Friday, June 18, 2021

Back to The Barrel Room

What a night it was in downtown Fort Myers FL. Thursday evening, June 17, was just the second time back on stage at The Barrel Room at Twisted Vine Bistro for the Dan Miller-Lew Del Gatto Quartet.

Dan Miller, Brandon Robertson
Lew Del Gatto
The band has been featured at the venue every Thursday night for the past five years – except for a 15-month pandemic lull that ended last week. Thanks to vaccinations, a mask or two spotted in the full house, and a need to return to jazz normalcy, the regulars were enthusiastic and the band responded in kind. And, as always, there were a few surprises. You can never be sure who will sit in with the quartet, which features Miller on trumpet, Saturday Night Live alumn Del Gatto on tenor sax, bassist Brandon Robertson and hard-swinging drummer Tony Vigilante.

Rupert and Hino join the band
Tenor saxophonist Jeff Rupert, who heads the jazz studies program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino, who spends a lot of the year living in Southwest Florida, joined them midway through the first set. Tenor player Gerald Augustin and trumpeter Bill Dowling expanded the band further in the second set.

Jeff Rupert, Terumasa Hino
Tony Vigilante
The wide-ranging, principally bop evening featured distinctive solos from each of them, as they explored material from Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and others. A bit of the classical world was borrowed when they dug into Ferde Grofé’s “On The Trail,” which saxophonists Jackie McLean and Dexter Gordon brought into the jazz canon on their 1973 recording The Meeting (SteepleChase).

Favorite moments

  • A first set Jazz at the Philharmonic-style ballad medley, which has become a weekly staple with each of the horn players played a different ballad over the constant rhythm. On this night, Hino began with “Stella By Starlight,” Del Gatto picked up with “I Can’t Get Started,” Rupert added “Nancy With the Laughing Face” and Miller brought it to a close with “Embraceable You.” Each soloist dug deep into the melody and the meaning to bring out new facets to the music. It was nothing short of gorgeous.
  • The band’s take on Dameron’s jazz classic “On a Misty Night,” which the trumpeter based on the chord changes to “September in the Rain.”

Bill Dowling
Gerald Augustin
There was heat and fire as well, particularly on Miles Davis’s “Blues by Five,” Dizzy’s “Birk’s Works” and Kenny Dorham’s classic “Prince Albert.”

Welcome back to strong jazz in an intimate club setting.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The winding road back to jazz normalcy

The journey back to jazz festivals performed to live audiences has many different approaches. No matter which on-ramp you choose, normalcy, as we know it after the extended pandemic pause, appears to be a year away.

Let’s look at some of the ways that festivals organizations, working with government health officials, are bringing their events back this season. Most have reduced capacity, fewer stages, fewer artists, and shorter hours than in the past. Social distancing and other good-health protocols are the norm in most cases.

Charles Lloyd
  • Newport: In its online presence and press releases, the granddaddy of jazz festivals has been using the wording “Newport Jazz 2021” and “Newport Jazz Presents.” They’ve avoided calling this year’s July 30-August 1 weekend “the Newport Jazz Festival” though many of us will continue to do so out of habit or tradition. The rationale: they have limited attendance to 50% of the usual 10,000 per-day capacity at Fort Adams State Park, dropped from four to two stages (the main Fort Stage and Quad Stage) and cut the number of acts from about 50 to twenty-something, so it may not feel the same as recent full-blown festivals. Headliners include Charles Lloyd, Wynton Marsalis, Mavis Staples, Trombone Shorty, artist-in-residence Robert Glasper, Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science, Ledisi’s Nina Simone project, Chris Potter and Andra Day. There will be no Friday night event at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The Newport Jazz Festival expects to return to its full scale in 2022.
  • Freihofer’s Jazz Festival: This event at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs NY usually has a lawn full of people, two stages (the ampitheater and the more-intimate daytime gazebo stage up the hill. This time out, June 26-27, the festival has reduced its hours and cut the lineup to four bands per day, all on the main stage. With capacity limited to 20 percent inside the 5,200-seat shed, about 200 of the 4,000 unused fixed seats are being removed to create more access points - so people don’t have to crawl over each other to get to their assigned seats. Socially distanced “pods” are being marked for the lawn seating. Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Joey Alexander and Hot Club of Saratoga perform on Saturday; Cécile McLorin Salvant, Al Di Meola, the all-woman superband Artemis and Garland Nelson’s Joyful Noise on Sunday. 
    Robert Glasper
  • Telluride Jazz Festival: This longstanding festival in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains runs August 13-15. There will be a “hybrid venue” layout in Telluride Town Park – with socially distanced pods for those who want them, as well as general open area for those who feel comfortable with it. Organizers are maintaining the full attendance capacity of past yearss – by doubling the size of the site space. This year’s headliners include Robert Glasper, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Galactic.
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • Labor Day Weekend: There will be no Chicago Jazz Festival in Grant Park this year. The Detroit international Jazz Festival hasn’t announced yet whether its 2021 event will be streamed to a virtual audience, as it was last year, or have live audiences. The lineup includes Dee Dee Bridgewater, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron, Abdullah Ibrahim, Gregory Porter, Anat Cohen, Sean Jones, Kenny Garrett, and The Brubeck Brothers.
  • Monterey Jazz Festival: There will be a greatly reduced footprint for this popular September 24-26 northern California event at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. Instead of eight stages scattered throughout the 20-acre site, performances will be limited to the main stage, the Jimmy Lyons Stage in the Arena, with a 50% audience capacity. Headliners include George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science, artist-in-residence Christian Sands, and Pat Metheny’s Side-Eye project.
  • New Orleans
    New Orleans #1
    : Shifts from spring to fall. The French Quarter Festival was moved from April to a September 30-October 2 run in the funky New Orleans neighborhood it has called home since 1984. More than 200 performances are scheduled on 19 stages. Headliners include Tank & The Bangas, Irma Thomas, the Soul Rebels, Kermit Ruffins and Rickie Lee Jones. The festival has eliminated some stages to improve crowd circulation and potential distancing, and will adhere to health guidelines require at the time. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival moved from the traditional late April-early May weekends to an October 8-17 schedule. No details have been announced yet on its lineup, staging and any capacity changes at JazzFest’s sprawling 75-acre Fairgrounds Race Track site. Satchmo SummerFest, scheduled July 31-August 1, has established capacity limits and requires attendee registration in advance or before entering the gates..

Thursday, May 13, 2021

A Year Off? You'd Never Know It.

The Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra capped its socially-distanced 2020-21 season at Artis-Naples on Wednesday, May 12 with a concert that featured singer Denise Donatelli. With strong support from the venue’s resident jazz sextet (with an added special guest), it showcased the Los Angeles-based singer’s superb no-frills vocal artistry.

Denise Donatelli
“Thanks for bringing me to Naples. Thanks for getting me out of the house,” Donatelli told band and the masked audience scattered throughout Hayes Hall. This was her first live concert gig in more than a year, but there was no rust in evidence. None at all.

Donatelli sings in service to the song and the lyrics. No vocal gymnastics. No needless scatting. None of the artifice or theatrics sometimes found in the cabaret world. This is a good thing. Her timing, her phrasing and her innate sense of swing were on full display and fit hand-in-glove with the band’s instrumental support.

Donatelli, Hart, Del Gatto
The NPJO includes tenor saxophonist and artistic director Lew Del Gatto, trumpeter Dan Miller, violinist Glenn Basham, pianist Jerry Stawski, bassist Kevin Mauldin and drummer Mike Harvey. For this performance, because several of Donatelli’s recent recordings have included a guitarist, they were joined by John Hart. A New York jazz scene mainstay for several decades with extensive experience backing singers, Hart is now a guitar lecturer at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. He fit right in with this high-powered band.

John Hart, Kevin Mauldin
They swung hard right out of the gate with a 10-tune program that included “That Old Devil Moon,” “All or Nothing At All,” “When Lights Are Low,” “You Stepped Out of a Dream” (Donatelli remarking that singing in front of a live audience again indeed felt like a dream), Burt Bacharach’s “A House is not a Home” and “My Shining Hour.” Other fine choices scattered through the program from Donatelli’s wide-ranging repertoire included Gigi Gryce’s “Social Call” (with Jon Hendricks lyrics), The Crusaders/Bill Withers hit “Soul Shadows,” and jazz arrangements of Sting’s 2013 song “Practical Arrangement” (with the horns sitting out), and Joni Mitchell’s most appropriate “Be Cool.” 

The instrumentalists were featured with strong solo moments throughout the evening. Basham was showcased on “Social Call,” Hart on “When Lights are Low,” Miller on the poignant “You Stepped Out of a Dream.” Del Gatto, a thoughtful soloist who never plays an unnecessary note, was featured on “That Old Devil Moon” and “A House is not a Home.”

Stawski, Hart, Mauldin, Donatelli, Harvey
Because of the pandemic, the NPJO moved its series from the cozier 275-seat Daniels Pavilion to the 1,700-seat Hayes Hall performance hall next door, with limited seating and mandatory masking. Next season, they hope to bring in several scheduled special guests who were unable to make the series this year. They include alto saxophonist Charles McPherson and singer Kenny Washington.

Donatelli and Hart with the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a closer look at CDs by Greg Abate, Gabriel Alegria, Bruce Brown, and The 14 Jazz Orchestra.

Greg Abate, MagicDance: the Music of Kenny Barron (Whaling City Sound)

Saxophonist Greg Abate, best known for his alto prowess, adds tenor, soprano and baritone saxes, and flute, to this excellent project in an adventurous way. This two-CD project features Abate performing 14 wide-ranging tunes composed by jazz great Kenny Barron, with a trio featuring Barron on piano, Dezron Douglas on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. 

Half of the tunes feature the leader on just one horn apiece, for example, flute on the genteel ballad “Water Lily,” soprano on “Sonia Braga” from Barron’s 2012 Brazilian Knights project, and tenor on the lively opener “Sunshower” and the pensive beauty “Rain.” After the three-day studio session last September, Abate added tasteful overdubs on the remaining tunes, pairing alto and tenor on “Golden Lotus” and “Lemuria,” flute and alto on “Cook’s Bay,” then alto and bari on the closer, “And Then Again.” 

The most ambitious was Abate’s treatment on two of Barron’s best-known compositions, His overdubbing created a full big-band sax section as he explored “Innocence” and “Voyage,” soloing on soprano and alto respectively. As a result, we get to hear rich riffs, interlude melodies and harmonies that reveal rich new facets that underscore Barron’s compositional prowess. And how great it is that Barron was along for the ride.

Gabriel Alegria Afro-Peruvian Sextet, Social Distancing (Saponegro)

Peruvian-born trumpeter Gabriel Alegria pretty much nailed the Impact of the year 2020 on his sextet’s newest project Social Distancing¸which is subtitled Coming Together While Apart. The music reflects the varied spirits of much that transpired last year, from the impact of the pandemic to the bubbling issue of social justice. The core is “Social Distancing,” a four-part suite that captures a wide range of musical emotion. The suite includes Covid 19” (featuring special guest Russell Ferrante on keyboard), “The Mask,” “George and Breonna” (written about the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor” killings) and “The New Normal.”

The sextet includes drummer Hugo Alcázar, percussionist Freddy "Huevito" Lobatón, bassist Mario Cuba, acoustic guitarist Yuri Juárez, and saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía. The latter’s originals, “Any Day Now” and “Amaranta” are beautiful and uplifting. The CD opens with an English language version of poet Kitty O’Meara’s hopeful work “And the People Stayed Home” – and closes with her narrating it in Spanish. It sure sets the tone for the full recording, which ranges in mood from chaos to calm. In his brief notes, Alegria writes that “every sound and rhythm on this album is an attempt to guide you safely away from the confusion of the 2020 pandemic.” It does that – and much more.

Bruce Brown, Death of Expertise (Triangle7) 

Singer-songwriter Bruce Brown’s work has the quirkiness, wry humor and social commentary associated with Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg. And it is on full display here. The Los Angeles native, who has called Wellington, New Zealand home for the past 22 years, uses clever lyrics to tackle the foibles of modern life in an age overly consumed by the internet, the need for determination and positivity, the solace of music – and every emotion in between. The titles set the tone: Favorite gems: “Find Three Things to be Grateful For,” “A Mind is a Terrible Thing” (when it betrays you), “Back in the Day,” “We Click,” “Losers are People Too” and the uplifting spirit of “The Music Plays Again.” Then there’s the wry rhyming sarcasm of “Doreen.” Brown’s backing sextet gives him very fine support.

The 14 Jazz Orchestra, Cartoon Bebop (Dabon Music)

You won’t hear Dan Bonsanti on his trusty saxophone here, but you will hear the depth and breadth of his skills as a bandleader, composer and arranger in a project showcasing his South Florida-based ensemble, the 14 Jazz Orchestra. This time out, because of the pandemic, Bonsanti cast a wider net to include players who had home studios. Each instrumental part was recorded separately, and engineer Mike Levine pulled the tracks together in a way that sounds like all the players were together in the same studio. With a variety of substitutions and special guests (drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Mark Egan, and guitarists Randy Bernsen and Lindsey Blair), the little big band includes a rotation of 25 musicians on this latest project.

Now to the wide-ranging music. Bonsanti penned the opening and closing tracks, and arranged the nine others for his ensemble. The opening title track is built around the melody and sprightly flavor of cartoon theme music. There’s a bit of the “Theme from Rocky and Bullwinkle,” but your ears may also pick up hints of “The Jetsons.” Miami saxophone stalwart Ed Calle is the primary featured soloist on more than half of the tracks. He adds much, particularly to the band’s takes on Chick Corea’s “Got a Match?” and “Duende,” Leslie Bricusse’s “When I Look in Your Eyes” (from the movie “Dr. Doolittle”), and the closer, Bonsanti’s rollicking “A Day Tripper’s Blues Buffet.” Trumpeter Cisco Dimas dominates the band’s take on Airto Moreira’s “Misturada.” Guitarist  Bernsen solos on a beautiful exploration of Wayne Shorter’s epic ballad “Infant Eyes.” Calle, guitarist Blair and keyboardist Mike Levine are featured on Bonsanti’s teasing arrangement of Stanley Clarke’s funky “Dayride.”

Friday, May 7, 2021

La Lucha plus one

The last time La Lucha played Port Charlotte FL, on June 14, 2019, the Tampa Bay-area jazz trio tore up the house, so to speak, at JD's Bistro. Since then, the restaurant has changed ownership and its name, but its commitment to music excellence continues.

On Thursday, May 6, La Lucha returned to the venue, now the Grill at 1951, with a special guest in tow. Pianist John O'Leary. bassist Alejandro Arenas and drummer Mark Feinman were joined by Barcelona-born singer Ona Kirei. She works with La Lucha on a semi-regular basis - either as a group, or in collaboration with individual members as the need arises.

Their simpatico was on full display through a wide range of jazz and Latin jazz material.

Here are some images from the night's performance. 

Ona Kirei  
John O'Leary 
John O'Leary, Alejandro Arenas, Ona Kirei, Mark Feinman

La Lucha is a trio not to be missed in any context. They were the house rhythm section for the 2019 Sarasota Jazz Festival and were scheduled for the same duty in 2020, until the Jazz Club of Sarasota pulled the plug on that year's concerts due to the pandemic.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Glimmers of hope, turning a corner

This 2021 edition of Jazz Appreciation Month underscored the notion that we can’t take the music or its makers for granted. Especially after the past year: clubs shuttered temporarily or permanently, or forced to present music to their supporters virtually via webcasts because of limited or no live audiences. Musicians without steady gigs or, in some cases, any gigs for over a year. Or others performing from their living rooms, stoops, driveways and public parks to keep their chops – and sanity – hoping for support from real or virtual tip jars. The tragic number of jazz musicians and industry figures felled by COVID-19 reached at least 90 and still counting.

But there are glimmers of hope, of turning the corner. Some concerts and restaurant gigs have returned with a clear focus on social distancing, masks and other pandemic protocols.

One of those good news stories occurred this past weekend in Savannah GA, when the city’s premier venue, Good Times Jazz Bar & Restaurant, reopened after a total shutdown that lasted more than 12 months.

Owners Stephen and Danielle Moore opened Good Times in 2017. It offered dining and live Tuesday through Sunday nights, plus a gospel brunch on Sundays. That was before COVID-19 struck. Rather than risk any viral impact on guests, employees or their relatives, executive chef and jazz fan Joe Randall locked the doors of the downtown venue on busy West Broughton Street in late March 2020.

Good news, Good Times

Good Times reopened to the public last week on Friday, April 23. Re-opening Weekend featured three nights of performances by groupings of the Good Times All-Stars, fine local musicians who have been part of its music core. They included trombonist and educator Teddy Adams, who helps Randall book the music, and also co-leads the Savannah Jazz Orchestra; singer Cynthia Utterbach; saxophonist Calvin Barnes; pianists Erez Dessel and Eric Jones; bassist Marc Chesanow; and drummers Aaron Jennings and Robert Saunders.

“It was wonderful,” Randall says. “We had full houses for most shows, including sellouts for Saturday night and the Sunday brunch. People missed us, and they told us they were happy to be here. They wanted to get out to hear live jazz for so long - but had nowhere to go.” 

Adams said if the first weekend was indicative of things to come, he's optimistic about the future - and pleased for the musicians. Prior to the reopening, he only played twice since last September. "Everybody suffered," Adams said. "Some guys have found some work, some got into streaming, but everybody was fending for themselves. Now it is slowly returning to normal."

Adams said he tries to bring in regionally or nationally known musicians to Good Times about once a month. His first two offerings will be trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and singer Carmen Bradford on the schedule.

Randall has pared  the restaurant’s schedule to four days and nights for the time being. He said Good Times will operate Thursdays through Sundays for at least the next two months, perhaps even longer. Strict masking protocols are in place.

Yes, musical good times are coming back to artsy Savannah, which has a rich jazz history to supplement the cobblestone streets and 18th century colonial charm of its historic landmark district. It is the birthplace of composer and lyricist Johnny Mercer, saxophonists James Moody and Sahib Shihab, singers Connie Haines and Irene Reid, trombonist Trummy Young, and drummers Big Black and Ben Riley.