Sound Checks

Sphere
Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 24-27; Jazz at the Bistro

You know, of course, what the word "sphere" means. But in the world of jazz, the word is loaded with additional layers. Sphere was the middle name taken by legendary pianist Thelonious Monk, who can accurately be said to have created his own highly unique musical world. And Sphere is also the name taken by a quartet of excellent jazz musicians who first came together in the early 1980s to pay tribute to Monk's music. In fact, the original group -- sax player Charlie Rouse, drummer Ben Riley (both of whom played with Monk during the '60s), pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Buster Williams -- recorded as Sphere for the first time on Feb. 17, 1982, the day Monk died.

The results of that session were released as the album Four in One, and the title captured the cohesive approach of these talented musicians as they tackled Monk's compositions. Over the next six years, the group evolved to feature original compositions by the group members as well as Monk tunes before breaking up in 1988.

Now, a decade later, Sphere has reformed, with Gary Bartz replacing Rouse. They appear this Wednesday-Saturday at the Backstage Bistro as part of the Jazz at the Bistro series, a must-see event for any serious jazz fan. Barron, Bartz, Williams and Riley together form one of the most polished, experienced quartets on today's scene. As usual at the Bistro, sets are scheduled at 9 and 10:45 each evening. Tickets are $25. By the way, the Sphere performances mark the official debut of Gene Bradford -- former director of operations for the St. Louis Symphony -- as the new executive director of Jazz at the Bistro. (TP)

Doc Watson
Friday, Feb. 26; Sheldon Concert Hall

The facts of Doc Watson's life are well known. He was born in Deep Gap, N.C., on March 3, 1923, son of General Dixon and Annie Watson. Blind since infancy, Doc was still encouraged to work by his father, and he developed a love of carpentry and electrical work, the craftsmanship that would become manifest in every guitar lick. His first instrument was the harmonica, then a banjo, then a little $12 Stella guitar. In 1940 he bought a Martin D-28 and paid it off by busking in South Carolina.

The music around Deep Gap was profound and rich, but the tiny community couldn't support a virtuoso with professional hopes, and Doc soon went on the road, playing mostly rockabilly electric guitar for dances and picnics. His style and repertoire have always fused commercial and traditional sources -- Doc never distinguished between them -- including the 78s his family owned, the radio, the old immigrant and Appalachian tunes he learned from his father and from relations and neighbors like Gaither Carlton.

Doc Watson is more than a flat picker par excellence, more even than the most influential living acoustic guitarist. He's a consummate songster, a musician bound by few aesthetic prejudices. Watson has added to his cache gems like Dan Fogelberg's "Along the Road" (among Watson's strongest vocal performances) and folkie Tom Paxton's tribute to Mississippi John Hurt. Over time, he has constantly rediscovered material virtually dormant since his childhood. One of his most delightful banjo performances is the traditional "Mole in the Ground," which appears on Watson's underappreciated Red Rocking Chair (Flying Fish).

A soothing humor and gaiety run through Watson's picking: The melodic figures twirl and skip on an old country-blues tune like "Sitting on Top of the World." His playing is always instantly identifiable: the speed and lightness of touch, the intricate warp and woof of melody and rhythm. If Watson wasn't the first acoustic guitarist in bluegrass or old-time music to foreground lead figures, he raised high the stakes. Tony Rice, Norman Blake and Clarence White -- all are Watson's musical heirs. (RK)

Soul Brains
Saturday, Feb. 27; Calvin Opera House (Washington, Mo.)

Should we blame parents for the sins of their progeny? Well, yes but in the case of the Bad Brains (who were forced to change their name "due to a business negotiation" in which they gave up the name, according to their press release -- gee, sounds like a great deal), we'll forgive them. The Bad Brains released a few of the most influential American punk records ever in the form of their first three releases, The Bad Brains cassette, Rock for Light and I Against I (we'll ignore their mediocre major-label records of the '90s). On them, the band merged a devout belief in Rastafarianism and reggae with the fury of D.C. punk, resulting in a melding that reverberates today in the twee sounds of No Doubt and Sublime. Sure, the path that connects the two meanders and criss-crosses other chance occurrences, but the simple fact is that without the Bad Brains, there would be no Fishbone, and without Fishbone there would be no No Doubt.

When the Bad Br -- er, the Soul Brains perform out in Washington (a few miles past Six Flags), they'll be the same foursome that recorded those roaring early records: Dr. Know, H.R., Earl Hudson and Darryl Jenifer. If they have even a thimbleful of the energy they possessed back in the day, it'll be one of the hardest shows of the year. For directions, call the Calvin Opera House at 314-239-6769. (RR)

Contributors: Roy Kasten, Terry Perkins, Randall Roberts

 
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