Kevin Lee & Andy Sydow @ Dazzle

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Kevin Lee is the music director at Dazzle – the main Denver jazz club – and has been responsible for bringing some amazing acts to town as well as providing opportunities to local musicians.  Like the part couple of music directors at Dazzle, Steven Denny and Tyler Gilmore, Kevin is also a musician himself.  I had never had the chance to hear him before, so I was excited to be there at Dazzle last night for his UCD senior recital.  Interesting choices of tunes, nice arrangements, well played – it was a great night.  Andy Sydow’s recital followed on the same program.  I was not familiar with him, but it was nice to hear another new player.  And having Steven Glenn on tuba was an unusual and welcome touch.

Corbus Plays Zappa

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I was not very familiar with Frank Zappa’s music before this concert by Dave Corbus.  Or more specifically, before hearing my wife Wendy Fopeano practicing for the concert, as she was the lead singer.  Definitely a creative cat, and Corbus’ band – Dave, Wendy, Peter Sommer, Andre Mallinger, Jeff Jenkins, Bijoux Barbosa, and Paul Romaine – did a fantastic job on some very challenging music.

Uri Caine Trio @ Dazzle, 1/11/2013

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Uri Caine has been on my radar a long time, but I’ve never had the opportunity to hear him live.  So I was very glad that Creative Music Works brought him to Dazzle in Denver, and that I had the opportunity to shoot this show.  Uri is my favorite kind of jazz pianist – melodic, rhythmic, energetic, percussive, endlessly inventive.  I also appreciate the fact that he displays a deep understanding of classical music as well.

Danny Meyer Going Away Party @ Dazzle

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Danny Meyer is one of my favorite musicians in Colorado. He’s the saxophonist in what I guess counts as the current incarnation of my quartet, although we have done only one gig and that was over a year ago. I am very sorry not to have the opportunity to work with him much more as he is moving to New York soon. These images are from a going away party / concert and benefit for CCJA held at Dazzle. I wish Danny all the success in the world!

David Torn & Sun of Goldfinger @ Walnut Room

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This show at the Walnut Room was sponsored by Creative Music Works, an organization I have been working with in some fashion for around 20 years now. The group featured David Torn on guitar, Tim Berne on saxophone, and Ches Smith on drums, performing mostly ambient free improvisations. Tim Berne is a musician I have long admired, so I was especially appreciative of the opportunity to see him in person.

A Birthday Present from Tom Harrell

This week I got to see trumpeter Tom Harrell play with his quintet at Dazzle here in Denver, and it was fantastic. The group featured Wayne Escoffery on saxophone, Danny Grissett on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Donald Edwards on drums. The pictures that illustrate this story are from that show, and there are more pictures here. However, the story I am about to tell you is about seeing him in a different context a few years back. It’s kind of a long story, but I think you’ll enjoy it.

For my 40th birthday, I treated myself to dinner and a concert by Tom Harrell at the Mount Vernon Country Club. The show was billed as the Tom Harrell Piano Trio, and the promo made specific mention of the fact that Tom would be playing piano as well as the trumpet/flugelhorn he is famous for. Now, Tom is known as one the best trumpeter players in the world, but no one really knew anything about his piano playing. And as some folks reading this are probably also aware, he has some well-publicized mental health issues (diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic), and between that and the effects of the medication he takes to control his condition, there is always some element of mystery where Tom is concerned. So between that and the fact that no one in attendance had ever heard him play piano, and no one really had no idea what to expect that night.

I arrived early as I had made reservations for dinner before the show. I came alone, as my wife had a gig, and I was seated at a small table directly in front of the piano. I wondered for a moment if Peter – the general manager of the place and a huge jazz fan whom I had met but did not know well – had somehow made sure I would have a good view because he knew I was a pianist (he almost certainly would not have known it was my birthday). I decided this was pretty unlikely – why would the general manager be looking over seating arrangements personally? – and attributed my prime seating to nothing but coincidence and good fortune. During the buffet dinner, though, I happened to walk past where Peter was sitting, and he stopped me and asked if I liked my table. Apparently, he had deliberately sat me there after all; I was originally supposed to off in a corner somewhere.

But that’s not all. Peter then asked me if I would like to sit in and give Tom a chance to just concentrate on trumpet for a tune or two. Not that he had checked with Tom yet, but Peter wanted to gauge my interest. I was kind of stunned – I’m a reasonably well known pianist in the area, but people aren’t normally asked to sit on concerts of this sort, and frankly, as far as I knew, Peter had barely heard me play before. I told him I would certainly love to play with Tom, and that I even knew one of his tunes – Sail Away. Peter told me he’d check with Tom and get back to me. I went back to my table and finished my dinner.

So then the concert started. Tom has written a whole bunch of new material lately, so he and the rest of the band were all reading it. I liked the moods they created. Tom mostly played the piano. I suspect that Peter, like most people there, probably wanted to hear Tom play a little more trumpet, as that’s what he is famous for resides, and that’s probably why he was so keen on having me sit in.

They finished up by playing a bebop tune and Tom introduced the bassist and drummer (the first words out of his mouth all evening). Then they left to a round of applause. At that point, Peter (the general manager) lept up to the stage and encouraged us to keep clapping, and maybe Tom would come back for an encore – and Marc Sabatella (that’s me) might even join them.

Sure enough, Tom and the band came back out, and Peter motioned me on stage. He had told Tom I knew Sail Away, but the bassist looked at me and said he didn’t really know the tune, so Tom and I should just do it as a duo. It shocked me at first that Tom’s bassist wouldn’t know what was undoubtedly his most famous composition, but apparently they had been playing Tom’s new music exclusively in this group. I tried suggesting we just do a standard we all knew, but I don’t think Tom heard any of this exchange, and he started counting off Sail Away in his usual manner (“uh, uh, uh, uh”). Tom started playing the melody, I started accompanying him, and the bassist and drummed slipped out the back.

Now, what happens next is best appreciated if I give you a little bit of backstory. Back when I was in college at FSU in the 80’s, another famous trumpeter – Red Rodney – did a concert as a featured soloist with our school big band. I was new enough to jazz that I didn’t know who he was, although someone probably told me he had once played with Charlie Parker. What I did know was that I had this big unaccompanied solo right in the middle of an arrangement of My Romance – a whole chorus of nothing but me. But no one told Red this. On the concert, when it came time for my solo, and the rest of the band dropped out, Red just kept playing, so it was me and him. Now, had I been a mature adult with any respect for jazz history, I would have been in heaven, thinking to myself, “how cool is this – I’m playing a duo with Red Rodney”! But alas, I was young, cocky, and ignorant, and my actual thoughts ran more along the lines of, “you m*****f***er, get off the stage – this is my solo”! I’ve been paying for this in bad karma ever since, with the price usually involving someone stepping on one of my solos on that same tune (which has happened on several other occasions strangely enough).

So, now, back to Mount Vernon. Tom Harrell counted off Sail Away, and it’s just me and him. I’m thinking to myself, “how cool is this – I’m playing a duo with Tom Harrell”! I even managed to flash back to my experience with Red Rodney and laugh a little at myself for having wished Red Rodney would leave the stage and let me have my solo. So there I am up on stage with Tom, finally able to appreciate the opportunity I was being blessed with. I was playing accompaniment as he started playing the melody: “da da daah; da da dah da dah da daah; da da dah da dah da daah, daah, daaah…”. And then – I swear I could not possibly make this up – before we got ten seconds into the piece, Tom walked off the stage and left me to finish it for myself, thus ending our duo and giving me the solo performance I had stupidly wished for 20 years earlier.

I knew enough about Tom’s condition not to take this personally. There could have been any number of reasons for him to have left in the middle of the tune like that, and there was no point in worrying about what they were. More pressing was the question of what to actually do about it. I considered simply stopping right where I was, walking off the stage myself, and forgetting the whole thing. I considered just finishing up the melody and cutting it off there. But what I decided was this: people are there listening, so I might as well give them some music. So I played the rest of the melody myself, took a rather perfunctory but serviceable solo chorus, and as I was getting ready to play the head out, Tom rejoined me, so we did finish the tune together. The bassist and drummer came back with him, and Tom asked if I would join them for a tune everyone knew, so we played Like Someone In Love.” The bassist informed me they did this in Ab, which is not one of the three keys this tune is most commonly played in. But I had spent the better part of two years learning to handle just that sort of situation – basically teaching myself to transpose by ear. So while it might not have been a great performance on my part, I acquitted myself well enough. And that was that.

After the show, we speculated on what happened. Someone suggested to me that perhaps Tom had left because he felt bad about doing an encore without the rest of his band. Someone else told me the piano was turned up fairly high in the monitors because Tom had a relatively light touch, and when I played with my heavier touch, it may have been too loud for him. Just this week when my wife interviewed him for her radio show on KUVO, we learned that Sail Away has major personal significance for Tom, and it is possible that whatever he was thinking, he may have been overcome with emotion as well. But I cannot discount karma as an explanation, either.

I did get to talk to Tom myself a little right after playing with him, but of course I didn’t come out and directly ask about that, and I think I’m just as happy not having a definitive answer. Oh well. I got to hear a nice concert, had a great time on Like Someone In Love, had that surreal ten second experience on Sail Away, and most of all, came away with a story to tell. Not a bad way to spend one’s 40th birthday. Tom, if you’re reading this, thank you!

More Faces of Fall

Last year, I posted about a trip to the mountains to see the aspen turning. It’s an annual tradition for most Coloradans, and this year my wife and I set aside the one fall day we both had off together for a drive. I tried to do my research first to find out where the leaves would be peaking that day, but perhaps due to the freeze the night before, it turned out most of the leaves had already fallen where we chose to go – toward Guanella Pass from the south side. So we missed the typical “fields of gold” scenes I photo. However, we were able to revisit a spot we had stumbled on a few years ago – an unmarked and otherwise unremarkable pull-off on the side of the road where a short trail leads to a river – that we can only describe as magical. It’s hard to say what makes this particular spot along this particular river so special, but we both felt it strongly. Something about the color of the water and the rocks, the way the river is just far enough into the woods for its banks to be completely natural despite being only a few dozen yards from the road, the fact that it seems so non-descript and thus leads most people to simply pass it by. So no, I’m not going to tell you where it is, exactly. But I can show you some pictures!

After spending some time at “our” spot, we continued further along the road, and while there were little or no turning aspen to be seen, autumn in Colorado can have other charms as well:

Last year, I got to see the aspens on the hillside, but missed the opportunity to walk among and be surrounded by them, which is actually my favorite way to experience the aspen. This year, even though most of the leaves had already fallen, I was at least able experience walking through an aspen grove. In some ways, doing this after the leaves have fallen is even more wonderful (although the “quaking” of the leaves on the trees is not to be missed), as there is something about the tightly spaced vertical trunks I find mesmerizing in itself. And the leaves on the ground still teased with their color:

I still entertained notions of making another trip the next weekend in hopes of finding a place where the leaves hadn’t fallen yet. But as it turned out, we got snow, and while I did make it up to the mountains, I got an entirely different kind of picture – one that served as a reminder that I had missed my chance but would be welcome to come back next year to try again:

Road Trip – The Western Slope

Although I’ve lived in Colorado for over 20 years now, I have spent very little time on the Western slope of the Rockies. So when my friend (and fellow Pentaxian) Ed called with an idea for a quick weekend road trip to Arches National Park and Colorado National Monument, I was game.

On the surface, it seemed like a questionable proposition. After getting in late Friday night after a gig, I’d be getting up early (for me) on Saturday morning, and we’d spend most of the day driving west to Moab, Utah. We’d have only about 4-5 hours of daylight to explore and shoot in Arches. Then we’d be driving back east to Grand Junction, where we’d spend the night and get up the next morning for only another 4-5 hours at Colorado National Monument (and a brief side trip to the Palisade wine country) before we’d need to head back to Denver, where I had a gig that evening. But Ed had already rented the car and was planning on doing the driving anyhow; all I had to do was come along. So I did!

I’ve driven west as far as Grand Junction a few times before, and there is beautiful country along the way (Glenwood Canyon in particular), but I had never explored the Grand Junction area itself, or driven any further west. The Utah state line is only a few miles from Grand Junction, and Arches only an hour or so from there. The terrain rapidly appears to get less interesting to me after passing through Glenwood, once the novelty of the mesas wears off. Crossing into Utah, I almost wondered if Arches could possibly be as spectacular as what we had already passed through to get there. But of course, its reputation suggested it would be.

Needless to say, I was not disappointed. Within a few miles of the entrance to Arches, things suddenly did get a lot more interesting. Here is a shot from the first stop we made:

Because time was so limited, we explored mostly by car. Arches is very conducive to this, as many of the major formations are close to parking areas, with little or no hiking required to see them. In fact, the view from the car is just as amazing, which is surely what these folks were thinking:

Sometimes, what is most interesting about a place is not the majestic panoramas, but the small details:

In some areas, there isn’t that much to look at nearby, but what there is makes you look that much harder, as Ed demonstrates:

One of the more famous rock formations in Arches is the Balanced Rock. It’s an impressive structure, although from some angles it looks more impossibly situated than others. Some viewpoints also make the scale of the thing more clear. And from any given position, the light is more dramatic at some times of day than others. Since we didn’t have the luxury of planning our visit there to coincide with the optimum time of day for the optimum viewing angle, we settled for making the shots we could, and I do rather like this one:

Scale is everything in trying to photograph scenes like this. Without a person in the shot, it can be difficult to appreciate just how big the formation is, but one also has a tendency to want to see “pure” landscapes. And with limited time and no familiarity with these particular formations and limited experience with this type of photography in general, it was very difficult to capture images that reflect the true feeling of the place. That is especially true when viewing pictures on a small computer screen. I like shots like this one because the people in it are not distracting to the shot, but once you see them, they do help give a sense of scale:

We did time our sojourn through the park so that we would be be near the most famous landmark, Delicate Arch, around sundown. The trial to take you right to the foot of the arch was far too long given the limited time we had, so we instead chose a vantage point from which you can see the arch across a canyon, around half a mile away. Luckily, I had my 500mm mirror lens with me to bring it closer:

After having dinner in Moab and spending the night back in Grand Junction, doubt again surfaced: could Colorado National Monument – located just minuted from town – possibly hold a candle to Arches? While I at least had some idea of what Arches would offer, I really had no clue with Colorado National Monument; it was only a name to me. But as before, there turned out to be no cause for concern. The terrain here is very different from Arches, but no less amazing. I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, and most canyons in Colorado are typically experienced from the bottom looking up. Colorado National Monument is home to a system of canyons – Ute, Red, Monument, Echo, and several others – and the road through the park travels along the rim of most of these.

Shortly after the gates to the park, one is greeted with a sense of leaving one world and entering a different one:

The first canyons one sees are relatively small ones. I was completely unprepared for the size of the large canyons one encounters soon enough:

Once again, capturing a sense of scale is difficult. Here’s one only partially successful attempt, sitting on the rim with my feet dangling over the precipice, with an absolutely enormous drop below that doesn’t quite look as dramatic as it felt:

Some of the rock formations here look almost like ruins from something man-made, the the Coliseum:

On the way home, we stopped briefly in Palisade to take a few quick shots of the vineyards:

I hope to be able to visit the Western slope again soon and spend a bit more time!

Creative Improvised Music – A Wakeup Call From Ken Vandermark

I attended a show recently that featured saxophonist Ken Vandermark, and it got me thinking.

I first became aware of Ken almost 20 years ago. At the time, I was mostly into very mainstream jazz – Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, etc. I was knew of, had respect for, but didn’t really listen much to, certain “free jazz” musicians that had strong ties to the tradition – Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman in particular. And at some point after moving to Colorado in 1988, I began subscribing to Cadence magazine. Cadence covers jazz, but also more generally “creative improvised music” – much of which exists outside the radar of the mainstream jazz media. And it seemed that every other CD they reviewed at that time featured Ken Vandermark.

I don’t know that it is possible to describe this music succinctly, because by its very nature, much of it defies convention of genre or idiom. It often involves improvisation that is free of typical chord structures and hence is often atonal. Some people find it hard to identify any sort of structure, but then, many find it hard to recognize structure in bebop.

I started listening to some of this music, including Ken’s, and was intrigued. For quite some time I worked incorporating some of these sounds and ideas into my own composition and playing, and I found it very musically rewarding. I even ended up recording a CD with trumpeter Hugh Ragin for the Creative Improvised Music Projects label, which is run by the same folks (Bob Rusch & company) that publish Cadence Magazine.

That was all while having a day job as a software engineer, treating music as a hobby. At some point I realized that playing music “as a hobby” was about as fulfilling as when someone you really like tells you that they like you too – “as a friend”. So I quit the day job and went into music full time. At some point after that, however, I had to accept that as personally fulfilling as this “creative improvised music” was, my career pretty much demanded I focus primarily on traditional forms. Between playing a steady gig for many years at El Chapultepec (where it was all about playing “standards”), going back to school to study composition, teaching jazz theory, and any number of other factors, my musical thinking has been much more focused on mainstream jazz again for the last decade or so. It’s not that I deliberately turned my back on “creative improvised music”, but I did not go out of my way to make room for it, either, and not surprisingly, it didn’t make room for me.

When Ken Vandermark came to town last week with Dutch musician Ab Baars, I of course attended, and really enjoyed the performance. It also served as a wakeup call – a reminder of something that had been missing from my musical expression for too long. I’m not sure how I’ll respond to that realization, but it was an eye-opener. I still have a lot of straightahead compositions I hope to record soon, and I still expect to be making my living playing mainstream jazz. But I need to keep in mind what it was I loved so much that it set me on this path in the first place.

Here are some shots from the concert featuring Ken along with saxophonist Ab Baars, bassist Wilbert De Joode, and drummer Martin van Duynhoven:

By the way, I was also surprised to see that Ken was about the same age as me, and had actually only just hit the scene when I became aware of him. For some reason, as much as I was seeing his name back then, I assumed he had been around a long time already.

A couple more shots:

Big Birds at Prospect Park

I’m lucky to live in an area with a lot of wonderful parks and open space areas. One of my favorites is Prospect Park, and I’ve visited it several times lately. The weather has been all over the map the last couple of weeks – from warm sunny days to blizzards – but that’s spring in Colorado. And that’s a beautiful time and place to be. I’ve done my share of landscape painting over the years, and landscape photography as well. But for some reason, this month it has mostly been birds that have caught my eye.

I am sure cormorants have been around here longer than I have, but this year is the first time I’ve noticed them, or knew what they were. A whole flock has taken over a tree on a pond at Prospect Park:

They use the tree as a launching pad for excursions to feed and to collect nesting materials:

The way they are building a network of nests in the tree reminds me very much of the condominium building visible behind the tree:

One day while my wife Wendy and I were watching and photographing the cormorants, a couple of birdwatchers came and told us where we could find a hawk in a tree elsewhere in the park. We were a bit skeptical that it would still be there when we got there, but there it was:

We thought we were lucky to get off a couple of shots, as we were sure it would fly off at the sound of our shutters. But it turned out this hawk was unflappable. We were able to photograph it from as close as we wanted:

On two separate occasions I watched and shot this hawk for probably an hour. It didn’t do anything really dramatic, but I managed to catch a number of “moments”, such as here when it might have found some prey:

Rather than dive and attack, it started calling out – perhaps to alert the other hawks in the area:

This bird was circling above us the whole time, but never came in any closer:

Eventually, my friend on the branch above me lost interest in whatever had commanded its attention, and went back to more mundane activities, such as scratching its head:

At one point it shifted position and lifted its tail and I was sure it was going to fly off, but all it actually did was poop:

When the wind blew, it would have to do something to keep its balance. In this instance, it apparently decided it was best off balancing on one foot:

It was also a gust of wind that prompted the most dramatic pose offered by the hawk:

I have no idea how long this particular hawk will stay in the area, but I plan to visit as often as I can, as this was just an amazing experience.