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Philly native Orrin Evans talks about paying tribute to a friend in Liberation Blues

Orin Evans | Photo by Jimmy Katz
Orrin Evans | Photo by Jimmy Katz

It was a time before cell phones when Orrin Evans moved to New York City in 1996 with friend and trumpeter Duane Eubanks. So when he’d meet other musicians on the scene he’d simply tell them, “Call me at Duane’s crib if you need to find me.” The only problem was that Evans and Eubanks had been preceded by another Philadelphian named Dwayne a few years earlier – bassist Dwayne Burno. Evans realized his mistake when he received a phone call from the none-too-pleased bassist, who skipped past the pleasantries and proceeded to play an answering machine full of messages intended for the young pianist. Continue reading →

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Saxophonist Odean Pope makes rare appearance at Chris’ Jazz Cafe tomorrow

Odean Pope | photo courtesy of the artist
Odean Pope | photo courtesy of the artist

Philadelphia saxophone great Odean Pope doesn’t perform with the same frequency that he once did. Originally from South Carolina, Pope was raised in Philly and got his start playing behind some of R&B’s most legendary artists at the Uptown Theater before befriending John Coltrane before the tenor legend left the city. Pope’s most enduring musical relationship was with Max Roach, with whom he played for nearly 40 years until the pioneering drummer’s death in 2007. In the early 1970s Pope co-founded the ground-breaking early fusion group Catalyst, and later corralled many of the best young saxophonists in Philly and beyond for his rousing Saxophone Choir. His sound is brawny and barbed, a bridge between hard bop, soul jazz, and the avant-garde.

The last few years have been marked by several monumental changes for Pope – last fall he turned 75, in 2011 he spoke publicly about his 30-year struggle with bipolar disorder and was celebrated at a fundraising concert at the Clef Club, and most importantly, in 2012 he lost his beloved wife Cis, the inspiration for one of his most beautiful compositions. So it’s already a special occasion that Pope will lead a quartet at Chris’ Jazz Café on Saturday, bolstered by the fact that it will be the saxophonist’s first show ever at the city’s sole remaining full-time jazz venue. He’ll front a group of local all-stars featuring bassist Lee Smith, pianist Tom Lawton, and drummer Craig McIver.  Tickets and information for the show can be found here.

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The Eubanks Brothers make hometown return at Chris’ Jazz Cafe this Saturday

The Eubanks brothers | photo by Christopher Dubay
The Eubanks brothers | photo by Christopher Dubay

It’s a rare occasion these days when the Eubanks brothers find themselves in the same place at the same time. Two out of three of the Philly-born jazz siblings will share the stage for one night in their hometown when trombonist Robin and trumpeter Duane co-lead a specially-assembled quintet at Chris’ Jazz Café on Saturday night.

“I’m always excited to play with my brother,” says Duane. “It’s been a while since Robin and I have played together, so this is almost a reunion. And being back at home makes it even more special.”

A glance at the brothers’ activities suffices to show exactly why it’s so difficult for them to synchronize their calendars. Robin apprenticed with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and is currently an active member of the SFJAZZ Collective, the San Francisco-based collective that explores the repertoire of a single composer each season (they’re about to tackle the work of Joe Henderson). He’s on the cusp of releasing a new CD, Klassik Rock Vol. 1, which features electric jazz reimaginings of classic rock staples by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Sly and the Family Stone, and is planning to record his MassLine Big Band in late July. He’s also a tenured professor at Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Duane is also set to return to the studio next month, and has recently recorded with drummer Jeff Williams and keyboardist/producer Mark de Clive-Lowe. He’s worked with jazz greats like Illinois Jacquet and Oliver Lake and with R&B and hip-hop stars including Mos Def and The Temptations. Earlier this month he was on stage at Madison Square Garden with Rhonda Ross, opening for the singer’s mother, Diana Ross. He gets back to Philly frequently as part of pianist Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band.

(Middle brother Kevin wrapped up his fifteen-year gig as leader of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show band in 2010, released a pair of well-regarded solo albums, and is currently a member of bass legend Dave Holland’s new quartet Prism.)

Born more than a decade after his two older brothers, at 45 Duane still feels like he has something to prove. Continue reading →

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Talking with Philadelphia native George Burton about his creative evolution and homecoming to Chris’ Jazz Cafe on 5/31

George Burton | photo courtesy of the artist
George Burton | photo courtesy of the artist

George Burton was a classically trained violinist and violist when he began high school, with aspirations to be “the next Pinchas Zukerman.” But he soon made friends with a number of peers who would go on to become jazz notables over the next several years: saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, drummer Johnathan Blake, pianist Orrin Evans.

“They were all into jazz and they were the cool kids, so I started playing jazz,” Burton recalls now. Having also studied piano from an early age at his parents’ behest – his mother was a violin teacher and his father a piano teacher, so he had a resource at home in either case – Burton found himself drawn to the keys in order to accompany his friends. By the time he graduated high school, his focus had shifted entirely. With parents versed in classical music and the church, it was uncharted territory. “Jazz was such a foreign concept in our house,” he says. “I didn’t grow up hearing anything like that; in our house it was either gospel or Stravinsky.”

Burton, now 35, has lived in New York City for the past decade and made a name for himself as a pianist playing alongside jazz greats including Wallace Roney, Donald “Duck” Bailey, Jack Walrath, and Odean Pope, and playing alongside such wide-ranging artists as Meshell Ndegeocello, Tia Fuller, Stacy Dillard, and Patti LaBelle. He’ll return home on Saturday, May 31 to lead his latest quartet at Chris’ Jazz Café. The band will feature his longtime collaborator Tim Warfield, Jr., on saxophone along with bassist Noah Jackson and drummer Corey Rawls.

Unlike those high school friends, however, Burton didn’t make the move to NYC immediately after high school. “I always feel like I’m one of the very few cats from my generation that actually stuck around,” Burton says. “I did most of my learning in Philly. So it’s always a major thing for me to come back and play and see what’s going on around the city and check out the kids who are coming up.”

Burton delayed his pilgrimage in order to attend Temple University, where he originally intended to major in music education. It was another recommendation from his musician parents, who encouraged him to establish a safety net in case the life of a professional musician didn’t quite work out. But trumpeter Terell Stafford, chair of jazz studies at Temple (and now also chair of instrumental studies, bringing both classical and jazz students under his purview) encouraged Burton to pursue jazz full time.

Continue reading →

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What the end of jazz nights at Ortlieb’s means for Philly’s jazz community

Local university and college students play with Fresh Cut Trio at The Painted Bride in February | Courtesy of Emily Rolen
Local university and college students play with Fresh Cut Trio at the Painted Bride in February | Courtesy of Emily Rolen

Pete Souders owned Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus for 20 years, but learned in January that the establishment he built a reputation for would no longer be needing his services. His Tuesday Night Jazz Jam Session was canceled.

But, he can’t say he didn’t expect it.

After growing exhausted of the hectic lifestyle of running a night spot and music venue, Souders sold Ortlieb’s in 2007, and after a bouncing around of owners, it was purchased by Four Corners Productions.

“I decided to sell it because I thought I was really getting tired,” Souders said.

Under its newest ownership, Ortlieb’s has shifted gears from its once-smooth atmosphere to a place of socialization, drinks and indie rock. It’s also dropped the “Jazzhaus” portion of its name.

The newest owners asked Souders to come in to host his Jazz Night upon opening, but Souders said he saw major flaws from the get-go.

When he owned Ortlieb’s, Souders said a large, acoustic piano sat center-stage which amplified the room, but once the newest owners came in, they hired a engineer who wired various mics for the jazz performances taking over the piano, which Souders said he thought was “unnecessary.”

Real jazz, Souders said, is able to fill an entire room without the need of any additional equipment.

But then again, Ortlieb’s is now hosting more than jazz performances, necessitating a more involved setup.

But Souders said he saw more concerns than just the equipment. Right before Christmas, the owners told him they  “weren’t making any money during the first hour-and-a-half.” They also asked his to cut the session back from its 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. slot so it wrapped up by 11:30 p.m. The owners told him they “weren’t making any money during the first hour-and-a-half,” Souders said.

He said that the new owners at Ortlieb’s told him they wanted to attract a better bar crowd at midnight, and Souders’ smooth tunes weren’t cutting it. It boiled down to a business issue.

“I had mixed emotions,” Souders said. “…[the situation] was anticlimactic.”

The current owners declined multiple requests for interviews.

So is the the current state of Ortlieb’s and what happened to its long-standing tradition a reflection for what might happen across the city’s jazz community? Continue reading →

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Jazz Fest lights up Center City with an afternoon of eclectic, exciting performances

Charles Washington Combo | Photo by Pete Troshak | flickr.com/photos/petryfrompa/
Charles Washington Combo | Photo by Pete Troshak | flickr.com/photos/petryfrompa/

The third Annual Center City Jazzfest was held on Saturday afternoon, pleasing a sellout crowd with sixteen genre-spanning jazz performances spread out over four locations in Center City Philadelphia. The four venues were Fergie’s Pub, MilkBoy,Chris’ Jazz Cafe and Time – all within a few blocks of each other and three of them on Samson Street.

The festival offered remarkable value at $15 per ticket if you bought them ahead of time, so you were paying less than a dollar per artist. Your ticket purchase earned you a wristband that allowed you access to any of the four venues whenever you wanted. Events were running at each venue simultaneously, so like any festival, you had to pick and choose what you wanted to see and hear. I kept on the move and was able to catch partial sets and photograph ten artists on the bill, and at times I definitely wished I could clone myself and see more than one set at once. It was an afternoon full of memorable performances that reminded both the attendees and musicians of the togetherness and pure joy that music can create.

Charles Washington Combo | Photo by Pete Troshak | flickr.com/photos/petryfrompa/
Charles Washington Combo | Photo by Pete Troshak | flickr.com/photos/petryfrompa/

The opening act of the fest, vocalist Rhenda Fearrington set the tone for the day. She and her four piece backing band gave a spirited and powerful performance that rocked the tiny upstairs at Fergie’s Pub. Another highlight of the sets at Fergie’s were the Jazz guitar stylings of Mike Kennedy, who was backed by a tight three piece keys, upright bass and drum trio. Of all the locations used for Jazzfest, Fergie’s best recreated the intimate, packed clubs that many Jazz greats cut their teeth in. The small upstairs room got more and more full as the day went along, and many fans seemed to set up shop there for the afternoon.

The events held upstairs at Milkboy also got more and more crowded as the afternoon went on. This venue hosted impressive sets by Giovana Robinson and Justin Faulkner. Panama’s Robinson and her group pleased the mid-afternoon crowd with a set featuring her passionate vocals and distinctive style of music – a mix of pop, world music and Jazz elements.

Kimmel Center Creative Music Program | Photo by Pete Troshak | flickr.com/photos/petryfrompa/
Kimmel Center Creative Music Program | Photo by Pete Troshak | flickr.com/photos/petryfrompa/

Late in the day Philadelphia native Faulkner’s thunderous drumming led a trio through an hour of groovy, prog-like space jazz to a packed and rapturous audience that included many of the other musicians from other bands on the bill.

Chris’ Jazz Cafe’s dinner theater-like set up and large stage area were a perfect fit for the musicians who played there on Saturday. Early in the day the Cafe hosted a fourteen piece Jazz orchestra of youths from The Kimmel Center Creative Music Program for Jazz. Despite being young they proved to be old souls with a swinging, powerful ensemble performance that showed that Jazz has a bright future in Philly. Later in the day the stage was owned by Joanna Pascale and her band. Pascale delivered an well received set of torch songs and included a meditative and memorable Jazzy take on Carole King’s classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”

Trio Up | Photo by Pete Troshak | flickr.com/photos/petryfrompa/
Trio Up | Photo by Pete Troshak | flickr.com/photos/petryfrompa/

The Time restaurant hosted some of the best shows of the day in it’s large mirror and clock filled bar area. The bar area featured a lot of open standing room space, natural light and two large sliding windows behind the stage area that were usually open. The open windows allowed passersby and fans who couldn’t fit into the frequently packed venue to hear some of the music outside. Early on, trumpeter Charles Washington led a five piece backing band through an excellent set that evoked the spirit of the early Miles Davis combos.

After them brassy Brooklyner Miss Ida Blue drew one of the largest, most enthusiastic crowds of the day. Her look was eye-catching: she aptly described herself as a “vamping dame” in one of her songs. Miss Blue and her clarinet/trombone/banjo and tuba backing band delivered a raucous set of her innuendo-laced Jazz that had the crowd roaring with laughter and appreciation for her singing and the group’s talent.

Next up was Stacy Dillard who had the crowd smiling, bobbing their heads and exchanging “did you hear that” glances as he blasted out complicated runs of notes on his sax while leading his trio through an impressive and powerful hour of music. Last up at Time was Trio Up, composed of virtuoso performers Rick Tate on Sax, Ronnie Burrage on drums and Nimrod Speaks on bass. They showed their mastery of their instruments and their ability to create beautiful music together during a highlight-filled hour of muscular and complex Jazz that thrilled the packed restaurant.

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Tonight: Emerging vocalists from the local jazz scene pay tribute to Billie Holiday at Chris’

Alexa Barchini | Photo courtesy of the artist
Alexa Barchini | Photo courtesy of the artist

New blood is coursing in the veins of Philadelphia’s long-standing jazz scene, and a prime opportunity to experience the rising talents comes tonight at Chris’ Jazz Cafe in a tribute to Billie Holiday curated by vocalists Chelsea Reed (of Chelsea Reed and the Fairweather Five) and Alexa Barchini. The group will perform both classics and rarities from Billie Holiday, with most arrangements taken directly from transcripts of original recordings.

(Hear More – “The Future of Jazz”: Philly’s Alex Cross Quintet revamps standards at Chris’ Jazz Cafe)

Tickets for the show are $10, or $5 with a student ID, and more information can be found here.

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Tonight: Philly-born trumpeter Duane Eubanks returns home to celebrate his birthday at Chris’ Jazz Cafe

Duane Eubanks | via duaneeubanks.weebly.com
Duane Eubanks | via duaneeubanks.weebly.com

The youngest of the three Eubanks brothers, trumpeter Duane Eubanks is returning home to Philly tonight to celebrate his 45th birthday with an all-star band of old friends at Chris’ Jazz Café.

The Eubanks’ mother, Vera, was a pianist who obviously instilled a deep love for music in her sons. The oldest, Robin, is a renowned trombonist who apprenticed with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and went on to work with bass great Dave Holland and became one of the heavy-hitters of the SFJAZZ Collective. Middle brother Kevin has equally impressive jazz credentials but is best known for his fifteen-year tenure leading Jay Leno’s Tonight Show Band.

Like both of his brothers, Duane Eubanks has spent time working with Dave Holland, appearing on two of the bassist’s Grammy-winning big band records. The trumpeter has kept a slightly lower profile than his brothers, becoming something of a big band specialist – he’s played in large bands led by everyone from Illinois Jacquet to Oliver Lake to Jason Lindner. At the same time, he parlayed a love for R&B into stints touring or recording with the likes of The Temptations, Mos Def, Wu Tang Clan, and Kirk Franklin. Both of those passions combine in his jazz sound.

He’s also guested with the Captain Black Big Band led by his old Philly friend Orrin Evans (which will play The Rotunda tomorrow). The two moved to New York together more than twenty years ago, and Evans will be part of Eubanks’ quintet on Saturday. The band will also feature saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, bassist Alexander Claffy, and drummer Rodney Green.

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Tonight: Larry McKenna and Bootsie Barnes warm up Chris’ Jazz Cafe with their quartet

McKenna, Tony Williams, Bootsie Barnes | Photo by Jennifer Brady | www.behance.net/JennBrady
McKenna, Tony Williams, Bootsie Barnes | Photo by Jennifer Brady | www.behance.net/JennBrady

One of the most memorable moments of this month’s star-studded gala concert by the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia didn’t come from the marquee names who dropped into town for the evening, but from a trio of local treasures. Philly sax greats Larry McKenna, Bootsie Barnes, and Tony Williams engaged in a musical discourse over Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s “Perdido,” a reminder to local audiences of the jazz riches available to us on a regular basis.

Two of those three will join forces once more tonight when Barnes and McKenna co-lead their quartet at Chris’ Jazz Café. Barnes is a die-hard bopper with a husky soulful tenor tone, while McKenna is a master of melody able to summon great emotion with the most elegantly reserved of playing, as he did movingly last month at a memorial service for his old friend, pianist and educator Jimmy Amadie.

The quartet performs two sets tonight at Chris’, one at 8 and one at 10. Tickets and more information can be found here.

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How the Arab Spring inspired jazz composer Todd Marcus to explore his heritage through music

Todd Marcus | Photo by Gary Young
Todd Marcus | Photo by Gary Young

Many of us watched, enthralled, as the Arab Spring swept through Egypt in 2011. But the protests and violence took on an even deeper resonance for Baltimore-based composer and bass clarinetist Todd Marcus. The son of an Egyptian father and an American mother, Marcus knew the country firsthand from visits to family in Cairo.

“I watched things happen in 2011 and ongoing with cautious enthusiasm or optimism,” Marcus says. “There’s been a lot of nervous anticipation as well as fear over some of the challenges. I was able to have conversations with family there and see the impact on them of the transition from what was normalcy to the breakdown of a lot of basic services. Things remain very precarious now. It’s been tough.”

Watching events unfold from afar, Marcus has channeled that range of emotions into a new composition, the “Blues for Tahrir Suite,” which he’ll perform on Friday night at Chris’ Jazz Café, a few days prior to recording the music for a new album in a Washington, D.C. studio.

Named for Tahrir Square, the locus of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo, the suite continues Marcus’ fusion of jazz with Middle Eastern music inspired by his heritage.

“I grew up in northern New Jersey without any Middle Eastern or Egyptian community or culture around,” Marcus recalls. “But as I got a little older and more mature, I started to take my heritage a little more seriously. As a musician, the prime area for that was to explore Middle Eastern music, and I found that I really liked the epic compositions and arrangements of Middle Eastern classical music, which tend to have a lot of different movements that really take you on a journey.”

The “Blues for Tahrir Suite” is meant to exhibit multiple facets of the Arab Spring; it starts with a movement inspired by the Islamic call to prayer which is sung through loudspeakers five times a day in Muslim countries and, according to Marcus, “is such a fabric of the landscape.” The piece then cycles through a more aggressive section entitled “Protest” and a contemplative movement, “Reflections.” Marcus says, “I guess it’s the power of music, the ability to take a lot of those tensions and find some beauty in them. It’s been my goal to try to put those different moods into music and then let it speak for itself.”

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