Jazz in the District this Week

Jazz in the District this Week

by Michael J. West

Monday, April 15
Alto saxophonist Marshall Keys is one of the District of Columbia’s living treasures. His sound, well immersed in the Charlie Parker-Cannonball Adderley tradition of bebop playing, is as solid as it gets, his swing even more so. Though modest and self-effacing, he’s a true virtuoso musician who has something personal and erudite to say on the instrument. (That’s before we get into his work on soprano sax, or flute.) Keys is comfortable in any context, but there’s something special about seeing and hearing him in a duo setting. Say, for example, with guitarist Geoff Reecer, whose dulcet but lucid (and surprisingly sturdy) touch is a mainstay of D.C. music thanks to his membership of the US Air Force’s jazz ensemble (The Airmen of Note). Reecer is also a mainstay of happy hour at the bar of Dupont Circle’s Tabard Inn, where Keys will join him from 7:00-9:30 p.m. 1739 N Street NW. Free.

Wednesday, April 17
At least two major voices in the current jazz world, trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and vibraphonist Warren Wolf, have told me that D.C.-by-way-of-Baltimore bassist Kris Funn is their favorite bass player. And why not? Funn’s facility on the instrument is nothing short of remarkable. The sound (which packs fearsome power into a remarkably soft touch) is immediately recognizable as his; the ingenuity is fresh on every attempt; and Funn’s very presence brings an injection of enthusiasm and energy to the music on every level. What’s more, though, the bass player has something to say. His band and 2017 debut album, both named Corner Store, make that clear. Funn’s built both a perspective and a vision as a young black man and artist who made his way through Baltimore and D.C.; it’s our good fortune that he’s eager to share it. Kris Funn and Corner Store perform at 7 p.m. at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, 921 Pennsylvania Avenue SE. $19.

Thursday, April 18
Guitarist, producer, documentarian and all-around visionary Ken Avis put together last year what may be the definitive (so far) document of our music with his CD compilation Capital Jazz. Among its baker’s dozen luminaries were songs by saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed, pianist Mark G. Meadows, vocalists Akua Allrich and Rochelle Rice, and violinist David Schulman and his band Quiet Life Motel. But jazz on record only goes so far, as Avis knows—so he has also conspired with the good folks at Strathmore to produce Capital Jazz as a performance series. The aforementioned five acts are all on the program for the diptych’s kickoff installment. (Its second will be next month.) “Prepare to suspend your idea of what jazz is,” wrote Avis in the liners for the Capital Jazz CD. Rest assured, if you’re not at least casually familiar with the scene now, the live version will force you to do the same. Capital Jazz begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda. $30.

Sunday, April 21
Happy Easter! Observant or not, you can celebrate the holiday in style at Twins, with accordionist-pianists. Did you know we had such creatures in our midst? Why, in fact, we have two! Simone Baron, whom you may know from her position in the chamber-tango-jazz ensemble (yes, we have one of those in our midst too) Arco Belo, also leads a trio of her own with bassist Steve Arnold and drummer Lucas Ashby. Then there’s Amy K. Bormet, who plays just about everywhere, with just about everyone, and is always looking for an unusual new adventure. With Baron, she has found one. The two women will alternate on accordion and piano, playing some music by Brazilian female composers as well as their originals and “bizarre versions of standards.” In keeping with the theme of the holiday, they have titled the program “Marshmellow-Flavored Music”—and Bormet, who will also sing, is doing her best to make the gig in a pink bunny suit. The music happens at 8 and 10 p.m. at Twins Jazz, 1344 U Street NW. $10.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a freelance writer, editor, and jazz journalist who has been covering the Washington, D.C. jazz scene since 2009. He spends most days either hunkered down in the clubs or in his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.

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Mat Kerekes plays the Songbyrd Cafe

Mat Kerekes plays the Songbyrd Cafe

by Molly Guillermo

“Care-a-kiss,” Mat Kerekes, lead singer turned solo artist of the indie pop punk band Citizen, rasped into the mic as he tuned his guitar, on stage in the basement of Adams Morgan’s Songbyrd Cafe. “Not Kere-keys, it’s Kerekes. Care For A Kiss.” He introduced the artists next to him who form the band he tours with, and who electrify his acoustic albums for the stage. His girlfriend, Gabby Navarro, on bass; Jake Duhaime, drummer in the band Citizen; Brett Kaminski on electric guitar; and Jacob Sigman, a crowd favorite for his own solo EPs on keyboard. Kerekes’s live experience is nothing like his record experience, which showcases his softer side. Though Kerekes was still playing his signature acoustic guitar, each song also featured Kaminski’s electric guitar solos, which were nothing short of show-stopping, as he performed solo after solo to the audience’s cheers. Though the performance was unlike Citizen’s darker, more punk than pop feel, Kerekes’s sound was livelier, rowdier, and more light-hearted than his acoustic records. He started with “Ruby,” on of his most recent releases and a crowd favorite. The love song had a fun, bubblegum pop turned rock feel, and the audience cheered when Kerekes sang the bridge in a high falsetto over the sound of electric guitar. “Diamonds”, his other new single, began with a soft vocal run to the sound of Sigman’s keyboard. Sigman had some dedicated fans, who loved screaming “Jacob!” every few seconds. The simple song transitioned into loud drums in the background, complete with a chorus of opera-esque back up singing. Though the fans weren’t entirely on board with the lyrics of such a new song, it didn’t stop them from bobbing their heads along. The louder Kerekes shouted the lyrics, the more the audience echoed them back to him.

He debuted three new songs, which featured your standard pop punk elements—electric guitar distortions and power chord changes with light-hearted and at times trite lyrics. Though the genre hasn’t had significant mainstream success since the 2000s, pop punk is far from dead. Indie artists like Kerekes have a cult following of skaters, teenagers, and punks lacking political motivation, and those fans are truly dedicated. Serious Kerekes and Citizen fans will mosh like they’re at a Bad Brains concert (Bad Brains, a DC based-hardcore band, actually coined the term mosh, so perhaps moshing to pop punk is more acceptable if you’re doing it a concert in the District.) You won’t see Kerekes headlining Coachella any time soon, but intimate basement performances are typical of the genre, giving Kerekes a compelling underground status that makes you feels young and rebellious when you’re watching him sing. Bands like The Story So Far, whom Kerekes’s band Citizen has toured with, also perform in similar underground atmospheres like The Panda Studio’s Waiting Room. The genre’s cult following is mostly young, male, and white, and almost everyone in the audience had X’s on the back of their hands, yet everyone knew all the lyrics to each song, particularly “The Clubs / The People’s Attention”, one of Kerekes’s biggest hits. It was a rowdy performance, with Kerekes shouting into the mic for most of it. The guitar was rougher, coarser, than the other songs, riling the audience up. A Mac Demarco look-a-like standing next to me threw his beer on the ground and yelled “Fuck yeah!”

The show slowed for the song “Riding In Your Car”, which was his only acoustic solo. His voice was strained and even cracked at times, which made his vocal delivery passionate and sincere. His confessional lyricism didn’t come off as contrived, but vulnerable, like watching someone peel back a bandage and show you their wound. As he sang about loving someone, there was a vulnerability in that that made you feel as if it was you who was falling in love for the first time, and it was you who was wishing they “would sing along [to all your favorite songs.]” It was voyeuristic and intense to watch, but everyone in the audience swayed along. “My brother actually wrote this song,” he said beforehand. “I stole it from him. This is for him.” You’d never guess that after watching him perform it.

The kind of people who enjoy Mat Kerekes are mostly Citizen fans, who often yelled “Play ‘The Night I Drove Alone!’” a popular song by the band. Around me, though, I couldn’t help but notice that even the Citizen fans sang and danced along to every song. It was an energetic performance, and a set that was designed bring his slow songs to life and showcase the talent of Kerekes and the other musicians. At times Kerekes seemed truly connected with the musical overflow around him. Though it was his name, his act, there was no ego. He was part of a band, and even one of us. A guy with some angsty emotions, who apparently falls pretty quickly in love.

The final song was “My Lucky #3,” which is Kerekes’s most streamed song on Spotify and Bandcamp. Kerekes’ voice was nearly drowned out by the sound of his fans singing along, and it ended the show on a light-hearted note. “Last night I had my fair share of drugs,” he sang, which seemed like apt lyrics to be stuck in your head after the show. A guy next to me wearing Vans and cuffed chinos (a popular fashion choice in today’s indie youth culture) held up a peace sign and yelled, “Last night I had my fair share of love!”

matkerekes.com
matkerekes.bandcamp.com

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Molly Guillermo

Based in DC by way of San Francisco, Molly originally hails from southern California and has a background in English. She aims to explore music’s inextricable tie to pop culture and its evolving relationship with politics.

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The G stands for Greatness with Emma G and Her Band Of Misfits

The G stands for Greatness with Emma G and Her Band Of Misfits

Emma G fires up the Cherry Blossum Festival stage for today’s cherry blossum visitors:

Today I decided to follow my queen around our nations capitol while she is home for two days in the middle of a month and a half long music tour across the country. Sure, I have my own work to do, but I know having me follow her around like a puppy dog gives her a mighty ego boost in additional to the rest she is supposed to be getting being back home in the familiar. The health of her voice depends more on her sense of feeling safe, secure, and supported emotionally, I’ve learned, than it has to do with the condition of vocal chords. The entire body is an instrument, a delicate symbiosis of chemicals, glands, organs, and muscles, all orchestrated by the mind and vibrating by breathe.

A day in life of emma starts at only god knows what time. After the haze of showering, brushing teeth, chugging something caffeinated she brought me, waiting and then walking to the backmost seats of the bus, I look up to watch the time tick from 5:59 to 6:00. I cant even remember the last time i was up this early. Who gets up this early?

I look around the bus and see a number of people african and latin american descent, off to open up stores all over the city, including several kind-looking ladies in hijabs. A pair of maintenance workers in uniforms of all royal blue have a hearty conversation about their clown family members. Its a quiet, peaceful, warm ride.

Emma has her peak energy at this time of day though. I listen blankly as she excitedly talks to me, my heart only beginning to carry caffeine to all my cells. Emma defies conventions as she yells “thank you!” to the driver as we depart from the bus, and greets her friend the paper guy by name before we descend down the escalator to her friends working the metro station gates. Shes only been in DC three years, but her ability to spread love and joy to commuters through music most mornings has made her a local icon. Ever since she was on the cover of Washingtonian magazine in 2017, she gets identified everywhere she goes.

I try to keep up as she hops off the green line and transfers to a second train. Today I carry her guitar case, otherwise she normally has it in the opposite hand of her big gulp full of hot tea. Shes also hauling a heaping backpack of merch to sell. Thankfully, at this time of morning, the ladies and men in suits and satchels, which used to be me, only take up some of the seats on the metro.

Seated next to me, Emma wastes no time. She is constantly social media posting, networking, emailing, booking, marketing, etc. “Being a full time musician,” she explains, “is three hours online work for every one hour of performance.” There are still a dozen shows scheduled for this tour, which is promoting her recently released music video for her social justice themed song “Superhero.” The re-recorded video masterfully follows an eleven year old black girl who gets flack from an angry white lady for performing her music on the street for donations, and also highlights the harm parents and police can (sometimes unknowingly) do to black kids’ dreams. Sprinkled with video clips of recent examples of police brutality, the music video symbolizes the controversy of the times.

We are not yet out of the metro station and she drops her backback and in a stretching “tada!” sort of way, she says “This is where I set up!” Its a Thursday so she is normally at L’enFant Plaza, but today she decided to go to Crystal City where she can play inside and avoid todays wind. She asks me to stay with her stuff. “This always happens. I have my big cup of tea and then as soon as i get here i have to go to the bathroom first thing” She will be able to play now for up to four hours, though her vocal coach warns her against gigging over two hours at a time. Thankfully, most of her gigs on the tour are two hours or less.

Emma’s tour started with trips north to Baltimore, Philadelphia, a couple shows in NYC, and a show in Albany where the band was received extremely well, describing the band as “something we’ve never heard before” and promised to have them back but at a larger venue next tour.

The band includes Nick Romero, formerly of One Love Massive, who is now music producer-performer Reality Check, providing live music production to elevate artists’ sounds in real-time, and creating as a solo artist using a Maschine that is a reality check for ordinary DJ’s. His latest track as a solo artist is called “Let Go.” He is the new addition, while the original band member is Joey J Drums, who doubles as a music teacher with School Of Rock and triples as solo artist Silence Echoez (with a Z), who has a new track called “Survivor” which is his tribute to the #MeToo.

Fans have found the Emma G & Her Band Of Misfits show to be a spiritual experience, with occasional bubbles tumbling through the air, and chalked full of gritty songs that capture angst of current events and simultaneously empower and console. Emma’s merch is empowering too, and includes Emma G SUPERHERO earrings, various t-shirts, CDs, calendars, and comic books.

The crowds being drawn are getting larger, with a packed venue at Becket, Massachusetts, including a troop of girl scouts turned up and it turned into a girl power life advice chat about the meaning behind each of Emma’s songs, especially “Sold (Take A Shot),” King For A Day,” and even the bluesy love songs. When I ask Emma which has been her favorite show so far, its this one, also because its been a return to the first place she lived in America, when she worked at a youth worker teaching outdoor skills while taking young women hiking.

From Massachusetts, she and her band and all their equipment hopped on a plane to Palm Springs, California to perform at release party for documentary about The Author Incubator, who commissioned Emma to write the company’s theme song, “Together We Rise” which features in the films trailer.

Now, with two days off, Emma’s back home to catch her breath, which for her means busking for the DC commuters. Today its three and a half hours of mostly covers, including her own renditions of “Hand In My Pocket” by Alanis Morrissette, “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman, and “Halo” by Beyonce. After busking, which is her therapy, we grab a cheesy jalapeno and egg pita and head off to a short 30min gig she was asked to do yesterday while we used her free day in DC walk around the tidal basin, as the cherry blossums decided to be at peak bloom for us.

It’s a good year for the blossums, and the planners of the Cherry Blossum Festival predicted the bloom perfectly this hear. An homage to japanese culture and our country’s healed relationship with the country we left devastated by nuclear bombs and struggling to deal with health effects of radiation on its citizens, the cherry blossum festival offers food venders and live music to blossum visitors during the week, and on the weekend, petalpalooza, a market of asian-themed foods and activites amidst outdoor stages.

There we ran into the festival’s music coordinator, who knew Emma and was eager to get her included in the set today before she flew back out to meet her band on the tour. He almost excitedly added her photo to the event photo and then suddenly the event photographer was coming to capture shots for future promotion of the festival. Its great brand building for Emma too.

The festival gives unspoken honor to femininity as well as to asian peoples and culture. Drawing all things pink, like the blossums, the parade route includes a large flag team dancing in various formations to create multicolored arrays of spinning flags, an implicit nod to the LGBTQ community. Emma has participated in the cherry blossum festival all three years shes been in DC for it, and last year won the “Sing Into Spring” competition to be featured in the festival parade, escorted beauty queen style in a 1964 ford mustang, closing the parade after acts like Arrested Development, Burning Man artists, and other fun floats. She thought she was going to miss the festival this year because of her Superhero tour.

As her partner, I know the FOMO it gives her and how she reminds herself part of her growth as a musician rising to her goal of becoming an international singer-songwriter, is becoming less immersed in the wild, wonderful world of Washington, DC. Whether she or her childhood relationships in New Zealand realize it or not, DC has become her base, and no matter how big she gets, she will always long to come home and busk. Emma G, along with bandmates DJ Reality Check and Joey J Drums, after shows in Vermont and then NYC, return Wednesday April 10 to play the Pie Shop in DC on her way south to texas. Follow them @emmagmusic, @djrealitycheck, and @joeyjdrums, and catch all the fire of their social movement, including fun live-streamed carpool karaoke style chats. For more on Emma G, see www.emmagmusic.com.

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Mark DeNome

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Jazz in the Region this week

Jazz in the Region this week

by Michael J. West

Wednesday, April 10
If you know your way around jazz in the District, you’ve probably encountered Brad Linde. He is the co-leader and (usually) the baritone saxophonist in the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra. He plays the other saxophones in his other ensembles: Team Players, Dix Out, Third Wheel, the Brad Linde Nonet and Quintet, and…well, he plays the saxophone in most of his other ensembles. Then comes Linde’s Therapy Band, in which the reed man takes up the piano instead. It’s rather an experiment, but then the Therapy Band is rather an experimental ensemble. The trio features bassist Mark Lysher and drummer Jeff Cosgrove, two of the region’s most accomplished and inspired abstract jazz artists. (Cosgrove just released an album with pianist Matthew Shipp, for example.) In other words, don’t expect the conventionally orchestrated piano trio to do conventional piano trio things. (But then, with these cats at the helm, would you want them to anyway?) Brad Linde’s Therapy Band performs at 8 and 10 p.m. at Twins Jazz, 1344 U Street NW. $10.

Friday, April 12
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly seven years since Brent Birckhead made the plunge. The alto saxophonist and composer is a Baltimore native and was a fixture of the D.C. jazz scene for nearly a decade, studying at Howard University and then building his artistic profile in the clubs and other gigs around town. (He was, among other things, the founding lead alto for the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra.) Birckhead cut quite a figure, winning awards from DownBeat and Washington City Paper with his burning yet lyrical sound and rich harmonies, enough so that his 2012 move to New York was an inevitable action. His hard work since then has paid off in his hard-hitting debut album Birckhead (Revive Music), which dropped in February and infuses straightahead, swinging post-bop jazz with R&B, soul, and a hell of a charge of funk. Birckhead will be the subject of the saxophonist’s CD release concert—and indeed his first performance back home with the words “recording artist” beside his name on the bill. Brent Birckhead performs at 7:30 p.m. at Sotto, 1610 Fourteenth Street NW (Downstairs). $20.

Mark G. Meadows

Saturday, April 13
Centennials are increasingly piling up for totemic musicians of the golden age of modern jazz. Among the most famous (if least “modern,” so to speak) is the great pianist and vocalist Nat “King” Cole. Let’s not ding him too heavily for not being a bebopper or even always a jazz musician. Most of us know at least some of his repertoire, if only his posthumous duet with his (now also deceased) daughter Natalie. That repertoire itself deserves to be celebrated, as does the irresistible smooth style in which Cole delivered it. Who in the DMV is more up to such a task than the wonderful pianist Mark G. Meadows? He’s taken a turn into musical revue lately, performing the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller on theatrical stages around town, as well as leading his five piece band The Movement on local bandstands (where he plays and sings his original tunes and arrangements). Now Cole takes his turn with the Meadows treatment, in a performance that is called (of course) “Unforgettable.” Mark G. Meadows performs at 8 p.m. at Black Rock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive in Germantown. $25-$45.

Sunday, April 14
The best album of 2018 largely flew under the radar. Here Today, by the vocalist Alicia Hall Moran (wife of pianist and Kennedy Center artistic director for jazz Jason Moran), was nothing like any of us have ever heard. It was an amalgamation of opera (in which Moran has her training), jazz, deep soul and African American folk music. That is also the foundation of the Morans’ collaboration at the Kennedy Center, a program called Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration. It’s a meditation on America’s Great Migration, fifty years after the fact, and it includes spirituals like the titular “Two Wings” (which Alicia performed onHere Today), the stride piano masterpiece “Carolina Shout,” and original pieces. They are performed not only by the married pianist and vocalist but with the help of the Imani Winds quintet, the brass band Sweet Heaven Kings, and vocalists Lawrence Brownlee and Smokie Norful. It’s rich in promises of original, ambitious music that—like Moran’s album—is unlike what you’ve heard before. Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration begins at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F Street NW. $29-$6

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a freelance writer, editor, and jazz journalist who has been covering the Washington, D.C. jazz scene since 2009. He spends most days either hunkered down in the clubs or in his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.

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Debut of the KW Big Band

Debut of the KW Big Band

by Michael J. West

On February 25, D.C. jazz fans got a rare treat at Georgetown’s Blues Alley: the debut of a brand new big band. The KW big band features 18 musicians, who collectively perform the compositions and arrangements of guitarist Michael Kramer and pianist Tim Whalen, who also lead the band and provide the titular initials. 

The music they played on their first gig was complex stuff. Tunes were long, labyrinthine, and sometimes unwieldy, with multiple sections and phrasings that were audibly technically challenging. They used odd meters, too: Whalen’s pretty “Long Walk,” probably the centerpiece of the evening’s first set, and Kramer’s subsequent, bass-driven “Identity Politics” were in mind-boggling 13/4 and 9/4 times. Or they would have been mind-boggling—if the material hadn’t been so alluring, the ensemble so polished, the rhythm so smooth and swinging. 

That, say Kramer and Whalen, is really the point of what they do. “Even if it’s super complicated, it still needs to feel good,” Whalen explains, sitting next to Kramer at a lunch date in Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood. “I’m sure you’ve heard a lot where the rhythm gets to be more like a math project. So it’s important to us to find that overarching flow, and to do it very musically.”

“When we were rehearsing ‘Long Walk,’ Tim told the guys, ‘Don’t count! Don’t count!’” Kramer recalls. “’Don’t think it, just feel the groove, Just remember what it sounds like.’” That’s how I feel about it, too.”
Traditionally, big bands fall into two camps. Some are repertory bands, designed to put new life into existing large-ensemble arrangements. The others are outlets for new work by ambitious composers. KW falls into the latter camp: a vehicle that allows Kramer and Whalen to hear and to workshop their own writing. “It’s a playground to keep improving,” Whalen says.

Both composer-bandleaders are veterans of D.C.’s extension of the U.S. Army band. (Most of KW’s members are military musicians: There were a lot of regulation haircuts on Blues Alley’s stage.) Kramer is a member of its jazz ensemble, the U.S. Army Blues; Whalen is part of the rock combo, Downrange, and sometimes substitutes in the Blues, where the two got to know each other. Each wrote for the band, and each recognized and appreciated the other’s writing ability. In 2016 they put on a joint recital of their music at the Army Band’s theater facility.

“We both decided that we wanted to continue that experience,” says Kramer.

One of their most important realizations was that they had complementary composing styles. Whalen liked funky grooves and intricate section parts; Kramer wrote in a more cinematic, unfolding-melody style. Both had a passion for linear, nonrepetitive compositions that (in the guitarist’s words) “totally explode the song form.” It gave their music variety and range, but also a through-line that lent a common identity to both composer’s music. 

When it came to putting the band together, they leaned toward the musicians they’d worked with most frequently—which meant military musicians. “It’s people we know and are comfortable with,” Whalen explains. “We can call these people, they’re gonna be prepared, they’re gonna look at the music, they’re gonna be on time. I work with people on the outside all the time, but when it comes to having a huge group—herding 18 people is not easy! You want to have that group of people that you really understand.”

That influenced their writing as well. Apart from employing celebrated soloists like saxophonist Tedd Baker and trumpeter Graham Breedlove, they carefully considered the players of written parts. “When you have someone like Steve Fidyk in the band, or Joseph Henson, you don’t write a second alto part, or a drum part. You’re writing for a part for Joseph, or for Steve.”
Even after assembling a reliable group of musicians, though, it took a while to get everything together. Eighteen-piece orchestrations didn’t happen overnight, for one thing; for another, each of the members is a busy professional musician, and long-range planning was necessary to find a time when everyone was available. Even when the gig was booked, there wasn’t much time to prepare: KW had exactly one rehearsal for their Blues Alley debut, and it was on the afternoon of the show.

“It was the gig that established the group,” Whalen says.

There will not be a heavy schedule of such gigs, though. “We’d like to play, I’d say two or three times a year,” says the pianist. “I would rather play less gigs and try to make a bigger deal out of each one than just be playing constantly.”

“You can oversaturate,” Kramer adds. “This scene is a very vibrant scene, but even if Pat Metheny were to come and play at the Hamilton every week, he wouldn’t sell that out every single week, so how can Tim and I do that? Pat Metheny or Scofield comes to the Hamilton once a year, say for the DC Jazz Fest, and it’s packed. So we’re looking to have that kind of model, where we can fill a room full of people with this music. We can have new material every time out if we do that, too.”

Not that the already-prepared material will just be discarded now that it’s been played. “The next step is that we’re gonna record all this music,” says Whalen. The duo had originally intended their premiere to be a rehearsal for a recording session; that didn’t pan out, but they plan to launch a crowdfunding program and lay down their 14 current pieces in Whalen’s home studio.

In the meantime, though, they are excited and encouraged by the reception that the band got at Blues Alley. “This has never happened before,” says Kramer. “There were two or three instances where the audience actually clapped, not after a solo, but after an ensemble section. That’s what our band is about.”

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a freelance writer, editor, and jazz journalist who has been covering the Washington, D.C. jazz scene since 2009. He spends most days either hunkered down in the clubs or in his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.

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Ben Tufts: Drummer and Altruist

Ben Tufts: Drummer and Altruist

by Kimberly Shires

Ben Tufts is one of Washington, D.C.’s most prolific drummers, having worked with hundreds of artists. Ben’s versatility and easy nature has made him one of the go-to people for both studio work and live performances. Ben has performed a diverse range of styles including, but not limited to punk, rock, funk, top-40, metal, and Latin.

Alchemical Records met up with Ben at the Lost Dog Cafe, where he used to volunteer to spend time with with dogs waiting for adoption. Ben’s altruistic nature is not limited to dogs. Ben hosts an annual concert where all proceeds support the Craig Tufts Educational Scholarship Fund.

On April 6th, Ben Tufts & Friends will host their fifth annual tribute show. This year’s concert will be hosted at Gypsy Sally’s and will start at 8:30 PM. The show is a tribute to some of the great artists of 1969, such as Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez. Local artists will perform, including Kristie diLascio, Aztec Sun, Bobby Thompson, Holly Montgomery, and Hayley Fahey. The show will be sponsored by 7DrumCity in Washington, D.C. Proceeds from the show will be donated to the Craig Tufts Educational Scholarship Fund. For more information and to purchase tickets, click <a href=”http://www.gypsysallys.com/event/1833587-ben-tufts-friends-present-washington/”>here</a>.

The Craig Tufts Educational Scholarship Fund was set up in honor of Ben’s father, who passed away ten years ago after losing his battle with brain cancer. Craig Tufts, Chief Naturalist of the National Wildlife Federation, communicated his wish to establish the fund. Ben recounted a sentiment that he learned from his father’s by saying “if you want the ideas and the concepts that you hold dear…to outlive you, you’ve got to pass them on to somebody.” The Scholarship Fund sends one child each summer to participate in an outdoor education and adventure camp connected with the National Wildlife Federation. The 2017 winner, 10-year-old Melani Sleder, recorded 319 bird species, initiated a library program for young bird lovers, and became a certified nest-watcher. For more information about the Fund, visit: <a href=”www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Education-Programs/Craig-Tufts-Educational-Scholarship>www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Education-Programs/Craig-Tufts-Educational-Scholarship</a>.

Last year, at least 50 musicians donated their time for the two-night event. Ben said it is important to feature diversity, and he is committed to booking female artists on half of the bill. Ben keeps a spreadsheet of artists he books for local venues to ensure that he strikes a gender balance and includes artists of color as well as LGBTQ artists. Ben loves that artistry connects people, narrows gaps, and strengthens community through the inclusion of all sorts of people. Ben said that, statistically speaking, female drummers do not start many bands, despite being just as skilled as the rest of the drumming community. Ben says, “It’s crushing that my female students haven’t seemed driven to start bands like my male students have.”

Ben identifies strongly as a teacher, and he has drumming studios at both 7DrumCity in Washington, D.C. and the Contemporary Music Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Ben credits his father with his love of teaching, reflecting that “when you see somebody get excited about something, it makes you ask yourself if you should be excited about it too.” Ben remembers his father would suddenly stop and say “look and listen” with the an expression of sheer joy on his face, one that he kept throughout his life.

Reminiscing on his days growing up on a farm, Ben laughed, “My friends were records.” His childhood record collection and his curiosity led to a wide range of tastes including rock, R&B, pop, jazz, and beyond. His diverse interests pushed him to build a wide portfolio of drumming styles. Ben reflected, “All I ever did was listen to music, so I got drawn to stories. A good song is a good story, and the genre doesn’t matter.” Genres typically originate from a region. Ben added, “It’s hard to express yourself effectively in any genre without understanding at least some of its traditions.”

Ben was first influenced by his parents record collection and self-identified as a rock-and-roll kid. He was obsessed with the Beatles and the first couple of Led Zeppelin records. Ben laughed, “I was a little snob and didn’t like anything contemporary in the 1980s until Nirvana came out…. It was hard for me to get really excited about music where I couldn’t hear somebody’s hands working or hear the air in the room.” The first record to really grab his attention in the 1990s however was Fishbone’s <i>Reality of My Surroundings</i>. An interest in stories told by women led to a love of Tori Amos, Veruca Salt, and Ani DiFranco. While in college, Ben tenaciously mined through old school jazz, R&B, and soul. “I don’t know what it was…but I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Ben does not half-heartedly listen to music, and he admits that he can obsessively listen to the same artist over and over. He noted, “when you listen to an album 1,000 times, it is part of you.” Some of his recent highlights have been Elvis Costello, the Police, Hiatus Kaiyote, Anais Mitchell and D’Angelo. At one point, Ben actually had to ask a friend to borrow his old D’Angelo album, just to take it out of his hands. In Ben’s words, “It was like a disease.”

Despite being the accomplished drummer he is today, Ben didn’t set out to be a drummer. As a kid, Ben drew stick figures of himself performing in a band, but oddly enough he never drew himself as the drummer. Ben started playing when he joined his junior high school band program. He decided that the drums were far more rockstar than the clarinet. Ben resolved, “I didn’t start playing music so that I could play the drums. I started playing the drums so that I could play music.”

Ben is currently the drummer for three local bands, Fuzzqueen, Uptown Boys Choir, and Virginia Creep and works for hire with dozens of other acts and singer-songwriters. Ben considers each band to be his family, which is “sacred in the most secular interpretation possible.” Ben expressed that all musical interactions are based on relationships, and he honors the relationships he has established locally. Ben has had opportunities to tour with national bands, but has almost always declined because he didn’t want to cancel the dozens of local shows he had already booked. Ben believes it is better to keep your promises to his local relationships than to gamble on a prospect on the other side of the country.

Ben is currently rehearsing with three or four bands right now that he has never played out with live. He also might be composing the music for a podcast which will require him to flex his composition muscles, and to learn how to be a recording engineer, which is very exciting for him.

Ben is proud to be a drummer and a teacher, and he has a sense of humbled pride in everything he has been able to accomplish so far. Ben is most proud of the work he has done with other artists when he really “believes in the music,” a sentiment that guides him in many of his artistic pursuits.

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Kimberly Shires

Kimberly Shires is a native of the DC Metropolitan area. Kimberly is a freelance writer, music degree holder, road bike warrior, songwriter, corporate ladder climber, and a Subaru driving nature enthusiast.

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Chaz Monroe On Their Upcoming Record (And More)

by M. L. Lanzillotta

I’ve never met local punk rocker Chaz Monroe or seen them play live. Alec Pugliese (Copes’ bass player) recommended their music via Instagram DM. That’s when I decided to listen to their 2017 EP – This Suffering Shall Not Be In Vain – on Bandcamp. Their voice alternates between delicately heavenly and powerfully emotional. From softer, sweeter sound of ballads like ‘Love Thyself/Love Each Other’ to ‘The State We’re In’s’ political punkness…. there’s a beautiful intensity to all of it. Though Monroe isn’t the most skilled musician, their passion and energy sure makes up for it. Also, the occasional mistakes give the music a more honest feel. It’s so real. After all that listening, I knew I had to talk to Chaz Monroe. They soon agreed to be interviewed.

Alchemical Records: Why did you decide to get into music in the first place?
Chaz: Um, for me it was, like, I just grew up in a family of musicians. My grandparents were musicians, my father is a musician… so, it wasn’t weird that I got into music – y’know? – it’s just something that was always there.

AR: Which instruments do you play?
Chaz: I mainly sing and play guitar, but I can play bass, mandolin, dobro… little bit of piano, little bit of drums. Whatever I need to do.

AR: Do you mostly play in bands?
Chaz: Um, so, I used to play… well, I played in bands growing up my whole life. I eventually started a project called Imaginary Hockey League which was kind of a solo project that became a band… um… eventually, the band that it became broke up. And then I started my Chaz Monroe project which is essentially the same project where I write all the music but I now also have a pretty regular group of people that are my band.

AR: How do you write your songs? Do you start with music or words?
Chaz: It can vary. But I would say, typically I’ll be messing around on my guitar… and I’ll come up with some sort of idea… and I’ll build on it. I don’t do this as much anymore but, when I was younger, I’d just like play guitar for like five hours every day just trying to write new stuff. But, now… I would say it typically starts with music, and I kinda form a bunch of musical ideas and write words to it. Although, occasionally, words will happen first. But it’s usually I’ll write music and then words to go with them.

AR: Was last year’s your first time in the recording studio?
Chaz: I put out two albums with Imaginary Hockey League. Um… those, uh, were pretty much me playing every instrument except the drums on both records… a different drummer on each record. Um… then after that project ended I recorded that little acoustic piece you’re referring to… um… just to try to get some new songs out there. I’ve actually been working on a new full length record and it’s almost done actually, I’m looking to put it out sometime in the next month. Um, just putting some kinda finishing touches on it… and then its gonna get mastered, and that’ll be the first full-length Chaz Monroe Record.

AR: Cool. Can you tell me more about it?
Chaz: Yeah. Sure. It’s different from the other records in the way that I recorded it, um, in that I only play guitar and sing on it. I have another guitar player, a bass player, and a drummer from part of my regular band who actually recorded the record with me. It’s different in that I didn’t play everything on it. And I’m also the one who is mixing the record, um, myself – which I’ve never done before. So I’ve been working on that. It’s been very difficult, since I don’t really know how to do that… but I’m just about done and I’m feeling pretty good about it.

AR: Do you prefer playing live or recording?
Chaz: I really love playing live. That’s where it all really comes together. I love recording, uh, because I love getting songs out there and into the canon of music but… performing is just… I am a very energetic person and I feel like I really come to life onstage. And I really just… the energy flows through me when I’m in those kinds of situations. I don’t – I’ve never thought of myself as being a particularly great musician. So, part of the thing about records for me is that they kinda show… like, my flaws are more obvious on them. Like, whether it’d be my guitar playing maybe not being the best or my singing not being the best. Where as live I’m a really strong performer so I can mask my flaws more with my ability to perform.

AR: Were you ever involved in theatre?
Chaz: Actually, yeah. I actually have a Bachelors of Fine Arts in acting. Um, so I’ve done theatre for most of my life. These days I do a fair amount of directing children’s theatre. So yeah, I do have a big theatre background. Definitely music came first but theatre has been interwoven into the fabric of my existence.

AR: What influences and inspires your art?
Chaz: I mean, when I’m writing lyrical concepts for music I tend to be influenced by events in my life and also events in, like, the world as a whole and how they converge, I guess. So, I’ll write songs often that have these personal elements and sections to them and, then, also these grander parts to them that are more about – I don’t know – the human condition, than about me. And as far as musical influences go? Uh, they range all over the place. I listen to a lot of music but some big ones for me are Jeff Rosenstock, Death Cab For Cutie… um… Blink 182 was a big one for me growing up… um… and lots of punk bands, and a couple emo bands that have been, like, big in my life. And then, I also – I mentioned theatre – I do have a taste for showtunes, though I don’t know if it influences my songwriting too much, certainly something I listen to a lot. And, uh, I love jazz. Jazz does have a mild influence on the music I write. I don’t in any way consider my musical projects to be jazz. But, like a lot of chord voicing and melodic ideas and harmonic progression I’ve picked up from my knowledge and love for jazz.

AR: That’s fascinating. I haven’t got any more questions. Is there anything else you’d like to say? Maybe about your new record?
Chaz: Sure. The new record… I’ve been working on for a while now. Uh, started writing it in probably Spring of 2017. Some of the early songs started coming together and then I kinda worked on writing it for like a year and I started recording it last summer and I’ve been mixing it for the past, like, two months or so. So I’ve been working on it for a really long time and I’m very excited to be finally wrapping it up and putting it out very soon. So, uh, I haven’t 100% settled on the title, but I think it’s gonna be called The Love We’ve Shown. It’s very much a record about just kind of examining all the different aspects of your life… both the beautiful parts and the harder parts and the composite of the two of them… and kind of choosing to live for the greater good as a result of your understanding, I guess is the way I’d sum it up.

AR: Wow. That’s really interesting, in a complicated way. Thank you for talking to us.
Chaz: Thank you for taking an interest in my art.

chazmonroe.bandcamp.com

Luke James Shaffer: Steals Our Hearts with “Thieves”

by Kimberly Shires

Luke James Shaffer, of Alexandria, Virgina, will release his second EP this spring, titled Vol. 2. Luke’s second EP follows Vol 1, which is one of the WAMMIE finalists for Best Country Americana Artist this year. Alchemical Records sat down with Luke over a cup of coffee to get the scoop on his latest project. One conversation with Luke made it clear that he is driven by personal accountability and holds himself to a high standard of authenticity.

We will get a taste of Luke’s second EP this week with the release his new single, “Thieves” on March 29. “Thieves” is a driving, rock tune reminiscent of the simpler days of childhood. The song aptly describes the worries of childhood as metaphorical “fool’s gold”, in contrast to the concerns of adulthood.

Six years ago Luke and his wife Sammi decided to make the DMV area their home and the place where he would pursue his music career. They both wanted to move to a bigger city outside of Ohio. The move happened after Sammi received a local job offer and Luke successfully auditioned into an agency band called Elan Artists. Luke gigged at weddings and corporate event with the cover band Nation, under Elan Artists. It was a great gig and gave him nice exposure, but Luke had his sights on creating original music.

Luke was raised in a musical family. His mother is comfortable on stage as a singer, and all of his brothers have booming baritone voices. Luke told us that birthdays are always a memorable event in the Shaffer home. His family creates out-of-this-world harmonies and can really kill it with “Happy Birthday”.

Despite growing up in a musical environment, Luke did not pay that much attention to music until the summer after he graduated from high school when he decided to pick up the guitar. This was the time when his musical tastes really began to solidify. Luke commented that his influences are atypical of a 34-year-old because he mostly skipped over what was popular in the 80s and 90s. Luke’s influence either digs deep back to the soundtrack of his childhood with the The Allman Brothers Band, a favorite of his father, or to artists in the 2000’s like John Mayer, Jason Mraz. One exception from the 90s was the Dave Matthews Band. Luke serendipitously got to know the Dave Matthews Band collection. Luke found a booklet of CDs that someone dropped on the ground in a Bob Evans parking lot. “There was a ton of great music but the one that stuck with me was the Dave Matthews Live with Tim Reynolds CD. I listened to that thing like crazy and it definitely influenced my songwriting at the time.”

Let there be no mistake, at 18-years old, Luke hit the music world head on. He taught himself how to play the guitar and write music. Luke is a prolific writer, with over 300 songs written to date. Despite this trove of writing, Luke will only admit to “a few gems in there.” As a matter of fact, earlier in the day before meeting Alchemical Records, Luke went for a run and wrote a song.

Luke talked about the time in his life when he transitioned from writing songs to seeing himself as a songwriter. Before the release of his first EP, Luke set his eyes on a personal challenge: write and produce one song per week. He settled into a local La Madeleine bakery, ordered a coffee and a croissant, and wrote every single day for 52 weeks straight. He reflects that while he created a bit of unnecessary stress for himself, he achieved his self-imposed goal. Three songs from the La Madeleine catalog made it to his first EP, “First Last Kiss”, “TINACS” and “Siren”. This challenge helped shape Luke into the singer/songwriter he is today.

Luke reflected on the first song he ever wrote when he was 18. He says, “It was dark and nothing like what I write now. I am a happy writer.” Luke uses his talent to create imagery, driving melodies, musical tension and authentically relatable lyrics. Luke’s lyrics reflect his own personal truth and observations and are many times dedicated to his wife Sammi.

Luke is gracious towards his audience and will often approach folks directly to thank them for coming to the show. This sentiment goes a long way when building a connection with fans. As an introvert, building one on one connections comes more easily than wearing an outgoing stage personality. Luke tries to strike a healthy balance between what feels natural and pushing himself to connect on a more macro level with audiences. This can be a challenge, particularly when it feels really comfortable to perform with his eyes closed. Luke has found that closing his eyes can help him cope with nerves. As a side note, it also helps him to remember the lyrics. At least that’s what he likes to tell people.

Luke finds inspiration by listening to a variety of genres and experimenting with new sounds using his looping machine. Luke also enjoys collaborating with other artists. The energy from other artists spark new ideas and push him to try different things. Luke has collaborated with a number of local artists such as Dan Strauch, Emily Henry, Sydney Franklin, Eli Lev, Sean Mahon and Matvei Sigalov, who co-produced his new single “Thieves”. Luke believes that a really solid song can be performed in many ways. A great song can hold up in a variety of tempos, stripped down and acoustic or produced with many layers.

Luke says he could not imagine doing anything other than create music, with the possible exception of photography. Luke sees photography as an alternative method of creating original, authentic art. Luke is a talented photographer, focusing mostly on travel photography. Check out his work by following ShotsbyShaffer on Instagram (www.instagram.com/shotsbyshaffer).

Luke’s songwriting has opened up a door to supporting mental health, an important social cause. Luke wrote and released a single called “We’re All a Little Crazy”. Incidentally, there is a non-profit organization for mental health advocacy of the same name. Luke was approached by Eric Kussin, the founder of the organization, to join him on a college tour to advocate for mental health awareness. Luke was able to use his work to provide a relatable musical backdrop to the organization’s key message.

Alchemical Records would like to congratulate Luke on his recent accolades. His single, “Siren” is the runner-up in the Adult Contemporary category of the International Acoustic Music Awards this year. Luke shares, “We got the news on my birthday!” The reward was a nice boost just before the release of Luke James Shaffer’s second EP, Vol. 2.

Be sure to check out Luke James Shaffer’s next single “Thieves”. “Thieves” was recorded with 38 North Studios out of Falls Church, Virginia.

lukejamesshaffer.com
youtube.com
instagram.com/shotsbyshaffer

Kimberly Shires

Kimberly Shires is a native of the DC Metropolitan area. Kimberly is a freelance writer, music degree holder, road bike warrior, songwriter, corporate ladder climber, and a Subaru driving nature enthusiast.