Free Man and Woman (March 22-23, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

March 22

Our anniversary celebration continued as we witnessed a dynamic, playful, and moving performance by the great Chicago saxophonist Chico Freeman and his band. Freeman performed at Whitmore Recital Hall at the University of Missouri’s School of Music (where over 20 years ago we’d heard his legendary father Von); with him were Kenny Davis on bass, the impish young drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr., and a pianist whose name escapes me (as it briefly did Freeman) but who played smartly in the absence of Anthony Wonsey, who was snowed in on the east coast. The show was part of Columbia’s “We Always Swing” series, and earlier in the day Freeman had dedicated the series’ jazz lending library, which is named in his father honor. The elder Freeman, unfortunately passed from this plane, was himself a majestic and original saxophonist of great skill and wide influence.

If you’ve not chanced to hear him play, Chico Freeman regularly captures the same moody, searching tone Coltrane gets in songs like “Equinox.” Like any graduate of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he’s a heckuva writer, too, and in the AACM tradition, his set, with the exception of one standard that he took apart Rollins-style and introduced with a magic cadenza, the tunes were either his or other jazz players’. The highlights of the show both tapped into the Coltrane legacy: Freeman’s own “Elvin,” an emotional tribute to that giant of drumming, and a set-closing trip through McCoy Tyner’s “African Village.” The concert was engrossing, and we thank Mr. Jon Poses, the mastermind behind the quarter-century-old series, for working tirelessly to bring jazz geniuses like Freeman to mid-Missouri.

The complete set list (w/links to other performances of the songs by Freeman):

Black Inside

Elvin

Free Man” (written for Freeman by Antonio Farao)

Dark Blue” (for Duke Ellington)

“My One and Only Love” (we think)

“To Hear a Teardrop in the Rain”

Dance of Light for Luani” (for his daughter)

African Village” (McCoy Tyner)

March 23

Morning: I celebrated my liberation unto Spring Break 2018 by giving some blood then stirring up what I had left with some more saxophone music, this time courtesy of the Swedish maniac Mats Gustafsson and the band ZU, whose new record, intriguingly titled How to Raise an Ox, is one of the year’s best jazz records. It is not for the faint of heart.

Afternoon: I sampled, on a Xgauvian tip, the new electronic-y Monk tribute by Tim Conley (aka MAST) called Thelonious Sphere Monk. I’ll give anything Monk-oriented a spin, and I did kinda like this–in the right mood I’ll put it on again–but it did smooth out the inventive angles that are one of the many wonders of Thelonious’ music. In a related development, it also makes these famous compositions ideal for occupying a social background–a place they’ve always stubbornly resisted, in my experience. I dunno. Not giving up on it yet.

Evening: After a few margaritas and tequila shots, Nicole, finally freed herself from the grip of public school teaching, and I drove carefully around our neighborhood YELLING THE ENTIRETY OF THE BEATLES’ CLASSIC ALBUM BEATLES FOR SALE AT THE TOP OF OUR LUNGS! Try it some time–it’s good for the soul!

Good to My Earhole, March 1-9: “Destroyed on The Lathe of Heaven”

Carter

James Carter Organ Trio: LIVE AT THE ST. LOUIS JAZZ BISTRO, MARCH 4-5, 2016 – 10 – First time I’ve got to see a major jazz player multiple nights of a residency, and now I want to do it again. Measured from his explosive entry onto the jazz battlefield, Carter may not now be what every jazz buff must have expected from him by the time he reached his forties, but, I’ll tell you this: he’s really NOT abandoned his core values from his late teens: reverence for multiple traditions (swing, bebop, and freedom), irreverence for reverent stage attitude, a nose for concept. THIS particular concept (one he’s visited before in a wholly different way) was “Django Unchained.” Across our two nights, he didn’t repeat a single tune and, as he was fond of saying, he “dealt with” Reinhardt’s repertoire on tenor, soprano, and alto, without impeding its swing and flourish. Getting to speak to him after the second show, I politely asked him for an Earl Bostic tribute in the future, a request he unsurprisingly ducked. I still hold out hope.

Fats

FATS DOMINO AND THE BIRTH OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL (PBS) – 8.8 – Hard to imagine this warm, sweet, smiling man starting a riot, but ain’t that America? This 54-minute documentary (maybe an hour too short) does a nice job of telling the story of one of the few founding fathers who’s still with us, in the process reminding us to give a man props while he’s living. Some great rare footage, sharp detail from the New Orleans that cradled him, and narration by the man destined to be Morgan Freeman’s heir, Clarke Peters. Watch the film here: http://player.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365676531

720x405-zReplacements_Couch-Alternate-1985_Credit-Deborah-Feingold

Photo above by Deborah Feingold, from the Rolling Stone article linked within the blurb below.

Bob Mehr: TROUBLE BOYS–THE TRUE STORY OF THE REPLACEMENTS – 9 – Mehr’s excellent research provides the only account we’re ever gonna need of the ‘Mats. He isn’t a stylist, but he stays out of the way of his story, and offers hair-raising tales and heart-breaking revelations even the hardcore fan may not ever have encountered. AND: he is fair. Mehr also caused me to wonder what kind of music is being made by today’s kids who are coming out of homes like the one the Stinsons survived. Read an excerpt about their magnificent/disastrous SNL appearance here.

The Replacements: DON’T TELL A SOUL – 8.7 – Just prior to this coming out, I scored a promo poster and put it on my bedroom door (bachelor days); after I heard it, I wrote under the title “…but this album SUCKS!” Held that position until after I was forced to put it in its proper context last week by Mehr’s book (and Mehr does not quite smile upon it himself). I now find it not just moving, but a kind of a quiet triumph in the face of simultaneous disasters. It helps to listen to it without expecting it to be the band’s previous three albums, which, at the time, I could not help doing. Note: if you get the expanded version, you can program it to be a more kick-ass and crazy album, should you desire that. They still had it in ’em.

Mark Turner: LATHE OF HEAVEN – 9 – One of those records the title of which fits perfectly. Turner might be the one jazz tenor saxophonist the beginner who knows all the giants’ names most needs to check out–he’s inventive and subtle, much like what I’d imagine a “free” Lester Young to sound like. However, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and drummer Marcus Gilmore dang near steal the record. From Chuang Tzu misinterpreted beautifully by Ursula K. Le Guin: “To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.”

Folk-Funk Comes to Hickman High School!

Bobby autographs

Bobby Rush signs student autographs after his show in Hickman High School’s Little Theater. (Photo by Notley Hawkins)

(This piece is part of a memoir-in-progress about my 30+-years of high school edumacating that may or may not appear some day in completed form.)

Sometimes great things fall into your lap, and you have to be ready for them.

In 2009, my wife and I had just returned from a trip to Memphis, and on the way down and back, we’d listened to a heap of Bobby Rush tracks. Bobby, a native of Homer, Louisiana, is the inventor of what he calls “folk funk”: music too funky for blues, too bluesy for funk, and designed for very down-to-earth people. He has also been incredibly durable. One could argue that not only his recordings but also his performances are more vital now than they were thirty years ago; currently in his eighties as of this writing, he shows no signs of slowing down. We’d barely unpacked when my phone rang. The caller was an associate of the Missouri Arts Council, and she’d gotten my name from an acquaintance who’d mentioned that I’d arranged rock and roll concerts at my high school.

“Would Hickman be interested in hosting a blues artist for a concert next month?”

That would seem to be a no-brainer, but as fans of the graphic novel and film Ghost World know, the wrong band or artist can give an audience the blues rather than relieve it of them. I wasn’t going to be held accountable for a Blueshammer-styled band, nor, I must be honest, a painfully sincere “bloozeman” of any stripe. Thus, I had to put on the brakes.

“Well, it depends upon whom. When we do these things, we like to do ‘em up all the way, and I’d hate to, you know, do up something anti-climactic.”

“Have you heard of Bobby Rush?”

I didn’t know whether to shit twice or die.

“Can you hear me ok?”

“Yeah, sorry, I was just a little overcome there. Hell, yes, we’ll do it! Give me the details!” Usually, I asked for the details before agreeing, but, in this case, I would have been a fool.

“Well,” she said, “It’s free of charge to you and the audience; a grant’s paid for it. Bobby’s got his own band and gear—you’d just need to provide a basic PA and monitors. And we’d like to schedule it for the evening so kids could bring their families if they wanted to. I tried to pitch this to Jefferson City Public Schools, but they wanted nothing to do with it.”

“You snooze, you lose. And this will be a huge loss for them. We’re A-OK on the equipment. And evening is great. But, regarding the kids and their families—is Bobby bringing the girls?”

I am sure this is a question anyone trying to book Rush is going to get asked. Bobby frequently performs with three triple-mega-bootylicious dancers to whom he often makes leering but strangely warm and charming reference throughout his shows, and a) I seriously hoped he was travelling with them, but b) I wasn’t sure the snug stage had room for them, and c) I was not sure a transition from high school performance stage to chitlin’ circuit showcase would be altogether without bumps (take that as you will).

She chuckled. “Oh no, he doesn’t have the girls on this leg.” I breathed a sigh of disappointed relief, as well as applied a mental Bobby Rush-like chuckle of lechery to her phrasing.

The next day, the kids of the Academy of Rock, our music appreciation club, and I revved into PR gear. We made and posted flyers, we networked the hallways and school nooks and crannies, and we set up visits to the American history classes, where we planned to show a brief “teaser” segment on Rush from Richard Pearce’s “The Road to Memphis,” an installment of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series. Because I have been a serious nut about music since I heard “Then Came You” float out of a swimming pool jukebox, I have always been careful to find a solid justification for connecting any school use of it to curriculum—probably too careful, but I am like a Pentecostal preacher when I get going, and may the Devil take the curriculum. In this case, the justification too had fallen into my lap: it happened to be Black History Month, and, as dubious as I consider the concept (I prefer Black History Year), I was happy to exploit it. I was also happy that, in my long experience at Hickman, I’d seldom seen a major event staged that directly and intentionally appealed to our 25% black population. Not that I could take credit for anything but saying “yes” to the proposal; in fact, that could accurately serve as my epitaph: “He said ‘Yes’ to life.”

We also got word out to the local press—who were underwhelmed as usual, for the most part—and the Columbia music community, which resulted in my fellow music maniac Kevin Walsh and his young pal Chase Thompson showing up to make a film—as yet unreleased, but I have a dub—of Rush’s appearance.

The day of the show seemed to arrive in an instant. We promptly set up the stage and PA—but, for some reason, the monitors, not exactly top of the gear list in complexity of use, were malfunctioning. We tried everything we knew (admittedly, not much), to no avail. At least we had a computer properly jacked into the PA to record the show, which Bobby’d happily agreed to let us do. Still—one of the few things we’d been asked for we couldn’t deliver. I was also nervous about the turnout, as we had no way of knowing how many folks would arrive, since admission was free.

Bobby and his band (also known as the crew—they hauled and set up their own equipment, which is no unremarkable habit, especially for road vets) arrived right on schedule, and, after finding him and introducing myself and my wife Nicole, I cut right to the chase: “Bobby, our monitors are screwed. That’s about all you wanted, and we messed it up.”

“Phil, Bobby Rush got this! You OK! Been on the road for sixty years and ain’t nothin’ like that ever stopped us! You all just sit back and relax and let Bobby Rush take care of business.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Would you have?

We did as we were told and took a seat. The space was an old-style “Little Theater,” capacity 150, with nice track lighting, comfortable seating, and just enough stage for a five-piece band (Bobby had seven). I am assuming it was originally built for student theatrical performances, but, in the ‘Oughts, it was just as frequently a concert venue. As I write, I feel a pang of sadness in not being there to continue using it.

Bobby and his band genially integrated our small crew of students into their own set-up and soundcheck—they’d also quickly jerry-rigged the monitors and had them working—and were thrilled to find that we planned to have one of the kids run sound for the show. This had been our philosophy since the club was formed in 2004: move over and let some students do the popcorn! An element of risk always threatened proceedings as a result, but that’s life, learning happened, and it’s more fun riding on The Wall of Death, anyway.

I had been in a bit of a nervous trance when I suddenly broke it, looked around, and noticed that the house was almost packed. Not only that, but the concertgoers were predominantly black—with a considerable number of parents and grandparents among them. As is my wont, I quickly twisted my joy into worry as I began to recall certain bawdy Rush routines that might be revisited that very eve.

Bobby

I needn’t have worried. Bobby Rush had this. 75 at the time, he must have set the record for pelvic thrusts in one show. The crowd went wild. He told raunchy stories, including one featuring his minister father. The crowd hollered. He plum-picked his sly repertoire: “Uncle Esau,” “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya,” “I Got Three Problems,” “Henpecked” (“I ain’t henpecked!/I just been pecked by the right hen!”), “Night Fishin’,” “Evil,” “What’s Good for the Goose.” The crowd exploded. He produced a pair of size-75 women’s undies to demonstrate his taste in derrieres. The crowd went bonkers, and the grandmas stood up and shouted amen. He accused our sound man of being a virgin. The crowd—and our soundman—went nuts. He talked about visiting Iraq, about his prison ministry, about struggling up out of the Great Migration to Chicago, about being on damn near every black music scene for fifty years—and about coming through it all to vote for a black president who actually got elected. And the crowd hung, hushed, on his every word, as he delivered a brilliant, deeply personal history lesson we hadn’t even asked for. Even the jerry-rigged sound in that little room was hot as fire and deep as a well, with Rush playing harp like he was possessed by the ghost of Sonny Boy Williamson and snatching a guitar away from a band member to play some razor-sharp solo slide. As I continued to nervously scan what had become a congregation, I was thrilled to notice that the older the person was whom I spied, the wider his (or most definitely her) grin was. The students? They had clearly never seen anything like Bobby Rush before. Our soundman was so mesmerized he forgot to check the recording levels, so our aural document of the show is way into the red.

I know it’s a cliché, but it was, for damn sure, a religious experience. The audience, I think, was more drained than Bobby at show’s end, but not too drained to be shaking their heads in wonderment and giggling with glee. Several of those older folks swung by to tell me, “More of this, please!” The principal who’d drawn event supervision—lucky man!—asked me, “How in hell did this happen, and when’s the next one, ‘cause I’m calling dibs?” Of course, I’d liked to have met those demands with serious supply—but witnessing a bona fide, down and dirty, authentic-but-for-the-booze-smoke-and-BBQ chitlin’ circuit show at a Bible Belt high school, I’m afraid, is a once in a lifetime experience. God, I do love grants and art councils.

Bobby Rush and Us

Nicole and I walked Bobby out into the February night, his arms around both of our shoulders. His eyes and jeri curls were shining, but he hadn’t seemed to have broken a sweat. “I want to thank you all for having us,” he offered, humbly. “I don’t know who had more fun, us or them!”

I quickly replied, “No, man, thank you! That show was so good you’d think you were playing for the president! And we’re just a high school in Missouri!”

He shook his head, smiling.

“I told you, Phil…Bobby Rush got this!”

See Columbia photographer Notley Hawkins’ classic shots from the show here, and do yourself a solid and grab Omnivore Records’ stellar four-CD career summation of Rush, Chicken Heads, here!

Good to My Ear- and Eyehole Since Last I Posted: Part 1, The Seen.

For various reasons–I’m busy, but I am retired, so I don’t know exactly how that’s happening–I haven’t updated the ol’ blog for awhile, but I have so much music-related material under my mind’s belt that it’s about to explode, so time to let it loose, I suppose.

 Jimi: All Is By My Side (written and directed by John Ridley)

This movie opened poorly, and it was already burdened by the Hendrix estate’s refusal to let Ridley use any original music. On top of that, it’s about an icon whose myth and reality (occasionally, on that latter count) are very firmly embedded in the public imagination already, an icon who’s famous for his wildness, though his gentleness of spirit might be his defining artistic spirit, even if you’re thinking about the lines he played. Considering those obstacles, the film is pretty brilliant. It covers the year leading up to Hendrix’s cataclysmic Monterey Pop appearance–the band is striding through the San Francisco airport toward the show in the final scene–when the guitarist’s confidence and fortunes were crucially bolstered by key figures on the sidelines who totally believed in him. The performances are excellent, the story is genuinely moving (and, contrary to reports you may have heard, exceptionally accurate, if Charles Cross’ meticulously researched Room Full of Mirrors is any measure), and the music? I think the news that no Hendrix music would be in the film has scared away potential moviegoers, but I argue that the sound of the Experience (and, in one scene, Cream) that’s concocted by three guys you may know (last names Wachtel, Sklar, and Keltner) is audaciously good, as close as anyone’s going to get to sound of the original trio. I was so impressed I waited for the music credits, and laughed out loud with joy when I saw them. No hagiography, either.

Chucho Valdes and Conrad Herwig’s Latin Side, The Missouri Theater, Columbia, Missouri, October 2

This show represented the 20th anniversary of Jon Poses’ We Always Swing Jazz Series, which has made Columbia one of the best places to be for black classical musical in the Bible Belt. The 73-year-old Valdez, a pianist who can roll Garner, Powell, Taylor, and any Latin ivory-tickler you care to name into a big ball and thrust it at the sun, opened with a magnificently florid, funny, and romantic solo recital, and Oklahoma trombonist Herwig’s unit, which has skillfully Latinized the songbooks of several modern composers over the years, did a wonderful number on some hard bop classics, to name a few, Wayne Shorter’s “Ping Pong,” Horace Silver’s “Peace,” and Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge.” On sax for the night were Joe Lovano, looking happily hip in brown Chucks and suit and playing with fire and restraint, and Craig Hardy, who played baritone live for the first time in his career as well as other saxes. Mr. Poses has worked his ass off to bring these great sounds to us on a regular basis, and he ought to be proud. I am sure his mother, who was in attendance, feels the same way.

Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (directed by Alex Gibney)

A long-time fan of Mr. Gibney, I wasn’t surprised that he nailed this project. Note the title: “rise of.” There is no TMZ-titillatin’ shit-show section; the film is about why Brown is and should be an American cultural god. Besides the wealth of mind-, eye-, and ear-boggling unseen footage, besides the great and surprising insights of Christian McBride on the links between JB’s funk innovations and jazz, besides the hilarious reflections of producer Mick Jagger on the infamous Brown-Stones “battle” on The T.A.M.I Show, the documentary shines most brightly during clips of Brown–reputedly resuscitated immediately after birth by an aunt, forced to live in the woods as a child, abandoned by his mother and violent father as a preteen, employed to tout for a whorehouse when he should have been playing Pee Wee Football, and in and out of reform schools throughout his later teenage years–speaking fiercely, eloquently, with amazing self-possession for black America to various clueless television interviewers during the most volatile time in our recent social history. Extremely, extremely moving–people, that’s all I want in my music intake, whether live, on film, off the page, or spinning out of digitalization.

Barrence Whitfield and The Savages, Off Broadway, St. Louis, Missouri, October 4

Since hearing about Barrence in the mid-Eighties and having snapped up his great hard r&b albums on Mamou and Rounder, I have been wanting to witness the man in the person; there’s really been no one else so intensely honoring the wild and noble tradition of H-Bomb Ferguson and Little Richard, but Missouri isn’t that logical a place for him to shake it. I wouldn’t have thought it likely, but 31 years after first hearing about him, I finally had a chance to see him–with the two Lyres who originally accompanied him flanking him like apostles. The set was fierce, a mix of his very strong recent tracks on Norton, his great originals and excavations from the Eighties, and some surprises, like the Beatle Bob-requested “Have Love, Will Travel.” The little fireplug’s lost nothing in the vocal department, so if he swings your way, don’t miss your chance.