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Mike Jones: Not A Rabbit In The Hat
Live At The Green Mill
By Cathe Boudreau Alleger
(more articles from this author)
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Artist: Mike Jones
Title: Live at the Green Mill
Genre: Jazz

Close your eyes and listen to the first bar. His figure slightly slouched over the Kawai wouldn’t give the impression of a master of improvisation. This can’t be Oscar Peterson … this is just a little too different. Leaning back, you pick up what you can only surmise is the intonations of a Dave McKenna solo. But it isn’t quite that. It’s something deeper, richer, maybe better. Open your eyes and you realize that this isn’t just some guy playing a piano. This is real jazz; the sound that should be jazz.

Where do you find this kind of sound? At a magic show in Las Vegas. Seriously. Mike Jones has been working with internationally renowned magicians Penn and Teller for nearly four years. An hour before each show, you can hear him swing. Penn, the larger, louder half of the magic act, joins him playing his upright bass. While the audience is ushered in, asked to make way to the stage to inspect props for the big Vegas show, many are simply dumbfounded that jazz of such high caliber is heard.

There stands Penn, hiding behind an upright, wearing a hat, hair loosely about his shoulders. Next to him, a Kawai piano, flawlessly maneuvered by the boy from Buffalo. Because of this pairing, nearly a quarter of a million people get to hear a master at work. Some are hearing jazz for the first time and leave hooked as much on the music as the magic.

Mike Jones never started his career assuming he’d be gracing a Las Vegas stage. Growing up, Jones was lucky enough to live in a house containing two player pianos. This gave him his first experiences listening to and watching the finger placements of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Pete Wendling. His parents made sure he heard Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and all of the greatest jazz artists. It was while attending Daemen College in Buffalo that Mike met Oscar Peterson, who suggested he attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. He enrolled the next semester and, along with students who had included Diana Krall, Makoto Ozone and Terri Lynne Carrington, became one of the most sought after student performers.

Rather than taking out loans, spending nights on benders, or simply melting into the background as so many students would, he made the effort to seek out heroes, talk with them, and learn. He worked to discover what it was that was within him that would lead him to stand apart from just about anyone else. He went to see Dave McKenna’s gig every night. Dave invited him to take a set when he was on break, and before long, Jones became his fill in.

Within a few months of leaving in Berklee, he had not only won prestigious gigs at The Colonnade Hotel, Bostonian, Ritz Carlton, the Regatta Bar, The Copley Plaza, but he managed to find himself on Boston’s The Nancy Merrill Show on the CBS affiliate, WHDH Channel 7 as the “band.” He would drive back and forth from Boston to New York, as clubs eagerly hired him. He became a regular at Zinno, Toast in New York, and Scullers. This led to an invitation playing with Peterson, Clark Terry, Shirley Horn, Monty Alexander, Diane Schur, and Roy Hargrove on several of the Annual Floating Jazz Festivals on board the Queen Elizabeth II, and the Norway.

You may have heard Jones’ inimitable style on national television commercials, and even as background music in television and movies. SoundTrack, the prominent New York audio house, wooed and won Mr. Jones, making him one of their studio musicians. He was even doing sets with Grammy® award winning musicians as support on multi-platinum albums.

Since 1993, Mike has been on Hank O'Neal's legendary jazz label Chiaroscuro. His recordings garnish rave reviews from some of the most prominent jazz and non-jazz related periodicals. His first release, Oh! Look At Me Now!, went on to become the label’s best selling title by a new artist. His follow up, Runnin' Wild, released in 1997, was another critical success. Live at Steinway Hall, followed by Stretches Out, brought Mike a near cult-like following of jazz performers and audiophiles. Percussionist Christian Tamburr worked with Jones to release Tamburr-Jones Trio and stated he couldn’t imagine recording with any other pianist. “He makes me sound even better,” the modest Tamburr nods, “we’re doing it again.” This past winter, the duo did in fact record another set to be released in 2005.

Raves come from the most prominent and respected critics. Jazz Times’ Jack Sohmer’s comments, .”..he displays both a ferociously driving independence of right- and left hand lines…and a reflective lyricism tastefully distant from the floral bouquets of other chops endowed pianists.”

Gary Griffey in All About Jazz states about album Stretches Out, “This fourth album in the Mike Jones collection is a must-have for piano students who want to hear what can happen when you really love the game.”

Cadence writer and well-known critic Scott Yanow commented on Jones’ Runnin’ Wild recording by saying, “His hard-swinging approach and light touch make for an appealing combination and this definitive set is easily recommended to fans of swing piano.” He capped his comment off with the statement, “Why is Mike Jones not better known?” Why not indeed?

Jones is honored to be interviewed on the liner notes of Oscar Peterson’s re-release of “On the Town.” Neil Tesser, a Chicago radio host and long time journalist who authored “The Playboy Guide to Jazz,” says of Jones’ knowledge of Peterson’s skills, “The best view of this situation would have to come from someone who can actually do what Peterson does: someone who has honed his own technique to the point where he can mimic the terrifying complexity of Peterson’s playing. And in the early twenty-first century, that pretty much comes down to one guy –a thirty something, conservatory-trained, Las Vegas-based pianist with the decidedly non-monomial handle of Mike Jones.” Tesser continues the praise, stating Jones “has quietly established himself as the logical successor to the stultifying virtuosity of Oscar Peterson; better than anyone else, he know the peaks and the pitfalls of such playing.” With this commentary placed in the liner notes of Oscar’s best known and best loved recordings, Tesser equates the lesser known performer to his idol, and even establishes Jones’ knowledge by additional observations of the techniques and style of the Canadian master.

This brings us to the newest of Mike Jones’ recordings. Recorded live at the Green Mill in Chicago, and mastered at Penn Jillette’s Vintage Nudes Recording Studio and in Las Vegas by Travis Wilson, this collection is the best to date. Jones, now entering his forties, has begun to explore sound and tone in ways that no other living musician does. Live at the Green Mill inspires awe from the first sound of a single piano key. The trio, consisting of Jones, noted Chicago musicians, bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Tim Davis, start the set with Illinois Jacquet’s classic “Robbin’s Nest.” For the first twelve solid minutes, you’re pulled into the fantastic aural world the men create together.

You can hear Jones leading the trio into the mood changes of “There is No Greater Love,” only to bring the crowd and the artists back into frenzied energy for Peterson’s “Kelly’s Blues.” The engineering just allows enough audience ambience so that you can just pick up various mystified comments of “holy” this and “what the” that. The maelstrom of power continues on with “Mana De Carnival” and “Exactly Like You.”

The energy on the recording is nearly as spirited as it would be if you had attended this performance. When the audience is entranced, you can hear just about hear their heartbeats. When the audience is slammed face first into the kinetic power of the stride, you want to join them by jumping up on your feet and cheering along. Jones really wows with his composition of “Green Mill Blues,” a ten minute solid solo trading work of cylindrical pulsing swing. The recording with closes with a pair of contrasting numbers. The first, a tribute to Errol Garner, gives just enough emotion to bring a chill, with “Body and Soul.” The final cut, the chair wiggling, toe slamming version of “I’m Walking,” leaves a die hard jazzphile exhausted and spent, wishing the track never ended.

Chicago fans will have the opportunity to catch Jones again this summer at the Green Mill. He returns to launch this recording on June 3rd and 4th, along with Sill and Davis. It is expected to be a sell-out performance. Says Jones about his Chicago fan base, “These people really know the music, and they know jazz,” he says. “I had even considered moving to Chicago before meeting Penn and Teller.” This points out what may be one of Penn and Teller’s greatest tricks: introducing the only American music form to the masses, with the mastery of Mike Jones.

For more information and to contact the author, click on the author’s name at the top of the page.

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