The next step

Guitarist Mike Kelly searches his voice

Jazz guitarist Mike Kelly, like most of us, is looking to take that next step forward.
After more than two decades of studying jazz masters of every instrument — Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery among them — and after countless gigs in every possible setting, Kelly says he's ready to find his own voice.
If jazz is a language, then the challenge, says Kelly, is not only to speak the language fluently, but also "to create an individual, unique expression within the conventions of that language."
Kelly, who performs Saturday at Churchill Grounds, began his quest in his native New York. There, he earned a master's degree in music from the University of Buffalo, studied with Grammy-winning guitarist Harry Leahey and performed in most of the top venues in New York City, including Birdland, Fat Tuesday's and Condon's.
Along the way, he developed a solo style based on horn players such as tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley and a rhythmic approach influenced by pianists, particularly Wynton Kelly. "Now, I want to branch out and grow and not be under the spell of the masters. I want to open up and let my own thing come through," he says. "I love the hard bop style and straight-ahead [approach] but I don't want to be a slave to it."
Kelly admits to frustration with playing straight-ahead jazz in Atlanta, due to a lack of jazz venues and a "freelance" mindset among players. These factors make it difficult for a jazz artist to maintain a band and develop a repertoire featuring distinctive, original material and detailed arrangements, he says. It's a problem he's yet to resolve, but his own unique talent and steady gigs such as his Thursday night shows at Café 290, may eventually tip the scales in his favor.
The Mike Kelly Quartet performs at Churchill Grounds Sat., Feb. 3. For more information, call 404-876-3030. Kelly's trio also performs Thursdays at Café 290 in Sandy Springs, and appears Sun., Feb. 4, at Border's Books in Duluth from 2-4 p.m.
On The Beat: The Churchill Grounds Tuesday night jam is thriving in the hands of a new host, Dan Harper. Trumpet/piano player Harper's quintet performs at Churchill Grounds Feb. 10. More next month on the jam...
Vocalist Rita Graham, who performs every Sunday at Sambuca Jazz Café, hopes to step forward soon as well, with a self-produced CD release. The CD, Rita Graham Live at the Sambuca Jazz Café Atlanta, will be available in mid-March, Graham says, both at her shows and through an as-yet-undetermined website.
Graham, who's held the Sunday gig at Sambuca since May 1999, is a classic vocalist who's not fond of the over-emphasis on rhythm that characterizes many contemporary songs. "It's a groove, but it doesn't go anywhere. I like melody," says Graham, whose resume includes two years as a vocalist with Ray Charles and four years with trumpet legend Harry James. On her CD, look for a broad mix of material, from Burt Bacharach's "The Look of Love" to Matt Dennis' "Angel Eyes" to the Prohibition-era Bessie Smith blues, "Bring Me Some Gin." In addition to the traditional piano/bass/ drums trio that Graham utilizes at Sambuca, the release will include overdubbed horns and guitar to "fatten it up a bit," she says. Don't worry Rita, we won't tell. ...
Speaking of Sambuca and live recordings, vocalist Gwen Hughes and her Retro Jazz Kats are recording a live CD of their own when they perform at the club Feb. 23. The band covers both familiar crowd pleasers ("It Had to Be You," "Fever" and the Andrews Sisters' gem, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy") and more serious jazz tunes ("Round Midnight," "All Blues," "My One and Only Love").
"We'll do our own special spin on each of these tunes," Hughes says. "It's arrogant to think we have anything new to say. The jazz masters before us have already done that, so we'll just make it entertaining and enjoy the ride. We take our music seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously."
Hughes is looking for sponsorship for the CD, hoping that perhaps a food or beverage vendor related to Sambuca might offer some support.
For more information on Graham, Hughes or Sambuca, call 404-237-5299.
Ken Burns' Jazz documentary has completed its first run on PBS and response has been mixed. Many fans have found reason to complain about the artists Burns excluded, the blurring of the timeline of jazz events or a focus on one era as opposed to another.
Certainly, the series has sparked interest among consumers. Amazon.com reported the accompanying five-CD box set was its top seller the morning after the series debut, and that 19 jazz titles were among the site's top 100 sellers for the day. Meanwhile, CDNOW reported during the first week that the documentary aired, the box set was the 10th fastest seller on the site and had since climbed to number four. And PBS noted the ratings for the early episodes of Jazz were more than double that of its regular programming; though, far short of those for Burns' previous films, The Civil War and Baseball. What do you think of the series? Send me your comments, by e-mail. Highlights next time.
Worthy: Two websites that merit a look: www.allaboutjazz.com and jazzsteps.com. (And don't forget www.gmn.com.) ... From the CD inbox: Citrus Sun's Another Time Another Space is horn-driven (sax/trombone/trumpet) contemporary, instrumental and electric. Launched by Incognito founder Jean Paul "Bluey" Maunick, the band features members of Incognito, plus Average White Band member Jim Mullen on guitar and Tim Vine from Simply Red on piano. Elsewhere, Columbia/Legacy has reissued The Sound of Jazz on CD. It was a first-of-its-kind 1957 television broadcast of a jazz jam including Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing and others, and featured a poignant final musical exchange between Holiday and ailing sax great Lester Young.
Mark your calendar: Spivey Hall hosts violinist Regina Carter, Sat., March 10. Carter is a bold, inventive performer, clearly one of the young talents to watch in the new millennium. The show starts at 8:15 p.m. Tickets are $20-$30. For more information contact Spivey Hall at 770-961-3683.
Passing Chords: Brazilian guitarist/ composer Luis Floriano Bonfa, one of the founders of bossa nova, died of cancer in Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 12. Bonfa rose to fame in 1959 for his role in the soundtrack of the film Black Orpheus. He composed more than 500 songs, including "Manha de Carnaval" and "Samba de Orpheu." Charlie Lourie, co-founder of Mosaic Records and a longtime jazz industry professional, died Dec. 31.
Take Five is a monthly column on jazz and related subjects, with an emphasis on local artists, venues and events. Readers are encouraged to e-mail or send jazz news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.