Late Night With Leonard Bernstein

This article appeared in the March/April edition of Macon Magazine.

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Photo: Leonard Bernstein at work as his daughter Jamie and son Alex look on.

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“He was a night owl,” Jamie Bernstein explained of her famous father, Leonard. “He could never shut his motor off, and so, so much of his most creative times happened in the middle of the night.”


As Ms. Bernstein — an accomplished narrator, writer and radio host — went on to explain, these bursts of midnight-oil-fueled musical inspiration could just as easily draw her dad to the piano at an after-hours party as it would to his home studio, but the results were always brilliant and singularly Bernstein. “He would be the last one at a party still playing the piano at four o’clock in the morning, coming up with these ideas,” she continued.


This proclivity lies at the heart of “Late Night with Leonard Bernstein,” an intimate portrait of Leonard Bernstein that aims to recreate for a concert audience the moments of inspiration, humor, beauty, and experimentation that friends and family came to expect from the legendary musician, conductor, and composer in those magical predawn hours.


The show, which opened in 2011 with a well-received run at Lincoln Center and continued at Copland House, an intimate venue in Westchester County, New York (about an hour north of New York City), incorporates familiar Bernstein favorites with rarities and celebrated tunes in their unfamiliar original contexts. In addition, the performance — which features vocalist Amy Burton, pianists John Musto and Michael Boriskin, along with spoken interludes by Ms. Bernstein — incorporates diverse works by some of the Bernstein’s favorite composers and artists, including Aaron Copland, Shubert, Noel Coward, and Chopin, as well as rare video and audio clips that capture Bernstein in his many creative moods.


“He really was such a larger-than-life figure,” pianist and Copland House Artistic and Executive director Michael Boriskin explained. “Late Night with Leonard Bernstein is a really creative and enchanting program that gives us a more personal, private view of Bernstein, who was, after all, not only one of America’s greatest musicians, but also an extraordinarily public and theatrical figure.”


The original idea for the performance came about when the New York City Opera presented a revival of Bernstein’s 1983 dramatic opera, A Quiet Place.  “George Steel (General Manager and Artistic Director of New York City Opera) arranged for A Quiet Place to be done,” Jamie Bernstein explained, “and then he created all of these events around the opera, and “Late Night…” was one of them.” From there, the four-person show played for packed housed in the New York area, and the cast is currently set to take the “Late Night with Leonard Bernstein” on the road.


“There was interest throughout the country, with various presenters, as in Macon,” Michael Boriskin remarked. The show with the original cast will be performing “Late Night” at Wesleyan’s Porter Auditorium in Macon on Friday, March 8th at 7:30pm. “We’re really excited to bring this intimate celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s life and music to Porter Auditorium,” Rosemary Spiegel of the Macon Concert Association — the sponsor of the concert — said. “This will really be a special concert and a unique event for Macon.”


For Jamie Bernstein, “Late Night with Leonard Bernstein” is a unique opportunity to share a glimpse of her famous father outside of the concert halls, opera houses, and lecterns where he was so at home. “This is just the way he was, coming up with zany late-night ideas,” she explained. “I love telling stories about my father. He was such a character, and my family were all such fans of his music and we just enjoyed his presence. It’s great to share this with the world.”

Made In Georgia — Pastured Poultry

This article will appear in the August/September 2012 issue of Macon Magazine. 

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Portable Chicken Pens at Heritage Farm

Driving down the winding dirt road to Heritage Farm, past grazing cattle and towering stands of hardwoods, it’s easy to see what drew Greg and Lainya Hutchins to farming. The family’s 35 acres of rolling pasture land in Carroll County is the serenely beautiful home to a diverse array of animals and vegetables, from cattle, goats and sheep, to chicken, rabbits, squash, and tomatoes. A white farmhouse on the hill bathed in late-day light conjures thoughts of an idyllic past: a scene that would inevitably find the farmer settling down with his family after a long day in the fields.

But for Greg Hutchins, the workday has just begun.

“I don’t even know what hour I’m on,” the overall clad farmer remarked as he made his way from the front porch to his parked Ford Excursion. After securing a trailer loaded with plastic crates, a pair of chest freezers, and a portable generator to the truck with his teenage son, Hutchins turns the key and the engine roars to life, breaking the pastoral silence and marking the beginning of a familiar but arduous process.

The Hutchins family — in addition to the many hats they wear —  are pastured poultry farmers, a small but growing community of alternative producers going to often extraordinary lengths to meet a demand for healthier poultry products. Instead of raising tens of thousands of chickens in crowded houses — the norm in Georgia, the country, and, increasingly, the world — pastured poultry farmers raise their birds in comparatively small batches in portable, open-floored pens. Each morning, the pens are moved to a new patch of grass where the birds supplement their feed ration with natural foods like grasses, forbs, and bugs which — along with a clean environment, fresh air and natural light — result in healthy birds that, according to proponents, taste better and are beneficial to the environment.

For the Hutchins, and other farmers throughout the state, the reasons for getting into the pastured poultry business were always clear. “The profit margins are good,” Hutchins explained, “but what’s even better is the demand. Everybody likes chicken — not everyone likes beef, not everyone wants pork — but pretty much everyone loves chicken.” That, combined with a perceived taste difference compared to supermarket birds and a seemingly endless string of news stories linking large confined animal farms to a host of human and environmental health issues like drug-resistant bacteria and water pollution, have sent customers scrambling to buy from farmers like the Hutchins at farmers markets throughout the state and directly at the farm.

There is, however, a formidable impediment to small farmers trying to meet this demand. Processing chickens — slaughtering, cleaning, and packaging the birds for sale — is a frustratingly complex issue for small, family farms in Georgia.

More than 4 million broiler chickens (birds raised for their meat) are processed in Georgia each weekday, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture. But for a variety of reasons, there are currently no USDA-approved poultry slaughter facilities for small, independent poultry producers in the state. White Oak Pastures, a certified organic pasture-based farm in Early Country opened a state-of-the-art on-farm poultry processing facility in 2011, but the farm currently only processes its own birds.

This fact means that farmers like Hutchins who raise more than 1000 birds annually must drive out of state at considerable expense to process their birds at a USDA-approved facility in states like Kentucky, and North and South Carolina. Federal law allows for up to 20,000 birds per year to be processed on farm with minimal regulatory oversight, but for reasons that remain largely opaque, Georgia’s legislature voted to nullify the rule more than a decade ago, and set the number at 1,000 birds, leaving alternative poultry farmers with a  fraught decision: either drive the birds out of state for processing to the tune of thousands of dollars and lost time away from the farm or process on farm at the risk of prosecution.

Farmer Greg Hutchins and his son load poultry crates onto a trailer.

During the short but bumpy ride across the front pasture to a series of portable pens that house around 400 Freedom Rangers — a breed of chicken renowned for its ability to thrive on pasture — Hutchins hints at the regulatory frustration his family faced when venturing in the poultry business in 2008, but quickly turns to the joys and perils of being a small farmer. “It’s hard — sometimes brutal work — but we have a lot of fun with it. And plus, we get the benefit of all that great food. It is a labor of love.”

Although he woke at 6AM to drive to a market, and has been working nearly nonstop for 15 hours, Greg Hutchins is remarkably upbeat as he describes the next phase of his epic workday, a five hour journey to an independent USDA-certified processor in Bowling Green, KY. “I’ll go inside soon, and sleep for about 3 hours, and then I will leave at 1AM in order to make it to Bowling Green by dawn,” he explains. As if anticipating a question he has fielded many times before, he continues: “In this business, you’ve got to be willing to get up every day and give it all you’ve got, no matter what. It has its perks, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.”

Farmer Tim Ford holds a free range Rhode Island Red hen.

Forsyth farmer and owner of Rocky Creek Farm Tim Ford knew of the inevitable challenges he would face when he began raising free-range hens on his wooded property in 2005, but he never quite prepared himself for the emotional element of small scale poultry farming. “As I was around chickens more and more and I studied them, eventually I just fell in love with them,” he explained, standing in front of a row of portable pens on an acre of grassland he cleared of trees and brush for the sole purpose of raising pastured poultry. After reaching into the pens to remove the feeders and watering jug, Ford takes hold of a rope attached to the front of the pen, and slowly drags the wood, PVC and chicken wire enclosure to a fresh patch of grass. Knowing the drill, the golden hued and glistening black varieties of broiler chickens inside the pens walk forward, and quickly get to work pecking and scratching the new ground.

“I always wanted to have some chickens,” Ford explained, “and I finally got enough land, and my wife said ‘why don’t you do it?’” Asked about the difference he sees between conventionally raised birds and the pastured/free-range variety, and the farmer doesn’t mince words: “If someone were to ask me what is the difference between a conventional, supermarket bird and a pastured bird, I would say the way the animal is treated. To keep so many birds in a house without natural light and access to the outdoors is against nature. There’s no respect for the birds and the way that they’re handled and the way our food is handled.”

After nearly five years of raising chickens in order to get eggs for his family, Ford decided to begin raising broiler chickens on pasture in 2009. In the ensuing years, the aspiring farmer has expanded his operation to nearly five acres of land dedicated to raising free-ranging egg and meat birds in both a wooded and pasture setting, and he has his sights set on becoming a full time pastured poultry farmer in the near future. “The regulations make it very difficult for someone like me to take this business to the next level,” Ford explained, “but people are beginning to demand cleaner, healthier chicken, and that will change things.”

At the Mulberry Street Market in Downtown Macon on a recent Wednesday evening, that demand was evident at the stands of two farmers whose pastured eggs were selling quickly in the after-work rush. “Even if you’re going to buy organic eggs from the grocery store, you’re still buying into this big agribusiness system,” farmer Sarah Rector explained as she handed a dozen eggs to a customer. The young farmer took pains to emphasize that all consumers would do well to buy organic food from supermarkets, but continually emphasized the importance of buying locally and knowing how your food was raised.

In addition to Rector’s small farm out of Barnesville, another Mulberry vendor, Selah Farm, sells eggs from chickens raised in portable pasture pens, and both see their sales increasing as consumer awareness continues to rise. “If you know the farmer and you get a chance to see their hens and they are healthy and living the way that chickens are supposed to live, then you’re getting a superior product, and I think people are starting to realize that,” Rector intoned as another customer approached her stand, “but I don’t want to get on a soapbox!” she concluded with a laugh.

Taylor Ho Bynum’s “Apparent Distance”

ImageCornetist and composer Taylor Ho Bynum has put funding from Chamber Music America’s 2010 New Jazz Works to excellent use in Apparent Distance, his four-part suite of nonlinear melodies, gripping improvisations, and brilliant ensemble playing.  

In the notes to the disc, Bynum states his goal as “not just to blur the lines between composition and improvisation (a long-time pursuit), but to try to upend the listeners’ expectations in other ways: circular melodies without beginnings or ends, disguised unisons and non-repetitive vamps, transitions that are simultaneously jarring and organic.”

All of these compositional elements play out as promised throughout the album’s fluid, interconnected movements, acting as a catalyst for fearless improvisations from the leader and the members of his sextet: saxophonist Jim Hobbs, bass trombonist and tubist Bill Lowe, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

Bynum’s puckish cornet opens “Shift,” the first movement, with a brazen cadenza that hops from lip-splitting high notes and quivers, to thudding, low exhortations and finally a series of dizzying runs before he’s joined by Lowe’s bass trombone and Hobbs’ whispered alto. The horn trio’s melancholic polyphony lasts for two minutes before Filiano and Fujiwara enter with furious rhythms, marking the beginning of the second movement, “Strike.”

The leader’s skills as a composer certainly rival his brilliance on cornet throughout Apparent Distance — an extended contrapuntal section in “Souce,” the album’s epic third movement, is a standout for the juxtaposition of guitar and cornet unisons against the often diametrically opposed bass, alto, and bass trombone figures — but it is ultimately the improvisational virtuosity of the ensemble that takes the day.

Halvorson’s vibrato-laden, turned bone-dry, turned blippy, trippy introduction to “Source,” is a high point from both a technical and improvisational perspective, but it is just one of many in this impressive outing.

Charlie Haden – The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note

The five discs that comprise this singular boxed set speak not only to Charlie Haden’s brilliance as a bassist, composer, bandleader, and collaborator, but also to the vital position that the Black Saint and Soul Note record labels hold in the jazz cannon.

In the mid-1970’s, as many American jazz musicians struggled to find a stateside record label to record and release their work, Italian jazz lover Giacomo Pelliciotti stepped in to fill the void. His Black Saint label would be an independent haven for perennially under-recorded American artists like Billy Harper, Frank Lowe, and Old and New Dreams, the egalitarian quartet of Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell.

The self-titled 1977 release by the quartet of former Ornette Coleman collaborators that opens this boxed set was Black Saint’s thirteenth release, and marked the beginning of Charlie Haden’s recording relationship with the label and its soon-to-be-formed sister company, Soul Note. It also unofficially marked the end of Pelliciotti’s ownership of the fledgling company. In late 1977, Giovanni Bonandrini purchased Black Saint, and within two years he created Soul Note, a label that would present more mainstream American jazz artists, along with a growing number of first-rate Italian improvisers.

On both their debut album and 1987 reunion concert A Tribute to Blackwell — both recorded for Black Saint — Old and New Dreams focus on delivering melodically-driven, open ended improvisations with a focus on group interplay that hearkens to their shared work with Coleman. The later album, a live concert taped at The Ed Blackwell Festival in Atlanta more than a decade after the former, revisits classic pieces like the Redman original “Dewey’s Tune,” along with several Coleman originals like “Happy House” and “Street Woman,” and finds Haden and Blackwell cutting a deep, swinging pocket below the flights of Redman and an ebullient Don Cherry.

Haden’s comfort among avant-garde and more mainstream camps made him a perfect fit for both the fledgling Black Saint and Soul Note labels. “Haden’s musical life is a varied one,” annotator Gary Giddens points out in the notes to Silence, the incredible Soul Note quartet date from 1987 that joins Haden with longtime collaborator Billy Higgins, the Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and an inspired Chet Baker, “and it is a fact that there is no style of jazz in which he is not at home.”

Listening to the mix of standards, bop anthems, and originals that comprise Silence, it’s easy to hear why Giddens felt the need to explain Haden’s diverse musical proclivities to listeners only familiar with his groundbreaking work with Ornette Coleman. The feel of the album’s opener “Visa” — the Charlie Parker blues head — is breezy, uncomplicated swing, but seconds into Chet Baker’s lilting, masterful solo, it’s clear that the album is more summit meeting than mere blowing session. Haden’s light but insistent quarter notes fall easily in to the pocket of Higgins’ sizzling ride cymbal while managing to push ever so slightly as Baker and Pieranunzi deliver effortless, harmonically sophisticated improvisations.

The quartet’s performance throughout the album is uniformly excellent — a special highlight is Baker’s creative and poignant vocal and trumpet work on “My Funny Valentine — but their ensemble work on the title track — Haden’s original — is a high point. Against solemn chords and supple brushed percussion, Baker, Pieranunzi, and Haden deliver solos of unalloyed beauty.

Two-and-a-half years later — following the tragic death of Baker in 1988 — Haden, Pieranunzi, and Higgins once again gathered in Italy to record for Soul Note. The resulting album, First Song, closes the boxed set, representing Handen’s final recording for the record label, and stands as a remarkable document of the trio’s sublime rapport. As in the Silence session with Baker, the repertoire is heady mix of tin pan alley, bop standards, and singular originals by Haden and Pieranunzi, and once again, the band is on fire. Haden and Higgins’ connection is of course one of the most celebrated in jazz — beginning at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles with Ornette Coleman in the late 1950s — but Pieranunzi plays with the pair like he’s been there all along, delivering snaking right hand lines on Lennie Tristano’s “Lennie’s Pennies,” graceful waltz phrases on his origianal “Je Ne Sais Quoi,” and the perfect mix of pathos and uplift in the album’s namesake, Haden’s wonderful composition “First Song.”

Haden’s mastery as a trio performer and other-worldly ability to become one with the right drummer are immediately apparent on “Lonely Woman,” the iconic Ornette tune that opens Etudes, another late ‘80s Soul Note date. The bassist is joined here by another long-time collaborator Paul Motian on drums, and the young, daring pianist Geri Allen who follow Haden’s hypnotic strummed bass intro with ten minutes of gorgeous group interplay.

Despite being a relative newcomer in 1988, Allen plays like a seasoned veteran throughout the disc, notably on her original “Dolphy’s Dance,” a piece that finds her channeling Andrew Hill, Paul Bley, and Herbie Nichols while sounding utterly original. The fact that the trio had been gigging extensively in the lead-up to the recording session is evident in the driving, endlessly creative swing of Haden’s “Blues in Motion” and the sheer exuberance of Herbie Nichols’ “Shuffle Montgomery,” but the two takes of Motian’s original “Etude” catch the trio in highest flight, exploring an unadorned melody with passion, open ears and hearts.

This article will appear in print in the April 2012 edition of The New York City Jazz Record.

Mrs. Griffin’s Barbecue Sauce: A Middle Georgia Tradition

This article will appear in the April/May 2012 edition of Macon Magazine.

By Matt Miller

Aside from a slight, tangy aroma in the air, there is nothing about the nondescript building on Roff Avenue that hints at the culinary alchemy taking place within.

Entering through a side door into a production room abuzz with humming machinery and men working busily at a bottling machine, the scent envelopes — a vinegar punch amid the abiding warmth of mustard — and for any dyed-in-the-wool Middle Georgian, sets off an inevitable cascade of equally warm associations: spring picnics, long, languid summer days, and 4th of July fireworks.

For over 75 years, Mrs. Griffin’s has been in the business of spicing up smokey entrees in backyards, kitchens, and restaurants in Macon, and throughout the country, with a singular sauce that has garnered a devoted following. “We’re in the good-time business,” owner Roland Neel remarked on his product’s ability to lubricate any southern shindig. “Every one of these bottles is probably going to a good time somewhere.”

As the story goes, the company got its start in the early-1930s when Macon resident Mangham Edward Griffin decided to bottle some of his popular homemade barbecue sauce to sell at his brother’s grocery store in Warner Robins. Customers quickly cleared the shelves, and by 1935, Griffin decided to make the sauce his full-time vocation. Figuring that a woman’s name on the bottle would increase sales, Griffin named the sauce for his wife, Etta Busby Griffin, and Mrs. Griffin’s Barbecue Sauce was officially born.

Over the ensuing decades — as the company was passed on to Griffin’s daughters upon his retirement, then sold to Macon-resident Jim Wilcox in the 1990s, who in turn sold it to the current owner Roland Neel in 2010– the sauce and business model have stayed remarkably true to Mr. Griffin’s original intent. Indeed, since taking over the company two years ago, Neel has removed a number of ingredients that found their way into the sauce over the years, in order to make it as natural possible, in keeping with M.E. Griffin’s original kitchen recipe.

“It had some artificial dyes and colorations that I didn’t feel were necessary,” Neel explained recently as he placed plastic seals on the tops of 32 ounce bottles of the original sauce as they slid down the production line. “Now, it’s a very organic product,” he continued, “maybe thirty years ago that wasn’t as important in the market place, but today it is.”

Flanking him on his left and right side are Levi Crafton and Eddie Coulter, the two employees who oversee the production of every batch of Mrs. Griffin’s Barbecue Sauce from receiving the voluminous drums of powdered mustard, tomato paste, and garlic powder, to blending the ingredients in a series of stainless steel vats, all the way to packaging them for delivery to Walmart, Kroger, Ingles, Piggly Wiggly, and a host of other retailers. “These two guys are the heart of the operation,” Neel intoned over the din of the mixer and the hydraulic hiss of the bottling machine. “Levi has been here for a year and is really good at overseeing things, and Eddie has all of the history and the knowledge.”

Watching them expertly bottle and package the marigold-colored sauce, it’s easy to see why Neel insists the pair could do their jobs blindfolded. Eddie Coulter has worked at Mrs. Griffins for sixteen years — he was originally hired by Mr. Griffin’s daughters Jeanette Griffin Stevenson and Betty Griffin Barfield — and works from memory as he blends spices, programs machinery, and monitors PH. As he and Crafton methodically bottle and seal the sauce at a speedy clip, they trade recipes and reminisce about a visit to the factory by country star and Macon native Jason Aldean.

“The way it works,” Neel explains, turning from the bottling line to a trio of progressively larger stainless steel vats, “is the first tank has a really high performance engine, and we throw our solids in there, and it just purees them.” From there, the mix is transferred to a 300 gallon tank where it is heated slightly, and, finally, it is pumped into a massive 800 gallon tank where it is stirred vigorously. “It may take up to a week to go from start to finished batch,” he continued. Mrs. Griffin’s regulary produces 1000 gallons of sauce each week, and offer Original, Hickory Smoked, and Hot varieties that appeal to a wide range of palates.

Books have been written on the subject of barbecue sauces, their historic roots, and regional variants, and the staff of Mrs. Griffin’s have no shortage of opinions on where their sauce fits into the pantheon. The prominence of mustard in the recipe distances the sauce from its many counterparts in Macon that favor “tomatoey” tang, and firmly link it to the South Carolina school of mustard-based sauce that is invariably paired with pieces of smoked whole hog. The style is traced to German immigrants who brought centuries of success pairing all manner of pork products with mustard in Europe to their new homes in South Carolina in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s unclear what effect all of this history had on M.E. Griffin when he was mixing his first batch of barbecue sauce on a sweltering July day, but the initial and enduring success of Mrs. Griffin’s undoubtedly owes a debt to a centuries-old culinary tradition.

Of course, the nomenclature has evolved.

“You know what Mrs. Griffin’s truly is?” Neel asked rhetorically after a rousing discussion with his employees on glazing ability, marinade times, and meat parings: “It’s a mop sauce. It’s a real southern thing; you use it like ketchup. You put it on something after it’s cooked, or dip it in.” Eddie Coulter backed up this assertion, adding that one of his favorite uses of the sauce is as a dip for his homemade burritos.

As Roland Neel has stuck close to the classic recipe for Mrs. Griffin’s sauce, he has also been working hard to expand the company, by introducing his product into new marketplaces and diversifying the brand. “When we bought Mrs. Griffins’s, we were in one Sam’s Club in Macon,” he recalled. “Now we’re in four, and in thirty days, we’ll be in fourteen.” Neel spends much of his time on the road, hitting trade shows, and meeting with executives from national grocery chains.

In addition, he has introduced a private labeling division of the company that offers custom labels for businesses who want to sell Mrs. Griffin’s classic sauce under their own name. It is a marketing technique Neel has used successfully in his other business, a line of personal care products that are manufactured next door on Roff Avenue.

Mrs. Griffin’s private label products have sold as far away from Macon as California, Hawaii, and Alaska. Last month, the Allman Brothers Band ordered a run of Mrs. Griffin’s Original barbecue sauce with a custom “Eat A Peach” label that was handed out to VIPs at their annual run of shows at the Beacon Theater in New York City. “Bert Holman is a manager of the Allman Brothers, and he’s a barbecue freak,” Neel explained. “He loves Mrs. Griffins, and said that we have to get this for the Beacon show.”

The support of the Allman Brothers band is just the latest in a string of successes for Mrs. Griffin’s. Production and sales are up despite the economy, or as Neel surmises, because of it. When families cut back on vacations and restaurant trips, barbecue sales tend to spike, and that, along with Mrs. Griffin’s beloved status throughout the south and beyond, have led to a banner year for the company.

“The only reason we’re the oldest barbecue sauce in the southeast is because people love us,” Neel said with a smile.

Saxophonist Bill McHenry’s “Ghosts of the Sun”

Saxophonist Bill McHenry has spent a career quietly distinguishing himself as a warm and inventive saxophonist, a composer of carefully crafted, yet intuitive sounding originals, and a democratic bandleader. “Ghosts of the Sun” captures his celebrated quartet, with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Reid Anderson, and the late, great drummer Paul Motian, at the height of their creative powers in late 2006 — blurring the lines where composition and improvisation meet with an unassuming and effortless intensity that few groups achieve.

McHenry’s vibratoless tenor introduces the plaintive theme to Ms. Polley, the album’s ethereally beautiful opener, with unadorned simplicity. Motian is right there with him, delivering light ride cymbal taps while marking a fluxing time feel with a swishing hi-hat and a quietly accented snare commentary that bobs and weaves around Anderson’s earthy bass tones, and Monder’s dreamy chord colors. The performance transitions almost imperceptibly from one composed or improvised idea to another with a stop-and-start feel that manages to enhance the uninterrupted fluid motion that the band strives for. During the opening and closing melody statements, McHenry, Monder and Anderson pause frequently in mid-flight — letting a sustained note decay — before Motian restlessly sets the ball in motion with a quietly propulsive phrase.

McHenry has the estimable distinction of being known as much for what he doesn’t play as for what he does, and the nine originals on “Ghosts of the Sun” reveal him at his restrained best. A focus on tonal purity and emotional precision mark his work on the delicate title track, along with the atmospherically melancholic Lost Song, standing in, seemingly, for the superfluous runs and technical displays that would be all too easy for McHenry to employ. Even on tour de force pieces like La Fuerza and Roses II that feature athletic runs and fiery growls, it’s hard not to get the sense that McHenry is parceling out his doses of gutteral catharsis — parsing and editing his improvised phrases, and waiting for just the right moment to unleash a torrent.

His partners share his quick wits and knack for episodic invention, along with a devotion to unadorned melody. On Little One, McHenry delivers the straight eighth note melody in a deliberately rigid manner, contrasting with Monder, whose initial unison line grows into a series of sweeping arcs as the leader continues playing variations on the melodic theme underneath. Even at its most free-associative, this emphasis on melodic invention is ever present. A little more than a minute into William III, McHenry banishes all semblance traditional harmony and static rhythm with a blistering pentatonic line that is followed by a probing, emotive solo that owes more than a little debt to harmolodics, and sets the stage for Monder’s blistering, distorted guitar.

A print version of this article appeared in the March 2012 edition of The New York City Jazz Record.

Rubblebucket with JuBee & The Morning After and Baby Baby

Rubblebucket - High Energy Headliners

Last week, on February 9th, I had a chance to see three great groups at the Cox Capitol Theater in downtown Macon. Sean Pritchard — of the Georgia-based indie-music-covering website TheBlueIndian.com, and the organizer of the event — gave me a heads up about the show a few weeks in advance, but I still almost missed it.

I am so glad that I didn’t.

I missed the first band of the evening, but I made it just in time for the first notes of Baby Baby’s raucous set. The Carrollton, Georgia-based band is known as much for their onstage antics, as their cheeky, hard-rock inflected music, and they didn’t disappoint.

Frontman Fontez Brooks led his shirtless bandmates through a number of new songs like “Rain” and “Haters,” along with what is arguably their most popular song, “Fire.” Since I first heard the band at another Blue Indian showcase in August of 2010, I’ve been amazed at their ability to connect with an audience through any means necessary.

Brooks jokes and playfully taunts from the stage as much as he sings. At the Capitol, he and his bandmates playfully chided the bartender for not comping their drinks, before launching into “Nerds,” a blistering, but tongue-in-cheek original.

Local favorites JuBee and The Morning After followed with a strong set of originals that explored and exploited the ever changing borders of pop, rock, and hip hop.

The band garnered nationwide attention last October when they appeared on the TV show Jimmy Kimmel Live, and in the ensuing months, they have only tightened their sound and group approach.

JuBee’s ability to shift between imploring vocals, hard-rock shouts, and dizzying rhymes is really amazing, and his band is always there to support him. Drummer Alex Scarborough is the propulsive heart of the band, locking up with bassist Danny Davis to provide a firm base for the band to open up for JuBee’s extrapolations, or one of guitarist Alec Stanley’s blues drenched solos.

The band is a little slick  and rehearsed for my taste, but their pop appeal was undeniable at the Capitol on an otherwise quiet Thursday night. By the time the leader introduced “On,” the piece that they performed on the Kimmel show a few months earlier, the vast majority of the crowd was in front of the stage dancing and singing along.

The Brooklyn-based band Rubblebucket closed out the night with an exuberant set of originals that incorporated afro-beat, jazz, Euro pop, and avant garde experimentation. This was my first time hearing the group, and I was really blown away, not only by their musical conception and group dynamic, but by their devotion to theatrics and performance.

Despite the relatively small crowd that remained for their extended set, Rubblebucket — expertly led by singer and baritone saxophonist Kalmia Traver and trumpeter Alex Toth — delivered an epic show. Covering songs from a recent spate of albums, along with a savvy cover of Blondie’s Heart of Glass, and incorporating fantastic props like a pair of ten foot, glittering robot figures that the performers strapped to their backs, the performance bordered on sensory overload in the very best sense.

If you have never heard Rubblebucket, you’re in for a treat. Seek out their records, or better yet, see them live!

In the mean time, check out these videos of the band in action:

Rubblebucket performs ‘Breatherz’ Live in Chicago from Northwoods Revolution on Vimeo.