. That began a rumbling exhortation with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Tim Barnes that sounded like a locomotive coming to life. Once its did, the quartet – which was in the midst of its first gig a group, although smaller pairings of the players have collaborated in the past – ripped through three extended improvisations. Each shifted in tone from subtle dissolve to thunderous deconstruction.

All of it was remarkably inventive, from passages where Barnes dragged a pair of china cups across the wooden gallery floor for percussive effect to a high octave drone from Erb (this time on tenor) that produced an oscillating, almost electronic effect. By the close of the third improv, Roebke moved his double bass directly behind Barnes as Jackson gradually edged over to Erb’s side, sandwiching the four players within inches of each other as the music took on a stark, funereal tone.

The co-billed quartet The Chicago Plan, a unit fronted by another pair of cross-continental horn men – Steve Swell from New York and Gebhard Ullmann from Germany – finished off the program with music that worked from primarily composed material laced with generous doses of free improvisation. Two familiar OTS teammates, cellist Fred Lonberg Holm and drummer Michael Zerang – completed the lineup.

Opening with Ullman’s “Variations on a Master Plan # 1,” (what a pity, as the band’s fine, self-titled debut album only features the second and third parts), the four used a spacious, muted trombone run from Swell to trigger general group frenzy before Lonberg-Holm kicked into a turbulent groove. The results bordered on New Orleans style street funk (mostly through Zerang’s drumming) before imploding and reassembling.

The rest of the set possessed a darker sentiment – hence Swell’s set-closing “Composite #3,” a requiem of sorts for the 50 victims of the March mass shooting in New Zealand. Both Ullman and Swell settled in for meaty solos that underscored the tune’s inherent drive. But as Ullman guided the music home on bass clarinet, the remaining three players provided an almost elegiac trio backdrop where chamber style composition was countered by an anticipated reality check of ensemble fracture.

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.


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