JOHN LAMKIN II
John Lamkin Favorites Jazz Quintet at the Baltimore Museum of Industry
by Gregory L. Lewis (September 2021)
Shout-out to the Baltimore Museum of Industry located on the Inner Harbor's south side for sponsoring (along with the Maryland State Arts Council) a series of three FREE Sunday afternoon summer concerts at its outdoors pavilion that featured the John Lamkin Favorites Jazz Quintet, with John R. Lamkin, II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Bob Butta on electric keyboard, Jesse Moody on drums, Blake Meister on acoustic bass and Michael Hairston on tenor sax.
Without missing a beat, this highly-regarded ensemble's personnel (check out their “Transitions” CD, available on Amazon) changed slightly for the third and final concert on September 19, 2021, with the return of regular acoustic bassist Michael Graham and teen sensation Ephraim Dorsey substituting on tenor sax.
Once again, the playlist leaned on John's original compositions, many written in tribute to Charm City's rich jazz heritage. Memorably, “Baker's Closet,” a Latin-tempo romp from the first concert on July 18, was commandeered by the energy of Bob's effervescent keyboard. Fittingly, in that the song title derived from club owner Henry Baker's “The Closet,” a long-ago and somewhat cramped downtown jazz venue with a house band that included Bob Butta, himself, on piano (not to mention the bandleader, alto sax star Gary Bartz).
The group's second performance on August 8 spotlighted “Hittin' At The Haven,” a swinging tune in the brassy and effusive post-bop style of pianist/composer Horace Silver, which John composed in recognition of the “good time had by all” at the bygone New Haven Lounge in Northeast Baltimore.
Continuing the nostalgic theme, this last show unveiled “The Sportsman,” John's not-yet-recorded composition that salutes the legendary jam sessions at the old Sportsman's Lounge, established by NFL great Lenny Moore in Northwest Baltimore. Musical fireworks went off routinely under the tutelage of local tenor sax icon Wilfred “Mickey” Fields (1933-1995), a world-class acolyte of bebop innovator Charlie “Bird” Parker. “Mickey” rarely traveled or recorded.
For those too young or distracted to remember “Mickey,” an exquisite live recording featuring “Mickey” on a 1966 gig headlined by guitarist Walter Namuth at the defunct Madison Club in East Baltimore—“Left Bank '66”is now available ($15.00) from the Baltimore Jazz Alliance (baltimorejazz.com). Listen to this stellar recording by “Mickey” and you'll know what all of the fuss is about. My advice applies in spades to Ephraim Dorsey, this group's 18-year-old saxophonist who studies music at the Peabody Institute.
A swinging middle-tempo (march?) tune, “The Sportsman” highlighted a seasoned rhythm section, with the plucky precision on the downbeat of Michael's bass framing the counterpoint between Jesse's snare drums with cymbal accents and Bob's bluesy vamping on an ascending scale. Notably, Jesse saved his bass drum booming (“bombs”) for another number: “All The Steps You Take (While Walking Through Your Brain).”
“The Sportsman,” as well as “Heritage,” another nod by John to the evolution of the local jazz scene, provided a vehicle for solo tenor sax muscle-flexing by the surprisingly sure-footed Ephraim Dorsey. He put me in mind of tenor sax master Dexter Gordon, who used understated themes as a prelude to harmonic intensity. Ephraim stretched, clipped and repeated notes to create an impressionistic stamp, a discontinuous tension rising to the point of flowing hard-toned exclamations.
I've heard Ephraim play before, but not without the complementary presence of his younger sister, Ebban, on alto sax. They lock horns with gusto, like Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. In any event, John's probing trumpet was a superb foil to the tenor sax on “The Sportsman,” twisting and turning the melodic theme with his refined post-bop chops.
Needless to say, I'm a big fan of this group. I even own a stingy-brim fedora, just like the one Bob Butta wears at the keyboard.
Gregory L. Lewis is a longtime Baltimore attorney whose jazz reflections frequently appear under the Caton Castle’s “show review” tab at catoncastle.com and at reflectionscatoncastle.blogspot.com.
John Lamkin II Plays Free Concert at the Baltimore Museum of Industry
On August 8, 2021, the second installment in a series of three FREE Sunday afternoon jazz concerts under the outdoors pavilion at the Baltimore Museum of Industry near Federal Hill presented an encore performance by the John Lamkin Favorites Jazz Quintet, featuring John R. Lamkin, II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Bob Butta on electric keyboard, Jesse Moody on drums, Blake Meister on acoustic bass, and Michael Hairston on tenor and soprano sax.
This free concert, sponsored partly by the Maryland State Arts Council, put the lie to the old saw that you get what you pay for. Sometimes you get a lot more. Surely you’d hear no dissent from the solitary duckling—a refugee from the Inner Harbor—that aimlessly waddled in front of the sizzling band.
The group’s repertoire included several of Lamkin’s original compositions in recognition of Baltimore’s rich jazz heritage. “Hittin’ At The Haven,” for instance, is a tribute to the “good time had by all” at the old New Haven Lounge, which used to be located in the Northwood Shopping Center near Morgan State University. Both the lounge and the shopping center have been demolished to facilitate expansion of the university.
History zigzags. The shopping center had been a 1960s hotbed of protest against racial segregation. Ironically, the lounge’s parking lot was subsequently the scene of a horrific instance of black-on-black violence in 2008, when Ken Harris, a prominent black Baltimore City councilman, was murdered in a robbery attempt. Three black men were convicted of the crime. Black or white, there are no groups with categorically clean hands.
“Hittin’ At The Haven” is a Horace Silver-style swinging post-bop tune with a two-horn introduction preceding a trumpet excursion in a slurred tone and with a shifting pace that created ascending tension through a deft use of hesitation. The tenor sax countered in a full-toned up-tempo shower of melodic notes, varying in tone and duration with creative ornamental conceits, some reminiscent of tenor sax great Joe Henderson’s trademark warbling licks.
Butta’s bubbly keyboard comping emerged from the background with a solo sprint offset by Moody’s tapping cymbals and Meister’s imperturbable bass line to create a vibe suggestive of Rumba. Butta kept wailing, even as the harbor winds played havoc with his sheet music.
Here, and even more so on “Transitions,” another Lamkin original, Meister’s bass solo’s thematic interjections created an “Ah-ha” moment for me. You see, in Meister’s hands the acoustic bass becomes a melody instrument, and not just a rhythm instrument. Meister’s bass fiddle can take on certain of the flexible, even voice-like qualities of an electric bass guitar. Where had I heard this style before? Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987), the beyond-categorizing bass guitarist with “Weather Report,” a 1970s jazz/rock fusion group. Pastorius applied acoustic bass phrasing to a bass guitar sensibility. Ah-ha! Meister does something like that in reverse order.
“Da Market” is a middle-tempo blues number that was made for dancing, according to Lamkin, who composed it in tribute to denizens of downtown’s Lexington Market. “D Avenue” is a similar composition by Lamkin. Its more “funky” orientation provided a vehicle for extended tenor sax riffs with staccato embellishments, as well as an energetic drum solo that exploited a calculated quiet to accentuate a percussive explosion.
Note that “D Avenue” is a tribute to the jazz legacy of Pennsylvania Avenue’s bygone black entertainment district. In that vein, let us acknowledge the recent death at age 78 of James Earl Reid, the black sculptor who created the Billie Holiday statue erected near Pennsylvania and Lafayette Avenues in West Baltimore, a stone’s throw away from where the storied Royal Theater once stood.
“Ode to George Floyd (I Can’t Breathe)” is a brooding dirge that is Lamkin’s tribute to the personification of recent racial unrest, a repetition of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray riots in 2015. This tune set a mood of poignant sadness. Both the keyboard and the tenor sax tastefully rose to the somber occasion.
Finally, “Somumin 3 (You Dig!)” from the group’s Transitions CD (available on Amazon) is a fluffy jazz/waltz composition by Lamkin that relieved the “George Floyd” angst of the tuned-in audience that half-filled the pavilion. Music is magical that way.
Don’t take my word for it. Check out the third and final installment of the John Lamkin Favorites Jazz Quintet at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Sunday, September 19, 2021, from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m.
Incidentally, the museum celebrates Maryland’s industrial legacy through exhibitions, collections and educational programs at its Key Highway location and is open to the public on weekends.
The John Lamkin Favorites Jazz Quintet was so named by Dr. John Lamkin, II, retired music educator at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, because of the musicians’ mutual affinity for the “post-bop” jazz tradition. Fans of the music are also Dr. Lamkin’s “favorites.”
The John Lamkin Favorites Jazz Quintet—Live at The Baltimore Museum of Industry
By Gregory Lewis (July 2021)
The Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway near the “Rusty Scupper” restaurant has a covered outdoors pavilion—seats several dozen—on spacious grounds (free parking) abutting the inner-harbor's south side. I didn't know it either, until July 18, 2021, when that venue presented “The John Lamkin Favorites Jazz Quintet,” featuring John R. Lamkin, II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Bob Butta on electric keyboard, Jesse Moody on drums, Blake Miester on acoustic bass, and Michael Hairston on tenor sax.
Hat-tip to these local all-stars: Live jazz is back with a bang!
I walked in on “Baker's Closet,” a Latin-tempo romp that unleashed a dynamic rhythm section, with a shifting drumbeat persistently answering an unflinching bass line, all in a lilting movement embraced by Bob's comping keyboard. And per his custom, Bob once again soloed delightfully in this Latin idiom, like a hog in rhythmic slop.
Against this spicy background, John's flugelhorn took flight with soaring lines of varying tones—mellow to shrill—and with dissonant inflections.
Michael's hard-toned tenor sax (reminds me of Junior Cook) soloed in a contrasting style. He shaped choppy bursts into melodic impressions that flowed to the sway of the Latin beat. The wide range of Michael's horn was on display, including some booming notes at the bottom.
This concert was the first in a summer series of three FREE outdoors concerts on Sunday afternoons at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, sponsored in part by The Maryland State Arts Council. On this day, both the weather and the music were like Baby Bear's porridge: Just right.
Blake's plucky bass introduction resolved into a sort of funk beat that merged with Bob's bluesy keyboard vamping on “Eartha's Dance,” John's original composition dedicated to his late wife. Alternately, this tune was exuberant and subdued. John's flugelhorn established a melodic line that was shadowed by Michael's probing tenor sax riffs. For his part, John's middle-speed excursion ascended to a fluttering halt. As to Michael's soulful vibe, John (ever the professor) mentioned its similarity with the styles of tenor saxophone notables Stanley Turrentine and Gene “Jug” Ammons.
This show lasted for an hour and a half, without breaks. It even included one tune that's memorable for its forgettable name: “All The Steps You Take While Walking Through Your Brain,” from the group's debut CD entitled “Transitions.” With its catchy Dixieland march flavor, “All The Steps” displayed the passionate “cool” of Jesse's drums in solo mode, emblematic of this group's swagger and proof that rumors about the death of live jazz have been greatly exaggerated.
Two more free Sunday afternoon (4:00 to 5:30 p.m.) shows featuring the John Lamkin Favorites Jazz Quintet at the Baltimore Museum of Industry are on deck: August 8 & September 19, 2021. See you there!
John Lamkin: Transitions
Karl Ackermann (All About Jazz, July 4, 2019)
Dr. John R. Lamkin, II has dedicated much of his career to bringing music to students and the community while recording little, so his many Mid-Atlantic fans will welcome Transitions, his first release in decades. His only prior album was Hot (Self-Produced, 1984), where the trumpeter wrote all but one composition. As Director of Bands and Coordinator of Music and Music Education at University of Maryland Eastern Shore, he has exposed students to top jazz talent. Lamkin himself has played with Sonny Stitt, Frank Foster, Harvey Mason, Cyrus Chestnut, Charles Fambrough, and many other well-known artists.
Lamkin leads two groups: a "Sacred" Jazz Quintet performing hymns and spirituals, and this group, his "Favorites" Quintet. The name is based on a rotation of players, all Lamkin preferred musicians, and the leader's practice of calling out his favorite playlist tunes when performing. Lamkin is a traditionalist whose influences include Horace Silver, Miles Davis and Art Blakey. It is the inspiration of Blakey that comes through in Lamkin's commanding, rhythmic playing. Among his favorites are his son John R. Lamkin lll, who plays drums on four of the ten tracks, and his wife, singer Eartha Lamkin, who provides a stirring vocal on the Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr. classic "God Bless the Child," the sole sextet track.
It's easy to hear an old New Orleans parade weaving through the opener, "All The Steps You Take (While Walking Through Your Brain)," one of seven Lamkin originals. Exemplifying the Transitions title is the pre-Civil War plantation spiritual, "Down by the Riverside," which Lamkin also performs with his Sacred Quintet. Here he gives the song an unexpected reading that feels like a hard bop/jump blues hybrid. The title track is an infectious, high-energy piece with terrific solos from Lamkin, pianist Bob Butta, and saxophonist Michael Hairston. The pace intensifies with "V.M.W," written by the trumpeter's brother Martin Lamkin who adds his blistering trombone solo. Drummer Philip Thomas makes his only appearance on Transitionscount, with a blistering (albeit brief) solo. The collection closes out with "Swingin' at the Castle" (for the Baltimore jazz club Caton Castle) that shuffles and bumps along to a lightly swinging conclusion.
Regardless of who sits in on any track, the musicianship is flawless and the quintet members work together empathetically. Fans of 1950s and 60s hard bop, shuffle blues and revival swing will likely wish that John Lamkin didn't wait thirty-five years between albums. Part of Lamkin's vision is that music should be fun. Transitions fulfills that vision, and then some.
John R. Lamkin II 2019 Annual Jazz Appreciation Month Show
By Gregory Lewis (April 2019)
On April 13, 2019, the John R. Lamkin, II "Favorites" Quintet appeared at the Caton Castle, with John R. Lamkin, II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Michael Hairston on tenor sax, Bob Butta on piano, Michael Graham on acoustic bass and Jesse Moody on drums. Having rolled out their new CD, "Transitions," at the Caton Castle last December, this group's polished sound is both familiar and welcome.
Indeed, amidst my list of everyday irritations—pet peeves—concerning such things as robo-calls and telephone answering machines that require a voice response (artificial intelligence, so-called), anonymous local sports teams (following the revolving-door lineups of the football "Ravens" and the baseball "Orioles" is dizzying) and the general nonchalance about babies being aborted after birth to effectuate a woman's "right" to choose who lives and who dies (it bothers me that so many are not bothered)—amidst all that sort of culture smog, this group's straight-ahead jazz vibe (bebop revisited) is a breath of fresh air for the musically "woke."
On "Peace," pianist Horace Silver's slow-tempo cerebral ballad, Bob's opening statement of the melodic theme channeled Silver's light and expansive piano style, delivering notes with guitar-like particularity and shaping elaborate phrases in a solo interlude that tracked Michael Graham's pronounced bass line, ahead of the rasping brush strokes of Jesse's drums.
Jesse's brushes also got a workout on other soft ballads, like saxophonist Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford," a tribute to trumpet great Clifford Brown, but such was not the case on "A Night in Tunisia," trumpeter "Dizzy" Gillespie's uptempo bebop anthem with the famous introductory trumpet lick: "Dah Dah Dee Dah Dee Dee Dah Dah."
On this number, Jesse's drumsticks pounded the beat, maintaining a shifting pace in rhythmic sync with Michael Graham's racing bass line and Bob's comping piano refrains. Like "Dizzy," the insistent tone of John's trumpet soared above the cacophonous rhythm section in waves of notes, repeating the melody in an ascending pattern.
Michael Hairston's tenor sax soloed with a hard tone and choppy phrasing reminiscent of "Junior" Cook, tenor sax sideman (along with trumpeter "Blue" Mitchell) on many great Horace Silver recordings. And the twisting scope of Michael's horn reinforced the flowing power of this tune.
"Dizzy's" contribution to bebop went beyond the music. For instance, his trademark black beret established a fashion etiquette for jazz clubs—guys sporting a hat indoors—that has endured to this day. Indeed, not only was Bob Butta's piano performance exceptional, but his customary stingy-brim fedora wasn't bad either. I prefer a cap.
On "Transitions," the title tune of the quintet's new CD, Michael Graham's vibrant bass set the tone for this cha cha style rhythmic excursion. Jesse's busy drum work with tapping rim shots mediated between Michael's bossy bass line and Bob's feisty piano before Michael Hairston's tenor sax solo took flight along edgy contours with a varying tone, methodically sifting the melodic theme down to its essence.
John's flugelhorn solo employed a laid-back approach with elongated phrases that accentuated his mellow tone. He used pauses to create a sense of anticipation that was followed by sustained melodic riffs, in the manner of Art Farmer, a flugelhorn master.
This show's repertoire—Miles Davis' "Seven Steps to Heaven," Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring," Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring"—paid tribute to great trumpeters who blossomed in post-World War II urban America, a hothouse of creativity, musical and otherwise, that could provide some needed guidance to a present generation that insists on looking elsewhere.
In a 1969 interview, bassist Ron Carter commented on the volatility in the musical fashion of a half-century ago:
"Music is in a circle; it's going back to swing. Right now bands are meandering, trying to check out the rock path. I came to New York about a year before freedom [saxophonist Ornette Coleman-style avant-garde jazz] really got hot. If you check which bands are functioning now, playing the same music, you'll be surprised to see how few are left. [. . .] If you hear some guy play freedom who does not know bebop and is not hip to swing, he is just playing off the top of his head. He's not really as free as someone with a musical background" (from "Notes and Tones" (1977), by Arthur Taylor).
The perennial disconnect between the old and the new reminds me of a joke about a drunk crawling around on all fours under a streetlamp when a policeman happened upon the scene:
Policeman: What are you doing?
Drunk: Looking for my keys.
Policeman: Where did you lose them?
Drunk: Over there (pointing to the darkness).
Policeman: Well, if you lost them over there, why are you crawling around under this streetlamp?
Drunk: Because this is where the light is.
The future of jazz looks bright, as exemplified by a sensational young female organist, Akiko Tsuruga, a native of Japan, who appeared at the Caton Castle a few months ago with guitarist Charlie Sigler's straight-ahead quartet. Japan has a robust jazz scene, unlike the closed society of its mainland cousins, the Chinese. Coincidentally, the public policy of both China and the USA promotes abortion, whereas the public policy of Japan does not. Yes, the future of jazz looks bright . . . in Japan.
Once again, the John R. Lamkin, II "Favorites" Quintet showed the enduring vitality of straight-ahead jazz, the heir to the bebop throne. Judging by the enthusiastic reception, they were, to shift the metaphor, preaching to the choir.
Transitions: A Contrarian’s Delight
By Gregory Lewis (Baltimore Jazz Alliance, April 2019)
Transitions, a recently released CD by the John Lamkin Favorites Jazz Quintet/Sextet, featuring vocalist Eartha Lamkin, is a welcome addition to my digital music library.
Not to be confused with his namesake son John Lamkin III, a gifted drummer who appears on three tracks of the CD, John Lamkin II brought his working group—with some choice additions—into the recording studio to memorialize the polished sound that’s been honed over years of live performances at straight-ahead jazz venues around town, notably West Baltimore’s Caton Castle, with three live appearances over the past year by the core ensemble: John Lamkin II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Michael Hairston on tenor and soprano saxophone, Bob Butta on piano, Michael Graham on acoustic bass and Jesse Moody on drums.
“Transitions,” the title tune original by John Lamkin II, demonstrates the influence of composer/pianist Horace Silver on Lamkin’s musical approach, which he expressly acknowledges in insightful liner notes. Introduced by a chorus—flugelhorn and tenor sax—that gives a brassy context to a Silveresque funky Latin beat, a sort of cha cha rhythm maintained by Moody’s tapping rim shots behind Graham’s propulsive bass line, the tune gives way to Butta’s expansive treatment of the melody with spirited piano runs that build to a climactic resolution, all a prelude to the harmonically searching horn solos that follow.
I know a contrarian who views bebop as the gold standard of jazz and is, therefore, pleased with the Transitions CD because it is straight out of that tradition. In fact, he was so impressed by “Somumin3 (You Dig!),” with its boppish jazz waltz melody, that it muted his objection to “Get On Up and Get On Down,” a tune with a funky upfront bass and drum downbeat that mimics the trademark vibe of the late Godfather of Soul, James Brown, playing “on the one,” which my acquaintance considers a concession to popular fashion.
Indeed, this CD is eclectic. A couple of tracks were inspired by local institutions, like “Swingin’ at The Castle,” a middle-tempo swaggering blues tribute to impresario Ron Scott’s Caton Castle, the scene of old-school jazz for the past twenty-nine years. The alternate bassists on some tracks, Kris Funn and Herman Burney, frequently appear at the Castle, as do Todd Simon and John Lamkin III, the alternate pianist and drummer, respectively.
“Da Market” (note the ‘hood-speak) was composed by Lamkin II in the carnival spirit of mid-day public music performances at Lexington Market, a venerable food and produce exchange that has become out-at-the-elbows like Baltimore itself. This number is, according to the liner notes, “a 24-bar funk blues, dedicated to the Lexington Market clientele, [and] written to please listeners, dancers, and musicians alike.”
Something for everybody aptly describes Transitions, with the sensuous vocal styling of Eartha Lamkin on “God Bless the Child” (with Martin Lamkin on trombone) and a non-vocal gospel hymn (with Simon’s particularly irreverent piano), “Down by the Riverside,” covering a couple more stylistic bases. Note also that saxophonist Craig Alston performs on “722” and drummer Phillip Thomas appears on “V.M.W.,” two more Horace Silver-inspired compositions.
As for my contrarian acquaintance, the guy who won’t give up his flip phone, his favorite of the ten tracks is the original number by Lamkin II with the eccentric tag: “All The Steps You Take (While Walking Through Your Brain),” an adulterated Dixieland-type rhythmic conceit with a meandering yet rollicking cadence that frames complementary solo breaks on trumpet and tenor sax.
Even so, in his contrariness, my acquaintance was probably most enamored by the title. Defending his off-the-wall attitude, he would no doubt respond in the manner of Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno: “Life cannot submit itself to reason, because the end of life is living and not understanding.”
The John Lamkin II “Favorites” Jazz Quintet CD Release Party At The Caton Castle: A Reflection
By Gregory Lewis, December 15, 2018
On December 15, 2018, the John Lamkin II Ensemble appeared at the Caton Castle, with John Lamkin II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Michael Hairston on tenor and soprano sax, Bob Butta on piano, Michael Graham on acoustic bass, Jesse Moody on drums, and Eartha Lamkin on vocals. Celebrating the release of a new CD, "Transitions," this group put its best foot forward.
John's musical approach is traditionally oriented, imposing his personal stamp on tunes that were stylized in the post-World War II bebop years and subsequently refined, for better or worse. I once read a review that knocked a jazz performance as sounding like it stepped out of a 1950s time machine. It took a moment for those disparaging words to sink in because, from my point of view, riffing in the footsteps of the revolutionary musicians of that era–"Bird," "Dizzy," "Klook" (Kenny Clarke), Monk, and others–is a good thing. In fact, the real disappointment for me is the trendy jazz of the present that presumes to go beyond, say, Charlie "Bird" Parker without the capability of playing what "Bird" played.
Pianist Horace Silver's composition, "That Healin' Feelin'" was typical of John's approach, with a two horn statement of the melodic theme to a funky Latin rhythm which flowed from a pronounced bass line that was staggered on the descent, against Jesse's busy drum flourishes with rim shot accents. On a solo trumpet statement, John picked up the tempo with a thin tone in the middle to upper register, blowing notes that vibrated hardly at all, shades of Miles Davis.
Michael's tenor sax solo formed a complementary balance with a hard tone and elongated notes at shifting angles. As the horns traded extended phrases, Michael Graham's bass line maintained an assertive beat that provoked a spirited response from Jesse's drums–a slow rumble that elevated to crashing cymbals–as Bob's melodious piano comped, abstractly.
"Why Not!," a bluesy composition by tenor saxophonist Houston Person, provided more of the same, with a spotlight on Bob's piano. Like John, Bob has been a fixture on the local jazz scene for decades and, musically speaking, he's no worse for the wear. In fact, his running keyboard pursuit of the melodic figure with tinkling high notes accented by dissonant counter-licks on this tune made me flash back forty years or so to when Bob was part of the house band that backed alto sax great Gary Bartz at "The Closet," Henry Baker's long ago jazz club that was located downtown on Franklin Street. "The Closet" may be long gone, but Bob ain't. From the bandstand, John fondly recalled "The Closet," too.
On "Fine and Mellow," a blues number notably recorded by "Billie" Holiday, John's wife, Eartha, brought that sensuous lady's touch that can transform the blues in dreamy ways, invoking the aura of Ruby Glover and Ethel Ennis, legendary local jazz divas who likewise charmed us in days gone by.
At the break following the first set, there was a brisk sale of the newly released CD, "Transitions," near the brightly decorated Christmas tree next to the bandstand. For some of us who have been around the block a few times, nostalgic recollections pretty much sum up the Christmas spirit, which puts us on a par with the reformed Ebeneezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens' classic novel, "A Christmas Carol." We don't say, "Bah, Humbug," but neither do we shout "Hallelujah."
Then there are those of us who superstitiously acknowledge an other-worldly dimension to Christmas, like George Bailey, the James Stewart character in the iconic yuletide movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," but limit our theological imagination to something like that story's quaint conceit: Every time a Christmas bell rings, an angel gets his wings.
But with the passion of faith, a relative few of us hold fast to the biblical meaning of Christmas as reiterated annually by Linus, the child cartoon figure in the perennial TV showing of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," featuring the animated denizens of Charles Schultz's famous "Peanuts" comic strip, with a jazzy boogie-woogie theme song by the Vince Guaraldi trio. Quoting from chapter two of the Gospel of Luke, Linus says:
"And the angel said to [the shepherds], Fear not; behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
Alas, Christmas is for everybody, but salvation is only for believers.
In a pale comparison, traditional jazz likewise seeks the many but finds few true enthusiasts. The modest-sized audience for this show heard a mixed bag of jazz offerings, including John's original composition, "Transitions," the title tune from the just released CD.
On this tune, Michael's soprano sax whimsically adjusted the shape of the melody to a sort of "Cha Cha" rhythm before launching a prolonged stream of fluid notes with an evenness of tone that alternated between the middle and upper register of his horn.
Then, with sudden eruptions reminiscent of flugelhorn great Art Farmer, John picked up the melodic statement, parsing it at a slower pace with audible pauses before accelerating. All the while, Bob's piano comping tracked Michael Graham's expressive bass line, a soulfully halting beat that ran parallel to Jesse's drums. Individually and collectively, this rhythm section shined.
In addition to John's "Transitions" CD, you might consider a gift-book for that jazz fan on your holiday list, like "Louis Armstrong in His Own Words: Selected Writings" (1999), edited by Thomas Brothers. Therein, the great trumpeter, "Satchmo," said something profound about humility, a scarce commodity, when explaining why he never spoke ill of inferior musicians with whom he played:
"I've always lived like that sister that was in my mother (Mary Ann's) church [who explained why she was so attentive to a substitute preacher by saying] 'When our Rev. Cozy is preaching, I can look right straight through him and see Jesus—and when the Sub Preacher was preaching sure—I realized that he wasn't as good as our pastor–so I looked over him and saw Jesus just the same.' That's the only way I wanted to be—just like that sister."
Jazz critics take heed: "Satchmo's" charitable wisdom—accentuate the positive—applies to the art of playing music as well as the art of listening to it. A remarkable man, "Satchmo" was in the habit of ending personal letters on a light note, like: "As the little boy who sat on a block of ice said, my tale is told."