“The saxophone is an extension of my soul, and playing jazz is a way of life.” This quote is found on the homepage of the website of saxophonist and composer, Mark Kraemer. Both his long history of playing jazz since youth (as narrated in a bio on his website), and his soulfulness as a player attest to the truth of this quote. He has performed at numerous events and venues, including Artscape, Blues Alley, Bohemian Caverns, Germano’s Cabaret, Madonnari Arts Festival, Baltimore Washington Jazz Festival, River Center Theater of the Performing Arts in Baton Rouge, and Brooklyn Exposure in NYC. He has a long history as a band leader, sideman, recording artist, composer, and more recently, a teacher.
I have heard Kraemer play in various settings in Baltimore, including at two relatively new Baltimore clubs, Next Phaze (112 E. Lexington Ave.) and Who Know’z (2101 Maryland Ave.). Kraemer has played shows at Next Phaze with band members Moe Daniels (piano), Lurenda Featherstone (drums), and with either Percy White or Jesse Powers on bass; he has also played concerts at The “Who Know’z” club at 21st & Maryland in Baltimore.
Kraemer plays both alto and tenor sax, as well as wind controller, soprano, and piano, but his real love is the alto; and maybe I can safely say that with the alto, he is his most soulful and expressive. And this is true regardless of the style of jazz he is playing–but bop and hard bop are where his heart lives.
Kraemer brings a unique visual presence to his concerts – dressed in a natty blue pinstripe suit, with two-toned shoes, a pork-pie hat, and dark shades, he is the image of the classic “hep cat” of yesteryear. Not only does he play his sax with energy and expression, he also can do a pretty mean scat. I have had great fun with him on a few occasions at jam sessions, where we traded scatted fours on tunes such as “I Got Rhythm” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing.”
On Sunday afternoon May 21, Kraemer gave a concert at An die Musik, with a band of some of his favorite players: pianist Bob Butta, bassist Obasi Akoto, percussionist Ralph Magwood, and drummer Lurenda Featherstone. Kraemer introduced the band and then gave a kind of invocation, following the practice of his teacher and mentor Gary Bartz, asking that positive vibes would come in the room and that the Creator would bless the house and bless the musicians. Fittingly, the program began with Coltrane’s “Spiritual,” a free-floating minor 7th riff on tenor accompanied by rippling arpeggios on piano and punctuated various percussion sounds before landing into the groove of “Softly as a Morning Sunrise.”
The program continued with more favorite jazz standards, including “What is This Thing Called Love” and “I Hear a Rhapsody,” On most of the selections, the percussion imparted a Latin flavor while Butta’s dazzling piano solos sometimes gave a hint of the heart of swing in the tunes. Akoto’s nimble finger on the bass, Featherstone’s sure touch on the drums, and Magwood’s spirited work on the congas and percussion gave all the tunes energy and thrust. Ralph Magwood gave a heartfelt vocal rendition of “My One and Only Love,” with Kraemer on tenor.
One unusual selection that I don’t often hear played was McCoy Tyner’s 1981 “Walk Spirit Talk Spirit.” This one had a distinct African flavor, and solos by Magwood on percussion and Featherstone on drums evoked a tribal feeling, augmented by the expressive guttural squawks on Kraemer’s solo on the alto sax.
Whether playing alto or tenor, Kraemer always plays with a clear, pure tone, and a deep respect for tradition while bringing his own eloquent interpretation to the tunes. He played alto on “Everything Happens to Me” which he always plays with great soulful feeling. That feeling was echoed by Butta’s tender and sensitive piano solo, while Magwood and Featherstone added evocative touches on their instruments. I loved the fluttering riffs that Kraemer added on the last head, and the singing voice of the saxophone as he brought the tune to a close.
The band played one of Kraemer’s original tunes “Paradise del Sol;” he opened with scatted riff. This is one of six tunes that he recorded on an eponymous album, produced by Jacques Burvick (but never released), which can be heard on his website at https://www.markkraemersax.com/. The last tune was a bouncy treatment of “Autumn Leaves;” Kraemer threw in a fleeting quote of “My Favorite Things.” Akoto’s solo brought shouts of appreciation. The show ended with warm applause from the audience.
Mark Kraemer is a talent to be reckoned with, and we’ll be sure to enjoy his gifts in more Baltimore venues in the future.
–by Liz Fixsen
Liz Fixsen has been part of the Baltimore jazz scene for many years, as a listener and sometimes as a performer (piano and vocals). She serves on the board of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance and edits and writes for the BJA newsletter.