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. Recordings are coming more quickly now, as the Illicit Sextet celebrates the release of their third album, Addendum, on the Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog series this weekend, November 12. The opening band features the inventive duo of guitarist Chris Olson and cellist Greg Byers.
Olson and Byers (7 pm)
Two top string players join forces! Chris Olson is a dedicated jazz educator as well as performer. Since earning a master’s degree in jazz studies/performance from the University of North Texas, he’s taught guitar, jazz history and improvisation as well as directing jazz ensembles at UW-Stevens Point (where he earned his undergraduate degree), Wausau Conservatory of Music, UW-Marathon County, and Inver Hills Community College. Currently on the guitar faculty at McNally/Smith College in St. Paul, he also teaches guitar lessons and jazz combos at the MacPhail Center for Music and summer programs at the Shell Lake (WI) Arts Center; he serves on the Board of the Minnesota Guitar Society. Chris has performed with Bob Mintzer, Louis Bellson, Terry Gibbs, Ira Sullivan, and Bobby Vinton, and has appeared frequently at the Black Dog, heading his monthly “Chris Olson Project” as well as performing in other ensembles such as Framework.
Greg Byers might be best known locally as cellist and bassist, but has actually mastered a number of string instruments. And he wants to play them all, at the same time. So in 2013, the recent graduate of the master’s degree program at McNally Smith College of Music found a way to musically clone himself, and with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, launched a tour of his project byerself, taking his music (composing, performing, producing, singing and songwriting) from the Twin Cities to Ohio, Ontario, the East Coast and Chicago. As a student at the University of Miami, Greg wanted to major in “jazz cello,” and after some unsuccessful negotiations with the college administration, Shelly Berg, Dean of the Frost School of Music, named Greg the university’s first graduate as a jazz cellist. After a stint in LA, Greg came to the Twin Cities to attend McNally Smith. In addition to his “byerself” project, Greg currently performs with world music ensemble Axis Mundi, singer Raquel Sofia, jazz quintet Canadian Girlfriend, Rogue Tango, Tropical Zone Orchestra, Steve Kimmel’s Quo Vadis, and more.
The Illicit Sextet (8:30 pm)
History. Co-founders Steve Kenny, Kelly Bucheger and David Roos formed the IS 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.” The focus on original material was one of the unique features of the band, and a long-standing weekly gig at O’Gara’s in St. Paul afforded them the opportunity to try out their new music. But in the mi-90s, the band, for various reasons, went on hiatus. A long one.
Fifteen years is a long time to reconvene but the band reunited in 2009 at the Artists Quarter with the same personnel who were playing in the mid 90s: Paul Harper (tenor sax), who had taken over when Buchegar moved, 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 in the very first edition of the band, but came on board around 1990.) In 2013, the sextet finally released the sequel to Chapter One — Chapter Eleven. And for fans of the original band, note that Chapter One has been reissued on iTunes and CD Baby.
The Band. Steve Kenny, FLUMPET™, co-founded the Illicit Sextet after graduating from UW-River Falls. Among other projects, he led The Bastids and then Group 47 weekly at the Artists Quarter, and more recently at Jazz Central, the Icehouse, the Black Dog and more. Group 47 recorded an LP, Straight to Vinyl, released in summer 2014. Kenny also received a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council grant to produce a 10-week summer series of jazz at Studio Z in 2014, which he has brought back in 2015 and 2016, featuring “All Originals” from local ensembles, including the Illicit Sextet. In fall 2014, Steve launched the Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog series, and with Illicit Productions, assembled and released the first Twin Cities Jazz Sampler, a collection of tracks from 13 area jazz ensembles. In 2015, he inaugurated another weekly series, Friday Night Jazz at The Nicollet (now Thursday Night Jazz at Reverie) in Minneapolis. With Illicit Productions, he will release the second volume of the Twin Cities Jazz Sampler in a few weeks.
Paul Harper, tenor sax, joined the Illicit Sextet in the mid 90s. A busy Twin Cities performer, Paul has appeared on numerous recordings (including Charmin Michelle’s Pure Imagination) and performs on sax and flute with guitarist Joel Shapira, Charmin & Shapira & Friends, and other ensembles through Sunset Park Music. Paul leads several ensembles, including Show and Tell, Chordless Quartet, and the Bardo Quartet.
David Roos, guitar, also a founding member of the Illicit Sextet, leads the trio Exquisite Corps, sells guitars at The Podium in Dinkytown, and devotes time to teaching and writing about jazz guitar and theory.
Chris Lomheim, piano, was a protégé of the late Bobby Peterson. Today he is one of the most in-demand pianists in the metro area, backing area vocalists and heading his own trio, quartet and quintet, as well as playing and recording with the Reid Kennedy Trio and more. Chris returned to the studio in 2014 to record a trio project of all original compositions (Timelines), released to rave reviews. Chris is heard at least monthly at Vieux Carre’, continues to perform solo for High Tea at the Saint Paul Hotel, and is a featured performer at Orchestra Hall, the Dunsmore Room and more.
Tom Pieper, bass, is on the faculty of the MacPhail Center for Music. With wife Karen, he performs as SpiritJazz, and is also the middle school orchestra director for the Wayzata Schools.
Nathan Norman, drums, has an extensive resumé performing with area artists, including vocalists Debbie Duncan, Connie Evingson, JoAnn Funk, and Charmin Michelle. He’s also played and/or recorded with Bill Banfield, Nancy Bierma, Robert Huntley, French 75 and more, and performs regularly with the Travis Anderson Trio.
The music. It’s been the hallmark of the Illicit Sextet since it’s first gig that the band plays only original music, and they have not wavered from that commitment. On Addendum, five of the musicians contribute two tunes each, and it’s an ear-friendly mix of laid-back and forward thrusting works that highlight the individual and collaborative talents of the sextet – as well as those of the engineering team of Steve Wiese and Miles Hanson at Creation Audio.
Harper’s “One Like This” launches the set with the power of a big band chart that pays homage to the great bebop bands with leading horns; Lomheim swings with bass and drums, precise yet flowing with energy. Lomheim contributes two dazzling tracks himself: The slower-paced “Blue Talisman” hones in on his elegant touch — and we don’t often get to hear Chris with the Illicit Sextet on a good piano! Piano is in the spotlight again on his “Temple of Truth.” Guitarist Dave Roos offers an off-kilter “Valse” that highlights the collaboration among the horns, Kenny and Harper (on soprano) are two birds in conversation, and you can almost sense lyrics here. “Turn a Corner” is a lovely ballad from Tom Pieper, putting the horns together in a stunning intertwining, but also offering a gently powerful solo of his own while Norman and the rhythm team as a whole are persuasive without taking over. Steve Kenny leans toward the upbeat and celebratory with “You’re Lazy” and “Youth in Asia,” the latter decorated with some eerie effects from Roos which seem to originate way beyond Asia.
This Addendum is no after-thought.
Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog begins at 7 pm with Chris Olson and Greg Byers, followed by the Illicit Sextet at 8:30 pm. The Black Dog is located in the Northern Warehouse at 308 Prince Street in St Paul’s Lowertown arts district; www.blackdogstpaul.com. No cover– tips ($10 suggested) appreciated to pay the musicians and support the series. Full schedule at www.saturdaynightjazzattheblackdog.info