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September 21, 2006

Heading: The Hum, Politics & Improv, by BOB DORAN, photo of Kenny Werner

When I called jazz pianist Kenny Werner at his home in New York I wasn't figuring we'd talk politics. Werner is known as a skilled player and as a teacher of sorts, author of a book on improvisation called Effortless Mastery -- I thought the conversation would begin and end with jazz. By chance, I caught him on a day off immediately following three days in the studio making his first record for the Blue Note label.

"Everybody was great. I'm still high off the experience," he began. How did we get to politics? He explained that the upcoming record (not due until next year) follows on the heels of a new release called Democracy, Live at the Blue Note.

"The lead song for the new album is a tune called 'Democracy Now,' a tribute to Amy Goodman's radio show. I'm a big fan -- I think the show is absolutely essential, where you can get news that's not so slanted. I called the record that because the last record I did for the label was called Peace. At the time we'd just invaded Iraq, so I figured we need peace. This time I think we need democracy."

How does one make jazz about politics? "You don't do it in a literal sense," he explained. "You just feel things about things. Sometimes the things I feel are not of this world at all -- I'm in my own inner spiritual stuff -- then this other part of me is very political. A lot of my thoughts are occupied by what's going on in the world. As you write music, the first thing you do is purely musical, it's left at that: music about music. But I've always felt it was better if it's about something. You feel passionately about something then you write. You add touches -- like the song 'Democracy Now' has these little segments at the end that connote a sort of feeling of dignity, an emotional attitude."

From there our conversation spun through the failures of the Bush administration and the mainstream media and on to the subject of fear and its manipulation. It turns out conquering fear is a main component in his improv method, "effortless mastery." You can't play well if you are afraid.

"Music is one of the few actions where the verb to commit it is play," Werner pointed out. "That should give us a clue as to what music is about. The term 'effortless mastery' is not about thinking there's no work involved, that you don't have to practice. It's about left-brain, right-brain and never the twain shall meet. When you're playing, you should not be right-braining at all, you should not be trying to figure out what it is you're playing, or hoping to play something better. Left-brain playing is simply relishing and exalting, ecstatically enjoying the sounds that are coming out, from your instrument, through you. When you think too much about it, it diminishes your light greatly, and when you do that your light shines on less people."

To bathe in the light of the music of the Kenny Werner Trio, come to HSU's Fulkerson Recital Hall Monday, Sept. 25, where his performance kicks off what is planned as a series of concerts from the Redwood Jazz Alliance, a group of jazz lovers and music educators. They're also hosting a free public master class based on Werner's book Effortless Mastery Tuesday, Sept. 26, at 10 a.m. (again in Fulkerson Hall).

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The Crooked Jades return to town that same Tuesday, and will surely fill the Jambalaya. I've seen them a few times now and they're one of my favorites in the old timey vein, I guess because of the songs they choose -- dark tales of love and death from the mountains of America's South. "Pre-radio music" is how the band's guitarist, Jeff Kazor, describes it. "The music is extremely beautiful and at the same time really haunting. It's unconventional in a sense. They use a term -- 'crooked' -- meaning that the measures are uneven so it sounds a bit odd. You can never predict what's going on. It makes it challenging and really interesting to play."

Some time before Kazor was born, Mike Seeger was traveling around the country playing and recording old timey music, although he likes to call it "true vine music." If you know your folk history, you're aware that Pete Seeger is Mike's half brother and Elizabeth Cotton, who wrote "Freight Train," was the family housekeeper. Mike's parents, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, had helped John and Alan Lomax collect folk songs for the Library of Congress. In the '50s, Mike became a member of the New Lost City Ramblers, one of the bands that helped revive old timey music in that era's folk wave. He's been a key player in the folk world ever since, collecting songs, arranging tours, making movies and playing traditional music on banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, jaw harp, harmonica, dulcimer and autoharp. In 1995 he was awarded the Ralph J. Gleason Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation, with a citation declaring that he "remains one of our great musical and cultural resources." It notes, "To see him perform is to experience the richness of our traditions." Your chance comes Friday, Sept. 22, when Mike Seeger performs at the Red Radish.

Humboldt's hottest jazz fiddler has a new combo set to premier. Rob Diggins and The Dizzy Vipers hit Café Mokka Saturday evening playing, according to Rob, "jazz circa '20s thru the '50s: Stuff Smith, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, etc.," with his partner, Joli Von Einem, on second fiddle, Duncan Burgess on guitar and Shao Way Wu on standup bass. Cuckoo's Nest fans fear not. The jazzy band with Joli and Rob joined by Blake Brown and Dave Wilson on guitars, Mike LaBolle on percussion with Tami Pallingston on bass is "still kicking" and can be found at the Arcata Farmers' Market Saturday morning. (Blake plays at Libation that night.)

About a year and a half ago I was watching the Kouyate twins mesmerize a crowd at the Arcata Farmers' Market, when who should come along but the local rapper Manifest. Now if you've attended even just a few local hip hop shows you know Manifest loves to grab the mic and freestyle rhymes -- he'll do it any chance he gets. Even though the band was not playing anything near hip hop, he asked if he could jump in, they said sure, and away he went, somehow dropping right into the groove, making up a rap on the spot about the market, about vegetables, whatever. And it worked.

Turns out that day was the start of something bigger. When Manifest called last week, he'd just returned from Africa. He'd gone over with the twins for their tour of Senegal. "We played this giant show at Theatre Nationale Daniel Sorano in Dakar," he told me, "It's like the Carnegie Hall of Africa. We had over 1,000 people there." Since Africans love rap, he also ended up venturing off on his own, doing seven shows independent of the twins and signing with World Music Distribution in Senegal. "They don't get any live American hip hop over there. My video went into regular rotation on the government TV station. People loved it. I was thinking of staying; I'm definitely going back."

Now that he's home in Humboldt for a moment, he's ready to drop a disc titled Autobiograffiti and doing a show at Mazzotti's Saturday, Sept. 23, to celebrate. Joining him, a band he calls Africlan, with his bandmates from the tour, bassist Ken Lawrence and keyboardist Tim Randles, plus guitarist Jimmy Foot and drummer Rob Peterson from the Kouyate band. "We have this total magic together," said Manifest. "They bring in the funk, and there's an African feel. We do some reggae, but overall it's body-rockin' hip hop." Adding to the energy, a few special guests: Bicasso from Living Legends (a former HSU student), DJ Red, Big G from 808, plus dancers galore -- a reunion of Real Hip Bellydancers and a breakdance battle royale with Santa Rosa's Northern Styles v. Humboldt Rockers. "It's gonna be insane," promises Manifest.

The Placebo rocks all week, starting Thursday, Sept. 21, with a Bostonian art-punk band called Ho-Ag and several supporting acts, followed by a Friday show with Load recording artists The USA is a Monster, a two-piece from Brooklyn who are reportedly "somewhere between Lighting Bolt, Magma and Rush." Joining them, young thrashmasters 801 Warning, new-in-town solo beat jazz bass clarinet composer Toussaint St. Negritude and odd-rockers Grandma Dolf. Wait, that's not all. Next Monday, Sept. 25, enter the weird, dark world of The Billy Nayer Show, where the autoharp meets garage rock and Bertolt Brecht, plus alt. noise orchestra Pubic Zirconium accompanying a film by Mike Sargent and alt. glam popstars The Buffy Swayze. BTW, when I saw the Buff at Bummerfest with Ray back on drums I was thinking, "I like the drums, but I miss the keyboards since John switched to guitar." Now I see on their MySpace page that Julie from The Ian Fays is playing keys. The evolution continues.

Friday night at the Pearl, it's Ponche with their AfroCuban salsa. Is there room enough to dance there? Keyboardist Mike Kapitan sends an alert regarding the upcoming Miles Ahead gig Saturday, Sept. 23: "Hey, We're playing our psychedelic jazz again at The Pearl. Warning: may cause flashbacks!"

Earlier in the day Saturday, catch the second installment in's Old Town Concerts, this time showcasing music by women with the rockin' Monster Women followed by that funky folky Tamaras, with Nate Kaplan backing her on drums.

Do I need to remind anyone that bluesman Taj Mahal is here Thursday? Probably not. Sorry, that one's sold out. But that's OK, there's lot of other shows to choose from, and more to come...

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