Where Will the Blue Wisp Go?

Tal Farlow 001

There’s a lot of talk these days about the closing of the Blue Wisp downtown, and there’s also plenty of talk about reopening the wandering jazz club in a new location. Matter of fact, lots of people would like to see it end up in Clifton, as you’d know if you’ve signed up with Nextdoor Clifton, which I highly recommend. Already people are stepping up to help keep great jazz alive in Cincinnati. Starting this Wednesday, and for at least the next six weeks, Japps Annex will be home to the Blue Wisp Big Band. Admission to the Annex is free while admission to Japps proper is free as always.

I started attending shows at the Wisp when it was still located in O’Bryonville. Some of my first concerts there included Johnny Lytle, Joe Lovano (who came there often), Cal Collins, Tim Hagans, and the Blue Wisp Big Band. My memory is still clear of seeing, through a cloud of smoke, Steve Schmidt leaning over his piano with a cigarette dangling out of the side of his mouth while launching into a solo. I suspect that the Wisp will be back with us soon. I hope so, as it has a history, character and a tradition of hosting great jazz. Below are five concerts that I’ve seen at the Wisp. These are from the previous three Blue Wisp locations as opposed to the most recent one. The last time I was at the Wisp I saw a Bernie Worrell show where the P-Funk legend was joined by lots of local and area musicians for a superb evening of music. Technically the music wasn’t jazz, but it was all about improvisation, even when the dj Tobe Tobotius Donohue scratched records on his turntable.

Dave Liebman. When the Dave Liebman Quartet came to the Wisp, it was the opening weekend of the Eighth Street location. Arguments that Cincinnati can’t sustain a jazz club were negated by their opening night performance, which was packed, and arguments that can only straight-ahead jazz can draw and please a crowd was also negated, as a young, curious crowd seemed quite pleased to hear something so radically different from the norm in any genre. The music was way out, including the most circumlocutious version of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” that you could ever imagine. The final set closed with a version of John Coltrane’s “India” that shook the rafters.

Red Rodney/Ira Sullivan Quintet. A great show that featured some jazz heavyweights fronting a band that included some younger guys, including the fabulous Joey Barron on drums. You best believe Joey had a capricious streak that evening, throwing in crashes when no one (band members included) expected it. Ira Sullivan played numerous instruments throughout the evening, including, at the end, trumpet, as he and Red Rodney duked it out in a trumpet duel that was (pardon the pun) red hot. Afterwards, Red Rodney complained that his lip hurt after such a fiery battle—but hey, sometimes you gotta take one for the team.

Tal Farlow. Even a dumbo like me knows that when a legend like Tal Farlow hits town you best get off the La-Z-Boy and go hear some live music. On that evening he was joined by Kenny Poole, who shared some impressive licks of his own. I remember clearly the size of Tal Farlow’s fingers—ginormous they were, making it easy (yeah, right) to rip off some lightning-fast licks with perfect intonation and, when it turned ballad time, coax some beautiful tones out of a guitar model that was named after him.

Sun Ra. Did I really see Sun Ra, and did this really take place in Cincinnati? I guess it did. Stranger still, the most avant-garde extraterrestrial to visit planet Earth devoted a good chunk of his set to playing stride piano on some old Disney tunes, including the closer, “Zip a Dee Doo Dah.” A few months I caught Sun Ra again at the Public Theatre in New York City, at a fundraiser for Jimmy Lyons. (The same show also included performances by Walt Dickerson, World Saxophone Quartet, and Archie Shepp, among others.) You could tell he was a favorite in that neck of the woods—like an old friend.

Charlie Rouse. My friends and I were not prepared for what we witnessed on the evening that we saw this tenor sax immortal at the Wisp. I remember that we sat at the bar that night. I know that because we kept falling off our bar stools when Charlie was soloing. No amount of music theory could explain why he was such a powerful player. With great jazz musicians, there’s something that comes through in their playing that comes from within that penetrates to the very heart of jazz and makes you realize why it’s such an amazing and deeply human style of music. Charlie, who had a long run with Thelonious Monk, played mostly Monk that evening. I think he opened with “Played Twice” and also dipped into “Rhythm-n-ing” and “Round Midnight.” My friends were so blown away by the first set that they split to have a jam session in which they hoped to catch some of the spirit they’d just experienced. I stuck around and met Charlie. As he signed an album I basically gushed the whole time, and I’m not ashamed that I did. The second set opened with Monk’s “Epistrophy,” for which Charlie launched into a lengthy solo that was nothing less than sublime. So yes, a lot of magic has taken place at the Wisp, and I’m hoping for more.


Fred Hersch at the Blue Wisp Tonight and Tomorrow

Due to some strange aligning of the stars, this week is shaping up to be an unusually exciting week of music in Cincinnati. For starters, tonight and tomorrow (Monday, September 24 and Tuesday, September 25) pianist Fred Hersch will be bringing a trio to the Blue Wisp. I believe it’s this week that Fred’s new 2-CD live set Alive At the Vanguard is being released on Palmetto Records. Alive consists of live performances at the Village Vanguard during a week-long stay with the same trio that’s coming to the Blue Wisp, and it’s one of those rare recordings that deserves “instant classic” status. Among the compositions included is “Doxy,” which was penned by Sonny Rollins; the first recording of it appeared on the Miles Davis album Bag’s Groove in 1954. It’s a nice, sleazy, boozy, bluesy number that I heard saxophonist Jimmy McGary perform one night at Cory’s. A few months later I requested the song before his show began, and he assured me that he wasn’t going to play it – and then, at the end of the last set, he broke it out. Fred Hersch, who grew up in Cincinnati and attended Walnut Hills High School, used to perform with Jimmy McGary, and I’m curious if they ever played the song together; maybe I’ll find out this week. Here’s a video of Fred Hersch playing “Doxy:”


In my next blog entry I’ll write about some of the must-see shows coming to the Midpoint Music Festival.

Interview with Andrea Cefalo; She’s at the Blue Wisp Sunday Evening


Recently I wrote, for a magazine, a lengthy feature article on female jazz vocalists from around the world, not so much the famous ones but good ones, many of them up and coming. Writing the article entailed, in part, contacting record companies in America and abroad and encouraging them to send me all the CDs they had by jazz singers. I ended up with piles of them. There were plenty of rejects, but the ones I liked best I ended up recommending.

It strikes me that it would make sense to do something similar in Cincinnati—and if I do it, my A-list will include Andrea Cefalo, who I’ve seen several times at different venues around town. It’s been a while, though, and it was nice to catch up during a phone conversation today. Andrea will be performing at the Blue Wisp this Sunday, July 29, from 7:30 pm to 11:30 pm, as part of a quartet that includes Brian Cashwell on piano, Don Aren (who you may know from the Faux Frenchmen), and Napoleon Maddox (from IsWhat?!) on beatbox and vocals.

I’ve seen you a bunch of times, but I think at least a couple years have passed since the last time I saw you perform. So fill me in: have you been playing out as much, or have I been staying in more?

I have been gigging as much as I used to. I played a lot at the Meritage Restaurant in Glendale. And recently I had a couple dates at the Blue Wisp; the Wisp really is special for me. Continue reading “Interview with Andrea Cefalo; She’s at the Blue Wisp Sunday Evening”