*Editor’s Note* While I was out shooting some photos for the Summer Jazz at the Station series, I ran into a pretty nice fella, who was into writing and was looking for a place to publish his write up for the concert. So being the lover of all things art and artistry, I offered him a spot on the blog. The words are all his, and the photos are all mine. If you are interested in contacting Jeff for freelance work, his email is: firstname.lastname@example.org**
McDonald’s boasts over 1 billion served, and I don’t like to brag but, at lease six of those are ME. There was a 13 July, 7pm jazz concert at the Union Station in Ogden, Utah. Over 150 folks attended and I don’t like to brag but, one of those was ME (I checked twice).
Yes, it was the Joe McQueen Quartet who delivered a one-hour, outdoor concert on Wall Ave. The music resonated from the talents of legendary tenor-saxophonist (and nonagenarian), Joe McQueen, his drummer, Don Keipp, guitarist, Brad Wright, and Ryan Conger at the keys. The concert was free, but those who paid attention were enriched.
I arrived a few minutes early for a cursory evaluation of the setting. Last minute details were attended to, and the folks in charge were hurried but not scrambling. Clipboards and equipment checks were on the ready, and the band looked poised.
Positioned outside the front entrance of the large Union Station, the stage was set squarely, book-ended by gabled porticos that set the side borders of the ornate, cobble-stoned, concrete slab. Joe’s own small stage out front quietly celebrated his renown. His low-set, unassuming chair, was so carefully aligned with the American flag behind, and the 8-tier fountain in front, it wouldn’t have surprised me if it also synchronized with the Great Pyramid. Had there been a compass on his sax, the needle would surely ossify towards Giza.
Coupled with the building’s towering facade, the courtyard’s tree-lined borders offered reprieve from the sun’s dogged harassment. Opposite the building, the stage faced three sections of folding chairs, perhaps 50 each, filling in quickly with eager jazz fans.
Behind the seats were the fountain and traffic-filled streets, both of which were unremorseful in their noise pollution. The clamor of the fountain eventually faded though, as the water’s sound remained steady and mostly agreeable. The ebb and flow of the street noise though was contemptuous, especially when the world’s most annoying vehicle raced by: the Harley Davidson; source of the most grating and discordant sound known to man-kind.
The concert started precisely at 7pm and zero seconds. Born in 1919, Joe McQueen’s voice carries less volume than decades past, but his placid voice quieted the crowd promptly. Although succinct, his intro was lively and warm, furnishing his listeners with anticipation and smiles before even the first note was played.
The Quarter played a full hour, gifting the audience with eight songs.
The first was “Blues by Five”, a song I later concluded was a warm-up. It started slow albeit smooth. Lots of sax at first then a break for a guitar then keyboard solo. At least two instruments were on go at all times. The pitch and tempo were mild and deliberate, which is why I felt this was an appropriate inaugural selection. The crowd applauded three times during this first piece, somehow knowing exactly when to do so.
The breaks between songs were 30 seconds or less, but song two seemed like a continuation – like a 1a. It started with a strong but brief sax lead before the others jumped in one by one. It was a nice moderate crescendo that hovered nicely into a keyboard straight solo. Crowd applause validated the merriment-like notes. The song made me feel, well…delight – because it made me feel liberated in a way. Like I wasn’t an adult shackled to adult responsibility. It all made sense when the guitarist later told me the song’s name: “Donald Duck”. He said it with a chuckle, then repeated it. “Donald Duck”, he said, as if trying to convince himself that the song harbored no chagrin. That no, he was not the novelty act at a child’s birthday party, but instead an erudite, professional musician with a blog and a fan-base. He was almost apologetic about the song’s title, but I didn’t care. I mean, the name matters little – the substance is the music that permeates your heart. I thought that, and now wished I had actually said it. Regret.
Next was “Elevation”, a piece that started fast and zealous. Right away I felt like, OK, this is the first real song. Their warm-up was cool, but this is hot. The sax opening was raw, full, and without excuse. It was the match that lit the crowd on fire. As the others joined in they played hard with a confidence that was inspiring. As they worked their instruments, they focused on their hands, like a bad typist on the keyboard, but then they looked up, almost in unison, smiling. Their hands still moving, playing, charming from their device all the right tones, tunes and sounds.
As a listener It’s easy to determine how much you enjoy it when you look down and realize you’re clapping, and you don’t even remember starting. It’s as if your hands, out in front of you, heard the music first, then reacted, before the notes even made it to your ears.
“Elevation” rolled into a guitar solo as the others played softly in the background. Brad led the strings exactly where he wanted and it felt like he had no particular destination in mind – just a journey. And the expression from the audience told me they were honored to be along for that journey. I wasn’t sure how the solo might end, but when my eyes caught Ryan the keyboardist, smiling, I knew it didn’t matter.
As if teammates in a relay race, Brad seamlessly passed the baton to Ryan, and the talented organist wasted no time hitting stride. Back and forth, back and forth his hands dashed, as if his hands weren’t playing the keys, but the keys were playing his hands.
The crowd cheered throughout, unbridled, as if the two solos were accompanied by free ice cream.
At 7:28pm, the fourth selection, “Days of Wine and Roses” began. A solo sax that was so smooth it tasted like silk, and notes so bright they seemed to veil the traffic noise. A fleeting look towards the sky I could almost discern the exact moment when the music reached the seagulls. As soon as their flight path entered the courtyard airspace their gears down-shifted from flap to glide, as if hypnotized by the riveting harmony.
The solo was slow and full-ranged — two full minutes of variation, cadence, and improv. Even at 97, Joe’s lungs didn’t seem any less eager to breathe out magic, and the audience let him know they were grateful.
“Days of Wine” continued into a mellow guitar solo, allowing Brad to highlight his versatility. In this solo he stood upright and postured like a department store mannequin, as though he were advertising his skills in lieu of active wear. The rhythm was surprising at times. Brad put an ellipsis where I expected a period, and an exclamation mark where a comma seemed imminent.
It reminded me of when Bob Ross painted a happy little tree in front of the perfectly good cabin he had just finished. At first you’re like, “Noooo! How could he do that?!”. But as the tree’s details and personality came into focus you begin to accept, and then embrace it.
Suddenly I was like, “Oh. Of course. Brad’s ellipses were way better than periods.” And so, without even knowing it, the guitarist in the Joe McQueen Quartet taught me about music. Whether that lesson was merely patience matters little. It rendered me a better listener – perhaps for the concert. Perhaps for life.
The 5th song, “Caravan” was an assertive, collective jam. Eyeing the audience closely, I could tell this is what they came for. It started with a sax lead, and it felt like Joe was playing the toughest notes of the concert – and nailing them. It reminded me of something Sidney Bechet might play, so I went exploring. Well, after a dozen or so Youtube videos I couldn’t exactly find a familiar note, so I guess I was wrong about the comparison.
“Caravan” continued with a guitar and drum tandem – applause during. Shortly after, the keyboard jumped in, and they were playing with a harmony as if it were just one, six-armed person on all three instruments. The cadence shifted too. First the guitar set one, then the drums. Suddenly their tempo slowed, allowing the sax to join in – like teammates all jumping the same playground rope.
Within seconds Joe’s sax bellowed. Strong, sonorous notes that buoyed the crowd instantly. His last name and talent, akin to the most commanding piece on a chessboard, were just as versatile and remarkably, as mobile. Parked at center stage, his feet were fixed throughout, but the notes he played were boundless. Soon the mild tempo increased. Then again. The band turned their jog into a run, into a sprint.
Humans have a limited amount of minutes on this Earth. Each one is a gift, yet a countdown to our last breath. So it seems only natural to be selfish with those minutes. Watching the band, jamming in unison, giving us all they had, was a bit of our lives well spent. Minutes invested in profit and joy — not wasted on keeping up with the no-talent Kardashians, leveling-up in Candy Crush, or desperately scrambling for the next rung on the corporate ladder. Looking around the courtyard I could tell, everyone there wanted to be there. The skills of the talented quartet coaxed from the audience applause, captivation, and smiles. The band seemed to know it too – and play better because of it.
Song six, “Girl from Ipanema (?)”, started with a mellow guitar solo. He hit new chords not yet heard and it almost felt like he was playing notes that even HE never played before – like a champ. This is the time I headed closer to the stage to get a new perspective, and I’m glad I did. I studied him as he played, wondering how some folks are born with a talent, and others, not. As he strummed, my eyes darted from his expression to his hands, and back again. He looked lost in the music, and I admired his courage. His vulnerability. He didn’t need or even desire the audience’s permission, but got it anyway, I suppose because the music sounded innovative and edgy.
Joe’s sax interrupted with an almost gentle apology, and it was then that I first noticed the moon. The sunlight sliced across the sky above the courtyard, stretching a perfect line from the Station’s high wall to the sidewalk across the street. Above the line was a vivid azure sky that muted to a soft celestial blue. It looked so inviting I wanted to take off my shoes and rest my feet on it. The higher my gaze the more peaceful I felt, and that’s where I found the moon – half obscured by God’s overzealous blue brush, yet still content. As the jazz flowed through me I felt the moon looking down with approval and delight.
The song continued with a keyboard solo. Drums joined later and they played off each other like a tennis match. After a few back and forth volleys they played in unison – a nice rhythm that seemed to intoxicate the crowd. For a minute or so I couldn’t hear any other sound. Their music had somehow put superfluous noise-cancelling headphones on my ears, and stress-cancelling headphones on my heart.
The intoxication ended sharply though when Joe’s sax belted out a sobering beat. It was loud, imposing, and arrogantly played over the top of the band. More importantly, we loved it! It was met with tons of applause. And when our 4,000 lbs of validation smothered the stage, I could almost see the corner of Joe’s mouth curl upward, even as his lips remained firmly attached to the mouthpiece. Forty-five seconds or so later, the song ended to more and unanimous applause.
After a short break, Joe introduced the next song, and the name alone stirred the crowd. Cheers and applause followed, prior to even the first note of, “Take the A Train”. And so it began…with bongos. I certainly wasn’t expecting that, which is what made it so special. A pleasant, upbeat timbre that lured a smile from my lips as I busily scribbled on my pad. I looked up to two seagulls, silently swooping above, as if offering a bird’s ear-view validation.
As my gaze swept from the gulls to Joe, I caught the last of his smile as he put the sax to his lips and exhaled brilliant notes. The other members joined in and together they quickly seized this great rhythm that subdued the crowd. It was a medium tempo with some repetition and high range. Unfortunately, my ears are not 20/20 (the ear chart is quite blurry), so I couldn’t tell you the meter, key, or texture – but I CAN tell you the result:
…the hundred or so folks on that little slab of concrete that evening — on Wall Ave in Ogden, UT, were riveted. I didn’t know but the band did, that this would be their last full song of the night.
I drove to this concert with all intent on studying the band, but I found myself analyzing the audience almost as much. The band’s performance was action, and the crowd’s expression was RE-action. It was wonderful to see (and feel) the interaction between the two. And now I know, that this last piece, appropriately named “That’s All”, was dessert. Joe McQueen’s Quartet had fed us well – we were full and content, and unbuckling our metaphoric belt. The music was delicious but this last piece was sweet as well. It ended with a sax solo – slow, loud and pacifying.
The concert was a thrill ride from front to back. Twenty minutes after the concert the courtyard is nearly empty. There’s Joe, still on his stage chair, shaking hands, signing autographs, and talking to loyal fans. A few minutes later Joe directs his band. He points and they do. As they pack up I can see a little fatigue in them all. That seems reasonable, considering they put so much of themselves into their music. The benefactor of which is a grateful audience.
They leave empty. We leave restored.
Hope you enjoyed the write up and the shots this time around. I’ll hopefully get to posting more in the coming weeks, but since I haven’t gotten out to shoot much it’s been slow going on posting as well. As always, until next time –Thanks for reading!