I had the great fortune of seeing a true living Legend of Jazz Thursday night at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase and was able to speak to him before the first set. Pat Martino is one amazing man. He is also one of the nicest people you could ever meet. I sat and asked him a somewhat unrehearsed collection of questions. I did know a bit about him so the questions were not exactly random.
One of the first things we talked about was his approach to taking words and turning them into melodies. Martino explains there are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, seven notes in the major scale. That’s three groups of seven and one of five. You repeat the notes after you get to the seventh degree of the scale. Any word can become a melody. This tells you right away that you are not dealing with a traditional thinker here.
A word that popped up more than once in the conversation was precision. This is the way he seems to approach all aspects of life, not just music. Another key word was awareness. Awareness is a highly-overlooked concept for most people. Musicians who are tuned into what they are playing and the people they are playing with are going to end up on another level entirely. I consider Pat’s thinking to be extremely Zen in nature. “All there is, is now” was my favorite quote of his. It is very eye opening, really. The idea that the past and future do not truly exist is a reality most of us cannot accept. There is so much truth in that statement.
Another thing that struck me was how he talked about not being obsessed with music. That is another strong statement. This at first might seem a bit too casual for a musician to accept. How can a serious musician follow this? It is easy to get so caught up in your music that the rest of your life suffers. The rest of your life should be incorporated into your music. Balance is key to everything, another Zen like concept.
Now, let’s talk about the music. Pat currently plays in an organ trio. For those of you unfamiliar, that is organ, guitar and drums. There is no bass player. The organist handles the bass role most of the time. I personally love this type of trio. I am a huge fan of the Hammond B-3, an instrument that gives off one amazing sound - truly hard to duplicate. Pat Bianchi was the man behind the keyboard. He was Martino’s perfect compliment. He traded solos with Pat and provided superb accompaniment.
Carmine Intorre completed the trio on drums. Jazz drummers are amazing creatures. The way they think of rhythm is off the hook. Rhythm is probably the most overlooked piece of the musical puzzle. Nothing grooves without the groove. I have heard the quote that a live band is only as good as the drummer. Intorre kept it going without a bass to lock in with, great job.
Pat’s own playing was flawless. I don’t remember hearing a bad note. His solos were highly creative. The rhythm of his phrasing brings back that word precision. Here is a guy pushing seventy-three-years-old that can out play people in the prime of their life. Actually, he may still be in the prime of his life. This guy is using strings on his guitar that most guitar players could not use. I am talking some heavy strings, even for Jazz players. I think a lot of it is due to how the man approaches life. Most people his age are shot, just not much left. He seems to really value a healthy lifestyle. I think being, as he described it, “mostly vegetarian” helps a lot. A lot of artists sacrifice their own health in pursuit if their art. Your body and mind are truly your instrument, not your guitar. The Zen concept again comes to mind.
Jazz can seem to be a bit self indulgent at times, all the soloing and all. What it really is a conversation between musicians. That is not always easy to see. However, when musicians are of this caliber, it is. I’m sure a lot of people who go to see a guy like Martino go to see an amazing guitarist. I can count myself on that list but after talking to Pat, I felt like I understood the scene a whole lot more. He talked about how the scene was back in the hey day. It was a community, not just the musicians. Jazz is a very social environment. In some ways, it is musician’s music. The fans are certainly another element. It is an environment for thinking people. An outsider might consider this a snobbish line of thinking. What it really is, is an escape. Jazz is a way of diving into a pool of joy. A lot of intelligent people find it difficult to exist in the world. They need a place to escape. Jazz clubs were at one time filled with people like this. I find it kind of sad in a lot of ways that there really is a very small Jazz scene left. That to me tells you a lot about our society today.
I don’t want to end this on a downer. What I will say is don’t be afraid to think. Think outside the box. My conversation with Pat Martino was a bit of an epiphany to me. It’s okay to think and have your own ideas. You can live your life with a level of precision. This can be a pattern in your life, your music. Incorporating your life into your music is as important as bringing music into your life. I saw an amazing guitar player Thursday night, but I also met an amazing person. Thank You, Mr. Martino.
I have been a fan of Chick Corea ever since I picked up a Return to Forever album sometime around 1983. Twenty-three years or so later, I was finally able to see him perform – the venue being Ravinia Festival. Corea has been involved in the Jazz scene for fifty years or more and at seventy-five-years-young, he can keep up with someone half his age.
Starting off the triple bill on the evening of July Fourth was Ms. Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton. Theirs was a Jazz on the mellower side though some interesting cover material was chosen to perform. I have never heard Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” played in such a manner before. They also covered two different Rolling Stones songs, “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Gimme Shelter”. Arrangements on these particular songs were quite different than the originals as you might imagine. I must say Fischer’s voice was quite good. Her intonation was amazing. She and her band seemed to drop the word love in every song, very refreshing. After watching her performance, I can only conclude that Ms. Fischer appears to be a peaceful spirit in human form.
The second set was the headlining act, the Chick Corea Trio. Always surrounding himself with talented musicians, Christian McBride was on bass and Brian Blade on drums. Both complimented Chick’s piano playing very well. McBride was a very fluent soloist on upright bass and was somewhat reminiscent of Stanley Clarke in terms of chops, while maintaining his own identity. Brain Blade was equally astounding to say the least. Chick seems to have a knack for finding some of the best players around. I’m sure his reputation attracts the attention of some fine players who line up at the chance to share the stage with such a musical legend. Throughout the entire set Corea played a grand piano. Corea’s chops were so fluid, it’s hard to believe a man of that age still has the hands to pull that off. Fans were in awe during the whole set.
Then it was big band time. It was interesting to see Corea in the two different settings. Bass, drums and twelve horns accompanied Chick on the final set of the holiday evening. Corea called out the names of every song and gave credit to the person who did each particular arrangement. If you love horns, it was Heaven. He even touched on a Return to Forever song, making it sound like a fresh new song. Each of the horn players had at least one featured solo, as well. Trumpets, trombones, saxophones and even flute solos were of the highest caliber. Corea didn’t hold back on the last set either. I felt he got better as the night went along, almost as though he may have just been warming up.
Jazz is almost a lost art form. I have said that before. It is so nice to see music still being performed by real musicians. The only issue I sometimes have with Jazz audiences is that they applaud after every solo. I guess this is a tradition but I would prefer they would wait until the end of the song. Still, they are usually deserving of the recognition it’s just that sometimes you miss the start of the next solo because of the applause.
Take the opportunity to go see some live Jazz before all the great ones are gone. Ravinia is still to host some amazing Jazz acts this season. The tradition continues, but the real guys are all getting up there in age. At seventy-five, Chick Corea is at the younger end of the age spectrum.
Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis can take the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and turn it into a work of art. After watching and listening to him, I am sure of this. Eighty-years-old, he has the musical energy of a much younger man. He also brought to MacIninch Art Center a very talented group of musicians.
First up was Henry Johnson on guitar. The first thing I thought of was Wes Montgomery. For those of you not familiar with Montgomery’s style, Wes mostly played with just his thumb on his right hand. Henry switched between that and a pick which he must have held in his palm while using his thumb. Johnson’s other influences include Kenny Burrell and George Benson. As a fledgling jazz guitar player myself, I found him to be a tasty player and learned a lot watching him play.
Joshua Ramos was on bass. He switched between upright bass and a five string electric through the set. Ramos got some serious applause from his solos. He played with the fluency most lead guitar players might envy. Having said that, he stayed in the pocket when he needed to do so.
On drums was Charles Heath. Heath is an amazing jazz drummer, switching from sticks to brushes depending on the song. I found out he started playing drums at an early age and I am not surprised. He started working as a musician at the age of fourteen and earned a degree in music at Shaw University. His list of playing credits is quite long.
Then, of course you have Mr. Lewis, “the great performer”. Ramsey certainly lives up to the title. Though understandably a bit slow walking across the stage, it did not reflect his musical energy. He took Pop melodies to new heights. The Beatles’ “Here There and Everywhere” was my personal favorite. Another Beatles song he did amazing things to was “Hard Day’s Night”. Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” was very nice as well. I didn’t hear too many songs that one would consider jazz standards, except possibly his own compositions. Lewis did have a few hits in his heyday, most jazz musicians cannot claim that. The ability to take a familiar melody and turn it into something greater is truly an art. I overheard someone say how he never played one of the songs the same way twice. The jazz musical mind just seems to work like that. Lewis did not give you a heavily rehearsed, boring performance. It showed the listener how music can be spontaneous and structured at the same time.
The art of jazz is not as popular as it once was in America. You could tell this from the crowd. The average age was at least sixty, if I had to estimate. Personally, I find it so refreshing to see great musicians actually perform without the use of gimmicks. The raw energy of the performance was the key on this particular Saturday night.
If you have any interest in seeing real music played the way it was supposed to be played, go see it now before all the classic players are all gone. At eighty-years-old, Ramsey won’t be around forever. The music will live forever, but the performers will not. I don’t want to sound like a cynic, but I think a lot of this is lost in music today. Go support music being played by real musicians like The Ramsey Lewis Quartet. Good music elevates you mind, body and soul to new heights.
In the end, I found the performance inspirational and highly rewarding. The reward was an emotional sense of elevation. Music is the ultimate escape. For one hour and forty-five minutes I had no problems in my life. Even after coming back to reality, I felt better. I wish to thank “the great performer” for this. Ramsey Lewis is simply amazing and it was great to see and of course hear him.
Ramsey Lewis Quartet
March 12, 2016-7:30 PM
MacIninch Art Center
College Of DuPage
Glen Ellyn, IL
I’ve never been to Havana, Cuba. I never even saw Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. But after seeing the world premiere of River North Dance Chicago and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s performance of “Havana Blue,” Havana is definitely a place that I would hop on a plane and visit in a heartbeat. I am of course basing this decision entirely upon the hope that everyone breaks out into expertly choreographed dances to express emotions and feelings for the city they reside in. Regardless, the premiere of “Havana Blue” was a wonderful and entertaining surprise.
“Havana Blue” was created and collaborated on by choreographer Frank Chaves and jazz trumpeter Orbert Davis. They traveled the streets of Cuba, immersing themselves into the culture, the nightlife, exploring the country’s musical routes. What they came back with was a beautiful ensemble that celebrates the life and exuberance that is Havana.
Entering the theater and the show, I was far from the most knowledgeable about Jazz or Cuban life and culture. Jazz lovers and dance lovers alike flocked to see “Havana Blue” to make it a nearly sold-out performance, a feat I had never seen at the Auditorium Theater. The crowd was energetic and lively, freely swaying back and forth to the music and even jumping up in the aisles to dance. Everyone in the audience, including my friend who accompanied me, knew when Orbert Davis said ‘Dizzy,’ knew to respond with ‘Gillespie.’ But I soon discovered, when the curtain went up and the music started to play, I didn’t need to know a great deal about the show, or jazz history, to appreciate the art forms performing in front of me.
The curtains rose to reveal a brass jazz band, the brass twinkling under the bright stage lights, set against a dark brick wall. It was an impressive sight, and just as visually stunning as the gorgeous dance pairs of River North Dance Chicago that opened the show, the women in flowing blue dresses, the men in sexy-tight pants and open shirts, muy caliente.
“Havana Blue” is comprised of a several sultry and powerful dance segments, each representing a mood that you could find in the life-pulse of the Cuban city. One of the more notable dances was “Solteras" ("Single Ladies"), which many found to be a sad(ish) dance in which one woman was not being coupled up to dance with male partners. But the solo woman did not dance with a dejected rhythm but a “que sera sera” style, retaining a sexiness and comfortableness with dancing alone. Indeed, the women shifted partners, each woman getting a chance to dance solo while the couples danced around them. As the “Solteras” danced, there were smiles on their faces, not longing. I viewed the dance as empowerment for women, not romantic yearning because they weren’t coupled up. The women danced in spite of not having a partner and danced beautifully and strong, not slumped and saddened. (Cue female empowerment music: 'All the solteras, all the solteras,' kidding). Shortly after that performance was another notable dance segment "Lo Masculino" ("The Masculine"). To sum up the performance in one word: steamy. The males of River North Dance Chicago performed shirtless to a powerhouse number filled with masculinity, sweaty six-pack abs, and moves that would have made Baryshnikov proud. It was the perfect blend of power and rhythm that really made "Havana Blue" pop and sizzle.
“Havana Blue” completely embodied the sensual, powerful, and allure of the Havana culture. The artistic direction of Frank Chaves with River North Dance Chicago and the artistic direction of Orbert Davis was a match made in the streets of Havana. These two men created a show that will surely be enjoyed for years to come. Should you see “Havana Blue” coming to a city near you, or to our very own Chicago again, be sure to samba your way to see this show, you will not be decepcionado.