Mike Jones Doubles Down, Pays Another Visit to Chicago
There are two notable musical Mike Joneses, a name is so common that one has to know precisely who to look for to locate the right Spotify channel. Jones, the rapper, has become known to Jones, the talented pianist, to his frustration: “I’ve always been fine with my name, but after having a number of CD’s out, and then a rapper gets famous with the same name, it’s a bit of a pain.”
A significant paradox of the music business is that, often, prolific and wondrously talented people can be virtually anonymous, largely unknown except to a fan base that is limited to stumbling upon the virtuoso and wondering, “Why isn’t this person more famous?”
But, to be fair, there are two Mike Jones, the pianist. One plays for a Vegas crowd anxious to see the quirky magic of Penn and Teller. The other shows up at The Green Mill once or twice a year to play for a respectable jazz audience. “The people that see me in Vegas are coming to see a magic show, so many of them aren’t interested in jazz, so I have to try and get their attention with pyrotechnics! The Green Mill and any jazz audience are there for the music, so I can play with more subtlety.”
And that subtlety, along with some of those pyrotechnics, will be on display on March 23 and 24 as Jones makes his yearly visit to the revered northside club, with local bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Eric Montzka, to play concerts including selections from his new release, The Show Before the Show. The album, a collection of live pieces recorded in front of an anticipating Vegas crowd during a two-week period, displays what those magic-loving audiences hear: Jones, with Penn Jillette accompanying on bass. “They’re all picked from about a two-week period, last summer,” said Jones. “However, I put them in the same order as we play them in the show.”
“The only reason I got [this] gig,” said Jones, “was because Penn wanted to play bass every night. He was a beginner on upright, and wanted to learn all he could about jazz, so he just jumped in.”
That was back in 2001. Jones had left his roots in New England on a promise to accompany a singer in Vegas. That promise turned bogus, however, and Jones was stuck with a regular gig at a resort restaurant. Fate prevailed, though. A fellow musician/magician heard about him and decided to bring Jillette along.
“The briefest story is that [Chicago’s] Neil Tesser wrote liner notes for an Oscar Peterson reissue called On the Town, and [in them] he talked a lot about me. A great magician and pianist, Michael Close, read them and came to see me play. He had Penn with him, and we struck up a friendship. Not long after, Penn and Teller decided to stay in Vegas, and Penn asked me to be in the show.”
By the sound of the new album, Jillete, who had experience as a punk rock bassist before embracing the standup bass, has learned a few things. “He’s come along very well! He definitely likes to dig in, and he’s always trying new ideas out,” said Jones, who explained that the new CD does represent Jillette’s nightly approach. “He’ll start off with fluctuating attention because he’s checking out the crowd, looking for people he’ll call up to the stage.” But later, as the album’s song order demonstrates, his concentration improves. “The first few songs are more relaxed and the crowd is just beginning to come in. Then we kick it up a notch around 8:30, when we play ‘Manha de Carnival’.” And the album listener will hear it. After comparatively pedestrian, on-the-beat, accompaniment for several songs, Jillete dives into the Latin rhythm, sounding like a new man. And that intensity remains for the rest of the disc, even on the manic original “Box Viewing Blues.”
Jones explains, “We try to consciously build up excitement as the crowd gets bigger and the show is about to start. By those last two songs with Penn, we’re both going all out!”
It’s been a cross-country journey for Jones to the desert oasis we call Vegas. Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, “My parents sent me to lessons around age four because I was playing what my older brother was bringing home from his lesson. When I was in the third grade, my piano teacher told me he never got up before 11:00 a.m., and I hated getting up for school so I thought, this is the job for me! I played all while growing up and got very serious about practicing while I was at Berklee.”
He was entranced by his father’s two player pianos, which gave Jones the impression that all piano music was ‘double-tracked’: “I loved watching the keys go up and down.” Consequently, his development was steeped in what is called “two-handed” playing, which might be obvious to the casual fan but is indicative of maestros who evince equal facility in both hands. His earliest influences were Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, then Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, and finally Dave McKenna.
That’s because, while attending Berklee in Boston, he was exposed to McKenna, the expansive talent who demonstrated the width, depth, and breadth of swing and stride piano, raising in the young man’s consciousness the speed and concision of those player pianos. At Berklee, Jones was in the same freshman class as Diana Krall and Makoto Ozone, who eventually became jazz household names while Jones moved on more or less anonymously.
The American landscape is dotted with talents like Jones, who developed serious chops but somehow never quite hit the big time. As a student of Peterson, whose influence is evident, Jones built his skill level through serious woodshedding in Berklee’s practice rooms. He bounced between Boston and NYC doing jazz gigs and recording jingles for Madison Avenue, before becoming the musical director for a local Boston television show.
He hit the jazz cruise circuit, recorded a notable solo debut, and made that fated trip to Vegas. It was on that cruise that Jones’ connection to Chicago began.
“I was playing on a jazz cruise and met Neil Tesser. He liked my playing, and said that I should play at the Mill, so I sent him a CD. He then gave it to [Green Mill owner] Dave Jemilo, and the rest is history!”
Tesser, of course, was not done with Jones, and his liner notes led, incredibly, to Jones’ current position.
Jones, whose expression is as loquacious and manic as his playing can be, is always excited to be invited to play with his Chicago mates at his favorite club. “There’s no better jazz club in the world, and certainly, no better jazz club owner, ever.” Previous to the new album, Jones and the trio recorded a live album at the Mill, which provides a more intimate setting and a chance to play, as he said, “with more nuance.”
Each Vegas show begins with Jones and Jillette playing in front of maybe 400 people in a room that holds over a thousand. By the end of the set, those seats are usually filled, and Jones goes nuclear to ‘wow’ his more common place crowd. The listener of the new CD will hear that in the final two songs, the manic “Box Watching Blues” and an incendiary solo version of “Exactly Like You.”
“There is such a difference in playing for people who came to listen [in a club] as opposed to people who came to see a magic show,” said Jones. But the magic show pays the bills and gives Jones the artistic freedom he craves. “Three or four jazz gigs a year are plenty for me to experience the joys of being a [pure] jazz pianist,” he exclaimed.
So Mike Jones, whose proclivity and good will sells CD’s to bowled-over Vegas visitors, will continue playing before shows, during shows, and, when possible, between shows. “I hope to stay with Penn and Teller as long as they continue, but I’d love to get enough jazz gigs so I can have a career later on!” He has no idea how long the gig will last (“Teller just turned 70 and still going strong!”). He figures perhaps another decade or so lies ahead in preparation for his desired career, a simple one, being a jazz pianist whose simple name will be simply remembered for just that.
Mike Jones Trio March 23 & 24
4802 N Broadway St, Chicago