Archive for June, 2009

massenburg mural(original image by Steve Yates)

“I can’t ever buy a drink for myself.”  -Jeff Harshbarger, when asked what kind of respect he commands outside of Kansas City when telling aquaintances that he’s a jazz bassist.

Local Kansas City Star writer & radio show host Steve Kraske hosts “Up to Date” on KCUR 89.3FM, the KCMO NPR affiliate.  Recently Kraske hosted fellow blogger, freelance writer, music critic and all-around music-master Happy in Bag, local bassist/composer Jeff Harshbarger, and Star writer/local music enthusiast Steve Paul for a discussion billed as “The State of Jazz in Kansas City.”  The title of this post takes its namesake from a quote by Harshbarger when describing how some people see/hear jazz.

Highlights/Choice Quotes/General Observations below:

*Happy in Bag & Steve Paul’s agreement over the bands/styles of jazz that will resonate with younger audiences in the future.  A few examples: the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and The Bad Plus, groups who mix their original compositions with innovative takes on classics by groups such as The Beatles and Joni Mitchell – or even Nirvana.  Happy is also the author of Plastic Sax [which intelligently and irreverently chronicles the local jazz scene, its audiences, promoters and practitioners] and can often be seen touting the merits & appeal of these acts – and the jam bands.  Also features the Plastic Sax Calendar.

*Happy in Bag’s oft-posed question of “is Kansas City really a jazz town?”  A topic frequently tagged at Plastic Sax, the questioning of the interest of Kansas City’s audience in its own magnificent musical contribution to the world is ironically supported by audio/video footage of a band billed as the “Kansas City Band,” a Japanese group that fills clubs overseas, faithfully recreating the enthralling sounds of Count Basie and other KC jazz artists. 

But are the clubs in KC full?

*Caller “Joe” from Lenexa makes a valid point in that young artists of today seem to go where the money is.  Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane – who are they today?  There aren’t massive amounts of money to be made in jazz.  Or are there? 

[Joe also needs to peek at Plastic Sax once in a while or pick up a JAM Magazine.  He wasn’t aware that the Folly Theatre is still putting on a jazz season every year, as is the Gem Theater and others]

Happy in Bag, in true HIB fashion, makes a reference to hip-hop and draws yet another comparision between jazz, hip-hop, and the place of each in today’s world:  Tech9, a KC native, chose to be a hip-hop artist.  And he’s been incredibly successful.  Was it for the money?  Artistic relevance? 

Or was it just what he was drawn to?  According to HIB, Jeff Harshbarger is “making an intentional economic sacrifice” to be a jazz musician.  In Harshbarger’s words, playing jazz bass is something he was drawn to and finds comfort in doing, because of his connection with the instrument and his ability to communicate in his own musical voice through it. 

[note: Harshbarger plays in various groups in genres outside of jazz and is likely not starving]

*Caller “Sharon” points out a missed opportunity by the city to take advantage of its world-renowned brand of jazz and use it for promotion. 

“There’s also a massive misperception of our jazz scene between local audiences and those outside of our borders.  Everyone views us as this huge jazz mecca, but we don’t promote it that way.” 

Or why aren’t more musicians promoting themselves?

-Steve Paul: They’re practicing.”

-HIB: “Jazz musicians have failed to take advantage of opportunities that rock & hip-hop artists use.  Music is all online now.  There are free social media outlets [Facebook, MySpace, Twitter] and jazz musicians still lack a strong web presence.  And the bigger problem is that they’re not competing with each other anymore – but with the rest of the world.”

HIB also points out that it’s not just in the promotion – but also in the way other styles of music are assimilated into jazz in order to maintain relevance.  Rising star Esperanza Spalding, with her intoxicating blend of jazz, soul, Latin, Brazilian, hip-hop and other genres, is likely to become the face of jazz for the next 25 years.

*Caller “Stacy” claims that taxi drivers on the other side of the world wanted to talk KC jazz with her when she revealed the location of her home city.  But she also said that she’s not willing to go out and seek jazz in Kansas City.  The music needs to “go back out to the people.” 

Hmm…where could one possibly [and very easily] find out what’s going on in Kansas City jazz – any day of the week?  I think there’s a website…

*The difference between Kansas City, Chicago, New York, etc, in terms of access.  Aside from the deep pool of incredibly talented local jazz players, jazz presenters in Kansas City are also booking acts from NYC and other spots.  Often times, these shows range in price from $10 to $40 for a small venue, or a little bit higher for a concert hall. 

The price in NYC?  Just triple it.  Then there’s drinks, food, a cab, etc…

*Caller “Dave” from South KC’s frustration with musicians’ forays into unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable territories.  “They get too far out there, leaving the audience behind.  A lot [of the jazz musicians] don’t know how to connect.  I likes tunes that I can follow.”

Well, then where should they lead us?  Where do you want to go?  Is jazz supposed to play it safe?  Or is it always supposed to challenge some kind of conventional notions of what jazz is or isn’t?  Will people ever stop asking that question [what is jazz]?  Does any of this still matter?

Yes.  And no.  I don’t know, and I’m not sure.  What say you?

Listen to the full show here



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Here’s one of 100000 blog posts, news stories and tributes that will pop up in the next several days/weeks/months/years.  Michael Jackson died today.  I sent an e-mail to some friends today with a link to an article to spread the word of the King of Pop’s passing – and I also received plenty of e-mails.  One particular e-mail started a chain of [what I hope is just] playful jests between two friends, whose views on MJ clearly didn’t align.
I wrote this in response and just wanted to share it here:  
Both MJ and Elvis were probably the two greatest entertainers the world has seen.  Both also, unfortunately, in their later years suffered from incessant scrutiny from the public and the media, addictions, and personal demons.  It’s often said that the view is very lonely from the top.  Both of these men epitomize that. 
I’ll admit that I’m guilty of poking fun at MJ from time to time, and whole-heartedly laughed when South Park completely skewered him.  But I also have great memories of listening to MJ as a youngster.  Looking back, to me, when the child-molestation speculations began and the subsequent media feeding, it was much like the shock, confusion and sheer awe I experienced when another MJ, Magic Johnson, announced he had HIV.  Seeing one of your childhood heroes as a vulnerable, real, fragile [and sometimes troubled] human being like the rest of us was a bitter pill to swallow. 
My hope is that MJ goes the way of Elvis and is mostly remembered for his unparalleled contributions to music and dance, and forever being ingrained in our social fabric and a key strain in the DNA of American culture.
R.I.P. Michael.  Hopefully you and the King are jammin’ already.
ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention this.  My older brothers used to scare the bejesus out of me as a kid. They used to shut off the lights when they’d play the Thriller record.  At the end of the title track, a man’s evil cackle takes drowns out the fading music and continues for several seconds.  They’d chase me around until I’d crawl under the bed, terrified but simultaneously excited by the sounds coming from the speakers. 
But – I do have my older brothers to thank for letting me hijack their CDs and provide some of my earliest introductions to music. 

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Oh boy.  This is the stuff of dreams.  Word came to me today that a new film will be descending upon us in August.  Starring Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, “It Might Get Loud” is being billed as “a documentary on the electric guitar from the point of view of three rock legends.”

Needless to say, I’m quite excited at the prospect of cranking this up in my living room some day.  Led Zeppelin was one of the first bands I ever loved [Led Zeppelin I is still the best, I say] and I have grown to appreciate Jack White quite a bit over the last several years, particularly his work with The Raconteurs.  His Zeppelin influence is easily traceable, but it’s still his sound.

The Edge seems like an odd man out here.  Although I can appreciate what he’s done as a guitarist, I don’t like how much U2 Bono is heard during this trailer.  It needs a little less polish and a little more grit…

It’s competely awesome that the trailer begins and ends with Jack White building a didley-bow, nailing a pickup into it and letting ‘er rip.   

View the official website here.

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Kansas City-based PRESENTMagazine.com recently partnered with The Roasterie in a brilliant campaign called “Burn One for Your Barista,” where local music lovers were challenged to create the perfect mix CD to be played in the local coffee shop.  In exchange for gifting a set of new tunes to the baristas, participants were rewarded with a free cup of coffee.

Today, PRESENT announced its picks of the best mix discs.  Yours truly was fortunate enough to have been awarded a place on this list.  It’s a deep honor and a delight to have participated with countless other music enthusiasts in Kansas City and produced something worthy of recongition!

Said PRESENT of punkyjunk’s mix:

“Some powerful gumbo brewing here with a healthy dose of funk, soul, jazz, and blues. No filler here.”

Here’s the track listing:

1. If You Want Me to Stay – Sly & the Family Stone
2. Language of Love – Ben Allison & Man-Size Safe
3. I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now) – Otis Redding
4. My Babe – Little Walter
5. Feel the Sway – Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts
6. You Gonna Need My Help – Muddy Waters
7. Little Walter Rides Again – Medeski, Martin, Scofield & Wood
8. Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) – Sly & the Family Stone
9. You Don’t Miss Your Water – William Bell
10. Every Day I Have the Blues – T-Bone Walker
11. Jealous Guy – Ben Allison & Man-Size Safe
12. As the Years Go Passing By – Albert King
13. Julia – Medeski, Martin, Scofield & Wood
14.  Hurry Up…and Wait – Soulive
15. You Torture My Soul – John Lee Hooker

Beginning this week, PRESENT will be streaming the winning mixes from their site, showcasing one new mix each week.  Read the full story here.

Thanks to Pete & Pam and the folks at Roasterie for putting together such a great promotion and encouraging interaction among KC’s music lovers!

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matt wilson cover

The Matts have done it again.  Drummer Matt Wilson is one of my favorites working in jazz right now.  Working with producer/guitarist/Palmetto Records founder Matt Balitsaris, he has put out yet another solid release, this time with his Quartet (their first since 2003’s Humidity) after two albums with his Arts & Crafts band, including the excellent January 2007 release, The Scenic Route

The quartet, consisting of Wilson on drums, alto saxophonist D’Angelo, tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer and bassist Chris Lightcap (making his first recorded appearance with the group), recorded their new effort That’s Gonna Leave a Mark at Maggie’s Farm, an 18th century stone barn, converted into a recording studio in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania – the perfect pastoral setting to escape and make music.

This band is quite tight.  D’Angelo and Lederer’s saxes can dance and dart around one another with beautiful harmonies and/or eerie dissonances one moment and explode into a noisy freakout the next.  Lightcap’s deft touch on the bass is solid – laying down an equally formal and funky foundation.  And of course there’s the leader – the man.  Matt Wilson’s drumming continues to make listeners “Feel the Sway,” to use the title of the fourth track on The Scenic Route

Opener “Shooshabuster” finds the two saxes sparring over a walking bass and a skittering drum pattern, with audible shouts of praise and delight from the rhythm section.  It’s obvious from the get-go that these guys are having fun.

“Arts & Crafts” is accentuated by its fun melody and short ‘pecks’ of sound, interspersed with short sections where the saxes again lock swords and take turns throwing licks at each other.  Wilson builds a nice groove here, and suddenly the bass drops out to create a nice bouncy sax/drums bit.  The bass gingerly steps back in and closes the track out with a reprise of its melody.  There is some fine group interplay on display here.

Things get strange with “Rear Control.”  Drum rolls, trills, and an odd descending melody are patched up with something considered more “finger-snappy,” but equally weird.  The clarinet/oboe interplay give it the “secret-agent-detective movie” vibe – but the bass & drums keep it in check.  You can still groove to this one.

“Getting Friendly” slows the pace of the record down a bit – a much needed break after the first exhilarating 15 minutes.  The sweet melody and chord changes are refreshing.  Excellent soloing from both horns and some very intricate bass work, including a solo that buzzes, bends and breathes nicely within the group.

 “Two Bass Hit” picks the pace back up and propels the disc forward pace, with its busy bass and driving drums.  If you’re not in a hurry before you hear this track, you just might be afterwards.

“Area Man” sits at the center of the disc and is perhaps the finest display of the groove this group has.  At one point, the two saxes have blended into one – it’s often difficult to distinguish who’s on the melody and who’s on meltdown.  Wilson’s imaginative drum fills, cymbal splashes and unrelenting groove paired with Lightcap’s bass solo provide a break in the action before the saxes bust in on the party.  This sounds like an outtake from the sessions for David Bowie’s “Fame.”  Look for this in a hip-hop sample in the future, or to be covered by a jam band.  Or at a party near you.

If “Area Man” was the party on the record, “Lucky” is the soundtrack to the empty house, littered with fun-time flotsam as the guests begin to leave.  It’s another moment to catch your breath and think about how great the next time’s gonna be.

The title track is peppered with bizarre fills and pure dissonance from the whole group.  It sounds like everyone’s just doing their own thing, like when friends separate after a great evening and are back to their routines the next day…and perhaps a little hungover.

“Celibate Oriole,” maybe one of the greatest track titles I’ve heard, brings back the mystery-vibe of “Rear Control,” with [more] sax freakouts weaving in and out of each other with Wilson’s magnificent plodding padiddles [using the whole drumkit] and a bassline that appears to be chasing the others around.  This doesn’t sound like avian abstinence but more like a frenzied courting period.

“Come and Find the Quiet Center,” again, like those before it, brings a degree of relief and peace after a nervous number.  The gently brushed drums and warm bass provide a nice blanket for the tender singing sax.  It’s a lullaby.

To echo his last effort, Wilson wraps up the record with another choice cover [The Scenic Route closed out with John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”] and end it on an upbeat note – War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”  While this take doesn’t vary greatly from the original, complete with sweet female backing vocal harmonies and the same drum pattern, the saxes carry the vocal melody nicely and evokes the same good-time feelings.

A group chant of the title lyric cements the sentiment of the session – that this was a joyous recording affair, a record that sounds like it was as fun to make as it was to listen to.  The sequencing/pacing of the disc provides an equally challenging and accessible journey for the listener, and is worthy of repeated spins to reveal the group’s affinity for the hushed and the hectic.  Whichever curve in the great musical bend Wilson leads us around next, I’m sure it’s gonna leave a mark.

*Listen to That’s Gonna Leave a Mark in its entirety here.

# # #


I tend to get excited when talking about Palmetto Records.  Matt Wilson included, Palmetto’s roster contains some of my absolute favorites artists working in jazz today.

In a wise move in the midst of the “should we or shouldn’t we share music?” era, the label offers [most of] their new releases on their website as a free stream.  If you like it, download it as an MP3 right off the site at the standard $9.99 rate. 

Try before you buy reigns supreme! 

Palmetto Records Recommended Listening

1.  Ben Allison.  A bassist of tremendous imagination.  His current band, Man-Size Safe, transcended genres and transformed the Blue Room in Kansas City into a full-blown sonic rollercoaster last year.  Listen to:  Cowboy Justice and Little Things Run the World.

2. Bobby Watson.  A consistently enthralling player, a must-see live act.  The renowned saxophonist has drawn from his experience as a Messenger and put out a record with Live & Learn, a band of younger players under his mentorship.   Listen to: From the Heart.

3.  Dr. Lonnie Smith.  The most engaging and entertaining jazz performer I’ve seen.  Ever.  His flat-out pure funk, unparalleled energy and swirling B-3 organ and will rumble through the floor and into your gut – and then take you to church.  Listen to: Rise Up!, Jungle Soul, and Too Damn Hot.

4.  Will Bernard.  I can’t do a post like this and fail to mention a guitarist.  To partially steal a phrase from the Palmetto website, Will Bernard’s records “want to live in your car.”  This is head-bobbing driving music and some of the best guitar playing I’ve heard.  Listen to: Party Hats and Blue Plate Special.

*Say, Mr. Balitsaris, why don’t you put together a supergroup with these guys?  I’ve met three of them.  I’ll help organize the session.    I need a reason to visit Maggie’s Farm.

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One of my favorite tracks of The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album.  A late night trip to the ER has put me in this mood today.  The music even sounds tired here, but it’s magnificent.  Is it possible that George Harrison’s “I Got My Mind Set on You” is an echo of Lennon’s lyric “…my mind is set on you” from this track, separated by nearly two decades?

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*Pitchfork recently reviewed several new discs that are of interest to me. 


#1 >> Jeff Buckley’s Grace Around the World, yet another posthumous release in the singer/songwriter’s catalog.  I’m not surprised it’s a poor review, considering the amount of below-average recordings that have already been released in an attempt to cash-in on the harcore fans. 

Just get this.  From the opening A-capella, blues-stomp rendition of “Be Your Husband” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to several Dylan tunes and the haunting reading of “Hallelujah,” Live at Sin-é is a treasure.


#2 >> Noel Gallagher’s The Dreams We Have As Children, a [semi] solo live acoustic set running through many of Oasis’ most memorable tracks.  Recorded in 2007 as a benefit for the Teenage Cancer Trust, this sounds promising.  I’ll admit it – I love Oasis.  Sure, there’s plenty of garbage in their discography, but there are some real gems as well, and I honestly could care less about the constant griping about their Beatle rip-offs.  I’ll more than likely pick this up soon.  It will be a great summer BBQ disc, along with the new Wilco record…yeah, I had to mention it.


#3 >> Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain: Legacy Edition, a stunning amalgamation of jazz and Spanish folk & classical music.  I agree with Pitchfork’s first sentence: “Is this even jazz?”

I remember the first time I heard this – it took me straight back to Ronda, Spain, where I spent six months in 2002.  The only other thing I’ve listened to that evoked the same feelings that this record gave me was the live, two-person flamenco show I saw in Spain nearly seven years ago.

Davis’ trumpet/flugelhorn and Gil Evans’ orchestra transported me to a tiny non air-conditioned room shared by about 40 other people, where we were hypnotized by the trembling voice and guitar of the old Spanish man and the gorgeous & graceful flamenco dancer by his side. 

Not a word was spoken for nearly two hours as I drank Spanish red wine and felt relentless beads of sweat chasing each other down my neck, darting in and out of each others’ path down my back and shoulders.  This is the place where Sketches of Spain takes me. 

It’s rare when a recording can move a person this much.  Or is it? 

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