Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Cape May weekend of jazz and blues

Twice a year for more than 15 years, Carol Stone and Woody Woodland and their team of supporters (as the nonprofit Friends of Cape May Jazz, Inc.) have been bringing jazz to Cape May, the Victorian resort city located at the tip of southern New Jersey. The event, held in early November and mid-April, is a great way to extend the tourist season in Cape May.

The 31st edition of their Cape May Jazz Festival was held last weekend with the most spectacular April weather of any of the many years I have attended.Most of the music was great as well. My review of the latest edition has been posted at along with two photos.

This may be the most unusual format for a festival that many of us will encounter. Its scattered venues over the years have ranged from the city's beachfront Convention Hall (closed for the past year due to structural issues but expected to be razed and rebuilt), a state-of-the-art performance center at the nearby high school, an assortment of hotel ballrooms and restaurants, and a block of restaurant/bars along Beach Avenue, the main drag.

Saturday afternoon jam sessions generally featuring top regional talent from New Jersey and the Philadelphia area are wildly popular. If you get there after the start, it is tough to get a seat or a table most years. Shuttle buses move attendees between various venues all night long.

The city has much to offer, with its great blend of beach and "boardwalk," an amazing array of Victorian gingerbread houses (many of them now B&Bs), interesting boutiques for those who love to blend jazz and shopping on their visits, and some wonderful restaurants.

My favorite place to dine is The Merion Inn, a historic and popular venue owned by Vicki Watson, who runs it with her significant other, the talented and wonderfully versatile pianist George Mesterhazy. (In the interest of full disclosure: George and I have been close friends since 1992.) When the former Shirley Horn accompanist isn't on the road with singer Paula West or another gig, he usually can be found playing his Steinway in the restaurant's lounge. In the last year, he has also added a weekly Thursday night jam session at the Merion that builds off his basic local trio.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The complete Newport lineup

George Wein has added a great variety of musicians to his lineup for the jazz festival in Newport in August, scheduled August 7-9 and called "George Wein's JAZZ FESTIVAL 55."

This will be the 55th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival's first edition back in 1954. And the Friday night opener, as usual, is at the Newport Casino (International Tennis Hall of Fame) site that was the festival's home in 1954.

The new additions include singer, MC, musician and actor Mos Def, the dynamic MC, Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin, singer Claudia Acuna, the Branford Marsalis Quartet and the Branford Marsalis-Joey Calderazzo duo, the Vandermark 5, and Rashied Ali-Charles Gayle-William Parker's "By Any Means.

Brian Blade and Christopher Thomas from The Brian Blade Fellowship, Newport 2008... >

Here is the full schedule as of today:
FRIDAY, AUGUST 7 - International Tennis Hall of Fame, 8 p.m.
Etta James and The Roots Band

SATURDAY, AUGUST 8 - Fort Adams State Park, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Mos Def; Branford Marsalis Quartet; Joshua Redman Double Trio; Esperanza Spalding; Cedar Walton All-Stars with Lew Tabackin & Curtis Fuller; Hiromi's SonicBloom; Vandermark 5; Christian McBride; Vijay Iyer Trio; Miguel Zenón Quartet, North Carolina Central Big Band, Branford Marsalis-Joey Calderazzo duo, Claudia Acuña.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 9 - Fort Adams State Park. 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Tony Bennett; Dave Brubeck Quartet; Roy Haynes' Fountain of Youth Band; Michel Camilo; Joe Lovano's Us Five; The Bad Plus with singer Wendy Lewis; Ernest Ranglin;Conversations with Christian McBride; Millennial Territory Orchestra; Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band; Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition; Rashied Ali-Charles Gayle-William Parker's "By Any Means;" Afredo Rodriguez; The Rodriguez Brothers.

Tickets for the Fort Adams events go on sale tomorrow. Tickets for the Etta James performance go on sale May 13.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Wein's Newport return clears final hurdle

George Wein's Newport return this summer to produce jazz and folk festivals in the city where his festival legacy began has cleared its final hurdle.

The Newport City Council gave Wein permission in a 5-0 vote last Thursday evening to produce his two events after the apparent demise of Festival Network LLC, the upstart company that bought his Festival Productions Inc. two years ago then ran its expanded enterprise into the ground. At least that's how it appears, with word the company lost millions last year and still has vendors waiting for funds they are owed.

Wein's new firm, which is having nothing to do with FN, is called New Festival Productions, LLC. Tickets go on sale this Thursday for the 55th anniversary event of the jazz festival and on May 6 for the 50th anniversary edition of the folk festival. Each festival will include two full days of music on three stages at Fort Adams State Park and a Friday evening concert at Newport Casino, home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Confirmed artists for "George Wein's JAZZ FESTIVAL 55" August 7 to 9 include Tony Bennett, Branford Marsalis, Etta James, Esperanza Spalding, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Vijay Iyer Trio, Cedar Walton with Lew Tabackin and Curtis Fuller, the Christian McBride Group, Roy Haynes Quintet, Joshua Redman Double Trio, Hiromi, The Bad Plus joined by Wendy Lewis, Michel Camilo, Joe Lovano, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenon, Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, and the Rodriguez Brothers.

Confirmed artists for "George Wein's FOLK FESTIVAL 50" July 31 to August 2 includes festival co-founder Pete Seeger, The Decemberists, Arlo Guthrie, Fleet Foxes, Joan Baez, Neko Case, Judy Collins, Campbell Brothers, The Avett Brothers, Josh Ritter, Gillian Welch, Del McCoury, Iron & Wine, Tao Rodriguez Seeger, Balfa Toujours, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Tim Eriksen and the Shape Note Singers, Langhorne Slim, Ben Kweller and Low Anthem.

The complete festival programs will be announced later this month.

Ticket detail is available at and

In its heyday, Wein's former operation produced dozens and dozens of festivals all over the world. When he sold his company to Festival Network, he also sold the rights to the names Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival. Hence the new event names this year.

Also gone are the festivals produced elsewhere, for the most part. There is no grand festival event in New York this June. But three other events formerly produced by Wein and his team live on.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was run separately and never fell under the Festival Network umbrella. Festival Network's contractual affiliation to produce the Playboy Jazz Festival and Freihofer's Jazz Festival in Saratoga, N.Y. expired last year.

Longtime Festival Productions senior producer Dan Melnick is the producing partner and artistic director of the Freihofer's event at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on June 27 and 28 through his own company, Absolutely Live Entertainment LLC.

Wein's longtime West Coast affiliate Darlene Chan now produces the Playboy Jazz Festival event at the Hollywood Bowl independently.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

For kids of all ages - and the kid inside each of us

Three very different recordings have come across my listening post that have kids at heart. I’m referring to projects that can help interest more youngsters in jazz, or help bring out the kid side of those who sometimes forget those more innocent, imaginative days.

Phil Woods, The Children's Suite (Jazzed Media)
In 1967, alto saxophonist Phil Woods completed work on “The Children’s Suite,” which was carefully crafted when he discovered that the words in his kids’ A.A. Milne books would make splendid songs. So he wrote original music for more than a dozen of poems from “Now We Are Six” featuring Christopher Robin and his imaginary friend Winnie the Pooh.

It took until 2007 to complete Woods’ magical journey. The 40-year gap ended when he finished navigating an extended legal minefield to obtain the necessary permissions and conditions from the Milne estate and the Disney Company, which owns the rights to all of Milne’s literature.

The ambitious project’s ensemble features the vocals of Bob Dorough and Vicki Doney, Woods’ distinctive alto sax, and the narration of English actor Peter Dennis, a jazz fan who is the only person licensed to perform Milne’s works on stage. Dennis also deserves credit for helping Woods maneuver through the legal intricacies. The project was recorded to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts, of which Woods was a co-founder.

Ezra Weiss, Alice in Wonderland (Northwest Children’s Theater and School)
Pianist Weiss’s intent was helping children discover jazz when he adapted “Alice on Wonderland” for a musical production by Portland, Oregon’s Northwest Children’s Theater and School, where he teaches. In the original production at NCTS, the jazz band was at center stage and all of the action took place around the musicians. Weiss took the opportunity to write and arrange his tunes to explicitly offer stylistic references to a substantial list of jazz greats including Ellington and Strayhorn, Miles, Trane, Bird, Mingus, Monk, Shirley Horn and the Latin size of Dizzy, as well as blues figures Bessie Smith and B.B. King.

For example, this blend of classic literature and jazz history quotes a bit of “A Train” on an Ellington-influenced version of “A Long and Sad Tail,” and the Caterpillar character on “Who Are You?” plays muted trumpet rather than smokes a hookah - and has a Miles-like whispery growl in his voice. The excellent adult voices include Pacific Northwest-based jazz singers Marilyn Keller and Shirley Nanette and 19-year-old Athena Patterson, who excels at the blues.

Holly Yarbrough, Mister Rogers Swings! (
This project, subtitled Holly Yarbrough sings the Fred Rogers Songbook, puts an adult twist on 16 tunes that entertainer Fred Rogers wrote for and sang on the 34-year run of his children’s TV show, “Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.” Dressed up in a jazz setting, complete with robust horns and strings - and Yarbrough’s pleasant vocals, the lyrics take on just as much a message for adults as they ever held for kids. “You’ve Got to Do It” even carries a decidedly adult double-entendre feel. This also was one of the final studio sessions by late saxophonist Boots Randolph. Nashville-based Yarbrough is the daughter of folksinger Glenn Yarbrough.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jazz and its makers link to other artistry

Many musicians aren’t one-trick ponies when it comes to artistry. Trumpeter Miles Davis, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, bassist John Heard and singers Tony Bennett, Kate Westbrook and Meredith d’Ambrosio are just a few who have had solid reputations as painters.

Louis Armstrong took his off-the-bandstand creativity in a slightly different direction when he was on the road. The many hours he spent in his hotel room or dressing room while waiting for concerts provided the time and motivation to create more than 500 collages that were crafted from a variety of inspirations: newspaper articles, photos, his mail and even telegrams.

An exhibit of his art, called A Little Story of My Own: Louis Armstrong’s Collages, opened today at The Louis Armstrong House Museum at 34-56 107th Street in the Corona section of Queens, N.Y., and runs through July 12.

A Little Story of My Own provides the public a rare opportunity to view the collages. Except for several that were loaned to a national traveling exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in the early 1990s, Armstrong's collages have never been exhibited outside of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, in large measure because they are so fragile. All but one of the collages in this exhibit are on view for the first time.

Museum Director Michael Cogswell likens Armstrong’s collages to his jazz improvisations. “Found material is divided and then rearranged to create new meanings. Many of Louis’s collages display multiple layers of meaning which are more intuitive than deliberate,” he said. Armstrong felt the same way, writing a friend in 1953: “My hobbie (sic) is to pick out the different things … and piece them together … making a little story of my own.”

The exhibit coincides with the release of an art book of Armstrong's collages, "Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong" (New York: Abrams, 2009), and an exhibit this month of reproductions of Armstrong's collages at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

CDs of Note

Seamus Blake Quartet, Live in Italy (Jazz Eyes)
Supercharged tenor sax player Blake recorded this two-CD project during three nights in three different cities of an Italian tour in February 2007. The band includes bassist Danton Boller, drummer Rodney Green and pianist David Kikoski.

This is a high-energy project, a tour de force if you will from the 2002 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition winner. My favorites are Blake’s “Way Out Willy” and “Fear of Roaming” and the quartet’s version of John Scofield’s “Dance Me Home.” They also tackled Claude Debussy’s “String Quartet in G Minor” which opens in rather laid-back, introspective fashion but builds in intensity to rival the more robust pieces mentioned above.

Big Band Ritmo Sinfonica Città Di Verona, "Restless Spirits" (Velut Luna)
When done right, there is something amazing about the lush creativity that a jazz big band can produce. Now, nearly triple that feeling, as happens in Verona, Italy and other European cities where the jazz big bands, or orchestras, are indeed orchestral in size. This 43-piece unit’s 20-piece horn section is larger than most entire U.S. big bands. This latest project features the music of talented pianist Roberto Magris, who joins the big band as a special guest on acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes.

This muscular band, under the direction of Marco Pasetto, is a joy to hear as it rolls beautifully through eight modern and hip compositions from the Magris songbook. All of the pieces are gems. The “Restless Spirits” title track features vibrant percussion section that is central to its several mood changes from ballad to bop-tinged Afro-Cuban jam that recalls the energy of Dizzy Gillespie’s finest big band projects. The trumpet highlights come from another special guest, Massimo Greco.

Mark Levine Trio, Exact Change (Jazzschool)
Pianist Mark Levine is best known for his work on the Latin side of jazz, particularly his affiliations with Cal Tjader and Mongo Santamaria, as well as his own band The Latin Tinge. This is his first jazz trio CD in more than 10 years, and it teams him with bassist Peter Barshay and drummer Mike Clark, with John Witala and Eddie Marshall subbing on the final track, Joe Henderson’s “Isotope.”

While Levine has had great success as a writer, this project consists entirely of well-known tunes by other jazz greats or American Songbook contributors. The trio here is strong and tight. Favorites include their versions of Mulgrew Miller’s “Exact Change” and “One Notch Up,” Donald Byrd’s “I’m So Excited By You” and their exquisite adventure on “I Hear a Rhapsody.”

Will Sellenraad, Balance (Beezwax)
New York guitarist Will Sellenraad is out with a dandy of a new CD (his third) with his longtime working quartet that features saxophonist Abraham Burton, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Victor Lewis. All of the material is original, seven written by the leader, and one apiece contributed by Kitagawa and Lewis.

The blues-based “It's Been a Long Time” is beautiful and appropriately named - because Lewis wrote it about 30 years ago, unearthing it for its debut on this project. There are a variety of moods here, all imbued with the quartet’s swinging reverence for space and melody. Burton is especially strong on “Blewis,” a tune that the leader wrote in honor of his drummer.

This is Sellenraad’s debut on Beezwax Records, an Indiana-based label that prides itself on the rather quirky concept of hand-assembling, stamping and embossing every CD package that goes out its door with the owner or recipient’s name and a unique serial number. Over the past 12 years it has produced about 20 jazz, blues and brass releases this way.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Fresh takes on jazz classics

Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts is historic, elegantly preserved and remains a great contributor to the region’s arts vitality. Built in 1857 in the heart of central Massachusetts, it underwent a restoration more than 30 years ago to show off its acoustic and visual grandeur.

The Blue Note jazz catalog is just as historic to jazz fans, elegantly preserved since the label’s founding 70 years ago by German immigrants Alfred Lyon and Francs Wolff. And the Blue Note 7, an all-star band, is on the road celebrating the richness and vitality of the label’s great music.

Worcester’s April 1 concert that was the first stop in the East Coast final leg of the 50-city U.S. tour that winds up April 14 to 19 at Birdland in New York. And the setting was most appropriate given the venue and label’s shared qualities.

Steve Wilson, Nicholas Payton, Ravi Coltrane... >

Pianist and music director Bill Charlap, guitarist Peter Bernstein, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Lewis Nash, put their own modernized touches on seven classic tunes written by jazz musicians associated with Blue Note. The fresh arrangements came from the septet members and Charlap’s wife, pianist Renee Rosnes.

Peter Washington, Lewis Nash... >

The hall swung mightily for 90-minutes as the band performed extended explorations of seven tunes: Horace Silver’s “The Outlaw,” Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance, Wayne Shorter’s “United,” McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace,” Cedar Walton’s “Mosaic” and an encore, Lee Morgan’s “Party Time.” The ensemble playing was always tight and the format gave the musicians abundant solo space.

Peter Bernstein, Nicholas Payton... >

The players kept their own musical identities, but also tipped their hats to clear influences from the 1950s and ‘60s Blue Note heyday – with strains of Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown, Jackie McLean and Art Blakey.

Rosnes’s updated arrangement of “Dolphin Dance” stretched the tune into a somewhat laid-back form that gave the players more space to mine new musical nuances from the classic Hancock hit. Cedar Walton wrote “Mosaic” for Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and this version featured arranger Nash’s most extended and bombastic drum solo of the evening.

Steve Wilson, Bill Charlap... ^

After the Birdland engagement, the band members take a break for their other individual projects. A European tour begins in the fall.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The will to swing

April’s issue of Hot House, now in its 27th year of covering the jazz scene in the Big Apple and beyond, includes my recent interview with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, who is headlining Smoke’s 10th anniversary celebration this month with his One For All collective. He explains how the group – and his two young sons - have impacted him as a musician.
Here's a link to the HotHouse article. Scroll down through the month's
features to the Alexander piece.