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