Friday, October 3, 2008

[Country Roads] Really Listening: The Listening Room

In the October 2008 issue of Country Roads (link)

A warm welcome to the world of jazz.
Alex Cook
October 2008

The Listening Room is designed to provide a more traditional and less formal approach to enjoying the music of jazz greats.

Of all the different forms of music, jazz possesses a most peculiar allure. It is at once a mark of high culture—look at nearly any commercial for a luxury product and you will likely hear jazz behind it and yet, it invokes images of hole-in-the-wall clubs, speakeasies and sketchy people grooving away in the dark. It is music with a rich history, sometimes too rich for the uninitiated palette. Trying to “get into jazz” is a daunting task for any listener; the hyperventilated adoration that halos its big names serves more as a deterrent to someone thumbing through the encyclopedic acreage of the jazz section. Even focusing on one performer is treacherous—there are at least three distinct phases of Miles Davis’ catalog bearing very different fruit. Then you have the jazz snobs —something this author confesses to having been at one point in his life. Their advice is rooted as much in personal journeys as it is in enlightenment of the curious. So if one wishes to get into jazz, what is one to do?

Thanks to an initiative by the Arts Council of Baton Rouge, all you have to do is listen. The Listening Room is a series of free concerts featuring some of the area’s—and the world’s—finest practitioners of the art form, who demonstrate their talents in the Lyceum Dean, across Third Street from The Shaw center in downtown Baton Rouge.

“The idea of the listening room is to provide a complimentary experience for music lovers and jazz lovers in the Baton Rouge community,” explains Derek Gordon, CEO of the Arts Council. Gordon’s staggering pedigree­—he’s served as executive director of jazz at Lincoln Center and Vice President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—underscores a deep understanding of how Jazz can fit in the cultural landscape of a community.

“As the River City Jazz Masters Series provides concert-style experiences for larger acts,” he continues, “the Listening room is designed to provide a more traditional and less formal approach to enjoying the music.”

For the first installment, the Lyceum Dean was dressed up for the occasion, white linen on a crowd of tables with music lovers in their finery, nursing cocktails while waiting for Terence Blanchard to come on. Those with a toe in the waters of contemporary Jazz will be quick to tell you that Terrence Blanchard is one of the most revered trumpeters going. His talent for integrating innovation and tradition permeates his recordings. His 2007 album A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) is as much rich, symphonic suffering as it is jazz set aflame with both contempt and hope.

The evening featured two performances by Blanchard and a group of his students from the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, whose board includes luminaries such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. This was no regular student performance: this international group had to audition to this auspicious panel and has been groomed by Blanchard in composition and performance. When the young singer broke into the Billie Holliday classic “I Hear Music” the group had the audience. The compositions from the students dovetailed seamlessly with the classics on the bill, each performer demonstrating their own interests and strengths as they worked through the performances. As good as these numbers were, the highlight came when Blanchard joined them for a protracted solo, infusing their mannered delivery with the sublime. Blanchard has a way of invoking a dense fog from his trumpet, choirs of sorrow tied in with soaring moments of enlightenment. It showed that jazz is music of constant evolution and learning. As talented as these students were, the teacher demonstrated a higher strata of performance and buoyed them up with him.

In the second set, the group kept largely to the same repertoire of songs, but in different arrangements—adjusting the tone and the feel of the songs while holding true to the heart of the tune. “I Hear Music,” a declaration in the first set, became a sultry admission in the second. This second set provided an insight into the fact that jazz is more that a style of song; it is a process by which a song is experienced and expressed much in the way life is, subtly changing with each viewpoint and situation. It was more than a great night of music, it was a chance to learn what this music is all about, all through the simple act of listening.

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Alex V. Cook is a Baton Rouge-based music critic and author. He listens to everything and writes about most of it. The full effect can be had at


The remaining Listening Room 2008 schedule includes:
Oct 4: Moutin Reunion Quartet
Oct. 24: David Sanchez Quintet
Nov. 21: Herlin Riley Quartet
Dec. 19: LSU Quartet with Germaine Bazile

Performances are at 7 pm and 9 pm. Free, but reservations are required, and should be made in advance with The Arts Council of Baton Rouge at (225) 344-8558. (
The Lyceum Dean
124 Third Street, Baton Rouge, La.
Parking available at pay lots throughout downtown and the pay garage at Third and Convention Streets.

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