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 Thursday, 26 November 2015
Steve Kenny's "All Originals" Jazz Series Launches July 10th at Studio Z PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Saturday, 19 July 2014

Illicit Sextet ©Andrea Canter

"Indeed, a serious jazz band these days would look rather odd if it were not performing from a book full of original literature. That's what we are celebrating." -- Steve Kenny 

One of the lynchpins of local jazz performance and mentorship, trumpeter Steve Kenny launches a ten-week "All Originals" jazz concert series at Studio Z on July 10th. Highlighting bands that emphasize original compositions, the series is supported by a Community Arts grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and funded through the state's Arts and Cultural Heritage fund. The host ensemble, The Illicit Sextet, will open the series, which continues every Thursday night (8 pm) at Studio Z in Saint Paul's Lowertown through September 11th.

Steve Kenny ©Andrea Canter
Steve Kenny studied at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Among other projects, he has performed with What Would Monk Do and the Cedar Avenue Big Band. He's best known as co-founder of the Illicit Sextet, an ensemble popular in the 1990s before taking a long hiatus, and now back in action with a new CD released in spring 2013. Steve also recently completed a run of 500 weekly gigs at Emma's Bar in River Falls and five years of weekly gigs with The Bastids, then Group 47,  playing the early Wednesday set at the Artists Quarter. These days he is often on the band stand at Jazz Central, the Black Dog, Sweet 317 and the Dakota Late Night. Steve has received a Minnesota Music Award, West Bank School of Music Jazz Composer award, and multiple honors as Best Jazz Trumpet at the Eau Claire Jazz Festival. This summer, Steve's Group 47 will release Straight to Vinyl. And that instrument he plays? It's a "flumpet"-- a hybrid trumpet/flugelhorn.

"I've always wanted to establish a weekly series featuring our best and brightest jazz ensembles," said Kenny, "and really work the audience development and marketing side of things to build momentum so that, every week, our community has another compelling jazz performance offering. A number of factors came together to move this up to the front burner for me. The Artists' Quarter closing [on January 1, 2014] left a void in the schedules of a number of jazz artists and ensembles, so along with others in the jazz community, I considered this as a call to action to start self-organizing around the concept of getting additional venues involved in presenting jazz more often."

Steve Kenny ©Andrea Canter
"All Originals" brings some of the area's most creative artists to the bandstand in long-standing ensembles dedicated to new music. "I approached the band leaders of each of the groups I have been aware of that are very originals focused,' notes Kenny, "and pitched the idea of the series and asked if they would be willing to participate and play a concert. The response I received was overwhelming. All of the ten scheduled performances were booked in 6 hours. As such, some of the bands that really fit the charter well were not able to commit to any of the dates that were available. Groups like Snowblind, the Dave King Trucking Company, and the Graydon Peterson Quartet, and others were unable to work the logistics to directly participate. Obviously those groups complement the ones that were able to commit to the series dates.   It turns out that there are more outstanding, originals-focused, working jazz ensembles than we could host. That's a testament to the thriving scene."

The Illict Sextet (July 10)

One of the most area popular ensembles of the late 1980s and early 90s, the Illicit Sextet was dubbed “the Cadillac of local jazz” by critic Jim Meyer. In 1993 they released their acclaimed debut recording, Chapter One. Back on the jazz scene since 2009 after a long hiatus, the Illicit Sextet finally released Chapter Eleven in spring 2013.

Co-founders Steve Kenny, Kelly Bucheger and David Roos formed the Illicit Sextet in 1987 with cohorts from the University of Wisconsin River Falls. Their focus was on “bebop, hard bop and ‘straight ahead’ music, an expressive language whose grammatical rules were codified by our mentors and heroes: Miles, Trane, Newk, and others... we tapped into this meaty part of the jazz legacy because it communicated very directly to us, because we wanted to understand more about the music and its practitioners, and because we wanted to see what we could do in that form” (Kelly Bucheger, liner note for Chapter One). A short while later, the band decided to focus on original compositions, bringing more responsibility and challenge, as Buchager explained: “We not only had to be performers within a complex and demanding musical genre, but we also had to compose meaningful music worthy of that genre... the Sextet became an outstanding vehicle for personal and group expression.”

Fifteen years is a long time to reconvene, and in the interim, Bucheger relocated to Buffalo, NY. But otherwise the band returned intact, with Paul Harper taking over at tenor sax, along with the musicians who appear on Chapter One―Steve Kenny (trumpet), David Roos (guitar), Chris Lomheim (piano), Tom Pieper (bass) and Nathan Norman (drums). Lomheim , Pieper and Norman were not among the very first edition of the band, but came on board around 1990. At the time, Bucheger noted that “We’re lucky to have found three extraordinary artists who share our musical interests, and whose playing and composing have taken the group to a new level.”

Now, Lomheim recalls that “The Illicit Sextet was a group of players who inspired and encouraged each other to compose new pieces and offer opinions and advise to each other in an honest way.” The focus on original material was one of the unique features of the band, and a long-standing weekly gig afforded them the opportunity to try out their new music. “Our steady gig at O'Gara's on Snelling Ave in Saint Paul was one of the longest standing gigs I've ever had,” says Lomheim. “It never paid anything but that wasn't the point. We were six musicians who were dedicated to writing and learning new material and presented fun musical challenges for us.”

Also, Lomheim notes, “The group didn't have one leader, even though Steve, David or Kelly provided the group with strong leadership.”

The band reunited at the Artists Quarter in 2009, and have maintained regular performances ever since. “We had talked about a reunion for many years but it was hard to get everyone one the same page,” said Lomheim. “We were all busy with different projects and life phases… Stylistically, we have all grown and progressed musically and personally, and hopefully that will be reflected in the depth and quality of the music we play.” About a year ago, the sextet finally released the sequel to Chapter One -- Chapter Eleven.

Chris Lomhein ©Andrea Canter
Kenny notes that the band "has been completely devoted to [original music] since it was founded back in the late 1980s, when playing originals was not the hallmark of a successfully working local jazz band...The Sextet came out of the University of Wisconsin - River Falls, where there has always been a music-department focus on music composition, going back nearly 50 years. Every year UWRF brings in a true heavyweight composer, like John Cage or John Zorn, or Guy Klucevsek to write a brand new composition for a student ensemble. This influenced the charter of The illicit Sextet.  We also came into contact with the ensemble Zeitgeist in the 1980s, and I have always used this as an important template for understanding how the-ensemble-as-arts-organization is an important concept."

It's only logical that the All Originals jazz series takes place at Studio Z. "The illicit Sextet's early exposure to Zeitgeist and our (in those days) maverick, exclusive focus on writing and performing original material have wonderfully come together all these years later as a concert series highlighting how our jazz community now is flush with stellar jazz bands devoted to original compositions...all happening in the killer-cool performance space created by Zeitgeist."

All Originals: Series Schedule (8 pm)

  • July 10, The Illicit Sextet (Steve Kenny, Paul Harper, David Roos, Chris Lomheim, Tom Pieper, Nathan Norman)

  • July 17, Courageous Endeavors (Nelson Devereaux, Joe Strachan, Brian Courage, Miguel Hurtado)

  • July 24, The Zacc Harris Group (Bryan Nichols, Zacc Harris, Chris Bates, JT Bates)

  • July 31, Red Planet (Dean Magraw, Chris Bates, Jay Epstein)

  • August 7, Pete Whitman's Mississippi (Pete Whitman, Peter Schimke, Jeffrey Bailey, Kevin Washington)

  • August 14, Chris Lomheim Trio (Chris Lomheim, Gordon Johnson, Jay Epstein)

  • August 21, Steve Kenny's Group 47 (Steve Kenny, Thomas Strommen, Will Kjeer, Adam Tucker, Alex Burgess)

  • August 28, Atlantis Quartet (Brandon Wozniak, Zacc Harris, Chris Bates, Pete Hennig)

  • September 4, Nichols/Bates/Bates

  • September 11, Adam Meckler Orchestra

Beyond All Originals

Will the series continue after these ten concerts? "Right now, this series is for the 10 Thursdays," notes Kenny. "I do hope it can act as a springboard for establishing an ongoing, self-sustaining weekly concert series... There has been some talk of Zeitgeist hosting a weekly new-music chamber performance event for early in the evenings on Thursday nights in the Fall at Studio Z. Perhaps our jazz series could continue on weekly and serve as the second act or second gig starting after the weekly new-music chamber performance. There are lots of ideas circulating." Indeed, one of those ideas comes from Steve Kenny for a jazz series at the Black Dog Wine Bar, just around the corner from Studio Z. Lowertown Saint Paul is fast becoming an incubator for "All Original" jazz.

Studio Z is located on the second floor of the Northwestern Building at 275 E. 4th Street in Saint Paul's Lowertown, around the corner from the Farmer's Market and down the street from Union Depot. Tickets are $10 at the door and through the Studio Z website. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

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