I’d heard about the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul for ages—jazz clubs, though, just aren’t places I go a lot. When I caught word Yohannes Tona would to be there this particular night, it was time to go see the place. I had sat in with him a couple times, knew firsthand about his chops and, well, have a great deal of personal respect for the guy. When I get there, turns out it isn’t a solo gig. He’s playing bass in the band Seven Steps To Havana. Fine. I still get to catch me some Yohannes Tona.
Before I’m fully in the door, I’m disposed toward the place. The fella who greets you in the alcove and takes your money is an affable gent by the name of Davis. You’d be hard-pressed to find a club with a greeter who’s better at the job. Pleasantly upbeat, he’s a cordial conversationalist. You don’t wanna talk, that’s okay, too—he’s not gonna bend your ear. He’s knowledgeable. You want to know something about the Artists’ Quarter, odds are he’s your answer man.
Stepping inside, the place immediately appeals. It’s reasonably spacious and, even though the house lights are still up, you can tell it’s warmly intimate. The walls are lined with beautifully shot photos of jazz heavyweights. Some autographed. Some of those have recorded albums here. Albums by, oh, Roy Haynes, Lee Konitz, Carole Martin. Jim Rotundi—who, Davis recalls, was stuck at the airport between flights one Tuesday. That being AQ’s weekly B3 Organ Night, he passed the time by swinging over to jam with the house band. Service staff is tight. Dan, the bartender, is alert, low-key, politely professional. Waiting tables, Casarah covers the whole floor and makes it look effortless.
I go to the green room, say hey to Yohannes. We shoot the breeze, reflecting on the joys of daddyhood. Then, I go out to the bar and let the man get ready for his gig. At length, the lights dim and Seven Steps to Havana, led by reed master Doug Little, takes the stage. Some of the music’s from Argentina, some from Rio de Janeiro, other places; most of it, of course, from Cuba. It all intrigues. The numbers are done with specific finesse, employing along with the notes that get played the ones that don’t. The arrangements employ rests as more than just times not to play: it enriches the sound. And that’s just one fascinating aspect of this profoundly gifted seven-piece outfit. Check them out. The disc is Seven Steps To Havana on the Tesca label.
I leave after the first set to get home and make my deadline. It’s an interesting introduction to St. Paul’s famed nightspot the Artists’ Quarter.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.
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