Tag Archives: Ziad Rabie

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

Kat-Edmonson

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.”

Absent in 2020, Nnenna Freelon Offers a Heartfelt Raincheck

Review: Jazz @ the Bechtler Presents Nnenna Freelon

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 4, 2022, Charlotte, NC – We hadn’t seen or heard Nnenna Freelon singing in Charlotte for over four years before she returned for two shows with the Ziad Jazz Quartet last week, her latest Jazz at the Bechtler concert. The interval would have been just over two years if Freelon had appeared as scheduled at the Bechtler series’ all-star 10th anniversary celebration on January 3, 2020. While it’s tempting to assume that Freelon’s cancellation was part of her grieving process in the wake of her husband’s death of ALS the previous July, the six-time Grammy Award nominee had already gone into the recording studio in October 2019. The album that emerged from that stage of her grief processing, Time Traveler, was eventually released last May, so it could have come to us two years ago as the core of her canceled gig at the Bechtler, a nice little scoop for us.

Not to worry, after a bopping “Just Friends” warmup from his quartet, Ziad Rabie was now able to introduce Freelon as a seven-time Grammy nominee, with the outcome of her latest nomination for Time Traveler to be announced in Vegas on April 3. And there was also a scoop: Freelon will soon be inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, alongside such greats as Nina Simone, James Taylor, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Kate Smith, Loonis McGlohon, and Roberta Flack. The theme of Time Traveler was certainly evident in the concluding set we heard at 8:15, for it was doubly a time capsule, packaging songs we could have heard two years back at the originally-scheduled 10th anniversary gig alongside songs we did hear in November 2017.

There was nothing sneaky or accidental about the repeats, though Freelon didn’t point them out. As before, Freelon led off with her uptempo “Nature Boy,” rewriting the lyrics with a feminist twist the second time around after a searing soprano sax solo from Rabie. The ending was also the same, a “Moon River” that started off unusually mournful, hit a swinging midtempo, and eventually heated up to exultation. In a fascinating way, this questing read of “Moon River” merged Freelon’s time capsules together, for in 2017, she sang it as a tribute to two recently departed jazz greats, singer Al Jarreau and pianist Geri Allen, and she recorded it almost two years later as a tribute to her husband, famed architect Phil Freelon, who had designed Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro.

2022~Nnenna Freelon-01Did the audience give Freelon and bassist Ron Brendle a standing ovation for their deep, mesmerizing duet on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” because they recalled it fondly from 2017 – or because it was so achingly lovely and poignant now? Also back from 2017 was Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” with drummer Al Sergel navigating the transitions back and forth from Freelon’s waltzy 3/4 time to Rabie’s break-loose solo on tenor sax in a fleet 4/4 tempo. These non-lunar reprises were all from Freelon’s Homefree album of 2010, and so was her slowed-down and bluesy “I Feel Pretty,” complete with her 2017 exhortation to the men in the audience to sing out the title line, because we needed to answer for nearly all the ugliness in our world. Notwithstanding #MeToo, probably truer in 2022 than before.

Despite its aching moments striving to reach across “Moon River,” Time Traveler remembers and celebrates love far more than it bemoans loss. Aside from versions of the title composition, two tracks address the main theme, Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time,” the one Freelon elected to bring to the Bechtler. Freelon repeated and obsessed over the title in a concluding cadenza that was every bit as ardent as her studio version, if not more so. Solos between the vocals, pianist Noel Freidline floating gracefully over Brendle’s bass, enhanced the soulfulness. But the album isn’t simply celebratory or sentimental, for Freelon gave Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” a performance that was as down-to-earth as her spoken intro, confessing that she had no idea what she had said “I do” to at the altar when she and Phil were wed.2022~Nnenna Freelon-11

Always gorgeous, Freelon’s voice seems to be acquiring more varied textures. Up high, the Ella Fitzgerald sass is often joined with a Dinah Washington grit; and below, the Roberta Flack sensuousness occasionally gives way to a Carmen McRae worldliness and wisdom. The Freelon original, “Just You,” lost a little of its righteous gospel flavor in transitioning from the studio, where an organ and a guitar imparted a churchly tang, to the Bechtler’s lobby, where neither instrument was in attendance, though Rabie supplied superb fills on soprano sax. But a dominant motif of Freelon’s Time Traveler tribute is simply a return to songs that recapture the 1970’s, when the Phil-Nnenna romance first bloomed. Aside from “Time in a Bottle,” which serves double duty, Freelon revisits the ‘70s with Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” and a Marvin Gaye medley.

Nnenna testified at the Bechtler to Phil’s adoration of “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” further evidence that he was a Stylistics fan, but he obviously wasn’t alone. Enhancing the studio version, Freelon was able to call upon the Bechtler audience to sing along with her on the refrain. Here the live instrumentation meshed almost perfectly with the studio performance as Freidline radically altered his piano timbre from acoustic to electric and Rabie more than ably substituted for Kirk Whalum in adding a smooth jazz vibe. As with “Moon River,” facets of Freelon’s concept came magnificently together. After remembering the 2017 Bechtler playlist by repeating some of it, she was giving us a raincheck on a hit she could have brought us in 2020, remembering her departed husband by singing a song they both loved. Through the mystery of music, we were singing along with Nnenna, joining her ritual of remembering Phil, while evoking memories of our own.

Maria Howell Torches the Triumphant Return of Jazz at the Bechtler

Review: Maria Howell and the Ziad Jazz Quartet

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Among music presenters in Charlotte, tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie and his Jazz at the Bechtler series were among the first to swing back into action and move their concerts online, “virtually” intact, after the onset of the pandemic last March. Others, including Charlotte Symphony and JazzArts, have returned sooner to live performance, but the Bechtler has insouciantly kept chugging along, finishing its 2020-21 season of first Friday events back in May as they normally would – just before Symphony returned indoors and, like JazzArts, summered in the open air. Retaining his poise, Rabie has brought his quartet, along with popular guest artist Maria Howell, back to the Bechtler right on time for a new season. Ticketing was paperless, proofs of vaccination demanded outdoors before we entered the museum, and masks required unless you were eating or drinking. Lines to the bar, where assorted hors d’oeuvres were also offered, seemed longer than usual, clearly hinting that the audience knew an escape clause when they saw one.

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Starting off with a hot blues, with pianist Noel Freidline and bassist Ron Brendle soloing zestfully after him, Rabie hardly needed to tell us how happy he was to be performing for a live audience again after 18 months. Ripping aside a flame-red mask studded with glitter or rhinestones as she stepped onstage to join the quartet, Howell seemed simpatico with the quartet’s blazing opener, launching into Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” over Rabie’s obbligato. Turning up the wickedness a couple of notches from the Kinsey Report referenced in Porter’s lyric, Howell and the Ziad Quartet went for the jugular with “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah),” a crowdpleaser since 1924, with Friedline and Rabie soloing between Howell’s ornery vocals.

After such a raunchy romp, the band must have figured that this was the best moment to ease down to a ballad tempo, and “My Ship” was the most luscious in the set, its wondrous Kurt Weill melody nearly matched by Ira Gershwin’s lyric. Friedline switched to a more precious electronic cocktail-hour sound at the keyboard, and Rabie contributed an eloquent half-chorus after Howell’s vocal, ferrying her back to the bridge. None of the songs that followed would be quite so slow, but Howell modulated deftly between mid and uptempo selections, increasing the pace for Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” to a genial lope and leaving plenty of space for Freidline and Rabie to frolic. The pianist pranced around on the keys in a manner that recalled Erroll Garner in his intro and solo, and Rabie seemed to catch the same vibe as I had, slipping a few notes from “Misty” into his solo.

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With fair warning that we would need to be alert to keep up with the blur of lyrics (by Johnny Mercer, it turned out), Howell and the quartet went willfully against the grain by red-lining Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned,” speeding through two choruses in quick order. Freidline and Rabie took two choruses apiece before Howell’s reprise, the pianist more mischievously by tossing in a snatch of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to cement his old-fashioned credentials. Ably lurking behind and propelling the combo until this point, drummer Al Sergel asserted himself emphatically here, slowing the tempo for Howell’s winsome climax.

If you keep up with Howell’s discography, you know that Freidline is as much her collaborator as the Ziad Quartet’s, so it wasn’t shocking to see Rabie handing over the stage to Howell and the rhythm section for two or three songs. The first of these was customized by Freidline for Howell, a mashup of The Shirelles hit (by Carole King), “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and Chicago’s considerably less-distinguished “Love Me Tomorrow,” which the singer mercifully devoted less time to. Freidline himself seemed to be more inspired by Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” after Brendle triggered the groove on bass, and Howell did full justice to the Truman Capote lyric. The wit of Freidline’s quote from “Teach Me Tonight” was only faintly apropos four songs after Howell had referenced Nancy Wilson, but the connection between his snippet from “Honeysuckle Rose” and Howell’s “Bee” was plain enough.

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Rabie’s return coincided with the most orgiastic arrangement so far, a mashup of two Bill Withers hits, “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us.” Here the balance was quite exquisite, for Howell clearly relished “Lovely Day,” which framed the medley, while Rabie had far more to say on “Just the Two of Us,” with two fiery rants. From here, the concert moved to higher and highest ground for Howell’s final two selections. With Freidline switching to a more organ-like sound behind his Yamaha, Howells dug into “Unchain My Heart” as a tribute to Ray Charles, adding a little gospel tang to its rhythm-and-blues. Eager to take wing, Rabie and Freidline both played fills under Howell’s vocal, the saxophonist taking the first solo before the keyboardist sermonized. After Howell revisited the lyric, her entire congregation joined in a rousing concluding riff.

Famous as a James Bond theme song popularized by Carly Simon, Marvin Hamlisch’s “Nobody Does It Better” is so closely identified with Simon’s 1977 single that the power ballad, with lyric by Carol Bayer Sager, has scarcely spawned any jazz covers. Just by being markedly different from the chart-topping hit, Howell’s version was something of a revelation as she positively torched what is usually an aching anthem. Rabie’s solo also revealed the ripeness of this melody for jazz improvisation, and the incantatory ending tacked on by Howell, her quartet jamming behind her, brought her audience spontaneously to their feet. It was an auspicious evening at the Bechtler, a triumph we could joyously cheer.

Ziad Quartet Celebrates the Middleweight Champ of the Tenor Sax

Review: Ziad Jazz Quartet’s Tribute to Hank Mobley

2020~Ziad's Mobley Tribute~8

By Perry Tannenbaum

Introducing the honoree at the latest Jazz at the Bechtler concert, Ziad Rabie cited fellow saxophonist Hank Mobley as a foundational member of the hardbop stable of musicians on the Blue Note record label during the 1950s. Mobley, he further asserted, was also one of the most prolific hardbop composers of that era, at one time releasing eight albums within the space of 16 months. So there was plenty for Rabie to pick from for the Ziad Jazz Quartet’s hourlong tribute. My own collection merely includes seven albums with Mobley as the leader and stints as a sideman with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver, so of the six tunes on the Ziad set list, I had only heard four before, including two title tunes from Blue Note albums of the ‘60s.

We started out with drummer Al Sergel’s cool preamble to “High and Flighty,” an uptempo gem from 1958 that I acquired in the 2008 reissue of Peckin’ Time while I was catching up with Mobley’s work five decades later. While some of the Blue Note flavor was missing when Rabie roared through the melody without a trumpeter alongside him on the bandstand matching him note for note, Rabie’s pace and energy were as compelling as the master take on the Mobley album when he launched into his solo, faster than the alternate take from Mobley and trumpeter Lee Morgan added on the reissue.

Without an intervening trumpet solo in the Ziad arrangement, pianist Sean Higgins entered the fray sooner – with an effervescent spirit that chimed well with Wynton Kelly’s work on the original session, along with some filigree that Herbie Hancock might recognize. Since there wasn’t a trumpeter in sight to join with Rabie in firing four-bar volleys back and forth with Sergel – as Morgan had alternated with Mobley in the original – Higgins replaced the trumpet in bringing the piece to a rousing climax, before Rabie played the outchorus.Screen Shot 2020-11-07 at 5.32.17 PM

Sergel didn’t quite let go at the end of “High and Flighty,” thrashing away mostly on his cymbals as he transitioned to “The Morning After,” a tumultuous 3/4 composition that appeared on Mobley’s A Caddy for Daddy in 1965. With Higgins adopting a McCoy Tyner manner as he layered on, dropping power chords in his left hand that were a hallmark of John Coltrane’s quartet recordings of 1961-65, the rhythm section sounded very much like the sound Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones pioneered on those classic sessions on Impulse.

Rabie certainly picked up on the sound, for Tyner turned out to be a key ingredient on Caddy for Daddy when I tracked it down, and the tenor saxophonist’s solo had a few licks that echoed Coltrane’s Crescent from 1964, abandoning Mobley’s less fiery style. When Higgins followed Rabie’s incendiary exploits, he let loose with more bombs in his left hand and a Tyner-like flurry in the treble. Nor was this powerful rhythm section done here, for Sergel was still thrashing when the leader returned to reprise the melody on sax, and he took over for a second drum solo afterwards with wailing support from Higgins underneath.

This was a perfect moment for Rabie to repeat jazz critic Leonard Feather’s judgment that Mobley was “the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone,” for his quartet was about to turn down the heat for “Madeline,” an original recorded in Mobley’s pre-Blue Note days. Sergel switched to brushes behind his drumkit and, after lyrical solos by Rabie and Higgins, Ron Brendle finally had an opportunity to shine in the spotlight, better captured in his bass solo than in any of the previous Bechtler webcasts from The Playroom – double kudos for the sound and the music. Higgins was more distinctively his own man in his solo, maybe weaving in wisps of Hancock and Red Garland, while Rabie came closest on this tune to replicating Mobley’s smoky sound on tenor before giving way to Higgins. After the pianist took his solo, Rabie’s blowing had more of a Coltrane tang as Sergel unobtrusively switched to mallets, and the breathiness at the end of the tenor coda injected a faint hint of Ben Webster.2020~Ziad's Mobley Tribute~2Rabie’s final three selections were his most predictable, culled from two of Mobley’s most acclaimed Blue Note recordings, Soul Station (1960) and Workout (1961). “This I Dig of You,” from the earlier album, bopped more than “High and Flighty,” but the creativity flowed richly from the quartet as all the players had a chance to solo. Sergel took up his sticks to launch the merriment, pounding on his rims as well as his toms, and Rabie handed things over quickly to Higgins, who swung his first chorus on the keyboard and offered fresh new angles on each ensuing variation. Rabie was deceptively tame at first, almost cool with his bopping triplets, before he whipped up a harder sound up in the treble, getting a second wind. Brendle had a crisp, swinging take on the tune before Sergel crafted a hybrid solo at the drums, beginning with brushes in Brendle’s wake and then turning the heat back up with his drumsticks.

Weighing in at a middleweight 16 bars, “Soul Station” is as groovy and infectious a blues as you’ll hear, arguably Mobley’s signature composition, and the Ziad Quartet made sure they didn’t mess up the pulse or the tempo, leaning into its medium-paced quietude with its arrangement and obviously having fun. Rabie scorched it without rushing it, and Higgins tossed a bit “Night Train” into his flame (a 12-bar blues that can be traced back to Ellington). Brendle proved that he had been listening closely, popping a bar or two of the same train into his solo.

Inevitably, Rabie chose the title tune of Workout as part of his Mobley tribute, for Feather’s memorable pronouncement on the tenor sax great was the first sentence of his liner notes for that worthy album. Now it sounded like it was Rabie who was refusing to let go, thundering into each new improvised chorus, with Sergel in an orgiastic mode behind him. Higgins was no less dazzling, he and the drummer spurring each other on the pianist’s solo until Sergel pounced on his solo. The liquid intensity of guitarist Grant Green’s solo spot on the Blue Note recording was expunged from the Ziad arrangement, nor did Sergel gradually build to primitive ferocity as Philly Joe Jones had in the March 26, 1961, studio session. He was still roaring while Rabie reprised the Mobley melody one last time. Listening to this rousing closer, I heard more champion than middleweight in this “Workout.”

 

 

 

Ziad Quartet – Plus Extra Brass – Celebrates Classic Blue Train Album

Review:   Virtual Jazz at the Bechtler event hosted by The Playroom, the Ziad Jazz Quartet

By Perry Tannenbaum

Aside from the color blue, John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue have a few things in common. Both were recorded in the late fifties, Coltrane’s album for Blue Note in 1957 and Davis’s for Columbia in 1959, both featured sextets, both were dominated by compositions written by their leaders, and both were fueled by tenor saxophonist Coltrane at his fiery peak, one of the many reasons why both albums are regarded as jazz classics. As the title implies, Blue Train is the more hard-driving of the two albums, and in the second virtual Jazz at the Bechtler event hosted by The Playroom, the Ziad Jazz Quartet paid tribute to this beloved recording, roaring as perhaps they’ve never roared before. Pumping up the volume for this special event, and helping tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie to replicate Trane’s original instrumentation, were guest artists Lynn Grissett playing trumpet and Rick Simerly ably sliding a trombone. Bassist Ron Brendle and percussionist Rick Dior returned in their backup roles, while Lovell Bradford took over Noël Freidline’s bench at the keyboard.

The two brass players made social distancing a bit more strained than last month’s Quartet tribute to Jimmy Heath, but space was adequate and both guests sported pandemically-correct masks with cunning mouth flaps designed for wind players, the first time I had seen these. Nor was there any delay in seeing these masks in action, for one of the most memorable aspects of the title tune that opens the Blue Train album is the roar of the saxophone, the trumpet, and the trombone all playing at once. Even watching a 23-inch monitor and listening through a pair of Boston Acoustic speakers via a Bluetooth hookup to my Yamaha receiver, I was surprised by how emotional I became listening to the familiar sound. It’s the trombone that makes the blend so distinctive, and maybe that’s why I found myself getting choked-up. Rabie certainly didn’t let me recover as he launched his solo, wasting no time in reaching peak form – perhaps the most majestic playing I’ve heard from him. Adding extra coal to the engine of this “Train,” as each of the horns nears the end of his solo, the other two horns back him up with a repeated riff, challenging the soloist to rise above them.

Rabie was pretty much at full throttle beginning his solo, so he needed to flare up to white heat with the brass behind him, yet Grissett came in softly with his trumpet solo, reminding us after Rabie’s fury that “Blue Train” is actually a midtempo tune. He and Simerly, who would follow, gradually came to a boil in their brass solos, and the other two horns would enter when the soloist had shifted into cruising gear – and the backup would prod them into redlining. It’s a wonderful arrangement, very much in the hard-bop tradition perfected at Blue Note records, so it came as no surprise when Rabie later stated that the musicians on the original recording had been given two days to rehearse. At the keyboard, Bradford was up to the challenge of having three horns behind him as his solo climaxed, beginning quietly and tightening the tension with each chorus. The quieted episodes of the performance enabled us to savor Brendle’s bass, heard to better advantage than at last month’s session, while Dior also made his presence known as the soloists reached maximum ferocity, most noticeably when crashing his cymbals in the transition between Simerly and Bradford. To be absolutely precise about the arrangement of the melody, repeated at the end, it was Rabie and Simerly who began, with Grissett’s entry on trumpet perfecting the blend.

Named by trombonist Curtis Fuller because of how the tune was sprung on him at the Blue Train recording session, “Moment’s Notice” has always been one of my favorite Coltrane compositions, notably covered by flutist Hubert Laws on his In the Beginning album. Once again, the three horn players combined in introducing the melody – until the final eight bars, which Ziad used as a runway to launch his solo. Rabie seemed to share my affection for this composition, for he worked Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” – a tune that Coltrane made a jazz standard – into his blazing solo. Simerly reached peak form in his solo, saluted again with a bomb from Dior as he made way for Grissett, cooling things down before gradually turning his solo up to high heat. Bradford’s allusions to the Scottish “Comin’ Through the Rye” in his solo were less Coltrane-connected than Rabie’s had been, but they made amusing musical sense.

The sextet played “Locomotion,” aptly described by Rabie as “a blues with a bridge,” at a noticeably slower tempo than you will hear on the Blue Train album (a newer release, The Ultimate Blue Train, adds two alternate takes to the original album). I have to say – heretically, I know – that Rabie has found the better groove. It’s another glorious arrangement, three horns again playing the melody until the final eight bars and Rabie once again launching into his solo after already seizing the spotlight. A similar falling away occurred in this arrangement when Simerly and Grissett began their solos, the rhythm section suddenly silenced as the brass players entered acapella. When the rhythm section returned, Dior on drums especially raucous, it was like giving each of these solos a fresh kickstart. Grissett was consistently wonderful through this entire set – maybe his evocation of Lee Morgan, the original Blue Train trumpeter, explains the unexpected emotional impact I felt with each of his solos. The rhythm section kept going when Bradford took his turn, building to a two-fisted apex before handing things over to Dior for a well-earned, well-bashed solo.

Rabie introduced Todd Smith, who informed us that he was in his fourth day as the Bechtler’s new executive director. Better yet, he said the Museum would be reopening in a couple of weeks with free admission to start. This little respite was followed by a change in mood as the sextet played “I’m Old Fashioned,” the only non-Coltrane composition on the album and the only ballad. Rabie played the melody, this time without the brass at all, beginning with the lovely ending to the Jerome Kern melody and then recapping as the full rhythm section entered so that the end the melody got an extra hearing before he set off into his solo. Simerly followed in a more solemn ballad mode, with enough space in the arrangement for Brendle to shine briefly before Bradford’s entry. The pianist didn’t hurry the tempo, but he certainly crammed more notes into it, reminding me of how Art Tatum and Red Garland treated the blues. Grissett’s solo, weaving bits of “My Funny Valentine” into the fabric, was another gem, Dior sensitively plying his brushes in accompaniment. A short coda from Grissett was backed by the other winds.

Grissett continued in the lead for the final piece, “Lazy Bird,” only sparingly accompanied by the other horns before swooping into his solo. Simerly played in a lighter vein, pointing up the melody’s anthemic jollity, while Rabie upstaged him slightly, pulling out his horn-player’s mask for the first time and trying it on. Perhaps he had been worried that taking the mask off for his emceeing chores would dislodge his eyeglasses or his earpieces. Whatever caused the hesitation, the mask was no impediment as Rabie’s tenor solo evoked Trane’s most joyous vein. Bradford continued the celebratory mood, giving way to Dior, who regained his customary ebullience with his sticks before Grissett led the outchorus.

Production of the latest livestream improved incrementally on its predecessor. The opening montage by Wonderland still rocks, and Playroom was still populated by four video cameras that never budged or zoomed. Positioning was slightly changed. The better-miked Brendle gave up his dedicated camera to Simerly, while Bradford shared his with Grissett. A third camera occasionally peeped in on Dior from the rear of the stage, and there was an establishing shot from front-and-center. Song titles were discreetly scrawled at the bottom of the screen, perhaps too briefly but a nice new touch. Only the rhythm section seemed to have gotten the blue memo about the dress code, while Rabie and Grissett veered off into olive green. Simerly was the outlier in a peach-and-tan outfit, but he blended best with the special burnt-orange COVID masks. Best of all, the set didn’t abruptly end at the hour mark, continuing at least ten minutes longer until the complete Blue Train tribute was done. Well done.

Ziad Tribute to Jimmy Heath Marks the Beginning of a Beautiful Bechtler-Playroom Friendship

Review: Jazz at the Bechtler

By Perry Tannenbaum

Located on the west side of town, The Playroom bills itself as Charlotte’s oldest music production facility, offering rehearsal space and recording/mixing services. Lately, Playroom has changed its tune, becoming the site for the newest Jazz at the Bechtler webcast as the Ziad Jazz Quartet paid tribute to the music of Jimmy Heath, the composer and saxophonist who passed away back in January at the age of 93. As social distancing and severely restricted public gatherings become pandemic norms, the Bechtler-Playroom partnership makes beautiful sense from a musical standpoint. Technically, the museum can expect the studio to deliver optimum sound from expertly deployed state-of-the-art equipment, and if Ziad Rabie and his jazz quartet are to perform concerts without the vibe of a live audience, it would be hard to imagine a more comfortable place for them to play than the studio of their choice.

The risky element of this business had to be the video, for livestreams are not on Playroom’s pricing schedule. Any misgivings about this end of the Bechtler-Playroom collaboration were quickly dispelled when the program opened with an adroitly edited montage of Charlotte night scenes, including the city’s light rail and its iconic “Firebird” sculpture in front of the museum. Music from the quartet was already playing under the movie cuts, and aside from a voiceover “5-4-3-2” countdown, the Ziad Quartet’s set began without any formalities – or an emcee until Rabie himself spoke after the third selection.

Rabie gave his downbeat for the first Heath original of the evening, “Togetherness,” behind a second retro test pattern, but our first glimpse of The Playroom was not at all old-timey. Pinpoint lightbulbs studded a black backdrop, dispelling any worries of a rehearsal room ambiance. Lighting was otherwise ample, giving a nightclub feel to a venue that presumably offers limited seating. All four cameras came into play with nifty screen wipes as we transitioned from one view to another and pianist Noël Freidline soloed between two Ziad improvisations. An unobtrusive “Live from The Playroom” logo took up permanent residence at the upper righthand corner of our screens, no matter which camera view we saw. Occasionally, promo messages for donations and the Bechtler’s Facebook and Twitter hangouts swept across the lower lefthand corner. The cosmopolitan polish of the introductory montage was definitely sustained.

Freidline, drummer Rick Dior, and bassist Ron Brendle all wore masks – and all were admirably socially-distanced behind Rabie in a diamond-shaped configuration as Rabie blew on his tenor sax. Sitting upstage behind a plexiglass enclosure and wearing headphones as he wielded his drumsticks, Dior was the most conspicuous reminder that we were in a studio, but his bandmates were also wearing earbuds of some kind. Rabie would turn around between tunes as Dior launched “Gemini” and then “C.T.A.” in the opening cluster of Heath compositions, so they played with hardly a pause.

“Gemini” was most famously covered by Cannonball Adderley, a slower, bluesier title than “Togetherness” that settled comfortably into a waltzing 3/4 groove. Freidline had the first solo after Rabie played the melody, and then the leader returned with a rougher sax sound than we had heard earlier, not at all shy about revealing that he had listened to more John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins than to Heath in forming his style. Brendle soloed tastefully afterwards, though I wished his bass were potted up more at the soundboard, before Ziad then took the outchorus.

Another oldie, recorded by both Miles Davis and Lee Morgan when they vied for trumpet supremacy back in the ‘50s, “C.T.A.” returned us to uptempo. Rabie was already in bebop mode when he introduced the melody, bouncing when he laid out the melody, and he didn’t let go until he had wailed an extended improvisatory rant. Freidline took over authoritatively at the keyboard, swinging hard and comping aggressively when he handed the reins over to Brendle. Dior excelled in his first spotlight of the evening, trading four-bar thrusts with both Freidline and Ziad before the leader circled back to the theme.

Featuring all the members of the quartet, “C.T.A.” was the sort of arrangement that scales a summit that concerts should close with. So it was the right moment for Rabie to pause and speak to us, introducing his band and speaking briefly about Heath, his music, and his career. It was also the right moment to change the mood. Musically, Radie did the job beautifully with Heath’s “The Voice of the Saxophone” after an impressionistic and unaccompanied intro from Freidline. If you’ve heard Coltrane’s Ballads album, you can imagine the aching, romantic region that Rabie steered us toward after the full stop that preceded his solo. It was only here that it became apparent that we might be watching The Playroom’s maiden voyage into video. Lights didn’t dim for Rabie’s most lyrical moments of the evening, nor did we zoom closer to either of the soloists in “The Voice of the Saxophone,” laying bare the fact that both the lights and cameras were unmanned.

While the tech crew for this production didn’t sustain the nightclub vibe here, they were tasteful enough to refrain from marring the seriousness of Ziad’s balladeering with any promotional wipes on the video. Rabie also had a sure sense of drama, following his tenderest selection with his wildest so far. The percussive two-note phrase that is so salient in the melody of “The Thumper” probably gave this Heath piece its name – and it definitely stamps its hard-bop flavor. Ziad embraced its bounce from the beginning, with wilder, higher and screechier playing on tenor than ever, doubling back to the melody before handing soloing chores over to Freidline, who sprinkled broad hints of Charlie Parker and Gershwin into his launch, almost tipping his chair over with his gusto. Brendle also seemed to be keyed-up by this tune’s exuberance in his brief spot, his most impressive playing so far.

During an interval when Bechtler’s director of programming and public engagement, Daniel Ferrulli, punctuated his descriptions of the museum’s upcoming programming with pleas for financial support (rather than the other way around), one of the camera positions was altered, moving closer to Freidline and blocking off the leader from his rhythm section. “A Sound for Sore Ears” had the most irregular pacing of the night as Rabie unveiled the melody, Dior’s emphasis on his cymbals adding a Latin tinge. Freidline had no difficulty at all navigating the jagged terrain as he initiated the soloing, wailing and banging away as he riffed. Rabie answered with a majestic rant of his own before handing things over to Dior for his most extended soloing yet, and the saxophonist added extra trimmings when he returned with his outchorus.

The Ziad Quartet arrangement of “Gingerbread Boy,” by far Heath’s most recorded composition, emphasized its funkiness, effectively splitting the melody between Rabie and Freidline, who only needed to alter his introductory vamp slightly to make it mesh with the sax portion. First recorded in 1961 on Milt Jackson’s Statements album, where Heath played tenor sax in the vibraphonist’s quintet (with pianist Tommy Flanagan anchoring the rhythm section), “Gingerbread Boy” has attracted a sufficient number of proponents, from Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon back in day to more recent covers by Kendrick Scott and Kurt Elling, for it to be considered a jazz standard. Both Rabie and Freidline seemed to be having fun with their own slant on the tune, the saxophonist squonking merrily in his glee and the pianist shuffling through a variety of jazz styles in their solos. Rabie returned just briefly, supplying a launching pad for Dior’s firecracker rampage on the drums. Completing the admirable symmetry of this arrangement, the rhythm section led by Freidline chugged it out.

In effect, “Gingerbread” was the closer. Although the combo moved onto “Far Away Lands,” a tune that has been covered by saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Art Farmer, the webcast cut off abruptly about 30 seconds past the one-hour mark, just as Freidline was beginning to work up a lather in his solo. Rabie had given us a fine account before relinquishing the reins, leaning into the speedy piece with Coltrane-like intensity in his valedictory solo. No doubt when the Bechtler Museum and The Playroom look back on their first collaboration they will be very pleased, but they will also doubtless be thinking of adding a webcast sign-off that’s as slick and urbane as their intro.