Concert Reviews

A Musical Walk through Baltimore’s Jazz History with the John Lamkin II Quintet

Trumpeter John Lamkin II led a smoking hot band at Caton Castle on Saturday April 15th with Michael Hairston on tenor, Bob Butta on piano, Mike Graham Jr. on bass, and Jesse Moody on drums.  This tight, energetic ensemble played an electrifying program that included a number of Lamkin’s originals that took us on a journey down the memory lane of Baltimore’s jazz history.

 “Baker’s Closet” was a hot, uptempo tune dedicated to Henry Baker, owner of a club called “The Closet,” on Franklin Street, active in the 1970s and 80s. Another original, “The Sportsman,” in a minor key, recalled the Sportsmen’s Lounge, established in the late 1960s by Lenny Moore. The band came on firing on all cylinders, outlining an artfully ragged melody with intriguing quirks and twists but grounded in the blues. Butta’s fingers pranced along the ivories with an abundance of funk, running up and down, out and around the harmonies on a melodic merry-go-round. Graham made a bold statement on his bass solo. 

Lamkin then invoked the memory of beloved jazz singer Ruby Glover, who died in 2007, with a straightforward rendition of “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” one of her signature tunes. Hairston brought forth the bluesy heart of the tune on his sax, while Butta highlighted its playfulness, again running circles around the harmony. 

Lamkin’s “Homage” honored many of the Baltimore jazz musicians of today and of yesteryear, including the late saxophonists Harold Adams (1942-2021) and Major Boyd (1948-2016), who were mainstays on the stage at Caton Castle. As Lamkin later explained to me, after COVID, he conceived of the tune as an homage to all the first responders, nurses, and doctors who helped us through that difficult time. He added that on this night, it was an homage to the Baltimore Jazz Alliance for helping to keep jazz alive in Baltimore.

The band played a slow, meditative melody over a steady funk/hip-hop style beat, followed by Lamkin picking up the groove in his flugelhorn solo, even giving the tune a cheerful lilt before transitioning to a more impassioned treatment. Butta took up the story on piano, and like the flugelhorn, unveiled the pathos, all while the steady beat of the drums and bass imparted gravitas. A call-and-response between flugelhorn and sax brought the tune to a soft landing. 

Continuing in the nostalgic vein, the group played Lamkin’s “The Avenue,” recalling the heyday of jazz on Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue, with an angular melody over a driving beat. It made me vaguely think of a very heated rendition of “Caravan.” Butta’s solo skirted the edges of the harmony, at times venturing beyond it. He can string together more 16th notes without a break than just about anyone I know. The horns riffed over a thrilling drum solo that went just about everywhere that drums can go. 

Still in a minor key, Lamkin’s original “De Market” recalled the days when he and other jazz groups played at the old Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore, and people would dance. Answering the many requests for him to play danceable tunes, Lamkin wrote this funky number. Graham gave another impressive solo – his bass seems to be talking to us with emphatic and provocative statements. This solo, along with his solo on “Black Nile,” drew appreciative cheers from the audience.  

The third standard the band played was Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” The flugelhorn spun sugar spiced with peppermint while the sax poured warm, creamy caramel over the “B” section, with lush and eloquent accompaniment on the piano. The two horns together were a tasty confection indeed. 

The band finished with another Lamkin original – this one in a major key –titled, “All the Steps You Take While Walking Through Your Brain.” Lamkin explained that many of his tunes come to him during his early morning walks. This funky tune with a New Orleans groove featured a killing drum solo by Moody that had Tabasco sauce all over it – or maybe I should say, “Bayou Butt Burner Louisiana Hot Sauce.” 

This musical journey through the yesteryear of Baltimore jazz was enthusiastically received by the Caton Castle audience, many of whom are older jazz fans who have been regular patrons of the club for years, if not decades, and who know great jazz when they hear it. The John Lamkin II quintet did not disappoint. 

–Liz Fixsen

Liz is a semi-professional jazz vocalist and pianist who regularly makes the rounds of jazz jams and shows in and around Baltimore. She serves on the board of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance, and she edits and writers for the quarterly newsletter. 

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