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Review: NOWnet’s cure for the recession

In Jeremy Walker’s words, “The best remedy for recession is music.” The 80-plus people who crowded into Jones Hall at the Minnesota Opera Center on Saturday night didn’t need convincing. We had come for the Jazz is Now! NOWNet’s Winter Warm-up, a mid-season show meant to thaw us out and ready the band to enter the studio for its first recording.

The NOWnet is a Minneapolis-based composers’ ensemble, meaning they perform only original music written by its members and commissioned artists. For those who think jazz is dead, it doesn’t get more alive and kicking than this. As Walker explained, some of the arrangements weren’t completed until Friday, the day before the concert.

Walker founded and leads NOWnet, which includes some of the area’s top musicians: Walker on piano, Kelly Rossum on trumpet, Scott Fultz and Chris Thomson on saxophones, Kevin Washington on drums. On Saturday bassist Adam Wozniak stepped in for Anthony Cox, who was under the weather.

We heard a generous single set of music written mostly by Walker, with one exception: Rossum’s “Seduction,” a dangerous tango. Soft lighting and a $5 bottomless glass of wine set an intimate mood. It felt like chamber music, or like hearing jazz in your own living room.

The music was warm and inviting, with moments of real magic: imaginative piano solos, two tenor saxes blowing rich low notes, a muted trumpet approaching a human voice, mighty drums. Even with a visiting bassist, the NOWnet is a tight ensemble, in tune with each other, alert to each other, standing aside for individual explorations, reconvening. Their sound is big but not overwhelming and they play with real joy.

Like Jazz at Lincoln Center, with which Jazz is NOW! has partnered, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit is about education. Jazz is NOW! is the nonprofit organization supporting the NOWnet composers’ ensemble. On the way in, we were handed a program with notes on each composition. Between tunes, Walker told us more. He doesn’t love talking to the audience but seems more comfortable with each outing. It helps listeners connect with the music and the musicians, and I wish more artists would do it.

If you missed the NOWnet this weekend, you can hear them again on Feb. 12, when Denver-based trumpeter Ron Miles joins them for a concert at MacPhail Center for Music. On April 30, the NOWnet plays with Fat Kid Wednesdays. Keep up at the website or sign up for the email. You also can listen to some of their music here.

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