CapitalBop :: Musician Profiles

Appreciation | Lessons from Mr. Warren

Butch Warren sits outside the Columbia Station club in D.C. Courtesy Antoine Sanfuentes


Editor’s note: Lyle Link posted this remembrance on Facebook earlier this week. The sensitivity, thoughtfulness and sincere humility that Warren elicited from him, and that he so artfully communicates, convinced us that CapitalBop’s readership needed to read the post. We’re grateful that Link has agreed to share it here.


by Lyle Link
Special contributor

I hated him back then. And though it took place many years ago, I can still recall the incident as if it happened only yesterday.

It was a Sunday night, and I couldn’t wait to play my saxophone at the weekly jam session at Twins Lounge. I walked down the street with urgency. The dry leaves crunched under my sneakers as I hurried along the cracked asphalt of the sidewalk, a cool evening breeze blowing across my forehead, an orange, fall moon hanging low in the starless night sky. My moist fingers clutched the wooden handle of my saxophone case, my stomach a flock of butterflies.

I was twenty-one and badly wanted to learn to play like my idols: saxophonists Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane. How could they play the way they did? I wondered. How did they bring those oddly shaped pieces of metal to life? Eyes closed, with no sheet music in front of them, producing those beautiful melodies, as if they had channeled them from some other, mysterious realm. Or maybe, just maybe, they created the music themselves. Perhaps it came out of them, out of the depths of their experiences, their instruments just a mere vehicle for them to transfer what they were thinking and feeling, and hearing in their heads. However they did it, I knew that that was what I wanted to be able to do. Continue reading

Musician profile | Baltimore native Cyrus Chestnut relishes his gift — and passes it on to students

Cyrus Chestnut performs tonight at the Hamilton; a band comprised of his students will open for him. Courtesy Thomas Faivre-Duboz/flickr

by John Cook
CapitalBop contributor

For the pianist Cyrus Chestnut, music is a lifelong gift, developed through the combination of environment, study, practice, experience and a joy of expression that he generously shares. Born to a musical family, he was already seeking to emulate his piano-playing father by the age of two. “I always liked the music,” Chestnut said in a recent interview. “And I just wanted to climb up to the piano and do what he did.” That enthusiasm earned him lessons at the family’s Baltimore home, followed by professional lessons at the age of five, playing in church at seven, enrolling in Peabody Preparatory at nine, and ultimately his graduation from the Berklee College of Music. Today, Chestnut is seen as one of the most masterful practitioners of classic jazz piano technique. And he relishes both the opportunity to display his talents, and to transmit them to future generations — as he will be doing tonight at the Hamilton, when he appears with the Berklee Sextet.

 

Early in Chestnut’s personal journey, a distinct musical foundation and personal vision were formed. When he was nine, “at a five-and-dime store I saw this record with a picture of a man playing the piano whose name was Thelonious Monk,” he said. “I had no idea who he was but I just liked it and so I started to listen to more music as such…. The more I listened the more I got into it.” His love for listening and ability to absorb came naturally; even from his earliest days in church, he “was learning the principles of playing music. At that age I didn’t realize it but I was learning a lot about ear training and accompaniment and such that became part of my ongoing development,” he said.

His academic pursuits and classical background reinforced a strict practice regimen (which he carries with him to this day) and enabled him to deeply study the masters of jazz, gospel and classical music that informed his progression. While acknowledging the importance that an education in the technical aspects had for him, Chestnut also cites the importance of experiences. Coming up in Baltimore, he immediately cited the importance of the Monday night jam sessions at Sportsmen’s Lounge, as well as the many opportunities to listen and play along the Baltimore-Washington corridor. “Mickey Fields, Andy Ennis, John Lamkin, Steve Novosel, Buck Hill — being able to hear them and then later on being able to work with them was special. Every time you play you learn something,” he said. “Especially being around Steve Novosel, you leave any situation learning something.” Post-graduation, the trombonist Phil Wilson invited him on a formative State Department tour of Central and South America; it launched Chestnut’s career, and from then on he accompanied nationally and internationally touring artists. Continue reading

Special feature | Explorations of sonic personalities: a brief introduction to Nicole Mitchell’s Ice Crystal

Nicole Mitchell brings her risk-taking quartet, Ice Crystal, to the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival this weekend. Courtesy Graffiti Photographic/flickr

by Luke Stewart
Editorial board

For jazz musicians, the goal that constantly renews itself is to reach the highest level of musicianship. That means possessing more than virtuosic technicality: You have to couple it with joyful, innovative creativity. In her most recent group, Ice Crystal, the master flutist Nicole Mitchell is simply having fun. There is no overarching message or particular harmonic challenge. No pointed display of instrumental wizardry. The music is earnest, and the musicians have developed unique approaches. With this formula, honest music made by honest musicians, the resulting sound is depth by default.

For an artist as prolific as Mitchell, stripping down the instrumentation for an ensemble is a pleasure. “Because I do some writing for orchestra or large, through-composed pieces, just writing for a jazz quartet, which is how I started, is very relaxing to me,” she told me in a recent interview.

Ice Crystal – which performs on Saturday at the Kennedy Center in the culmination of the three-day-long Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival – revolves around Mitchell’s mutinous interplay with the vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. Frequent comparisons have been made to the equally deep collaborations between the avant-garde reedist Eric Dolphy and the vibes player Bobby Hutcherson; it must be noted that they too were simply writing tunes that explored the relationship between the flute’s windy flow and the bubbling pulse of the vibes. It doesn’t matter whether they played “Out to Lunch” or “Out of Nowhere.” The same innovation was present. The key is in the textures and feelings the musicians share amidst the creation of a sequence of compelling moments. It is the relationship the collaborators have in their ability to support and propel each other.


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Musician profile | Heidi Martin, an under-appreciated D.C. vocalist, challenges through introspection

In her original music, Heidi Martin mixes contemplative folk, classic jazz and groove-based soul. Courtesy Gudrun Hughes

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

Go hear Heidi Martin perform at the Atlas Performing Arts Center this Thursday, and you’ll witness a woman unloosing her burdens. The songwriter and vocalist will whisper, and hum, and howl. She’ll pry on notes like hot iron. And with her lyrics – which banter and fold into each other like a shrewd internal monologue – Martin will let you in on things: fears, frustrations, imperfect ideals, the delicacy and strength of her passions.

But that’s not what you’ll leave the theater holding onto. Martin — who may be D.C.’s most original songwriter, in any genre, and is surely one of its most under-appreciated singers — means to turn your attention inward, by example more than entreaty. It’s why we listen in the first place: When an artist reveals herself with such unfaltering inquisitiveness, she helps us raise the bar for ourselves.

At the Atlas, Martin will be debuting a long-gestating project called The Race Card, which marries music, documentary, photography and provocation. The production treats one of her dearest topics: the open and untreated wound of America’s racial sins. Music, logically, is the launch pad; Martin will perform some of her original songs attacking the issue. But from there, she plans to move into other realms, showing portraits by the photographer Rahmeek Rasul and videos she took of friends answering questions about racial identity. And since Martin hasn’t got any time for complacency, she’ll ask members of the audience to respond to those same questions.

The project grew out of frustration with fellow white Americans, who she says use silence to avoid comprehending the roots of their privilege. “I started to really notice how in white culture, the media has all this false intimacy, and there seems to be this bridge of white and Black folks getting along – but without anyone really addressing what had gone on before,” Martin said in explaining her decision to create The Race Card, which she started developing about five years ago. Continue reading

Musician profile | Akua Allrich: Uniquely Akua

Akua Allrich, shown performing at the Hamilton, recently released her second album. Courtesy Akua Allrich

by Ken Avis
CapitalBop contributor

The vocalist Akua Allrich has been attracting attention over the past few years for her emotionally and spiritually charged performances, and a voice imbued with the sensitivity to coax and soar in equal measure. This Wednesday, she will be at the Howard Theatre for a concert celebrating the release of her second CD, Uniquely Standard. The album was recorded live at two shows in 2012, including one that took place just down the street from the Howard, at Bohemian Caverns.

In addition to her distinctive and powerful vocal delivery, this disc highlights Allrich’s wide view of the Black musical tradition; although dedicated to the idea of the “standard,” it goes way beyond a strict reworking of the American Songbook. Sensitive renditions of songs like Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and “Black Coffee” – a hit for both Sarah Vaughn and Peggy Lee – contrast with the African music of Miriam Makeba’s “Jol’ Inkomo” and the traditional American spiritual “Sinnerman.” Both Makeba and Nina Simone rank highly on Allrich’s list of influences, and the disc also includes her interpretation of the classic Simone hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” There’s even an original composition Allrich wrote in the standards style, “Wishful Thinking.”

I caught up with Allrich for a phone conversation recently as she cooked dinner and fielded a competing set of questions from her young son, handling it all with customary energy and humor. She described her 2010 debut release, A Peace of Mine, as “a compilation of the music that I loved: reggae, soul, bossa nova and jazz at the center of it all.” It was full of original compositions that stretched the boundaries of any single genre, but she decided to follow up with a disc that offered a more traditional approach, based around well-known songs. For such an eclectic performer, this type of recording can be a powerful statement.

Akua Allrich – Wishful Thinking (Uniquely Standard)

“I love standards, perhaps more than many vocalists. I didn’t do it because I thought it would sell,” she said. “Jazz is jazz; you aren’t going to make that much money! At the same time, it’s nice to have the more traditional jazz world say, ‘Oh, Akua is a jazz vocalist when she wants to be.’ The jazz world can be very particular sometimes about jazz keeping its traditional roots, but I can still do a standard and express myself.” Continue reading

Artist profile | Afro Bop Alliance sets jazz alight with the energy of Latin rhythms

The drummer Joe McCarthy, left, leads the Afro Bop Alliance. Courtesy marylandhall.blogspot.com

by Ken Avis
CapitalBop contributor

Remember the Smithsonian Jazz Café? If so, you probably remember the Afro Bop Alliance; until the venue’s doors closed in 2008, the D.C.-area septet was more or less the house band for its Latin jazz nights. Performing both alone and alongside visiting stars like Poncho Sanchez and Arturo O’Farrill, the Afro-Cuban jazz group – which is led by drummer Joe McCarthy – set those evenings alight. The sterile atmosphere that you might have anticipated from the Natural History Museum’s Atrium Café became vibrant with the lush and innovative arrangements of the Afro Bop Alliance, blending the energy of their Latin polyrhythms with bebop’s harmonic complexity.

The alliance – which performs this Thursday at Twins Jazz – found national attention when it teamed up in 2008 with the vibraphonist Dave Samuels and his renowned Caribbean Jazz Project. The album they made together earned the Latin Grammy for Latin Jazz Album of the Year, and garnered a nomination for a Grammy. The Afro Bop Alliance certainly hasn’t over-played the local scene in the intervening years. So, this week’s appearance is something to relish for both fans and newcomers to the band.

“Keeping a big band on the road when its members are all in-demand musicians with multiple projects isn’t easy,” McCarthy explained. The band has been far from idle, though. Their 2011 album, Una Más, earned critical acclaim and won the Washington Area Music Association Award for Best Big Band/Swing recording. The album was described by the Latin Jazz Network as a “molten mix of bronzed horns and beautifully clouded woodwinds with elementally raw drums and percussion … creating a sensuous, almost bordering on lustful quality to the music.” Continue reading

Musician profile | Tarus Mateen’s never-ending journey

Tarus Mateen is shown here performing at Bohemian Caverns on July 3. Courtesy Timothy Forbes Photography

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

It’s a little before 11 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Bohemian Caverns is just about half full. A dingy darkness hangs about the basement club, but Tarus Mateen – seated on a stool onstage, with a hollow-body electric bass lolling in his lap – is glowing. He’s close to the end of the show, the first of five Tuesday-night performances he’ll give this month as part of a month-long residency at the Caverns. You can tell he isn’t ready to wrap things up. In between songs, Mateen, 44, shares a story of childhood jam sessions, rhapsodizes about the power of music, and extends an invitation – an ultimatum, really – to audience members: dive in with him, and get immersed in the music.

Mateen has just finished playing another one of his compositions, which are dominating the show this evening. Most of them are trenchantly grooving things, with harmonic structures extracted from West Africa and points east. Over the years, he has recorded them with some of the top names in jazz, but Mateen hardly ever leads his own band, so his originals rarely find their way to the stage.

Which is not to say he is short of work. On the D.C. jazz scene, Mateen is ubiquitous: On a given weekend, you might find him playing an experimental set on Friday night with saxophonist Brian Settles, soul-jazz at trumpeter Donvonte McCoy’s regular Eighteenth Street Lounge gig on Saturday evening, and a straight-ahead brunch gig with saxophonist Marshall Keys on Sunday. Thanks to a giddy blend of malleability and autonomy, Mateen is the definitive force in almost every band he joins.

If someone tells you Tarus Mateen isn’t the most important bass player living in D.C., it’s likely that they either haven’t heard him perform or they prefer bassists to remain submerged in a group’s aesthetic, serving as a pedestal rather than a principal. His most famous work is with the New York-based pianist Jason Moran’s trio. During an interview with DownBeat, conducted after the group’s latest record won Album of the Year in the magazine’s 2011 critics’ poll, Moran spoke about Mateen’s strong pull in the trio. “Tarus is the major protagonist who pushes the music, and we work at intersecting with each other to have conversations,” Moran said. Continue reading

Special feature | Remembering Joe Byrd, beloved bassist who helped bring bossa nova to U.S.

Joe Byrd performed in his brother Charlie's famed trio for over 40 years. Ken Avis/CapitalBop

by Ken Avis
CapitalBop contributor

The D.C. area this month lost one of its most appreciated and legendary musicians. Joe Byrd, best known for his work as the bassist with the Charlie Byrd Trio and the Great Guitars and for his involvement in the milestone Jazz Samba album, died on March 6. He was 78.

Joe was much admired as a musician and as a person. Many remember him particularly from his time playing at D.C.’s Showboat Lounge and in later years at the King of France Tavern in Annapolis. He toured internationally with both the trio and the Great Guitars (featuring Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and Charlie Byrd) and was proud to have played at the White House.

I had the opportunity to interview Joe just a week before his death, for a video documentary about Jazz Samba. He was in great humor and welcomed us with many stories of his musical adventures and collaborations. Joe described his upbringing in Chuckatuck, Va. In the family’s country store, blues players would perform around the stove; his parents, too, were musicians. His mother was a pianist, and his father a mandolin player and blues guitarist. Brother Charlie taught him to play guitar and encouraged Joe to play the bass because “Charlie needed a rhythm section,” Joe said. “Everybody needs a bass player.” The two would go on to perform together for four decades. Continue reading

Special feature | Remembering Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson, D.C. drum doyen and beloved friend

Drummer Jimmy "Junebug" Jackson, in a scene from the forthcoming film, Oxygen for thesi Ears. Courtesy Stefan Immler/Giganova Productions

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

D.C.’s most storied drummer, and one of its most boisterously joyful spirits, departed from this earth on Saturday. After just under four years in town, Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson had become a patriarch of the District jazz scene and a treasured friend to almost all its major players. He was 55.

At the popular H St. jazz club HR-57, Jackson was a jack of all trades (and master of just about every one), serving as house drummer, unofficial comedian and mentor to the young musicians who ventured onto the stage at the club’s regular jam sessions. Occasionally, Jackson would even pick up the microphone to croon a ballad in his sibilant, amicable tenor. Across town, at Eighteenth Street Lounge, Jackson played every weekend, driving the dance floor with thunderous grooves and a signature, trenchant shuffle beat.

Click to buy On My Way Home, Jackson's only CD as a leader

Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson, “Never Say Yes”

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After becoming renowned in Atlanta for his prowess as a funk drummer, Jackson honed his jazz chops alongside a master, touring for 21 years with organ great Jimmy Smith. By the time he arrived in D.C., Jackson had also spent a number of years on the New York jazz scene, where he developed a strong reputation as a deft player with a convivial spirit and an incorrigible wit.

Below, a number of his comrades from the D.C. scene reflect on their time with Jackson, and recount some of the lessons he conferred on them.


Mark Saltman

Bassist

Junebug had a million stories about being on the road with Jimmy Smith. During that time, they played with so many guys. He had a story about Wynton being at the Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival. I think at one point he had challenged Wynton to a game of basketball because Wynton is a big basketball guy, but Junebug didn’t really play basketball. I guess he was kinda talking some trash, and they were supposed to have a one-on-one game at something like 8 in the morning. Apparently all the media was there, a whole bunch of reporters were there, and as soon as Junebug touched the ball, Wynton realized that the joke was on him – because Junebug couldn’t even dribble!

Just a couple of months ago, the Kennedy Center did the tribute to Sonny Rollins. During the tribute they had all the jazz greats up on stage. He called me to tell me to watch it, and he told me he’d played with every single person on that stage. Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Heath, Chrsitian McBride – all of the major cats were up on that stage.


Donvonte McCoy

Trumpeter

As far as his musicianship, Jimmy was the highest caliber of a musician. He had been on the road and he had worked with the best musicians for years. When we worked together, one thing he really showed me was how to always try to do your best – especially at the gig. For the job, he was never late. Not for one gig, the whole two years we worked together. And he was the greatest guy you could have to support the band: He would call all of the band members and make sure that they were going to be there. He just cared so much about the music.

Jackson with Jimmy Smith's dominoes on his snare drum. Courtesy Facebook

His spirit was one of such family and brotherhood that it forced me to say, “Man, don’t ignore this brother.” So the first chance I had to hire him for my band, I did. I just never knew anybody that had so much pride and dignity in being a musician.

The D.C. jazz community is not always the most united; you have different scenes – the U St. scene, the Adams Morgan scene. The one thing everybody had in common by the time Junebug left us was that everybody knew Junebug. And if some people didn’t know you, Junebug was telling them about you.


Stefan Immler

Filmmaker

I met Junebug right after he moved to D.C. in 2007, and he was a great friend ever since. He was always in a great mood and full of optimism; I had a blast hanging out with him. He gave a candid on-camera interview for our jazz documentary movie, which led to the title of the film: “Oxygen for the Ears.” The film will be released next month and will be dedicated to him as a celebration of his remarkable jazz life. Junebug once said, “You need jazz to breathe, you need jazz to feel good about yourself, just to be cool in life.” Junebug made our lives jazzier, and we will miss him!


Elijah Jamal Balbed

Saxophonist

Musically, Junebug was just the real deal. You could always feel his passion in the music. I thought I knew how to swing – until I met Junebug. The first time we ever played together, I remember looking back at him because it felt so good, and he just had that famous grin all over his face.

I witnessed him make strong musical connections with other people, too. He loved playing music with my friend, bassist Eliot Seppa. Every time I’d mention Eliot, Junebug would say, “That cat can play some bass!” With me, Eliot, Braxton Cook and other young musicians, he’d always tell people, “Yeah man, that’s my nephew.” So we’d call him Uncle Junebug. He’d joke around and say, “I changed that cat’s diapers – that motherfucker used to piss on me!” He was just showing how much he really felt like the young guys that he connected with were family to him. And we felt the same.

Label profile | Silver Spring’s Cuneiform Records finds a following amongst musical misfits

Steve and Joyce Feigenbaum, shown here at Salvador Dalí's house, continue to stuff Cuneiform's roster full of diverse artists. Courtesy Steve and Joyce Feibenbaum.

by Luke Stewart
Editorial board

Across the music industry’s diverse landscape, independent record labels have taken on many forms. Some dedicate themselves to documenting a particular music community and the genre it embraces; it was this path that led to the formation of D.C.’s Dischord Records, in response to the energy swarming around the area’s early-1980s hardcore punk scene. For Silver Spring, Md.-based Cuneiform Records, though, the start was a logical next step in the growth of a business, not a reaction to some geographically-based community. Still, in the more than a quarter-century since its founding, Cuneiform has become a sort of musical community unto itself. It has fostered the growth of countless boundary-pushing, often subterranean artists, whose music might not have found a substantial audience without the label.

Founded in 1984 as the outgrowth of a mail-order music sales company, Cuneiform has stood the test of time, a monumental achievement for an independent label that specializes in challenging, instrumental music. Throughout those years, and even more so recently, the label has become one of the world’s leading outlets for experimental rock and jazz. This weekend, it is raising the stakes, hosting its first area music festival, the two-day-long Cuneifest in Baltimore.

Nestled in a nondescript building a few blocks from downtown Silver Spring, Cuneiform’s headquarters look more like a warehouse for distribution than a label’s office, with a massive stock of CDs lining the walls. And in a sense, that’s exactly what they are: Both Cuneiform and the online music store Wayside Music, the seed that eventually sprouted the label, operate out of the space.  Continue reading