A True Cultural Ambassador

I’ve spent the last year or so lauding the Dakota at every chance I get, but I have to admit that, until this week, I had never just gone there on faith, without first checking to see who was playing. The beauty of the Dakota, though, is its consistency. Go there any night, for any show, and while you might not be as fortunate as I was this past Wednesday, you won’t be disappointed.

As luck would have it, I caught the Irvin Mayfield Quartet from New Orleans, now among the best jazz shows I’ve seen here in the Twin Cities.

Not having started in the best mood for an evening out — and struggling to get comfortable in a small semi-circular booth directly in front of the stage — I have little to say about the show’s opening. It was pleasant, but perhaps lacked the energy required to jolt me back into my own skin after a most discomforting day.

We ordered a bottle of Cava — a Dakota ritual at this point — and a lineup of the Chef’s features from the kitchen in hopes that this would help set the mood and ensure the fabulous evening we have come to expect from the Dakota. But, to be honest, the first course — Chicken Fried Quail — did nothing to the effect. I still wonder who would betray the delicate nature of the quail by cooking it with the clumsy boorishness of a chicken fried steak. But let me not dwell on one minor infraction that did little to taint a most excellent evening.

As I pushed the quail aside, Irvin Mayfield presented the next number, from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Ok. You have my attention. Now, please, oh please, let it be… Yes! "So What." Unbelievable!

And unbelievable it was indeed. Carlos Hennriquez was exquisite on bass. And Mayfield’s trumpet echoed with Miles-ian coolness. I’m in!

When they were done with that number, Mayfield joked about his bassist. "He just learned to play it last week," said Mayfield, "at the public library." This was the first of many jokes about the greatness of the New Orleans public library and their 25-year plan to rebuild New Orleans. It was also the start of the jokester jazz to follow — you know the kind, the kind where they actually have fun on stage.

By the time our Surf & Turf got to the table — a lobster tail, a gloriously tender steak atop a risotto cake, and a few pieces of perfectly cooked asparagus with what I can only guess was a delightful béarnaise sauce — the band had picked up steam and the energy in the room was soaring. A perfect time to introduce the guest artist.

Leon "Chocolate" Brown took the stage, with trumpet in hand, and after only a few notes of accompaniment to Mayfield’s intro, made his way to the mic to sing "Down on Burbon Street" with the beautifully melodic voice of a young Nat King Cole. Yeah! Now, we’re talking.

After this, they started the real jam, and the real joking. Each musician took his turn, and each tried to top the previous one, while the others cried out in amazement, amusement, and wonder. "Oh, put your elbow into it," chided Mayfield as drummer Jaz Sawyer delivered his schtick, placing his elbow on the drum to hone the sound most masterfully. Sawyer stayed serious as he played, but broke out in laughter as soon as he passed the buck.

"Let’s fly down, upside down, to New Orleans." Brown took the mic once more, bringing it back full swing as the audience roared.

When trombonist Vince Gardner came back in, I confess, my hair stood on end (the hair on my arms, that is, which is plentiful) — a sure sign of sheer perfection, as far as I’m concerned.

Then Mayfield and Brown put in the finishing touches, still smiling as they blew their final notes.

These guys were having fun. And, man, were they good!

From here you might say the show degenerated in the most perfect way. Or you might say this is where the show took root and really took off — into a true jazz show, in true New Orleans style.

Mayfield took the mic to sing this time, a FEMA song, no less. The FEMA blues. "It cost us 650 million to rebuild," sang Mayfield, " then the government acts like we did something wrong." Brown chimed in for the second verse — about water, of course. And back and forth they went starting with FEMA, the flood, New Orleans, the library; ending with "your sister," who is really "your brother," who is really "your governor," who is really "your daddy" named Sarah. What an unholy mess! A most beautiful unholy mess! This is what jazz is all about.

Finally, the two singers came together for a final chorus: "Meet me. Meet me. Meet me with your black drawers on. Meet me. Meet me. Meet me with your library card." Take it away trombone man!

"You better pay your dues," cried Mayfield. And I couldn’t help but think about our own libraries here in Minnesota — about the shift from Minneapolis Public Libraries to Hennepin County Libraries, about the chaos, about the closed libraries and reduced hours, about the presentation I’m moderating tonight at the Central Library. "You better pay your dues." Yeah, I’ll swing by on Monday.

I took the last bite of asparagus — still trying to figure out how exactly they managed to cook it to such perfection — and the drummer went mad. Holy shit! Never had I seen arms move so fast and with such precision. Beautiful. Most beautiful sound.

Jaz "the animal" Sawyer, Mayfield calls him. "He won’t date you unless you have a library card."

"Get up. Get on up." They went off on their next number, their last, and the horns came down into the audience as I got teary eyed. I’m lame like that, I admit. But when I’m moved my eyes inevitably water.

As the horns made their way through the audience, everybody on their feet, clapping along, I realized that I had somehow lost my discomfort, that the table was no longer the wrong shape or size, and that the uneaten quail was worth every penny.

The Dakota had done it again.

Look for the Mayfield Quartet’s new album (which I purchased that night and haven’t stopped listening to since), available on April 1st.