The jazz black-rock trio Harriet Tubman gives a gift of, and for, its namesake

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CD cover courtesy sunnysiderecords.com

Harriet Tubman Araminta (Sunnyside)

Guitarist Brandon Ross leads his jazz/black-rock trio Harriett Tubman with stylistic bravura and unabashed love of vivid distortion, evoking what Sonny Sharrock might be doing if still alive, but with a more poetic control of sonics.

Ross hasn’t recorded much as a leader but he’s shown great versatility in cutting-edge jazz. I heard him live and on recording accompanying Cassandra Wilson, so he has both the nuance to support and enhance a daring and soulful vocalist. He’s also a singer, though not on this recording. As a rhythm section, Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and Drummer JT Lewis have collaborated with artists as diverse as Living Colour, Lou Reed, Herbie Hancock, Henry Threadgill, Sting, Arrested Development, Archie Shepp, David Murray and Me’Shell N’degeocello.

So, on this album Ross’s guitar howls at the moon with beautiful abandon. Yet “Nina Simone” paints a songful and pain-felt portrait of the black singer-songwriter who invoked social justice with unmatched power and poignance. It recalls Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly,” for Duke Ellington. Guest trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith lacerates and burnishes his notes magnificently here, bleeding in the glistening sunlight of truth. Drummer J.T. Lewis punches and slashes like a black man who defiantly matters. Throughout, Smith unfurls deep textures, sustaining eternally spatial and grand pronouncements. 1

It closes gratifyingly with the almost submerged-sounding blues reverie, “Sweet Araminta,” tenderly referencing abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s birth name, without trivializing the grit and gravitas of her achievement.

Harriet Tubman photosstategov.com

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  1. And Wadada Leo Smith, of course, is among the pre-eminent, most original and  conceptually ambitious brass players in jazz, in music, period. In fact, he’s sort of a jazz version of filmmaker Ken Burns, but in an abstract but wonderfully painterly way, playing that brings to mind both action painter like Jackson  Pollock. But you can also sense abstract color field painters, both big-gesture painters like Robert Motherwell and even sublime Zen meditators, like Mark Rothko.  Smith’s epic four-record set Ten Freedom Summers from 2012, musically re-imagined the black American history and the Civil Rights movement, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The Chicago native has done similar multi-disc takes on The Great Lakes, which evokes and reconsiders those mighty bodies of water that have defined so much of life from the East to the Midwest, since the days of the great pioneers. He’s now based in the New York area, but being from Chicago he understands The Great Lakes. And this year came Smith’s magisterial and mysteriously beautiful double-disc project called America’s National Parks. a comparable musical paean to those great irreplaceable natural resources.

This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express

Christmas postscript: The star over Bethlehem burned brilliantly within this piano trio

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Pianist Rick Germanson and bassist Peter Dominguez perform Dec. 23rd at the The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee (Photos taken by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise indicated, in a low light without flash.) 

T’wasn’t the night before Christmas, but all through the club all the creatures were swinging, even the mouse. Actually it was two nights before the magical, mystical night in a Bethlehem manger.

The band did play one seasonal song, Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” — as if they’d just dreamed it up in a sugarplum fever. Yet pianist Rick Germanson so deftly veiled it in fresh voicings that it spurred a debate between me and my girlfriend on the song title (I won).

“Merry Christmas, everyone,” the pianist said at the song’s end.

But these three men were home for the holidays. And by that time, in the second set, they’d delivered arms full of gifts, like three wise men from the Orient, casting riches upon our little jazz scene — compared to New York, as humble as the hay-strewn Bethlehem manger.

Sure enough they were all coming far from The East. New York, that is – not “the Orient” (which still exists only as a dated cultural construct).

All the rest of it was quite serious music-making, or I should say serious fun, because it mainly grew out of the loamy soil of hard-bop, which takes the most salient and vibrant aspects of bebop and he gives them a palpably funky and bluesy boost.

Or to mix a merry metaphor, it tasted like eggnog spiked liberally with something that never made Milwaukee famous – modern jazz, on December 23rd at the newly renovated and reopened Jazz Estate on Milwaukee’s East side.

The New York-based Rick Germanson Trio, all Milwaukee-area natives, made their hometown proud, and even gave this veteran jazz observer jolts of surprise, delight and, at times, mystification, as in: How the hell does he do that?

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Rick Germanson takes a solo.

I figured that Germanson and his mates would be pretty damn good. But this was nearly off the jazz charts that none of these guys needed. In fact, the pianist, whom I observed closely with a virtual keyboard-side seat, repeatedly played extremely complicated and dynamic passages with intense concentration. Yet his eyes fixed somewhere far beyond the keyboard. That “look-ma-no-look!” effect just hints at the man’s mastery.

“In New York, Rick’s nickname is ‘Brick,'” said his bassist Peter Dominguez after the gig, flexing his right arm into a curl for emphasis, “because he’s so strong! And he takes no prisoners. Either you’re ready for him, or not.”
Consider that New York is, by far, the toughest and most competitive jazz scene in the world, and you begin to sense the mark with Germanson is making far beyond old Brewtown.

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On his Jazz Estate gig, Milwaukee native Rick Germanson displayed the musical determination to succeed as a jazz artist, which has earned him the nickname “The Brick” in New York, where he now lives. Photo by Ann K. Peterson.

Yet, he still seems under the national radar, despite his New York bona fides, including extended stints with guitarist Pat Martino and the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band featuring Louis Hayes, and work with The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, Mingus Dynasty, Tom Harrell, Jeremy Pelt, Brian Lynch among others, and co-leading his last recording with trumpeter Eddie Henderson.

Germanson was nowhere to be found in the latest Down Beat International Critics Poll, which I have contributed to in the past. After listening to his too-few recordings as a leader and on this stunning night, I would place him in the top 10 pianists, perhaps even number seven, right behind Brad Mehldau. And noting the unsurprising poll-winner Kenny Barron, it struck me why Germanson’s dark-horse presence is so well-earned. His overall style compares with Barron’s. Perhaps the elder pianist possesses unsurpassed elegance, offhanded ease and range of repertoire. But Germanson, at 44, is right in his prime, and can do most anything Barron can do, it seems.

(Full disclosure: about 17 years ago, Germanson played solo piano at my second wedding’s reception in Madison. But it was an accident of circumstance, as my chosen pianist, Dave Stoler, needed a last-minute substitute. I had little chance to really hear Germanson play that busy day.)

Some close-listening critics might argue that his influences remain a bit too evident. They’re detectable but also myriad. Just sitting through a few tunes, I scribbled down the relevant names: Ahmad Jamal, Cedar Walton, Ramsey Lewis, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Timmons, Hank Jones, McCoy Tyner. But Germanson tosses off these aspects with such alacrity that they ultimately feel integrated into an astonishingly wide mainstream jazz piano vocabulary. Call the dialect “post-hard-bop Germanson.”
There was Evans’ pensive ballad “Very Early,” with his sinuously-kneaded chord changes, and then Bobby Timmons’ groove-twitching “Jive Samba,” a tune Germanson surely played countless times with the Adderley Legacy Band.

Then yet another stylistic shift to the modern Coltrane-esque modalism of Cedar Walton’s “Holy Land,” wherein he carries you to the Promised Land with powerful gusts of crystalline sand and whirling wind. You can imagine how brilliantly he embraced the McCoy Tyner-esque stylistic power strokes Elvin  Jones was accustomed to in his rhythmic cauldrons.

Yet, at times, I wish he’d be a bit more harmonically daring and bullish, dash one flat or second interval hard across the grain, like Monk might. But Rick’s fully sophisticated in the post-bop tradition, so that caveat only seemed like a late-set afterthought. In re-voicing familiar tunes like “Autumn in New York” or “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” he lulls you with a theme-in-the-breeze, like a siren on the shore, rather than simply stating it. That way, he pulls you into his orbit and, with his encyclopedic stylistic resources, you feel set for a long stay.

The strategic success, at least of this live set, took off from a hard-bop pad. So the band often plays like a canny, old-time carnival clown – plenty of deep pockets full of surprises and loads of nimble wit to spur bobbing heads and chuckles of amazed delight. And in a place as intimate as The Jazz Estate, virtually the whole audience palpably feels it all down to their tapping toes. And if there’s a mouse or two lurking (unlikely), they’re surely hipsters, too. 1

At the heart of any great straight-ahead jazz style, as with Germanson, is the creative space facilitated by continual dynamic accents and deep-in-the-groove currents. Here too, he shines, his playing bejeweled with tough rhythmic finger drumming, incredibly tight sustained octave  tremolos,  or cross-punching tiger-paw attacks, or long, crackling-swift arpeggios.

And yet Germanson seems to know when to pull his own reins in and not seem like a show horse. He often offers such a gambit as a discrete jewel setting, with crisp entrances and segues. He almost floats against a pulsing flow of bassist Peter Dominguez and drummer Pete Zimmer. These two possess the power, precision and elasticity of a great neo-bop rhythm section, such as the 1980s Heath Brothers Band with its bounding harmonies and hop-skip-skittering rhythms. (continue reading below)

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Bassist Peter Dominguez (above) and drummer Pete Zimmer playing with Rick Germanson at the Jazz Estate.

The second set helped affirm the pianist-composer’s evolving originality, as in “Rick’s Blues,” in which to Dominguez displayed his arco chops on a solo with fine, deeply resonating legato and highly evocative effect. This reveals his study with the great Madison bassist Richard Davis, one of the supreme masters of jazz bass bowing. (Germanson and Dominguez also display superb simpatico, taste and imagination on the Dominguez album How About This, a trio recording with former Herbie Hancock drummer Billy Hart.)

“Daytona” took a muscular McCoy Tyner approach and gives it a Latin twist. Even more distinctive was Germanson’s “Theme for Elliott,” written for his son, which “kind of captures his vibe,” he offered. A deceptively simple one-handed melody, like a boy might pick out on a keyboard, develops into a thoughtful but slightly impetuous exposition, tempered by recesses of shyness, a lyrical but probing creation.
Another personal gesture arose in “Susan’s Waltz,” written for his wife, who stood approvingly a few feet away from the keyboard. It seems almost a gently-traced character sketch, folded between deft chords. Here bassist Dominguez remade the melody like a grizzly bear capturing a butterfly in his paw, and slowly and tenderly letting it fly away.

The trio upped the power quotient in the Tyner mode on Germanson’s “Interloper,” conveying an apt sense of intrigue and drama. The three men from the East absolutely burned through this, with the sort of spiritual power akin to Tyner in his prime. Drummer Zimmer bristled with a swift-yet-sharp tempo and bassist Dominguez unleashed a panther-swift fast-walking pulse. Germanson’s solo set off fireworks, riding a powerful left-hand thunder of chords. And yet his ruthlessly rapid right hand didn’t really mimic Tyner, nobody quite can. Plus, his solo delved into complex harmonic underpinnings reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s impressionistic sorties.

It all ended with a brief encore rendering of Miles Davis’s set-closing standard, “The Theme,” which I hardly recognized with the re-harmonizing that Germanson says he drew from the late Cedar Walton’s approach to it.

Yes, Walton is one of this pianist’s touchstone fathers. But Rick “The Brick” has found himself, proving an old adage, that finally the child is the father to the man, his own man.

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1. A few more words about the new-and-improved Jazz Estate. It was a great listening space to begin with, but an excellent move was to re-configure the small back room. Instead of a cluster of tiny tables and chairs, the new owner built connected booth seating along the two walls leading to the back exit. This allows for at least several extra seats, and more lounging comfort through the last set. And the restrooms, previously merely functional, like many jazz clubs, now have “expanded fixtures” and very classy furnishings.

 

Bobby Hutcherson brought spiritual questing and down-home allure to the vibes

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The late vibes and marimba player Bobby Hutcherson. Courtesy www.nga.ch

On another sultry but beautiful day yesterday, I had to get away from the computer and outside in the afternoon. So I went out to nearby Kern Park and shot some baskets and, because I was the only one with a ball, I attracted a few other guys and we ended up getting into a game of hustle that included one 6 foot 2 dude who could dunk the ball, another built like a linebacker, and an 11-year-old who consistently sunk high school three-pointers from beyond the top of the key! It was great fun and then I did some grocery shopping in my sweaty shirt, and when I came home I did not want to go back to the computer or Facebook.

So I didn’t learn about vibes and marimba player Bobby Hutcherson’s death until I peeked at Facebook at about 10 PM and noticed Howard Mandel’s recommendations for listening to Hutcherson albums. My heart sank because I figured he’d been prompted by Hutcherson dying. I scroll down and found a few more posted tributes and then Nate Chinen’s New York Times obit. The great musician had died Monday at age 75, at his home in California, after years of struggling with emphysema.

Although I studied piano, Hutcherson was the guy who, more than anyone, had me fantasizing about playing the vibes, from time to time.

Last night I immediately thought back to one of the very first phone interviews I ever did when I began covering jazz for The Milwaukee Journal in the fall of 1979. It was with Bobby Hutcherson, who was to be performing at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, and I still have the cassette recording of the interview because he so impressed me when a hung up the phone. I thought to myself, this was one of the most musically dedicated and spiritual persons I have ever spoken to.

Part of that openness to the spiritual or psychic or the subconscious arose in an anecdote he related to me about the great wind multi-instrumentalist, Eric Dolphy, with whom he had spent time playing and recording with in the 1960s for Dolphy’s premature death.

Hutcherson recalled: “Eric used to call me up, maybe 4 o’clock in the morning, tell me his dreams. He’d say,’ Bobby, write this down.’ Things like, ‘one, six, eight, 17.’ You know, numbers and letters. He dreamt these things as if they might mean something, like intervals or scales or chords.

“The next morning he met me at my house and we would try to figure out what it meant, and try to play something from that dream.”

Earlier in the interview, Hutcherson also said: “I want to play some tunes that people can hum, you know, just as long as I can still make a living being true to myself and giving something to people. They can respect you for digging into the music. Like there’s still some hope in this or it lasts, because it’s for real. It helps to destroy some of the plasticity of this world.”

You sensed in the man and his playing the desire to create beauty but also to press ahead with an insistent sense of what was musically possible and that might change things for the better, at least a bit.

I was also fortunate to have just heard, in person at the Jazz Gallery, Hutcherson’s greatest inspiration vibist Milt Jackson, a few weeks before I interviewed Hutcherson. And there was no doubt that the great Jackson showed that he was the master of both the blues as expressed in through this ostensibly non-blues-friendly instrument, and the king of vibes swinging, against and around the rhythm.

Then Hutcherson played Milwaukee in late October, 1979, and looking back at my review (in the anthology of Milwaukee Jazz Gallery press coverage published by the Riverwest Artists Association) I noted an affinity with another great jazz musician that he would collaborate with quite often, pianist McCoy Tyner. The review headline is “Jazz Storm has Serene Center.” I wrote: “The effect is precisely that rare sense of drama that can be found these days in the group of McCoy Tyner, but with no saxophone for easy ascent. Hutcherson struggles and thrashes, reaching, reaching. But he never quite gets to the note, even if you heard it.” That was the sense of purpose and ever-driving momentum and ultimately questing that gave a backbone to Bobby Hutcherson’s stylistic beauty and spiritual balance.

Just a few days before his death, I had been thinking about Hutcherson and had pulled out a few of his CDs to listen to, including one of his later and lesser-known Blue Note albums called Patterns (1968), which is marvelous and a bit challenging with James Spaulding’s bracing alto. But there’s also plenty of color, texture and pattern with Spaulding’s flute and, of course, Hutcherson’s vibes and Joe Chambers’s artful percussion play.

Here is Hutcherson’s stately but swinging title tune Patterns.

There are a number of other excellent Hutcherson albums including his heady Blue Note debut Dialogue with pianist Andrew Hill and the great Madison, Wisconsin bassist Richard Davis, recorded shortly after Hutcherson and Davis had collaborated with Eric Dolphy on his masterwork album Out to Lunch. There is also the meaty Stick Up! with Tyner and saxophonist Joe Henderson, and the ambitious nine-musician album Spiral.

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Hutcherson’s ambitious debut on Blue Note, “Dialogue.” diskunion.net

By contrast, also recall Hutcherson playing on guitarist Grant Green’s languid soul-jazz classic Idle Moments.

Then there are two albums that feature Hutcherson’s warmly alluring marimba as well: Components from 1965 with “Little B’s Poem” — “the lilting modern waltz written for his son Barry,” as Chinen notes, and Hutcherson’s best-known tune.

Another notable marimba-colored album is Blue Note’s 1966 Happenings, a quartet date with Herbie Hancock that includes Hutcherson’s gorgeous meditation “Bouquet” and a superb reading of Hancock’s modern standard “Maiden Voyage” and the weirdly witty free-jazz piece “The Omen.”

Also consider the album Oblique, another quartet with Hancock, which includes the pianist’s theme from the classic French new wave film Blow Up. The theme’s intoxicatingly catchy chordal vamp can get you dancing but also carry you someplace.

My most specific appreciation, however, will be reconsidering one of Hutcherson’s most personal recordings (on Contemporary/OJC) which I just listened to again. It’s called Solo/Quartet recorded in 1982 with McCoy Tyner, Herbie Lewis and Billy Higgins.

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“Solo/Quartet” is one of Hutcherson’s most personal projects. allmusic.com

It opens with three pieces that Hutcherson recorded solo, with multi-track overlays. The first is “Gotcha,” wherein the marimba takes the improvised solo, conveying the intense repetitive patterns of Hutcherson’s kind of the blues feel, but also a sense of spiritual wonder. He’s “gotcha” — caught you in the resounding percussive melodic web layered here by multi-tracking. It’s simple but complex in its charms.

Then comes “For You, Mom and Dad,” a humble but radiant lyrical theme with the sort of resonating and questing peak notes that were part of Hutcherson’s characteristic open-mindedness, his sense of possibility. Again his marimba takes the improv lead and its warm, woody wit is elevated into stunning arpeggios circling to a climactic high note, and then he sustains intensity while revisiting the theme with tubular bells backing it. Hutcherson had managed with nothing but the striking of metal and wood instruments to create a spiritual vibe that is nevertheless, down-to-earth enough to be understood as a song tribute to his parents. As if to say, look, mom and dad. This is what I’ve been able to create partly because you were there, and supported me all the way. Even though his dad wanted him to be a bricklayer.

I love Chinen’s story about Hutcherson driving a cab during hard times in New York with his vibraphone in the taxi trunk.

What the wouldn’t-be bricklayer built was a new way for the vibraphone, in a mode different from what his great contemporary Gary Burton did with his four-hammer virtuosity.

The following solo tune on Solo/Quartet “The Ice Cream Man,” is another example of this musician’s balance between playful earthiness and psychic wonder. He’s clearly mimicking some of the sounds recalled from the bell-ringing, neighborhood-trolling ice cream trucks of his youth, but the sound of the note decay of the vibraphone is perhaps the key to the piece. This sostenuto effect opens the mind up, even as the melodic and rhythmic patterns beneath it engage you. The repeated playing of the theme is not tiresome; rather something you tend to savor, like every lick of an ice cream bar on a hot summer day. It keeps you rolling with the truck’s chiming melody, and in Hutcherson’s aura. The total effect is enchanting and transporting and yet he’s taking us back to familiar experience, like the best memoirists.

Hutcherson does this all by himself because his own personal life and experience is being relived and transmuted into a vivid almost cinematic environment. I know of no vibist who has accomplished so much all by himself on a recording.

The album’s last three tunes re-unite the Stick-Up! rhythm section, the great McCoy Tyner on piano, Hutcherson’s long-time friend, bassist Herbie Lewis, and the wondrously dancing drummer Billy Higgins.

“La Alhambra” is a Hutcherson piece of brief ascending and descending rhythmic phrases with very shapely chord changes implying a classic Latin rhythm, with bass and drums percolating beneath. Tyner’s astonishing, muscular, supercharged energy comes cascading out of the chute, but he fully honors spirit of his friend’s composition with its Latin rhythmic allusions.

Solo/Quartet is also remarkable because, as producer John Koenig explains in his liner notes, “during the album’s planning stages Bobby had an almost tragic mishap with a power lawn mower in which he sustained an injury to the index finger of his right hand which nearly ended his career.”

During this convalescence, Hutcherson had time to reflect on what he really wanted to say in such a personal project, and thus the true quality and depth of Solo/Quartet was born.

The next two tunes are two of the finest old standards in the repertoire book, both soulful vehicles that singers usually make the best of. But Hutcherson feels rightly that his vibes can do songful justice to both “Old Devil Moon” and “My Foolish Heart.” And he’s absolutely right.

Again, it is his combination of swirling pattern-making and eloquent melodic phrasing that lifts the songs as high as an old devil moon and as deep as a heart, foolish though it may be.

The album closes with Hutcherson’s “Messina,” a characteristic melding of subtlety and whirling, surfing rhythmic momentum, the sort of tune he might’ve dreamed up watching the powerful ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean near the home he built in the coastal town of Montara, California, which is his native state.

Solo/Quartet is such a marvelous record also because Tyner is a very kindred musician and this quartet swings deeply in a very modern ways, shifting and sifting through phrasing implied by the melodic changes. Clearly Hutcherson learned a lot from Milt Jackson about swinging, then found his own way to do it.

In 1986, Hutcherson also has an interesting brief apprearance in a wonderful feature film Round Midnight by Bertrand Tavernier which stars saxophonist Dexter Gordon as a dying jazz great in Paris. Hutcherson plays a sort of expatriate but down-home cooking connoisseur in an amusing role. Yet it fits in with the man’s aesthetic for finding the good, beautiful and soulful — even in the most unlikely or displaced of places.

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Bobby Hutcherson. Courtesy media.npr.org

Now, since the passing of other great California modern jazz giants like saxophonists Art Pepper and Joe Henderson, big-band leader and composer Gerald Wilson, and now Hutcherson, the historic role of the West Coast, in post-bop and modern jazz is beginning to become clearer, set against the somewhat East Coast-centric focus of modern jazz. West Coast cool jazz was a contrast to East Coast energy, but as a summation of the region the label always fell short. All these deceased musicians, and others like Horace Tapscott, Arthur Blythe, and The Bobby Bradford-John Carter Quartet embodied West Coast creative fire, as finely calibrated as theirs could be.

The brilliant SFJAZZ Collective, with Hutcherson-influenced vibist Warren Wolf, exemplifies that West Coast modernism today, as both a repertory band and a vehicle for its members’ original compositions. Hutcherson co-founded the collective. Don’t be surprised if they honor him with a recording of his compositions.

Let us always think in such larger terms when we consider the qualities of such a wide and deep art form as jazz, and the great musicians who brought contrasting and complementary sensibilities to advancing it.

Hutcherson’s long, gleaming vibes tones will always radiate, like a Pacific lighthouse beacon in the darkness, through the music’s history.