KC trumpet master Hermon Mehari plays Paris, a Royals game and the most prestigious international competition in jazz.
Jeremey Theron Kirby
Of all the stages Hermon Mehari has played, the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles has probably been the biggest stage of all.
Mehari competed as a semifinalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in November 2014 (which that year featured trumpets), with 12 of the most accomplished trumpet players from around the world. Judges included Quincy Jones and Arturo Sandoval, and Herbie Hancock presented the award at the star-studded gala in LA. Although Marquis Hill of Chicago won the competition, it was a tremendous opportunity for Mehari, a graduate of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and winner of the 2008 National Trumpet Competition.
Back home in Kansas City, Mehari plies his considerable talents at The Majestic, where he plays twice a week, and he is also a regular at Ça Va Champagne Bar in Westport. You can also catch him performing at various venues with his jazz group Diverse, which he cofounded in 2008 with UMKC classmates Ryan Lee and Ben Leifer.
435 Magazine recently caught up with the multi-dimensional musician, who spoke about his favorite local hangouts, the Monk competition, recording in Paris, playing Michael Jackson music and his pop project The Buhs.
435: Could you describe for me what your experience at the Thelonious Monk Competition was like?
HM: Music is not meant to be competitive, so it's going to be a different situation right off the bat. But I had a very positive experience. What I wanted to do was go there and make sure I played well, because it's a high-pressure situation and it's the biggest jazz competition in the world. The whole jazz community knows about the competition and the stakes are pretty high. Not to mention the judges are some of the best trumpet players in the world. I was happy with the way I played, and I was happy to see that I did belong in that semifinal group and I got to hear some great trumpet players and make some really good connections.
435: How nervous were you about performing in front of a judging panel that included Arturo Sandoval and Randy Brecker?
HM: It was up there, probably top three. It's pretty close to my experience playing one of the Royals games last season. Playing things like "Taps" or the national anthem can be even more nerve-wracking because everyone knows it. And everyone's a critic!
435: Quincy Jones was a part of the final judging panel at the Monk competition. Did you get to talk to him?
HM: I had met him before in Paris in the summer. So it was actually kind of crazy that I'd just met him, you know what I mean? I've done a Michael Jackson project here in Kansas City: Our group, Diverse, did “Diverse Plays Michael Jackson.” I think our first time doing it was 2010 or 2011, and we did it at recordBar and we packed it out past capacity. We ran the gamut from the Jackson 5 to the stuff that came out in the 2000s. We did about four or five shows there, and we did it once at the Uptown. MJ's one of my favorite artists ever, so meeting Quincy [producer of Michael Jackson] was like, "Oh. My. God."
435: What was the Monk Gala Concert like?
HM: It was surreal seeing Pharrell do "Happy" with Herbie Hancock, and Hancock tearing it up on the keys. It's funny because the next week I was playing a wedding gig and we were playing "Happy." And I was talking to my friends and I said, "Dude, I just saw Pharrell do this with Herbie Hancock. After seeing that, we shouldn't be doing this right now. We shouldn't be playing this!"
435: Did you enjoy jazz before you got involved in jazz music?
HM: The first album that I bought was "Kind of Blue" by chance. I went to a local store, and I was like, ‘Oh, I know Miles Davis.’ To be honest, I didn't really care for it on my first listen, but by the second and third time, I started to dig it. By the fourth and fifth time, I said, "Whoa, this is amazing." And from there, it was all in.
435: What have been some of your more recent recording projects?
HM: I played one song on Peter Schlamb's new album, "Tinks." He's an incredible vibraphone player who lives here, one of the best in the world. Also this year, Diverse released our album that we recorded in Paris called "Our Journey." We've been going there since 2010 as a group, me and Ben Leifer and Ryan Lee. And we've been developing this rapport playing there and developing an audience there, but also developing connections with musicians. One of the guys we met was Tony Tixier, a French piano player, and we brought him here a couple times. We felt like we had a really good connection and we all kind of gelled with him. We also wanted to use Logan Richardson, who's a saxophone player that used to live here in Kansas City, who lived in New York for 10 years and then moved to Europe. He's one of our favorite musicians ever and he lives in Paris, so it just made more sense to record it there with two or three guys there instead of flying them here. Plus, Paris is always an inspiration to me.
435: What are some of your favorite places in Kansas City besides Broadway Café?
HM: YJ's Snackbar in the Crossroads. I do a Thursday night thing there with a pop project and a crew that I helped put together. I'm a big fan of The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. The food there is incredible! I love the staff at The Majestic and the vibe there is great. I like that I can play acoustically, first of all. Not all places you can play acoustically, because you need a mike, and I like not having a mike. And I like the aesthetic of it: It's classy and it's cool, and people can come by and have a cocktail and just listen. We play mostly standards there. There are other situations where I'll get to play original music and all that stuff, but I love doing this specific thing that's relegated to playing standards and classics. I've recently also been going to Ça Va, which is a new champagne bar. I play there sometimes too.
435: What can you tell me about the pop project at YJ's?
HM: It's called The Buhs, and it stems from the Michael Jackson project we did, and we've been working on original music. One of the guys we work with is a singer/producer named Anthony Saunders, who's done production and songwriting for Justin Bieber and Boyz II Men, so he's pretty serious. We're lucky to be surrounded with guys of that caliber in our crew. Our thing right now is to continue working on music, put out some music videos and do shows on occasion. We've done a couple shows here. Not the whole crew, but smaller bits of the crew have done hip-hop shows and tribute shows to seminal hip-hop albums, like "Like Water for Chocolate" by Common, "Black on Both Sides" by Mos Def and "The Low-End Theory" by A Tribe Called Quest. So we've kind of done a lot of different things, and it's one project that I'm heavily invested in.
435: Where else besides The Majestic can people see you play in 2015?
HM: It really depends. I play the Blue Room once every few months as a leader, maybe a little more often as a sideman. I've been doing the stuff at Ça Va with a duo, so hopefully I'll continue to do some of that. I'll occasionally do a side gig at the Green Lady Lounge and the Take Five Coffee Bar in Overland Park. Mardi Gras season's coming up, and there are Mardi Gras crews here in Kansas City, so a lot of times I'll get my guys together and play at some parties. And Peter Schlamb and I want to try and keep bringing guys into KC and have them exposed here. That's something that people can look forward to me doing, bringing some other great players in here to check it out. Because ultimately what happens is they leave and they talk about the good time they had in Kansas City. And most people are like, "What? Kansas City?" It's still kind of an underdog in a sense. Even in the Monk Competition, I could tell from the guys I was talking to. I said, "Yeah, I gig all the time in Kansas City, four or five nights a week, and I'm having a great time."
The Hermon Mehari Trio plays at The Majestic on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. For more info visit hermonmehari.jimdo.com.