Hermon Mehari is one of Kansas City’s top cultural exports. How long can we keep claiming him?
To catch a glimpse of Hermon Mehari in his element, you could do worse than attend the Mardi Gras party his jazz-soul band, the Buhs, has held the last four years running. The 2018 soirée, held on a cold, mid-February night inside a West Bottoms warehouse, had a DIY superhero theme, which meant that, in addition to the feathered and glittery Mardi Gras outfits, a handful of homemade Supermen, Wonder Women, vikings, and wizards were roaming the space. There was a guy on stilts. There was a Joker. Mehari — lithe, with a thin, dark mustache and a bright smile — wore a makeshift Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume.
Strip away the costumes, though, and you’d find an interesting Kansas City cross-section of artists, musicians, service industry folk, and revelers with a nose for a good time. Howard Hanna, chef-owner at the Rieger, manned the gumbo station. Boldface-name bartenders Andrew Olsen (bar manager, Rye) and Brock Schulte (The Monarch) served up cocktails. The Buhs, born out of a one-off Michael Jackson tribute concert five years ago, are themselves a mix of diverse and exciting talents; members include soul singer Julia Haile, rappers Reach and Les Izmore, and Mehari, who is best known as a jazz trumpeter.
During the Buhs’ set, Mehari stood at the side of the stage, one hand clasped around his trumpet and the other tucked under his arm. He shifted to the spotlight for a few solos, but for the most part, he stayed in the shadows, quietly lifting the talents of the musicians around him: Haile’s buttery voice; Reach’s thick lines and Les Izmore’s twisting flow; Ryan Lee’s dynamic drumming; the thudding bass from Ben Leifer; and Matt Villinger’s twinkling keys.
His head keeping time with the beat of every song and a grin etched into his face, Mehari seemed to be drinking in the moment. He had earned it, having organized everything from lining up the talent to booking the venue to coordinating security. Even the video collage displaying on a screen behind the stage was his own creation. If he were anyone else, Mehari might have a side-hustle as an event planner. But there’s no time: He is one of Kansas City’s most in-demand musicians — despite a home address in Paris.
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Seated at the Rieger chef’s counter on the Tuesday prior to the Buhs show, Mehari orders some shared plates and sips a few glasses of red wine. He’s a self-described “natural wine nerd” these days, though he didn’t start drinking until he was 26. He didn’t want the distraction. He was focused on working at his craft and making a name for himself as a jazz musician in Kansas City. It didn’t take him too long.
“KC is unique in that there are a bunch of musicians, and we’re playing almost every night of the week, sometimes multiple times a night,” Mehari says, “and I guess, in moving [to Paris], I sacrificed that bubble of comfort of not having to worry about booking stuff and having things set up. But … ”
He blows a raspberry. “That’s one of those things that could be a sacrifice, but it’s also a release to get away from that routine, especially if you want more than that. And I want more than that.”
In retrospect, it seems naive to think we could have kept Mehari to ourselves here in Kansas City. A first-generation American born to Eritrean refugees, he arrived in Kansas City in 2006 already a budding jazz prodigy, with scholarship offers from Berklee College of Music and Eastman School of Music. But Mehari was from Jefferson City, and the famed saxophonist Bobby Watson was the director of jazz studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance. So KC it was.
He has racked up awards and prestige ever since: the National Trumpet Competition (2008, while still enrolled at UMKC); a record deal with Seattle’s Origin Records for his group, Diverse Jazz, in 2009; second place in the International Trumpet Guild competition in Sydney, Australia (2010); semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition (2014); and the winner of the Carmine Caruso International Trumpet Competition (2015).
Local music enthusiasts know Mehari less for these accomplishments than for just being a guy who’s kind of everywhere: jazz spots like the Blue Room and the Majestic; collaborating with rappers and rockers at venues like RecordBar; gigging some fancy private party; grabbing coffee at Broadway Cafe. During his short trip back to KC in February, he lined up the Buhs show, a few nights at champagne bar Ça Va, a performance at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and — the main reason for the flight from Paris — to play trumpet at a Bobby Watson-led tribute to Kansas City jazz at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, featuring the Kansas City Symphony. Mehari calls Watson his mentor; Watson considers Mehari “family.”
“He’s a good ambassador for the music,” Watson says of Mehari. “He has the social skills that it takes to be in a social art form such as jazz. If you’re gonna be a jazz musician, you don’t sit around the house waiting for the phone to ring. You can’t stay at home and practice and expect things to happen. You have to go out, you got to be a regular on the scene so people get to know you. It’s about relationships in this music. You’ve got to go out and take your horn with you and be ready to sit in if someone asks you. You’re a traveling salesman: You’re selling your talent, your vibe, your gift, and you gotta keep it moving.”
Heeding this advice, or perhaps just intuiting it, Mehari and his bandmates in Diverse spent a month in Paris in 2010, playing shows and networking.
“That trip was an investment,” Mehari says. “We wanted to open up opportunities. We spent the days checking out the city, and our nights we spent gigging or going to jam sessions and meeting other musicians.”
It paid off: By 2016, Mehari had been to Paris over half a dozen times, both with Diverse and at the request of other ensembles. Paris became the jumping-off point for any European tours he had routed. At the end of 2016, Mehari began to transition his permanent residence there. He received a three-year artist visa. Those are difficult to obtain; applicants are required to prove that their gift is beneficial to the nation of France and worthy of “artist” status.
“Being around Hermon really made me believe that a lot more things are possible than you might think,” says Diverse drummer Ryan Lee. “I would shoot things down in my mind, and he would say, ‘Of course, we can go and spend a month in Paris.’ I think a lot of artists doubt themselves, but Hermon never thought like that. He has a way of elevating whoever he’s working with, and I think at heart, he’s trying to push us and make us realize what we’ve got to offer to the world.”
And it’s the whole world that Mehari is interested in — which is the real reason Paris holds such appeal.
“For me, it’s not really about being in Paris — it’s about being in Europe,” Mehari says, “because once you’re in Europe, travel is easy. It takes me the same amount of time to go from Paris to Rome or Madrid as it takes me to go from Kansas City to New York. On a train, I can get to Belgium in two hours and London in three. That’s what makes sense for me.”
Plus, American jazz artists are something of a novelty across the pond. Demand is high for good ones, and the ample amount of European jazz festivals that populate spring and summer calendars offer innumerable (and often lucrative) opportunities for musicians to perform and sell records. Mehari can work multiple angles this way: as an individual player invited to shows across the continent, or by arranging his own tours with the Hermon Mehari Quartet (a rotating cast that usually includes some combination of Lee, vibraphonist/pianist Peter Schlamb, bassist Karl McComas-Reichl, drummer John Kizilarmut, and a few others).
Mehari also keeps a permanent gig at a Paris café called La Fontaine de Belleville, where he is in charge of the music program; he plays there every Saturday as long as he’s in town. The show draws a reliable turnout of café regulars, musicians and out-of-towners in the know — a healthy, varied crowd that speaks to Mehari’s likability almost as much as it does to his skill as a musician.
“Hermon has always thought that the world is bigger than Kansas City,” Schlamb says. “He’ll just pick up and go somewhere and bring his trumpet, and he’ll meet people and musicians and chefs and bartenders, everyone who is doing something cool. He’s passionate about people who are passionate about what they do.”
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Last year, Mehari released Bleu, his debut album. It was well-received critically and held the top spot on the iTunes jazz charts for a short time. It was also the first album Mehari had ever worked on that was entirely his — a truly personal creative statement.
“It’s interesting when it’s your first album, and it’s the first thing that you’re proud to say, This is me,” Mehari says. “[It was shaped by my] experiences from day zero. It was just something I needed to do. It’s something I feel like I’ll be proud of 10 or 15 years from now.”
Bleu was also shaped, in large part, by Mehari’s father, who died of a heart attack while he was on tour in Mexico, shortly before he began recording. While Mehari’s mom was wholly supportive of his career, his dad, like many immigrant parents, was less enthusiastic about his son choosing the life of an artist.
“My dad, I had to convince him that what I was doing was right,” Mehari says. “He came to understand that before he passed … He was ultimately proud of me and happy to see me succeed in the world. But him passing made me feel like, ‘OK, I’m more of an adult and a man now. I don’t have him holding me up anymore. It’s more me.’ I felt like I had to record Bleu.”
Mehari assembled a dream band for the recording. Pianist Aaron Parks, based in Seattle, is a celebrated jazz prodigy and composer in his own right; Kansas-born alto-saxophonist Logan Richardson is considered a rising star of the contemporary jazz world; New York City-based Rick Rosato is an acclaimed jazz bassist. Lee and Schlamb, Mehari’s longtime friends and collaborators, completed the ensemble.
Bleu covers a variety of material, all of which seems to nod in different ways to Mehari’s priorities. He offers up original arrangements, friends’ originals, and some standards. The standards are reinvented under Mehari’s direction, and the album hopscotches between rapid electronic tantrums and slow-burning, hair-raising trumpet solos. Mehari even threads in a cover of Nick Hakim’s “Cold,” featuring singer Kevin Johnson; it’s the only song with lyrics, and it’s the clearest example of Mehari’s R&B influence, though there’s plenty other evidence. In all, Bleu is an impressive collection that does more than show off Mehari’s technique: It glimpses his vision.
Watson agrees. On Bleu, he says Mehari’s respect for jazz traditions doesn’t cloud his creativity: He’s not trying to recreate a certain era or emulate anyone else’s style.
“He’s living in the moment, which is what all artists should do,” Watson says. “I think he represents where music is at today in the 21st century.”
There is no hiding in jazz. True talent is easy to spot — fired off a velvet-curtained stage, you can hear it clear as a gunshot. You can spot a phony just as easily, too. A lot of musicians transcribe in jazz: They learn notes and licks — motifs or an idea over bars of a song — verbatim. When a jazz player improvises, he might pull out a lick he has memorized and manipulate that harmony into other songs, embellish on it.
“Hermon has done a lot of transcribing on licks and stuff, but I’ve never heard him play a line that somebody else has played,” Lee says. “He uses the concept, but never the exact thing. If the concept is the range, he spits out the note an octave higher. The way that he’s pieced together how to play and improvise is based on minimal nuggets — four notes here and there — and over time, those things have connected. There’s no collection quite like that. The great innovators do that.”
Mehari has a high degree of natural ability, but he’s also logged countless hours of practice. The trumpet is a physically demanding instrument: Hitting the soaring notes Mehari achieves requires powerful diaphragm muscles and a tightly controlled embouchure. For serious trumpeters, this means daily practice, no matter the skill level. In high school, Mehari practiced three or four hours a day and gigged every weekend with a friend’s family band; at the Conservatory, he practiced as many as five hours a day, on top of taking lessons and attending rehearsals for the numerous ensembles and projects in which he participated.
He’s also incredibly deliberate about what he wants to learn and practice
“His freshman year in college, he’d study all these different things really intensely,” Schlamb recalls. “He had a month called bebop month, where he listened to bebop recordings from a very specific period. He did that for a few months in a row with different things.”
“I remember he used to say, ‘This month, I’m only doing Clifford Brown, next month I’m doing Lee Morgan,’” Watson says.
Schlamb: “He was good at compartmentalizing and figuring out the structural elements of music and systematically working his way through it to improve on his instrument.”
It might surprise jazz fans to learn that these days, Mehari’s laser focus is trained on learning the ins and outs of music production software like Ableton Live. He’s got a new project in mind, one that pivots off his jazz background toward a more modern, electronic aesthetic.
“Right now, the project is called Noir — and it’s noir in every way you think noir is,” Mehari says.
Presentation will be a key component: Mehari is an avid photographer, and he’s building visual and video elements to feature in his shows. He won’t be booking jazz venues with Noir: He’s aiming for rock clubs and electronic festivals. And unlike most of Mehari’s other projects — Diverse, the Buhs — Noir will be tied to his name.
“I want people to recognize this as me,” he says. “The branding of it is going to be Hermon Mehari. The album will be called Noir. That’s kind of my way of stepping away from the jazz branding. Doing it this way can open me up to collaboration with DJs and producers across other genres. I’m already meeting some amazing people in Europe that are on top of the world in those areas.”
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Friday, February 9, was a celebratory evening at Helzberg Hall. The show, “A Tribute to Kansas City Jazz: From Basie to Bebop,” drew a crowd eager to hear the city’s jazz heritage played back to them by Watson, the Symphony, and special guests like Mehari.
“Being able to play those arrangements that way at the Kauffman — that was like winning the championship game,” Watson says. “It was a bucket list item. Some of those arrangements that we played, I’d been hearing since I was a kid.”
Vocalist David Basse delivered a theatrical rendition of “Everyday I Have the Blues,” and Deborah Brown lent her voice to a shatteringly poignant “How Deep is the Ocean.” But it was “Wilkes’ BBQ,” a cut from Watson’s own The Gates BBQ Suite — a seven-part suite Watson recorded in 2010 with a hand-picked ensemble from the UMKC Conservatory — that had a thunderstruck audience applauding the hardest. Mehari, flown in from Paris for the occasion at Watson’s invitation, delivered a rich, soulful solo that twisted and turned and reached around Watson’s funky rhythm, and when he finished, a joyful smile split his face.
Ask anyone about Mehari, and you’ll get a recital of similarly platitudinous adjectives: He’s a hard worker, passionate about what he does. He’s stayed humble, despite the success he’s seen, which only promises to increase. He’s a great listener and a generous friend. He’s figured out how to enjoy life while continuously getting better at living it. Everybody says more or less the same thing, and they all seem to really mean it. Does Hermon Mehari have it all figured out? Maybe a little bit. Maybe Watson put it best after the show: “Hermon’s just one of those cats.”
Mehari’s local release party for Bleu will be held on Friday, April 13, at 8:30 p.m. at The Blue Room (1600 E. 18th St.) He also performs two shows (3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.) at Murry’s in Columbia, Missouri, on Sunday, April 15, as part of the “We Always Swing” jazz series.