Best Of :: People & Places
Lowell Pickett celebrated his club's 15th anniversary in regal fashion this past year, packing his monthly calendars--and testing his precarious bottom line--with a list of national treasures that rivaled jazz-festival lineups from San Francisco to Glasgow. As the seasons changed, the best-known names came through with set after set of memorable work: Avant bopper Steve Lacy blew through the bell of his soprano, conjuring visions of a young, adventurous Ornette; alums of the great Coltrane quartet, pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, each backed his own group, spitting at time, swinging with an urgent sense of invention; Roy Hargrove, exhausted by a recent illness, laid back to touch the aching heart of his flügelhorn; and Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba proved once again that jazz is a vibrant form of multicultural expression, more vital than any mere documentary footage. For years, musicians in Pickett's makeshift greenroom, from composer Terence Blanchard to sax legend Charles Lloyd, have been overheard raving about the gourmet food, the gratis wine, and the well-educated audiences. Elvin Jones went so far as to tell a reporter the Dakota was "the best jazz club in the world," even when stacked up against the Village Vanguard in New York or Yoshi's in Oakland. We used to think that was hyperbole, fueled by hospitality (and more than a few post-show glasses of port). But after sitting through show after mind-blowing show in 2000, we know this: Its noisy cash registers and shopping-mall locale notwithstanding, the Dakota is special--a place, as pianist Benny Green explained, where artists feel like "part of the family," free to massage their muse.
It was a bad winter, all right, no doubt about that. More than six feet of snow fell on our fair Twin Cities, the temperature didn't rise above 50 degrees for 147 consecutive days, and, perhaps worst of all, local residents were subjected to a seemingly endless series of stories from the media about the weather, just in case anyone forgot how bad it was. "A year ago today it was 54 degrees!" "Snowiest winter of e-commerce era!" Sure, it was miserable, but is there anything that a native Minnesotan loves more than being miserable? Well, maybe just one thing: being able to brag that as bad as things are now, they remember a time when things were far, far worse. Any native can easily--and happily--recall bleaker times: the massive snowfalls of childhood, the infamous Halloween blizzard of 1991, the bearish winter of 1996-97, and on and on and on and on and on and on. (Witness one epistle by cranky St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray, headlined "Pantywaisted Whiners Shoulda Been Here in '91.") Pity the poor folks who move to the Twin Cities during the upcoming summer. Come next January, they'll never hear the end of it: "You think this is bad? You shoulda been here last year!"
Though only one of piano man Tom Siler's many hobbies--he is the key arranger for Tulip Sweet and Her Trail of Tears--Larmes de Colère ("Tears of Rage") have emerged as his rarest creation. The acoustic trio's theatrically poised sound draws equally on torch ballads and circus music for its cheeky pop numbers, à la Sweet, but shares melodies between lead instruments and crooner Randall Throckmorton (of the Deadly Nightshade Family Singers). In the band's most delicate moments, the cigarette-puffing Siler accompanies the wordless bowing of Andy McCormick on the singing saw, a sound that recalls a theremin (the key soundtrack ingredient of so many Fifties sci-fi flicks) as surely as Siler's piano tinkle seems wistful for ragtime. The effect is romantic and old-world without ever feeling quaint--a parlor feat in the acoustic jazz, folk, and performance scenes. Call it the cutting edge of nostalgia.
While Lickety Split gets points for its creative name (or loses them, depending on how easily offended you are), for sheer volume there is no beating SexWorld. This multilevel, carnival-themed erotic superstore fills 20,000 square feet and overflows with the kinds of graphic sexual entertainment that will either thrill or terrify you depending on your tastes. But then, there seems to be a little of something for everybody here, neatly sorted into racks with titles such as "Classic," "Animated," Foreign," and "Tranz." Looking for grainy old stag films of flappers performing certain Latin-named acts on balding men with Lenin goatees? They got 'em. How about big-eyed Japanese cartoon characters swapping partners and genders with a merry giggle? Yep. What about Tom of Finland-style leather-vested muscle men demonstrating their confidence and precision with certain electronic devices. You got it, for two days, at $4 (and a $50 deposit). Additionally, thanks to its gaudy, neon-lighted, grinning-and-winking approach to eroticism, the usual embarrassment factor of shopping in such a place is considerably diminished--just look at all the couples glancing through the sex toys, and the large gangs of well-dressed businesspeople smiling at each other as they price handcuffs. They're not likely to look askance at us as we leaf through the videos looking for graphic displays of G-spot orgasms. Are they?
Not everyone is a people person. Sometimes, frankly, we'd like to try life people-free. Nowhere would this experiment be more potentially rewarding than at the airport, with its interminable lines, surly gate agents, and travelers who despite an uncanny ability to pack and haul seven suitcases can't seem to grasp how to follow instructions or get the hell out of your way. Enter Northwest Airlines' online check-in: A passenger equipped with an e-ticket can simply go to the airline's Web site and, from the serenity of home or office, check in, select a seat, and print out a boarding pass. After that it's relatively painless to take a cab to the airport, check bags at the curb and stroll unimpeded to the gate. Short of "Beam me up, Scotty," it doesn't get much better than this.
There's nothing like a healthy dose of musical Valium, conveniently packaged in the form of a brand-new Low record, to get you through the long Minnesota winter. Somehow, listening to Low's ethereal slowcore has the ability to make even the bleakest December on the frozen plains seem like June on the West Coast. The band's latest record, Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky), is even more beautiful to the ear than the sound of your engine mercifully starting on a frigid, subzero morning. From the fragile latticework of "Closer" to the uncharacteristically rocked out "Dinosaur Act," the record is classic Low executed to near perfection. There is also a newfound sentimentality present on some tracks, presumably owing to the recent birth of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's daughter Hollis. It may be true that Low's sound has changed little since the band's inception in 1993, but you won't hear many complaints from their zealous listeners. For better or worse, the difference between each new Low record and the one that preceded it is akin to the change from one Minnesota winter to the next: more of the same icy beauty we've come to expect, with just enough unpredictability to make us wonder if it isn't time to put on the snow tires again.