Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Latin jazz at its finest, drawing at times from bebop and Broadway

Conguero Sammy Figueroa brought a quintet version of His Latin Jazz Explosion band to Sarasota on Monday, November 22. As befits its name, the band and its leader were on musical fire all night for this Jazz Club of Sarasota concert.

Sammy Figueroa
Figueroa spent many years as a leading Latin percussionist in New York City, working with a wide variety of major musicians, including Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, David Bowie and Chaka Khan. This Bronx native who was raised in Puerto Rico has been based in Miami for the past 20 years.
Martin Bejerano
His group for this concert included pianist Martin Bejerano (a longtime member of drummer Roy Haynes' Fountain of Youth Band), bassist Carlo De Rosa, tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts (a frequent collaborator with B-3 player Joey DeFrancesco), and trumpeter Cisco Dimas.

Cisco Dimas
Figueroa's program stretched nearly two hours, not counting a brief intermission, and included extended explorations of nine tunes that showcased the cohesiveness of the band's groove and the improvisational skills of each player.

Pianist-composer Michel Camilo's fiery “And Sammy Walked In” quickly set the tone for the evening. Bejerano's “Origin Story” was wide-ranging in its moods, particularly during his piano solos. The first set highlight was the band's take on the ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You, from the Lerner & Lowe Broadway musical Camelot. They dug into a Horace Silver arrangement, adding a strong Latin jazz tinge that Figueroa aptly described as “rice and beans.”

Troy Roberts
The first set wound down with bassist Gabriel Vivas' composition “Alegria” (Happiness) from Figueroa's 2015 recording Imaginary World and pianist Mike Orta's uptempo “Latin What?” from the conguero's 2011 recording Urban Nature.

Carlo De Rosa
The second set was quite something, as the band romped through both the bebop canon and Latin jazz material. It included Cedar Walton's instrumental chestnut “Firm Roots;” the Latin ballad “El Último Suspiro” (The Last Sigh), which was a 1950s hit for Sammy's father, bolero singer Charlie Figueroa; and pianist Eugene Uman's “Niko's Dream.” 

Uman's cha-cha-cha tune was a burner that featured Figueroa's mastery on his three congas, set center stage, and the two horns.

Roberts' and Dimas' unison horn work and solo skills were on full display again on the closer, the band's vibrant take on Silver's jazz classic “Cape Verdean Blues.”

The sold-out concert was part of the Jazz Club of Sarasota's Monday Night Jazz Cabaret series at Florida Studio Theatre’s cozy John C. Court Cabaret in downtown Sarasota.

Sammy Figueroa & His Latin Jazz Explosion

Sunday, November 14, 2021

The joy of jazz guitar

Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo considers Southwest Florida his home away from home when he's not touring the world. He was happy to be back on Sunday, November 14, after the pandemic lockdown stymied his touring for more than a year.

Figueriedo performed a matinee solo concert in Venice FL in the Jazz With Morrie performance series, in advance of his three nights of performances next weekend at the Suncoast Jazz Festival in Clearwater. 

"It's a pleasure to be back performing live after a long, long time," Figueiredo said. He did some online performances from his home in Franca, Brazil during the pandemic but noted: "I didn't feel the emotion, the connection with the audience."

That connection was back on Sunday as he shared the joy of jazz guitar, digging into the Brazilian jazz songbook, several original compositions, a bit of movie music, and jazz standards.

Figueiredo is a marvel to watch. He plays with a delightful blend of passion, power and whimsy as he combines jazz, the music of his homeland and classical guitar techniques into a distinctive sound.

He opened with Joao Pernambuco's choro "Sons de Carrilioes" before exploring Ary Barroso's classic "Aquarela do Brasil" and his own playful Portuguese tune "Fadinho," which means "Little Fado." Then came a bossa nova medley inspired by the sea: Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave" and Roberto Menescal's "Little Boat" sandwiching Jobim's "Desafinado."

"Lara's Theme," the love theme from the movie Dr. Zhivago, was one of his grandmother's favorites. He shared his own interpretation this day.

Other interesting moments included his melding of two Brazilian waltzes, an extended exploration of Paul Desmond's "Take Five" that accentuated a deep, throbbing bass line and offsetting sharp notes, and a romp segueing from Luiz Bonfa's "Manha de Carnaval  to Ernesto Lecuona's Cuban classic "Malaguena." He also shared the classical-tinged "Antarctica" suite from his most recent CD, Antarctica (Arbors Jazz).(Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for this gem).

The most interesting moment came late in the program when he asked audience members to select a key, a scale (major or minor) and a musical style. He did that twice, then performed an improvised composition. The inventive piece began with a F-sharp-minor bolero and continued with an E-flat-major Brazilian samba before returning to the opening segment.

 "This isn't my composition," he said. "It's our composition. 

What a feat. What an afternoon of guitar mastery and inventiveness.

Figueiredo performed at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice. The Jazz With Morrie series continues on Friday, December 3 at UUCOV with the Dick Hamilton Sextet.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

This savvy arranger and his band keep things fresh

Pianist Jim Roberts is the Charlotte County Jazz Society's most frequent visitor as a bandleader. The CCJS concert in Port Charlotte FL on Monday, November 8 marked Roberts' 18th appearance dating to June 1991, when he was the organization's first concert performer. 

Jim Roberts

Roberts moved from New York City to Orlando shortly after his first CCJS gig. Through the years, he has brought trios, quartets, quintets and more. Since 2004, the sextet has been his steady band. He calls it his Saxtet because of its brass-rich front line, which features talented veterans Dan Jordan, Rex Wertz and David MacKenzie. Drummer Eddie Metz Jr. and bassist Doug Mathews were the band's rhythm aces. 

This time out, Roberts had another twist. The band expanded to a four-horn septet, with his wife, tenor saxophonist A.J. Roberts, joining the other reed players on three tunes.

Pianist, composer arranger and educator Roberts never lets his music sound stale or dated on the concert stage. Freshness and vitality abound, even on the staples you've heard at prior appearances.   

Jordan, Wertz, MacKenzie
After Jordan, Wertz and MacKenzie turned in a gorgeous flute choir on Thad Jones classic “A Child is Born,” Roberts told the crowd: “I just play piano and sit here and listen to these guys.”  Don't believe him. 

While he is blessed with a crystalline, swinging sound at the piano, his strongest asset is the arrangements he writes for the textures of his band. 

Eddie Metz Jr.
He gives each of his musicians extended solo space to take the music in new, varied directions. At times, the saxophonists perform beautiful unison horn lines. At others, they play slight variations or team up to add complementary accents behind the soloist.

Doug Mathews
Monday night's program began started with Duke Ellington (“Cottontail”) and ended with Count Basie (“Jumpin' at the Woodside”), burners that underscored the rhythm section's joyous groove. While this was Mathews' first CCJS appearance, he and Metz have worked together in other formats for many years. It showed from their chemistry.

The wide-ranging repertoire this night also included Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa," Jerome Kern's 1933 Great American Songbook classic "Yesterdays,"  Lalo Schifrin's "Towering Toccata," Miles Davis' "Freddie the Freeloader" and Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man."

Tenor Madness

The texture changed a lot when MacKenzie played his huge and robust bass sax on one tune in each set: Jimmy Heath's "On the Trail," based on Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite," and later  "(Back Home Again in) Indiana." The latter is one of the oldest jazz recordings, dating to 1917.

A.J. Roberts
Other fine moments included Metz's spotlight feature on Sonny Rollins' grooving calypso "St. Thomas, and the four-tenor exploration of Rollins' classic "Tenor Madness" with A.J. Roberts aboard for the first time. She returned at the end of the second set for "Watermelon Man" and “Jumpin' at the Woodside,” which has become the band's traditional closer.

The piece de resistance for these ears, was another of Roberts' concert staples. His arrangement of the adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concerto de Aranjuez," is always stunning. The composition, originally written for guitar, is best known in jazz circles for the Miles Davis-Gil Evans beauty that opens the flamenco-tinged Sketches of Spain. This arrangement  features Roberts with a solo piano exploration of the exotic melody before shifting into a flute choir with an extended solo by Danny Jordan.

The concert drew a crowd of more than 175 to the Cultural Center of Charlotte County's William H Wakeman III Theater.

Jim Roberts, Jordan, Mathews, Wertz, MacKenzie, Metz, A.J. Roberts

Friday, November 5, 2021

Finding some normalcy in mainstream swing

After a pandemic pause dating to late February 2020, producer Morrie Trumble's Jazz With Morrie concert series opened a new season on Friday, November 5 in Venice FL with music excellence and positive vibes in this "new normal" phase.

Tenor saxophonist Jim Wellen performed with three other Southwest Florida jazz notables: guitarist Dave Trefethen, bassist-singer Vince Evans and drummer Johnny Moore. All brought much to the table for this welcome musical feast.

Wellen is a master of the swing tenor, who is equally comfortable exploring ballads, sambas and occasional pieces with a bit more fire. The octogenarian does so with an ease that comes from decades of immersing himself in the jazz repertoire. The first time I heard him 10 years ago, I thought to myself "this guy sounds like he could be Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen's (musical) uncle." Friday's concert at the Emmanuel Lutheran Church, reinforced that notion.

Jim Wellen

Wellen & Co. treated the audience of about 100 musical souls to a wide range of treats over two hours: ballads, chestnuts from the jazz and Great American Songbook repertoires, some bossa novas, and even a couple of nods to the hard-swinging jazz big band tradition. The latter started right out of the gate with Freddie Green's "Corner Pocket," a Count Basie Orchestra staple.

Evans, a rock-solid bassist with a deep, rich sound on his instrument, was featured on three vocal numbers as well: "Don't Worry 'Bout Me," "Route 66" and one of his favorites, "Old Folks." He put his own fine imprint on each.

Vince Evans
The leader mixed and matched tunes with different combinations of players within the quartet, and they were some of the matinee's highlights:

  • Wellen and Moore, a tasty drummer who never overplays, teamed up for a shuffle-beat-powered duo version of Horace Silver's "The Preacher."
  • Wellen and Trefethen took a similar duo approach on a Django Reinhardt medley that included the gypsy guitarist's "Django's Castle" and "Nuages." It showcased Trefethen's gorgeous tone, melodic ideas and sophisticated harmonies.
  •  Wellen and Evans played a low key sax and bass duet on "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise." 
  • Wellen, Moore
    After intermission, Wellen and Trefethen teamed again on "Send in the Clowns," the Stephen Sondheim composition that Sarah Vaughan turned into a jazz vocal classic. As the tune's last notes faded, Evans told the audience: "I've heard a lot of tenor players. Nobody plays prettier than that."
Wellen, Trefethen
One of the more interesting pieces was the band's take approach to the Billy Strayhorn composition "Take the A Train."  We usually hear this Duke Ellington band classic as a roaring, uptempo arrangement. On this day, Wellen treated us to a softer, more laid-back approach that underscored its melodic beauty.

Trumble's South County Jazz With Morrie series succeeded the defunct South County Jazz Club in presenting concerts in the Venice area, just south of Sarasota. 

With one of the other principal venues (the Glenridge Performing Arts Center) closed for renovations this season, Trumble is presenting all of his concerts at Emmanuel Lutheran Church and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice.

Next up: Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo at UUCOV on Sunday, November 14.

Johnny Moore, Vince Evans, Dave Trefethen, Jim Wellen


Sunday, October 24, 2021

Looking ahead: Southwest Florida jazz preview [updated]

Here is a rundown of noteworthy jazz events, principally in the Sarasota to Naples territory, from now through December. Keep in mind the reality of COVID-19 protocols, expect possible cancellations, and please mask up to keep yourself and others safe.


  • Wednesday, October 27 – Violinist Benjamin Schmid is special guest with the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra as the sextet opens its 2021-22 season. Artis Naples’ Daniels Pavilion. 6 and 8:30 p.m.


  • Monday, November 8 – Pianist Jim RobertsSaxtet performs in the Charlotte County Jazz Society’s 2021-22 concert series. William H. Wakeman III Theater, Cultural Center of Charlotte County. Port Charlotte. 7 p.m.
  • Monday, November 8 – Trumpeter Dominick Farinaccci performs at Jazz Club of Sarasota’s Monday Night Jazz Cabaret series. John C Court Cabaret at Florida Studio Theatre. Sarasota, 7:30 p.m.
  • Diego Figueiredo
    Sunday, November 14 – Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo performs in Morrie Trumble's Jazz With Morrie concert series. Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice. Venice, 2 p.m.
  • Wednesday to Saturday, November 17-20 – The 16th annual Punta Gorda Wine & Jazz Festival, actually a wine and smooth jazz event, is in two phases this year. The first three days are saxophonist Mindi Abair’s third annual Wine+ Music Festival, with three different lineups in three different locations. The final day is the actual Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Wine & Jazz Festival featuring Eric Darius and Selina Albright and their bands. Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center. Punta Gorda, 6:30 p.m.
  • Friday to Sunday, November 19-21 – Suncoast Jazz Festival. No longer just your grandfather’s trad jazz/Dixieland fest, the dozens of performers include the Brubeck Brothers quartet, Diego Figueiredo, Dick Hyman, Jason Marsalis, and the Eddie Metz-Nicki Parrott-Rossano Sportiello trio, among many others. Sand Key, Clearwater Beach.
  • Monday, November 22 – Miami-based conguero Sammy Figueroa performs at Jazz Club of Sarasota’s Monday Night Jazz Cabaret series. John C Court Cabaret at Florida Studio Theatre. Sarasota, 7:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, November 30 – Saxophonist Dave Koz brings his Christmas tour with three fellow smoothies: guitarist/singer Jonathan Butler, trumpeter Rick Braun and saxophonist Richard Elliot, along with singer Rebecca Jade. Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Sarasota, 8 p.m.


  • Kenny Washington
    Monday, December 6 - Pianist Liston Gregory III is featured at Jazz Club of Sarasota’s Monday Night Jazz Cabaret series. John C Court Cabaret at Florida Studio Theatre. Sarasota, 7:30 p.m.
  • Monday, December 13 – Saxophonist Greg Abate’s quartet performs in the Charlotte County Jazz Society’s 2021-22 concert series. William H. Wakeman III Theater, Cultural Center of Charlotte County. Port Charlotte. 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, December 15 – Singer Kenny Washington is special guest with the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra as part of the sextet’s 2021-22 season. Artis Naples’ Daniels Pavilion. 6 and 8:30 p.m.
  • Monday, December 20 – Guitarist Nate Najar and singer Daniela Soledade perform at Jazz Club of Sarasota’s Monday Night Jazz Cabaret series. John C Court Cabaret at Florida Studio Theatre. Sarasota, 7:30 p.m.

Nate Najar, Daniela Soledade
Several venues offer jazz steadily. They include The Grill at 1951 (formerly J.D.’s Bistro) in Port Charlotte; Amore, Goodfella’s Café and Patrick’s in Sarasota; Scarpino’s in Bradenton; the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin; The Roadhouse and The Barrel Room at Twisted Vine Bistro in Fort Myers; and Slate’s in Cape Coral. Jazz at Two Friday matinee concerts sponsored by the Jazz Club of Sarasota and Morrie Trumble's Jazz With Morrie series in Venice also keep things swinging for jazz lovers.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

La Lucha and friends shine in CCJS debut

Nineteen months after the pandemic brought the Charlotte County Jazz Society’s 2018-19 concert season to an abrupt and premature end, the nonprofit’s evening concerts resumed on Monday, October 11 with a musical treat from La Lucha.

John O'Leary
The Tampa Bay-area trio, consisting of pianist John O’Leary, bassist Alejandro Arenas and drummer Mark Feinman, brought along two guests: the Barcelona-born singer Ona Kirei and tenor saxophonist Trace Zacur. The latter was a last-minute sub for trumpeter James Suggs who was unable to make the gig.

Alejandro Arenas, Mark Feinman

La Lucha covered the musical gamut, putting it’s own creative spin on time-tested jazz standards, five original compositions and creative covers of more contemporary material from David Bowie, The Beatles and the English pop-rock band Tears for Fears. Half of the program came from La Lucha’s newest CD, Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Arbors Jazz, 2020). 

Trace Zacur

Zacur’s distinctive, edgy sound on tenor sax complemented La Lucha and helped nudge the music in new directions. The band, which excels on in-the-moment creativity, responded in kind. That was first noticeable on their tribute tune “Blues for Houston Person.” Their other tribute tune this evening, Arenas’ “Samba Pra Diego,” was written for Diego Figuereido. It was a fitting inclusion, as the Brazilian guitarist was the last performer in this concert series in early March of 2018. 

La Lucha has a true international flavor with Arenas hailing from Colombia, O’Leary from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and Feinman from the Tampa area. The three first met in a jazz program practice room at the University of South Florida 15 years ago and put their trio together a few months later. Kirei, now based in Tampa, added more international flavor to the evening with her vocal creativity. 

John O'Leary, Ona Kirei

Artistry and emotion were on full display all night long. 

The jazz standards included Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova classic “Desafinado,” Charles Trenet and Albert Beach’s “I Wish You Love,” “Gone With the Wind” from the musical “Oklahoma,” and “Autumn Nocturne.”

 Favorite moments: 

  • The group’s contemporary spin on the Stevie Wonder Motown hit “For Once in My Life.” 
  • Their covers of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Major Tom would have been pleased with the instrumental exploration of the latter’s haunting, other-worldly melody. 

  • Ona Kirei

    Kirei’s arrangement of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Skylark” as a samba. It opened with her humming behind O’Leary’s piano introduction. A drum feature for Feinman followed the singer’s celebration of the ballad’s wistful lyrics. 
  • The band transformed The Beatles’ 91-second tease “Golden Slumbers” from the Fab Four’s Abbey Road album into a six-minute instrumental and vocal adventure that was arranged by Arenas. 
  • They closed the evening with a burner, combining “Lullaby of the Leaves” and "Lullaby of Birdland” into a fine medley of material with nothing in common except that one word in their titles. In La Lucha’s hands, the two songs meshed seamlessly. 

The first concert of the 2020-21 season drew a crowd of about 140 to the Cultural Center of Charlotte County’s William H Wakeman III Theater. That was a fine draw, given that it was early in the concert season, and the likelihood that some members are still reticent about indoor events, even if many others are masked.

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

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Love - and Bossa Nova - were in the air

Eighteen months since its 2019-20 concert season was cut short by the pandemic, and its 2020-21 season canceled, the Charlotte County Jazz Society had music in the air again on Wednesday, September 22. A matinee “Love and Bossa Nova Live” performance by guitarist Nate Najar and Brazilian singer Daniela Soledade was a mighty welcome warm-up for the CCJS evening concert series, which resumes in October.

Nate Najar, Daniela Soledade
The St. Petersburg-based couple performed for CCJS at the Grill at 1951 in Port Charlotte, treating the crowd to the joyous, exotic intimacy of bossa nova and samba. Soledade, a third-generation member of a Rio de Janeiro family with strong ties to the roots of bossa nova, is blessed with a captivating, wide-ranging voice whether singing in her native Portuguese or English. Most of the lyrics this day were in Portuguese, a few blended both languages, and a few more were shared in English. 

 Najar, a classically trained acoustic guitarist, was the ideal complement in this intimate setting, celebrating the melodies and never overbearing, even in his solo feature segment. He is a guitar artist of great delicacy, inspired greatly by the sound and stylings of the late Charlie Byrd.

It was an afternoon for the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ary Barroso, Dorival Caymmi, Roberto Menescal, Baden Powell, the singer’s grandfather, Paulo Soledade, and her father, Paulinho Soledade, among others. The Jobim covers included "Double Rainbow," "Wave" "Fotografia" and "One Note Samba."

Most touching moments in an afternoon full of them by this very fine duo:
  • Their version of Menescal’s “Rio,” for which Soledade wrote English lyrics (she recorded the tune with Menescal in Rio this past summer).
  • “Song for Baden,” which her father wrote for Baden Powell, who was his guitar teacher, again featuring English lyrics by Daniela.
  • A powerful finish that featured her cover of Julie London’s hit “Cry Me a River” and then Jobim’s “One Note Samba.”

The Charlotte County Jazz Society opens its 2021-22 evening concert series on Monday, October 11 with the trio La Lucha and two special guests: singer Ona Kirei and trumpeter James Suggs. Those seven monthly concerts, which run October through April, are at the Cultural Center of Charlotte County’s William H Wakeman III Theater.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

CDs of Note – Short Takes

 Taking a closer look at CDs by Acme Jazz Garage, Lili Añel, Miles Donahue and Yoko Miwa ….

Acme Jazz Garage, Sharkskin (Solar Grooves) 

There is much to love on this second recording from Tampa FL-based Acme Jazz Garage, with support here and there from some of the quartet’s musical friends. Moods shift from tune to tune as they dig deeply into a mix of straight-ahead jazz, blues, funk and Cuban rumba – all filtered by the band’s modern sensibilities. Core band members Philip Booth (bass), Bryan Lewis (keyboards) and Matt Swenson (guitar) have been fine-tuning the band’s sound for more than a decade. Favorite tracks: the multi-faceted “Sharkskin Suit,” a showcase for Swenson’s guitar artistry and Lewis’ inventiveness at the piano; Booth’s lush “Rumba Misterioso” featuring flutist Peggy Morris; and the horn-section-fueled “Phil’s Blues Deluxe.” The band put an exuberant jam-band spin on “Nature Boy,” infusing the Booth-arranged standard with a Cuban rumba beat and a funky Hammond B-3/guitar/baritone sax cushion for Jeremy Powell’s tenor sax solo. Lewis’ re-harmonization and B-3 mastery fuel the band’s gospel-tinged exploration of Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”

Lili Añel, Better Days (remastered) (Wall-I)

For those unfamiliar, this latest project from singer-songwriter Lili Añel is a great introduction to the depth and breadth of her music. Think Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone rolled into one, then infuse it with her own consciousness as a woman with mixed parentage (Black and Cuban), and raised in New York’s Spanish Harlem. The original Better Days was released two years ago and pretty much got lost in the pandemic shuffle. This new version is not just remastered, but includes few more tracks. Others are updated from favorites included on four of her prior albums.

Gems include “Thin Line,” originally released on 2002’s Hi-Octane Coffee, and “The Wrong Time” (with music and lyrics by her identical twin sister Barbara) from her 1994 debut, Laughed Last (Palmetto). “Supposed to Be,” from 2009’s Every Second in Between (Wall-I), “Climb the Wall” and “Better Days” say much about the economic and social angst that so many of us are feeling. There are two fine covers: Joni Mitchell’s “Number One” and Sly Stone’s “Family Affair.” Philadelphia-based Añel doesn’t fit in one cozy genre box, as she blurs the lines between jazz, folk and intelligent adult pop. Her messages are strong and heartfelt – and her crack jazz band anchored by keyboard ace Dale Melton (grand piano, Fender Rhodes and B-3 organ) supports her well. Dig the funky New Orleans shuffle beat and exuberant horn line on “Thin Line.”

Miles Donahue, Just Passing Thru (Whaling City Sound) 

Every community has a few musicians who, by happenstance or choice, have flown under the national jazz radar, never touring outside their region but enhancing the local scene with their musical gifts. Such can be said for Massachusetts-based saxophonist and composer Miles Donahue. Best known as a reed player, Donahue also shares his trumpet and keyboard skills on a few tracks. This latest Donahue CD includes eight varied originals plus a creative cover of the R&B classic “Killing Me Softly” that features the leader on soprano sax. His band mates here are Joe Santerre on electric bass, Larry Finn on drums, Alain Mallet on keyboards and Ricardo Monzon on percussion. Guitarist Mike Stern adds his distinctive sound to three tracks: the angular “7-9-65,” the funky “Railroaded” and “Ireland” – the leader’s clever nod to his ancestry. With its many moods and textures – and superb playing – Just Passing Thru is a creative gem from start to finish.

Yoko Miwa Trio, Sounds of Joy (Ubuntu Music)

Pianist and composer Yoko Miwa managed to look beyond the dark clouds and realities of the pandemic for her inspirations on her latest trio project. Songs of Joy teams Miwa with her longtime trio mates, bassist Will Slater and drummer Scott Goulding. Bassist Brad Barrett adds arco playing on the closing track, their cover of Anne Bredon’s gorgeous folk classic, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Miwa’s originals include “Largo Desolato,” capturing the weird feel of New York City’s empty streets at the height of the pandemic, the swinging “Small Talk” and the Bill Evans-like elegance of “Inside a Dream.” She also covers Richie Havens’ “Freedom,” Monk’s “Think of One,” the Billy Preston-penned title track and Duke Jordan’s high-flying “No Problem.” Recently retired Berklee College of Music faculty colleague Tony Germain wrote one track for the project. The swinging “Tony’s Blues” showcases the inventive, conversation-like, talents of the trio.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

George Wein: A legacy of innovation without ego

A day after announcement of his departure from this vale, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the news that George Wein is gone. The music impresario died peacefully in his sleep on Monday at age 95 – just three weeks shy of his 96th birthday. 

My, what an imprint he left the world of music, jazz in particular, though there was so much more given his creation (with Pete Seeger) of the Newport Folk Festival, creating the more-global New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much later, producing the Essence Music Festival in the Crescent City, which celebrated a much broader spectrum of Black music

Let me dig a bit into the essence of George Wein. Advancing the music and creating opportunities for musicians were the driving force in his life. He wasn’t in it for the money, although that came to him through his success in creating new performance formats, and adding innovations throughout his 70-year career.

George Wein, 2009
He spurned his parents’ wishes to go to medical school in Boston. Instead, the yeoman jazz piano player, still in college, started producing concerts here and there. Then, he opened two jazz clubs in Beantown: Storyville and its companion Mahogany Hall, starting in 1950.

Then Elaine Lorillard came knocking. She and her tobacco-scion husband, Louis, wanted to shake things up the dowdy summer scene for their fellow socialites in Newport. They weren’t sure what they wanted, but George had an idea – a multi-day outdoor jazz festival. Money wasn’t his driving force here either. When the weekend was done, the festival netted a profit of about $125 – and only then because Wein didn’t take a producer’s fee.

But the format and Newport mystique took hold. Soon came the companion Newport Folk Festival. George had created a new concept for an outdoor popular music format with these two pioneering festivals. Others – produced by himself or other entrepreneurs, started popping up across the US and around the globe. Many have said that without Newport, there wouldn’t have been Woodstock or other mega-crowd popular music events. Indeed, George Wein was their torch bearer.

He had his hand in many other festival ventures – Jazz Fest in New Orleans, the Grand Parade du Jazz in Nice, France, festivals in Japan, the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. And so on. And so on. And so on.

George and festival co-founder Elaine Lorillard, 1994
More musicians were getting noticed, had career revivals in some cases, and were working steadily. They enjoyed performing at Wein venues and festivals because he was one of them, and understood them.

The next Wein innovation was attracting corporate sponsors who would pay for naming rights to these expensive events. It meant he and other producers wouldn’t take a financial bath from inclement weather or lagging ticket sales. By golly, it worked – and has become the norm rather than the exception.

The newest profound idea he had was ensuring the Newport Jazz Festival would outlive him. There had been a sad chapter in 2007, when Wein, pondering retirement in his early 80s, sold his company, Festival Productions Inc., to some young hotshot entrepreneurs with grandiose ideas. They ran it into the ground in less than two years.

George Wein at Newport, 2017
Wein then reacquired the storied festival names and rekindled Newport’s success and longevity with the help of some wealthy friends. A year later, he set up a nonprofit, Newport Festivals Foundation, to run the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival long after he was gone. With Executive Director Jay Sweet and Newport Jazz Festival artistic director Christian McBride taking over the helm, the ship is in good hands. The Foundation has a contract to use Fort Adams State Park in Newport for its festivals that runs several decades.

We can thank George Wein. Always thinking ahead, always innovating, always with the music – and his fellow musicians – in mind.

I also have to thank George for something more personal. It was his steady encouragement  as I wrote about and photographed his music festivals over the years, primarily in Newport, but sometimes in other locales. We first talked in 1979, which was the 25th anniversary of the first Newport Jazz Festival. By then, the festival had been sent packing to New York City by a 1971 Newport riot by gate-crowding rowdies. But in 1981, it returned to the City-by-the-Sea, followed by the Newport Folk Festival in 1985. They have been a steady cultural force ever since.