Dave Samuels; Rachel Z; John Scofield; Habib Iddrisu, Ghanian Drummer; Michael Katon

Dave Samuels; Rachel Z; John Scofield; Habib Iddrisu, Ghanian Drummer; Michael Katon

by David Dupont

copyright © 2003 David Dupont

The following articles are a sampling of the jazz writing I've done on my day gig as arts & entertainment editor/general assignment reporter for the Sentinel-Tribune in Bowling Green, OH. Unlike my writing that appears in Cadence, allmusic.com and just recently onefinalnote.com, this work is aimed at the general reader. As such they represent both a challenge and an opportunity. Except for the Iddrisu feature, the other four are that venerable form the advance story, the goal being to introduce the artists. I've opted to run them with the material about the concert as a way of providing some context. This is ground level reporting, but I do try to still make the pieces interesting to our more musically astute readers.


When noted jazz musician Dave Samuels comes to Bowling Green State University next week as a Jazz Week artist in residence, he'll be repaying musicians who took time to nurture his love of the music.

Samuels, who currently leads the Grammy-winning ensemble the Caribbean Jazz Project and has been a member of the best selling fusion band Spyro Gyra, said that as a high school student he would frequent jazz clubs in nearby Chicago. At the time in the 1960's, clubs often had kiddie sections where only food and soft drinks were served and they hosted Sunday matinee performances. Growing up in a suburb of the Windy City, Samuels and his friends took their love of the music one step beyond. They formed a jazz club and brought some of those musicians they'd hear in Chicago out to their school to demonstrate their art.

They included top acts such as drummer Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock, then both sideman in Miles Davis's band, and saxophonists Sonny Stitt, Zoot Sims and Charles Lloyd.

"Some of them were really great teachers," he said. One, Cannonball Adderley, stood out, not surprisingly given the soul jazz pioneer started out as a music teacher in Florida. "He had a way of talking to you so you really felt like you were listening not only to a master musician, but a master orator," Samuels said.

"At 16 to be able to stand next to your musical idol was really important," he said.

Also, Chicago area professionals "were willing to spend time with us, willing to coach us. They had a really major day-to-day impact on us," he said. "That was a gift that they gave us that had no price tag."

The contact with professionals, however, wasn't what influenced Samuels to go into music. That die was cast long before.

As a child "I had a strong relationship with music," he said. "I felt empowered by it. It was something I could do and be creative." After college -- he graduated from Boston University with a degree in psychology and later attended Berklee College of Music in Boston -- he decided to focus on music and on playing mallet percussion instruments -- vibraphone and marimba. That was a natural since it brought together his interest in drums and his early training in piano.

In 1974 he went on tour with Gerry Mulligan's band, and three years later he caught the rising tide of fusion, performing on the first recordings by the pop fusion band Spyro Gyra. Samuels eventually went on the road with the band, staying with it for 12 years. Samuels makes a return engagement with Spyro Gyra on its new CD "Original Cinema."

At the time the band formed "the fusing of different styles was taking place everywhere. The whole music landscape was about that."

Samuels said he didn't realize how large the fan base was for the music until he went on the road. All of a sudden, he went for playing for small audiences, mostly in Europe with Double Image, a progressive jazz group featuring David Friedman, to playing large concert halls.

His association with Spyro Gyra also sparked his interest in Latin music in all its forms.

"We played a little bit of that style of music with Spyro Gyra," he said. He explored the genre more and more. Given the importance of percussion in Latin jazz, the fit seemed natural.

"It's a hugely rich tradition," he said, combining as it does elements of West African and European musics. "It is incredibly fertile ground."

The first edition of Caribbean Music Project blended his own vibes and marimba with the sound of Cuban Paquito D'Rivera's saxophone and clarinet and the Andy Narrell's Trinidadian steel drums. The reconstituted ensemble's most recent release "The Gathering" won a Grammy this year [2003].

While on campus, Samuels will present master classes, workshops and perform with a student big band on Tuesday and Thursday and Wednesday with the faculty jazz ensemble. All concerts are at 8 p.m. in Kobacker Hall of the Moore Musical Arts Center.


Northwest Ohio has a special place in the heart of jazz pianist Rachel Z.

The up-and-coming jazz artist, born, Rachel Nicolazzo, played the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Festival in Toledo in 2001. "That was the first jazz festival to book us," she said. "I'm glad to be coming back."

Nicolazzo said that in 2001 she flew in from Italy, where she was in the band of an Italian rock star, to play the Toledo show, and as soon as the gig was over, she headed back across the ocean.

Rachel Z and her trio with bassist Chris Luard and drummer Bobbie Rae will perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Bryan Recital Hall at Bowling Green State University. Tickets are $5 and $3 for students and senior citizens. For information call (419) 372-8171. Wednesday she'll head north to Toledo to play 8 and 10 p.m. shows at Murphy's Place. Tickets prices are $5 to $12. Call (419) 241-7732.

Rachel Z has developed a strong reputation as a accompanist, playing with a number of jazz notables including jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, Al DiMeola and the fusion band Steps Ahead. She is currently a member of pop star Peter Gabriel's band. Her ambition is to establish herself as a leader in her own right. She had actually decided shortly after her last Toledo appearance not to work as a sideman anymore, but the Gabriel offer "was too good." "Gabriel is such an innovator. I wanted to get a taste of his music." Her two most recent recordings "Moon at the Window," a jazz treatment of songs by Joni Mitchell, and before that "On the Milky Way Express," a tribute to Shorter, her friend and mentor, have been well received. Now she's back on the road with her trio. That road's not easy. The band travels by SUV, hauling six to 10 hours between gigs. With Gabriel, she said, they flew by private jet. "I want the plane back," she said speaking from Minneapolis.

Still, traveling on their own does have its advantage. "This way we're really free. We decide when we want to leave. We just get on our pony and go."

This tour is mostly small clubs seating 100 to 150 customers, though the trio worked several festivals during the summer. The audience ranges from fans from her days with Steps Ahead to those who discovered her through her work with Gabriel.

The trio's music reflects Rachel Z's wide ranging taste and experience. She'll play standards such as "Autumn Leaves" and alternative rock tunes including "Black Hole Sun," "Hurt" and "Heart Shaped Box." She's added Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" to er repertoire and covers material from Roberta Flack as well as Gabriel. The key to selecting any song, she said, is "it has to have a strong melody."

"Definitely you have to decide if the melody is good, and if you can spice up the chords."

As the daughter of an opera singer, she studied singing from age nine, so playing vocal music on piano comes naturally for her. "I have a sense of voice . . . I put all the energy in the melody," she said. Pop songs work "as long as you make the melody first and foremost and clothe it in harmonies that are really nice."

Alternative rock tunes often work, Nicolazzo said, because she can go "chromatic and dark."

"The songs are all about a certain feeling," she said. "It's all about emotions."

When the band plays Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box" she doesn't do it as a ballad. "We retain that aggressive emotional feeling."

"Hurt" is rendered closer to the Nine Inch Nails original than Johnny Cash's swan song version. Nicolazzo insists despite the pop and rock songs she plays that she's still a devoted jazz musician and will be "until they take my card away."

She contrasts her approach with the trio with that of Gabriel. The pop star "was very specific about what he heard as the perfect part. It was not open to a lot of improvisation."

She's learned much from his sense of "directness and clarity," she said. But "it's been fun to let loose on the music again."


Those who saw John Scofield when he stopped in Bowling Green in the spring of 2002 will appreciate the title of his new album, "Up All Night."

The 51-year-old style-shifting guitarist seemed intent on staying up all night if that's what the crowd at Howard Club H wanted. The show which ran into the early morning hours featured what he calls his Uberjam band in its earliest months. The name comes from their then current album.

"We had a blast there," Scofield said. "I remember the audience was great, dancing to the music. We like it when people express themselves that way. Just one of those crazy bar gigs."

The band still features drummer Adam Deitch and rhythm guitarist and electronic effects conjurer Avi Bortnick, and now has its second Verve recording under its belt and a new bassist Mark Kelley. The band returns to Howard's Club H Wednesday. Jamie and Kerry from Crazy Eddie will open the show at 10 p.m. Tickets are $17. For information call (419) 352-3195.

Though Scofield made his name playing with some of the legends of jazz, including gigs with Miles Davis and Chet Baker, he's made a practice of flying free of any pigeonholes critics may want to put him in.

"Up All Night" amplifies the same joyous hip-hop fusion jazz groove of its predecessor. And even more than the first recording, this proves to be a collaborative effort with the whole band sharing composing credits on five of the 11 numbers and Scofield and Deitch joining forces on one tune.

"This music, whatever you call it, is collaborative in nature," Scofield said. "It's my band, but whenever we get up together to play everyone contributes."

And that's how music built on a steady rocking groove should work, Scofield said. He thinks of the band's sound as "jazz groove oriented, coming from rhythm and blues as much as it comes from bebop."

"The trance element is what makes this music work," he said. That reflects not only funk but also the work of the late saxophonist John Coltrane, known for marathon performances that were for some spiritual experiences.

"When you write like that," Scofield said, "you don't want to write a lot." Instead the band uses sound checks to work out ideas, tape recording them to be shaped later into songs. "It's more organic that way," the guitarist said.

Not everything is hard-hitting funk. "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" shows Scofield can shape a swinging solo, full of twisting and turning melodies. "Born in Troubled Times" is an elegy over the shuffle rhythm. The title refers to the current world discord, though Scofield credited his wife, Susan, with coming up with the title. "She's a song-titling genius," w ho has christened a number of his compositions over the years, he said.

He played it for her, not really having any literal image in mind. The impression they both had was "this is really a dark tune and these are dark days."

Despite the expanse of musical territory he has covered, Scofield said he still considers himself a jazz musician. "My lines are rooted in jazz. This is the music I love and studied." But jazz has become too insular. "It's become an insider's music. It's scary."

He enjoys his association with the jam band scene because it exposes his music to a whole new crowd of listeners. They are the kind of people who may not convert into jazzheads, but they are open minded enough to appreciate various kinds of music. These are the kind of fans jazz once relied on and needs to attract more of, he said.

Playing for the jam band crowd is a challenge. "Those audiences really want you to play for a long time," he said. "It's taxing. You have to feed off the audience's energy. After awhile even I can't stand the thought of another John Scofield guitar solo," he said. Still the audience will want more.

"It's about the primal thing of grooving, and it can go on all night long."


    Habib Iddrisu hopes the Bowling Green to Ghana cultural exchange flows both ways.

While the Ghanian musician has done much to promote an understanding of African culture in Northwest Ohio, those he has influenced can also help those in his native Ghana.

He enthusiastically adopted the traditional ways of his grandfather, but others did not. His father, though a member of a drumming family, became a government administrator. His father was "independence born," one of the generation that came of age after the country freed itself from British colonial rule. These people adopted British lifestyles and interest in the old customs diminished.

"I'm afraid the way it's going we will not have anything to show," he said. "The youth are not grabbing it. There's too much Western influence . . . That's not to say Western influence is bad. There is a balance. People have to know they don't need to lose what they have to adopt something else.

"When I go back home the tradition is still going on, but it's kind of disappointing to see young people not very much interested in it." But another kind of Western influence may help. The interest Americans have in African culture "gives me a lot of inspiration," Iddrisu said.

"I wish the people back home could see that the tradition they don't think is so important is taken seriously here," Iddrisu added.

He returns every summer to Ghana, and has performed there with the Bowling Green State University's Afro-Caribbean Ensemble directed by his mentor Dr. Steven Cornelius.

"When we go to Ghana with Dr. Cornelius, we go into some of the villages. For the villagers to see students dance, it's like wow! I like to see the expressions on their faces," he said. Americans learning and performing their dances "helps them to appreciate the importance of their tradition."

His own musical education was informal. He learned directly from his paternal grandfather Adam Alhassan, as one of 48 grandchildren who would all practice around his grandfather's home. His grandfather identified young Habib as one of the most promising and enthusiastic youngsters. But he wouldn't sit down and teach his grandson at a set time. Rather he would happen upon him at odd times, sensing when the youngster was receptive, and impart advice and suggestions. After dinner young Iddrisu would give his grandfather a massage, and Alhassan would speak of music, culture and history.

Iddrisu had much to learn -- he makes all his own instruments and sews his own costumes. All that knowledge was communicated through words and songs rather than written instruction.

Only at BGSU did Iddrisu study written Western music, and then only to help him teach Americans about his music and dance. Being able to relate lessons to Western music is an effective shortcut, but the dancers must rely on their ears.

"The most important thing is the drum language," Iddrisu said. Dozens of dancers will move in unison, responding to signals given by the lead drummer. "The drum tells you what to do.

"In the midst of six or eight drums playing different rhythms, it's difficult," he said. "In time they learn what to listen to, and that's incredible."

Currently working toward a master's in African history, his goal is to eventually earn a doctorate and teach in a university. Though he will not return to Ghana this summer -- he's staying in Ohio to be married in July -- he plans to resume his regular trips home.

"I'm still going back to give back to my community what I've learned."

Habib Iddrisu's village on Friday morning was the gym in Perrysburg's Fort Meigs Elementary School. The Ghanian musician was part of a Hip Hop to Ballet presentation sponsored by the Toledo Ballet.

As he does for all his school shows, he opened with a simple flute solo. The piping melody fills the cavernous space. About 500 children sit, legs crossed, quietly, shifting only to get a better look at the musician.

As he plays, Iddrisu strides across the floor in long, graceful steps. He turns to the audience, looking directly into children's eyes, and then he leans back and directs his song upward.

"I play the song," he explains to the children, "as a sign of respect to my elders, especially my grandparents, for teaching me what I will share with you this morning." In his vibrant flowing costume, he's like a Pied Piper spreading African culture.

The graduate student from Bowling Green State University has been drumming, dancing and singing since he was as old as the youngest members of his audience. "The drum was always part of me."

Since 1998 the young master musician has been sharing the ancient traditions of his people with the people of Northwest Ohio, including more than 100 appearances at schools. He was born into a line of musicians in the Dajbamba people of Northern Ghana. His grandfather was the chief drummer in the regional capital of Tamale. And it was in his grandfather's home that he learned.

Iddrisu spreads more than love of music and dance -- respect for elders is central to his message when he performs before children. His first drum number at Fort Meigs school is "The Stupid Song." His mother would sing it to him, he told the students, when he seemed to be getting too full of himself. This was her way of telling him despite how good he was, he needed to keep trying. The children laugh when he imitates the stern look on his mother's face.

Before he does "The Impossible Dance," during which he dances and plays two different kinds of drums simultaneously, he shares wisdom from his grandmother.

"There's nothing that goes by the word 'impossible,'" she would tell him. "Provided you are willing to sacrifice the time, anything will be possible.'"

Nigel Burgoine, the director of the Toledo Opera, who serves as master of ceremony for the school performances, says teachers appreciate the messages Iddrisu passes on. They tell him, "it's wonderful to see a performer who comes in and says 'Listen to your teacher.' That shows the way to get better."

Iddrisu shares the performance with Marc Woten, a dancer studying with the Toledo Ballet and a fellow graduate of BGSU. Woten performs contemporary dances influenced by hip hop and break dancing, showing the connections between Iddrisu's ancient steps and the latest fads.

Burgoine notes that a certain hip shake so common on MTV actually derives from a dance farmers would do at night to loosen their hip and thigh muscles after long days stopping in the fields.

Iddrisu, said Dr. Steven Cornelius, of the BGSU College of Music, has been generous in his willingness to share his gifts and knowledge with others.

"Time after time he's stepped up to talk, to perform, to share," Cornelius said. "He's done wonderful things in music, but he's also raised the awareness of Africa all around the campus."

He's performed not only with the Afro-Caribbean Ensemble but also with the BGSU Treehouse Troupe and University Dancers as well as making annual appearances on the family stage at the Black Swamp Arts Festival.

Cornelius was instrumental in bringing Iddrisu to campus. He first met him in Madison, Wisc., in 1995 where Iddrisu was an assistant to the director of a college dance troupe. Cornelius brought him to Bowling Green to work with the Afro-Caribbean Ensemble for a week and the next year arranged to study with him in Ghana, where Iddrisu usually returns for the summer.

"Then I spent a year going around convincing people he would be a great investment for us," he said. What impressed Cornelius was more than Iddrisu's skills as a dancer and musician, as considerable as they are.

"There's a glow about Habib . . . that special something when he performs that very few artists anywhere have."

He combines "an incredible deference and politeness that goes with his culture" with "an overwhelming power" as a performer. "As a person who was raised in this professional drumming family, his job is to tell it like it is," Cornelius said. "When he's on stage he's bigger than life."


While many are settling in Christmas Eve for a long winter's nap, a fun-loving visitor from the north will come to town.

No, it's not Santa Claus the jolly old elf from the North Pole -- it's Michael Katon, the veteran guitar-slinger from Hell, Mich. Katon will bring his internationally-acclaimed brand of blues rock to Howard's Club H in Bowling Green for a Christmas Eve show, then return on Friday night for more music. Both shows start at 10.

He admits playing the holidays is "pretty hard core." But when he called up his sidemen for the gig, none of them blinked. "Let's boogie" was the collective response. The band will include bass player Gary Rasmussen, a long time associate of Katon.

"We haven't really rocked out together for years and years and years," Katon said. "We'll probably end up playing older stuff . . . just like a big jam."

For Katon, playing Howard's is about as close as he can get to being home for the holidays. Katon said he's been told he's played the North Main Street night spot more than anyone else over the past 20 years.

"They're loyal to me, so I'm loyal to them," he said. As a veteran touring artist, he is cognizant of the importance of written contracts, yet with Howard's he doesn't bother. "I don't think I've ever had a contract with Howard's on paper. It's always a handshake deal."

And with times tough on the rock 'n' roll scene, Katon said he appreciates bars like Howard's all the more.

"They let me do my thing without any questions asked," he said. "A lot of places want you to fit into their format."

He recently played a duo gig he and another musician with just two acoustic guitars, and just a few minutes after kicking off the first set, he got a note from the management asking him if he could turn it down.

As a scion of the legendary Detroit scene he's especially dismayed by the lack of quality venues and what now passes for Motor City rock.The real home of rock 'n' roll, he said, is Ohio, where he can find joints like Howard's, places he can crank up the amp and rock the way rock was meant to be.

"I guess I can do my Detroit boogie a lot better in Ohio," he said.

Katon has long enjoyed a following in Europe. He tours the continent often, most recently just as the Iraq War was starting. The band was halfway across the Atlantic when the pilot announced that the bombing of Baghdad had started.

Not that it mattered to Katon. "I'm not too political. I'm pro-American," he said. He witnessed some of the demonstrations that occurred, had political discussions with friends, and had a few gigs canceled. But he wouldn't think of canceling the tour.

After all, he went to Europe right after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. While other performers canceled out, he headed out.

"I'm wasn't going to let any terrorists scare me out of making my living," he said. "I'm more scared of my wife if I come home with no money."

He plays clubs and major rock, blues and even jazz festivals on the continent, following the same touring schedule as top drawing acts. He has good distribution for his records there.

When he returns home it's a different story, where distribution is mostly over the Internet. Without a hit record, he finds it harder to attract bookings. But he's resigned to the situation.

"To tell you the truth, nowadays you don't want to be on a giant record label," he said. Even high profile acts are not making money, not unless they have a huge hit and have been careful to retain the copyrights on their material. Still, it's fans like those from Holland who traveled to the U.S. to see them. One fan was so impressed he declared, "I want to move to America and a have a pick up truck with big tires and a gun rack." And while here they helped Katon celebrate his birthday at, of course, Howard's, where they soaked up the roadhouse atmosphere.

"They were impressed."

Then there's the occasional student who gives him hope. Many guitar students come in and want to learn songs they've heard on MTV. The songs are "so incredibly simple. I feel bad doing it. I could teach them the songs in a couple seconds," Katon said.

Now the music seems "more about fashion." When he was coming up he didn't have money to get his body parts pierced or his hair dyed. All his money went to buying tubes for his Marshall amp, or guitar strings or the new Led Zeppelin album.

But now he has a student who's restoring his faith. "He's bad. He takes care of the business of learning the guitar," Katon said. "He wants to learn about Jimi Hendrix. He stumps me sometimes." Katon will even loan him his old blues records for him to study. "There is hope," the guitarist said. "There have to be other kids like that."

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