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Lew Tabackin

Aging Like Fine Wine: Lew Tabackin by Elzy Kolb

Count Lew Tabackin among the many who missed out on celebrating a milestone in 2020. Born March 26, 1940, the flutist/saxophonist was looking forward to enjoying his 80th birthday with a packed calendar that included Asian and European tours as well as four nights at Birdland. “It was supposed to be my big year, but my last actual gig was March 13 or 14,” he muses.

The dates were rescheduled for 2021, but after a second round of cancellations as the pandemic drags on, Lew advised his European promoter to get to work on booking a 90th birthday tour for 2030. “He can’t say I didn’t give him enough notice,” quips Lew. However, he notes that his 90th will be awfully close to the centenary of another veteran saxophonist with whom he shares representation, Benny Golson. “My guy will probably be too busy booking Benny’s 100th birthday to work with me,” the octogenarian notes with his characteristic understated humor.

An hour-long conversation with Lew Tabackin covers a lot of territory. A recent Saturday chat included references to Miles Davis, Martin Amis, Deepak Chopra, John Lewis, and John Coltrane. Lew also delved into the pros and cons of streaming, the teen idols he went to high school with in South Philly, as well as the delivery of everything from wine to washing machines. And, of course, his own approach to music and performance.

“Instead of arranging music, I like to derange it,” the jazzman muses. “I don’t like to just get up and play, I like to get inside the song, become one with the song. I try to internalize what I play until the song is you: You feel like you wrote it. It becomes a part of you.”

Even better is when he can bring the listeners along with him. Lew recalls a night when “I landed on a note that was nothing special, in a way, but I put all of my communicative energy into that note and felt the audience coming into it too. It was the ultimate Zen experience, the ultimate thing to aspire to: reaching the audience in a special, personal way. Not like playing something stupid and the audience goes crazy, but playing something simple and the audience becomes part of it. That doesn’t happen very often. It will be fun to see if I can still pull it off.”

Lew’s performances since the start of the pandemic include just three livestreams, and a recent gig at the Deer Head Inn, placing him in front of people for the first time in more than a year. He’s looking forward to April 13, when he’s set appear for a Smalls Jazz Club crowd, in addition to streaming. Set to join him on the bandstand are trumpeter John Eckert, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Jason Tiemann.

Since the shutdown, “Yasushi and Jason have saved my life. We’ve been getting together every week to play, we’ve developed a repertoire. John is an old friend and a wonderful trumpet player. He has a wonderful sound and a wonderful sense of history. I thought it would be nice if he joined us: two old guys and two young guys.” The foursome is likely to play originals, reworked standards, and material by Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and the late trombonist Jimmy Knepper, with whom both Lew and John had a relationship.

While much of the world has been on pause, Lew has dedicated himself to staying in shape on his demanding instruments. “You have to blow a lot of air. If you don’t play, the muscles go around the side of the lips. I have to balance my practice to keep my flute chops up, to maintain a certain level. When I pick up the sax, I practice without a neck strap, it’s like weightlifting. I play with a fairly heavy mouthpiece and reed. It’s hard to play tenor for 20 minutes, then pick up the flute and sound respectable. As you get older you have to think about it more, but I can still make a lot of noise.”

Though Lew has talked about putting together an octogenarian band—“It wouldn’t be difficult, there’s a lot of them running around,” he notes—he is a longtime believer in multigenerational ensembles. “Mixing generations creates something that transcends personnel. If you’re lucky enough to be thrown into a situation with older people, it’s a great experience.” He’s been down that road himself, recalling that he was the “only non-star in Clark Terry’s all-star band.”

In his mid-20s, Lew was called to play in a Cab Calloway reunion band. “When I showed up at rehearsal, I wondered what I was doing there, I thought someone was playing a joke on me. Eddie Barefield was there, doing pushups,” he says. “But it was a wonderful experience, I learned a lot. I met wonderful people; it was a strange demographic reality, but there’s something to be said for that.”

Catch Lew Tabackin at Smalls Jazz Club April 13


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Marcus McLaurine

Marcus McLaurine: A Bassist’s Bassist By Eugene Holley, Jr.

Ever since the Omaha-born, Queens-based bassist and educator Marcus McLaurine came to New York City 41 years ago, he’s been one of the most in-demand musicians in the business. His impressive résumé as a first-call sideman includes work with Dizzy Gillespie, Abdullah Ibrahim, Kenny Burrell, Abbey Lincoln, Clark Terry, and two co-op groups: Native Soul and Lines of Reason. He also served as a music consultant on the animated Disney/Pixar film Soul. Marcus’ strong and supple basslines have been featured in a multitude of styles and configurations, but in this time of COVID-19, he’s performed in a number of livestreaming piano-bass duos, most notably with Helen Sung and Ken Kresge.

This month, Marcus forms a dynamic twosome with the Cyprus-born pianist Glafkos Kontemeniotis—with whom he has played for a few years—from the pianist’s home, livestreamed by the Jazz Forum. “We’ll be doing standards like ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,’ and ‘Love Walked In,’” the bassist says. “We’ll also be doing some originals, including a tune I wrote for Clark Terry, ‘To CT with Love,’ and a song I wrote for my godson, Ravi, who recently passed away, called ‘Ivar,’ which is his name spelled backward.”

In order for the piano-bass collaboration to work, both musicians must develop a telepathic language allowing them to express themselves, and provide simpatico support. Duke Ellington and Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Peterson and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and Charlie Haden and Kenny Barron are among the finest duos in the music, and Marcus feels that he and Glafkos have what it takes to play up to the high standards set by those artists. “We have a good musical marriage where we don’t have to really think about what each other is going to play,” Marcus says. “We’re evenly matched when we play, which is kind of nice, particularly in a duo setting, because you really have to be aware of what each other is doing, and really have that trust.”

It goes without saying that intimacy is at the heart of the piano-bass configuration. But can such intimacy be possible during a pandemic? “I’ve done some duets with Helen, and we didn’t wear a mask, so I think it depends on who you’re playing with,” the bassist says. “But to me in a duo setting, it’s not as critical, because you’re not going to be [around] many people. I’ve done settings where we did wear a mask and we had plexiglass up.”

The ability to handle the acoustic demands of the duo, and the safety protocols of COVID-19 come naturally to Marcus, who grew up in a military family in California, Texas, New Mexico, Utah and Germany. He started out on electric bass, studied music at the University of Nebraska, moved to Los Angeles, and played with guitarist Billy Rogers. He switched to acoustic bass after hearing The Three Sounds, and landed a gig in pianist and composer Horace Tapscott’s Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Marcus joined the Air Force in 1976, and traveled the world as part of the 590th Air Force Band. Later, trombonist Clifford Adams of Kool and the Gang convinced the bassist to move to New York.

In 1981, he met the legendary trumpeter Clark Terry, with whom he played for 25 years and recorded eight albums, including Squeeze Me, Live at the Village Gate, Live on QE2, and Friendship. “I learned so many things from him,” Marcus says, “how to carry yourself as a musician, and how to present yourself as a musician. Clark was with Duke Ellington for about 13 years, and you can’t get any classier than that. I also learned a lot about how to teach through Clark.”

Marcus is an adjunct professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, and teaches his students virtually. “I have Pro Tools, so I’ll record bass tracks and I’ll send them to the different musicians,” he says, “a student in Korea, a student in San Francisco, and a student in St. Louis. They can be anywhere in the world and still be able to be a part of your ensemble.”

Though the pandemic is a trying and often brutal time for musicians, the forced introspection it brings can motivate an artist to do new things. In Marcus McLaurine’s case, it has inspired him to work on releasing his first recording as a leader.

“Absolutely,” he says. “Like Charlie Parker said, now’s the time.”

Marcus McLaurine and Glafkos Kontemeniotis perform virtually April 15 as part of the Jazz Forum @ Home series.

Photo Credit: Chris Drukker

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Carolyn Leonhart

Carolyn Leonhart’s Intentional Sound By Stephanie Jones

In a stolen moment, Carolyn Leonhart sits at the piano working out a diminished line she heard earlier that day. She plays and sings, plays and sings until she’s transcribed the line with such intention, she suddenly internalizes what’s been looping in her head for hours. That’s when something unlocks. 

For the past few decades, the critically acclaimed singer, composer and band leader has reframed daily challenges into opportunities for exploration and growth. She connects with listeners at different levels; her plush tone, ethereal and grounded, interprets complex material with lyricism and intention. 

What many listeners may consider natural ability, Carolyn refuses to take for granted, seeking always to refine her ear and enhance her artistry. “Often people don’t spend enough time listening,” says the Steely Dan alumna. “And really listening. People tend to listen just enough to say, ‘Oh, I’ve checked that out,’ and I say, ‘Well, you need to just hang out and explore that and go into that.’” 

Persistent deep listening lets Carolyn flourish authentically. She internalizes what she hears, then personalizes those sounds spontaneously when she’s performing live. But she admits her relationship with authenticity is complicated. “I learned by imitating,” she says. “I was always a mimic. And I was a chameleon to a certain extent, so I loved imitating different kinds of singers and people. When you grow up that way and you do it well enough that it evolves into something, you always have that lingering thought, Am I being authentic or not?” 

Carolyn has performed and recorded in countless contexts over the years. She’s graced the gamut of bandstands, from huge arenas as an indispensable member of Steely Dan’s touring band, to intimate clubs alongside her own quintet. But the question of truthfulness rarely escapes her mind. “On the one hand, we’re always being authentic,” she says. “When I was copying these step outs and solos from Richard Smallwood’s gospel choirs, that music touched my soul and I was connected to it. At the same time, I’m trying to copy something that is not me, not my background, not my reality. But it’s a tough question because, if you’re singing from your heart and you’re really trying to communicate a story in the moment, then whatever you access to do that, honestly, probably is authentic.” 

In her own work, as well as with her students at Berklee College of Music and The City College of New York, Carolyn addresses another critical concept: developing tendencies and forming habits. When habits form, she posits, whatever prompted their formation may have emerged from a place of personal truth. But very quickly that habit, once formed, can become a hindrance to expressive integrity, if the artist opts not to challenge or break it. 

She contends that what helps keep her honesty honest is recording herself, then listening back—often reluctantly—from a critical yet compassionate perspective. “We have to challenge those habits,” Carolyn says. “Recognizing those patterns and habits and trying to break them [ensures] we’re really improvising in the moment. I’ve tried to be more aware that I have choices. So I go back and forth between awareness of the choices and utilizing that and also realizing that I can’t get too caught up in what I’m doing because that breaks the moment.” 

Another compelling force for Carolyn’s refinement is working on her own projects with a strong presence of self. This year, she looks forward to issuing a record decades in the making—a trio release with longtime collaborators: bassist Jay Leonhart, Carolyn’s father and work-ethic mentor, and pianist Jim Ridl. Her upcoming hit at Deer Head Inn features the ensemble. 

The artists held a studio session in August and recently recorded a complementary date. “As a result of the pandemic, that project’s been very easy to actualize,” says Carolyn. She’s also gearing up to release her first solo-led record with her quintet that features Myron Walden, Rodney Green and Richie Goods. While the piano chair switches from time to time, often fitting such vital voices as Mike King and Helen Sung, the record will feature Christian Sands. 

For the prolific artist, the lockdown has prompted certain reckonings and concessions in terms of creative output. But Carolyn remains grateful. She stays focused on the music and her own evolution: “For people who want to go deeper into the music, it’s just exploring. Consistently. Every time I sit down at the piano, I find something. And to me, that’s joy.”

Carolyn Leonhart’s trio, featuring bassist Jay Leonhart and pianist Jim Ridl, performs at Deer Head Inn April 17.

Photo Credit: Nathan West

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Ron Naspo

Ron Naspo: A Talent for All Seasons By Don Jay Smith

Bassist Ron Naspo has had a remarkable career that spans the decades from the 1950s to the present. His ability to play all types of music including jazz, classical, pop and Latin has enabled him to work steadily over the years with some of the biggest names in the music world from Stan Kenton and Tony Bennett to Leopold Stokowski and Luciano Pavarotti.

Although he is quiet and unassuming, Ron has long been a first-call bassist, who back in the mid-’60s toured with the groundbreaking pianist Don Shirley.

“The 2018 Academy Award-winning picture The Green Book was a pretty accurate portrayal of the pianist, who I got to know well during the two long tours I worked with him,” Ron says. “While most of the film is set in 1962, before he hired me, the Bobby Kennedy incident did take place while I was with him. When Donald was arrested, he asked me to get some things to him at the jail. As a trio, we spent a lot of time together not only making music, but eating, drinking and socializing. He was a brilliant man with perfect pitch and a photographic memory. He was always good to his musicians.”

Ron also spent two years with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and he recalls performances at many colleges and universities. “Stan was always interested in music education,” he explains, “so in addition to our concerts, we participated in workshops and panels. We spent a lot of time with students.”

About the same time he was with Kenton, Ron got a call to audition for the great Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra. He spent several years performing with that orchestra and even more with the New Jersey Symphony, which at first was a pickup ensemble. “We were all freelance back in the early ’60s when the orchestra played its season at Newark’s Mosque Theatre, which later became Symphony Hall. Because I was born and raised in New Jersey, a local gig was good to have.”

In addition to his tours overseas, Ron has sought opportunities close to his Garden State home. He was the regular bassist for the trad jazz pianist Billy Maxted, who began his career with the legendary Red Nichols before founding the Manhattan Jazz Band. When Billy retired to Florida, Ron never missed a beat, playing with top musicians from the region including saxophonist Sonny Rollins, trumpeter Wild Bill Davison, guitarist Harry Leahey and New Jersey Hall of Famer Bucky Pizzarelli.

When asked who his most influential bass players are, Ron immediately spoke glowingly of Paul Chambers. “He had a beautiful sound and a great sense of timing. Moreover, he was one of the first jazz players to use the bow,” he explains. “It is unfortunate that he died at such a young age.”

He also has high regard for many others, such as Ron Carter, Slam Stewart and Ray Brown. Early in his career, Ron [Naspo] shared the stage with the Oscar Peterson Trio, which enabled him to see the master bass player in person. “I will never forget having Peterson and Brown sitting at the front table as I took an extended solo. As a young musician just starting out, it was so meaningful to me to have these two giants smile and applaud when I finished playing. I still remember the moment decades later.”

For years, Ron has used his expertise and experience to educate the next generation of jazz musicians. He has taught both at Montclair State University and at William Paterson University, where he was a very popular instructor. Although he no longer teaches at either school, he’s the featured guest at William Paterson University April 25, when he joins the Latin Jazz Ensemble led by veteran faculty member and Latin jazz great Chico Mendoza. The virtual concert is preceded by “Sittin’ In,” an informal discussion featuring Ron.

As the vaccine starts to proliferate and there’s talk of a return to normalcy, Ron plans to concentrate on jazz. He has used this past year to work hard on his playing, which means he is ready to return to the scene and jazz fans will be in for a treat.

Ron Naspo is the guest artist for William Paterson University’s April 25 Jazz Room at Home virtual concert series, featuring the WPU Latin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Chico Mendoza.

Photo Credit: Chris Drukker

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