Archive for profiles

orrin evans takes the trio spotlight.

Orrin Evans.

A lot was at stake when The Bad Plus took to the stage of Lexington Children’s Theatre in December.

For the locally organized Origins Jazz Series, it was the marquee booking of its second season and one of its highest profile concert presentations to date.

For the band, it was a new beginning – the debut Kentucky performance with the first ever personnel change in its 18-year history. Out, as of the beginning of 2018, was pianist and co-founder Ethan Iverson. In was a longtime friend of the band, Orrin Evans.

For Evans, it was something of a crossroads situation. To national audiences, he was a “new” artist, despite a recording and touring career than was already two decades old. While he was the new recruit in The Bad Plus, he had no plans to leave behind his own ensembles – a variety of duo, trio and big band configurations.

The story ended well. The Lexington concert was a sellout and Evans was a hit, even ending the performance by embracing the childlike interpretation of Aphex Twin’s “Flim,” which had long been a signature tune of The Bad Plus before he joined.

A question lingered, however. How does a veteran pianist accustomed to calling the creative shots in his own career adjust to a democratic role in a band with such an established history and fanbase that was changing its lineup for the first time?

The answer will come, in part, this weekend, when Evans returns to Lexington to kick off the third season of the Origin Jazz Series with a performance under his own name.

“I’m figuring all this out everyday,” Evans said by phone last weekend from New York prior to a performance at the Jazz Standard that teamed his trio with guitarist and former Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks. “Playing with The Bad Plus is definitely something I enjoy doing, but just like anything else, it’s a matter of finding a way to make it feed your soul continually.

“I’ve been blessed to do whatever I’ve wanted to do the past 20 years of my career, which has not always been financially easy. I’ve been able to play with the people I’ve wanted to play with. When you add working in an established band, it does change things. You have to be respectful. There is a lot to get used to. But when we’re out there, it’s a beautiful thing.

“I have to be honest, though, if somebody had told me three years ago that I was going to be in The Bad Plus, I would have laughed straight up in their face. I would have laughed because I never thought it would be something that I would do, and not for a reason that I would dislike it. There was none of that. It’s just that this was an established band with an established lineup, so I think the lineup change was as shocking to me as it was to everybody else.”

Growing up in a fertile musical environment in Philadelphia, Evans confessed that the piano trio format – one that both The Bad Plus and the band he is bringing to Lexington this weekend adhere to – was never a favored musical setting as he established his own musical voice.

“I just needed to find what that sound was for me. It was the sound of freedom – freedom from the stereotypes of what is supposed to happen in the trio, in what the bass player’s role is supposed to be and the what the drummer’s role is supposed to be. Once you let that go, you do what you do and play music. The possibilities are then infinite.”

While working with his own groups, as well as The Bad Plus, has provided Evans the opportunity to perform in major metropolitan locales throughout the country and in Europe, he cherishes the opportunity to perform in cities like Lexington that aren’t exclusively known for their jazz preferences.

“To go to Lexington or any other smaller town to share this music is always great because it presents a new audience. When we pulled into the airport in Lexington in December, I remember thinking, ‘It is beautiful here.’

“There were also some other things to see there for the first time. I remember walking and seeing a sign telling about where slaves were once sold, so you’re dealing with that, too. That’s a part of the history. It’s true. It is what it is. But being able to go and spread my music in some of the places where I wasn’t even allowed at one time is a great feeling.”

Orrin Evans Trio performs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 6 at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center,  141 E. Main, as part of the Origins Jazz Series. Tickets: $25. online: originsjazz.org.

old crow flies with railbird

Old Crow Medicine Show. From left: Charlie Worsham, Cory Younts, Critter Fuqua, Ketch Secor, Joe Andrews and Morgan Jahnig. Photo by Crackerfarm.

With many eyes and even more ears ready for the launch of Railbird, expectations are understandably high. Count Ketch Secor among those eagerly awaiting the arrival of the two-day music festival at Keeneland. As fiddler, harmonica ace, vocalist and co-founder of Old Crow Medicine Show, which will close out Saturday’s lineup on the Elkhorn Stage (one of four stages the event will be utilizing), he is as curious as anyone as to how Railbird will unfold. A longtime Virginian, Secor is familiar with Keeneland, with Lexington and with the musical and equine histories of Kentucky.

In other words, he is as versed as a performer can be with a Central Kentucky music summit prior to its initial take-off.

“This is one of the most exciting festivals that we’ll do all summer long,” Secor said. “It means just that much more to this band that it’s taking place in the Bluegrass State. Keeneland is a really neat spot for it, too. I’ve been there on many of the occasions that I’ve gotten to take part in the horse racing community in Lexington. I’m just excited to see it branch out into rock ‘n’ roll. I think that the horse business and the music business have a lot of commonalities.”

Railbird isn’t the only activity that has Secor psyched as the summer begins to wind down. He is serving as a consultant and featured interviewee for the Ken Burns documentary series, “Country Music.” He will be featured prominently in the opening episode, “The Rub,” which traces the beginnings of the music through 1933. It will air on PBS on Sept. 15.

Less than a week later, Old Crow Medicine Show will release “Live at the Ryman,” a high-energy concert album of the band’s vintage string sound enforced by evolutionary touches of percussion and piano. The repertoire runs from Old Crow’s best known songs (“Tell It To Me,” “Wagon Wheel”) to classic country fare (a duet of the Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn hit “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” done as a feisty duet between Secor and country renegade Margo Price).

The Burns documentary especially thrills Secor, who has long been fascinated with filmmaker’s work.

“I watched ‘The Civil War’ (a 1990 documentary series by Burns) when I was 12 years old and it totally changed my life. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. It was like Ken Burns was giving me a tour of my own back yard. He was showing me these amazing and oftentimes tragic narratives of what happened. Ken Burns really brought history alive for me.

“So flash forward and here I am in this band where I’ve taken a particularly preservationist kind of route to music. I’ve learned a whole about the music of East Kentucky, about shape note singers and banjo pickers and all kinds of things time might forget, but I won’t. I’m just really excited being a fan with this wonderful opportunity to work among the preservers.”

“Live at the Ryman,” on the other hand, is more than a mere concert record chronicling the growth of Old Crow Medicine Show over the past 21 years. It is a post card from a cherished venue long dubbed the “Mother Church” of country music. The band has played there, in various capacities, over 40 times including eight consecutive New Year’s Eve performances. A ninth awaits in December.

“It’s really a country music dream come true to feel like we finally got the keys to the Mother Church,” Secor said. “It was Hank Williams’ hall. It was (African-American country and blues artist) DeFord Bailey’s hallowed hall. It belongs to every performer who strutted their stuff across that stage.

“When you’re playing the Ryman, you’re playing the South’s most beloved concert hall. So to be in a band that has been able to make it a place where we’ve played 40 times and counting is a really special accomplishment. But it comes with a responsibility and a kind of stewardship. It takes knowing your history to be able to be given a gift like that.”

But the business at hand for Secor and the rest of Old Crow Medicine Show this weekend is Railbird and a return to Lexington. Local audiences were introduced to the band through a concert at the long-since-demolished Dame over 15 years ago with David Rawlings (who produced the band’s breakthrough “O.C.M.S.” album in 2004 as well as its 2006 follow-up “Big Iron World”) and folk empress Gillian Welch sitting in as surprise guests.

“There was the gig you’re talking about, the one at The Dame, and the time we went up to Renfro Valley. They had us lodged up there for a week and a half and let the tape roll as we recorded all this great music from ethnomusicologist John Lahr (released on “John Lair’s Renfro Valley: In the Valley Where Time Stood Still” in 2001). These opportunities were really special back in those days. There was nothing quite like them.”

Old Crow Medicine Show performs at 8:15 p.m. Aug. 10 as part of Railbird at Keeneland, 4201 Versailles Rd. Tickets: $90-$895 at railbird.com.

down the road from renfro: dale ann bradley returns to the kentucky music hall of fame

Dale Ann Bradley.

Dale Ann Bradley recalled the first thing she did upon being informed of her 2018 induction to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. She cried. Simple as that. Then she cried some more.

“I think I cried for a couple of days there,” said the five-time International Bluegrass Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year who returns to the Hall of Fame in Mount Vernon for a concert this weekend. “I don’t know if I could even describe what it was like.

“You think about these things growing up in the hollers. You think, ‘Well, someday, I’d like to play the (Grand Ole) Opry. Someday, I’d like to make a little 45 record. You don’t really think it will happen, but you can dream about it. So for things to happen to me, such as being in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, I don’t know. I feel blessed because Kentucky artists are special. All of them show what the state has to offer. When you’re describing that in writing or music, it shows the deep sense of faith and endurance that this area has had through the years.”

The Hall of Fame performance will cover where Bradley’s career has been and, more importantly, where it is headed.

The past is referenced by the fact the Hall of Fame is located just down the road from Renfro Valley, the long running performance venue where Bradley, who grew up between Pineville and Harlan (“just off 119”), cut her professional teeth before beginning a six year stay as a member of the New Coon Creek Girls.

“This concert will be a coming home party in a lot of ways because it’s been so many years, other than the induction, since I’ve been a part of anything going on there. There is no price tag to put on the time that I’ve spent at Renfro Valley. Had I not had that place to work on my music and my friendships, I don’t know what I would have done. It definitely is precious to me. I think it’s a precious place in Kentucky. I hope people will take a look at what Renfro Valley has done for country music, folk music, bluegrass music and gospel music.”

But the Hall of Fame show also marks the start of the next chapter in Bradley’s career. It will help launch the promotion of a new album, “The Hard Way,” which is set for release on March 22. Like so many of her solo recordings, “The Hard Way” is highly traditional in its string band sound but diverse in terms of source material.

From one corner comes an update of the 1967 Bobbie Gentry hit “Ode to Billy Joe” that retains the original version’s stark narrative potency in outlining the lingering effects of a rural suicide. Then we have “Pretty Dark Hearted Emma Brown,” a work co-penned by Bradley and her brother that fits securely into the Appalachian corral of dark balladry defined by greats like Ralph Stanley. Finally, there is an update of “Ripple,” a Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter classic from the 1970 Grateful Dead album “American Beauty” that underscores that band’s often neglected folk and bluegrass ancestry.

“Their ties to bluegrass were huge,” Bradley said. “I think the Grateful Dead took it to a big percentage of audiences all over the world. What you got was real in Garcia’s playing and Bob s writing. That song is so deep, so spiritually deep. From the time I was a little kid, when I first heard it, I would cry. Then I got to listening to the lyrics and really saw how they fit into a spiritual life. I’ve designated that song to be played at my funeral. I want it to be kind of my epitaph.”

Bradley emphasizes that no one needs to count on hearing “Ripple” in such a setting anytime soon. With a career that has earned her a pair of Grammy nominations as a solo artist (for 2015’s “Pocket Full of Keys”) and as a band member (for the sophomore album by the all-star female bluegrass collective Sister Sadie), Bradley plans to be an active bluegrass ambassador for years to come. But that role has also reaffirmed a few life lessons along the way.

“I feel like, in this last decade, I have really found the desire to do what I feel like we’re here to do, which is to love and be kind. Maybe walk in somebody else’s shoes just a little bit there and you might be able to help them and certainly not push them down. That’s what’s come full circle for me – knowing that those are the right things.”

Dale Ann Bradley performs at 7 p.m. March 1 at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 2590 Richmond St. in Mount Vernon. Tickets: $20, $30. Call 606-256-1000 or go to eventbrite.com.

live from berlin, it’s los lobos

Los Lobos: Conrad Lozano, Steve Berlin, Louie Perez, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas.

What sound or reflection is revealed when you think of Los Lobos?

Is it the fervent roots-driven rock ‘n’ roll behind the “How Will the Wolf Survive?” album that broke the East Los Angeles band through to a national audience in 1984? Maybe it was the cover of the 1958 Latin-fortified Richie Valens hit “La Bamba” that Los Lobos made a radio staple again in 1987. Perhaps you picture the band’s love of Latin-based music, from Mexican folk tunes to fully realized cumbias and Tex Mex romps. Then again it could be the electric fare it gleefully warps with a discreet dash of psychedelia.

Truth to tell, it’s a little of all that, coupled with a band spirit that has the three-time Grammy-winning Los Lobos still running with its original membership intact and a sense of musical diplomacy that makes its myriad stylistic preferences work within one massively expansive ensemble sound.

“I’d like to think everybody feels like they have ownership and input,” said Los Lobos keyboardist and saxophonist Steve Berlin. “I know I do. That’s one way to keep things alive, where nobody gets upset about not having their voice heard. It’s always been a very collegial atmosphere. Nobody in Los Lobos gets persnickety about ownership. That’s one way to keep a band together for so long.

Berlin is, in essence, the “new guy” in Los Lobos with an affiliation of a mere 35 years. He co-produced the band’s first two major label recordings, the 1983 EP “…And a Time to Dance” and the aforementioned “How Will the Wolf Survive?” with a then little known T Bone Burnett, becoming a full-time band member with David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano and Louie Perez in 1984.

“It was definitely an adjustment on a lot of levels,” Berlin said of joining. “I had never played any Latin music at all, so there was a little bit of a learning curve. But that was the fun part. I got to open and enter a world I knew very little of that became the story of the rest of my life.”

With the exception of a few auxiliary changes in the drum seat, which was vacated when Perez switched from percussion to guitar in the early ‘90s, the Los Lobos roster has not changed since Berlin came on board. Its music, however, has bloomed in numerous directions. While “La Bamba” may remain at the core of the band’s commercial appeal, its recording catalogue has been critically lauded through the years, especially on comparatively recent albums like 2010’s “Tin Can Trust” and its most recent work, 2015’s “Gates of Gold.”

“I’m proud of everything,” Berlin said of Los Lobos’ album output. “We’ve kept a pretty high standard of quality through the years. There are always ups and downs, as there are with anything, but I feel very good about what we do. I can’t say I spend a lot of time listening to our records, but I’ll be someplace and somebody will put one on and I’ll think to myself, ‘That sounds pretty good.’”

When asked if he had a personal favorite among the recordings, Berlin cited 1996’s “Colossal Head.” It was the second of three albums co-produced in the ‘90s by Mitchell Froom and served as the band’s final release for Warner Bros. Records. Los Lobos came into recording sessions after composing an exhaustive amount of music for the soundtrack to the 1995 Robert Rodriguez film “Desperado.”

“We were empty,” Berlin said. “We didn’t really have any material because of the way Robert makes movies. For an hour-and-a-half long movie, he wants three hours of music. I’m not kidding. That’s just the way he likes to operate. He effectively sucked us dry, so we were in the recording studio with nothing. No songs. No ideas. David said, and I remember this very clearly, ‘Well, what would (blues legend) Jimmy Reed do?’ And we just kind of went from there. That whole record was about little riffs that turned into something without really thinking about it. We were responding to the moment.”

For its current tour, Los Lobos is presenting a career overview of sorts. Through the years, it has toured as either an electric unit centered largely on rock and psychedelic leaning music or as an acoustic group with heavier focus on Latin roots inspirations. Since last fall, it has been designing concert sets that offer both.

“We still rock pretty hard when the situation demands it and keep things quiet when the situation calls for that. I think for a bunch of guys in their 60s, we do pretty well.”

Los Lobos performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 28 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $30-$65. Call 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com.

the modern tales of steep canyon rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left: Michael Ashworth, Graham Sharp, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Nicky Sanders and Barrett Smith. Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither.

During the recording of their most recent album, “Out in the Open,” the Steep Canyon Rangers played around a single microphone in much the same way a traditional bluegrass band would have 50 or 60 years ago.

That might not seem like earth shattering news save for the fact the Grammy winning North Carolina sextet – lead vocalist/guitarist Woody Platt, banjoist/vocalist Graham Sharp, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, bassist Barrett Smith and percussionist Michael Ashworth – isn’t exactly what one would call traditional. It encompasses an Americana blend that reaches generously but respectfully outside the bluegrass norm. The string band instrumentation is scholarly and confident enough to still be viewed as bluegrass, but the songs – many of which are penned from within the band – possess an almost vintage folk and country inspiration that harkens back to such songwriting stylists as Gene Clark and Vern Gosdin. The Rangers’ appeal, however, has proven inviting enough to forge an unlikely alliance with comedian/actor Steve Martin that has served as a second career of sorts over the past decade.

“We grew up in an area where there was a lot of mountain music and old-time music,” said Platt, who will perform with the Rangers on Saturday at Manchester Music Hall. “I don’t think any of us really absorbed a ton of that or got really focused on it until we were in college, but it was around. There was a square dance every Thursday night right across the street from our house with a bluegrass band, but each member of our band comes from a non-bluegrass background, meaning saxophone players, choir singers and drummers.

“We were sort of a melting pot of influences and I think that comes through in our music. There was a time when we dove into traditional bluegrass head first. Now we’ve been around and have evolved naturally so everybody’s other musical interests and influences are creeping into our version of what I still like to call bluegrass.”

Making the traditional approach to recording the decidedly non-traditional “Out in the Open” all the more curious was the band’s choice of producer – Joe Henry. In addition to his own immensely atmospheric recordings, the veteran song stylist has produced records for such far-ranging artists as Rodney Crowell, Hugh Laurie, Ani DiFranco, Bettye LaVette, Joan Baez, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.

“We walked into the studio and there’s this guy immaculately dressed with this sharp hat on,” Platt said. “He just immediately set the vibe for a cool, laid back but kind of spiritual approach to making a record. It was never overbearing. He taught us a lot about how he viewed recording. It’s hard to explain until you experience making a record with Joe how impactful he can be without being overly pushy. There was such an easy way about him that really set the mood.”

Cementing the Rangers’ appeal outside of bluegrass circles has been the ongoing partnership with Martin, which has included numerous recordings and performances in front of amphitheater and arena audiences that might have otherwise never heard the band – or, for that matter, bluegrass music.

“I think all bands hope for a break in their careers,” Platt said. “What that may be is a certain song, a certain show or a certain collaboration with a different artist. I never saw one of the biggest breaks we would have coming from a movie star/comedian. It’s kind of bizarre, but it was natural from day one. We played one little jam with Steve and 10 years later we’ve never stopped talking about music.

“People may have gone to see Steve who weren’t bluegrass fans. They were just fans of his career and him. Then all of a sudden, he’s playing bluegrass with the Rangers. We’ve seen that help us when we’ve gone back to those markets. People have come to our shows and said, ‘I saw you with Steve.’ So that’s been a really great thing. Also, just working with Steve and watching him work a crowd and play a big show. That’s given us a ton of great stage experience that we’ve been able to carry into our shows.”

Ahead for the Rangers in 2019 will be a retrospective album of material re-recorded with the Asheville Symphony, continued work on a record of new music and ongoing stage work with Martin and fellow comedian Martin Short.

“There is potential when you’re getting close to the end of your second decade as a band to sit back and coast. I feel we’re more focused now than we’ve ever been. It’s an exciting time for the Rangers.”

Steep Canyon Rangers perform at 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $21-$36. Call 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com.

rayland baxter find inspiration in unexpected kentucky retreat

Rayland Baxter. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

Seeking solace and sanctuary in some form of geographical retreat is nothing new for artists. For centuries, many have created some of their most lasting works in remote and even foreign settings away from the masses. The locales could be as plush as an oceanside villa or as isolated as a country cottage.

Rayland Baxter found his in Kentucky, but it’s not the kind of retreat you might expect a song stylist still in the early stages of his career to find inspiring. After all, how enticing would you think an abandoned rubber band factory near the Kentucky/Tennessee border might be?

For five months, the Nashville-based songwriter used one in the Simpson County city of Franklin to compose nearly all of the music on his third album, “Wide Awake.” The record brings the more contemplative alt-country soundscapes and storylines of his first two albums into broader, power-pop territory. Given how cheery much of “Wide Awake” wound up sounding, the Southern Kentucky factory dwelling must have been accommodating.

“A friend of mine lives in Franklin,” said Baxter, who performs Jan. 24 at The Burl. “He had a place that was once this rubber band factory. He was like, ‘Hey, Ray. I hear you’re looking for a place to live for awhile and write. I’ve got a place that I’d like for you to come up and check out.’ So I checked it out. It was free. It was quiet. It was perfect. It was in the wintertime, so I didn’t know how long I was going to stay out there, but I got up there and it became like my bird’s nest. I could do everything I needed to do. I could keep to myself. This was from the end of October 2016 to early February 2017.

“I wanted to write tight songs. There are a million different ways to say ‘I love you,’ a million different ways to describe the wind blowing through the trees and a trillion bazillion different ways to look at the world and yourself. So I just wanted to keep on doing what I thought felt natural. I wanted to write nice melodies and some words I would never get sick of singing. That was it. That was the objective.”

To get the full effect of Baxter’s stylistic expansion on “Wide Awake,” start at the finish line with the quiet morning affirmation of “Let It All Go, Man.” Then let the album rewind to its opening track, “Strange American Dream,” which typifies the record’s more pop-inclined disposition. Lyrically, the songs are like kin. Musically, they travel more diverging stylistic trails.

“That all just happened in the studio, really. I wrote some pop forms on the guitar. For everybody that was in the studio, that was just what came together. It’s what everybody decided to play in support of the song. I mean, Butch Walker (the producer for “Wide Awake” who has overseen albums for Weezer, Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco) is a pop guy, but he’s got grit. He’s got this cabin-in-the-woods kind of thing about him. I don’t know. I have no other explanation for it other than every time we were done tracking, we liked what happened. It was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool, that’s it.’ Also, it’s just the third album, you know? They’ll be more.”

Helping Baxter out on pedal steel guitar during the sessions was an esteemed musical vet – his father, Bucky Baxter. The elder Baxter played extensively with Bob Dylan during the ‘90s and was a frequent visitor to Lexington during the late ‘80s as a member of Steve Earle’s band, the Dukes.

“Well, he’s a part of my project of life,” the younger Baxter said of his dad. “But I’m really his project, I guess. He’s been on every album of mine. He played on ‘Feathers & Fishhooks’ (his 2012 debut album), ‘Imaginary Man’ (the 2015 follow-up) and this new one.

“He tried to get out of it, too. He was like, ‘Oh, Ray, I’m not really well rehearsed. You should call Lloyd Green (now 81, who has recorded with everyone from Johnny Cash to Paul McCartney). Here’s his number. That was great, too. But my dad had to play on this record. I mean, he’s my dad. It’s a dream situation. I’m beyond fortunate to have his opinion about music.”

Rayland Baxter/Illiterate Light performs at 8 p.m. Jan 24 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.

Tickets are $15, $18 at theburlky.com.

the classical-pop adventures of gabriel royal

Gabriel Royal. Photo courtesy of Columbia Artists.

Seated before a microphone in a video for his composition “Remember Us,” the dual musical worlds inhabited by Gabriel Royal quietly bleed into each other.

As a bow hits the base of his cello, a sense of classical clarity is summoned with long vibrant lines that sound distinctly European. Then he sings, but not with the sort of operatic color one might expect as dressing for such stately music. No, what emerges instead is a solid pop-soul tenor, one that winds into a sense of longing the strings already suggested. The two voices are remarkably complimentary, even if they sound like they were forged in different centuries.

The biggest surprise, though, is saved for when the camera pans out at the end of the clip. There you discover Royal wasn’t recording in a studio or rehearsing in a theatre. Instead, he was performing live in a New York subway.

That latter detail is the catalyst for the unlikely career of this genre-hopping artist. Raised in Oklahoma, he moved east and became a Brooklyn busker playing to legions of New York commuters.

“I feel like every time I went down in the subway, I was facing my nerves,” said Royal, who performs Jan. 18 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “Nobody asked you to be there randomly setting up and playing. As such, you don’t feel confident until you see that first dollar drop. Then you’re like, ‘Okay. People like me. I think I can do this.’ It can be a battle, but in the subways, for me, there has mostly been positive response.”

Having since graduated to such prestigious New York club gigs at the Blue Note and Le Poisson Rouge, Royal has been honing a classical cello/pop vocal hybrid that links New York to his youth (he calls the numerous home state refugees he discovered in Brooklyn “Oklahomies”). One sound didn’t necessarily lead to the other, though. Royal took to classical and pop simultaneously.

“The cello does what I tell it to, pretty much,” Royal said. “If I’m playing in a particular style, it’s because I’ve chosen to do that. I’ve never really had those kinds of hang ups about classical music.

“Back in school, my brothers and I would go to the orchestra and then we would come home and get on other instruments. I played drums when I was in college, so we would have the classical training, the music theory, ear training, choir and all that at school. At home, we would listen to hip-hop and jazz. I never had an idea that classical music was the end all and be all of everything. It was just one of the genres I was into. During the day, we would be on the classical side. At night, we would be on the jam-out side. The two always went hand in hand.”

Taken by the orchestrations and compositional structure of vintage Burt Bacharach songs, Royal’s musical scope quickly became panoramic, absorbing everything form Erik Satie to Black Sabbath to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. From the communities of R&B, soul and pop, Stevie Wonder, John Legend and Thundercat lead a diverse lineup of inspirations.

“I always start with Burt Bacharach. I’m a huge Burt Bacharach fan, especially the stuff he did with Dionne Warwick, like ‘Walk On By.’ A lot of his songs had that laid back, kind of smooth, early ‘70s pop sound. I don’t know if you can hear it all that much in my songs, but there is a real bouncy happiness that definitely comes from listening to Burt Bacharach.”

While his heroes may have favored massive, expansive sounds, Royal – at least, for now – goes it alone in his concerts, forging a patiently paced classical/pop blend with one instrument and one voice.

“It works because I can add a beat. I can add a verse. I can make up some stuff. I can take extended time with certain phrases. But there are also things that I lose. I love the huge group harmonies, but I can’t get that when it’s just me and the cello onstage. There are things that you gain by having an actual ensemble with you. I want to get there, but for now, this is doing alright.

“I mean, to be onstage, look out and see people smiling at a song I wrote, that’s a special thing. So, really, I couldn’t be happier.”

Gabriel Royal performs at 8 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Weisiger Theatre at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut in Danville. Tickets: $29, $39. Call 877-448-7469 or go to nortoncenter.com.

gail wynters brings the jazz home

Gail Wynters and son/percussionist Tripp Bratton relax at CoffeeTime on Regency Rd. Herald-Leader staff photo by Charles Bertram.

She has made performance homes in New York and California, toured around the world and recorded with some of the most prestigious names in jazz and pop. But talk to Gail Wynters today and she will be quick to tell you she is more than happy to be singing on home turf.

“I’m still so connected in the heart and soul of all my friends in New York,” said Wynters, who will perform Jan. 12 as part of the Origins Jazz Series. “But I can think of no other place I’d rather be now than here. This is it. I love being close to my family. My sisters and I are all from Ashland. Three of us are here now because all of our kids are either in Lexington or Irvine. So we all moved closer to be with our grandkids and hang out with our children. Now we’re a couple of miles of each other in Nicholasville. I have three sisters. Two are here and one is still in Naples, Fla. We’re trying to get her to come here, too.’

Now maintaining, by her own description, a “semi-retired” life, Wynters’ relocation back to Central Kentucky follows a career where her potent, gospel-bred vocals, which she began exercising professionally as a child, started to roar in such celebrated New York venues as the Rainbow Room, the Blue Note and the long-demised Village Gate.

The repertoire she will bring to this weekend’s Origins shows at Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Club will center on a series of arrangements by pianist Tamir Hendelman of tunes penned or popularized by, among others, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Antonio Carlos Jobim. What will likely distinguish the show, though, will be the notable Central Kentucky company supporting her – specifically pianist Keith McCutchen, bassist Danny Cecil and her son, drummer/percussionist Tripp Bratton.

“Obviously, every time Tripp is onstage with me, it’s family. But we just include other members to the family. It’s just the best. Tripp is a wonderful human being and a great musician. He always has been. I’m the luckiest person in the world in that area.

“But sit me around anybody that’s doing any kind of a rhythm on a piano or hitting a note on a guitar and music just starts rolling in my head. I’ve never thought of this as ‘me’ putting on a show. I always feel like it’s ‘us’ as a unit. We’re all there as one presenting a performance.”

Challenges, of course, present themselves in forging ahead with a jazz career in Central Kentucky. Some of the venues where Wynters has performed Sunday brunch concerts (most notably, Willie’s Locally Known) have closed. Also, the simple maintenance of a singing voice over time has been demanding at times.

“My range is more limited now, mainly from singing in the middle keys for all these years. That’s kind of taken away my highs.” With a laugh, she added, “Of course, age and smoking have nothing to do with it.”

One thing that hasn’t changed has been Wynters’ love of jazz itself. Whether it was through recording projects from decades past with such luminaries as Dr. John, Michael Brecker and Richie Havens or performing locally with friends and family, the music’s unwavering flow of creativity continues to excite her.

“Arnie Lawrence, an incredible saxophonist who started the New School of Jazz in New York (where Wynters served on the faculty), said jazz was spiritual music. It really is. You kind of search within yourself to bring out this music. Some of that you do because it’s fun, especially with the lyrics and the rhythmic parts of the songs. But it’s also poetry. It’s singing poetry that provides the ability to go anywhere you want to in order to express it.

“Pop pretty much stays the same, but jazz almost never repeats. You can do the same song 10 or 20 times, but it’s always changing because you’re feeling differently in the moment. I find it to be a heart, soul, mind connection. It’s a kind of freedom of expression. Hopefully, as an artist, you know a certain level of craft. But everything above that… that’s kind of what you live for.”

Gail Wynters performs at 7 and 9:15 p.m. Jan. 12 at Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Club, 266 E. 2nd as part of the Origins Jazz Series. Tickets: $17.50 for each performance, $30 for both shows at originsjazz.org.

a fellini affair: chico plays bowie, part two

Chico Fellini in 2007. From left: Christopher Dennison, Emily Hagihara, Duane Lundy and Brandon Judd. Herald-Leader file photo by Mark Cornelison.

January can be a pretty heady month for David Bowie fans. Witness, for example, what happened in 2016.

On January 8, the vanguard British artist turned 69. The same day, he issued his 25th and final studio album, “Blackstar.” Two days later, he died of complications from liver cancer.

Picking up on what now stands as a dual anniversary of celebration and sadness is the Lexington pop/rock troupe Chico Fellini. The band will perform an entire evening’s worth of Bowie compositions on Jan. 12 at The Burl with the local new generation power trio Johnny Conqueroo opening.

Here is the intriguing part, though. As popular and visible as Chico Fellini was in Lexington clubs a decade ago for its own music, the quartet – vocalist Chris Dennison, guitarist Duane Lundy, bassist/keyboardist Emily Hagihara and drummer Brandon Judd – has largely been out of commission for the past two years. That makes Chico Fellini’s Burl show as much a reunion as a tribute to a rock and pop culture colossus.

Lundy said the members’ myriad outside projects, led by production work at his own local Shangri-La Productions, put Chico Fellini on indefinite hold following a 2016 performance at Crave Lexington and a subsequent show for The Burl’s grand opening.

“When you do music or any sort of collaboration that ends up dealing closely with your friends, things can tend to slip into a sort of limbo where most relationships don’t always do very well. The band stopped playing when my production schedule just got really, really busy. We needed to make some decisions. At that point, it was a little bit of a healthier route to put everything on pause. We’re all still really close friends, so every once in a while the idea to do something special comes up.”

Fast forward to a conversation Lundy had with mainstay Lexington drummer Robby Cosenza, who will be one of several guests augmenting the core Chico Fellini lineup this weekend. The two recalled a similar Bowie tribute the band staged in 2009 as Chico Fellini’s artful and inventive self-titled debut album was being readied for release.

“We were just chatting and I said. ‘That Bowie show was so much fun. I would love to hear Chris sing those songs again.’ That’s really all that it amounted to. Bowie’s birthday and the anniversary of his passing are real close together in January, so it seemed like a good thing to do. The Bowie thing was always a natural fit for Chris. But, really, who doesn’t want to play David Bowie tunes?”

While Bowie’s career spanned over 50 years, Chico Fellini will focus primarily on music he fashioned during an especially creative, prolific and commercially visible period during the ‘70s and early ‘80s. During those years, Bowie switched stage personas as regularly as he juggled musical styles with songs that shifted from glam rock to Philly-style soul to ambient European expression to Nile Rodgers-produced pop.

“First off, playing Bowie tunes gives me an excuse to play guitar because I love Mick Ronson (the guitarist on Bowie’s landmark albums from the early ’70s). Nobody explored music in different ways more successfully than Bowie did within the rock format. (Led) Zeppelin was a huge thing for me, but they did what they did. So did the (Rolling) Stones, and so on. But Bowie was able to wear so many different hats. Going out to play those songs is sort of a selfish thing for me, really. But I also get to hang out with my old bandmates.”

In addition to Cosenza, who will add percussion to the Bowie tribute, Chico Fellini will enlist guitarist Marty Charters (from Joslyn and the Sweet Compression), vocalist John Ferguson (Big Fresh), keyboardist Lee Carroll (C the Beat, among many other projects) and vocalist Erin O’Donnell Reynolds (Oh My Me) as guest performers this weekend.

“It a pretty wild little crew,” Lundy said.

Chico Fellini presents “Hang on to Yourself” – A Night of Bowie at 9 p.m. Jan 12 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Ticket are $10 at theburlky.com.

oregon’s horse feathers flock with kentucky players

Horse Feathers: Robby Cosenza, J. Tom Hnatow, Justin Ringle and Nathan Crockett.

What happens when an Oregon indie pop stylist, stationed for a time in North Carolina, is in need of a working band for an unexpected touring opportunity? Why, he heads to Kentucky, of course.

That’s the situation then-Portland, now-Astoria based song stylist Justin Ringle, the ringmaster behind the Northwestern folk-pop troupe Horse Feathers, was in a few years ago. After completing duties as producer for the Asheville band River Whyless, a touring offer presented itself even though there was no working road version of Horse Feathers available. So Ringle called up a pair of Lexington pals, drummer Robby Cosenza and guitarist J. Tom Hnatow, as well as longstanding Horse Feathers violinist Nathan Crockett. The partnership wasn’t entirely new. Ringle had shared bills with Cosenza and Hnatow during their tenure in the multi-state rock collective These United States. But Ringle wasn’t just after a quick-fix band to hit the road with. He was pursuing a whole new artistic and sonic temperament.

“Back in 2016, when I was working in Asheville, I got called to do a tour in a pinch,” Ringle said. “Geographically, Tom and Robby were the closest people I knew so I gave them a call. One thing led to another and it just became evident that it was going to be a fresh start working in Kentucky.”

“We met probably 10 or 12 years ago,” Cosenza added. “We would cross paths on the road all the time and always admired each other as players. I think it just made more sense for Justin to find something closer than Astoria or Portland, but I think he was also looking to ramp things up a bit. He called Tom and said, ‘You guys aren’t available, are you?’ We were like, ‘Sure.’ He was taking a shot in the dark and it worked out.”

The tour led to sessions for the sixth Horse Feathers album, “Appreciation.” Recorded largely at La-La Land Studios in Louisville and Shangri-La in Lexington, Horse Feathers cemented the working alliance between Ringle, Cosenza and Hnatow while expanding the band’s previously studied and subtle indie folk sound. What resulted was a fuller rock, pop and soul charge that often echoed the exuberance of a vintage Van Morrison record.

“There were so many new perspectives I explored that came from doing a lot of the record in Kentucky,” Ringle said. “It was the first time I recorded outside of the state of Oregon. Robby and Tom helped greatly because they had been working in styles I don’t regularly experiment with. They’ve sat in on a lot of country, Americana and soul sessions. They’ve done work with all types of bands.

“It just came across as a band vibe,” Cosenza said of the “Appreciation” recording sessions. “It wasn’t like Tom and I were hired guns. We all wrote together, we arranged together. It clicked pretty naturally. A lot of times, Tom and I would be goofing off on a tune and that would be the stuff Justin would go, ‘Man, what was that? Use it.”

Recording so far from home might suggest an air of displacement in the new Horse Feathers songs. It’s there, for sure, but not because of the Bluegrass connection.

“I had felt a sense of displacement because I had moved from where I had lived for the previous decade,” Ringle said. “I moved out of Portland to the Southeast and then, consequently, to the Oregon coast. I had also started a new relationship, so there’s a number of themes about everything that goes into that – good and bad. But one of the biggest things artistically, aside from the songwriting and themes, was that I really wanted to explore some sonic differences that I hadn’t really gotten underneath the hood with. I hadn’t really explored full blown rock ‘n’ roll dynamics. I hadn’t explored soul. I hadn’t explored a number of those things. I had to surrender to an experiment.

“We ended up with a sound I didn’t anticipate, but one that I felt really resonated for me and for the band. We were all like, ‘Wow, this is working in a way that none of us expected.”

Horse Feathers, Bendigo Fletcher and Daisy Helmuth perform at 9 tonight at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets: $15, $18 at theburlky.com.

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