A Blue Note Holiday Season (Thanksgiving)

In the event you guys hadn’t gathered this, I am not the traditional sort (except maybe the Christmas cards). I don’t do the formal family dinners, I don’t do turkey and the trimmings, and considering that my definition of family is vastly different than the general, then you can gather that I do not spend much time at home around the holidays. And this year, the lovely Blue Note delivered the perfect alternative: Thanksgiving Weekend of Music.

Keiko Matsui (11/25/10)

The piano is a very personal thing to me. As a wee lass of about five, my parents enrolled me in music school, and I loved it, if only because it wasn’t the day-to-day. The connection turned out to be lifelong, and to this day, nothing touches me quite like piano-driven jazz.

Keiko Matsui was one of the many musicians whose sound danced across my ears thanks to Pandora Radio. It was Facing Up that I heard, off the Wildflower album, and when it got past the intro and really started up, I gave my Pandora a look askance, as though asking what is that and why is this so hauntingly beautiful?

So naturally, when I saw that she was back-to-back with Dave Brubeck for Thanksgiving Weekend, it wasn’t even a question that I would trade turkey and stuffing for a night of music.

When Keiko and the band launched into Doll, I couldn’t help but appreciate the simplicity of the arrangement, and how well everything melded together. The bass was lower than what I’d hear in a jazz arrangement, and since Keiko’s music is just this shade of New Age style, the accent on the horn was less alto, more the soprano, and completely unobtrusive, letting the keys and melody take over and pilot.

When I looked carefully at who was on the saxes, I got a pleasant surprise: Jackiem Joyner, whom I had never heard on the soprano prior to tonight. When I heard him at Berks, he was mostly on the alto, and it left me asking, “Show me what else you got.” And he most certainly showed it on the soprano; his sense of subtlety on that particular brass is fantastic.

When, a few minutes later, Keiko introduced a new song, The Road… from the upcoming album by the same name, ellipsis included (January 20th! Be there, people!), and launched into it, I had to honestly do a double take as to where I was. It looked like a Blue Note show, what with the packed tables, sold-out crowd. It certainly looked it, but when I closed my eyes, it was a feast for the subconscious soundtrack. Keiko Matsui knows how to weave the piano notes in a way that is as piercing as it is gentle. Hers is the sound that forces you to pay attention and doesn’t quit until you’ve immersed yourself in it for what it is. And if this was my first time seeing her – as it was indeed – I knew that whenever she’d come through New York, I’ll be right there, sitting stageside.

Dave Brubeck (11/27/10)

For all the great contemporary jazz, one has to, occasionally, touch back onto the classics and the standards as they were back in the ye olde days. For all the Boney James I enjoy, I occasionally jaunt to John Coltrane. For Rick Braun and Cindy Bradley, and Chris Botti, all my favorite trumpets – Chuck Mangione and Dizzy Gillespie come to mind. And for my piano fix, I can have Oli Silk and Keiko Matsui give way to Count Basie and…Dave Brubeck.

You will probably recognize Take Five when you hear it; you may also recognize it when you hear Grover Washington Jr.’s cover of it. You may also recognize Blue Rondo a la Turk. And you may listen to it and think, “Them’s the good ol’ days.”

And when Dave came to the Blue Note, them good ol’ days came alive.

I shall ask you this: is there any substitute for the simple combination of drums, unamplified upright bass, clean alto horn and the grand piano? It is brilliant in its simplicity, endless in its possibilities, and Dave had recognized that from the get-go, and to this day keeps his sound exactly as it was back then: clear, clean, simple, and captivating. Before my time, it used to be that the bands on stage were all in full suits, and nowadays, it is very rare that we see a band appear on stage that formal and, for the lack of better words, stilted. And when the band helped Dave to the grand piano and took the stage, it felt almost as though the entire atmosphere of the Blue Note got turned back a couple of decades.

And indeed, in the lineup were the features of Duke Ellington’s classic Take the A Train (and which subway did I take to the Note, take a guess…I dare ya!) and the lovely These Foolish Things (music by Jack Strachey, lyrics by Eric Maschwitz), which half of the audience had sung along with the band. Myself included.

I will say this: Dave Brubeck onstage is something to just watch and enjoy. He interacts with the audience readily and willingly, sings along with the music, throws jokes around with the band – whether the audience can hear or not – and not once does he miss a note. He told of the 1958 tour through Poland as commissioned by then-President Dwight Eisenhower, and featured a song from that tour, named Thank You (translation from Polish, original song name escapes me…it’s 2am, bear with me here). He told stories, improvised his intros brilliantly, and enjoyed it all as though he was not playing in front of a packed house but in an amiable jam with friends.

All that and 90 years old in a week, on Dec. 6th. Think about that for a moment.

Dave’s crowning moment was, of course, the finale, and by the close of the show, the audience was calling for this song. Listening to Take Five as it was performed like that, with all the charm and charisma of its composer and with the lively skill of everyone in the band was one of those experiences: a confirmation that something like this, seeing Dave Brubeck and the band jam on his most celebrated standard is once in a lifetime. I can only be happy that I got a chance to see this with my own eyes.

I leave you with a hearty good night, and a little somethingfrom YouTube that you’ll enjoy. :)



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