Tag Archives: Lonnie Davis

Charlotte’s Jazz Scene Takes a Big-Name Leap

Review: Bigger Names Are Invading Our Smaller, Club-Sized Venues, Bringing an Overdue World-Class Vibe

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Singer-songwriter Kat Edmonson has performed on Austin City Limits, A Prairie Home Companion, and Letterman. She has sung at Carnegie Hall, the Montreux Jazz Festival, and Blue Note in Japan. Her 2020 concept album, Dreamers Do, topped Billboard’s traditional jazz chart, and she is not a stranger to the Southeast. Edmonson was a featured performer at Spoleto Festival USA in 2014, and I caught her gig at Savannah Music Festival in the spring of 2019.

Amazingly enough, Edmonson has been to the QC on numerous occasions – but not with her band.

“My greatest link to Charlotte,” she tells me in an exclusive interview, “is that my childhood friend – best friend – lives there, and I’ve often been to Charlotte to visit her. But not for any other reason, and I haven’t been to any jazz clubs in town.”

That is changing in a big way. Offering two sets on April 9, Edmonson is near the front of a grand parade of big-name jazz artists who will be marching in and out of the Middle C Jazz Club, playing to newly unmasked, capacity-sized audiences, newly liberated from the pandemic.Delfeayo-Marsalis

We’ve seen some of these players, like Kirk Whalum and Delfeayo Marsalis, before – at special events dating back to JazzCharlotte in the late ‘80s and, more recently, at Charlotte Jazz Festivals presented by Blumenthal Performing Arts. Jazz fans had to satisfy themselves with hoping that these special events, held indoors and outdoors at large venues, would return to us annually with such groovy cargo as Diane Schuur, Dave Brubeck, the Harper Brothers, Maria Muldaur, Renée Marie, and the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra.Kirk Whalum

Now the big names are playing our smaller venues, creating a more intimate jazz club vibe. Headliners following in Edmonson’s wake at Middle C include Nicole Henry (April 15-16), Joey DeFrancesco (May 20), Jonathan Butler (June 3-4), Delfeayo Marsalis & The Uptown Jazz Orchestra (June 10), Kirk Whalum (July 15-16), Jeff Kashiwa (July 22), Jeff Lorber (September 9-10), and Euge Groove (November 11-12).

“We just had Gerald Albright, and then we just had Norman Brown, and they sold out,” says Middle C club owner Larry Farber. “We’ve got Brubeck Brothers (April 7) coming in, I mean it’s been really, really good. February and March have been our two biggest months since we opened in November 2019. Knock on wood, we’re on an upward trajectory.”

And in case you hadn’t noticed, the Jazz Room just announced their Season 16 – and boy, have they ever upped their game, bringing in such luminaries as Donald Harrison (April 8-9), Emmet Cohen (May 20-21), Jeff Tain Watts (July 8-9), and Pedrito Martinez (September 2-3) to their monthly series at the Blumenthal’s Stage Door Theater.Joey-DeFrancesco

A couple of these headliners, Henry and Martinez, can claim recordings that have now lingered for at least two months on Jazz Week’s chart of most-played albums on jazz radio, both peaking in the top 5; and a couple more, DeFrancesco and Cohen, are in the cumulative top 50 for the past year, with Joey D at the top of the heap.

Who could have imagined such a bounty of talent heading our way, such an upward trajectory, and such jazz jubilation just a year ago? We were smack in the middle of our COVID tribulations, more spikes in illnesses and deaths still on the horizon, with so many businesses around the country gasping for air.

“We were off and flying before the pandemic,” Farber recalls. “I think the pandemic became a catalyst. Because people then had to wait months and years to get back out, so I think now all this pent-up demand, in addition to what we already knew was going to be a demand in the market, gave us a double boost, and it’s really propelled us in a big way.”

Everywhere, artists and presenters were in survival mode after the abrupt shutdowns of March 2020. Farber and his business partners, including sons Reid and Adam, were forced to shut down completely for two months. When Middle C reopened in May, it was because they were the only jazz venue in town that could be classified as a restaurant.

Even so, state guidelines only allowed the Farbers to seat 60-70 patrons, a far cry from the inventory of 170-180 tickets they’re pre-selling now for their highest-profile attractions. To keep their doors open, they would have to delay booking big-name talent – and defer their dream of giving Charlotte the world-class jazz club they felt we deserved.

Edmonson, meanwhile, had been in the middle of a 40-city tour promoting Dreamers Do when everything shut down. Her hibernation was even more stifling professionally, but eventually, she was able to open an amazing window to bridge the gulf between the petite singer and her devoted fans. It was a weekly podcast, The Kat Edmonson Show, and it ultimately logged 66 episodes through last December, when her valedictory Christmas show, tethered to her latest Christmas album, drew an arena-sized crowd of 12,000 viewers.

With a barebones production originating in her living room in front of a cellphone camera, Edmonson found that her show not only sustained her connection with her fans, it actually strengthened it. The new medium offered unexpected advantages.

“I was able to reach them more readily and more regularly than I did even when I toured!” Edmonson exults. “On a tour, I go to one place and maybe I’ll come back two years later. In this case, I was able to reach my people once a week for an hour and a half.”

If you watch any of the archived episodes on YouTube, you can see Kat’s secret sauce working in real-frozen-replayable time. Many, many of the people tuning in to her show leave their marks in a column of chats, varying in length, that frequently scroll down the right side of the screen while Edmonson sings – and Kat interacts with these texts, acknowledging her followers by name and city, responding randomly, between songs and in the middle of them, to people who are new to the show and to those she recognizes from previous powwows.

“We all got to know one another in a really wonderful way, and eventually we were all remarking about how much it was like going to camp or something – like a campfire!” Edmonson recalls. “We would look forward to the Sunday meeting where we could all reconvene and talk about our week, on what’s ahead, and what was going on in our lives. The group that would tune in ultimately voted to name themselves because they felt like we were all part of a club. They suggested different names, and they voted for ‘The Dreamers.’ So when I go out now to play shows, people come up and say, ‘I’m a Dreamer!’ That’s really fun.”

Since Dreamers is largely a collection of Disney songs from the past century, obviously dating back all the way to Snow White (1937), maybe the Edmonson Show groupies should have named themselves the Kat-keteers, like Mickey Mouse Club members of yesteryear. Edmonson certainly hasn’t forgotten her fans’ loyalty, for in her mind, she is picking up the Dreamers Do tour that was abruptly halted two years ago. Dreamers who show up at 300 S. Brevard Street for one of Edmonson’s Middle C sets will hear plenty from that beloved album that has bonded them.

And they’ll be in two clubs at the same time. Watching multiple dreams come true.

Singing in a karaoke-like format to pre-recorded tracks set down by her long-time pianist Roy Dunlap, schmoozing between songs about her upcoming plans, dressed down and sporting a headset, Edmonson would often look away from viewers of The Kat Edmonson Show to catch up with her chat feed, taking requests as well as names, changing her prepared songlist on-the-fly. Definitely a funky, low-budget look and feel.Jeff_Lorber

Farber didn’t have the luxury of taking a low-budget road during Middle C’s semi-hibernation. A Charlotte native, his jazz memories go all the way back to Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar, which pre-dated the brief flowering of JazzCharlotte. After witnessing the recent success of the QC’s monthly jazz series, the Jazz Room series piloted by Lonnie Davis and the Jazz at the Bechtler Museum series led by saxophonist Ziad Rabie, Farber felt that Charlotte, a world-class city, deserved a full-time, for-profit, seven-shows-a-week jazz venue.

That was his bucket-list dream. Even before the pandemic, Farber sensed sufficient interest around town to make it all come true.

“We invested over $1 million to bring the best venue, the best sound system, and to make this all about music,” he says. “I’m lucky to have an investor group that’s not interested in seeking an 18 to 20% return as much as building for the future. And we’re doing that by reinvesting our profits in the talent.”

The model that the Farbers are activating is a schedule that will bring us 60-70% regional talent and 30-40% big names. So we’re probably talking 2-3 shows with big names in the weekly lineup of seven ticketed events. Like Edmonson, Middle C found that livestreaming was a useful tool in coping with COVID restrictions, opening a window that could potentially yield new recruits to their music.

“Best free marketing tool ever!” he quips.

As a revenue stream, streaming is only a trickle according to Farber, but it will provide fans of the big names a fresh avenue of access when tables and booths sell out. Middle C has been more preoccupied with enhancing the experience on site at the tables and making it appealing to a wider audience. Farber boasts a great bar menu and estimates 20 small plates and desserts to choose from on his menu – about triple what was being served before the 2020 shutdown.

That’s targeting a vibe like such Manhattan hotspots as Dizzy’s, the Blue Note, and Smoke – and not like the legendary Village Vanguard, the quintessential jazz cellar. Audacious and enterprising.

“What we’ve brought to Charlotte is unique,” Farber says, “and I think we’ve now become one of the biggest jazz names on the East Coast.”

2019~Savannah-17 copy

Edmonson has also gone beyond podcasting in widening her horizons over the past two years. Most of the songs she sang on her podcasts were originals she hasn’t recorded yet. There are drawers full of notebooks yet to be mined, and the songwriter claims to have written her first song at the age of nine, giving her about 28 years to pad her inventory. Some of those song will be in the mix at Middle C, along with others from Dreamers Do and recordings she made before 2020.

Kat dramatically broke out of her pop princess, Disney jazzer, and podcasting queen cocoons by appearing recently off-off-Broadway in The Hang, an edgy Taylor Mac musical, drawing reviews that parallel her past recording and concert triumphs. Aside from a year of study under the live oaks at the College of Charleston, Edmonson also graduated after two years at The William Esper Studio in New York City, where she studied the Meisner acting method.

So yes, Edmonson is eyeing possible opportunities in TV, film, and even straight plays. But no, when her style is described as absorbing the recordings of Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, or even country crooners like Patsy Cline, expect Edmonson to repudiate any such artifice – and to push back a little if you try to pigeonhole her as a jazz singer.

“It’s just me,” she says when accused of a persona. “I know that I’m forthcoming. I can be disarming. I know that about me. I come in this very petite package. I would seem demure, but I am actually very straightforward and opinionated, and I think I affect people in that way. Meanwhile, quite friendly. And I don’t mince words! I say what I mean, and I sing what I mean. Nothing ambiguous. You know, when I meet someone, I like to look them in the eye, and I think I perform that way.”

Yet after watching a full Kat podcast and speaking with her for over 40 minutes, I was able to find a label that Edmonson allowed to stick.

“Do you want to be Peter Pan someday on stage?”

“Oh, I’d love it!” she instantly exclaimed. “Yes, there is no mistaking – and incidentally, I’ll be performing a song from Peter Pan in my set! You know, in the play I was recently in, I was cast as a fairy, and I sort of have that persona. Yes, I do.”

JazzArts’ Mostly Merry Holiday Edition Spans Continents and Holidays

Review: Jazz Room Holiday Edition with Roxy Coss, Corey Wilkes and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band

By Perry Tannenbaum

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President and CEO Lonnie Davis and artistic director Ocie Davis have been delivering JazzArts programming and monthly Jazz Room concerts for over 10 years – and Holiday Editions from their first year onwards. Previous Jazz Room Holiday Editions were staged at Booth Playhouse or McGlohon Theater to accommodate larger Yuletide audiences, but the 11th Edition had to be unique, virtually streamed over Facebook and YouTube, sourced from multiple locations in the US and abroad. Hosting garrulously in a seasonal Santa cap and a garish fal-la-lah jacket, Curtis Davenport certainly established a festive tone. Yet all wasn’t merry on the playlist from nine different ensembles – and all wasn’t Christmas, since time was set aside for a Chanukah segment.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 8.14.19 PM

Leading off from New Orleans was Matt Lemmler, whom we had last seen at the Stage Door in an August 2019 jazz tribute to Stevie Wonder. For that Jazz Room event, Lemmler had fronted a 10-piece band from the keyboard. This time, clad in full Santa attire, Lemmler launched into Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” from A Charly Brown Christmas without even a trio, accompanied only by Don Caro, a rather interesting and unique drummer. Lemmler didn’t toy much with the beloved 1965 soundtrack album, improvising only a little, but his follow-up vocal on Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” from the same album, certainly changed the flavor. A small band of cute little cartoon kiddies sang on the original vinyl from the CBS Special, but Lemmler’s style evoked the late Dr. John, though there wasn’t the same signature rasp in his voice.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 8.16.10 PM

The next group was homegrown and JazzArts-bred, namely the JazzArts All-Star Youth Ensemble playing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Hollnd Maajors seemed to anchor the quartet from the electric keyboard, but it was Olivia Ratliff who had center stage and the spotlight, playing electric bass and singing the vocal. Tenor saxophonist Gustavo Cruz was consistently fine on both his solos. Majors also took two brief solos, impressing me more when he switched off his piano mode and went with his organ sound. Since this webcast also doubled as a fundraiser, Davenport aptly pointed out that educational programs working with musicians and combos such as these were a prime destination for contributions to JazzArts.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 9.14.33 PM

Davenport was most effusive when he introduced the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and rightfully so. The New Orleans institution not only brought the largest ensemble to the party, they also boasted the most impressive video production in their down-home setting, easily MTV quality. As tenor saxophonist Clint Maedgen sang “Please Come Home for Christmas,” there were close-ups of the brass, Ronell Johnson on the trombone and Branden Lewis on the trumpet, enriching the texture. Side shots of the rhythm section showed us drummer Walter Harris in the foreground, bassist Ben Jaffe near the middle of our screens, and pianist Kyle Roussel in the distance with his back toward us. Yet there were also closeups of Roussel in the final cut, and shots of hands were near enough to render his wristwatch larger than life-size on my computer monitor. Maedgen’s vocal was as recognizably New Orleans as Lemmler’s had been but in a bluesier vein.

While I couldn’t begrudge JazzArts for saving the second Preservation Hall selection for the finale of the program, it was a bit cruel to have Robyn Springer follow in their wake with such spare backup. Lovell Bradford was listless and quiet at the electric keyboard and Ocie Davis, armed with a bell shaker in one hand and a brush in the other, hardly helped Springer to even smolder, let alone burst into flame, as she sang the coquettish “Santa Baby.” A more robust backup could have added some edge to Springer’s savvy rendition the lyric before she finally heated up toward the end. There was a welcome flourish of scatting the vocalist before her fadeout, sprinkled with Bradford’s holiday coda.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.32.10 PM

Springer recorded her spot at Wonderworld West End Studios, the same local spot as the JazzArts All-Stars, so the interval with the Preservation Hall combo gave the Holiday Edition a more credible continuity. No exits, no entrances, and no new setups were necessary to sustain the flow. Our next excursion was to Chicago, where we reverted to a duo performance with a less claustrophobic camera placement than we’d seen for Lemmler. We could see the full height of bassist Junius Paul as he accompanied Corey Wilkes, playing muted trumpet on “Winter Wonderland.” Without much texture to the arrangement, Wilkes’ straightforward unveiling of the melody was a bit bland, but he opened up impressively with multiple choruses of dazzling variations on the theme. Discreetly, the trumpeter exited from the screen – well, almost – while Paul demonstrated that he also had formidable improvising skills.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.49.15 PM

We returned to the local studio, where Israeli-born guitarist Amos Hoffman (now based in Columbia, SC) supplied us with our Chanukah interlude, “Cad Katan,” backed by Davis and bassist Sam Edwards. You can more easily check out this song, commemorating the “Little Jug” of oil that lasted eight days at the Holy Temple when the Maccabees reclaimed Jerusalem in 160 (the Chanukah miracle), by spelling it “Kad Katan” in a Google or Spotify search box. Hoffman’s first pass through the melody was very much at the deliberate pace of most recordings, with perhaps a reggae lilt layered on. Each successive chorus markedly quickened the pace, triggered by Davis at the drums, truly swinging by the time we reached the outchorus. Over the course of this instrumental, Davis switched from mallets to drumsticks to kickstart Hoffman’s fleet repeat, switching yet again to brushes when he shared a chorus with Edwards, trading fours as the bassist unsheathed his bow. These exploits were nearly as eye-catching as the handless Caro’s had been behind Lemmler. One of Caro’s arms proved capable of grasping a stick, but the other needed the assistance of an elastic armband. Switching from one kind of drumstick to another was itself a feat.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.39.08 PM

Our trip overseas to watch Sasha Masakowski sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was arguably the most claustrophobic of the evening – and certainly the most poignant. Accompanied only by guitarist Per Møllehøj in the corner of a Copenhagen garret, Masakowski sang a reduced arrangement by her father, renowned New Orleans guitarist Steve Masakowski, that appears on the newly-released Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Live at Snug Harbor New Orleans) album by the Masakowski Family. Sasha is anything but a belter. She sang so sweetly, making this “Merry Christmas” especially forlorn each time she reached the final eight bars and their pandemic-pertinent lyric, “Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow.” Given his own solo, Møllehøj underscored the intimacy and solemnity of Masakowski’s performance. Showcasing Jason Marsalis as its most recognizable guest artist, the Masakowski Family album manages to cover two other songs performed at the Holiday Edition, making it a worthy gift.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.56.15 PM

“Christmas Time Is Here” was the first of these covers and “The Christmas Song,” presented at Wonderworld West End by Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’Blues, was the second. Immortalized with his bassline in the “Sanford and Son Theme Song,” Arnold is doubly unorthodox as a bluesman. He plays his bass left-handed and, even more outré, his instrument is handmade with a gasoline can – like the gas-can guitar he learned to build and play when he was growing up on a sharecropper’s farm in South Carolina. You wouldn’t expect the 78-year-old’s rendition of the Mel Tormé standard to sound like Nat Cole’s, but Arnold was not far from the weathered timbre and expressiveness of Tony Bennett to my ears – and Austin Brashier’s brief solo reaffirmed that Holiday Edition was blessed with more than a couple of fine guitarists.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.58.19 PM

Roxy Coss’s most recent Quintet album was one of the best in 2019 to my ears, and the tenor saxophonist was able to gather a fine quartet into her cramped New York dwelling – with a video camera or two, a grand piano, and the grand pianist from her quintet, Miki Yamanaka. Coss put a little more mustard on her opening chorus of “Let It Snow” than we heard on the plainer expositions by Lemmler and Hoffman, handing off the bridge to Yamanaka to add color to the arrangement, and both women swung their solos heartily when the real blowing began. The gals gave a guy a piece of the action, taking turns in trading fours with drummer Jimmy Macbride before taking back control for the last chorus. It was arranged like the opening statement, except for Yamanaka getting the last word and adding a Count Basie-like coda to her exit.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 9.13.08 PM

With the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s encore came an extra treat, 88-year-old clarinet icon Charlie Gabriel performing the valedictory vocal, “We Wish You All.” This Christmas song is unknown in the annals of Google, Spotify, and AllMusic, listed simply in the closing credits as performed by the band without specifying a composer. Could have been a world premiere for all we knew, sung with youthful gusto by Gabriel and very much in the vein of that quintessential New Orleans native, Louis Armstrong. Nor was there anything as newfangled as a solo during the half-chorus between Gabriel’s gorgeous vocals: Johnson on the trombone, Maedgen on tenor sax, and Lewis on a muted trumpet all jammed together. Big finish, of course, in classic Dixieland style.