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Mark you calendar for our 2017 awards ceremony celebrating Hot House Jazz magazine's 35th anniversary: Monday October 9th, 2017

Metropolitan Room / Hot House Jazz magazine 2016 award ceremony.

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Branford Marsalis

Branford Marsalis: Saxophone Plus Voice

By Eugene Holley Jr.

In his storied, three-decade career, the 56-year-old saxophonist and bandleader Branford Marsalis has played with a few vocalists, from blues veteran Linda Hopkins to the R&B singer Frank McComb. But the release of his Grammy-nominated CD, Upward Spiral with the Windy City wunderkind Kurt Elling, marks the first time that eldest of Ellis Marsalis’ six sons has featured a vocalist for an entire record.

“He’s one of the few jazz singers that I’ve listened to that actually has a jazz vocabulary,” Branford says of Kurt. “He has a very versatile voice; he functions inside a group very well; he sings in tune. A lot of times singers, like instrumentalists, have licks: a certain sound in their approach to a song. And regardless of what the song is, they have one singular approach to all songs. Kurt doesn’t do that.”

Buoyed by Branford’s quicksilver quartet with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner, Kurt’s raw-boned, tenor-toned vocals, which can deliver soulful scats at a moment’s notice and swoon and croon at the drop of a dime, compliment Branford’s equally robust and romantic soprano and tenor saxophones.

The 12-track CD is an impressive and ebullient potpourri of moods and grooves.  There's the bop-friendly Gershwin chestnut “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” and the similarly syncopated Sonny Rollins ditty, “Doxy.” Bobby Vinton’s bubblegum hit “Blue Velvet” is rendered in a ghostly manner. “Blue Gardenia” showcases Branford’s and Kurt’s bold balladry. Fred Hersch’s “West Virginia Rose” highlights the saxophonist’s and vocalist’s unison lines, while Kurt’s elegant Brazilian Portuguese illuminates Antonio Carlos Jobim’s seldom-heard, bossa nova, “So Tinha de ser Com Voce.”  Branford and company transform Chris Whitley’s countrified song, “From One Island to Another” from its twangy guitar textures to a profound piano-centric piece.

The zenith of the recording is the group’s moving and melancholic version of Sting’s soon-to-be-classic ballad, “Practical Arrangement,” from his Broadway play, The Last Ship. Kurt’s delivery is riveting in its power to evoke the longing of love, with Branford’s Coltrane/Johnny Hartman style solo. Branford has dipped into the wellspring of Sting’s compositions ever since he joined Sting’s band in 1985 in his famous break from his brother Wynton’s group.

“Sting has a great sense for melody, so he doesn’t treat everything coming up to the hook like it’s not important,” Branford says from his North Carolina home. “So, all of his songs are really through-composed and the melody has power from the beginning to the end. That’s the same thing he was doing with The Police 35 years ago.”

When Branford came into Sting’s musical web three decades ago, he was enjoying the fruits of being a so-called Young Lion. Originally an R&B musician, Branford, inspired by Wynton, got serious about jazz at age 19. He came to New York after attending Southern University and Berklee School of Music. The Marsalis brothers joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and toured with the famed VSOP ensemble featuring Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams.

He was a member of his younger brother’s band, which included drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and pianist Kenny Kirkland, who also went with Sting. Although the breakup caused some ripples in the jazz community, both siblings maintain their brotherly love, which makes flame-throwing portrayals of their family problematic.

“We are boring people,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Somebody asked me in an interview who would play me in a movie? I said, there will be no movie. We’re too boring: We don’t sleep with each other’s wives. We’re not alcoholics or drug abusers. Any disagreements that we have don’t lead to murder or skullduggery … totally boring.”

Another Marsalis family meme that continues today is the notion that they were born on the downbeat: playing bebop tunes in kindergarten. “We weren’t the Von Trappe family [from The Sound of Music],” he stresses of his New Orleans upbringing. “People think we had Charlie Parker corn flakes for breakfast [laughs], that we were piping Monk throughout the house. None of that is true.”

What is true is that today Branford Marsalis plays what he wants, when he wants. And he does so with his swinging group of young musicians, whose touching and torrid telepathic interplay is evidence of what he calls their “aural scholarship,” buttressed by their belief in the music that invigorates the bandstand.

“All the guys in the band have charisma,” Branford proudly says.

And so does their leader.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling, performs in the Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Jan. 20-21.

Photo Credit:  Palma Kolansky

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John Abercrombie

Another Reason To Celebrate by Elzy Kolb

Circle Game

Guitarist John Abercrombie’s new CD, Up and Coming, is the latest milestone in his more than four-decade relationship with the ECM label, an almost unheard of tenure in any profession let alone the reliably unpredictable music business. His long-running collaboration with the label’s founder, Manfred Eicher, has played a part in shaping John’s music.

“When I first started with ECM in 1974, I realized they had a great sound I hadn’t experienced previously. Other techs, engineers, or producers were not as good as Manfred, and that definitely influenced me,” John explains. “I tried to make my live performances sound like that. My playing became freer, more spacious. And I could write my own songs that sounded like what I heard in my head versus what someone else wanted me to do.”

John feels that in recent years he’s come full circle with his playing, returning to the more traditional style of jazz guitar he aspired to when he was starting out. Like his early inspirations Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, John toured with an organ trio, and  thrived on the lively atmosphere of Chitlin’ Circuit clubs while on the road with organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith. “Everyone encouraged me to play and egged me on. That made me feel like I was becoming a musician, people really listened and liked it.”

The trio focused on standards and blues. “There was no fusion then, no mixing of styles,” he recalls. That was soon to change. While John points out he’s always played jazz or jazz-related music, his listening to rock, Indian, folk, European music and other forms had an impact. He joined the Brecker Brothers in their fusion band, Dreams, and experimented throughout his career.

“There was a mixing of styles and I forgot what I wanted to play and why I wanted to play in the first place. Now I’m coming back. You can never go home again, but elements started resurfacing, I’m getting in touch with my roots and what brought me to music in the first place.”

Up and Coming includes five originals, along with two pieces by pianist Marc Copland, and Miles Davis’ “Nardis.” Once an album is mixed, John makes a practice of listening to it pretty much constantly for a couple of weeks. “I’m obsessed; then I come to terms with it and there’s acceptance,” he says. “There’s always some place I don’t like; when I play it for a friend, I start talking really loud when the record get to that point so they don’t hear it. There’s always something.”

This is the second CD for John’s quartet with Marc, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron. He has collaborated with each of them in different configurations and situations over several decades. “They’re a great rhythm section, I don’t have to say anything to them. They’re great players and sympathetic to what I do.” They’ll be on hand at Birdland Jan. 24-28 to celebrate the release of Up and Coming. Besides material from the new album, the quartet will play tunes from its first one, 2013’s 39 Steps, plus some standards and originals.

Photo Credit:  John Rogers ECM Records

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Carol Morgan

Night Time is the Right Time

Trumpeter Carol Morgan denies ever having a hobby. She grew up playing trumpet, writing poetry and photographing everything in sight. “I didn’t think of them as hobbies, they were just things that I did,” she says. To this day, Carol continues to have interesting and inspiring ways to spend her time, including helping out her best friend with newborn twins, named Vaughan and Ella, no explanation necessary.

These babies are destined to have a taste for jazz. While caring for them, Carol has played Chet Baker records when they can’t sleep, invented new lyrics to “Night in Tunisia” to serenade them, and practiced the material for her new self-released recording, Post Cool Vol. 1 whenever she got a chance.

“When the songs were recorded in September, I was in a different state of mind because of the babies, because of thinking our new president was going to be a woman. There was a mind-set of optimism in the studio, you can hear it in the recording,” Carol says. “The music is poignant and relevant to our world; jazz is relevant to our world.”

Along with her cohorts drummer Matt Wilson, bassist Martin Wind and saxophonist Joel Frahm, Carol recorded a collection of songs related to night, in honor of pulling the night shift in her childcare duties. The studio time yielded enough good takes for two albums; Vol. 2 will be released in May. Among the tunes are an original called “Night,” with a lyric based on a poem Carol wrote in childhood; a tango version of “Donna Lee,” and an arrangement of “Autumn Leaves” inspired by a chance conversation with an astrologer from Carol’s neighborhood.

“He told me the exact date and time autumn would begin. When we were about to play ‘Autumn Leaves,’ I mentioned that fall would start while we were in the middle of the tune. Matt suggested we ought to play ‘Summertime’ until that exact moment,” Carol shares with a laugh.

The quartet also did a version of Tadd Dameron’s “On a Misty Night” inspired by the Chet Baker version rather than the more-familiar Coltrane rendition. “I’m such a Chet-head, he’s my hero,” Carol notes.

Ironically, Carol and the band will celebrate the release of Post Cool Vol. 1 Jan. 29 at the 55 Bar’s early set, just after sundown.

By the way, Carol did consider taking up a hobby recently—playing flute. The amount of wind required for the endeavor heightened her respect for flutists, and though the instrument uses the same muscles as trumpet, they’re used in a different way. “I thought, that’s really going to screw me up, so I dropped it.”

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Robin Hirsch

Hot Flashes by Seton Hawkins

Triple Hat: Minister of Culture/Wine Czar/Dean of Faculty

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the vaunted Cornelia Street Café. A fascinating dream of three artists who pooled resources to rent a small room in Greenwich Village, the café quickly became a hotbed of multi-disciplinary artistic endeavors and proceeded to expand into the dual-level restaurant and venue we know today.

The space hosts more than 700 events each year, curates a top-notch wine selection, and offers an artistic vision largely unmatched in the city. As we enter this new year, Cornelia Street Café will undergo a significant shift, working with not-for-profit fiscal sponsor Fractured Atlas and operating as Cornelia Street Underground.

“In 1977 three artists stumbled across a dilapidated storefront in Greenwich Village and we thought it might be the perfect place to open a café,” recalls Robin Hirsch, the venue’s co-founder and Minister of Culture/Wine Czar/Dean of Faculty. “We put up the unimaginable sum of $2,500 each to cover the costs of opening, and for two months we scraped, sanded and plastered.”

Ultimately, the gambit paid off and, over the next decade, the one-room café with a toaster oven added an additional room, then another and, finally, a basement. With the expansion came a highly beneficial relationship with their then-landlord.“Eventually, the plumber who had worked on the building bought it, and his son, a lawyer, drafted a very fair lease with us that was tied to the Consumer Price Index and expired 30 years after our original signing,” Hirsch recalls.

From the beginnings, the founders curated theater performances, classical works, folk music concerts and street fairs. As they added more rooms, the café’s physical expansion and artistic openness intertwined, offering a portrait of a venue that grew and developed organically as it slowly morphed into the neighborhood gem it is today. A case in point: the now-familiar basement space only became a performance venue in the 1980s following a unique opportunity to host a poetry reading by an unexpected figure.

“Our basement was filled with the detritus of 40 years as an antique shop and 10 years as a junk shop, so it was piled to the ceiling with all kinds of stuff,” Hirsch recalls. “The person for whom we opened the downstairs was Senator Eugene McCarthy! He was a published poet and it came about that he was going to come to the Cornelia Street Café to read his poetry. None of our two-and-a-half rooms were going to be big enough, even if we kept it under our hats! When he challenged Lyndon B. Johnson back in 1967, young hippies went ‘Clean for Gene,’ and spruced themselves up to knock on doors in New Hampshire. So, we went ‘Clean for Gene’ by cleaning out our hideous basement for his reading with Siv Cedering. This was the very beginning of what is now the downstairs, which we are now transmogrifying into the Underground.”

The movement toward incorporating as a not-for-profit and rebranding as Cornelia Street Underground might come as unexpected. However, the changing face and economics of Greenwich Village have unsurprisingly forced alternative approaches for the venue. Hirsch explains that the combination of a new landlord and an end to the 30-year lease resulted in a 50% rent increase.

“Our rent is 77 times what it was when we first opened, and that’s not sustainable,” he explains. Consequently, turning to a non-profit model and encouraging donor patronage will allow the lovers of  Greenwich Village’s cultural scene to support the institutions that made it great in the first place. Indeed, as one of the last vestiges of the Greenwich Village coffee houses, the Cornelia Street Café represents a crucial piece of the area’s history, one eminently worth supporting and sustaining.

To learn more about supporting the artistic mission of Cornelia Street Underground, visit

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