The strength and diversity of the Kansas City jazz scene was on display this past Thursday and Friday, as the Blue Room presented a touring group, the Mike Moreno Quartet, led by one of the finest younger guitarists on the New York scene, on Thursday, and the Take Five Coffee Bar presented Clint Ashlock's band playing music from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
The Blue Room and Take Five are the most prominent two jazz clubs on the KC scene today, presenting jazz more nights a week than anywhere else and with strong, intelligent booking. (Note, a new venue, the Kill Devil Club in the Power and Light District has been presenting a number of fine shows lately and may be ready to become a third premier jazz venue. I still haven't been able to check it out, though). The Blue Room and Take Five could not, on the surface, be more different. The Blue Room is a large, elegant club in the heart of the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District of Kansas City, a district that is always bustling when I have been there in recent years, even on a Thursday night. The neon signs, the people on the streets, the sound of music coming out of several venues, makes it clear this is a happening scene.
The Take Five, however, is in a strip mall deep in the Johnson County suburbs, and other than a restaurant next door (which also has music, on the easy listening side of jazz), there is not much happening in the surroundings. Where the Blue Room has a grand piano and an excellent light and sound system, the Take Five has musicians playing at one end of the room with no piano (other than electric keyboards provided by the bands) and no special lighting and often no sound system (though with the much smaller room, that is less of an issue). The Blue Room is more apt to present touring jazz musicians (and often rather "big names"), and though the Take Five has presented a few out-of-towners (in the recent past, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and a group featuring trumpeter Shunzo Ohno and saxophonist Rob Scheps), the artists are usually local.
Despite these handicaps, however, the Take Five has achieved success in critical areas: a knowledgeable and dedicated jazz audience (the room has been full or close to it for every show I've been to there) who know how to LISTEN, and a willingness to present some of the most creative and innovative (and often quite young) musicians on the KC scene. And I cannot recall a time when there has been a more impressive pool of talent on the KC scene. And when it comes to booking local musicians, the Take Five is, I think, booking somewhat more adventuresome bands than the Blue Room. This is not to fault the Blue Room - they have a lot more seats to fill, and that is an inducement to be somewhat more careful in booking.
What does all this mean? It means that area music fans are really lucky to have these two clubs, which complement each other in their musical offerings, as well as in their geographic locales. Let me illustrate that with the music I caught at the two clubs this past week.
I was not sure I would have any chance at all to hear the Mike Moreno Quartet last Thursday at the Blue Room. While I had pre-recorded my jazz show for that evening, I had done so since I was hosting a living room concert that night for New Orleans folk musician Gina Forsyth. But when Mike let me know via facebook that his band would have one of my very favorite pianists (whom I had never seen live) Taylor Eigsti, plus the excellent bass and drum pairing of Matt Brewer and Ted Poor, I was determined to try to make at least part of the last set. I ended up tearing out of Lawrence about 9:15 and walking into the Blue Room just after 10....and hoping the band would still be playing. They were, but no Taylor Eigsti...and no pianist. As I found out later, Eigsti was unable to get out of New York City in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. However, there was an excellent substitute, as the very impressive young vibraphonist Peter Schlamb, whom I've seen in KC several times, drove up from his home in St. Louis to round out the band. Since Schlamb had played a lot with Moreno when both were in New York City, he was quite dialed into the music.
And the music was superb. While I only got to see 30 minutes of this group, it was WELL worth the trip from Lawrence. When I arrived, Moreno was playing the gorgeous (and all too little heard) ballad standard, Spring Is Here, by Rodgers and Hart. With sensitive interjections by Schlamb on vibes and very tasteful drumming by Poor, Moreno wove soft, beautiful, extended lines. He was almost apologetic afterwards, saying they were just learning the tune, but he thought they were going to keep playing it! From there, Moreno launched into the Joshua Redman piece, Soul Dance (which can be heard on Moreno's CD, First in Mind). A jazz waltz with a catchy melody, Soul Dance showed off the strengths of the band, notably the strong yet supple rhythm work of Brewer on bass and Poor on drums. They have the advantage of working together over many years in a variety of bands; I recall first seeing both of them with pianist Aaron Parks at the Rochester Jazz Festival a few years back, where they both impressed me greatly). Moreno's solo was notable for his typical flowing, limpid lines with some interesting chordal work, and Schlamb switched between four and two mallets in his vibes playing, which relies more on intelligent note selection and excellent work of space rather than just dazzling speed.
There was plenty of dazzling speed in the closing number, the Joe Henderson tune Isotope (which is on the Moreno CD, Third Wish). But what really made Isotope shine was the way the band played with the time, speeding up and slowing down the rhythm throughout the tune. This is where both Moreno and Schlamb got to shine as soloists, but again, that was made possible by the excellent work by Brewer and Poor. Speaking of Poor, he hypnotized the audience with his drum solo on Isotope, playing most of the solo at a very deliberate pace, building on repeated figures with lots of use of space and gradually building both the tempo and intensity. All in all, this set was among the finest 30 minute stretch of jazz I've heard in some time.
Mike Moreno Quartet Live - "Airegin"
Stan Kessler's Horace-scope, playing the music of Horace Silver, and the Sam Wisman led band Crosscurrent, investigating the musical legacy of Lennie Tristano. Ashlock's group adds to this approach, and with a special advantage. One-time musical director for The Messengers, Bobby Watson, passed along the music for a number of tunes in the Blakey book to Ashlock, who put together a six-piece band of young musicians, with tenor sax by Brett Jackson and alto sax by Michael Shults. Andrew Ouellette played the electric keyboard, with the bass and drum combo of the Liefer brothers (Ben on bass, Matt on drums). As a huge fan of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, I was eager to catch Clint Ashlock and friends playing tunes from the Messengers Friday night at Take Five. Kansas City is lucky to have several groups exploring the legacy of certain jazz artists, notably
They kicked off the first set with a real classic, Wayne Shorter's One By One, followed by a tune by Bobby Watson's wife Pam, Ms. B.C., originally on one of my very favorite "late period" Blakey albums called Album of the Year, which had an inventive trumpet solo by Ashlock and a very nice drum solo from Matt Liefer. Then it was a tune by Pam's husband, Bobby, Wheel with a Wheel, and the kind of earthy blues the Messengers were known for, Bobby Watson's A Bittadose.
Ashlock again proved to be the most distinctive soloist of the three hornmen, though Jackson and Shults were never less than solid, the more experienced Ashlock has developed a more personal sound. Of course, it is really tough for any group of musicians to dive into the Jazz Messengers' book, since that music is really focused on soloists, and the list of great soloists could go on for quite some time (if you just took trumpet players, well, that could include Brown, Dorham, Morgan, Hubbard, Shaw, Marsalis, Blanchard - and that is a very partial list of outstanding players), and even most very fine players are not in that league.
Jazz Messengers - "Ms. B.C."
Which is not to say that the music was anything less than enjoyable, and all the soloists seemed stronger in the second set, which opened with the Walter Davis, Jr., number Uranus, and included two very strong performances, Wayne Shorter's Free for All, and the closer, Bobby Watson's In Case You Missed It. The latter featured the most impressive solo of the night from Ashlock, which built in intensity to a series of penetrating high note interjections. Especially fun was the collective improvisation of the three horns just before they went back into the melody at the end. The full house gave enthusiastic and well deserved applause at the end of this fine performance.
So, a Tale of Two Jazz Clubs. Perhaps I should have started this essay with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, on the Kansas City Jazz scene." But it is far closer to the former than the latter. Even with the closing of Jardine's, the KC jazz scene is bursting with talent, the Folly and the Gem Theaters are bringing in some of the very finest touring jazz musicians (including many fine younger artists like Vijay Iyer, Anat Cohen, and Eric Harland). And while the Blue Room remains the premier jazz club setting in the Kansas City metro area, the Take Five is presenting outstanding music, as well, and with the coffeehouse atmosphere and low prices they are attracting a large number of young patrons, which is great for the future of jazz in this area.
Among the highlights in upcoming weeks at the two clubs: the inventive saxophonist Matt Otto at the Blue Room on November 15 and then, on November 17, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson comes to the Blue Room, with the legendary Les McCann on what should be an evening of very soulful grooves. Meanwhile, two of the most interesting and original young bands in Kansas City, Project H (November 10) and cooking young organist Chris Hazelton (November 16) will be playing at the Take Five.