Friday, July 1, 2016

Twin Cities Jazz Fest 2016

Saint Paul was hopping that afternoon, what with the final day of the jazz fest underway and a St. Paul Saints baseball game on the schedule a block away. That meant that the lot we used to park at for $3 was now $25. But the gravel lots east of the Black Dog have now been paved, and I would say  $7 isn't too bad for an evening of musical entertainment.

I've wanted to hear the Adam Meckler Big band for quite a while—ever since I got the opportunity to chat with Adam and his wife, vocalist Jane Nyberg, at the Dakota a few years ago. The band was good. The arrangements were swingin.'  Some nice tunes, and rip-roaring trumpet solos by Adam and also by one of his colleagues in the back row. 

Unfortunately, we arrived too late the hear Jane sing. I also considered it a little unfortunate that so much solo time was given over to the young guitarist in the band. The solos weren't bad ... but that guitar sound fits into the mix only marginally, in my opinion, and with so many obviously talented reed and brass performers in the group, it seemed odd that he was featured on all three of the tunes we heard.

But little matter. The crowd was good, the stormy weather was being held at bay by the jazz-gods, and with temperatures in the 90s, the arboreal landscaping in Mears Park was more inviting than ever.

Guitarist Russell Malone was next up on the main stage, but our plan was to check out a few of the other venues where local groups were performing, so we hoofed it up to the Amsterdam Bar, five blocks away, where we met some friends to hear a band named "No Room for Squares."

Nowadays anyone who uses the word "square" is probably a square. But the members of this band are dedicated to cultivating classical Bebop, and the name, which recalls an old Hank Mobley recording from 1963, is certainly appropriate to the sound.

The band was good. There were periods of grooving and periods of coasting during the solos, as usual, with Jon Pemberton on trumpet and Jimmy Wallace on tenor sax leading the way, and the energy was decent overall. A little of the excitement may have been dissipated in the yawning distance between the bandstand and the bench we were sitting on forty feet away. The dance floor was empty. (But that's what they always said about Bebop. You can't dance to it.)

On the other hand, I had the pleasure of sitting next to a young woman and a man who turned out to be her son. He's a jazz percussionist, he works in far-off Fosston, but he drove down for the fest and booked a room in a hotel. We chatted about drummers, and I bored them with a story about hearing Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes (forgot to mention Tony Williams!). 

She was looking forward to hearing Michael Franti and Spearhead (I'd never heard of him) and mused that next year she and her husband might book a room downtown themselves, the better to hear the late night jam sessions while avoiding the early-morning drive back to Oakdale.

We were also blessed with a very hip waiter, who recommended just the right dipping sauces for our fries!

Our next stop was a block away at the Vieux CarrĂ© to hear the Chris Lomheim Trio. We'd been there several times before—but never when it was crowded. It was fun to see the room full of people, and we scored a table within a few minutes, but while we were waiting for the waiter to arrive we decided we'd just as soon move on.

Out on the street we ran into a woman who was also just leaving.

"I've never seen the place so packed," I said.

"Yeah, but was anybody listening?" she replied, a little haughtily. She seemed to be upset that all that good music was going to waste, almost impossible to hear over the din of conversation.

"You should come on a Monday night," I replied. "You'd have the place all to yourself."

She didn't seem to like that idea, either, and I felt sad for her as she walked off alone into the evening heat.

We headed off in a different direction, back to Lowertown to check out the newly-remodeled Black Dog.  Along the way we stopped at the main stage to catch Russell Malone's last number. I was already a little tired of jazz guitar by that time, but I sat in the front row and "listened with interest" before rejoining Hilary and our friends, who were dipping their feet in the stream that flows through the park.

Then on to the Black Dog. The old place was cramped, but it had flavor. The expanded version has more room for tables ... but the walls are white and I wonder what the vibe will turn out to be. I ordered an Iowa Mule at the bar (because a friend of mine had been talking about that drink recently) and I heard the woman who took my order say to another woman behind the bar, "How do you make an Iowa Mule?"

Hilary asked one waitress how she liked the new layout.

"It's like a new restaurant," the woman said. "I'm happy for the owners, but I feel like I'm working at an entirely new job. I liked the old place better."

I'm not sure about the venue, but it took a long time for the Lucia Sarmiento group to set up, and all the while I was wishing we'd gone to hear the Pete Whitman Xtet with Lucia Newell at the nearby Union Depot.

Music and venues. That's what it's all about. Different styles, different eras. You want the powerful, ecstatic performance in an intimate space, and even five minutes at the highest level can make an event worthwhile.  At the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, the "festival" sometimes turns out to be more important than the jazz.

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