Archive | May 2011

Memorial Day Musings

Last weekend I traveled back to New England for the reunion and commencement festivities of my alma mater, but I made a slight detour to begin the trip. New Orleans, The Big Easy, home of cajun cuisine and jammin’ jazz joints, lured me in for a visit. One of my best friends from high school lives there now, working as a middle school math teacher, so getting to see him would be reason enough for my stay. I had an ulterior motive, however, and that was to check out jazz musician Jeremy Davenport. 

Although I am originally from LA, our family lived in the amiable midwestern city of St. Louis for several of my formative years. During that time I attended a fabulous alternative elementary school, New City School, located just blocks from our house in the Central West End. I can’t say I remember much of the classroom curriculum, but I fondly remember my music teacher, a wonderful woman – Mrs. Davenport, the mother of Jeremy. Needless to say, Jeremy performed at our school one year and my mom bought his most recent CD, which we have been listening to ever since.

A well-established performer in the jazz community, Jeremy has recorded several quality albums, collaborated with some of the best musicians in the business, appeared on Emeril’s television program, and, for the past decade, has headlined weekly at the Ritz Carlton hotel on Canal Street. The hotel has recently christened the venue, a cozy room adjacent to the hotel restaurant, the Davenport Lounge. When I learned of this whole arrangement, I knew I had to investigate. A recurring gig every week at a prestigious hotel in one of America’s most significant musical cities? Sounds like my dream job!

Justin the math teacher put up little resistance as I persuaded him to join me in attending Davenport’s Thursday night show, and so we drove over to the hotel. As we walked into the lounge, it occurred to me that one of the obvious drawbacks to having a regular show is that it can become a fairly casual, almost informal event. Most of the sofas and bar seats were occupied, but patrons were engaged in their private conversations as much as they were engaged in the music. From what I could gauge, the crowd was composed of three distinct groups – hotel guests, close friends of the musicians, and a few jazz devotees like myself just there to hear good music.

We arrived around 7, midway through the second of 3 45-minute sets. He and his quintet mostly played jazz standards, popular tunes recognizable to the average listener. I’m sure he played a few originals as well, but none I had previously heard. No material from the “Maybe In A Dream” album, my favorite of his recordings. The band took a lengthy intermission, during which I observed Jeremy sitting and chatting with what appeared to be a group of dear old acquaintances. We hung around for the entirety of the performance, and afterwards I worked up the gumption to introduce myself to the man himself.

Jeremy got a kick out of hearing that I was a pupil of his mother in St. Louis, and was so generous as to pick up our drink tab in appreciation for coming out to see him. I made small talk for a few minutes, congratulated him on having the room named after him, and then asked his opinion of the Ritz gig. “I can’t complain,” he conceded. But if I had asked him 10 years ago what would he like to be doing today, “this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.” What would you rather be doing, I asked. “Touring. But it’s tough to find bookings that would enable me to bring the band.” I didn’t press, but I assume by “tough” he meant financially challenging. It is undoubtedly difficult to recoup the travel expenses for five people with a small jazz club’s commission.

Ultimately, I think Jeremy’s preference for travel echoes the fundamental human desire for freedom. Most of us would rather tackle the globe on our own terms, go hither and thither following our passions, and encounter new adventures every day, rather than remain stationary and succumb to the numbing properties of routine. I can’t say I blame him. Expecting to find Jeremy – one of the musicians I admire most – blissful in an ideal musical situation, I instead met a performer in reluctant assent of his arrangement. But alongside his reluctance I felt an inextinguishable drive within Jeremy for musical pursuit. The loudest song was not his disappointment at all. It was hope. Music is founded on hope; hope for peace, hope for life, hope for love. The possibility for the sublime. And so, I’m still listening. 

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First Performance

Zach and I played our first show Friday night at Stanford. I’d say we brought the house down. Well, not exactly. For starters, it was quite a modest house to begin with: an on-campus cafe. A small venue, which I always prefer, but not particularly well suited to performance. Still, I think it would be fair to say that we played well and our audience members enjoyed it. Several of my friends made the trip, and their support was much appreciated. Zach killed it. A tremendous musician, I’m glad we have been able to work together. I’m trying to convince him to stay in the bay this summer so that we can do more shows. We’ll also have to build our repertoire a bit more, but that’s not a problem. All in all, a good start. I know what I need to work on, and so ain’t nothin’ to do but do it.

Victor Wooten: Mastery

Last fall, my roommate Sam introduced me to a jazz bassist by the name of Victor Wooten. I was familiar with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, but for some reason Wooten snuck under my radar. There are sadly few tracks of his available on YouTube, but you can find several phenomenal solos and this classic tune, Yinin’ and Yangin’.

I had the pleasure of attending Wooten’s show at Yoshi’s the past week, and he blew me away. The most definitive aspect of Wooten’s musicianship, what truly distinguishes him, is not his rhythmic feel – which happens to be impeccable. It is not his melodic phrasing, which seems to transcend musical genres. Instead, it is his mastery of the instrument. He cradled the bass and plucked at its strings as if it were an extension of his own body. Whatever riff, chord, or run he conceived in his head, he instantly translated into astounding music.

Besides the musical enjoyment I get in attending, one of my favorite aspects of live shows is learning more about the performer, seeing him entertain, listening to his anecdotes, and forging a personal human connection out of what was initially distant admiration. Wooten stuck to the set list with few interruptions. About midway through the show, however, he shared a telling story about his upbringing and his musical education. The youngest of five brothers, Victor was indoctrinated into the musical art at “two years of age.” Apparently his brothers included him in their jam sessions about the same time Victor learned to walk, placing a bass in his tiny hands and gradually teaching him how to use it. Given how incredibly well Victor navigates a bass, I believe this story entirely. “Learning a (musical) instrument is the same as learning a language,” Wooten shared with his captive audience. I can only imagine how well I might play the piano right now if I had started lessons at 2 yrs old. Of course, I might still have hated lessons as a teenager, but I digress.

When Brian McKnight came to Yoshi’s last fall, he conveyed virtually the same childhood experience with music. A family of musicians, the McKnights exposed Brian at an early age to singing and the piano, such that by his teenage years he was performing complex compositions of all genres on the keys. For McKnight and Wooten, thanks to early beginnings, playing their respective instruments became “second nature.” They became masters of their craft. Regardless of one’s opinion of their music, this mastery cannot be denied.

Delinquency

I’m way overdue for a new post. I’ve got several topics in the queue, and will get to them soon. First let me write about…