Local stars shine brightly in the holiday skies

. May 18, 2012.

The holiday season brings with it plenty of extra business and expenses. Fortunately we live in a community with so many luminous jazz stars that the absence of high-priced presentations of visiting dignitaries is offset by the opportunity to save a little dough and still enjoy a cornucopia of world-class club dates that spotlight the talent in our own backyard. Before we consider the many options, let’s consider some of these amazing players…

WEMU’s free 5:01 Jazz events are back at Live at PJ’s on the first Friday of every month. The recent November program featured the Afro-Cuban jazz band Tumbao Bravo! Co-leader sax and flute cat Paul VornHagen is one of the most sophisticated players in town. His simmering tenor saxophone, prominent on a lovely reading of “Star Eyes,” started my reminiscing about how many of these locals — admirably capable players for years — have continued to blossom and grow. All of Paul’s romantic tendencies shine ever more brightly in the Latin jazz context.

During WEMU’s successfully concluded on-air pledge drive, guitarist George Bedard’s recent CD Picking Apart the Past was offered as a premium. This is a collection of diverse material that Bedard has been woodshedding for years and finally committed to disc. There is a soulful take on Junior Walker’s “Cleo’s Mood,” a royally romantic reading of Floyd Cramer’s lovely country and western ballad “Last Date,” and a brilliant seriocomic inclusion of the title track from the Sergio Leone film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” The music offers evidence of Bedard’s considerable skills and his continuous dedication to the music.

Bassist Paul Keller has been in the vanguard of Ann Arbor players for decades. He continues to perform with the Paul Keller Orchestra every Monday night at Zal Gaz Grotto Club. He fronts the Paul Keller Ensemble, presenting top-drawer modern jazz. He has recorded in many contexts — from a tribute to all things Michigan, to a pair of inspired Christmas CDs.

This is only part of the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of the list of local stars who combine in a variety of wondrous constellations. Consider the following…

Holiday Club Dates

Most of the gigs attractive to jazz fans during this holiday season will be happening in the intimate confines of the Kerrytown Concert House.The Paul VornHagen Trio will have a CD release concert scheduled at KCH on Friday, December 9 at 8 pm. He’ll be in good company with the ever-inventive Phil Kelly on piano and the ever affable bassist Kurt Krahnke.

The All About the Trio series will present pianist Ellen Rowe at KCH Sunday, December 11 at 4:30pm Special guest and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen will join a stellar rhythm team of bassist Paul Keller and drummer-hipster Pete Siers.

Bassist Rodney Whitaker fronts the MSU Jazz Studies Program and has an outstanding international reputation. He will bring a quartet to KCH Friday, December 16 at 8pm. The band includes saxophonist Diego Rivera, pianist Reggie Thomas and drummer Randy Gelispie. Should be some serious swinging here!

Vocalist Marlena Studer has a KCH gig that is both a holiday concert and a CD release party. Crazy He Calls Me will feature the Cliff Monear Trio. Marlena will make crazy on Sunday, December 18 at 6 pm.

Rounding out the KCH December gigs will be the return of prodigal son guitarist Randy Napoleon’s Sextet, with yet another CD release party! Randy has been working and recording prominently with the Freddy Cole. He will return to the KCH roost Friday, December 30 at 7 & 9 pm. The band will feature cutting-edge trumpeter Justin Walter, warm-toned trombonist Josh Brown and the robust and romantic saxophonist Ben Jansson — with Duncan McMillan on the Hammond B3 organ. This promises to be a rewarding evening!

Down by the Creekside,
Holiday Style!

David Swain’s II-V-I Orchestra continues their monthly run at the Creekside Grill on Sunday, December 18. They will work out on the Ellington-Strayhorn arrangements of the “Nutcracker Suite.” The second set will feature vocalists. The dancing begins at 6:30pm.

Looking To 2012!

When you pick up that 2012 calendar you will want to circle one more KCH date that is sure to provide plenty of thrills. The Ellen Rowe Quartet with special guest trumpeter Paul Finkbeiner will hit at KCH Wednesday, January 4 at 8pm. The pianist’s front line will also feature saxophone guru Andrew Bishop — he and Paul are a great tag team — with Kurt Krahnke and Pete Siers in the rhythm section. This will be elegantly abstracted, sophisticated and seriously swinging!

Thanks and Happy Holidays
and New Year!

A big thanks to all of you who contributed to the fall fundraiser for 89.1 WEMU-FM. What a privilege it is to serve this community. Y’all are very hip and way responsibly generous! Any of the CDs mentioned above will make great stocking stuffers. My Latin jazz suggestion this year is a remarkably powerful and big fun 2CD set from the Mambo Legends Orchestra. Watch Out! Ten Cuidao! features former members of the Tito Puente Orchestra in terrific form! The seriocomic title track alone is worth the price of admission! “Don’t you mess with us!”

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