Thursday, March 31, 2016

A spirited finale to jazz club's fifth season

Al Hixon
The South County Jazz Club wrapped up its fifth season on Thursday, March 31, with a splendid concert by the latest edition of drummer Al Hixon's "Underheard Herd."

That's a fitting name for his band, which generally includes a player or two who have been under-exposed in the area, or who are so good, you never tire of hearing them.

The matinee event at the Venice Art Center teamed Hixon with ex-Ellington bassist John Lamb, pianist Dick Reynolds (longtime house pianist at Mr. Kelly's in Chicago), tenor saxophonist Jim Wellen and St. Petersburg-based trumpeter James Suggs, who moved to Florida a couple of years ago after an eight-year residency in Argentina.
James Suggs

It was Suggs' first Venice Art Center appearance since last June, when he headlined a Louis Armstrong tribute evening. He is a young man with an old soul. He digs deep into the jazz repertoire to revisit material - and imbues it with great finesse and bright, clean melodic lines. The concert paired him with Wellen, a terrific swing-style tenor player whose sound is reminiscent of a couple of relative youngsters - Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen.
Jim Wellen, John Lamb

Suggs' shining moments included the band's takes on "The Very Thought of You," Lil Hardin Armstrong's 1922 classic "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "St. James Infirmary" and an encore tease - the high-energy introduction to "West End Blues," another Satchmo-related gem.
Reynolds treated the crowd to a solo rendition of an original ballad, "Reflections," that was both pensive and lovely.

Dick Reynolds, Jim Wellen, James Suggs, John Lamb, AL Hixon

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Reaching out to casual jazz listeners

Guitarist and singer Tony Boffa has an easy-going way of drawing listeners to jazz, whether they realize it - or not.

Tony Boffa
While he was working in the Portland, Maine area as a music educator for many years, he also had his own in-demand band that played weddings and jazz gigs dating to the mid-1970s. Since retiring to southwest Florida in 2014, Boffa, 65, has been playing jazz exclusively, but drawing on his immense repertoire to build a musical bridge for casual listeners.

He's the Saturday night headliner at JD's Bistro in Port Charlotte FL, an upscale gourmet restaurant that features jazz six nights a week. It has an atmosphere rivaling the finest New York City supper clubs. He also performs on Fridays at the Roadhouse Cafe in Fort Myers.

You'll hear a few jazz chestnuts or standards from the Great American Songbook - rarely repeated from week to week or even month to month. Scattered among them, and just as prevalent, are songs drawn from the pop, rock and blues repertoires.
Mac Chrupcala, Tony Boffa

Examples? A couple of Saturdays ago, Boffa included the Harry Belafonte hit "Jamaica Farewell," Delbert McClinton's "Got To Get It Worked On" and two classic TV theme songs: one from "I Love Lucy" and "Those Were The Days" from "All in the Family."

Listeners are familiar with the original versions, but have never heard them in this context - arranged as jazz instrumentals and featuring extended, improvised solos. Even the members of his backing trio have never played a lot of these gems in a jazz context before. 

That concept keeps the band fresh and lively in the same way that Boffa has made jazz more accessible and interesting for a wide range of listeners. He delivers his music with an engaging but not overbearing vocal style, and excellent mainstream guitar chops. And the band stretches out mightily.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Jazz pianist shows what he's made of

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut shared an keen understanding of jazz improvisation at a South County Jazz Club concert in Sarasota FL on Saturday, March 19: He called it "composition at a rapid pace with no erasers."

Cyrus Chestnut
Then for the next 90 minutes or so, he gave a dazzling display of the art form in a solo piano concert at the Glenridge Performing Arts Center. Chestnut crafted a series of extended improvisational gems built on or stretching five instrumental jazz classics, one classical piece, several songs from the Great American Songbook and a couple of gospel tunes. 

Whether he is playing actual gospel music or merely adding his own gospel feel to a variety of jazz standards, the genre is embedded in Chestnut's musical psyche. He began playing the piano at age 3, was performing in his family's church in Baltimore at 7 and by 9 was promoted to church pianist. 

Chestnut, now 53, has worked in a wide variety of bands over the past three decades and led his own trio. But he said he gets a particular thrill from performing without any accompaniment: "You really find out what you're made of when you strip it all away and do it yourself."

The result was musical risk taking at its finest. Most every tune he selected was reworked with teasing introductions and extensions, as well as clever chordal and melodic twists - all of that delivered with contrasting thunder and delicacy.

His take on "Polkadots and Moonbeams" included a dalliance with the distinctive melody from "Think!," better known as the theme music to TV's "Jeopardy!" game show. "Jeopardy!" creator Merv Griffin originally wrote it as a lullaby for his son.

Other gems included Chestnut's interpretations of "The Old Rugged Cross,"  a blues and gospel-drenched version of vibes player Milt Jackson's "Bag's Groove," Charlie Parker's bebop standard "Yardbird Suite" and pianist Ray Bryant's "Tonk," which the composer named after a card game he used to play.

The finest moment was Chestnut's teasing, twisting take on the jazz classic "Body and Soul." As he dug deep into various aspects of the tune, he barely hinted at the melody until the end. It became a puzzle to keep the audience guessing - until the pianist dropped in the final few pieces. Even Chestnut was amazed by what the process revealed. "I just played 'Body and Soul' like I've never played it before in my life," he said

Chestnut's performance earned him a standing ovation. But he had little time to savor it, flying well before dawn to perform Sunday at the 2016 Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Harry Allen - Part B

It was most fitting that the South County Jazz Club featured tenor saxophonist Harry Allen on Tuesday, March 15 at a free concert to thank members for their support over the past five years. Allen was the first big-name jazz artist presented in the club's inaugural season when he appeared with guitarist Nate Najar.
Allen, Kilgore

This latest event, held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Venice, featured Allen with his New York-based band (pianist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Kevin Kanner), plus singer Rebecca Kilgore as special guest. It was the final night of a five-concert Florida tour that included stops in Avon Park, Vero Beach, St. Petersburg and Port Charlotte.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Saxophonist's "A Team" delivers a night filled with musical gems

A touring jazz saxophonist's lot often means solitary travel to a distant city or country- and working with a local or regional rhythm section with whom they may or may not be familiar.
Harry Allen, Rebecca Kilgore

The fine swing tenor Harry Allen had none of that uncertainty for his March 14 appearance in the Charlotte County Jazz Society's concert series. Allen brought his own New York-based band to Port Charlotte as part of a five-concert Florida tour. His ace rhythm section included the superb pianist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Kevin Kanner. He also shared the spotlight with a special guest, Portland, Oregon-based singer Rebecca Kilgore.

Friday, March 11, 2016

A jazz trombonist who thrives in her two worlds

Louise Wilson
Pianist Mac Chrupcala's quartet concert on Thursday, March 10, in the South County Jazz Club's matinee series at the Venice Art Center introduced most in the room to a new face on the Southwest Florida jazz scene.

Trombonist Louise Wilson is spending the winter and a good chunk of the spring on the Gulf Coast. This snowbird is making the most of her playing opportunities until she and her husband head back to Colorado in May.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Newport's jazz beat keeps rolling on....

George Wein
Producer George Wein and his team make a big splash in January when they announce the lineup for the Newport Jazz Festival, long considered the granddaddy of outdoor music festivals. But it was only a tease in some ways. Read on.

The 2016 edition, scheduled July 29-31, has a vast array of talent, including Chick Corea's all-star trio, singers Gregory Porter, Tierney Sutton (festival debut), Jose James and Angelique Kidjo; saxophonists Charles Lloyd, Donny McCaslin and Kamasi Washington (debut); pianists Toshiko Akiyoshi, Kenny Barron, Sullivan Fortner (debut), Robert Glasper and Rossano Sportiello (debut); the bands The Bad Plus, Galactic (debut), Kneebody, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, the John Scofield/Joe Lovano Quintet, and the Chris Potter-Dave Holland-Lionel Loueke-Eric Harland Supergroup; among many others. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a look at new CD releases by Greg Abate & Phil Woods, Acme Jazz Garage, Lisa Hilton, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and Matt Kane…