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Elmos Too Blues Jam Sun 11/30/08
Elmos Too Blues Jam Sun 11-30-08

There’s nothing to make you feel like your little town is home than to come back just in time for the annual oyster roast and discover that even though it’s 11 p.m. you know nearly all the people there and they are still cooking up oysters and handing out drinks.

They also were sure to remind me about the blues jam at Elmo’s Too the next day. I had planned to rehearse with Fred Whiskin, so we just packed up in the car and drove on over for a fun evening of jamming the blues. It felt wonderful to be welcomed home with good friends, food, and music after travelling half way across the country and back this week.

Dodging the Chasm

One of the most amazing things about a good improviser is that you never notice when they make a mistake. In fact, a great improviser can even cover other people’s mistakes. Whether it’s poetry or theatre or music, one of the most frustrating things is when the performance to comes to a grinding halt because someone drops a word or line or phrase that sends everyone onstage spinning into the chasm of panic. Yet my favorite magic moments on stage are when suddenly everything is “real” for a moment as the performers respond and dance gracefully around the chasm.

In real life, every day is improvisation reacting to and relating to the events that happen. No script can be read to determine what will happen next. Flying solo, it is easy to react to the whim of the world if you allow yourself to be flexible enough. (Pause here for a moment to catch a bit of Oscar Aleman of Argentina improvising a bit to please his listener.)

When I woke up Saturday morning I realized that I’d spent the whole week in a juggling act of personalities and musical talent that somehow landed me right side up alone in my home once again to catch my breath. I can’t say whether I’d do it all again, but there is one highlight worth mentioning.

For the first time in the six years since we met and made music together, I finally got to spend time on stage in front of audiences as a duo with my best friend. It involved running late of course, as well as crafting a “clarikazoo” on the way out the door with duct tape. We practiced one song in the car on the way to the first stop and then let go of worry and simply played whatever came into our heads. We even played one song that neither of us had ever performed, but we’d played the record many times. The audience laughed with our goofy antics and we laughed with each other and every song landed with gracious applause. It was exhilerating to finally cross the chasm of fear that had kept us from making the leap and learning that together we can fly.

I could have danced all night

J's at MoDaddy's
J's at MoDaddy's

What do you get when you mix former and current members of The Blue Rags, Snake Oil Medicine Show, Mad Tea Party, Firecracker Jazz Band, & Squirrel Nut Zippers on stage with electric instruments? High powered rock and roll baby!

I had just finished a fun evening of singing and playing trad jazz with Dan Petrella & Caroline Pond in SC and was too wired to think about sleep. So, I trucked up the hill to meet C-Po at MoDaddy’s and check out what the Screaming Jay’s sounded like now that they were just the J’s. I couldn’t help but dance.

Thanks to Jake, Abe, Krekel, Mikey Fresh, and the H-bomb for a great finish to an evening full of music.

Frank Vignola

I just had the pleasure of interviewing the amazing jazz guitarist Frank Vignola before he arrives for a show here in Tryon, NC on October 18. I am in utter awe. Here’s the video link he sent when I mentioned learning to play clarinet.

I mentioned some of the folks playing for our gig earlier in the day (Dan Petrella who he met years ago in Detroit, Tuba player Henry Westmoreland, piano player Reese Gray) and he said “bring instruments and we’ll jam in the second set.” I said I didn’t know if they’d have a piano set up and he said “I was thinking of the clarinet.” I think I have some practicing to do before then.

The Art Deco Review

Last night was the first Russ Wilson Art Deco Review at Eleven on Grove in Asheville. For me, it was my first real opportunity to play with an Asheville audience doing something other than Poetry Alive! For a moment, I felt intimidated when I looked at the band’s “script” for the show that just had my name in capital letters between every act. I knew what my “bits” were though and had mapped out where I needed to be and what I would be doing for each one and focused on that instead. By the third time I interrupted Russ I had the audience heckling Russ on my behalf and I knew it was working.

By the time I sang with the band, even though I only had two friends hiding in that audience and doubt any of them had ever seen me on stage, I had them cheering for me more than any “star” that performed that evening. There is something terribly addictive about winning over an audience and getting them laughing with you and cheering you on.

As if that wasn’t special enough, I got a big smile and thumbs up from the local jazz diva (retired Chicago music teacher/jazz pianist/community chorus director) I admire most at the library show the Dixie Rhythm Aces played earlier in the day.

Funny, there’s one musician I’ve been trying to prove myself to for years. When I release all that work and energy to the rest of the world I get more back than one heart could ever return.

On vacation at the Sacramento Jazz Festival with Firecrackers

Anybody who’s met me knows that I have a bit of an affection, affliction, or just plain addiction to jazz. So it only makes sense that when I finally wrangle myself a vacation it includes some sort of music. This particular grand adventure may have seemed sudden to some, but was actually years in the making. For now, let’s say it started when my roommate in Tryon got a call from an old Squirrel Nut Zippers band mate asking for help with a Dixieland gig. That first gig was so much fun they sought out a weekly venue and found a home at Thibodeaux’s in Asheville. Now, five years later after solidifying the band line up Firecracker Jazz Band has appeared here in Tryon at Rogers Park in addition to a wide variety of weddings and venues around western North Carolina and as far north as Rhode Island. This year they finally earned their ticket west, to not just another smoky bar, but to two of the largest festivals on the west coast for Traditional and Dixieland jazz. I had to at least catch one of the festivals and see how they matched up to the “big shots” of the jazz business. I chose the bigger one.

Knowing I was biased about their abilities, I brought along an old friend who had never heard them, but was well versed in the genre and excited about the music at the festival. From the first gig she was amazed at their energy and raw talent. Throughout the weekend we saw many of the “big shots” of the style, yet she still wanted to catch as many of their shows as possible.

While I was there to support my friends, it was also a chance to hear and meet and talk with vocalists and reed players who are virtuosos in traditional jazz.

One of the highlights was meeting soprano sax player George Probert. The last surviving member of Firehouse Five (plus two) and former musical director for Disney, Mr. Probert was responsible for helping to revive and educate a new generation in a form that might have otherwise faded from public view in the fifties with the advent of rock and roll.

The most memorable moments of expanding my understanding came hearing the technical brilliance of vocalist Becky Kilgore with her “favorite piano player” John Sheridan (formerly of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band) in a cabaret duo setting. She chose Irving Berlin as her focus and brought to life not just the popular favorites like “Cheek to Cheek,” but also dusted off some hidden gems like “The Best Thing for You is Me.” It was like a dream listening to a vocalist and pianist so skilled at their craft and in tune with each other musically.

Other notable mentions from the festival include the sultry Vivian Lee, the elegant and refined Brady McKay with Parlor Jam, the lively Night Blooming Jazzmen with showman Bob Draga, and the high energy performance of Cornet Chop Suey. The young blonde bombshell Bria Skonberg stole many hearts with her exquisite trumpet and vocals not only with her own band Mighty Aphrodite, but also sitting in with various bands throughout the festival. All of these shows were the “complete package” for their style and technically brilliant. There were also several “All Star” jams that gave a taste of what the top players of the festival could do when thrown together on stage for an hour. In one such performance, John Sheridan’s brilliance as a pianist was brought to light when the band cleared the stage for him to play Bolcolm’s Graceful Ghost Rag.

As for my friends, they not only drew the crowds to their shows as the word flew around the festival about this new band, but connected with other musicians like saxophonist Kelland Thomas of Tuscon’s Original Wildcat Jazz Band and pianist Paul Reid of Cornet Chop Suey who sat in on a couple their shows.
As Reese Gray shared the bench with Paul Reid one morning with a broad smile on his face he exclaimed into the mic “I didn’t know class started so early!” At the other end of the day Reese, his drumming brother Mike, and banjo player Jason Krekel of Firecracker were invited to sit in with Mighty Aphrodite at the end of their last set and brought the crowd to their feet with the raw excitement of so many talent young players on stage. They will take that energy with them on tour this summer and are sure to bring a power packed show when they return to Rogers Park in August for the Summer Tracks series.

By sheer dumb luck I befriended one of the guest stars Allan Vaché whose skill on the clarinet allows him the flexibility to play with the smooth beauty of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw while still managing to get “down and dirty” like Johnny Dodds on the hot jazz numbers. Born into a family of musicians that includes his father Warren Vaché a world renowned bassist and brother Warren Vaché, Jr. who is known for cornet and flugelhorn he grew up with the opportunity to study and play with some of the greatest players in the genre. From 1975-1992 he was a member of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band of San Antonio, but has now made a career freelance as a world traveler on the festival circuit. Our conversations throughout the weekend illuminated some of the maze of the business of playing jazz professionally. Listening to him play was inspiring, but he also encouraged me to take what I was hearing and apply it myself.

It was this exchange that got me excited about the possibilities of the Nina Simone Jazz Festival here in Tryon. How amazing to have the chance to bring in musicians like Rebecca Kilgore and Allan Vaché who not only share their talents from the stage, but offer help and advice to younger artists.