Monday, July 06, 2009

Concert Review: The Branford Marsalis Quartet, Pantages Theatre, 6/26/09, Winnipeg, MB

As far as I can remember, this was saxophonist Branford Marsalis' second time in Winnipeg, the first being in 1991 at the Concert Hall when he performed a tribute to the then recently deceased legendary band leader and drummer extraordinaire, Art Blakey (October 11, 1919 – October 16, 1990.) When Marsalis spoke to the audience at that show, he did so in a gravely voice, imitating Blakey, who also gave Marsalis one of his first starts in a band.

Eighteen years later, Marsalis returned to Winnipeg and has likely eclipsed his older brother Wynton as the biggest Marsalis name in jazz and by my estimation, is one of the top five biggest names in all of jazz. Hot on the heels of his just -released 24th recording, Metamorphosen, which also celebrates the Quartet's tenth year together without a line-up change, the band performed without long-time drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, who is busy promoting his own recent 2009 album, Watts.

The band opened the show with “The Return of the Jitney Man,” penned by Watts and moved to other tracks from the newest recording, including “The Blossom of Parting,” with Marsalis performing on soprano sax. Marsalis presented himself as being supremely confident and gracious, constantly smiling. I would describe his performance as being flawless and seemingly effortless. When he wasn't playing, he quietly sat on a stool at the back and watched the then trio take flight on their own, as he chugged bottled water. He clearly didn’t hog the spotlight.

Pianist Joey Calderazzo was an absolute fireball of a performer, shifting around on his stool as if he was ready to take off, and fingers either flying rapidly or quietly caressing the keyboard, depending on the tune. He has seven solo albums, spanning 1991 to 2007 and is one of the first artists signed to Branford's own label, Marsalis Music. And he swings like nobody's business. Needless to say, I'd see the trio that he leads in a heartbeat. I’m also going to track down some of his solo recordings.

His performance was matched by veteran and Grammy award-winning bassist Eric Revis and the newest member, 18-year old Justin Faulkner. While I had had expectations for Marsalis and his regulars to perform superbly, I wasn't sure how well Faulkner would fill in for Watts, one of the most amazing drummers in all of jazz. Without a doubt, Justin Faulkner displayed a stunning command of the drum kit. His intensity on some tunes was so sustained and muscular that I pretty much expected him to keel over and collapse. It was simply breathtaking to watch him hit the kit with such expertise, ferociousness and speed, and when called for, delicacy. I believe he has a very bright future, to say the least. Not surprisingly, the applause he earned was only second to that of band leader Marsalis'.

Eric Nevis' acoustic bass was also performed with the type of virtuosity that you would expect, but still marvel at. Nevis propelled the band with subtle or aggressive selection of the notes and congruent playing. He has one album as band leader and has been a sideman on many recordings from some of the brightest players in the jazz idiom.

I would go out on a limb and say that the stars of the evening were Calderazzo and Faulkner, as they truly surpassed my expectations.

The opening band, the Michelle Gregorie Quintet, consisted of local pianist Gregoire and some of the top players in the Canadian jazz scene, saxophonist Kirk McDonald, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, bassist Jim Vivian and drummer Ted Warren. These are the same players who performed on Gregoire's much lauded debut CD, 2004's Reaching. Gregoire proved herself to be not just a fine pianist, at times beautifully tinkling the keys when not swinging, but also a formidable composer, as the performance included some of her originals that I wanted to hear again, that the audience responded well to.Drummer Ted Warren was not just there to keep time, but to also entertain in his own right, with his own unforgettable style, which was quite notable on some of the original Gregoire compositions. He doesn’t play it safe and always looks likes he's having a great time, with his constant grin. The duo of McDonald and Turcotte each took turns soloing and earning well deserved applause. When Turcotte blasted out notes on the trumpet, he seemed to have the entire room's attention.

I'm trying to order Gregoire's CD, which was sold out at my favorite local book store, but I've special ordered it. Her new CD is due out in the fall. At the end of the show, each member of the Marsalis band was supplanted and then replaced by a member of Gregoire's band, until the entire band had changed, save for Marsalis. First, it was Ted Warren plunking down a stool beside Justin Faulkner and working a single drum until he took over Faulkner's kit. Kirk McDonald then appeared, taking Branford's spot. Michelle Gregoire sidled up to Joey Calderazzo and in one smooth move, took over the keyboard as he deftly slid off. Finally, Eric Nevis gave us the bass to Jim Vivian. Seeing one band virtually replaced with another while the music kept on playing was a real treat and a sign of the type of gracious person Branford is. The move had audience members applauding wildly and breaking out ear to ear smiles.

The only low point in the evening came when some member of the audience shouted out “drummer boy,” in reference to drummer Justin Faulkner. Marsalis, not sure what to make of the remark, which could have been seen as insulting since “boy” has been used as an offence way to refer to a black men, quickly deflected the comment by having him and Faulkner perform the Christmas classic “Little Drummer Boy” to the delight of the audience. I’d like to think that jazz audiences are sophisticated enough to not utilize racial taunts in this day and age, so I took the comment as being a reference to Faulkner’s obvious boyish looks.

If you counted the Derek Trucks Band’s show three days earlier, this was actually the first big jazz concert in the 2009 Jazz Winnipeg Festival. Now in its twentieth year, the festival has consistently brought to Winnipeg many of the best artists in jazz, save for a few notable exceptions like Keith Jarrett and John McLaughlin.

My rating for this show is 5/5.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Concert Review: Buddy Guy, Pantages Theatre, 6/27/09, Winnipeg, MB

Blues guitar legend Buddy Guy (July 30, 1936) performed a raucous, rocking show at the Pantages Theatre for the 2009 Jazz Winnipeg Festival, displaying not only virtuosity on his guitar, but also a unusually strong rapport with the audience, who seemed like a bunch of old friends. One of the guys in front of me was so excited to be there that he kept on punching his friend in the shoulder, to release his pent up excitement.

Unlike the shy Derek Trucks who lets his guitar do the talking, Buddy Guy was constantly grinning and speaking to the audience between songs. He playfully chided the audience when he asked them how many had purchased his most recent recording, 2008's Skin Deep. He also lamented the fact that his kind of music tends to take a long time to sell, given the state of commercial radio. He spoke about his upbringing and how, as a kid, he didn't understand how tough it was for his parents to put food on the table when all they had to eat for supper was a boiled potato. When he refused the potato, his mother sent him to bed with a glass of water. His point was that, although things were tough at the moment, they could be much worse. This earned applause from the audience.

Guy's guitar sound was excellent and his playing was delicious and impeccable. He's long been known as a master of Chicago blues, but isn't limited to commanding one particular style. I had a sense that I was witnessing a bit of history in seeing one of the originators of Chicago electric blues.

The audience were clearly in the mood to participate in the show and Guy had them singing along to Skin Deep, and made the point that "...we're all the same underneath." He spoke about rap and hip-hop artists being able to say literally anything they wanted, while back in the old days, blues artists had to use more subtle approaches. He then performed some of these older songs with double-entendre lyrics to illustrate his point. In one song, he spoke about " leg was in the east, one leg was in the west. I went down in the middle TRYIN' to do my best," which had the audience positively howling. When he played "She's Nineteen Years Old," in which Guy stopped and playfully asked the audience to stop looking at him that way, as Muddy Waters wrote the song, not him. The audience cracked up again.

Ever the showman, and wanting to get closer to his fans, he walked down the stairs on the left side of the stage, leading to the audience in the front row. He stopped to allow a young child strum his guitar and then proceeded to walk up the aisle, to the back of the theatre, as audience members craned their necks to catch a better view. All this time, the music kept on playing. Cell and camera phones were heavily utilized as he was literally inches away from some people. He made his way to one of the lodges on the right side of the stage and might have been expecting to simply exit there to get back to the front row. He backtracked from there to the back of the theatre and then walked down the right side aisle. While there, a woman near the left side aisle yelled out "Other side," to get him to return.

It was a virtual love-in for Buddy Guy and his solid band. He offered to " all night, if you want me to," but alas, after Buddy's set, there was no encore. While Guy is one of a few artists who I’ve seen skip encores, the others being Sonny Rollins and Interpol, I totally felt like I had my money’s worth.

Many famous guitarists, from Jimi Hendrix, to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan, have praised Buddy Guy for his immense talent and he's also seen as a historic link between them and the tradition of electric Chicago blues. He's won five Grammy awards during his on-going recording career which began in 1965, in addition to countless other commendations, including being listed as one of Rolling Stone Magazine 100 greatest guitar players off all time, as well as having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 by Eric Clapton and B.B. King.

Canadian blues treasure Big Dave McLean opened the show with his band. He's been a performer for over 30 years and put on a no-frills show strong on blues vocals and guitar playing. He had a second guitarist with him who also performed a lot of excellent lead work. Big Dave has been one of the top bluesmen in Canada for a long time and even toured with Muddy Waters many years ago. He also performed his famous song, "Muddy Waters For President," which drew a lot of applause.

This was my first time seeing Buddy Guy, but I hope it won't be my last. My rating for this show is 5/5.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Minnedosa and Neepawa golf courses

On Friday, my foursome made the two-hour trek out to Minnedosa, teeing off around 8 am. We had heard good things about both Minnedosa and Neepawa's golf courses, but always seem to skip them in our weekly golf outing.

Minnedosa was fairly busy so I felt a bit rushed. Not having local knowledge, sometimes I ended up shooting the ball is less-desireable areas due to the many blind shots that I made. It's full of elevated tee boxes and greens that you would be wise to read from multiple angles in order to have a chance to read. The course design is such that it doesn't appear to be, say, 30 years old. It has a new-ish feel.

Neepawa is also full of elevated tee boxes, and some elevated greens, one very elevated. This course feels narrower and isn't as wide open as Minnedosa. Some the holes and overall scenery reminded me of Morden's Minnewasta course, one of my favorites. I'm pretty sure Neepawa was a 9-hole course that was expanded to 18, so some of the holes feel older, with smaller greens.
We had sunny weather for Minnedosa and overcast skies for Neepawa, but we saw virtually no mosquitoes. The only annoyance were some black flies in Neepawa.

Overall, both are very challenging courses that we will add to our list of places to play once a year. If you're a golfer looking for some place to play outside of Winnipeg, try these courses. Definitely take power carts, otherwise you will struggle with the drastic changes in elevation.

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