Saturday, August 18, 2018

A lyrical legacy endures

Johnny Mercer's imprint is all over The Great American Songbook. He's best known for writing the lyrics to more than a thousand songs - for Broadway, for Tin Pan Alley, for film, and for pop singers.

Johnny Mercer's imprint also is all over Savannah, GA., the verdant and historic city where he was born. Any place live music is performed, Mercer's material seeps out at listeners. 

You might even hear "Moon River" a few times a night at a piano bar or restaurant. (The tune, with music by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Mercer, won Grammy and Academy Awards in 1962). Heck, there's even a brew pub in Savannah named after the song, which premiered in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's.

A sculpture of Johnny Mercer, leaning on a fire hydrant reading a newspaper, was unveiled on November 18, 2009, which would have been his 100th birthday.

The life-size tribute, at the edge of Ellis Square, is just a stone's throw away from artist Susie Chisholm's studio in the city's arts-vibrant City Market area. Galleries and studios abound, including one featuring A.J. Seidl's jazz-themed paintings. 

Mercer's most frequent collaborators over this career included composers Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Henry Mancini and, in his later years, Barry Manilow.

He was a lyric genius. Tunes with his imprint included "Skylark," "The Midnight Sun," "Early Autumn," "Tangerine," "Satin Doll," "And When October Goes" and "One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)." Mercer penned both music and lyrics for "Dream" and "Something's Gotta Give," among others.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sunny and sultry weather blend with hot music for Newport Jazz Festival's 2018 finale

The scheduling gods complicated my 38th annual visit to the Newport Jazz Festival and/or Newport Folk Festival. It meant I was only able to attend on Sunday, August 5, covering the jazz event for JazzTimes

But the schedule turned out to be fortuitous. Saturday's monsoon-like intense rain and resulting mudfest (yes, the music went on), gave way to a humid day with brilliant sunshine and a wide range of hot music.

Favorite acts, caught during and after photo-pit dashes between the three outdoor stages and the club-like indoor Storyville venue, included several all-woman bands, some contemporary advances on the bebop tradition, and two fine singers: festival veteran Gregory Porter and newcomer Jazzmeia Horn.

Of particular note: 

The septet Artemis was named after the Greek goddess of the hunt, a daughter of
Artemis' Aldana, Cohen, Jensen
Black Art Jazz Collective
Zeus and sister of Apollo. This all-woman super band teams reed players Anat Cohen and Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist/musical director Renee Rosnes, bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller and singer Cécile McLorin Salvant.The band crackled with energy and fine music including its romp through Rosnes' original "Galapagos." This main stage set (was Aldana's long-overdue Newport debut. She won the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition five years ago. 

The Black Art Jazz Collective brought its modern bop sound to the nearby Harbor Stage. The band featured saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, trombonist James Burton III, pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Johnathan Blake. 

Toronto-based soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett blended
Jane Bunnett & Maqueque
jazz and Afro-Cuban music with her sextet Maquegue. The five other musicians are women from Cuba: pianist Danae Olano, bassist Celia Jimenez, percussionist Mary Paz, drummer Naile Sosa andlead singer Melvis Santa. This one was tropically hot.

Another fine Cuban band opened the Quad Stage on Sunday. Pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa's trio included bassist Gaston Joya and the leader's brother, Ruy Lopez-Nussa, on drums. Lopez-Nussa is more of a modernist, putting a fresh spin on the Cuban music and jazz intersect.

Drummer Herlin Riley's New York-Havana Connection quintet opened the main stage on Sunday morning. Riley began his set with a solo on a conch shell, it's deep horn-like sound emulating those carried by some of the ships anchored yards offshore in Newport Harbor.

Charles Lloyd
The three-day festival included different lineups each day led by saxophonist Charles Lloyd as a celebration of his 80th birth year. Sunday's Lloyd finale included his "Charles Lloyd & Friends" band with pianist Jason Moran, guitarists Stuart Mathis and Marvin Sewell, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland and singer Lucinda Williams.

They came by land and sea

The many other Sunday acts included England's GoGo Penguin trio, pianists Bill Charlap and Helen Sung, saxophonist James Carter's organ trio, flutist Nicole Mitchell's Dusty Wings and the crowd-drawing closer, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic.

Natixis Investment Managers is the festival's presenting sponsor.

Festival founding producer George Wein, now 92, continues to put his stamp of approval on the event. He created a Newport Festivals Foundation several years ago to ensure these storied jazz and folk festival outlive him. Bassist Christian McBride is the Newport Jazz Festival's artistic director.

Earlier this month, the state and the foundation unveiled an agreement to continue the festivals for at least 25 years at Fort Adams State Park, its picturesque home since 1981. The foundation also signed a 40-year lease to transform the former Museum of Yachting, a brick building now housing the Storyville stage, into a festivals museum.    

I'll post more photos from Newport as time permits.                            

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Music for troubled times

There is a grand tradition of jazz being a social commentary music when needed. Consider the Louis Armstrong-Dave and Iola Brubeck-Carmen McRae and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross collaboration on the "The Real Ambassadors project in 1961. Or "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite" with the drummer's then-wife Abbey Lincoln.
Dave Brubeck

Susan Brink
Over the years, there have been quite a few more. Fellow Jazz Journalists Association member and broadcaster Susan Brink put together a keen playlist for her Jazz Sanctuary program that aired last night, Monday, July 16, on WOOC 105.3 FM in Troy NY, where she is jazz music director.

Susan came up with some gems, before noting that she "wasn't sure what goes well with treason" - in the aftermath of the Helsinki "summit." I particularly liked the inclusion of the Dred Scott Trio's "This Ain't No Russian Novel, Baby" and Betty Carter's "Please Do Something." 

Here's a link to her July 16 program.

Check it out, and think hard about the list. Doubtless, it may trigger some other choices of your own given the state of affairs today.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

CDs of Note – Short Takes

Taking a look at new CDs by Mica Bethea, Alexis Cole & One For All, Fernando García, Jeff Hamilton, Ken Peplowski and Akira Tana…

Mica Bethea Big Band, Suite Theory (self-produced)
Floridian Mica Bethea has joined the ranks of the jazz world’s finest contemporary big band composers. His prior two CDs, 2011’s The Mica Bethea Big Band and last year’s Stage ’N Studio, revealed facets of his prowess. This newest, all-original project, Suite Theory, is a four-part extended composition that amounts to a musical autobiography.

The first section, “Crystal Clear,” bubbles with the energetic, carefree time of his first 21 years. The second movement, “Destiny’s Boat,” reflects the depression and new reality that occurred after he woke up from a traffic accident that left him a quadriplegic. A speeding big rig plowed into his car as he was driving back to the University of North Florida after visiting his family. The third movement, “Meniscus,” reflects the healing that occurred as he figured out how to put his life back together. The final movement, “Guardian of Forever,” is all about moving forward. “Crystal Clear” and “Destiny’s Boat” showcase trombonist Michael Dease and saxophonist Todd Giudice respectively. Del Giudice played two very different tenor solos on the band’s two takes on “Destiny’s Boat.” Bethea like both so much that he included the alternate take.

Alexis Cole with One For All, You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To (Venus) 
2018 brought the U.S. release of singer Alexis Cole’s splendid collaboration with the modern bop sextet One For All. This is the only recording that the New York-based instrumental collective has made with a singer since it was formed back in 1997. The material here is all about different facets of love and romance. Cole’s impeccable delivery can be torchy or it can be cool, depending on the mood of each song. The band - tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, trumpeter Jim Rotondi, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist David Hazeltine, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth – brought much to the project both as players and arrangers. Favorite tracks: “Delilah,” “Moon River,” “Cry Me a River” and “You’ve Changed.”

Fernando García, Guasábara Puerto Rico (Zoho) 
Drummer Fernando Garcia blends jazz and the traditional rhythms of his native Puerto Rico on this, his third recording as a leader. The result is a musically intoxicating session by his young band, which includes saxophonist Jan Klus, pianist Gabriel Chakarji, bassist Dan Martinez, guitarist Gabriel Vicéns and Latin percussionist Victor Pablo. Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón joins on the title track. Favorites: “Healing Prayer,” “Guaynabo Mi Tambor” and the grooving closer, “Tiempo,” which features terrific solos from Chakarji, Kus and Garcia.

Jeff Hamilton Trio, Live From San Pedro (Capri) 
If you’ve been a big fan of Oscar Peterson’s trio sound over the years, you’ll dig this one from drummer Jeff Hamilton’s longstanding trio with pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty. They’re carrying on the great jazz trio tradition in their own way – and have been doing so for more than 17 years. It’s loaded with power and finesse as each tune requires – and it swings mightily. They recorded this one at Alvas Showroom in San Pedro CA last year. Standout tracks including the Peterson-influenced “Sybille’s Day,” a swinging update of Ahmad Jamal’s classic take on “Poinciana,” a lush take on the Broadway show tune “I Have Dreamed” (from “The King and I”) with Luty’s bowed bass intro setting the table, and “Bennissimo,” Hendelman’s sprightly tribute to fellow pianist Benny Green. This concert recording is a gem from start to finish.

The Ken Peplowski Big Band, Sunrise (Arbors)
Clarinetist Ken Peplowski assembled the cream of the crop of mainstream swing players for this big band session. There’s a fine mix of Great American Songbook material, some Braziliana, some bebop, a couple of Duke Ellington tunes, and even something from the Walt Disney songbook (“When You Wish Upon a Star” from the 1950 movie Pinocchio) – all featuring superb big-band arrangements. Peplowski’s clarinet work gets most prominence here – showcasing his instrumental mastery and clever ideas. There are also fine moments from his bandmates, including saxophonist Adrian Cunningham on Sonny Stitt’s hard-driving bop classic “The Eternal Triangle,” Cunningham and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso on the gorgeous but under-recorded Ellington composition “I Like the Sunrise” (hence the CD title),m and alto saxophonist Jon Gordon on “Come Back to Me.” The real treat here is “Clarinet in Springtime.” Alex Wilder wrote and arranged it in the early 1940s for Benny Goodman, but it had ever been played or recorded by Goodman or anyone else until now.

Akira Tana, JAZZaNOVA (Vega) 
Drummer Akira Tana has a winner here. He brought together some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best Latin/Brazilian jazz players and singers for a session celebrating the Brazilian side of the jazz world. He added saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval as special guests on four and six tracks respectively. Singers Claudio Amaral and Claudio Villela team up for a lush duet on Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco” with backing from Sandoval. Carla Hembrecht is featured with Marsalis on the band’s sultry take on Ivan Lins’ “Love Dance” and with Sandoval on Jobim’s classic bossa nova “Corcovado.” “Chega de Saudade” (No More Blues) teams singers Jackie Ryan and Maria Volonté. Sandy Cressman’s take on Lins’ “Bilhete” features a duet-like soprano sax solo from Marsalis.

Marsalis’s soprano is featured beautifully on the Toninho Horta ballad “Waiting for Angela” with a bit of wordless vocals from Villella complementing his horn work. The band steps away from the Brazilian mode for the closer. “La Gloria Eres Tú” teams Volonté - a master of Argentinian tango - with Sandoval on both trumpet and vocals in a tribute to Mexican music superstar Luis Miguel. Tana’s fine band includes keyboard player Peter Horvath, Rio-born guitarist Ricardo Peixoto, bassist Gary Brown and percussionist Michael Spiro. There is much here to enjoy.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

2018's Newport Jazz Festival juggle nears

The 2018 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival's three-day music marathon has quite the lineup in store at Fort Adams State Park August 3-5  With all sizes of ensembles and a range of mostly jazz styles, the event offers more than 60 musical groups on its four stages.

Charles Lloyd
Tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd turned 80 in March - and that significant birthday celebration will continue at Newport, where he will be featured with a different group each day. On Friday, he appears with his Sangam trio with tabla player Zakir Hussain and drummer Eric Harland. Saturday features Lloyd's New Quartet with pianist Jason Moran, bassist Ruben Rogers and Harland. Lloyd wraps up the birthday fete on Sunday with his Americana-styled band with singer Lucinda Williams, guitarists Marvin Sewall and Stuart Mathis, Moran, Rogers and Harland.

Every day's lineup is strong and diverse, all of them featuring both Newport regulars and artists making their debut in 2018. Guitarist Pat Metheny's quartet and singer Jose James' Bill Withers tribute project perform at Newport Casino/the International Tennis Hall of Fame in the upscale Friday night opener and again on Saturday at Fort Adams.

But I want to take a closer look at the offerings on Sunday, August 5, which is the one day I'll be able to attend this year. This will be the 38th straight year that I've been in Newport to write about and photograph the Jazz and/or Folk Festivals since 1981. That's when founding producer George Wein brought the event back to the resort city after a 10-year absence.
Cecile McLorin Salvant

Sunday's lineup includes the aforementioned Charles Lloyd & Friends, singers Gregory Porter and Jazzmeia Horn, who is making her Newport debut. Horn won 2015's Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition and the so-called Sassy Award at 2013's Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition. Saxophonist Melissa Aldana, the first female instrumental winner of the Monk Competition, back in 2013, makes her Newport debut as part of Artemis, an all-female band with singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, pianist Renee Rosnes, reed player Anat Cohen, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Allison Miller. A powerhouse group indeed.

Canadian soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett, back in Newport for the first time since 2002, appears with her all-woman sextet Maqueque, whose roster consists of Cuban singer/instrumentalists. Cuban pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa is also on the Newport bill with his trio.
Jeremy Pelt

While its members have appeared at Newport in a wide variety of different bands in past years, 2018 also marks the festival's debut for the Black Art Jazz Collective, which performs original music inspired by the lives and work of Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Du Bois and Barack Obama, among others. The band includes tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, drummer Johnathan Blake, bassist Vicente Archer, trombonist James Burton III and pianist Xavier Davis.

The Sunday lineup also includes George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, the British jazz trio GoGo Penguin, saxophonist James Carter's organ trio, flutist Nicole Mitchell's Dusty Wings project, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's Origami Harvest, drummer Nate Smith & Kinfolk, and the Massachusetts Jazz Educators Association big band led this day by Darcy James Argue. The latter's Secret Society, an 18-piece jazz orchestra, has been a frequent Newport visitor over the past decade.

The intimate indoor Storyville stage on Sunday will feature pianists Bill Charlap, Micah Thomas and Helen Sung; and two duos: trumpeter/vocalist Jennifer Hartswick & guitarist Nick Cassarino, and pianist Matthew Whitaker & bassist Jake Leckie.

 As always, there is much to enjoy and many artists to check out for the first time. Check out the Newport Jazz Festival website for the full daily lineups.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

CDs of Note – Short Takes

Taking a look at new CDs by Benjamin Boone & Philip Levine, Roxy Coss, E.J. Decker, Thomas Fonnesbæk & Justin Kauflin, the Benito Gonzalez-Gerry Gibbs-Essiet Okon Essiet trio, and Dave Tull…

Benjamin Boone & Philip Levine, The Poetry of Jazz (Origin) 
Jazz and poetry have had strong interconnections for many decades, including 1950s collaborations between bebop musicians and beat poets. More recently, there have been collaborations between former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and pianist Laurence Hobgood, as well as Amiri Baraka and saxophonist David Murray. The latest to emerge was last month’s release of The Poetry of Jazz, a collaboration between late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine and saxophonist/composer Benjamin Boone.

The recording was completed a year before Levine’s death in 2015. It features the former U.S. Poet Laureate reading 14 of his works to compositions and improvisations by Boone and his band. Most often, the musicians are adding appropriate accents, colors and responses to Levine’s vivid narration. Four of the works are jazz-inspired. They include poems written in homage to Sonny Rollins (“The Unknowable”), Clifford Brown (“I Remember Clifford”), John Coltrane (“Soloing”) and Charlie Parker (“Call It Music”), featuring Chris Potter, Tom Harrell, Branford Marsalis and Greg Osby respectively. The project was developed when Boone and Levine were fellow professors at Cal State-Fresno. This is a gem.

Roxy Coss, The Future is Female (Posi-Tone)
“The Future is Female” is not a tune on saxophonist and composer Roxy Coss’s new CD. It was the message on her sign at the Women’s March in January 2017. That initiative was the catalyst for the recording, which includes 10 originals musically exploring her perspective on the current state of feminism. Many of the titles, and the musical energy within those tunes, carry her own truths: including “Little Did She Know,” “She Needed a Hero, So That’s What She Became,” “Mr. President,” “#MeToo,” “Choices” and “Nasty Women Grab Back.” The latter was on her younger sister’s sign at the Women’s March. Favorite tracks: “Nevertheless , She Persisted,” “Females Are Strong as Hell” and “Feminist AF.” Coss’s band includes guitarist Alex Wintz, pianist Miki Yamanaka, bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jimmy McBride.” The synergy and conversational quality of the interchanges between Coss and Wintz make this one soar.
E. J. Decker, Bluer Than Velvet (Candela) 
Singer E.J. Decker’s newest CD pays tribute to the late, great jazz storyteller Arthur Prysock. Bluer Than Velvet includes 11 hit tunes that Prysock recorded during his career from the mid-1940s through the 1970, including “”Blue Velvet,” ”A Ghost of a Chance,” “September in the Rain” and “Since I Fell For You.” Decker added three more tunes that Prysock never recorded, but have the same feel as the late baritone’s material. They are Cole Porter’s “Why Can’t You Behave,” the Gershwin Brothers’ “He Loves and She Loves,” and Lerner and Loewe’s “On The Street Where You Live.” With superb backing from baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, guitarist Chris Bergson, trombonist Elizabeth Frascola, pianist Les Kurtz, bassist Saadi Zain and drummer Tom Melito, New Yorker Decker has carved out his own space in today’s jazz vocal genre – while also underscoring Prysock’s important contributions.

Thomas Fonnesbæk & Justin Kauflin, Synesthesia (Storyville) 
Jazz duo projects don’t get any better than this. Danish bassist Thomas Fonnesbæk and pianist Justin Kauflin recorded the session over two days in a Swedish studio. Some original material was composed in advance, while the two players developed others on the spot. Favorites include their explorations of Kauflin’s brooding “Lost,” Fonnesbæk’s mood-capturing “Panic Attack” and Oscar Peterson’s “Nigerian Marketplace.” The way they share the lead and support each other here is both exhilarating and beautiful. The title track “Synesthesia” is named after a neurological trait the two musicians have in common: seeing sounds as colors in their minds.

Benito Gonzalez, Gerry Gibbs, Essiet Okon Essiet, Passion Reverence Transcendence (Whaling City)  
On Passion Reverence Transcendence, Venezuelan-born pianist Benito Gonzalez, drummer, mallets player and producer Gerry Gibbs and bassist Essiet Okon Essiet celebrate the music of piano giant McCoy Tyner, who came to prominence in the John Coltrane quartet. This is loaded with the rolling-thunder energy that is a hallmark of Tyner’s overall sound. They perform nine of McCoy’s compositions, including the hard-driving “Fly With the Wind” and the more genteel “You Taught My Heart to Sing,” while Gonzalez adds a solo piano version of Coltrane’s “Naima.” The trio contributes three originals with a Tyneresque flavor: Essiet’s “Tyner/Train Express,” Gibbs’ “Between Friends” and Gonzalez’ spirited “Brazilian Girls.” If you dig Tyner, you’ll savor this heart-felt homage.

Dave Tull, Texting and Driving (Toy Car)
Drummer, singer and songwriter Dave Tull finds humor in ordinary things we often take for granted, or in social trends. With a zany twist of words, his good humor results in spirited jazz in the Dave Frishberg tradition. The title track is all about the over-dependence many of us have on our smartphones. Consider this lyric snippet: “I believe my seven followers on Instragram would like to see a photo of my every meal.” His rapid-fire delivery of social media bemusements is a clever way to underscore some of those absurdities.

Tull also tackles the subjects of dating, raising kids, and people who don’t get jazz but pretend they do (the latter on the hysterical “Clapping on One and Three”). There’s also a nifty duet with singer Cheryl Bentyne on “The Date.” He considers our daily lives from the viewpoint of a traffic signal that sees all on “The Stoplight at the End of the Street.” Top West Coast jazz musicians, including pianist Randy Porter, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Kevin Axt, trumpeters Wayne Bergeron and George Stone, and saxophonist Doug Webb, provide superb support here. The arrangements swing mightily.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Solo piano artistry - and then some

Pianist Bobby van Deusen is a master of the keyboard, blessed with an astonishing musical range in terms of genres, sound dynamics and sheer artistry. And those elements were all on display on Friday, April 20 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice.

The Philadelphia native, now based in the Florida Panhandle, is best known for his work in the ragtime, stride and Dixieland genres. But his reach goes much deeper and wider.

On this afternoon, he performed Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and lesser-known "Sunflower Slow Drag;" "The Last Date," written by his good friend Floyd Cramer, who was a first-call studio pianist in Memphis and Nashville; "Baubles, Bangles & Beads" from the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet (and soon recorded by Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra), and a stunning cover of "Take the A Train," inspired by Duke's 1978 70th birthday concert version at Carnegie Hall. 

The lively afternoon also included vocals and crowd sing-alongs on several popular standards, such as "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "King of the Road."

The powerhouse highlights included two George Gershwin tunes: "Our Love is Here to Stay," which was the last tune he wrote in his prolific career (and van Deusen's all-time favorite tune), and "Rhapsody in Blue." 

The concert gem was the first-set closer: van Deusen's 15-minutes-plus medley of the music from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera." It prompted a standing ovation.