Thursday, April 29, 2021

Glimmers of hope, turning a corner

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

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

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

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

Good news, Good Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 15, 2021

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a closer look at CDs by Roderick Harper, Fred Hersch, Lisa Hilton, Dan Moretti, Omar Sosa and Veronica Swift ….

 Roderick Harper, Evolving (RHM Entertainment)

New Orleans singer Roderick Harper pulled in a talented mix of his Crescent City jazz colleagues for this this vocal gem. His primary support comes from pianist Oscar Rossignoli, bassist Robin Sherman and either Chris Guccione or Gerald Watkins on drums. It’s heartfelt and soulful, whether Harper is tacking pure ballads or R&B classics like Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” which teams the singer with pianist Jesse Davis and bassist Amina Scott. Saxophonist Donald Harrison, pianist Ellis Marsalis and drummer Jamison Ross also join the fun on one track apiece. Harrison is featured on the lively opener “Infinite Heart,” while Marsalis and Ross join Sherman in the rhythm section on “Never Let Me Go.”

Fred Hersch, Songs From Home (Palmetto)

If you’re a fan of solo jazz piano at its finest, don’t miss Songs From Home. New York-based pianist Fred Hersch recorded this  last August while sheltered in his second home, which is tucked away in the woods of Pennsylvania. In addition to two originals, the material covers a wide-range of musical influences dating back to the pop music of the 1960s before he knew what jazz was. Gems: his artful freshening of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” his delicate approach to Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” and his cover of Kenny Wheeler’s “Consolation – A Folk Song.” Also in the mix, a bit of the Beatles, a few Great American Songbook classics, and a natural choice for 2020-21’s unusual times, Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.”

 Lisa Hilton, More Than Another Day (Ruby Slippers)

Pianist Lisa Hilton teams up with her longtime trio mates, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Rudy Royston, on a wide-ranging balm to ease the stresses of the pandemic. More Than Another Day shimmers and swings with authority and the players’ deep musical connectivity. Hilton, a musical abstractionist, has taken the music on this, her 23rd recording, in a variety of directions – laid-back balladry, the gentle side of the blues, and a decided Latin tinge on three tracks. Favorite tracks: the teasing moods of “Blues & Beauty,” the Latin-charged burner “Karma Chaos,” the gorgeous, meditative closer “So This is Love” and her Latin refresh to the session’s only cover, Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

Dan Moretti, Tres Libre (Roots Grooves)

New England–based saxophonist Dan Moretti is a mighty versatile jazz musician, comfortable playing in every setting. With a strong underpinning of funk and Latin rhythms, his longstanding favorites, Tres Libre celebrates his creativity as a conceptualist and improviser. He’s supported primarily by longtime rhythm partners Marty Ballou on bass and Marty Richards on drums, with guest artists on bass, guitar and Latin percussion on various tracks.  “Escrito Jazz Libre” teams him in a free-jazz romp with two Cuban jazz masters, conguero Jorge Najarro and bassist Hernando Isaza Cano. The finale, “The Missing Breath,” is all Dan – a reflective solo track that’s a choir of three overdubbed tenor saxophones. This is a beauty.

Omar Sosa, An East African Journey (OTA)

Cuban-born pianist Omar Sosa blends jazz with world music on this project. He recorded its core material on a December 2009 tour that brought his trio to eight East African nations). Sosa took the time at each stop to make field recordings of local folkloric musicians in Madagascar, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Burundi, Zambia and Mauritius. Their vocals and distinctive African instrumentation were blended here with Sosa’s piano artistry and on a few tracks, vocals and percussion. His sparkling jazz improvisation and comping, added a decade after the tour in most cases, created a distinctive and fascinating musical hybrid.

Veronica Swift, This Bitter Earth (Mack Avenue)

Singer Veronica Swift continues her fascinating, and rapid, upward trajectory. Her second Mack Avenue recording, This Bitter Earth, puts her times-have-changed illumination on songs that underscore some of the social problems still haunting the world. Racism, sexism, domestic abuse, the disturbing rise of fake news are undercurrents that run through the various songs from jazz, musical theater, classic R&B and current-day rock. She sets the tone to follow with the title track, which was Dinah Washington’s 1960 signature song. Swift brings a fresh sense of innocence lost to its mournful underpinning. Other gems include her takes on Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s’ provocative “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” (a hit for The Crystals), Dave Frishberg’s “The Sports Page” and the optimism that courses through her version of The Dresden Dolls’ art rocker “Sing.” Her fine band features pianist Emmet Cohen, guitarist Armand Hirsch, flutist Aaron Johnson, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Bryan Carter. To sum this song-cycle up in one word, I’ll just say “wow.”