My review of the 1/17/08 Jazz Ministry show at The Baked Potato (featuring Michael Landau on guitar) has been posted at Modern Guitars Magazine.
UPDATE 2/18/08: I've republished my review below.
One of my favorite parts of attending the NAMM show this year was getting to see some amazing live shows around the Los Angeles area. When I learned The Jazz Ministry would be have a gig at The Baked Potato on January 17th, I knew no matter what else was going on that night, I would need to catch one of their sets. The Jazz Ministry is keyboardist/producer/music industry veteran Greg Mathieson's band, with Abe Laboriel Sr. on bass, the bassist's son Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums, and Michael Landau on guitar. This band has played The Baked Potato many times, and even used the venue to record the excellent live album Another Night At The Baked Potato in 2005. I saw the band's first set, and to say I was blown away would be an understatement, and a cliche. Seeing Landau at the Baked Potato is something I've always wanted to do, but I had no idea what I was in for. Without question, this was the tightest, most "in the moment" band I have ever seen.
Before I talk about the show itself, you need to know something about the Baked Potato if you've never been - it's tiny. How tiny? Postage stamp tiny. The place was jam-packed for The Jazz Ministry, and there were probably 100-120 people there tops, many of whom had to stand by the bar. Plus, with the playbills and posters plastered everywhere, and the blue Christmas lights strung near the ceiling, you get the feeling you're sitting in someone's basement. But this is all part of it's charm; the fact that you are seeing such top level players in a little place like this makes it all seem more special somehow. I saw 3 shows at the Potato during NAMM week, and each time it felt like I had snuck into a secret club where you get to see amazing jazz players up close and personal.
To give you a better idea of my experience at this gig, you'll need to know how close I was to the action. In The Baked Potato, the mixing board sits on the left side of the stage, facing the band. This is the side of the stage Landau was on (he would often make small tweaks to the mix while the band was playing). I was sitting directly behind the board in the aisle seat. Landau was so close to me, I could have reached out and touched him. I could even hear his pickup switch click when he would hit it during a solo. He was also turned to the right most of the time, so I could see everything he was doing. Before the show, he placed his jacket on the floor right at my feet; I think I stepped on it once or twice (sorry Mike!) By the way, I took a few pictures before the band started, but the club said no pictures while they were playing. Had I not been sitting in such a high-profile seat I would have snuck in a few live shots without the flash, but I wanted to be cool about it.
For this gig, Landau had his '63 Gibson SG and a custom sunburst Fender Strat with a black Suhr humbucker in the bridge. He went with the strat for most of the set, but both guitars sounded awesome. Not much was used in the way of effects; his pedal board included 2 Roger Mayer boxes (a Voodoo-1 and a Voodoo-Vibe), a Maxton pedal (distortion I believe), an Arion Chorus pedal, a Real McCoy Wah Wah, a BOSS volume pedal, and a BOSS tuner. He also had a Lexicon MPX-1 Processor sitting atop his Suhr ML-100 amp head.
It was almost funny to see how little room the players had to move around when they started the set. The Baked Potato stage would be less than spacious for any band, but it was really cramped for these guys. Most of the right side of the stage was taken up by Mathieson's massive B3 (which had a Kurzwiel sitting on top). With Landau on the left, Laboriel Sr. had to stand right in front of his son's drum kit.
The band played what are by now Jazz Ministry "standards." These are keyboard-driven jazz tunes written by Mathieson that give the band a chance to really groove and stretch out. They opened with the mid-tempo tune "The Sauce," and immediately the band was locked in. Landau peeled off a great solo that had everyone howling. By the end of that first tune I was downright giddy. Here I am, a mid-western guitar-geek, enjoying a Sam Adams in the legendary Baked Potato while I watch Michael Landau play not 4 feet from me. Yeah. Things could be worse.
One of the amazing things about this band is their ability to improvise as a group. Case in point; in the song "Goyo," the band went into a shuffle rhythm for Landau's solo, as opposed to the standard, driving groove they usually do. In another instance, Mathieson got quite jazzy leading up to Landau's solo. As a response to this, Landau started his solo with some out-of-character straight-ahead lines, much to the delight of Laboriel Sr. That kind of thing happened all night. Each player had the ability to take any other player's idea and roll with it. Note; I overheard the Baked Potato owner tell someone this band never rehearses. They know the material inside and out, they know each other, they know the room; they can show up and groove at the drop of a hat.
The songs were no less than 12 minutes each, and Landau had incredible, dynamic solos in all of them. Plucked double-stops, insane pentatonics, cool jazz lines - his versatility was on display in each tune. Even though Landau was right in my face the whole time, the other players made huge impressions on me also. Laboriel Jr. was like the Tasmanian devil back there behind his kit. He seemed unconscious at times, playing insane fills and solos with his eyes closed. At one point, I saw him do a cymbal fill with his bare finger to get a lighter effect.
I enjoyed Mathieson's playing as well. He's a true pro who knows how to groove. And I've never seen a player more emotionally attached to their playing, and their band's playing, then bassist Abe Laboriel Sr. At least two of his incredible solos ended with him jumping up and down on the stage as he slapped the tar out of his bass. He was emotional, intense, and very fun to watch. As an aside, I thought it was neat that Mathieson introduced both father and son as "Abe Laboriel." He never used the word "junior" when referring to his drummer.
One thing I need to mention - At one point, in between songs, Laboriel Sr. said a tearful prayer. He prayed that we could all take the love we were feeling as a result of the music, and spread it to others throughout our troubled world. It lasted a couple of minutes, and it's emotion and sincerity was aided by the small size of the room. It really felt like he was leading us in prayer, not just standing up there talking. At the end of the prayer, Laboriel had a personal moment with each of his band mates to tell them he loved them. That's the kind of night it was; it was more that just a great gig, it felt like a special gathering.
After the final song, the uptempo "QT Pie" (co-written by Laboriel Sr.) I reached over the board, shook Landau's hand and thanked him for a great set. The musicianship, emotion, and professionalism The Jazz Ministry displayed that night was of a higher caliber than any other band I have ever seen. They don't play together very often, but if you get a chance to see them, you simply need to do so.