Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The best jazz night in town

Anyone with a solid interest in the music who is within an hour of Providence RI ought to make a visit to a neighboorhood knotty-pine bar in East Providence any Monday night – and be rewarded with what is consistently the best jazz night of the week. And anyone planning a weekend visit to southern New England ought to stretch the trip to include a Monday night - and experience Bovi’s Tavern.

For 41 years, Bovi’s has hosted big band jazz as its Monday fare. The John Allmark Orchestra draws from an exceptionally strong and talented cadre of players from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and sometimes Connecticut, depending on who’s available to play on a normally slow weeknight for beer money.

Trumpeter Allmark, stylistically tied to the Freddie Hubbbard lineage, has a thick book of big band charts that add a hard-bop edge to swing. And he is a formidable brass arranger in his own right. Any Monday, the material can vary from tunes by John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Hubbard, Oliver Nelson, Clifford Brown Thad Jones and many more, including more than a few Buddy Rich Band charts. Even when a song is revisited, you noticed that Allmark has tweaked the arrangement since the last time you heard the band do it.

The Allmark band’s mainstays when they’re in town and available, include tenor aces Dino Govoni and Bill Vint, alto saxophonists Mark Zaleski and/or Bob Bowlby, electric bassist Bill Miele, pianist Eugene Maslov and drummer Vinny Pagano.

This week, on a nasty rainy night when even waterfowl didn’t want to be out traveling, the JAO still drew two-thirds of a house. As the downbeat hit for the band’s theme song, George Gershwin’s “Soon,” the 16-piece outfit was barely outnumbered by audience. But that soon changed. Soggy latecomers made their way in, forking over the $6 cover. At that price, or some would argue any price, the gig is a musical bargain.

Those who braved the weather were rewarded towards the end of the 90-minute first set with stunning version of Trane’s “Central Park West” and a friendly alto sax battle between Zaleski and Mark Pinto on Buddy Greco’s “The Rotten Kid,” a Buddy Rich band staple.

Allmark formed his band 17 years ago and worked at a variety of clubs - some less than memorable - before succeeding the Duke Belaire Orchestra at Bovi’s 11 years ago. “I think we’ve got the gig now,” he said with a chuckle. “The band keeps changing and sounding better. As soon as we start playing, it’s all good. I’m still finding new players - and great players.”

Can’t get there on a Monday anytime soon? Opt for the next-best thing. At least 20 of the band’s performances can be savored on youtube.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spring has arrived – and so have the lineups

Jazz festival regulars at Newport and its longtime progeny, in upstate New York can start figuring out their challenging dance between multiple stages.

George Wein’s team today released the full CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival schedule for the August 6 to 8 weekend in the Rhode Island resort city. It’s a wide-ranging musical agenda – from mainstream jazz to Latin, traditional swing, instrumental pop, the avant-garde and a jazzy take on hip-hop. The lineup is peppered with a lot of up-and-comers. See the link for a full schedule, but I will note some groupings of interest.

By the way, ticket sales start on Friday, March 26 – and there is a great discount for something new – advance walkup sales at the Newport Convention and Visitors Bureau downtown before April 9 ($50 per day instead of the usual $69).

George Wein... >

So here’s my take on the Newport schedule:

English piano jazz poster Jamie Cullum is the Friday night headliner at Newport Casino, with teenage alto sax phenom/vocalist Grace Kelly opening. Cullum is also back at Fort Adams on Saturday afternoon. Let’s hope he avoids the 2008 Chris Botti faux pas – when the trumpeter played the exact same set in both venues, right down to the stage patter. And let’s hope Botti brings some new music and conversation for his Sunday appearance rather than rehash 2008.

Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride and Roy Haynes headline Saturday as the Freedom Band. The main stage opens with Jazz Mafia's Brass Bows & Beats - a 45-piece Hip Hop Symphony. Ahmad Jamal and the Maria Schneider Orchestra complete the main stage on day one. There is lots to savor on the two supplemental stages, including the trio Fly, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society big band with special guest Bob Brookmeyer, and saxophonist J.D. Allen’s trio. Wein also performs Saturday with his Newport All-Stars.

Now here’s something cool for Sunday. Herbie Hancock closes out the afternoon with his band. Earlier in the afternoon on the Harbor Stage, Conrad Herwig’s band presents the “Latin Side of Herbie.” The day also includes a return appearance by Ken Vandermark, whose trio tore up the Harbor Stage two years ago, as well as Jason Moran, Matt Wilson and Ben Allison and their always-interesting bands. As I noted earlier, check out the lineup for much more to appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

Looking west
Also this week, producer Danny Melnick released the lineup for the 33rd annual Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, which is scheduled June 26 and 27 at the scenic Saratoga NY Performing Arts Center. Headliners include Gladys Knight, singer Al Jarreau & The George Duke Trio, Taj Mahal, Al Di Meola, Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal, and Juan De Marcos & the Afro Cuban All Stars. Full details and the lineup are at

Bettye Lavette at Saratoga, 2009... >

Wein created the festival at SPAC in 1978, seven years after rowdies sent the Newport Jazz Festival packing – and he found a 10-year exclusive home in Manhattan. It was a move that kick-started Wein’s career as a global jazz impresario. (Wein returned to Newport in 1981.)

Saratoga’s atmosphere has made it an annual must-do for loyalists who arrive year after year with their coolers, blankets, tents, umbrellas, friends and families. Melnick has been its artistic director and producer since 1999 - for most of that time as a member of Wein’s team.

Like Newport this year, Freihofer’s Jazz Festival has a nice mix of established and rising talent. The latter includes the bands of J.D. Allen, singer Alyssa Graham, trumpeter Mario Abney and bassist Linda Oh. While Grace Kelly shows off her talent at Newport as one of the Berklee College of Music’s prominent undergrads, at Saratoga, the showcase falls to 20-year-old saxophonist Hailey Niswanger (pronounced “NICE–wonger”), another Berklee student getting significant attention.

Two dandy weekends. I can’t wait.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

CDs of Note...

Jean-Michel Pilc, True Story (Dreyfus)
This is at least the sixth recording by Paris native Pilc released since 2000. It showcases his longstanding strengths as a painter at the piano. He’s a modernist for sure, one whose musical colors are pastoral and romantic at times, yet impressionistic bordering on cubism as he drops in some thundering block chords in service to his view of the inspirations. There is a keen empathy with bandmates Boris Kozlov on bass and Billy Hart on drums. Their reinvigoration of two pop standards - “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “Try to Remember” - and Franz Schubert’s “Relic” are stunning. Favorites: “PBH Factor,” “Kingston, NY” (an affinity partially rooted perhaps in the fact that I was born there), and disc’s five-part title track “True Story” (which concludes the project as Scenes 1 through 5). The latter at various points touches on all of the aforementioned painterly qualities - and more.

Sophie Berkal-Sarbit, Young & Foolish (7 Arts/E1 Music Canada)
Winnipeg native Sophie Berkal-Sarbit, now based in Toronto, is a singer with a level of development and experience far deeper than her 19 years on the planet. It boils down to her range of emotion, sense of time and ability to make songs new and old her very own. This, her second CD, is a fine exploration of the many facets of love. The material ranges from reinterpretations of Kansas Joe McCoy’s early jazz and blues hit “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and 1954’s “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” (done by singers from Frank Sinatra to Queen Latifah) to Sting’s movie soundtrack ballad “Until” to Raul Midón’s catchy “Pick Somebody Up.” Throw in Latin-tinged take on “Love for Sale” and a very personal update of Bill Withers’ classic “Grandma’s Hands.” Producer/keyboardist Bill King adds some nifty B-3 work to “Letter From Home” (Junior Mance and Eddie Jefferson) and to the Midón tune, which also has sizzling acoustic and electric guitar backing from Rob Piltch. There’s much more to savor. Check it out.

Samuel Torres, Yaoundé (Blue Conga)
This disc by Colombian-born percussionist Samuel Torres is the most stunning Latin CD to emerge so far in 2010. He composed all of the genre-blending material, part of which was developed after a trip to Cameroon with bassist Richard Bona. Top flight musicians aboard include saxophonist Joel Frahm, trumpeter Miquel Rodriguez, bassist John Benitez. The full ensemble pieces dominate, though there are a couple of short, intimate solo gems by conguero Torres. My favorites are the title track; the tango-like “Macondo,” featuring clarinetist Anat Cohen; and “Lincoln Tunnel” and “Camino del Barrio,” both of which sizzle with the added percussion of timbalero Ralph Irizarry.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

England swings – JALC style…

Just as New York City’s attention will be focused on a bubbling array of jazz choices in late June with return of a George Wein-produced jazz festival in the Big Apple (the CareFusion Jazz Festival, running June 17 to 26), the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has teamed up for an interesting out-of-town residency. Out-of-country, off-continent even. Across the pond.

JALC, with artistic director/trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and special guests, is off to the U.K. for a residency at London’s Barbican Centre, home of the London Symphony. In fact it is jazz jewel in the arts center’s first International Residency Series.

A series of three main JALC concerts (June 17, 18 and 20) will be augmented by a creative learning program, in local schools and at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama with workshops, master classes and professional development, as well as performances in several East London partner venues. They also include a swing dance evening at Stoke Newington Town Hall, jam sessions at the Vortex in Dalston, and a special family concert at Hackney Empire.

The three main Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra concerts will tell the story the story of the American jazz orchestra, celebrating 80 years of great big band music, from Jelly Roll Morton to the present day, curated by Marsalis. There’s also a June 19 “Big Band Britannia: Inspirations and Collaborations” at Barbican Hall that will celebrate eight decades of British big band music through a specially assembled big band led by trumpeter Guy Barker. It will include a tribute to mighty British big band jazz figure, the late Sir John Dankworth. The next afternoon, Marsalis and the JALC will present an English version of their popular Jazz for Young People matinee concerts, and an “Essentially Ellington UK” workshop for youth big bands.

During the week, there will also be a Midsummer Night's Swing series at several venues plus nightly after-hours jam sessions blending British and JALC jazz talent at East London jazz venues including the Vortex Jazz Club, the Hackney Empire Review Bar and others.

Schedule details may be found at www.barbican.org.uk.

Friday, March 12, 2010

CDs of Note…

Peppe Merolla, Stick With Me (PJ Productions)
This is Peppe Merolla’s debut as a jazz leader - and it is quite fine. The Italian-born singer, actor and drummer focuses on his time-keeping side on this project and he has some star-quality help from the hard-bop world. His bandmates are John Farnsworth on tenor sax, Mike LeDonne on piano, Jim Rotondi on trumpet, Lee Smith on bass and Steve Turre on trombone and conch shells. Merolla is a painter at the drum kit, coloring and shading behind the soloists while also keeping a super-charged beat when needed. The band displays its tight nature right from the get-go on Merolla’s own “Naples,” a salute to his home city. It features interesting solo and ensemble interplay between Turre (on shells and ‘bone), Rotondi and Farnsworth (who provided five of the nine tunes). Other favorites: their takes on the Willie Nelson classic “Crazy” and Farnsworth’s “Mozzin.” Given the similar energy and cohesiveness on the latter tune, I’d love to hear this group tackle Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro-Blue” someday. Stick this CD in your changer – and it is likely to camp out a while. Quite a while. Each listen reveals more interesting facets to its gems.

Champian Fulton, The Breeze and I (Gut String Records)
This is the third CD from pianist and singer Champian Fulton’s Manhattan-based trio, which includes bassist Neal Miner and drummer Fukushi Tainaka. It’s a lovely blend of her rather sweet vocals (on two-thirds of the tracks) and strong and versatile piano chops. There are five instrumentals here amid these swinging standards. She is particularly strong on the title track, Harold Land’s “”Land’s End,” an uptempo take on Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” and a bluesy version of “I Can’t Face the Music.” The band is solid - a benefit of working together regularly - and the CD is a fine showcase for Tainaka’s brush work. The leader’s treatment on “I’m Confessin” shows just why the lady is a Champ.

Ehud Asherie, Modern Life (Posi-Tone)
New York-based pianist Ehud Asherie has a sprightly, dancing style on the keyboard at times that is reminiscent at times of a longtime favorite swing practitioner, John Bunch. Asherie is in great company on this mainstream swing project, which features tenor saxophonist Harry Allen. Bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Chuck Riggs, two of Allen’s frequent collaborators, complete the rhythm section. Everything here is well done as they mine Swing Street, Blues Alley and a few chapters from The Great American Songbook. My favorites: Asherie’s originals “Blues for George” and “One for V,” as well as their takes on the Hank Jones tune “Vignette” and Tadd Dameron’s “Casbah.” While Allen is at his high-energy best on the blues piece and George Gershwin’s “Soon,” his exquisite way with a ballad is also a delight on Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.” Asherie and Allen work well together - with empathy, high spirits and the sheer will to swing. This is a March 16 release.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Picking up where Dizzy left off

In the final five years of his career, trumpeter/bandleader Dizzy Gillespie celebrated and blended the pan-global influences that found a way into his music - and curiosity – throughout his career. He did so principally with his United Nation Orchestra.

Pianist Danilo Perez (pictured), who joined Gillespie’s pan-American in 1989, has picked up the torch. Later this month, Perez will begin touring six North American cities with his own new project, called “Things to Come: 21st Century Dizzy.” The global mix of musicians (by birth or heritage), in addition to Perez, includes saxophonists David Sanchez and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and voice, Jamey Haddad on percussion, Ben Street or John Patitucci on bass, and Adam Cruz on drums.

"The purpose of the music I'm doing right now is to really find common tones in the world; how we, through music, actually come together and become one in this day of acknowledging differences. I am acknowledging the common tones in the world and that oneness feeling. All those layers you see in this, how we as human beings, as individuals come together and create communities.”

That sounds like Gillespie talking. But it is Perez – paying forward the influences absorbed from the days when he was the newest - and youngest - member of Dizzy’s global group in the late 1980s and early 1990s (prior to Dizzy’s 1993 passing).

This project is a natural for performer and educator Perez, because it is an extension of his other projects:
- Artistic Director of the Berklee College of Music's newly formed Global Jazz Institute.
- Artistic Director of the Kimmel Center's "Jazz Up Close" series.
- Artistic Director and founder of the annual Panama Jazz Festival.
- Long-standing member of Wayne Shorter’s quartet.

Perez says Things To Come: 21st Century Dizzy” will showcases music that simultaneously addresses the culture of Panama, the culture of Latin music as interpreted by jazz musicians, and classic jazz repertoire together with his compositions and new arrangements of classic Gillespie tunes).

Check them out, starting March 19 at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center or over the following eight weeks in Toronto, New York, Ann Arbor, Minneapolis and Chicago. The full schedule is at Perez’s Web site.

Perez recently signed with Mack Avenue Records. Hopefully “21st Century Dizzy” will be his first release.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

CDs of Note

The Trio, “Live” @ Charlie O’s (Fuzzy Music)
Put three solid veterans together in a live setting, without rehearsal but filled with decades of experience and mutual jazz empathy, and you get the drift of this fine recording. Bassist Chuck Berghofer, pianist Terry Trotter and drummer Peter Erskine decided to document that empathy and musicality at one of their monthly gigs at Charlie O’s, a jazz club/bar and grill in the Valley Glen section of Los Angeles. Charlie O’s is a not-so-hidden treasure where cats go to hang -and hear other cats play. Everything on this CD is wonderful, primarily because of the thoughtful, usually extended approaches they take with the music. My favorites: Trotter’s exploration of “Put Your Little Right Foot Out” (which Miles Davis recorded as “Fran-Dance”), a reworking of Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie’s Blues” (in this instance a nod to late bassist and club founder Charlie Ottaviano), and a crystalline, elegiac version of J.J. Johnson’s ballad “Lament.”

Jeremy Pelt, Men of Honor (HighNote)
Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s is the leader on this new recording project but there is a true ensemble feel to this post-bop quintet project. Each of the players contributing original material in addition to his splendid soloing. Pelt’s longstanding bandmates are tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen, bassist Dwayne Burno, drummer Gerald Cleaver and pianist Danny Grissett. Favorite tracks: Allen’s composition “Brooklyn Bound,” Cleaver’s “From a Life of the Same Name” and Pelt’s “Us/Them.” Men of Honor is Pelt’s seventh recording as a leader. He’s worked hard at maintaining a true acoustic band – and the effort has paid off admirably.

Dave Holland Octet, Pathways (Dare 2)
This project marks a happy medium between bassist Dave Holland’s longstanding quintet and his occasional big band. Some would say the octet is a perfect size for Holland’s sound palette: robust at times, intimate when the leader desires - and always steaming full-speed ahead with interesting and innovative music. The octet’s recorded debut, captured live at Birdland in Manhattan last year, teams Holland with longstanding collaborators: Antonio Hart on alto sax and flute, Chris Potter on tenor and soprano sax, Gary Smulyan on baritone sax, Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and flugelhorn, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba, and Nate Smith on drums. My favorites: Holland’s “Ebb and Flow” and Potter’s composition “Sea of Mamara.” This is a March 23, 2010 release.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Splendid and diverse offerings and venues with Care

Impresario George Wein hasn’t lost his touch. In fact, a year off from producing a full blown jazz festival in the Big Apple, seems to have enhanced that touch.

Wein’s New Festival Productions, LLC organization and his new corporate benefactor, CareFusion, have rolled out the details for the CareFusion Jazz Festival, which runs June 17 to 26 throughout New York City.

“Throughout” is the significant word here. The festival has expanded its venues – perhaps a blessing that came from the regrouping that followed Festival Network LLC’s financial demise in late 2008/early 2009.

As a result, Wein came out of semi-retirement, got back into the jazz production business – and in the process found a new Newport and New York sponsor – the medical technology company CareFusion. For full festival details, check out http://www.nycjazzfestival.com/.

Here’s what stands out most in the 10-day schedule:

Many of the venues for the festival’s 45 concerts are all over the city. Manhattan, Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens (including the Louis Armstrong House) - and also a tad north in Westchester County. There's also a diverse stylistic array of multigenerational talent. And Wein is also partnering in a new way on festival programming at many of the year-round jazz clubs. He’s booking the talent and paying the bands, letting the clubs keep the door proceeds. Now how’s that for synergy?

The highlight of a slimmed-down Carnegie Hall series figures to be the June 24 Herbie Hancock, “Seven Decades: The Birthday Celebration” the pianist with Terence Blanchard, Bill Cosby, Joe Lovano, Wayne Shorter and others. There’s a free outdoor concert June 23 at Central Park’s SummerStage featuring the McCoy Tyner Quartet featuring Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding and Francisco Mela plus the Stanley Clarke Band featuring firecracker pianist Hiromi (pictured).

Tickets for Carnegie Hall and Town Hall concerts go on sale March 22.

Welcome back, George. New York certainly will be abuzz and vibrant, just as Newport was last August.