Archive for profiles

bass talk with edgar meyer

meyer-thile3

edgar meyer (left) and chris thile.

The day after his current duo tour with Chris Thile kicked off in Vancouver, Edgar Meyer is hesitant about giving himself a favorable review.

“I should have played a little better,” he said in a phone interview after the tour moved on to Seattle. “But the people were nice.”

Such a perfectionist’s appraisal perhaps befits a musician of Meyer’s considerable standing. An acknowledged virtuoso of the double bass, he is recognized as one of the primary instrumentalists to discover common ground between bluegrass and classical worlds. Such a description, though, marginalizes his artistic achievements, which include collaborations with such similarly minded string players as Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor as well as recordings that have placed him alongside the versed Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, the acclaimed crossover cellist Yo-Yo Ma and, on a 2000 album, himself by arranging a series of Bach cello concertos for the double bass.

His collaboration with mandolinist Thile seems to be a going concern, however. They began playing together 15 years ago and released their second album of duets, Bass & Mandolin, earlier this month. The title cuts to the chase of their music’s instrumental makeup even though it leaves the door open for exactly what stylistic direction that music will take. Meyer credits Thile, 20 years his junior and possessed with a similar bluegrass-bred dexterity and blindingly deft musicianship, for expanding the already considerable stylistic reach of their playing.

“Chris might as well be my teacher,” Meyer said. “I learn from everything he does. He is a person of unique and very unusual ability. He is very thorough, and he’s always looking around the corner to see what’s possible. I learn from him every day. That’s a lot of the fun of it.”

Bass & Mandolin comes just a year after a national tour the two players engaged in as part of a multi-stylistic string ensemble called The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan and vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. The group, which released a self-titled album in 2011, continued a chamber-like variation of Americana music that earned Meyer a Grammy Award for the 2000 recording Appalachian Journey (with Ma and O’Connor).

“Things with Chris are very defined just by having a bass and mandolin,” Meyer said. “We enjoyed the collaboration with Yo-Yo, Stuart and Aoife. So Chris and I talked about bringing a couple of elements that were more from that project, the biggest difference being some of the lyricism. I’m not sure we necessarily achieved that. I think we were still being very much ourselves.”

When asked who of the two might favor such lyricism on Bass & Mandolin, the same critic that gave Meyer such a non-congratulatory appraisal for the previous night’s concert re-emerges.

“Chris brings a lot of that. I don’t know if my nature does.”

What Meyer does experience in his duo music with Thile is an expansion of the genre-free musical expression that has fortified much of his career. While the resulting instrumentation may touch on bluegrass, classical, jazz and more, the intention is never to be stylistically specific.

“This is the way music evolves,” Meyer said. “Once all these different elements of music are in your brain, they don’t want to stay in their own little room. They want to get in there and talk to each other. Chris and I find that type of thing to be inevitable and natural, not that there isn’t value in things that are more traditionally, or otherwise, defined.

“Take bluegrass, for instance. People look at that as something sacred. The irony of that is when Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs defined bluegrass, they were mashing a lot of stuff together. So at the very moment all these things are real sacred cows, the music itself becomes fundamentally a fusion.

“I’m just pointing that out because this is a natural process. There is always tension – and you hope there is tension – between trying to hang on to certain elements and also trying to let the music move forward, recombine and redefine. If there is no tension, there is no interest.”

Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer perform at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

blues from the mud

For Pops - Mud and Kim hi-res by Sam Holden

kim wilson and mud morganfield. photo by sam holden.

That the late blooming blues singer Mud Morganfield would be asked to record a tribute album to father McKinley Morganfield, better known as the Delta/Chicago roots music pioneer Muddy Waters, would seem inevitable. Adding the harmonica talents of Fabulous Thunderbirds founder and frontman Kim Wilson, an avowed Waters disciple, seemed a cinch to heighten the authenticity of such a project.

But For Pops (A Tribute to Muddy Waters) is actually the end result of an unexpected collaboration and an equally unlikely career.

To start with, Morganfield shared little of his youth in the company of his father and didn’t professionally pursue an inherent love of blues music until 2005. As for teaming with Wilson, that was done exclusively for the tribute album. The two barely knew each other before recording sessions began.

Still, For Pops sounds like the work of seasoned blues pros that have been playing together for years. The link between Morganfield’s booming, bass-heavy singing and Wilson’s effortlessly soulful blues harp work can’t help but recall the champion recordings Waters cut decades ago with harmonica great James Cotton.

The catalyst for the project was David Earl of the indie blues label Severn Records, which issued Morganfield’s Son of the 7th Son album as well as the Thunderbirds’ On the Verge.

“What would have been my dad’s 100th birthday was coming up,” Morganfield said. “Dave made phone calls to different people because Kim and I were both on the same label – his label. They asked us to hook up and do something. We had met each other on the road. But these recording sessions were really the first chance we had to talk. We became great friends.”

There were two keys to making For Pops sound pure and robustly blue. The first was the song selection. Morganfield wanted to avoid a simple recitation of warhorse Waters tunes like Hoochie Coochie Man, Got My Mojo Working and Mannish Boy in favor of a slightly less obvious repertoire. As a result, For Pops mixes a few familiar gems (Trouble No More), several underappreciated classics (most notably, a fervent take of Blow Wind Blow) and some comparative obscurities (My Dog Can’t Bark).

“The songs were a combination of choices by me, Kim and Dave Earl,” Morganfield said. “We would try to stay away from Mojo and Hoochie Coochie Man, that kind of stuff. People have done it a million times. We were just trying to get down to the nitty gritty Delta blues sound that pop did.

“Just for the record, I saw my father very little growing up. I was at an early age when he and my mother broke up. I mean, pop was a great dad as far as taking care of me financially. But I didn’t study much of his stuff back then. As a matter of fact, every song on the album I sung off a sheet in front of me. Didn’t even know the lyrics to them. I just sang them as the band played the songs, so it’s as real and raw as you can get.”

For Pops is also an exploration of the link between Delta-based vocals and the harmonica sounds that have long supported them. That was what brought Morganfield and Wilson together in the first place, but it also served as a point of discovery for the singer when it came to his father’s music.

“For a lot of years, I could never figure out why my dad loved Little Walter, James Cotton and all those great harp players so much,” Morganfield said. “It took me quite a long time to understand that if you don’t have harp player, the music is not really traditional blues.

“You could put all the horns in there you like. But if you don’t have a harp player, man, you just don’t got no blues.”

Mud Morganfield and Kim Wilson perform for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at 6:45 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Also appearing will be Angaleena Presley. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 252-8888, (859) 280-2218.

mouthing off

smashmouth

smash mouth: michael klooster, steve harwell and paul de lisle.

In the years leading up to the late ‘90s popularity of its radio hits Walkin’ on the Sun and All Star, Smash Mouth could have been any kind of band it chose to be. That’s because the California troupe had already given a test drive to nearly every pop sound under the sun it was soon to be walking on.

“The original lineup really was four very different personalities,” said bassist and co-founder Paul De Lisle. “Everyone played the way that they played and it worked. You can’t predict chemistry, I guess.

“Steve (Harwell, Smash Mouth’s vocalist and frontman), he listens to country music. But when he was in high school, he listened to modern rock. But he’s kind of an alternative rocker, too. He’s a real serious music fan. He just likes what he likes. Same with me, too. Now, dealing with the different influences does come into play. You put a band together and go, ‘Okay, I’ve got three of the hottest musicians out there.’ But then one of them is a jerk. Then another isn’t working out in a different situation.’ You never know. But for the four of us at the very beginning, it just clicked. None of us were that great by ourselves. But together, it just worked. There was that intangible thing going on, you know?”

Of course, it could also be said the time was right for an unapologetically fun performance pack like Smash Mouth when its double platinum debut album Fush Yu Mang was released during the summer of 1997.

“The ‘90s was such a wide open time,” De Lisle said. “Nirvana kind of opened the floodgates. That wasn’t just for punk rock bands, either, because grunge bands were essentially like pop-punk bands. But that was the case for alternative music, in general. There was the whole ska-punk thing going on, too. It was like anything was alternative.

“That whole era was great for us because it was also a song oriented time for radio. That was our thing. For us, it all came down to songs. There were always labels – alternative this, grunge that. But the reason Nirvana was great wasn’t because they were a grunge band. It’s that their songs were better than everyone else’s. It was the songs. Period.

“Our whole goal was to remain song oriented. We were trying to write hit songs that were pop songs. That was the craft we’re trying for, but it was a hard thing to do. We were trying to write songs people would like but that we also liked. Our record collections growing up were filled with punk rock, but it was more the pop-punk stuff. We always liked bands like the Buzzcocks more than, say, the Sex Pistols. We were just always song oriented. We didn’t want to jam. We just wanted to write good songs.”

Roughly a dozen musicians, most of them guitarists and drummers, have entered and exited the Smash Mouth ranks since the band formed in 1994. While keyboardist and 17 year member Michael Klooster along with two comparatively recent recruits – guitarist Sean Hurwitz and drummer Jason Sutter – round out the band’s current lineup, Harwell and De Lisle have been with Smash Mouth for its entire 20 year history.

“Steve and I are like brothers,” De Lisle said. “The other day we were in this restaurant. I can’t even remember what we were talking about. But the waitress came up and said, ‘You guys are either brothers or have known each other a long time.’

“We talk like an old married couple. We bicker at each other. There are times I just want to ring his neck, but I love the dude. We’re really good friends. Always have been.”

Smash Mouth performs at 8 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

return to turtle island

Turtle-Island-Quartet

turtle island quartet, from left: david balakrishnan, mateusz smoczynski, mark summer and benjamin von gutzeit.

About seven years ago, the genre-busting Turtle Island String Quartet dropped the “String” from its name. It was perhaps an incidental detail to some. The lineup still adhered to the requisite string quartet instrumentation of cello, viola and two violins. But after nearly three decades of journeying though bebop, swing, bluegrass, folk, Euro-classical, Indian classical and a handful of other musical styles and strategies, the time came to remind the world Turtle Island was anything but a conventional string ensemble.

“Because of the way the group is constructed, a string quartet with four members equally grounded in jazz improvisation and classical technique, you’re automatically dealing with musicians who are rebels,” said TIQ violinist and founder David Balakrishnan. “We’re talking about rebels in the sense they are doing something unique with their instruments.”

Underscoring that notion was the first album released under the modified TIQ moniker, 2007’s A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane – a baker’s dozen of tunes

penned or popularized by the legendary saxophonist. Among them is the entirety of Coltrane’s immortal A Love Supreme album and shorter psalm-like pieces such as the gorgeous Naima. The later was first recorded by Turtle Island for its sophomore album Metropolis in 1989. Ironically, the year also marked one of the last times the quartet performed in Central Kentucky. Its long overdue return comes Tuesday with a collaborative concert featuring pop-cabaret songsmith Nellie McKay at the Grand Theater in Frankfort.

“We try to make a point about music in the 21st century,” said Balakrishnan. “We’re saying you can have a group like Turtle Island playing in a string quartet covering this range of stylistic material that is trying to find its own identity inside of that. But the music also tells a story beyond the elements of those styles.”

With those varying styles takes has been a roster of equally diverse TIQ collaborators. The list includes guitar great Leo Kottke, Cuban jazz clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, jazz pianist Kenny Barron, the Manhattan Transfer and the Parsons Dance Company. McKay is an intriguing addition to the club. A songwriter of exacting wit and emotive clarity, she also possesses a scholarly command of song traditions that stretch from Loretta Lynn to Ella Fitzgerald.

“You know, string quartets… we’re pretty heady,” Balakrishnan said. “Now, Nellie goes into more of an indie-pop territory. She’s cutting more of the middle of the grain and yet she’s got that kind of ’30 s-revisited thing, as well. She’s like the second coming of Marlene Dietrich. Nellie is so into her. It’s really fun to watch. I think she probably dreams about her.”

The collaborative program TIQ and McKay will present on Tuesday, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, is fashioned after the German Weimar cabaret of the late 1920s but extends its repertoire across continents for songs by Billie Holiday and Billy Strayhorn.

The alliance will also carry over to the new TIQ album, Confetti Man, which has McKay singing a Balakrishnan arrangement of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David hit Send Me No Flowers (most famously recorded by Doris Day in the 1964 film of the same name).

“In some ways, Turtle Island’s game face is to prove we can solo over Coltrane tunes and survive,” Balakrishnan said. “And we really take pride in that. But Nellie is coming from a different place. There is this incredible theatrical side to her. She’s a songwriter and she’s carefully crafted how she puts all this music together in the Nellie McKay style.

“Some of the stuff I love the most is when we’re playing a chart like Send Me No Flowers. It’s a very sparse, dreamy thing. What I get from Nellie is she sounds sweet with a certain amount of sarcasm, a certain in-your-faceness that’s right below the surface.

“Nellie is such a joy to hang with. She is fresh and completely spontaneous in the way she lives and makes music.”

Turtle Island Quartet with Nellie McKay perform ‘A Flower is a Lovesome Thing’ at 7:30 p.m. Sept 23 at the Grand Theater, 308 St. Clair in Frankfort. Tickets are $30-$45. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to www.grandtheatrefrankfort.org

mr. fixx it

the fixx

cy curnin (forefront) : still leading the fixx after 34 years.

Rare is the artist that views today as a simpler time than the one that earned him fame. But that is exactly the take Cy Curnin has on the pop marketplace today after three decades as frontman for The Fixx.

Perhaps that’s because the veteran British band is comfortable today with its collective role as a rock elder. While Fixx hits like Saved by Zero, One Thing Leads to Another and Secret Separation ruled radio and MTV during the first half of the ‘80s, the band continues to tour and record today with what can be considered a refreshingly modest mindset.

“Things really are a lot simpler and a lot less complicated for us these days,” Curnin said. “It’s a way smaller market share that we have now, but it’s one that is a lot closer and connected with the fans. So that’s a plus. The ease and speed with which we can record things has also greatly improved.

“Of course, the world is still a crazy place to live in. It was then. It is now. We’re a group of five guys. We discuss the world the world around us, and I think our music still reflects that. We’re a little wiser than we were then, so the philosophical take on how we see the world has changed a bit. Back then, we were angry young men. Now we’re just angry.”

The Fixx’s first Lexington visit came at the height of its commercial visibility when the band opened a sold out Rupp Arena concert by The Police in November 1983. Amazingly, the lineup that performed then will be the same as the one playing here on Saturday: Curnin, guitarist Jamie West-Oram, keyboardist Rupert Greenall, bassist Dan K. Brown and drummer Adam Woods.

“The friendship was there. The respect was there. We kind of came from similar backgrounds, I think. I’m also the youngest in the band by five years. The other guys, the musicians, mentored me, so you didn’t get this ego thing happening. We ended up being pretty even-tempered.

“I actually relied on their experience of being wiser adults, because I was very green. I had all the passion but I needed the skills, especially the social skills, to go with it. They helped me with that.”

The Fixx’s music today is essentially a progression of the sound it established in the ‘80s. On its most recent album, 2012 Beautiful Friction, Curnin’s vocals are stronger and deeper than in the band’s early days while the guitar/keyboard give-and-take between West-Oram and Greenall sounds more harmonious, creating a lush, orchestral sound reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnyman and, in some instances, early U2.

“We’ve actually got another (album) in the can that we’re just putting the finishing touches on,” Curnin said. “We realize a lot of people may go, ‘Whatever happened to that band The Fixx?’ Then they see we’ve just had an album out. It’s good for them to see we’re still very active in creating new music.

“The ‘80s, though, was a very original period for music. Even though it’s all just called ‘80s music’ today, it was as different as rock is to blues or funk. It was a defined music style. But it just so happened it was named after a time period rather a style of music. It was ‘80s music. That’s what we’re stuck with, but it was a very original, quirky era.

“There was a more guitar-based ‘80s sound and there was a sound with a more rhythmic keyboard extreme to it. What The Fixx did was marry both. That created a sound that served us well. It gave us a very big soundscape. I call it a night sky where we would float lyrical enigmas. Put in a haunting melody and off you go. That was Fixx music.”

The Fixx performs a free concert as part of the Christ the King Oktoberfest, 299 Colony Blvd. at 9:30 p.m. Sept. 20. For more info, go to www.ctkoktoberfest.com.

elvis, jersey and the smithereens

smithereens

the smithereens: jim babjak, dennis diken, pat dinizio and severo jornacion.

If you went strictly by the rock ‘n’ roll history books, The Smithereens would forever be viewed as a product of the ‘80s. But for the true inspiration that ignited the New Jersey based pop-centric rock troupe, you would have to peel back a few more years.

Specifically, your destination would be 1959. That was when a not-quite four year old Pat DiNizio saw Elvis Presley in King Creole for the first time. And the second. And the third.

“That summer of 1959, my dad made the mistake of taking me to a theatre on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey to see the re-release of what was, arguably, the best movie Elvis (Presley) ever made. I mean, he is really cool in King Creole. I’m told that I insisted on sitting through it four times, because you could sit in the theatre as many times as you wanted in those days. I ate 100 lollipops or something like that.”

There was no turning back at that point. The Elvis infatuation led to his first guitar which led to his first band. In 1980, one of those bands became The Smithereens, a group that ignored the post punk and new wave trends of the time as well as the synth-pop sounds that would soon overtake radio. Instead, the Jersey quartet drew on traditional pop and rock songcraft but toughened the edges with a litany of guitar riffs that ignited DiNizio’s songs before bouncing about the melodies like a mantra.

A few of their tunes – Behind the Wall of Sleep (1986), Only a Memory (1988) and A Girl Like You (1989) – became sizable hits. But there wasn’t an album The Smithereens constructed, from the 1986 debut Especially for You through the recent Smithereens 2011, that didn’t boil over with songs embracing melody, muscle and a sense of poetic darkness.

“We were influenced by songwriters like Ray Davies of The Kinks, (John) Lennon and (Paul) McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, the Rolling Stones to a lesser extent, the Beau Brummels, the Byrds – really any songwriter or band that could deliver a really powerful and emotional musical statement in three minutes or less,” DiNizio said. “That’s what we’re all about.

“We loved Buddy Holly. We loved Creedence (Clearwater Revival). And we liked heavier stuff like The Who. But I was also a major Black Sabbath fan. I met Ozzy (Osbourne) when I was 15 when they played the high school in my hometown. I followed them on the Paranoid tour, hitchhiking all over Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. I must have seen them about 15 times on that tour, and that’s reflected in some of our heavier material, songs like Blues Before and After and A Girl Like You.

“In truth, it’s a love of heavy riffs and that minor key dark thing combined with the optimistic pop of the Beatles that really fascinated me. So I would say The Smithereens are like Black Sabbath meets the Beatles in a very odd sort of way.”

The resulting music has carried The Smithereens long past the ‘80s. In its 34 year history, there has been only one personal change. Severo Jornacion took over bass guitar duties from Mike Mesaros in 2006 with founding members DiNizio, Jim Babjak (guitar) and Dennis Diken (drums) still piloting the band’s mighty sound.

“It’s not something we think about consciously, but this is a band of brothers, certainly,” DiNizio said. “There’s a little bit of dysfunction, but that comes with the territory.

“In the old days, when we were lucky enough to become successful, we were living on a bus 300 days a year. That lasted for about 10 years. The fact that we survived that and everyone is still alive and everyone is still friends says a lot. But we come from a certain dedication, a certain set of ideals, a certain aesthetic, if you will. There is a spirit of brotherhood here that says we’re all on the same page.”

The Smithereens perform a free concert as part of the Christ the King Oktoberfest, 299 Colony Blvd. at 9:30 p.m. Sept. 19. For more info, go to www.ctkoktoberfest.com.

trombone shorty standing tall

Trombone_Shorty_Pic

trow andrews, aka trombone shorty.

Seldom do expectations brew around the buzz of a new artist the way they did when Troy Andrews – known to pop, soul and jazz audiences worldwide as Trombone Shorty – made his Lexington debut four years ago.

Granted, Andrews could have hardly been considered a novice at the time in his native New Orleans. Equally proficient on trumpet as well as trombone, he was playing professionally at age six, touring the world alongside Lenny Kravitz right out of high school and performing with the likes of U2, Green Day, the Dave Matthews Band and Jeff Beck before getting introduced to local audiences with a Courthouse Plaza performance tied to the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games.

Some who turned out for the performance knew the kind of profile Andrews was establishing. Others had no clue. But before a brilliantly diverse audience, especially in terms of age, Andrews and his Orleans Avenue band delivered a blend of New Orleans funk, rock and R&B accented by vintage soul and contemporary hip hop.

“That was such a great night because what we were doing was not really based off a hit song or anything like that,” said Andrews, who returns to town for a performance tonight at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

“To see that in Lexington at that time and for the people there to trust us enough to put on a show where they could dance and just have fun was great. It’s a thrill to have an audience like that. Those people didn’t have any expectation that night but to have a good time. They didn’t know what songs we were going to play or even what we would sound like. Now, I think, they might have some idea.”

Andrews’ return also comes a year after the release of Say That to Say This, a record that expands further the cross generational scope of his music.

To produce the record, Andrews enlisted Raphael Saadiq, the veteran singer and multi-instrumentalist devoted to finding new voices for old school soul. He has also produced records for stars like John Legend and Mary J. Blige.

“Raphael is just a legend all around in my eyes,” Andrews said. “He actually became a member of the band at certain points on this record. Sometimes you get producers that know how to produce records but they can’t explain to you musically or theoretically what they want. But he was able to get in there and show us by playing with us.”

Favoring tradition on Say That to Say This was a version of Be My Lady, a song written and recorded by the cherished New Orleans funk troupe The Meters in 1977. But Andrews wanted more than a cover tune. He was after a full blown Meters reunion for the session. That meant contacting members Art Neville, George Porter Jr, Zigaboo Modeliste and Leo Nocentelli separately as they had long ago stopped working with a band manager.

“We all pulled it together,” Andrews said. “At some point during the recording session when they got the song back up under their fingers again, they started to jam out. That very moment was the experience I never thought I would have. I saw The Meters and how they created all those legendary albums back in the ‘70s. It was amazing how exciting the vibes were when they got used to playing with each other in the studio again.

“That kind of tradition is in me, too. But I also have to create a new tradition so kids under me have something to base music off of the way I’ve had Allen Toussaint, the Neville Brothers and The Meters. Maybe I can become one of those people to give the new generation a platform to keep the music moving forward.”

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue with Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds perform at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Tickets are $27-$35. Call (859) 257-4929 or go to http://finearts.uky.edu/singletary-center.

speaking trio with marcus roberts

Marcus Roberts

marcus roberts

The piano trio – it’s a stately, functional staple of jazz. From the famed ‘50s and ‘60s trios of Bill Evans through the present day groups of Brad Mehldau, the configuration of piano, bass and drums has created everything from impressionistic portraits of the blues to gallant exhibitions of swing.

But there is a reason such a setting is called a piano trio. Inevitably, the band interplay is built around the lead voice of a keyboard. That’s the part Marcus Roberts is out to modify – if not change outright – when he performs his first Lexington concert in nearly two decades tonight at the Opera House.

“What we’re ultimately about is a philosophy of playing,” Roberts said. “It’s about bringing the bass and drums to more of an equal position in the trio. A lot of that has to do with how the music is arranged. If it is arranged the right way, the bass and drums can participate a lot more in determining the musical direction, the rhythm, the grooves we play, the tempos, even the form depending on how well thought out it is. That’s the basic goal of it, to increase the power of the trio’s sound through making the drums and bass more equal in what is being featured.”

Equality like that is often born out of band spirit. On Roberts’ 2013 album, From Rags to Rhythm, the pianist’s longtime trio mates – bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis – create solo, duo and trio exchanges that purposely de-emphasize the piano’s dominance. (Program note: Roberts’ original trio drummer, Herlin Riley, who backed the pianist on his landmark 1989 album Deep in the Shed, will sub for Marsalis at tonight’s performance.).

On the surface, such diplomacy might seem a deterrent to Roberts’ enormous instrumental vocabulary, which covers rich stride styles, deep New Orleans rhythms (no mean trick, given how he is a native Floridian) and the performance inspirations of myriad piano giants (from Scott Joplin to Thelonious Monk). But another influence is also at work within Roberts’ music – namely, the bandleading abilities the pianist absorbed through an ‘80s apprenticeship with Wynton Marsalis (elder brother of Jason Marsalis).

“Wynton hired me at a point where, honestly, I don’t know if anybody else really wanted to or was as open as he was to it,” Roberts said “But he was willing to give me a chance. That was a very important opportunity for me.”

A Jacksonville native, Roberts lost his sight as a child due to glaucoma. Living with blindness as he worked, taught (as Associate Professor of Jazz Studies at Florida State University) and excelled as a jazz artist with a catalog of over 20 albums has proved to be largely an exercise in attitude.

“It’s a disability,” he said. “That means there is something that just doesn’t work at all. So what you have to do is make sure that disability doesn’t get in the way of what you want to do. My mother raised us and she is totally blind. That helped me grow up without any attitude toward the disability that made me a victim. That’s the first thing.

“The second thing deals with the music. I’ve always prided myself on being a total, complete musician. I certainly use my ears, of course. I like to do things naturally. But I also learned how to read braille music notation and I’ve learned enough about print music notation to dictate print music to people. In other words, the key thing is to make sure the disability in no way limits what it is you can do or want to do.

“That might require you to use your other senses more or sacrifice a lot of time to learn new things. Whatever you need to do, then that’s what you’ve got to do.”

Marcus Roberts Trio: A Grand Celebration. 8 p.m. Sept.12 at the Lexington Opera House. Tickets: $30-$50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.

jason aldean through the years

jason aldean

jason aldean.

One of the intriguing side effects of the frequency with which many country artists play Rupp Arena is the ability to chart and sometimes predict career growth.

Review the venue’s history and you will find all kind of instances where the major leaguers of today were once humble show openers. Garth Brooks opened for The Judds in 1992. Tim McGraw opened for Dwight Yoakam in 1994. Comparatively recently, the unstoppable Luke Bryan opened for Rascal Flatts in 2008.

A prime example of how repeat performance business translates into steady, sustained growth is the career of Jason Aldean. In under a decade, the Georgia born star has played a New Year’s Eve concert at Heritage Hall (2007), a co-headlining show with Miranda Lambert in the pouring rain at the then-named Applebee’s Park (2009) and shows at Rupp as an opening act (2007) and sold-out headliner (2011).

With his return to Rupp on Saturday, I have revisited separate interviews I conducted with Aldean ahead of three of those concerts. Together they form a history of an artist on the ascent to stardom.

Let’s begin with the show that got everything rolling – a February 2007 opening set, also for Rascal Flatts, at Rupp. At the time Aldean was fresh from a hit debut album but far from the marquee country name now capable of headlining stadiums.

“Rascal Flatts was the first act that really took a chance with us,” Aldean said prior to that performance. “They put us on their tour when we didn’t really have a whole lot going on except for one song (the breakthrough Aldean hit Hicktown) on the radio. That right there tells you what kind of people they are.”

Fast forward to September 2009 and Aldean was back for the rain-drenched Applebee’s Park show. The performance came on the crest of a summer that kept Aldean atop the charts with two successive hits – She’s Country and Big Green Tractor.

“It’s amazing to have just one single come out and change your career,” Aldean said. “I’ve heard people say that before, but I never really understood it until She’s Country hit. And it did, too. That song changed everything for us. Now we’ve had back-to-back multi-week No. 1 hits. Who could ask for anything more? This has laid the groundwork for the rest of this year and will set us up for the future. We are now at a very good place.” 

Perhaps the gravity of that performance, and the tireless fervor of the audience attending it, didn’t fully register with Aldean until he returned to Rupp in March 2011.

 “Man, I remember that night,” Aldean said of the Applebee Park’s deluge. “As the rain was pouring down, I was thinking, ‘Man, by the time I get out there, half of these people are going to be gone.’ So to walk out onstage and see that none of them had left, that everybody was out there getting soaked… well, I just thought that if they were willing to do that, then I sure don’t mind getting soaked with them.”

Aldean’s third Rupp outing this weekend comes on the heels of the massive radio hit Burnin’ It Down, a preview single from his forthcoming Old Boots, New Dirt album. The record, the singer’s sixth studio work, is set for release on Oct. 7.

“I feel I’ve settled into a groove now,” Alden said in 2011. “I’m able to be at home more and even bring my family out on the road with me if I’m gone for a while. The schedule is still kind of crazy. But because there has been such a gradual climb to my career, the transition has been fairly easy.

“But this career… it’s just a different lifestyle, man. I don’t know if you ever get used to it. You live your life a certain way and then all of a sudden you’ve got a record deal and you start having some success. It’s like a light switch. Everything changes.”

Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line and Tyler Farr perform at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13 at Rupp Arena. Tickets: $29.75-$59.75. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com

stringdusting at terrapin hill

infamous stringdusters

The Infamous Stringdusters: Travis Book, Andy Falco, Jeremy Garrett, Andy Hall and Chris Pandolfi.

Take five string players residing in four different locales, gather them together so the varied stylistic agendas they have designed for their songs can be hashed out and you have the makings of a session with the Infamous Stringdusters.

Such summits – and, especially, the music that results – yield a crisp blend of bluegrass instrumentation, folk and pop song structures, jazz rooted improvisation and more. On the Stringdusters’ new Let It Go album, it all falls into place with a blend that sounds both cohesive and cordial. Still, one can’t help but wonder how a pack of geographically and stylistically varied players can all get their say in a Stringdusters song without it sounding like the musical equivalent of an arms race.

“You know, I wonder the same thing,” said fiddler Jeremy Garrett, who will perform with the Stringdusters at the band’s Saturday headlining set during the weekend-long Terrapin Hill Harvest Festival in Harrodsburg.”

“We will come up with an arrangement and, I swear, there will be five different opinions on how something could go. Who knows why we chose one idea over another. Sometimes I have no clue. Other times, it makes perfect sense and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s obviously how that part will go.’ But every time, the feeling is, ‘Man, that’s cool. If you want to do it that way, go ahead.’

“It doesn’t really matter which way an idea goes as long as it’s good and professional and fitting for the song.”

The self-described “bluegrass guy” of the band, Garrett lives in Nashville, where the Stringdusters formed in 2005. At present, dobro player Andy Hall and banjoist Chris Pandolfi reside in Colorado, guitarist Andy Cobb works out of Long Island in New York and bassist Travis Book has a home within the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The sounds and styles the Stringdusters employ are rooted in inspirations that are equally far reaching.

“As a songwriter, I have certain things in mind for my songs and so does everybody else in the band that writes. But when you bring your song to the band, it takes on a whole new life. That’s when the magic happens – when the five of us are able to do our thing together by pulling on these different influences.

“I’ve been pretty much steeped in bluegrass since I was a kid. My dad was a bluegrass musician, too, but I also listen to Metallica and Nirvana and Guns ‘N Roses. I was influenced just as much by that music as I was by the music I was playing. Those influences can’t help but creep in – different little rhythmic things, vocal stylings and perhaps just the feel of a song. So it’s not just Flatt & Scruggs-type bluegrass we’re playing anymore and the reason is because of all the influences that we put together.

“That being said, we’re still drawing on that really solid bluegrass foundation, which has provided a sense of integrity to our musicianship. That’s why we sort of come off as bluegrass. But, yeah these other influences are definitely seeping through.”

The stylistic breadth of the band is also reflected by the kinds of musical company it keeps. The notables that have sat in with the Stringdusters of late have included Grateful Dead bassist/co-founder Phil Lesh, the esteemed jazz guitarist John Scofield and New Orleans’ cherished Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

“For me, the real treat was getting to play with true seasoned veteran musicians. To get to play with people like that is among the highest forms of satisfying moments you get as a musician.”

The Terrapin Hill Harvest Festival featuring The Infamous Stringdusters, The New Mastersounds, Rumpke Mountain Boys, David Gans, Vessel, Orgone, Mojoflo, Bawn in the Mash and others runs Sept. 5-7, at Terrapin Hill Farm, 96 Mackville Rd., Harrodsburg. Tickets are $50, $95. Parking $5. Call (859) 734-7207 or go to www.terrapinhillfestivals.com, www.ticketweb.com

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