Tag Archives: Stage Door Theater

Donald Harrison Launches a New Jazz Room Season, Heralding a New Big-Name Era

Review: JazzArts Charlotte Presents Big Chief Donald Harrison

By Perry Tannenbaum

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April 8, 2022, Charlotte, NC – With teeming pedestrians, barhoppers, diners, and operagoers overflowing Uptown sidewalks, Charlotte’s nightlife was livelier and more exuberant than I’d ever seen it on a Thursday night when we went to see the opening performance of Opera Carolina’s Aïda. Excitement among jazz fans, meanwhile, was ramping up to unprecedented levels as Middle C Jazz Club continued its surge, after seeing its initial momentum blunted by the pandemic within months of its launch in late 2019, and JazzArts Charlotte began its 16th Jazz Room season, clearly its most high-profile lineup to date. NEA Jazz Master – and second-generation Big Chief of New Orleans’ Congo Square – Donald Harrison headlined the opening of Jazz Room’s new season on Friday with a two-night stand at the Stage Door Theater, setting up a rather awesome jazz evening around Charlotte as Kat Edmonson makes her Charlotte debut on Saturday with a couple of seatings at Middle C.

Never have two jazz stars of such magnitude performed at the same time in the Queen City on multiple stages, nor have we ever seen such big names simultaneously in two small venues. That’s not all. Jazz at the Bechtler, piloted by saxophonist Ziad Rabie, has regained its stride, recently featuring Grammy-nominated vocalist Nnenna Freelon; and pianist Lenore Raphael, North Carolina’s bebop bubby, will be playing at the Coffey Thompson Art Gallery on the same night that Harrison and Edmonson hold forth. Nor have the big venues been vacated, with Chris Botti performing at Knight Theater last month and Diana Krall slated for April 19 at Belk Theater.2022~Donald Harrison-29

Blowing his alto sax, Harrison proved to be as prodigious as any of these other headliners – and with some vocalese, hip-hop, and dance moves tossed into his gumbo, maybe the most eclectic and unpredictable. After his opening “Free to Be,” a herky-jerky, stop-and-go performance ranging from Duke Ellington to James Brown, Harrison rambled into ragtime, bebop, smooth jazz, Latin, and New Orleans funk. Having mentored such diverse artists as Esperanza Spaulding, Jon Batiste, Trombone Shorty, and The Notorious BIG, Harrison splashed rather than tiptoed into all of these waters.

He spoke with ease about Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), the great New Orleans soprano saxophonist and clarinetist whose arrangement of “Maple Leaf Rag” hipped him to the intricacies and difficulties of Scott Joplin’s music. Harrison played with nearly unrelenting fire all evening long, so the fine solos by pianist Dan Kaufman and guitarist Detroit Brooks were, relatively speaking, islands of calm and order between the sax’s stormy tirades. New to the group, drummer Brian Richburg quickly proved he was capable of returning fire, his solo on “Free to Be” evoking memories of Max Roach (1924-2007).

2022~Donald Harrison-08Everybody in the group, including bassist Noriatsu Naroaka, had a chance to trade four-bar salvos with Richburg at the end of Harrison’s impressive tribute to bebop, “One for Bird.” Perhaps because has staring straight at a famous photo of Charlie Parker hanging at the rear of the house, Harrison sounded more like the immortal Yardbird than he did on his 2004 studio recording of the tune, spraying numerous quotes from Parker’s compositions into his driving solo before yielding the stage to Kaufman, Brooks, and Naroaka, gearing up for the climactic free-for-all with Richburg.

More often tinged with the sound and style of John Coltrane, Harrison’s customary timbre returned as his quintet dug into “Take the Coltrane,” the original that Ellington brought with him to the revered Duke Ellington & John Coltrane recording session in 1962 (for the same Impulse label that Harrison would later sign with). After a long interlude introducing his bandmates, starting with some shtick and proceeding with digression after digression, Harrison still had enough left for an epic, breathtaking rant, another tribute to a towering sax giant. This would have been the apex of a normal set as Kaufman and Brooks were able to follow their leader with some of their best work.2022~Donald Harrison-27

Yet despite a seeming lull as Harrison shuffled into “Mr. Cool Breeze,” a smooth jazz confection that the NEA Master had written in response to a sobriquet bestowed upon him by Lena Horne, Big Chief had plenty more. The sound was akin to all those Grover Washington hits, effortlessly spun over a steady backbeat, very much like the instrumental Harrison had recorded for the first time in 1998, maybe even nodding to Washington’s famous “Mister Magic” as guitarist Brooks got to share some of the spotlight – but the version at Stage Door suddenly spouted a stream of vocalese from Harrison, climaxing in a proclamation that was nearly a lyric.

Before coming home to New Orleans with a performance of “Hey Pocky Way” that looked like a funky sax shout wedded to a street dance, Harrison went on a spicy excursion to Puerto Rico with a tune by pianist Eddie Palmieri (1936- ), a Latin icon with whom Big Chief has recorded at least five times since the mid-90s. I didn’t catch the titles of the closer, best rest assured that it was laced with more Harrison vocals and virtuosity. Even before his encore, Harrison’s triumph was assured, and after, we all rose to our feet without the slightest urging.

“Women in Jazz” Bops and Enlightens, A Giant Step in Resuming the QC’s Nightlife

Review: JazzArts Charlotte Presents “Women in Jazz”

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 17, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Aside from the mix of masked and unmasked concertgoers, the revocation of social distancing, ushers who skipped over asking for my proof of vaccination, and the absence of masked musicians onstage, the most gladdening indication that nightlife in Charlotte is returning to normal may be the three-day Women in Jazz residency at the Stage Door Theater. The JazzArts Charlotte celebration of Women’s History Month, paused by the global pandemic in March 2020, emphatically hit the play button – with a completely new guest lineup – to the delight of a nearly full house. Memories of the isolation, quarantines, and lockdowns imposed upon us by COVID weren’t totally erased, since one of the musicians, Francesca Remigi, was a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled drummer, Allison Miller, absent due to illness.2022~Women in Jazz-07

My wife Sue and I were nearly absent as well, due to St. Patrick’s Day traffic and a 21-minute delay on I-77 induced by a crash, but radio personality Curtis Davenport, emceeing with his usual verve, had enough to say to prevent us from missing any of the music. Leading the female quartet, pianist Ellen Rowe had plenty to say in her own right, and persistently solicited questions from the audience, dispensing with the all-too prevalent assumption that people at a jazz concert must all be aficionados. Rowe was wonderfully in tune with the idea of a residency, not merely providing the title of every song but also some info about it. No hipster “of course that was…” codas after any of the tunes, a refreshing change.

This approach jibed with the discreetly educational vibe of the Jazz Room series and with the JazzArts mission. While the ambiance at the Stage Door is very much like a jazz club when JazzArts invades, the walls sport poster-sized photos of jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, and a big screen monitor suspended behind the bandstand presents a slideshow of other jazz greats – not so quickly that it becomes distracting. At Women in Jazz, hardly a man was onscreen, the slides presenting a potpourri of influential woman, from pianist Mary Lou Williams and trombonist Melba Liston, way back when, to today’s Artemis supergroup.2022~Women in Jazz-24

Downstage on the bandstand, saxophonist Sharel Cassity was a dominant presence, playing both alto and soprano. Yet she tilted toward alto, especially in the heritage and tribute pieces, bending toward the higher instrument when she played on Rowe’s originals. Upstage, bassist Marion Hayden didn’t simply make the trip to recede demurely into the background, as we could have assumed when all three bandmates drew solo space on the opening “Kenny’s Quest,” a bopping tribute to contemporary altoist Kenny Garrett. The be-bop continued on “All the Things You Are,” Rowe supplying its Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie context while explaining how she inverted Gillespie’s famed preamble in her arrangement. Here Hayden not only set the tone with the inverted intro, she actively lurked after Cassity launched the familiar Jerome Kern melody and, following the full three-chorus solos from Rowe and Cassity, added three eloquent choruses of her own, firmly establishing that she would be part of the evening’s conversation.2022~Women in Jazz-06

Hayden was part of the framework on the bop staple that followed as well, spelling Cassity at the bridge in introducing the melody and reprising that role in the out-chorus. By this time, it was apparent how brilliantly Cassity could burn on alto, drawing a few delighted exclamations from the crowd. So we were curious to learn what kind of flame she could ignite when she picked up her soprano sax. Unfortunately, the first two originals that she played on that instrument, Rowe’s “Sylvan Way” and “Defractions,” didn’t require her to turn up the tempo or the heat, and on Rowe’s “Phoenix” – proving, according to the composer, that she could write a happy tune – Cassity didn’t get enough blowing time to achieve lift-off. But her tone and lyricism on soprano were gorgeous, true to Rowe’s prevailing New Age flavor, sounding more comfortable when confined to the melody than she was on alto.

Rowe’s style was rather chameleonic when she played. On “Kenny’s Quest” and Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move,” her shuttling between light-fingered and heavily percussive passages hinted at a wisp of McCoy Tyner influence. After the latter gem, she hoped that at least the bandstand moved. When we reached Oscar Pettiford’s “Blues in the Closet,” where everyone excelled, including Remigi at her drumkit, Rowe seemed to be channeling a slew of ‘50s keyboard greats, Bud Powell or John Lewis when she frolicked with her right hand in the treble, Red Garland or Erroll Garner when she switched to two-fisted block chords. I was afraid that Cassity’s performance of the melody would go without the wonderful harmony Pettiford wrote for it, so I found myself singing it at one point. But Rowe came to the rescue, and thankfully, I could shut up.

Lucena Quartet Tours “The Music of Brazil” With Raucous, Upbeat, and Sensuous Surprises Along the Way

Review: Duda Lucena Quartet

By Perry Tannenbaum

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From the schedule at his website, you get the idea that Brazilian-born singer/guitarist/composer Duda Lucena and his quartet record only rarely and play most of their gigs in two posh spots in Charleston, his adopted hometown. Listening to the Duda Lucena Quartet at the Stage Door Theater earlier this week, the latest installment in The Jazz Room’s Premiere Thursdays series, I had to think that a lot folks are missing out. The 80-minute “Music of Brazil” set included a wide assortment of Braziliana by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Djavan, and Lucena himself – and it could be accurately judged by the title of the Quartet’s one non-Brazilian excursion, the Gershwin Brothers’ “’S Wonderful.”

Lucena’s voice certainly brought back memories of João Gilberto, the vocalist who teamed with saxophonist Stan Getz back in the ‘60s to launch the bossa nova boom in the US with the music of Jobim; and memories of the later Renato Braz, who has headlined on multiple occasions in Charleston at Spoleto Festival USA. With a gifted rhythm section at his command, however, Lucena wasn’t always tethered to the dreamy, “Quiet Nights” concept of Brazil’s intoxicating rhythms. Not only would bassist Kevin Hamilton draw plenty of solo space, so would drummer Ron Wiltrout. At the piano, Gerald Gregory didn’t simply demonstrate his fluency with the tangy single-note stylings of Jobim and Count Basie, he occasionally showed us that he had absorbed the denser textures of Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner. No less surprising, the Lucena Quartet was emboldened to accelerate beyond quiet-city-streets speed limits on uptempo tunes.

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Instantly quashing any suspicion that he was leading a Jobim or bossa nova cover band, Lucena began with two of his own compositions. Purely instrumental, Lucena didn’t stray far from his melody in “Spider Waltz,” keeping his guitar virtuosity and his vocal skills momentarily under wraps, but Gregory and Hamilton didn’t hesitate to show us what they could do, good omens both. “Just for Now,” with lyrics by Heather Rice, was a more impressive Duda display. After Gregory’s intro, Luceno sang with a rich vibrato-less tone more reminiscent of Braz than Gilberto and followed with his first guitar solo, festooned with grace notes and charming sliding glisses that assured us he could play. Gregory was even tangier than he had been previously in his solo, and Luceno embellished his concluding vocal with a sprinkle of Brazilian scat, more modest, concise, and percussive than Louis Armstrong’s American style.

With Veloso’s “Coração Vagabundo,” it was time for the Quartet to cut loose. Not only did the speed of the performance leave recorded versions by Veloso, Gilberto, and Karrin Allyson far behind, it unleashed a the denser side of Gregory’s pianism in a solo that again surpassed what we had heard before. More heretical yet, Gregory’s exploits were followed by the first explosions from Wiltrout at the drums. Maybe it’s useful at this point to mention that Jazz Room concerts not only include a cabaret-style bar and a fair amount of chichi cocktail tables near the stage, they also flash continuous slideshows on a large-screen monitor behind the performers. During the “Brazil” concert, we didn’t merely see the obligatory sunsets in Rio’s shores, we saw Corcovado and the coast spectacularly lit up at night, majestic night-time aerials that revealed an illuminated ring of sea water lapping the beach, and a bevy of photos highlighting the colors, the spectacle, and the glitzy sensuality of Rio-Carnival. In that context, the uptempo brashness of “Vagabundo” fit well.

Jobim fanatics, though put on hold, would not be disappointed. Lucena had four of the Brazilian pianist’s compositions slated for the middle of his set list, punctuated by another Lucena original, “Festa dos Passarinhos” (Party of Little Birds), which quietly featured Wiltrout briefly accompanying Hamilton’s fine solo with hands on drums instead of sticks or brushes. “Água De Beber” had all the scat trimmings of Astrud Gilberto’s version without João’s discreet backup vocals, spiced with solos from Gregory and Hamilton; “Insensatez” drew again upon Hamilton’s resourcefulness, with another nice Lucena solo; so it looked like we would be cruising through Jobim without any radical surprises or fresh wrinkles. That suddenly changed when the Quartet lit into “Só Danço Samba,” the only planned cover from the landmark 1964 Getz/Gilberto album. Suddenly, two Brazilian dancers in full glittery Carnival regalia emerged from the Stage Door wings, flanking the stage and shimmying with gusto. Although Lucena had planned this treat – or at least had been alerted beforehand – there might be some question about whether this spot had been rehearsed, for the two lovelies were not complemented with satisfactory lighting that would have enhanced their glitter.

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Another Jobim fave followed this lively spectacle, his contagious “One Note Samba,” but when it came time for Gregory to solo, he absolutely blew away the presumption that he would play in the Jobim one-note style, tearing up the keyboard with a knuckle-busting barrage. The vibe grew quieter for the next three songs – but not at all moribund. In Veloso’s “Trilhos Urbanos,” Lucena unveiled some sweet whistling each time he finished singing the melody; and on his original “Hammock,” the leader showed off his instrumental skills most extensively with an appropriately relaxing intro and, after some fine work by Gregory and Hamilton, truly luscious tone in his concluding solo. “’S Wonderful” was a nice planned surprise, for we hadn’t heard Lucena singing English in a while – or anything from Tin Pan Alley – but the next surprise came from one of the cocktail tables up front with a request that Lucena return to Jobim and his megahit, “The Girl from Ipanema.” The Quartet took on this impromptu addition with gusto rather than humility or fidelity. Lucena played freely with Jobim’s rhythms, pushed the tempo a bit, and interpolated his own suggestive exclamations where lyricist Vinicius de Moraes merely provided a simple “Ah!” Gregory, Hamilton, and the guitarist also obliged with some gorgeous soloing.

The concluding Djavan section took us to a sunnier, more contemporary region of Brazilian music, one that reminded me of my beloved Gilberto Gil albums dating back to the ‘70s. But we did not arrive in that sunshine immediately, for the Lucena Quartet’s take on Djavan’s “Sina” was more than a little bit funky and R&B-flavored with the most blazing solos of the evening from Gregory and Hamilton between two righteous Lucena vocals. “Maçã Do Rosto,” with more soloing from the pianist and the bassist, was like a calming inhalation before the rousing finale, Djavan’s “Aquele Um.” The Brazilian dancers emerged from the wings, and it was Carnival all over again. But this time, perhaps aware of the poor lighting in the corners of the Stage Door Theater, Lucena invited the two glittering dancers to join him onstage where they could truly shimmy and shine. Their previous glitter was now full-fledged dazzle. I’m afraid I was too distracted by the dancing to track all who soloed here – and I’m not at all sorry!

 

Matt Lemmler and a 10-Piece Band Ignite a Stevie Wonder Sampler, Aided by Three Guest Vocalists

Review: Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Anyone who seriously follows the work of jazz instrumentalists and vocalists has likely realized that, for the last 30 years and more, the compositions of Stevie Wonder have become as much a part of his contemporaries’ songbooks as the works of George Gershwin were for Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald. Jazz covers of certain Wonder songs like “Sir Duke” or “All in Love Is Fair” are so ubiquitous that it came as no surprise that the latest Jazz Room concert presented by JazzArts Charlotte, Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder, should set out to explore the superstar’s songs for the length of a full concert at the Stage Door Theater. What did take me a little by surprise was that those songs – as well as “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Boogie On, Reggae Woman,” “Living for the City,” “Keep on Running,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” – could all be omitted from Lemmler’s playlist without crashing the quality of his concert. Perhaps we all take the bounty of Wonder’s output for granted.

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Lemmler brought plenty of artillery to the occasion, leading a 10-piece band from the keyboard and deploying four vocalists to the singing chores, including his own tonsils. For his opening and closing tunes, Lemmler showcased his band, rotating his vocalists for the intervening eight songs. Beginning the set, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” was the only purely instrumental offering penned by Wonder, readily identifiable in a fairly long ensemble arrangement before Lemmler soloed and we had our first sampling of David Lail’s zesty tenor sax. The ensemble continued to be a substantial part of the mix when the vocalists appeared. A plucked bass intro kicked off Lemmler’s arrangement of “Ribbon in the Sky,” followed by some pleasing back-and-forth between the brass and the piano before the vocalists took over. Lemmler took the first vocal and his first guest vocalist, Matt Kelley, took the second. “Ebony Eyes” drew an even more colorful arrangement as Lemmler layered on another vocalist, Robyn Springer, into his chart, limiting his own role to the piano and giving trumpeter Eleazar Shafer some solo space. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” spotlighted Kobie Watkins’ percussion, Dave Vergato’s bass, Darrel Payton’s muted trombone, and some nice section work from the saxes around the vocal.

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After Kelley returned with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and Springer had joined with him on a more satisfying “You and I,” punctuated by solos from Lemmler and Lail, I was expecting to pronounce that Springer had outsung Kelley on this night. But a couple of unexpected twists – and a whole new level – lay ahead as Lemmler introduced a third guest vocalist, Kevin “Mercury” Carter. Wait a second. Isn’t it a law that, after any vocalist you’ve introduced to your audience makes a second entrance, no new vocalists shall be introduced? Apparently not. Compounding the singularity of this moment, Lemmler was playing his first set in a three-night, six-performance engagement, and was apparently only fleetingly familiar with Mercury’s talents. He introduced him as “Mercedes Carter,” which really threw me, since I was totally unfamiliar with this singer. On the one hand, I’ve only heard of women named Mercedes; but on the other, despite a coordinated Afro-flavored outfit that was gender-ambiguous, Carter was sporting some serious facial hair.

So we seemed to be floating outside of binary territory when Carter lit into “Isn’t She Lovely,” scaling substantially into the treble clef after Lemmler’s vocal and Lail’s tenor with a smoothness that recalled Michael Jackson, the best vocal so far. But after a solid rendition of “Overjoyed,” Kelley returned and forced me to shuffle my vocal rankings once again as he absolutely torched a wondrous arrangement of “Part-Time Lover,” embellishing the wordless riffs on Wonder’s original recording to the point that they became a more freestyle scat. In between Carter’s two choruses, the last followed by a prolonged scat outro, there were exciting solos from Shafer and Payton, the latter unmuted this time on his trombone, and Lemmler’s best piano solo of this set.

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Off that high, Lemmler came down to earth with his own original dedicated to Stevie, “S’Wondersong,” yielding the instrumental spotlight to Lail, Watkins, and alto saxophonist Harvey Cummings. It’s a bit awkward for a 10-piece band to go through the ritual of vacating a stage and returning to do an encore after wild audience applause. Lemmler opted to skip those formalities and, after the perfunctory coaxing from the JazzArts Charlotte emcee to justify our presumed reward, it quickly became obvious that Lemmler’s Storyville medley was an integral part of the show. Not only did the medley give the leader/arranger a chance to extol his New Orleans roots, it carved out space for all of his band members to toss off a valedictory solo. It also brought Lemmler home to the places where his vocal style sounds most forceful and comfortable, “The House of the Rising Sun” and “St. James Infirmary.”