Wednesday, July 28, 2010

CDs of Note…

This week, singers are in the spotlight...

Fay Claassen, Sing! (Challenge)
This is a gem, pairing Dutch jazz singer Fay Claassen’s fine vocals and musicality with Germany’s WDR Big Band Cologne. The project was arranged and conducted by Michael Abene. On three tracks, the 18-piece big band was augmented by the 100-member WDR Rundfunkorchester for added depth and texture.

The material is wide ranging both in time span and original style: from Betty Carter’s “Tight” and Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” to Joni Mitchell’s “Be Cool,” Björk’s “Cover Me” and Miriam Makeba’s “Umhome.” Then there is more classic material from the likes of Louis Jordan, Billy Strayhorn, Tom Jobim and Cy Coleman. There is much to savor here, including strong soloing by, among others, pianist Frank Chastenier, trumpeter John Marshall, guitarist Paul Shigihara and alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer.

Keri Johnsrud, All Blue (self-produced)
Chicago-based Keri Johnsrud opens her debut CD with something novel, yet it’s no novelty. She seamlessly sings Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” to the beautiful and distinctive melody of Miles Davis’s “All Blues.” The melding works wonderfully, as does Johnsrud’s cool and casual delivery throughout this project.

The CD also includes her reworking of Nat Adderley’s “The Old Country,” Buck Owens’ country classic “Cryin’ Time,” and a range of American Songbook material and more. The seven players supporting her in a range of groupings are excellent with great empathy throughout. You’ll enjoy the standout soloing by Matt Nelson on piano, keyboard and organ, flutist Matt Cashdollar and guitarist Ari Seder on various tracks. Johnsrud’s duet version of “But Beautiful” with Seder is just that. A low-key, laid-back beauty.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Changing of the guard – or end of the line?

What an amazing ride for Carol Stone and her husband, Woody Woodland, who founded the Cape May Jazz Festival 17 years ago to bring jazz fans to their quaint seacoast resort town - and help extend the length of the tourist season at New Jersey’s southernmost point.

Seventeen years - and 33 festivals so far, building a loyal fan base from essentially a two-hour drive radius: Philly, New York City, northern New Jersey, Baltimore and Wilmington are all within easy reach. The festival drew thousands of fans, which was great for local tourism - from the quaint Victorian B&Bs and resort hotels and motels to countless little boutiques and restaurants.

In its heyday, the festival was a regular November and April stop for many regional talents - Philadelphia’s Bootsie Barnes and Frank Bey among them. And quite a few national players - Oscar Brown Jr., Herbie Mann, Clark Terry, Jimmy Scott to name a few - frequented Cape May multiple times. When it was on the grow during its first decade - the number of venues also grew like topsy.

Music could be found in the (now-condemned) Cape May Convention Hall on the beach, a string of bars and restaurants and hotel ballrooms. Even a grammar school gymnasium and a nearby yacht club got into the mix. Some nights, musical choices were bubbling in up to 12 rooms around town. The state-of-the-art theatre at a regional high school a few miles north of town has been the headliner venue in recent years.

The loyal fan base was key - particularly in lean years that were caused by over-expansion, a souring economy - or both. It also helped them overcome the internal bickering that often besets many a nonprofit group. Stone (who was Artistic Director/Program Chair) was always a strong taskmaster - and got her way with things.

Problem with the loyal fan middle-aged (or older) fan base was that it got older – and lost some participants. Stone and Woodland worked hard to book younger talents in hopes of drawing a younger crowd, but that never seemed to make a significant difference. And it went through a lot of financial pain in the past few years.

And now, there are more pressing challenges for the festival - such as whether it has a future. If so, for how long?

Co-founders Stone and Woodland have resigned and plan to move north a bit into Pennsylvania as soon as they get their affairs in order and sell their Cape May home.

“There was a long, well-planned conspiracy which got nasty… no cooperation or teamwork and we lost all confidence in our executive board and staff,” she wrote.

Several years ago, someone in an executive role launched a coup while they were on vacation. Stone got wind of that one and re-exerted control. Now, apparently, the fight is gone. And the board will have to regroup - or revitalize itself.

Some would say the festival’s future is in doubt. They may be right, but only time will tell.

The 34th semi-annual event is scheduled November 12 to 14. Listed headliners include Les McCann with Javon Jackson, and Yellowjackets.

The festival has had strong sponsorship support from many companies over the years, with Bank of America and the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism its title sponsors. The State Council on the Arts also has been a key backer.

The Cape May Jazz Festival will need that continued support - and more - if it is to have a sustained future.

And Cape May Jazz Festival fans and supporters owe Stone and Woodland a round of thanks for making it happen for so long - despite the bitter taste that may now hover over some things right now.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

CDs of Note...

Christine Jensen, Treelines (Justin Time)
Canadian saxophonist and composer Christine Jensen has added another strong branch to the musical tree that is rooted in the Gil Evans orchestral jazz tradition. (She credits Evans in her notes as “one of the coolest sound shapers in music history.”) Her Montreal-based musicians make her latest project bloom with great depth, nuance and texture. Her sister, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, is featured as guest soloist on this Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra premiere recording. The leader's seven compositions on this CD are mostly inspired by the landscape in her native Nanaimo, British Columbia. Ingrid Jensen’s thoughtful flugelhorn feature on saxophonist Joel Miller’s “Dropoff” is a beauty (starting with an electronic looping segment that opens the piece. The sisters share the lead (Christine on soprano sax and Ingrid on trumpet) on “Seafever.” The Len Dobbin tribute “Red Cedar” is a stunning remembrance for Montreal’s longtime jazz stalwart who died in 2009.

Chris Washburne and The SYOTOS Band, Field of Moons (Jazzheads)
For about two decades, trombonist Chris Washburne has led one of the more adventurous and interesting Latin jazz units in New York City. This latest CD leans toward Latin-tinged love songs and ballads rather than the fire longtime listeners are accustomed to. My favorites: their interesting Latin jazz twist on the Ahmad Jamal-associated “Poinciana,” Pedro Flores’ “Obsesion” and Mingus’s “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.” Other gems: Washburne’s energetic “Seas of Slumber” and saxophonist Ole Mathiesen’s “Evening Rites.”

Susie Hansen, Representante de la Salsa (Jazz Caliente)

Yes, salsa is for dancing. And the L.A.-based Susie Hansen Latin Band took that feeling to heart in its latest recording. This uptempo session will even make you want to dance in place while listening - even if you’re sitting down. But I dare you not to stand and move. The leader’s electric violin rides the band’s percussive cushion like a surfboard on a great wave. At times one with the horn section, at times contrasting with it, she often sounds like a trumpeter. Some of my favorites are their takes on tunes not associated with salsa: a remake of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Vehicle” (vocals compliments of Kaspar Abbo [lead], George Balmaseda and Hansen) and something called “Frank Sinatra Cha Cha Cha.” The latter is a salsa medley, arranged by trombonist David Stout, of four tunes closely linked to Ol’ Blue Eyes: “Fly Me to the Moon,” “It Could Happen to You,” “It Had to be You” and “All of Me.” The title track is one of the many burners here.

Chris Massey’s Nue Jazz Project, Vibrainium (self-released)
The members of drummer Chris Massey’s quintet each have one foot firmly planted into bebop’s strong roots, and the other stepping boldly into their musical future. This ambitious project swings hard and with purpose. Fresh takes on Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” and Chick Corea’s “Windows” are wrapped by three originals by Massey and one apiece from trumpeter Donald Malloy and saxophonist Benjamin Drazen. Their other bandmates are pianist Evgeny Lebedev and bassist David Ostrem. Favorites: Massey’s 11-minute title track and Drazen’s “Mr. Twilight.” Serious drum fans will enjoy “Chango,” the leader’s solo tribute to leader/innovators Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Max Roach and Roy Haynes.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Brubeck's Newport magic

Every time Dave Brubeck plays the Newport Jazz Festival, he breaks his own record.

The pianist, who will turn 90 this December 6, has performed at Newport more than any other jazz artist in the festival's storied, sometimes roller coaster history. He was there for the first festival in 1954 - and has been back more than 30 times since.

Last year, Brubeck's quartet played at Newport - and a later in the day he added a footnote to the Newport history book by joining Tony Bennett on stage for a rousing version of "That Old Black Magic" to end the weekend.

At this year's CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival, Brubeck will be back - without his own band - to join Wynton Marsalis on Sunday August 8 as a special guest with the trumpeter's quintet. It's also a natural progression from the 2005 festival. Marsalis sat in with Brubeck's band after playing appeared earlier in the day with his own quintet.
Producer George Wein loves it when his old friend is in town. Their friendship dates to the early 1950s - when Wein booked and promoted Brubeck's then-emerging quartet on a New England concert tour.

“The atmosphere of love that Dave Brubeck generates completely fills the beautiful harbor, and like last year’s festival surprise when Dave played a tune with Tony Bennett, a memorable piece of musical history will be made,” Wein said.

This year's festival runs August 6 to 8, with a Friday night opener at the historic Newport Casino and International Tennis Hall of Fame) featuring pianist-singer Jamie Cullum and saxophonist Grace Kelly. The action moves to Fort Adams State Park the following two days with an ambitious and wide-ranging schedule on three stages.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Postcards from Montreal

Here are a few visual treats from my coverage of the 31st annual Montreal International Jazz Festival. The musical choices were bountiful and at times painful - with as many as three or four significant offerings simultaneously during peak evening hours.

As the outdoor Quartier de Spectacles continues to evolve, there was a noticeable increase in the number and variety of street performers this time - mimes, men and women on stilts, and a bounty of other zany characters. And that doesn't include a few in the audience.

Concert images, from top:

  • Allen Toussaint

  • John Scofield and The Piety Street Band

  • Grace Kelly and Jason Palmer

  • Montreal trumpeter Ron DiLauro's Porgy & Bess project

  • MAnu Katché

  • Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen was special guest with sister Christine Jensen's Jazz Orchestra.

  • Bassist Brandi Disterheft

  • Trumpeter Jocelyn Couture presented his big band in a Maynard Ferguson tribute.

  • Blues guitarist Ana Popovic

Monday, July 5, 2010

A special award among many (updated)

This afternoon preceding his 14th Montreal International Jazz Festival concert appearance, pianist Dave Brubeck was honored with a special issue of the festival’s Miles Davis Award, which honors a jazz musician of international stature for a lifetime body of great work.

Brubeck, who turns 90 in December, received the weighty bronze statuette from festival president and co-founder Alain Simard. “It’s heavy.... So was Miles,” Brubeck quipped before delving into a few anecdotes about Davis, whom he considered a great friend. “We exchanged ideas back and forth and had a great relationship,” Brubeck said. He recalled one afternoon when Davis came to visit his Connecticut home. He and his sons had been playing basketball in the driveway, and soon, the sons were amazed to see their dad shooting hoops with Miles Davis.

In taking note of his stellar career, the festival noted that before Brubeck, jazz was essentially an East Coast affair.

Each year, the festival bestows a half-dozen or so significant honors for musicianship or other contributions to music, in addition to its Grand Prix de Jazz TD that is awarded to a rising star of Canadian jazz from among eight competitors on the outdoor stages at this year’s festival.

The 2010 Grand Prix de Jazz TD was awarded Monday to the Montreal-based Parc-X Trio, which consists of bassist Alex Lefaivre, pianist Gabriel Vinuela-Pelletier and drummer Mark Nelson.

This year’s other major honorees included:

Singer Smokey Robinson was honored with the Montreal Jazz Festival Spirit Award, recognizing a popular artist’s extraordinary contributions to the music world.

Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins received the 17th Miles Davis Award (the regular award, given a week prior to Brubeck’s special award) for his body or work and influence on the jazz idiom.

Photographer Herman Leonard received the festival’s second Bruce Lundvall Award, which is presented to a non-musician leaving his or her mark on the world of jazz.

Bassist (as well as pianist, percussionist and vibes player) Don Thompson received the Oscar Peterson Award, which is presented to a Canadian musician who has made outstanding contributions to jazz.

Bassist and singer Richard Bona was honored with the Antonio Carlos Jobim Award for distinguished work in the world music field and cultural crossover to jazz.

The Manhattan Transfer received the Ella Fitzgerald Award for its distinguished and world-renowned work in the vocal field. The group has been together for 37 years.

Guitarist George Benson received the festival’s second annual Montreal Guitar Show Tribute Award for his contributions as a leading international guitarist. The MGS awarded its first such award last year to Jeff Beck.

The festival winds down tomorrow night (Tuesday) with a Mardi Gras-type spectacle, complete with an hour-long carnival-like parade before Allen Toussaint and oter New Orleans musicicans hit the stage for a closing extravaganza,

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A spectacular night - marred by one idiot

Guitarist John Scofield was a great choice to open the New Orleans portion/final phase of the 2010 Montreal International Jazz Festival. His Piety Street Band released an exceptional funky New Orleans-gospel and blues-based CD under the Piety Street name earlier this year. The band was even better in person last night at the Theatre Maisonneuve. Pianist/B3 player/ vocalist Jon Cleary was a strong foil for Scofield, at one point echoing or extending Scofield's guitar lines on the centerpiece, "Walk With Me." "Glory Land" was a strong shuffle beat romp. The quartet also included bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Terence Higgins.

Was Keith Jarrett going to play one or more encores after his two-set Montreal perforamce with triomates Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette? We'll never know. The band's performance was beautiful, digging deeply into a wide range of standards that tended to have you / me / romance at their core. (But don't they all really?) "You Go to My Head," "Everything Happens to Me," "Too Young to Go Steady," Autumn Leaves," "All the Things You Are," "My Ship" and "I've Got a Crush on You" were all on the agenda. The players' empathy and synergy is always a joy to witness. DeJohnette's delicate and airy drum solo on "Too Young" was exquisite.

Jarrett's zero tolerance for photography during his concerts is notorious, preferring perhaps that rather than distract the band and surrounding audience members, that attendees savor the moment for what it is. There was a firm "no photography" request before the show, and again right after intermission - for both the performance and the bows that followed. In this world of people wanting to do their own thing in their own moment, some believe they are exempt from rules set for others. During the third bow, possibly before the band was ready to do another tune or so, the aforementioned IDIOT fired off a flash with his/her point-and-shoot. Too bad the neighboring ticketbuyers didn't gently push his/her arm down so there would be no mood interruption. Jarrett suggested that the neighbors take his/her camera away - and walked off stage to end the night.

At the dark and intimate Salle Gesu space an hour later, Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's quintet explored a half-dozen originals that blended rhythms rooted in swing and an ethereal tone that bordered on the exotic. The packed house loved it. Stanko's young bandmates supported his music wonderfully, with very strong piano, electric bass and guitar solos throughout.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Musical musings from Montreal

Two and a half days into my Montreal International Jazz Festival stay, or even minutes into it for that matter, one thing is apparent. This is a jazz festival that never gets tired – and keeps evolving and improving year after year after year.

This 31st edition, which began June 25 and runs through July 6, is an artful swirl of more than 800 concerts, daily Mardi Gras-like parades, mimes and other street performers, dancers – and seemingly a talented street band of some type – from zany to semi-serious, every time you turn a corner.

Highlights seen so far:

Montreal trumpeter Ron DiLauro’s stunning revisitation of the classic Miles Davis-Gil Evans jazz orchestral version of Porgy and Bess. Davis and Evans set a very high standard with this work, then matched it with the more worldly Sketches of Spain project. Hearing DiLauro’s big band put its own careful stamp on this timeless music was wonderful. It also was a reminder that it is futile for number of aspiring singers to think they can improve on this orchestral treatment of “Summertime.” The results are cheesy more often than not.

Canadian composer (and saxophonist) Christine Jensen presented her deeply textured and nuanced works with full orchestra with her sister, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen as special guest, at L’Astral, the wonderful club located in the festival’s headquarters building. The program included “Red Cedar,” a poignant tribute to Montreal jazz writer /photographer/ broadcaster/fixture who died of stroke complications during last year’s festival.

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s quintet of superbly skilled musicians who are pushing the envelope forward, with much talent, yet perhaps less grounding in 4/4 swing than some listeners would like. Kidding that tenor saxophonist Brice Winston hails from the birthplace of jazz (Tucson, Arizona), Blanchard turned his humor into a political jab at Arizona’s immigration law controversy. “If you’re of Latin descent, you have to leave the show now,” Blanchard said. “A country of immigrants talking about immigration. That’s some of the funniest shit I’ve heard in my life.”

The festival will take on an even stringer New Orleans flair in its final four nights, with concerts by John Scofield and the Piety Street Band, Allen Toussaint solo and with his Bright Mississippi Project, and a closing night Mardi Gras parade and extravaganza featuring Toussaint with Trombone Shorty, the Soul Rebels Brass Band and Zachary Richard.

With more music from a variety of genres than a single pair of ears can absorb, but abundant choices for the Montrealers who flock here by the millions, there’s no doubt why many consider this the best jazz festival on the planet.

Also not to be missed: the fascinating "We Want Miles" exhibit that we checked out today at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which is just two Metro stops away from the Place des Arts. It is a fascinating reminder of the breadth and depth of Davis's amazing musical journey. One could spend hours - or days - plumbing it detail - interviews, correspondence relating to his career, music, art, fashion and interviews. It runs through August 29.